I'm walking down a street in Lexington, VA. About four o'clock in the afternoon, near the end of summer by the look of it. New and returning students at Washington and Lee and VMI are wandering around downtown, youthful hope for the future showing on their faces. A woman pushes a stroller, window shopping, making cooing noises at her baby. A man is taking the training wheels off a bike, while his son watches nervously.

It doesn't occur to any of them that the world won't continue on substantially as it has, long into the future.

I awaken with a start, sitting bolt upright. The dream is back. Practically every night now, it returns; the dream of how life was before The Event. The shock of cold water splashed on my face doesn't give me any answers. Once again, I put it out of my mind and resolve that it won't be back, but it's obvious that it probably will be. I don't know why it has recently started to torment me.

Walking to the window, I try to remember what city I'm in today, before receiving clues from the morning vista. Oh yes, Saskatoon. Not that it makes much difference these days, either to the two or three thousand semi-permanent residents, or the itinerants like me. I'd been here three days now, exploring the woods around what used to be the town. Mostly just taking a break before deciding what to do next. I asked the room for the weather in Kuala Lumpur; I'd heard there was some sort of fight-to-the-death tournament going on there. Currently 92 degrees with high humidity, and a big storm expected in the next day. No reason to endure that in whatever would be the rest of my life; they could fight without me.

Showered and dressed, I went out and got some good ol' bacon and eggs for breakfast. I'd pretty much been subsisting on moose jerky while hiking, so that was a nice change. I told the terminal to browse current announcements, no restrictions. The people of Gibraltar were going to nuke their famous Rock today; I'd really thought they would decide to let it be. I didn't think it would be that interesting anyway. A creative bungee jumping competition at the Eiffel Tower? What the heck, it might draw a crowd at least. I hadn't been around more than about ten people for quite a while. I had the terminal make the travel arrangements for me. It said I should be at the port in 27 minutes, as a taxi settled just outside the door.

As always when I'm in a long distance transport, I found myself musing on the state of our world: population 3.5 million at last estimate, slowly dwindling, living a life of total leisure in a technological wonderland, whatever good or service we might desire provided by self-maintaining automated systems that would probably last for a million years, and most of us despondently waiting to die – or actively hastening that end.

After It happened, the survivors took care of the logistics of tending to ten billion fresh corpses almost out of reflex (though the robots did the actual work, naturally). I think the shock might have lasted much longer; the discovery that the relative few of us left were all sterile took us out of that but left us in a funk that probably will never lift. Knowing that we're the last generation has sapped our will to do anything important, least of all try to find a way to fix the problem. Instead, our creative energies find their outlet by devising more and more clever, entertaining, and useless ways to spend our time, often at peril of life and limb.

For a while, of course, we argued about what it was that had happened: war theories didn't last long, since there was nobody left untouched. There was no evidence of an epidemic of some strange disease; until they stopped doing them, the autopsies showed normally healthy dead people, for the most part. The closest thing to a consensus was some nanotechnology that got out of control, but why it would only kill humans, and why it seemed to come and go so quickly, is a mystery. Nobody talks about it anymore.

* * *

Paris. It was my first time here. It was hard to decide whether it had suffered relatively more or less than other great cities at the decimation of its citizenry. It was easy to thread my way through the empty streets, toward the (taller than I'd imagined) steel needle guiding me on.

I arrived at the tower with about twenty minutes to go before the beginning of the competition. There was indeed a good crowd; I'd estimate at least two thousand. A few people were climbing around the structure above the first level, attaching streamers and pennants that were waving in the breeze. After wandering for a while, I took a seat on the grass next to a woman who appeared to be, of all things, knitting! The output was already about three feet long, obviously not a sweater or a pair of mittens; my best guess was a sleeping bag, but that would be silly.

Hi, do you mind if I join you?
Not at all. Here, hold this.

She thrust the skein into my hands and told me to pay out the yarn so that it didn't get pulled taut. I asked her what she was making. I was close: it was a body bag. She figured, just in case one of the contestants plunged to his death, she wanted to be useful, rather than just milling around like people do. I told her the yellow was a nice color for it, and she proudly pointed out the booties at the bottom.

Then an announcer came on the public address system, and explained that there would be three separate rounds of competition.

  1. the Open, with the contestants' scores made up of a style judgment from the spectators, added to their base score determined by how close to the ground they came. In this round, actually hitting the ground was grounds for automatic disqualification.
  2. the Trust, the same as the Open except that all of the entrants would gather at the top before the round began, and would pair off; the two would exchange cords, and then one of them would decide whether they should each go ahead, or join the cords and jump together from the second floor.
  3. the Ultimate, where the cords were provided at random, one of them having been chemically treated so that it would be unable to bear the weight of the jumper at the bottom of his fall.

A roar went up from the crowd at hearing the last. Glenda, the knitter, being a local, had been aware of the setup, and the clicking of the needles was uninterrupted. She mentioned that there were baguettes and cheese in the bag next to her, and that I should help myself. I smeared some ripe Brie on a chunk of bread, and then cut a few slices of Port Salut that she asked for. She apologized for the Brie not being the best; of course, nobody was making it by hand anymore so this was factory made. I assured her that it was fine (though I'm no connoisseur), and she bade me try the other. The Trappists, she told me, had decided to continue their traditions until the end, and their famous semi-soft cheese was as delightful as ever. There was wine also. I expected a red, as the good whites that had been laid down when It happened should have been long gone by now. She saw the surprise when I saw the bottle, and she explained that the occasion demanded a white, and she'd liberated this Chenin Blanc from a chateau in Nantes, and had saved it for this.

Then the games began. It wasn't really all that exciting, though I clapped loudly for the woman who had arranged for a small toy parachute to deploy from her head a second or two before reaching the bottom. The old man who broke both of his legs hitting the concrete was disqualified, but as he was a local favorite, an impromptu awards committee quickly made up an Honorable Mention sash which he wore with a smile as he was carted off to the MedCenter, to the applause and laughter of the crowd.

When it was over, we packed up the remains of the picnic lunch and she invited me to come back with her to her place. She lured me with the promise of something new that she'd thought up, and wanted to share with me.

After a brief tour of the early 1700's house, she abruptly stripped us both naked, and led me by the hand to the elegant bathroom. The Rococo fixtures and furnishings took me aback momentarily; I don't often haunt such gaudy surroundings, and my brain couldn't immediately discriminate between what was form and what was function. Even so, something seemed vaguely wrong with the setup, but I couldn't put my finger on what it was. She dipped her toe into the silvery tub, which I hadn't realized was filled, and pulled me along as she stepped in. "It's mercury!", she laughed. "You've never had a bath like this!"

Facing each other from the ends of the tub, we slid our legs past each others' until it looked as though we'd each been truncated at the torso and set upon this perfect mirror, able to pass the ages only with our charm and witty repartee. Under the influence of Glenda's lovely breasts, half-submerged with the slight tides covering and uncovering the nipples, it wasn't long before a small island manifested out of the silver sea, halfway between us. She giggled and reached out to touch it, and I discovered the novel sensation of my erection waving through the viscous medium as I gyrated my hips trying to keep it out of her reach. Eventually she caught it and I surrendered with the grace of a puppy relinquishing the tennis ball after a short contest of wills, knowing that it will be thrown again.

We heard the front door open and close, and Glenda said that that would be the lady who's been staying with her while she passes through town. She called out to her. "Marilyn! There's someone I want you to meet." Marilyn came in and was introduced to me. I lifted a hand and watched the mercury run down my arm to fall from my elbow. Before I reached her outstretched hand, mine was totally dry; I cradled her hand and touched my lips to it, as I greeted her with an enchanté in my best stage whisper. She didn't seem particularly thrilled; just looked at Glenda and said "So, you decided on one, huh?", then retreated back into the house.

Glenda and I didn't let that spoil our fun. We played at trying to make each other look silly by using the surface as a fun house mirror; we flicked tiny droplets at each other; we (unsuccessfully) tried to draw designs on the wall. Eventually it was time to stop, though; we stood and watched our reflective raiment pour down our bodies, then stepped out onto the bare floor with no towels necessary, and resumed our more pedestrian costumes.

Over dinner, it became clear to me from her attitude that Marilyn was not impressed with Glenda's new diversion, nor with anyone who chose to share it with her. Indeed, I would have to say it was with scorn that she barely tolerated Glenda's recounting of our metallic afternoon activity.

Well, sure, the mercury is poisonous, agreed Glenda. What of it? You know we're all going to die. I'll never understand what you have against having some fun first. Don't be such a stick in the mud.
But I don't understand why everyone is so sure there's nothing we can do. A few scientists look into the problem for a year or so after we got back on our feet and can't find a solution; that means we have to give up? No! Anyway, I think I get the same satisfaction out of looking for others who agree with me that you do from tossing your life away in your hedonistic holiday.
What do you mean, "agree with you"? Agree how? So you find someone that thinks we should struggle aimlessly, but what would you do exactly when you find him?
Oh, she doesn't mean open up the laboratories and start poking people with needles and such. Her plan is much simpler —

The cause of Glenda's sudden interruption was so unexpected, nay so impossible, that I almost fell off my chair. A child stood in the entranceway to the dining room. "Mommy, I'm thirsty." "Yes, dear, let's get you a glass of water".

As Marilyn went off to attend to her child, I looked at Glenda with a look that probably would have branded me an imbecile but for the extenuating circumstances, and managed to eke out a "Huh?". "Yes, that's Marilyn's daughter, all right. But let's let her fill you in; she's soooo good at it", said Glenda, rolling her eyes at the last. Apparently she'd heard the story more times than she cared to, and was about to do so again. I filled all of the wine glasses while we waited, then gave Marilyn my complete attention as she began her tale.

I was pregnant when It happened. About two months, and I didn't even know it. I was as surprised as everyone else when I started to show. As part of my normal post-partum care, I learned from the MedCenter that I was still fertile. Those stupid medbots, of course, saw nothing unusual in this, despite the statistical impossibility that every other patient they'd seen for months had been unaccountably sterile. I have a theory that being pregnant during The Event somehow protected me, but I don't really know. Whether that's true or not, I think it strains credulity to think that there's not one man on the planet still carrying around viable sperm, while he's off risking his neck in some adolescent foolishness. My goal is to find such men and get some babies started. Women, too. I've found one woman so far who was also pregnant, though she miscarried, and the MedCenter says she's still fertile, though another pregnancy would be very risky for her. So I'm always on the lookout for them, but I'm recruiting women too. I thought the easiest way would be to get the MedCenters to help me find fertiles, but the strict privacy controls get in the way, and nobody seems to have any idea how to get around them. They're so damned advanced medically, but I'd trade some of that knowledge for a little susceptibility to an argument that the world is different now than when they were programmed.
But everyone knows everyone's sterile. Even if, as you say, someone here or there isn't, they likely don't know it, and assume otherwise. They're all busy enjoying the last days, so how will you discover them?
Well, it's old fashioned evangelism, pure and simple. I'm just traveling from town to town, trying to convince anyone who'll listen to go to a MedCenter and get tested.
And is that working?
I've gotten fewer than ten so far to get tested – all negative. But nothing's gonna make me give up. Someday I'll find him….
Ain't gonna happen. Humanity's had its day in the sun. You ought to join the rest of us and party our night away. Have fun!
I guess my glass is half full. I've got to get up early in the morning, so I'll say good night.

Despite thinking her a fool on a fool's errand, I was taken with her nobility, and walked her to her bedroom. "Good night."

* * *

She was gone already when I got up in the morning and shared a light breakfast with Glenda, who told me that Marilyn had left early to start a long day of proselytizing. I told her that I was going to play tourist today, and take in the sights of Paris. She wished me well, and invited me to return and make myself comfortable in her home for however long I stayed.

I took in the Louvre, and returned to the Eiffel Tower, this time to ride up to the top. But I wasn't really into it; all day, my thoughts kept returning to Marilyn. Her dedication to her task was impressive, and I found myself wondering if she could possibly be right. I canceled my planned visit to Notre Dame, and arrived back at Glenda's house just in time to see a beautiful sunset across the Seine. Glenda had mentioned that she might leave town for a while, and evidently she had because I had the house to myself for a few hours. I had intended to wait for Marilyn, but my hunger got the better of me and I fixed myself a snack.

She found me in the drawing room when she got back, reading some old issues of Le Figaro. She plopped onto the sofa, so tired that she couldn't sit up straight. She asks me to pour her a glass of wine. I reach around her from behind and let her take the glass from my hand, and then gently massage her neck and shoulders. What was intended to be a simple affirmation of human contact soon escalated to intense therapy, as her muscles were in knots that would get her advanced placement admission to a Merchant Marine academy. With her more relaxed, I resumed my spot in the leather recliner opposite, and our conversation soon found itself back on her quest. I asked her if her search left her so tuckered out every night, and if she ever took a day off.

It's tiring work all right. I don't keep a set schedule, of course, but I do rest one or two days a month. I do travel a lot, also, but most of that time I'm still at it. The worst part is the constant rejection and failure – though I try not to think of it as that. There's just got to be someone else who thinks it's worth the effort to try to go on. A lot of people treat me like I'm totally crazy. And I admit that thoughts of quitting come into my mind occasionally. I get so frustrated by all the negativity. But I want to thank you for helping rejuvenate me. Even though you don't agree with me, I can see in your eyes that you have some respect for what I'm doing. And even though you're part of the majority who've lost all hope, you still have a positive attitude on life.
A lot of those people go out and do crazy things because they really want to die, just to get the whole thing over with. I'm not trying to die; I just see that my life can't change anything, and I've decided to live. And sometimes going out of your way to avoid dying can prevent you from really living.

I got up to get us each a brandy, and found her leaning against a pile of pillows in front of the fireplace. I joined her, and we offered each other sips from our snifters as we snuggled close. "I've talked enough about me," she said. "Tell me about what you've been doing."

Oh, let's see. I tried cliff diving in Acapulco. I pulled up the sleeve on my left arm to show her the scar I'd gotten. I went up to the moon and placed dead last in a road rally across the Mare Imbrium from Copernicus to Cassini. I thought I was doing pretty well until I got caught by the terminator, and spent about six hours in the dark finding my way back. I was at Pamplona last year —
Hey, I was there!
That's great! Did you make it all the way?
Oh, I wasn't running; I would be scared to death. But I was nearby, and I made sure to be in the city for the run. I watched the whole thing from a restaurant balcony, getting sloshed on sangria. That's more my style – yawn – oh, excuse me. I need to get into bed, but I want to hear more. Please?

She didn't have to ask twice. As tired as she was, after a bit more of my adventures being whispered in her ear while we lay spooning, she turned over and reached for me, and we pulled each other into bliss.

The next morning, I left a note and an aperitif on the nightstand and hightailed it out of there. With an outlook like hers, I wouldn't be surprised if she would try to "convert" me and get me to join her. Sure, I had listened sincerely and with a sympathetic ear, and she was right in seeing a bit of encouragement in my eyes, but I wasn't going to let things get out of hand.

At the airport, I took the the first flight I saw, and ended up in Yokohama; I tried some fugu. It tasted okay, but I didn't see what all the fuss was about. I guess there've always been people who wanted to flirt with death.

I went to Tierra del Fuego to see the penguins. For some reason (nobody knew or cared why) their population had exploded since The Event. I went to Pompeii and found it abandoned. A flyer on a tree told me that Marilyn had been there recently.

In mid-January, I found myself in Bergen. I bought some Nordic skis and spent a solitary week getting to Oslo. Once there, I found fliers all over town describing Marilyn's appearance in the central park that afternoon. Well, there was certainly no reason to avoid her. I wandered around a bit, toured the Stortinget, then headed to the park. She had told me that she'd only ever gotten seven or eight people to listen at these things, but I saw a crowd that I reckoned at about four hundred. I looked around, but there was nothing else; this had to be it.

Yes, it was she. I slowly made my way to the front of the crowd, while the reaction alternated between cheers and what seemed like silent awe. Reaching the front, I saw what must have been the reason. Looked like she'd found someone, because she appeared to be about four months pregnant. Yes, she spoke of one other fertile woman and two men that had been discovered as a result of her crusade, since The First One. I could hear the capital letters as she said it.

At the end of her speech, the crowd dispersed, quite a few heading in the direction of the nearby MedCenter. I waited until most of the hangers-on had left, then approached her from behind and said "I guess you were right!" She turned and, after a second of non-recognition, exclaimed to her small entourage, "Oh my God, it's The First One!", and gave me a big hug. After unclutching, she took my hand and pressed it against her belly. "Say hello to your son..." "My son????" I managed to croak out. "Yes, his name is Seth. He's the first of the Second People. Come, join me for dinner and I'll tell you how things have been going." Still somewhat dazed, I agreed.

Over dinner, she told me of her initial disbelief, and then mounting excitement, at learning, shortly after I'd left her, that she was pregnant. Far from being in a delicate condition, she had practically redoubled her efforts, and within the following two weeks had found the first man to be confirmed fertile.

Of course, we need to find more women, hopefully more than men — Jeff, the first one, felt at once elite and useless, with no women available — but at this point every fertile we discover is treasure. It's gonna happen, I know it! Just yesterday we got word that Amelia is pregnant. And since I've been showing, people are really beginning to believe.
That is wonderful, Marilyn. God, you must feel so great. I mean, if you find enough people to reach some kind of critical mass and turn us around, it'll all be because of you.

I leaned over to kiss her; she moved to meet me halfway, and I felt myself continuing forward, off my chair and ending up on one knee in front of the new Mother of Mankind. I don't know if it was genetic information, racial memory, or just cultural programming, but I found myself in the time-honored position that hadn't been seen for too long in our world. I took her hand in mine, and gazed up at that beautiful face.

I want to raise this child with you. I want to see him gain brothers and sisters all over the world. Will you forget my doubts, and let me join you in your work? Will you marry me?

Her whispered "Yes!" was the sweetest sound I'd ever heard — until the birth cries of our first son five months later.

###


Take care what you say in the chatterbox! This story was inspired by this exchange:

[expea] /me bathes in mercury
[C-Dawg] The good thing about bathing in mercury is you don't need a towel afterwards......

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