The Quiet Death
Harry's chair rocked noisily against the wooden slats of his porch balcony. The view from his house on the hill was a reminder of the old and the new. To the north, on the other side of the valley were the sprawling greys and silver of the city. In the foreground two metallic towers stood strong against a backdrop of crumbling concrete and forgotten dreams. Harry knew the city by the name of London, but it was years since he walked the deserted streets. Hell, even if his old legs could carry him that far, he wouldn't want to walk with the shadows and ghosts.
To the south lay The New City, as Harry's people had termed it. An unfathomable collection of buildings layered like honeycombs. Some were top heavy while others were pyramids, but always aligned in groups of seven. There seemed no logic to their layout, no identifiable purpose.
Harry felt that he was part of the land now. After so many years his face had weathered to the tone of the surrounding hills. His breath whistled like the wind through the forest's ash and pine trees. His blood had stained the ground countless times, enough to make the hills of Surrey his family, his blood brothers.
The lush greens and dark woods were plentiful with game. But the last few winters Harry's stiff hip and arthritic knees made for a desperate hunt. Most weeks he was lucky to trap a deer twice as lame as himself.
On days like these, a chill in the air, the nights closing in, a rumble in the pit of his stomach, Harry felt that he might be completely alone in the world. He didn't know his age, guessed he was probably a hundred now. Give or take a decade. But why he was still alive was a mystery to him. Each winter, as far back as he cared to remember, he had stared at the old ruins, nodded his goodbyes, and waited for the cold to take him in his sleep.
Still he waited.
He figured the last time he'd seen a bona-fide human was six winters ago, and her mind was as gnarled as an ancient oak. The poor woman pushed around a trolley filled with rusted tins of cat food and painkillers and screeched to the heavens about her lost kittens.
The image still chilled Harry's bones.
There were certainties in Harry's world that he took for granted: The evening sunset, the warm glow of a freshly laid fire, the mouth-watering bite of a steaming lamb... the present, but never final, hands of death. The Quiet always travelled in sevens. They always ignored The Old, like Harry.
Harry saw movement to the south. Shuffling shapes of grey. A sudden chill crawled along his spine as he realized the Quiets were heading in his direction.
They walked in formation, one in front followed by four, each side-by-side, and two at the rear.
They walked in unison, seven parts of a whole. Each individual made up one seventh of a communal mind.
Their kind had never shown even a glimmer of interest in their forefathers. Harry was no exception, why would they come to him now after all these years? He was no more than an outcast from a long dead era, forgotten, and left to fend for himself in his aging years.
He watched the Quiets' progression from his porch balcony. The lead walker advanced alone while the others stood back. Their faces were gaunt, as white as snow, and their mouths hung open like drunken halfwits drooling away their sorrows.
Child zombies. That's what the tabloids had called them in the beginning: A cultural disaster. The authorities blamed everything from video games to air pollution for their conditions. A whole generation of children that were empathically retarded husks of humanity.
The lead Quiet was male, clothed in simple grey overalls, mud splattered up to his knees. He was barefoot and his toenails were long, sharp, and curled at the ends. His fingers were thin and long like a magpie's claw.
The lead Quiet's face suddenly animated. His drawn expression transformed into something like a smile. His bearded cheeks lifted, but his eyes remained glazed over, distant, bleak even.
His mouth parted and deliberately moved open and closed. He groaned quietly as if tasting the sound in his mouth. "I am Speaker." He said it in a low rasp.
Harry flinched back. He had not expected it. Never in his life had he heard a Quiet utter a word, and the sound of a voice after so many years pitched his emotions vertically. He felt giddy behind a frosted screen of surrealism.
Speaker stood motionlessly.
"W..." Harry coughed. "What the hell do you want?"
"It is not simple to explain," Speaker replied with fresh spittle gleaming on his hairy chin. "We have agreed that you must be made aware of your position."
Harry sat still, speechless. His mouth opened, to ask for clarification, but the absurdity of the situation charged into his mind like a steam train: an old withered man living out his final days in the wilds, tracked down by a Quiet, and told his 'position.' A laugh, dry and loud, escaped from him.
Speaker's face contorted and he jumped back as if struck by lightning. He brought his hands up, as if under attack by Harry's laughter. The others shuffled nervously behind, glancing quickly from one to another. Like startled ponies, they looked ready to bolt.
Their farce display tickled Harry so deeply that tears ran freely down his cheeks as he wheezed in air. "Please.... Please... please stop." he managed.
It took a few moments for Harry to recover from his onslaught of the giggles. The thought that these people, and he used the term loosely, had no concept of laughter just fueled his hysteria.
Speaker moved forward slowly, gingerly, as if Harry were a wounded bear with an empty stomach.
"Are you insane?" Speaker asked flatly.
A brief silence alerted Harry to the sincerity of Speaker's enquiry.
Harry felt the tidal wave of hilarity ebb away. In its place, a familiar hollow space reopened and threatened to consume him whole. This was the place where his soul rebounded off itself in perpetual loneliness.
He laughed again, but this time it was forced. "Yeah, maybe I am, boy, maybe I've always been insane." He let his words hang between them like venom. "Now what the hell do you want?"
Speaker nodded concisely. "As of three days ago you are the last of your kind alive. And we have foreseen your death."
Harry felt strangely unaffected by the statement at first. Then a flicker of sadness lent on him, just the tip of the mountain. Rationally, Harry knew he would mourn deeply, but right then, in the moment, he found the concept difficult to grasp, it was simply too big. Instead, he focused on the second part of Speaker's comment, he would die, and that thought gave him hope.
Inside his cottage, Harry fell back on his old futon and instructed Speaker to light the kindling piled in the hearth.
As the wood started to crackle and fizz, Harry pointed to a wooden chair opposite him. "Sit down," he said.
Harry appraised Speaker with a harsh frown. In days gone past people had dedicated their lives to communicate with the Quiet, all to no avail. Even as babies they were aloof, bondless to their human mothers. In the first year that Quiets began to replace the human race, the world gained a billion broken hearts.
Harry had been twenty-five when it happened.
"Why me? Why now?" Harry asked.
"You are significant."
"Yeah," Harry laughed. "Because I'm the last one, right?" He gently shook his head. "I remember a time when your kind was just a curiosity. Scientists studied your condition, hoping they might eventually cure you. But you wouldn't care about that, would you?"
Speaker stared with glazed eyes. His jaw hung open exposing yellow teeth.
Harry breathed back the furnace of anger building inside. Like selfish children, these people had discarded their parents. The older generations passed away without support from their descendants. Society eventually buckled and broke under the pressure. The Quiets just looked back with disinterest as they created their own insular society.
It was a slow, senseless, demise for Homo sapiens, and one that Harry would complete with his own death. The end of an era.
Harry checked himself. They were here now, maybe that counted for something. Perhaps, after all, these people did have some sentimentality hidden beneath their pale skin.
Harry doubted it.
"Let's hear it then, boy, you tell me why I'm so damned important?"
Speaker's face animated. He nodded sharply as if agreement. "What I have to say is difficult to express with words, but you must understand our position to fully appreciate your own."
Harry knew a little of the Quiet ways. When their generation was still young, governments spent billions of dollars in research to understand their condition. The Quiets' non-communicative nature made research difficult, nearly impossible. Still they tried. It was determined that they did indeed communicate, but not verbally, and not with The Old.
Behind their vacant expressions and emotionless veneers were active brain patterns working in sync across groups of Quiets. Evidence suggested they communicated telepathically.
"There are higher dimensions of thought," Speaker continued. "Vertically layered yet blended into a single whole. We see these layers in the same way you might glimpse a rainbow refracted through the falling rain. Shimmering together like light vibrating in different wavelengths, each is accessible to us."
Harry shook his head slowly. His brows were furrowed.
"Imagine walking the streets of a city." Speaker continued. "High towers in all directions, impenetrable walls of concrete surrounding you. You could not see further than the nearest obstacle. Imagine being able to fly above the city to a height greater than the tallest tower. Now you can see for miles in all directions." Speaker's monotone came out quickly, breathlessly, as if he didn't know to pause for breath.
Harry followed the logic, somewhat hazily, and nodded his understanding.
"Imagine your line of sight above the city is not sight at all, but the flow of time. On the surface, amid the impenetrable buildings, you cannot see anything but the present, the moment you are in. Above the city you can see how time might flow based on your choices--multiple outcomes from a single action.
"This is how we perceive."
Harry shifted in his chair, leant forward, and warmed his palms against the glow of the building fire. He knew something of what Speaker was saying. It was common knowledge that Quiets possessed the ability of foresight, but the details were unknown.
"There is consensus," Speaker continued. "Some have clearer sight than others. There are those who have seen your death."
Harry sniffed his contempt. "So what, this is your final sentiment to a dying race? A last glimpse at a museum exhibit? Well take a good look, Speaker, because I choose to embrace my fate with open arms."
Speaker's eyes glazed over and he tilted his head. His eyes darted up and down, looking into an unseen world that Harry could only imagine. "There." Speaker pointed to Harry's bunk of soft foam stitched inside the hide of stretched deer. "You will die before this winter's end without our intervention."
Harry showed his acceptance with a smile. "That's life, boy. Now please leave and let an old man live his final days in peace."
"There is consensus. We are blind after your death."
Like a break in the clouds illuminating the greens and rust of the forest, Speaker's visit became clear. Harry felt the tickle of hysteria return to his cheeks, but he breathed in harshly to dampen its progress. "So this visit is of self-interest after all?" Harry spit. "Why break a habit of a lifetime, aye? So why are you here, really?"
"I am here to prevent a regress to the old way."
"The old way? Come on, boy, explain yourself. I'm not a bloody mind-reader."
Speaker's insistent drone filled the small cabin but still his eyes were lazy and disinterested. "You are significant to our continued existence. Even the most clear-sighted of us cannot see past your death. It is as if the world ceases. We are blind."
Harry's forehead wrinkled. "Granted, that's pretty weird. But what do you expect an old man to do about it?"
"Consensus is strong among us. We agree that your death will trigger a reversion to the old ways. Our people will become like you, trapped in a physical plane like prisoners in a cave.
"This cannot be allowed to happen."
Harry felt the familiar throb of frustration. "Still acting like pompous brats?" he said. "You sit silently by and watch us grow old and suffer alone, watch our society crumble. And now you need us?" He let his words settle, took a deep breath. "Do you people know the sting of loneliness? Have you ever felt the weight of guilt, the burn of anger? Are you even capable of understanding these concepts?"
Speaker stared unflinchingly. He nodded abruptly. "No," he conceded.
"Be thankful, boy, because if what you say if true, then when I'm dead you will know these emotions. Perhaps one day you might even understand our pain. Our loss."
Harry saw shadows shifting through the window and shuffling footsteps outside the house. Harry was an old man, but he didn't live this long by being careless. Outside were dozens of animal traps, for security. If any of the Quiets tried to enter without his consent... there would be blood.
"Consensus does not agree. You must be kept alive so that we prevail."
Harry glanced over to the windows. The other Quiets had surrounded the cabin. "By hook or by crook, aye?"
Speaker's eyes glazed again. "Come with us. A wormhole device has been built, based on your trigger technology, to help you transcend."
It was a distant memory now etched in stone in his mind. Harry, at twenty-five, an endless opportunity in telecom as the global communication systems of Earth faced information gridlock. Data consumption had saturated fibre optic and mobile technologies past their physical limits. And Harry had been on the ground floor of the future.
The world looked on as a wondrous technology was launched. The Izon-gap system was the culmination of years of research into wormhole communications systems. Large bandwidth, future-proofed networks that promised instantaneous global data transfer. Harry had been there the day they turned on the first uplink.
Had there been unseen, significant, side effects to the new technology? Researchers had looked into every possibility -- or so they had thought.
The timing was right, though Harry had never considered the possibility before this moment. Every mother who had conceived a child after the Izon-gap launch found her babies were... different.
Trigger technology. Harry's heart grew cold. If he was the last human alive, he was also the last human who had been there at the start.
"I refuse to become like you people." Harry crossed his arms over his chest. "And I will die happy knowing humanity will return to its natural state."
"Then we have no choice." The front door rattled open and two Quiets blocked the door. Harry pushed himself to his feet, ignoring his complaining knees. His ropey muscles pulled tightly across his weather-beaten frame.
The Quiets were scrawny critters and Harry was damned if he wouldn't go without a fight. The trick would be taking them by surprise. Spontaneity was his only hope.
He closed his mind to thought.
Harry remembered a couple of key points, common knowledge stuff from the early days of research. Stuff he'd seen on the telly. They didn't react well to impulsive behavior. The randomness blurred their foresight.
Harry didn't think. He just acted.
In his mind, he envisioned heading for the backdoor, where he knew a Quiet blocked the way. Two steps past Speaker and he spun and lurched towards the fire. With his bare hands, he grabbed a burning log and quickly threw it onto Speaker's lap.
Speaker screamed much louder than Harry expected.
His yelling doubled, trebled, and trebled again outside. Adrenalin rushed through Harry, spurring his joints onwards. One step in front of the other, just keep going, like a machine, like a machine.
Harry burst out of the back door, careful to step over the hidden bear trap. Behind him, Speaker recovered and pulled himself up from the floor. Outside, the Quiet guarding the door stood motionless, wide-eyed with shock. The heat from Speaker's wound touched them all.
Harry cursed his failing muscles as he set off to a hobbling jog, hoping beyond hope that he could outrun the confused Quiets.
He headed for the safety of the forest. His last refuge, the only family he knew.
The sky was greying with the falling sun. The forest loomed twenty meters ahead, the frail light barely penetrating its dense foliage. One step, two step, like a machine...
The deep shadows of the forest reached out for him, as if urging him in to the safety of their dark hidden corners. The shadows moved. Was it just his imagination?
"Bastards," Harry shouted as seven more Quiets appeared from the forest's edge. They had known all along. They stood hand in hand, defiant, like peaceful tree huggers from a time long past.
Like a machine, Harry put his head down and pushed forward. He would use his momentum to burst through the Quiets' line of defense. With his eyes closed, he bent forward and braced for impact...
It never came.
He heard a clank from behind. It took seconds before the sound registered in his mind. The bear trap. The barrier of Quiets broke and fell to a tangled heap in front of Harry. They writhed on the ground, their overalls stained with damp mud and sharp pine needles.
Harry risked a look behind. His trap had caught Speaker by the leg and bright red blood streaked the Quiet's overalls.
It was the last time Harry looked back. He ran into the warm embrace of the forest, one step, two step ... one step ... two ...
Time had no meaning for Harry, only escape, release. He did not feel the ground rush up to meet him, or hear the wet squelch of mud as his body slapped against the forest floor.
He did not feel his heart slowing down... and finally stop.
Harry did feel something.
He felt the end of sadness, the end of loneliness. He felt the warmth of a new beginning, not only for himself, but for the whole of the human race.