Walking by the line, Jorun picked faces out of the shadows. There was a young mother holding a crying child, her head bent over it in a timeless pose, murmuring to soothe it. There was a mechanic, still sooty from his work, smiling wearily at some tired joke of the man behind him. There was a scowling, black-browed peasant who muttered a curse as Jorun went by; the rest seemed to accept their fate meekly enough. There was a priest, his head bowed, alone with his God. There was a younger man, his hands clenching and unclenching, big helpless hands, and Jorun heard him saying to someone else: “—if they could have waited till after harvest. I hate to let good grain stand in the field.”
Jorun went into the main room, toward the desk at the head of the line. Hulking hairless Zarek was patiently questioning each of the hundreds who came hat in hand before him: name, age, sex, occupation, dependents, special needs or desires. He punches the answers out on the recorder machine, half a million lives were held in its electronic memory.
“Oh, there you are,” his bass rumbled. “Where’ve you been?”
“I had to do some concy work,” said Jorun. That was a private code term, among others: concy, conciliation, anything to make the evacuation go smoothly. “Sorry to be so late. I’ll take over now.”
“All right. I think we can wind the whole thing up by midnight.” Zarek smiled at Kormt. “Glad you came, good sir. There are a few people I’d like you to talk to.” He gestured at half a dozen seated in the rear of the room. Certain complaints were best handled by native leaders.
Kormt nodded and strode over to the folk. Jorun heard a man begin some long-winded explanation: he wanted to take his own plow along, he’d made it himself and there was no better plow in the universe, but the star-man said there wouldn’t be room.
“They’ll furnish us with all the stuff we need, son,” said Kormt.
“But it’s my plow!” said the man. His fingers twisted his cap.
Kormt sat down and began soothing him.
The head of the line waited a few meters off while Jorun took Zarek’s place. “Been a long grind,” said the latter. “About done now, though. And will I be glad to see the last of this planet!”
“I don’t know,” said Jorun. “It’s a lovely world. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more beautiful one.”
Zarek snorted. “Me for Thonnvar! I can’t wait to sit on the terrace by the Scarlet Sea, fern-trees and red grass all around, a glass of oehl in my hand and the crystal geysers in front of me. You’re a funny one, Jorun.”
The Fulkhisian shrugged slender shoulders. Zarek clapped him on the back and went out for supper and sleep. Jorun beckoned to the next Terran and settled down to the long, almost mindless routine of registration. He was interrupted once by Kormt, who yawned mightily and bade him goodnight; otherwise it was a steady, half-conscious interval in which one anonymous face after another passed by. He was dimly surprised when the last one came up. This was a plump, cheerful, middle-aged fellow with small shrewd eyes, a little more colorfully dressed than the others. He gave his occupation as merchant—a minor tradesman, he explained, dealing in the little things it was more convenient for the peasants to buy than to manufacture themselves.
“I hope you haven’t been waiting too long,” said Jorun. Concy statement.
“Oh, no.” The merchant grinned. “I knew those dumb farmers would be here for hours, so I just went to bed and got up half an hour ago, when it was about over.”
“Clever.” Jorun rose, sighed, and stretched. The big room was cavernously empty, its lights a harsh glare. It was very quiet here.
“Well, sir, I’m a middling smart chap, if I say it as shouldn’t. And you know, I’d like to express my appreciation of all you’re doing for us.”
“Can’t say we’re doing much.” Jorun locked the machine.
“Oh, the apple-knockers may not like it, but really, good sir, this hasn’t been any place for a man of enterprise. It’s dead. I’d have got out long ago if there’d been any transportation. Now, when we’re getting back into civilization, there’ll be some real opportunities. I’ll make my pile inside of five years, you bet.”
Jorun smiled, but there was a bleakness in him. What chance would this barbarian have even to get near the gigantic work of civilization—let alone comprehend it or take part in it. He hoped the little fellow wouldn’t break his heart trying.
“Well,” he said, “goodnight, and good luck to you.”
“Goodnight, sir. We’ll meet again, I trust.”
Jorun switched off the lights and went out into the square. It was completely deserted. The moon was up now, almost full, and its cold radiance dimmed the lamps. He heard a dog howling far off. The dogs of Earth—such as weren’t taken along—would be lonely, too.
Well, he thought, the job’s over. Tomorrow, or the next day, the ships come.
He felt very tired, but didn’t want to sleep, and willed himself back to alertness. There hadn’t been much chance to inspect the ruins, and he felt it would be appropriate to see them by moonlight.
Rising into the air, he ghosted above roofs and trees until he came to the dead city. For a while he hovered in a sky like dark velvet, a faint breeze murmured around him, and he heard the remote noise of crickets and the sea. But stillness enveloped it all, there was no real sound.
Sol City, capital of the legendary First Empire, had been enormous. It must have sprawled over forty or fifty thousand square kilometers when it was in its prime, when it was the gay and wicked heart of human civilization and swollen with the lifeblood of the stars. And yet those who built it had been men of taste, they had sought out genius to create for them. The city was not a collection of buildings; it was a balanced whole, radiating from the mighty peaks of the central palace, through colonnades and parks and leaping skyways, out to the temple-like villas of the rulers. For all its monstrous size, it had been a fairy sight, a woven lace of polished metal and white, black, red stone, colored plastic, music and light—everywhere light.
Bombarded from space; sacked again and again by the barbarian hordes who swarmed maggot-like through the bones of the slain Empire; weathered, shaken by the slow sliding of Earth’s crust; pried apart by patient, delicate roots; dug over by hundreds of generations of archaeologists, treasure-seekers, the idly curious; made a quarry of metal and stone for the ignorant peasants who finally huddled about it—still its empty walls and blind windows, crumbling arches and toppled pillars held a ghost of beauty and magnificence which was like a half-remembered dream. A dream the whole race had once had.
And now we’re waking up.
Jorun moved silently over the ruins. Trees growing between tumbled blocks dappled them with moonlight and shadow; the marble was very white and fair against darkness. He hovered by a broken caryatid, marveling at its exquisite leaping litheness; that girl had borne tons of stone like a flower in her hair. Further on, across a street that was a lane of woods, beyond a park that was thick with forest, lay the nearly complete outline of a house. Only its rain-blurred walls stood, but he could trace the separate rooms: here a noble had entertained his friends, robes that were fluid rainbows, jewels dripping fire, swift cynical interplay of wits like sharpened swords rising above music and the clear sweet laughter of dancing-girls; here people whose flesh was now dust had slept and made love and lain side-by-side in darkness to watch the moving pageant of the city; here the slaves had lived and worked and sometimes wept; here the children had played their ageless games under willows, between banks of roses. Oh, it had been a hard and cruel time; it was well gone but it had lived. It had embodied man, all that was noble and splendid and evil and merely wistful in the race, and now its late children had forgotten.
A cat sprang up on one of the walls and flowed noiselessly along it, hunting. Jorun shook himself and flew toward the center of the city, the imperial palace. An owl hooted somewhere, and a bat fluttered out of his way like a small damned soul blackened by hellfire. He didn’t raise a wind-screen, but let the air blow around him, the air of Earth.
The palace was almost completely wrecked, a mountain of heaped rocks, bare bones of “eternal” metal gnawed thin by steady ages of wind and rain and frost, but once it must have been gigantic. Men rarely built that big nowadays, they didn’t need to; and the whole human spirit had changed, become ever more abstract, finding its treasures within itself. But there had been an elemental magnificence about early man and the works he raised to challenge the sky.
One tower still stood—a gutted shell, white under the stars, rising in a filigree of columns and arches which seemed impossibly airy, as if it were built of moonlight. Jorun settled on its broken upper balcony, dizzily high above the black-and-white fantasy of the ruins. A hawk flew shrieking from its nest, then there was silence.
No—wait—another yell, ringing down the star ways, a dark streak across the moon’s face. “Hai-ah!” Jorun recognized the joyful shout of young Cluthe, rushing through heaven like a demon on a broomstick, and scowled in annoyance. He didn’t want to be bothered now.
Well, they had as much right here as he. He repressed the emotion, and even managed a smile. After all, he would have liked to feel gay and reckless at times, but he had never been able to. Jorun was little older than Cluthe—a few centuries at most—but he came of a melancholy folk; he had been born old.
Another form pursued the first. As they neared, Jorun recognized Taliuvenna’s supple outline. Those two had been teamed up for one of the African districts, but—
They sensed him and came wildly out of the sky to perch on the balcony railing and swing their legs above the heights. “How’re you?” asked Cluthe. His lean face laughed in the moonlight. “Whoo-oo, what a flight!”
“I’m all right,” said Jorun. “You through in your sector?”
“Uh-huh. So we thought we’d just duck over and look in here. Last chance anyone’ll ever have to do some sight-seeing on Earth.”
Taliuvenna’s full lips drooped a bit as she looked over the ruins. She came from Yunith, one of the few planets where they still kept cities, and was as much a child of their soaring arrogance as Jorun of his hills and tundras and great empty seas. “I thought it would be bigger,” she said.
“Well, they were building this fifty or sixty thousand years ago,” said Cluthe. “Can’t expect too much.”
“There is good art left here,” said Jorun. “Pieces which for one reason or another weren’t carried off. But you have to look around for it.”
“I’ve seen a lot of it already, in museums,” said Taliuvenna. “Not bad.”
“C’mon, Tally,” cried Cluthe. He touched her shoulder and sprang into the air. “Tag! You’re it!”
She screamed with laughter and shot off after him. They rushed across the wilderness, weaving in and out of empty windows and broken colonnades, and their shouts woke a clamor of echoes.
Jorun sighed. I’d better go to bed, he thought. It’s late.
The spaceship was a steely pillar against a low gray sky. Now and then a fine rain would drizzle down, blurring it from sight; then that would end, and the ship’s flanks would glisten as if they were polished. Clouds scudded overhead like flying smoke, and the wind was loud in the trees.
The line of Terrans moving slowly into the vessel seemed to go on forever. A couple of the ship’s crew flew above them, throwing out a shield against the rain. They shuffled without much talk or expression, pushing carts filled with their little possessions. Jorun stood to one side, watching them go by, one face after another—scored and darkened by the sun of Earth, the winds of Earth, hands still grimy with the soil of Earth.
Well, he thought, there they go. They aren’t being as emotional about it as I thought they would. I wonder if they really do care.
Julith went past with her parents. She saw him and darted from the line and curtsied before him.
“Goodbye, good sir,” she said. Looking up, she showed him a small and serious face. “Will I ever see you again?”
“Well,” he lied, “I might look in on you sometime.”
“Please do! In a few years, maybe, when you can.”
It takes many generations to raise a people like this to our standard. In a few years—to me—she’ll be in her grave.
“I’m sure you’ll be very happy,” he said.
She gulped. “Yes,” she said, so low he could barely hear her. “Yes, I know I will.” She turned and ran back to her mother. The raindrops glistened in her hair.
Zarek came up behind Jorun. “I made a last-minute sweep of the whole area,” he said. “Detected no sign of human life. So it’s all taken care of, except your old man.”
“Good,” said Jorun tonelessly.
“I wish you could do something about him.”
“So do I.”
Zarek strolled off again.
A young man and woman, walking hand in hand, turned out of the line not far away and stood for a little while. A spaceman zoomed over to them. “Better get back,” he warned. “You’ll get rained on.”
“That’s what we wanted,” said the young man.
The spaceman shrugged and resumed his hovering. Presently the couple re-entered the line.
The tail of the procession went by Jorun and the ship swallowed it fast. The rain fell harder, bouncing off his force-shield like silver spears. Lightning winked in the west, and he heard the distant exuberance of thunder.
Kormt came walking slowly toward him. Rain streamed off his clothes and matted his long gray hair and beard. His wooden shoes made a wet sound in the mud. Jorun extended the force-shield to cover him. “I hope you’ve changed your mind,” said the Fulkhisian.
“No, I haven’t,” said Kormt. “I just stayed away till everybody was aboard. Don’t like goodbyes.”
“You don’t know what you’re doing,” said Jorun for the—thousandth?—time. “It’s plain madness to stay here alone.”
“I told you I don’t like goodbyes,” said Kormt harshly.
“I have to go advise the captain of the ship,” said Jorun. “You have maybe half an hour before she lifts. Nobody will laugh at you for changing your mind.”
“I won’t.” Kormt smiled without warmth. “You people are the future, I guess. Why can’t you leave the past alone? I’m the past.” He looked toward the far hills, hidden by the noisy rain. “I like it here, Galactic. That should be enough for you.”
“Well, then—” Jorun held out his hand in the archaic gesture of Earth. “Goodbye.”
“Goodbye.” Kormt took the hand with a brief, indifferent clasp. Then he turned and walked off toward the village. Jorun watched him till he was out of sight.
The technician paused in the air-lock door, looking over the gray landscape and the village from whose chimneys no smoke rose. Farewell, my mother, he thought. And then, surprising himself: Maybe Kormt is doing the right thing after all.
He entered the ship and the door closed behind him.
Toward evening, the clouds lifted and the sky showed a clear pale blue—as if it had been washed clean—and the grass and leaves glistened. Kormt came out of the house to watch the sunset. It was a good one, all flame and gold. A pity little Julith wasn’t here to see it; she’d always liked sunsets. But Julith was so far away now that if she sent a call to him, calling with the speed of light, it would not come before he was dead.
Nothing would come to him. Not ever again.
He tamped his pipe with a horny thumb and lit it and drew a deep cloud into his lungs. Hands in pockets, he strolled down the wet streets. The sound of his clogs was unexpectedly loud.
Well, son, he thought, now you’ve got a whole world all to yourself, to do with just as you like. You’re the richest man who ever lived.
There was no problem in keeping alive. Enough food of all kinds was stored in the town’s freeze-vault to support a hundred men for the ten or twenty years remaining to him. But he’d want to stay busy. He could maybe keep three farms from going to seed—watch over fields and orchards and livestock, repair the buildings, dust and wash and light up in the evening. A man ought to keep busy.
He came to the end of the street, where it turned into a graveled road winding up toward a high hill, and followed that. Dusk was creeping over the fields, the sea was a metal streak very far away and a few early stars blinked forth. A wind was springing up, a soft murmurous wind that talked in the trees. But how quiet things were!
On top of the hill stood the chapel, a small steepled building of ancient stone. He let himself in the gate and walked around to the graveyard behind. There were many of the demure white tombstones—thousands of years of Solis Township men and women who had lived and worked and begotten, laughed and wept and died. Someone had put a wreath on one grave only this morning; it brushed against his leg as he went by. Tomorrow it would be withered, and weeds would start to grow. He’d have to tend the chapel yard, too. Only fitting.
He found his family plot and stood with feet spread apart, fists on hips, smoking and looking down at the markers Gerlaug Kormt’s son, Tarna Huwan’s daughter, these hundred years had they lain in the earth. Hello, Dad, hello, Mother. His fingers reached out and stroked the headstone of his wife. And so many of his children were here, too; sometimes he found it hard to believe that tall Gerlaug and laughing Stamm and shy, gentle Huwan were gone. He’d outlived too many people.
I had to stay, he thought. This is my land, I am of it and I couldn’t go. Someone had to stay and keep the land, if only for a little while. I can give it ten more years before the forest comes and takes it.
Darkness grew around him. The woods beyond the hill loomed like a wall. Once he started violently, he thought he heard a child crying. No, only a bird. He cursed himself for the senseless pounding of his heart.
Gloomy place here, he thought. Better get back to the house.
He groped slowly out of the yard, toward the road. The stars were out now. Kormt looked up and thought he had never seen them so bright. Too bright; he didn’t like it.
Go away, stars, he thought. You took my people, but I’m staying here. This is my land. He reached down to touch it, but the grass was cold and wet under his palm.
The gravel scrunched loudly as he walked, and the wind mumbled in the hedges, but there was no other sound. Not a voice called; not an engine turned; not a dog barked. No, he hadn’t thought it would be so quiet.
And dark. No lights. Have to tend the street lamps himself—it was no fun, not being able to see the town from here, not being able to see anything except the stars. Should have remembered to bring a flashlight, but he was old and absentminded, and there was no one to remind him. When he died, there would be no one to hold his hands; no one to close his eyes and lay him in the earth—and the forests would grow in over the land and wild beasts would nuzzle his bones.
But I knew that. What of it? I’m tough enough to take it.
The stars flashed and flashed above him. Looking up, against his own will, Kormt saw how bright they were, how bright and quiet. And how very far away! He was seeing light that had left its home before he was born.
He stopped, sucking in his breath between his teeth. “No,” he whispered.
This was his land. This was Earth, the home of man; it was his and he was its. This was the land, and not a single dust-mote, crazily reeling and spinning through an endlessness of dark and silence, cold and immensity. Earth could not be so alone!
The last man alive. The last man in all the world!
He screamed, then, and began to run. His feet clattered loud on the road; the small sound was quickly swallowed by silence, and he covered his face against the relentless blaze of the stars. But there was no place to run to, no place at all.