Hamble Axton carefully laced his shoes, hands weaving the same path this day, as every other, in a noiseless ritual. Each lace exactly the same length, same loop, not too tight, so that his tired feet and sprained ankle would carry him through this last long day’s walk.
His hands shook gently as he gathered up his few possessions, so carefully set out the night before, and took inventory of his fading memories. He paused to stroke the engraved surface of an ancient snuff box, long since empty save for a broken needle, some greasy thread and the stump of a pencil, struggled briefly with a painful evocation and thrust it, with the rest, into the pocket of his canvas coat. Finally ready, he carefully lifted his satchel in both hands, momentarily stopped inside the doorway of the bothy, then, sniffing at the air, drew himself stiffly up to his full height and ducking through, stepped through into another solitary, windless, and silent day.
Hamble knew it was day because he was awake: he had, after all, slept and after sleep it was always morning wasn’t it? Certainly there was no other way of measuring the passage of time, the lightening or darkening of the sky having long since merged into a uniform half-light, and since there was nobody else to argue the point, he was satisfied to move his mental diary along just one more space.
As he limped on through the desiccated ground cover of the forest he reprised the forty days since a tidal wave of silence had crested Byers Ridge and rolled down his beautiful valley. It was the sudden absence of forest sounds that had alerted him on that first day, and he had scrambled into a clearing from where he could see nothing but the peak of Mount Linar and a blanket of yellow fog. Sensing the danger he had climbed higher still and, by the time he had reached a small plateau above the tree line, there was nothing: no forest, no mountains, no sound and no sun. He had decided to stay put for a while.
It was three days before he was again able to discern other features below as the, now, white veil parted to reveal the familiar, but strangely unknown, pattern of ridges, peaks and valleys that had been his home for nine years; it was another four days before he felt it safe to come down into this new world. Until the thirty fifth day he had seen no other living thing, heard no bird or insect, tasted no food other than the remains of his rationed summer camp store, and drunk no liquid but the condensing mist from the brown and shrivelled leaves. He was alone in a dying world and, he guessed, he was going to die with it.
He had tried to imagine what it must have been like in the city. He reasoned that the catastrophe, man made or natural, must have overtaken cities very quickly: you could never see anything coming in a city with all those buildings in the way. After the failure of the last climate control experiment in ’24 people had relied on the vidi-screen to tell them what the weather was like down at ground level. If you could call it weather. Even then the forecasting had become increasingly unreliable. In fact it had, for some time, been impossible to differentiate between man-made and natural in anything, even the food had become engineered. Impossible, that was, unless you were an Outsider like Hamble Axton, but all that “progress” hadn’t helped much in the end. The factories, fully automated for years, would still be churning out goods until the raw materials or power finally gave out. All those people must still be lying where they had dropped; kids plugged, now un-sensing, into their ‘Experi-pods’; people in bed, floating in swimming pools, in elevators (doors still musically sliding back and forth), limp policemen presiding helplessly over the traffic jam to end all traffic jams – literally. As a retired Engineer the macabre humour amused him. He had grown to hate the city and everything it stood for; it was its utter pointlessness that had finally forced him to become an Outsider, like others before him, to live alone in the forest, hunting, raising his own food, and thinking his own thoughts.
On his eleventh day off the plateau he had found the body of Jackson Freyn, the Ranger, at his favourite lunching spot. His cap at an angle, but still on his head, and his badge of office now dull, he seemed oddly unreal. The paternal bureaucracy had never quite come to terms with the notion of the Outsiders that it had, itself, created. It was the Rangers’ job to keep an eye on any that survived in case, he supposed, they developed some form of group that threatened to challenge “the system”. The absurdity of this hypothesis, that those who had rejected any form of organisation would form another one, had escaped Freyn. He had dutifully come to the Outside to check, every six months; to some degree they had respected each other and Hamble had thought, once or twice, that Jackson had a little Outsider in him too. Now, even the ants in Freyn’s open food pack were dead, but the unfinished sandwiches and fruit were mouldy so Hamble took a little solace from the conclusion that dead things were decomposing. Life, in some form at least, continued but it was the first time that he had thought about bacteria with any affection. Day on day, he worked his way around the receding edge of the mist, bitter and angry at the injustice of his own ending until, finally, he was down into his beloved forest again and ready to die. But then, on the thirty- fifth day, something happened.
Tripping over a root, hidden under the pine needles and dead leaves, he fell heavily, twisting his ankle and winding himself. He lay for a while breathing in spasms, the air burning at his throat, wishing that he could just stay there forever, but eventually shook his head to clear the pain and, in the corner of his eye saw a flash of colour. At first he thought he was hallucinating from lack of food, or the poison in the air, and it took him fully a minute to focus his eyes and longer to believe what he saw.
A flower. A small, brilliant blue, flower. A perfect joyful explosion of a blue flower. He was not alone. Not everything was dead. And, for the first time in the longest time, Hamble Axton began to laugh out loud; at first quietly, his big weary shoulders moving with his breath, and then a ripple of giggles building to a huge crescendo of uncontrollable sound that echoed off into the silent trees, until he began to realise the importance of his find. Here was the only other living thing that he had seen in more than a month and, probably, it would die too: slowly Hamble Axton’s laughter turned to tears. For hours, it seemed, he sat cross-legged in the clearing staring at the flower, afraid even to touch it or to see if it had a perfume, nursing his ankle and rocking gently as he tried to make sense of it all. Finally he became disgusted with his own inaction and self-pity. He could not reason why this small plant had survived, but if the flower had survived the fog it would surely, at least, survive him. Although he had no way of knowing if any other Outsiders had survived, his was the highest territory and he supposed not. He determined that his only focus must be the plant’s survival. Even if there were, somewhere, another such flower he could not risk there being an insect left for pollination. Nor could he risk searching for one and then losing his way back to the clearing – the fog might return. Although he had foraged and lived for years in the forest Axton had no great knowledge of cultivating flowers, but he knew that he had to risk uprooting it, and finding a way of nourishing and watering it, in the hope of finding another, and quickly.
Carefully he circled the plant with a shallow trench dug with his bare hands. The digging was easy in the rotted vegetation on the forest floor but he went slowly, and started a long way out from the flower stem, not knowing how extensive the root system might be. Gradually working in, narrowing down the circle, Hamble finally stopped when he had a diameter of about two hand spans across and then probed downwards all around until he could feel his own fingers meet under the centre of the flower. Then, tearing the end from his shirt to make a bag for the root ball, he tenderly lifted the flower out of the ground and into his satchel.
Each day then, until this the fortieth, he had deliberately moved through the forest around the mountainside staying, as far as he could judge, along the same contour line as the clearing where he had found his prize, for it seemed to him that if there were any other plants of the same kind, they would most likely be at this altitude. Each evening he collected moisture from leaves where he found it and carried it, lovingly, in his snuff box to the flower, keeping little back and trusting to gather moisture for himself on the move each day. But each day there was less for them both; each day he could walk less far as dehydration, and his damaged ankle, slowly drained his will to save the plant. Before making camp on the thirty-ninth night he had circled the bivouac in a last vain reconnaissance for another flower, or a stream, but found only the old Outsiders’ bothy. Without water he knew that he would be unable to make it through a forty first day so Hamble decided to make his last night one of relative comfort and moved his precious cargo inside.
That night he did not immediately sleep, but lay instead contemplating his life. He was too exhausted for anger now; instead, it saddened him to think how so much promise and excitement had been corrupted. He had tried to make those around him see the insanity of attempting to control everything, but even after the first two planetary experiments had failed, they did not understand. He had resigned from the colony, to become the first Outsider in years, and had been disowned by all, except Freyn, for his dangerous heresy. And now they were all dead and, soon, he too would be. He remembered, too, the stories of ancient cults who had believed in a universal force for good. One of them, he thought, had an initiation ritual that had something to do with spending forty days and nights in the forest, which amused him. Now, after his own trial in his own personal wilderness, he would have been qualified to join except that, had the believers not already died out last century, they were certainly dead now. Anyway, they would have struggled with the most finite proof that there was no such universal force for good: the extinction of the world, to the very last flower. And so, as he finally settled into sleep, Hamble Axton decided that in the morning he would travel as far as he could and, when he could go no further, he would plant his flower, and lay down beside it where he could at least see it as his eyes closed for the last time. After his acceptance of the inevitable, the new day was strangely easier and, once or twice, he thought he felt just the merest kiss of wind on his cracked face, but Hamble was well past the caring as he limped into the evening. He could do no more. Carefully scooping the soil to form a shallow pit, as gently as he had lifted it from the ground just five days earlier, he re-planted the little blue flower and dripped the last of the water onto the fragile petals. He sat for a while, then he emptied his pockets and satchel and set out his possessions in one last, orderly, act of remembrance. He wrote his name on a scrap of paper, and even managed a smile to himself as he broke his pencil point, adding a very final full stop, before folding it neatly into his snuff box. Then, just as deliberately, he composed himself in a protective semi-circle about the flower. He allowed himself one halting, tender, caress of the bloom with a single fingertip, and waited. It was not long. As he floated away he thought he saw a flash of light in the mist, heard voices calling him and smelled fields of summer grass. But he did not feel the first splash of rain nor see, in the middle distance of his passing, the other blue flower beyond the first, or the rising of his planet’s second moon.
© Andrew Gold