There was a small lamp in my jacket. The light was pathetic, but just enough to reveal what was called an archive. In a single great heap, and a number of smaller ones, the wisdom and works of mankind rotted and moldered: Kish, Mandela, Plato, Ellison, Dostoevsky, Freud, Ovid, Sefi Atta, Castaneda, GuanZi, Twain and Dante.

Standing water made islands of each great mound. Obsidian black, the water appeared like some mirror to another world. Stagnate pools had rotted many of the volumes into formless mush. Many more had been devoured or ruined by insects and rats that swarmed in places. What remained was terribly fragile, crumbling under anything but the most careful touch. How sad, as I sat upon this throne built from the rotting history, wisdom and confession of humanity, like some sad monarch of nothing.

I held few illusions that this trial was little more than a show, at least for the Corporation. There could be no doubt they intended me for reclamation the moment judgment was rendered, as if that judgment was ever really in question. The mere fact that I had been allowed to pour through these volumes, forbidden forgotten and discarded as they were, would have been proof enough that my fate was sealed.

So why fight? Why resist the inevitable? What is the point of struggling against death, if death is the only and ultimate outcome? But death is never the enemy, only the end of pride and struggle. As for pride, it is our blessing and our enslaver. To struggle is the true purpose, struggle to breath, struggle to love, and struggle to be. It is the unreasonable pressure asserted against our struggle. That is the only true enemy, and it always comes as much from within as from without. It is the conspiracy of both which robs us ultimately of liberty. In one badly damaged volume these precious words stirred me:

“Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”

I knew nothing of this man, Patrick Henry, the author of those words, except that he must have been extraordinary. Little of what he wrote remained. Mold had eaten away or stained many of the pages. What remained dissolved to the touch, leaving this short barely readable passage, and occupying a shred hardly the span of an open palm. I read them again and again until they were fully memorized. I felt stronger and richer for those words. Still, a man may hold exalted words and remain a bastard in life!

There was a crashing sound just beyond the limits of the lamp. I stood and turned suddenly, losing Patrick Henry’s words as they flew from my hand. Books tumbled and splashed. Whatever it was, it was much larger than the rats, who normally kept their distance. I raised the lamp higher, squinting to see better.

“Keep back!” It was clearly a child’s voice. That voice had a raw, feral sort of quality. There was a threatening quality, a fight first character I felt certain was real. “I swear I’ll rip yer guts off!”

“Out,” I shouted into the darkness. There was a moment of silence.

“What?” The voice called back.

“Rip your guts out-out, not off.”

I had never heard a child speak in such an insolent and primitive manner, particularly to an elder Associate. Such belligerence would certainly have meant an intense Redirection program in the Channels, or, failing that, reclamation. The Channels do instill proper hierarchical reverence and strong communication skills-GOOD COMMUNICATION SKILLS ARE GOOD FOR BUSINESS, one hears everywhere in the Channels. The business, of course, now being little more to exist and maintain its status quo.

“Show yourself,” I shouted after the phantom, attempting to sound much braver than I actually was.

A book sailed out of the darkness, whooshing past my head. Another struck my chest. Not terribly hard, and I grunted more from surprise than pain.

“What is wrong with you?” I complained, dodging two more volumes.

With the final one I’d had quite enough and charged over the largest mound. My feet skidded and slipped down one side, splashing brackish water as I scrambled over the next mound.

I was across it in a second, batting away a panicked fusillade of fluttering and dissolving manuscripts thrown up from my fleeing little demon. It was too little too late, however. With a stumbling tackle, I brought the biting and screaming urchin down hard in the muck and filth.

There was a brief but furious battle amid the rotting paper, scattering insects and pungent black water. The lamp was between us, the light flickering wildly amid arms and legs and a snapping of teeth. I did my best to keep clear of those teeth, which came at me far wilder than any cornered rat. It seemed forever before I was able to subdue the cretin, only to discover, to my great surprise, that it was a young girl!

I pinned her arms back, holding tight to her thin wrists. Straddling her chest, mirror black eyes stabbed at me. Her simple pale filthy round face, half concealed by overlapping layers of tattered fabric, was the last thing I recall. An instant later something heavy smashed against the back of my skull. With a blinding white flash and searing sharp stab of pain the world faded to darkness and nothingness.

The Last Man by WC Turck is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.com

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