Tuesday, September 13, 2022

The Last Librarians (series): This Dying Earth

We cremated Yamamoto, then continued round two of our monthly Go tournament after updating the placement of each player in the round. She had been one of the best players and my bet was, had been, on her to win. That left me, Coullier, and Furnham chasing after the other top players, Hsu and Stuart, but I knew I wasn't going to make it to the final round.

This was our 142nd tournament since the Exodus, when those selected to leave had taken off in rocket ships while the rest of humanity cursed at them from the ground. Our colony just happened to be wealthier than most, and healthier back then. It’s located at space command and nearly all of the 160 plus remainers worked as ground crew or security for the final launch. I'm just a librarian with no other background or qualifications for a job at Mission Control Center, but Yamamoto was Flight Director and she broke a few rules to let me sit next to her.

“Mary, it’s your move,” Coullier said. I stared at the board and then placed two stones in the center square.

“Why doesn't anyone want to play scrabble anymore? Makemashita," I said through my mask.

“Mary resigns,” Coullier yelled over to Stuart, who was keeping score and wrote Coullier’s name in the next round's ladder on the whiteboard.

“Well then, I’ll just go make us some drinks.” I stood up from the table as Coullier cleaned Yamamoto’s goban, readying for the next player.

“Make mine a double Mary,” she said, and we still chuckled at our worn out joke.

I don’t know why they call me by my first name when everyone else uses last names. Maybe it’s a casual reminder about my particular condition. Much to the amazement of my doctors (now long gone), I'm physically fine and just sweat a lot, but I could kill any and every last one of them with a touch. It's why I wasn't allowed to get within a breath of anyone shipping out. Everyone here has some terminal condition that kept them grounded, and I bet it's because we all marched with signs and shouted slogans in the hot and contaminated air while politicians and business moguls sat in sealed and conditioned rooms, mock-debating how much it would cost to ship off just a fraction of the population whose great great great grandkids might make it to Planet B.

Now with Yamamoto gone, our colony is down to just the five of us. Coullier has Cirrhosis and is drinking herself to death just so she won’t be the last one standing. Furnham has COPD and makes a show of removing her oxygen mask whenever I’m around. Hsu has advanced severe osteoporosis, and has me write limericks on each new cast (the dirtier the better). Stuart is on blood thinners and we can always tell when she’s found another corner or sharp edge.

“Heading home?” Stuart asked when I passed by the whiteboard from which she picked at the soft foam around the edges. I nodded affirmatively and walked out of the game room. I live in a cocooned area separate from everyone else, and it’s the only place I’m allowed to remove my “bunny suit”, gloves and mask.

I pull the cartridge from my utility belt and put it in the oxygen concentrator, then carefully loosen the silicon gasket from the mask. I take a full cartridge and attach it to the belt, then hang it, the mask and suit on hooks inside the UV chamber, which I have to pass through to get in or out of my room.

Tomorrow is trash day and in the afternoon I’ll collect all the waste bags from our building and drive to the incineration and storage facility almost 97 kilometers away. (Yamamoto said they put it that far to keep us from going through all our rations too quickly, coughing and swearing at whomever made that stupid decision.) After tossing our trash, I’ll place our shrink-wrapped rations in the truck bed while it recharges, and then drive back to make deliveries, pretending she is in the passenger seat oohing and aahing as the horizon turns colors from blue-gray to orange-gray to dull gray points of light poking through a matte black sky.

My job since I arrived includes roll call, inventory, and data entry for our colony. That’s how I know when someone dies. If they don’t answer my comm request then I call back to the last person I’d talked with to go check on the MIA. When Yamamoto didn’t answer my call it was Stuart who found her curled up in bed with a look of agony on her face. Or maybe it was beatific. Stuart hasn’t talked with me about it.

I’ve another job that Yamamoto assigned to me as the population of our colony dwindled. When I finish the morning’s roll I read the latest news from the intrepid spacefarers (always upbeat and probably fake). Then I'll read a chapter or two from a book the colony has chosen, and if the story is just too horrible to continue I’ll make shit up. Create elaborate plot twists, and turn all the characters into someone from our group. Coullier once drank from a volcano and can now breathe flames. Furnham breaks the freediving record by turning into a Mariana Snailfish. Hsu protects the last glacier on Mount Everest as an abominable snow-woman. Stuart is, of course, a vampire that has a relationship with a fire-breathing woman. And Yamamoto… I miss that international spy who saved us all by manually jettisoning the damaged warp core of my imagined spaceship.

After I sign off for the day I usually get a private call from whomever was touched or ticked off by my embellishments. They regale me with their real life’s story, and I write down everything I am told. I listen attentively, and respond with as much empathy and joviality as I can muster. It gets harder and harder with each passing. Just when I think I might make it to acceptance and hope, another one dies and I’m right back at anger and bargaining with a god who doesn’t give a damn.

I’m pretty sure we all know how each of our stories will end. I like to pretend that some future archaeologists find our little free library buried under the sand, and read our stories to their grandchildren. About drunk dragons, deep-sea shapeshifters, glacial furries, vampire lovers, and radioactive spies. And, about the last and very hot librarian of this once living planet.

 <word count: 1100>



No comments: