by Andrew S. Williams
I shielded my eyes against the harsh red light of the Sun and studied the waiting line of refugees. It was already late in the day, and across the barren plain I could just make out a dark line against the horizon: dust storm coming. We’d have to hurry to get everyone on board in time.
The people shuffled forward, heads down, sheltering their faces from the hot, dry wind. Beyond the front of the line stood a gleaming spaceship, shining white even in the haze. The ship, and hundreds of others like it, had almost completed their task; these were some of the last remaining people on Earth.
Except for the howl of the wind, it was quiet, the eerie silence interrupted only by the scratchy voice of an old man. The man was standing apart, separated from the long string of refugees by a flimsy metal railing. His clothes were caked in dirt, and a scraggly gray beard clung to his face. As the people moved forward, his eyes widened, and he pointed a gnarled finger at a young girl in line.
The girl shrank back, hiding her face as she clung to her father’s leg. The father was a tall, muscular man, the top of his bald head glistening with a mix of dust and sweat, and he clenched his fist, fixing the strange old man with an evil glare. For a moment I thought there would be violence, but then the line moved forward. The old man turned to the next person, an attractive, brown-haired woman who I assumed was the girl’s mother. He reared back, then thrust his arm forward, pointing at her accusingly.
“Destroyer of worlds!”
I could almost see the spittle fly, but the mother just rolled her eyes and sighed. The old man turned to the dog standing next to her on a leash, its tongue hanging out as it wagged its tail.
“Best friend to killers!” he screamed, his voice cracking as he reached entirely new levels of hysteria. The dog, unperturbed by this accusation, trotted under the railing and sniffed the man’s outstretched finger. This only seemed to incense him further, and his ranting echoed across the plain.
“I have no treats for you, heathen, only judgment!”
The father saw me standing there, watching, and motioned me over.
“Can’t you do anything about the wacko?”
I shrugged. “Sorry, sir, but as long as he’s not hurting anyone, it’s free speech. We can’t do anything.”
He scowled, looking back at the strange old man.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “Ol’ Smudge is harmless. We used to have real crazies to worry about: suicide bombs, riots, the works.”
The man still looked like he wanted to jump the railing, but I clapped him on the shoulder.
“Best stay in line, sir. Yelling at people isn’t an offense, but violence is. And I think you’d rather get your family off-planet than spend all evening in a little room filling out paperwork.”
He looked up at the hazy sky, sighed, and turned back around, moving forward with the line. Someone else was up now.
I walked up the line, leaving Smudge to his insults. At the front, I nodded to the man checking papers.
“Hey, George.” I turned and looked back down the line. “He seems angrier than usual.”
George didn’t look up from his desk. “Gaia must be having a particularly bad day.”
I looked up at the sky, frowning. “I thought every day was a bad day for Gaia.”
He handed a pile of documents back to an old woman, who took them with one hand and grasped the hand of a young boy with her other. The boy looked up at me and grinned.
“I’m a Spawn of Darkness! What’s that mean?”
The woman scowled and yanked his hand, and I winked at him as he followed her up the gangplank.
“To be honest,” George said, “I prefer when he’s being more creative. Like yesterday, when he was doing the insults in alphabetical order.”
“Demonic dealer of death!” The high-pitched yell carried on the wind.
“Well,” I asked, “will alliteration do instead?”
As the last people were processed, and the dim red orb of the Sun hung low in the sky, I looked over at Smudge, who hadn’t moved from his spot even though the last people in line had long since passed. In the distance, the dark line had resolved itself into a low, brownish cloud that seemed to grow faster as the day waned. I walked over to him. He was watching the end of the line, his expression neutral, as if he were in a daze. He didn’t even turn to me as I walked up.
“You got somewhere to stay tonight, Smudge?”
Slowly, he turned his head to look at me, his eyes seeming to roll in their sockets before they focused on me.
“That is not my name, Doombringer.”
“That’s Officer Doombringer to you, buddy.” I nodded toward the horizon. “There’s a dust storm coming. You got somewhere to go?”
He followed my gaze, fixing his eyes on the approaching storm.
“Gaia is angry. She has been destroyed by her children, and is now being abandoned by them.” He paused for a moment, and his posture seemed to straighten. “I will keep her company, in her sorrow.”
I stiffened as a chill ran up my spine. For a crazy old kook, reduced to yelling insults at Earth’s last evacuees, he had a way of unnerving me. Perhaps there really was an angry spirit out there, in the swirling maelstrom of dust and ash. But if there was, it seemed a little late to worry about it.
I worried about Smudge, though. Don’t ask me why. He was always there, always making my job difficult, like a constant low-grade headache.
“Be careful out there,” I said to him. “I’d hate for the next batch of evacuees to leave without being weirded out.”
“Doombringer!” he yelled at me, his eyes bulging. His arm swayed as his finger pointed, and he seemed a little unsteady on his feet. Then, as if remembering where he was, he cocked his head, turned and began walking toward the oncoming storm.
I headed back toward the ship, where George was inspecting the documents of the last family in line. He nodded at them, and they proceeded up the gangplank. I looked over at him.
“Time for a drink?”
“Definitely time for a drink.”
The gangplank retracted with a metallic clatter, and we walked toward a low cluster of buildings in the distance, the only visible sign of a settlement anywhere nearby. George looked back toward the storm, but Smudge was lost in the haze.
“Think he’ll be all right?”
I shrugged. “He seems to make it back every day. I imagine he’ll be fine.”
Sure enough, the next day was Smudge was back. The sky wasn’t quite as brown as the day before, although there was still no hint of blue among the clouds and haze. The last actual blue sky had been months ago. But Smudge seemed to be having a better day. He had been insulting people with the letter M for at least two hours.
It was one of the best improvisational performances I had ever heard. How one man could keep generating stupid insults for so long, I had no idea.
On the other hand, it was kind of sad, watching him rant and rave at a bunch of people too numb to care. He was just one old man, with his dirty face and robes and graying beard, a throwback to the doomsayers of old.
This was what the Great Resistance had come to. At one point it had threatened governments, indeed, threatened the entire evacuation. Launch sites became hot spots for terrorists, rogue missiles were shot at the space stations overhead, and massive protests paralyzed entire nations. Religions, environmentalists, New Age types and doomsayers had all been a part of it.
Many believed that in the final hours, their chosen god and/or prophet would appear. But the gods stayed quiet, and humanity escaped into space, like a college kid who’d thrown a party and left his parents’ house a wreck before fleeing off to school.
A coalition of the best and worst of humanity, of optimists and pessimists, of the desperate and the cynical, had slowly faded, leaving one man, one last believer, shouting petty insults at the fleeing remnants of mankind.
A few weeks later, we got word that our sector was clear. If there was anybody left within a few hundred miles, they weren’t showing themselves, and I got ready to leave, along with George and the rest of the crew.
When the last ship arrived, I found myself scanning the horizon, hoping to see Smudge. I would feel bad leaving him here; he had almost become something like a friend over the last few months. A ranting, raving mad friend, perhaps, the kind of friend you’d only set up on dates with people you didn’t like… but a friend nonetheless.
Plus, I had been listening to him shout insults for months and I kind of wanted one of my own before I left. Sure, I had always been Doombringer to him, but that didn’t really count. It was like I needed a christening of the journey; a demented, Smudge-style send-off.
It didn’t take long to pack up the remnants of our little station. As we prepared to leave, I made one last sweep of the horizon, and saw a figure approaching in the distance. Sure enough, it resolved into a familiar old man, walking with more of a hunch than usual. I set down my load and walked over to him.
“Hi, Smudge. You coming?”
He squinted at me for a moment, as though he wasn’t sure who I was. Then he looked at the spaceship and his eyes widened.
“So, the final wretched stragglers of our people flee the mother planet at last.”
“Yes,” I said. “And you’re just as wretched as we are. You should come with us.”
He studied the gleaming ship, narrowed his eyes, and then paused a moment before shaking his head.
“My place is here.” He nodded, then straightened up and looked me in the eye. “Gaia is grateful to you for helping her children survive.”
I found myself taken aback. Smudge, saying something nice?
He was already turning to leave. But he looked over his shoulder one last time, his eyes fixing me with a solemn gaze.
“However,” he stated flatly, “she also thinks you’re a cretinous chump.”
I twisted my face into a wry grin.
“Take care of yourself, Smudge.”
He didn’t look back as he walked into the haze, heading to parts unknown to greet the end of the world.
ANDREW S. WILLIAMS is a writer living in Seattle. He is working on his first novel and several science fiction short stories, and pays the bills by developing software in his spare time. His thoughts on writing, travel, and life in general can be found at www.offthewrittenpath.com.