The Last Man by William Tanner
The shadows frightened him. John Plateau had been afraid of the dark since childhood, and the complex seemed nothing but a network of shadows, the vents and the metal lattice walkways and the hanging bulbs—hanging bulbs, for chrissakes—casting nightmarish apparitions that conjured in his brain and tingled down his spine. But he continued on in spite of himself, through the claustrophobic web of shadows, his every footstep sending a desperate clang to echo through the labyrinth of halls. The only other sound was the steady whoosh of the vents, like the whole complex was breathing. Or maybe it was the shadows, breathing, nightmare-things watching him from forgotten crates and tangled snakes of tubing.
To make matters worse, there was one shadow that for the last few days had followed him more and more insistently than any other, a shape like a man. He could see it watching him while he awaited some message in the control room, could feel it passing behind him, looking over his shoulder. There it was now, slipping around the corner just ahead of him. He ran down the corridor, but he knew before he got there the shadow would be gone.
As always, he ignored the shadow and pressed on. Only a few more turns now. He was sweating despite the overzealous air conditioning, and his hands shook, holding tight to the message his console’s priority-one printer had spat out in silent laser-print. The message was a simple string of nine alphanumerics. When he finally got to the small room at the end of the maze, the first thing he did was throw all five light switches. That done, he inserted his keycard into one of two five-foot plain metal towers, then quickly moved over to a hidden console and punched in his nine digit security code. That tense moment waiting for the console light to turn green, even when you know you did everything right. Then, almost anticlimactically, the light shifted noiselessly to green, and the top of the tower dilated open, revealing a simple red manual.
He picked up the manual and leafed through it, searching down the alphabetical listings for the code printed in large, terse Arial on the paper in his hand. He already knew it was right. He had practiced he didn’t know how many times for when these nine letters and numbers printed into his waiting hand, walking down those dark halls, paging through this little manual—he knew the code by heart, he was just hoping that some time in the last hour it had somehow miraculously changed.
It hadn’t. He placed the manual back into the tower, almost reverentially. He removed his keycard. He walked slowly to the other side of the small room. Here, a complicated series of voice-activation keys, fingerprint and DNA encoded locks were required to begin the process. It was as he bent to these tasks that he first heard the voice.
What are you doing, John?
He spun, but there was no one around. The voice was androgynous, simultaneously resoundingly human and yet otherworldly. Thoughts of demons, ghosts, and psychoses all ran through his mind in quick succession, but he turned away, blocking out everything but the task at hand. There was a sort of dull snap as he completed the first set of locks, and far away from here, mechanisms of technology were set into motion. He started on the second set, less complex but more time-consuming. Finally, he neared the end of the second set, and the voice came again.
What do these lights mean, John?
He nearly faltered, collected himself beneath the weight of an infinitely heavy burden, and turned a large tumbler, pressing it into a long cylinder, where it came to rest with a loud click. A softer noise came from behind him, where a panel had unlocked. That was when he felt a hand on his shoulder, a cold feeling like frozen meat that bit into his flesh, and he nearly screamed, slamming himself into the wall with an abrupt about-face.
The panel had slid open on top of the other tower, revealing a small red button. Beside the button stood a man. His age was inscrutable, but a long silver beard flowed from his face, and he wore only a robe of plain cloth tied at one shoulder. Stunned, John reached for the holster at his side, but it was empty. His small revolver still sat beside his cot, somewhere a million miles through the labyrinth beyond in the control room.
What does this do? the figure asked, indicating the glowing red button.
More disturbing than the man’s presence, John had the distinct impression that he could see throughthe man, to the wall inlaid with screens, consoles and panels like jewels. He managed to stutter, “Wh–who are you?”
Me? The man seemed amused by the question. They called me Democritus, once.
The name seemed somehow familiar, but John couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Democritus seemed anxious, once again pointing at the button.
What does it do?
“It’s classified,” John said harshly. “How did you get in here? What do you want?”
Only to know what it does.
John had a sinking feeling that he was out of his league. Threats would do no good, he had little to back them with. He had a duty to press the button, a debt to his country to finish his task, but there was this thing, this man, who was more of a shadow than a man, and he had a sudden dread that it would touch him if he tried to press the button. He couldn’t stand the thought of it touching him.
So he stood there, back to the wall. And it asked again, What does it do?
He relented with a sigh. “When pressed, the button is supposed to launch a tactical nuclear strike at primary targets for the purpose of retaliation in the case that we are struck by an aggressive nuclear assault.” He paused, reflecting on the nature of a nonaggressive nuclear assault. He added, “It’ll probably be the end of the world.”
Ah, I see, Democritus said. Thank you.
“What do you want?” John asked. If ever he was afraid of the dark, he was terrified by this apparition. “Why are you here?”
You have just told me, it replied. I am here for the end of the world. Then it seemed to be lost in deep thought, still hanging above the small, backlit red button.
This had to be some figment of his overactive imagination. He was obviously delusional—after two hundred and seventy-six hours and counting all alone in this godforsaken cave, anyone was bound to go a little nuts. He pinched the back of his hand hard, harder, with his nails, until tiny droplets of blood sprung up to fill the moon-shaped marks, but nothing would make the ghostly figure disappear.
It walked over to him, and he tried to flinch away, to crush himself into the wall behind him, but there was nowhere to go. It said, Why all this responsibility to you alone?
Too afraid to be silent, John answered, “It’s not mine alone. I’m just one of ten. To actually launch, all ten of us need to press our ten separate buttons in our ten underground bunkers across the country.”
And if you do not press this button?
“Then no strike.”
Democritus seemed to ponder. What is this ‘strike?’
“Over a hundred nuclear missiles,” he said, “launched from all over the country.”
And those are?
“You know, like atomic weapons,” he said, but he saw little understanding in the apparitions face. John thought a moment. “Are you a ghost?”
I—am not alive. Please tell me about these, the ‘atomic weapons.’
“Well, I’m no physicist, but it takes an atom, and then—breaks it, I guess. They say it splits it, and then it releases an enormous amount of energy, which makes the explosion.”
He felt a little more comfortable, now that he knew it was a ghost. John Plateau did not believe in ghosts, and thus was not afraid of them. However, the ghost seemed terribly upset by his answer.
Breaks it? the apparition said. But it is an atom, is it not? It cannot be broken.
“Um, why not?”
Does no one remember me? Two and a half millennia ago, I, Democritus, came up with the atom, the smallest particles which make up all else. They are the smallest because they are indivisible. That is what their name means.
“Well, they aren’t indivisible anymore,” John said, slightly taken aback by the ghost’s outburst. “Don’t worry, Aristotle and Newton were wrong, too.”
Are you going to do it? Democritus asked.
Destroy the world?
“Omigod, I almost forgot.”
“I guess so. What do you think?”
The ghost shrugged. I don’t see why not. At least, I didn’t. But if an atom can be split, and perhaps that can be split again, and so forth, then perhaps there is an infinity. And if there is an infinity, then there is an eternity. And if this is true, then Zeno was more right than he knew. The arrow does pass through an infinite number of infinitely small portions of space to reach its target. However, opposed to the paradox, the arrow still reaches its target. Why does it reach its target? Because there is no paradox at all. The infinite and the finite are tied together, the finite made up of the infinite, and the infinite made up of the finite, indivisibly—as my atom was to be. Democritus paused, seemingly surprised by his own speech. And perhaps I finally found the answer to Zeno’s riddle after all this time.
“And what does that have to do with my pushing that button?” John asked.
The ancient philosopher looked confused. I became perhaps sidetracked. I don’t know where I was going.
But I do. This new voice appeared in the doorway; a new apparition, similarly robed, with sharp, clever features. If eternity exists, then my hypothesis was true, that whatever is must be eternal. You will not destroy anything here today but your perception of it. And in this way you will blind yourself, and never come to the true reality. Though I do not think you will ever come to truly know it in any case.
Parmenides, yes? Democritus said. Those sound like your wicked paradoxes.
They are. I come for the end of the world, too.
“But why?” John asked. “You both try to convince me that I shouldn’t push the button, so if you succeed, then you have no end to see.”
The end will come nonetheless, Parmenides said.
Because we are here. Now it is inevitable.
“It isn’t, though. I’ve decided. What does it matter, these silly wars and infantile retribution. Even the death of a country isn’t worth the destruction of the world. I won’t do it, there, I’ve stopped it.”
But you have not, came yet another voice. This apparition stood in front of a monitor, away from the others, watching the flickering screen.
“And who are you?”
I am Pythagorus. And I am here to see, too.
“Why is the end inevitable?”
Because the button matters not. See your oracle here? Pythagorus indicated the monitor. The launch began as soon as you finished the second sequence. It is already done.
“But—” John stopped short. “They fooled us all. They knew we would follow through if the order was issued, but some of us might falter at the actual button. So the final safety was a false trigger.”
“Then why are you here?” he shouted. “Why all this? Why are you here? Just to show me that what I’ve already unwittingly done is wrong, and cannot be undone?”
These shadows of men were getting to him, this couldn’t be happening. He was just standing in front of the button, all alone, shouting to an empty room. These ghosts weren’t here, this was all in his head. It had to be.
The shades crowded around the monitor, watching. Then each screen around the room lit up, carrying small status bars for each missile, with time, tonnage and operative capability. The countdowns were all under one hour.
I think I know why we are here, said Democritus. To learn what we missed, before it’s too late. I finally solved the paradox of my predecessor, by discovering that my own theory was wrong.
Pythagorus turned to John and its hollow eyes met his. The shade looked as though it had seen a ghost. And after all my study of mathematics and order—here I am to see order destroy itself.
“Here, in these last moments, I finally learn to think for myself,” John said. “But isn’t it all pointless now? There are no second chances, this is it.”
Maybe not, Democritus said.
You have learned to think, Parmenides said, that to reason is to use the faculties given us to extrapolate further truths. But we have learned that we are never given all the faculties. This is why we are always wrong. We do not know as much as we think we do.
“Then is it worth it at all?” John said.
Perhaps that is why we are truly here. To help you make that decision. For here and now, in all that matters, you are the last man. If there was any meaning in our short existence, it is yours to make.
John Plateau stared at the screen and thought. In his several decades of existence, he had never thought as he did then. He wondered if creatures so destructive as to wipe themselves out could have any inherent purpose or beauty sufficient to make them worth the trouble. He wondered if everything they had come up with was, in the end, all wrong, then what truth had they found worth carrying on? He saw one small screen in the corner, until recently black and dead, spring on with a proximity warning, as the radar detected an incoming enemy missile.
The end had begun.
So he stood, and started through the maze of corridors, his ghostly entourage trailing behind. The shadows no longer frightened him. The dark held nothing more unknown than the light. He came to a large, round metal door that he was not supposed to open for a long time to come, but he opened it anyway. He went up the long spiral staircase to the top. Another large door. He unlocked it with an emergency security code, and was bombarded by a blinding light. As his eyes cleared, he saw a beautiful field, the dry, dead weeds and shriveled wildflowers the most wonderful sight his eyes had ever beheld. And there, he finally knew. Perfection was not in some far off form or distant ideal. You didn’t even have to make it up. It was in every little blade of grass, or the perfect blue of the sky. It wasn’t in a number or a theory. The beauty of perfection was anywhere his eyes stopped long enough to appreciate it.
Across the field stood a man making a very strange sound, bent over. Laughing, he was bent over double laughing, infinitely amused by it all.
No, not a man. Another shade. Behind him, Parmenides muttered, Socrates. Figures.
The 200-megaton tactical nuke struck less than a mile away. The explosion was practically instantaneous, and John Plateau never saw it coming. But he heard it. He heard the amazing tremor of its bass, like the crescendo of some powerful Beethoven symphony. Then he heard another melody, something like flutes and harps and violins all in one, rising from the depths of that awesome boom, and the music raged, like demons and angels warring in heaven. It seemed to go on forever, and there was nothing else in the world. The universe was incinerated in that note, and then, like the phoenix, rebirthed as a new theme took over, and again and again, until he wanted to cry. But he could not. He was nothing more than a measure now, or a beat, a final crash of the cymbal in a finale that was just the beginning. He was consumed now, by that tiny manmade star, and he felt its beautiful refrain, the notes became him, or perhaps it felt him, as he became one with the music of the spheres, and it wasperfect.
And he heard Pythagorus’ words, drifting, intertwining with the melody. At least I was right about one thing. It’s more beautiful than I ever imagined.
Yes, he said. It is.