The last man on Earth sat alone in his room. There was a knock on the door.
Jacob shifted in his chair. He tried squeezing the blood down the length of his right thigh, in an attempt to do the work his circulatory system seemed no longer willing to do. The prickling numbness in his foot did not go away, nor did the nock.
He looked from the window to the large set of drapes at the other side of the room. “How many times do we have to go through this?” he said to himself.
With a grunt that he used to try to conceal, he pushed his mass up from the recliner. Springs snapped back into place as he rose, hinges groaned their relief to be rid of him.
It took another series of knocks for Jacob to cross the room and reach the drapes. He dipped his hands between the folds of the dusty greens and spread them wide. “Yes, yes, what is it?”
Little Sophie looked up at him, her deep eyes as clear as ever even in spite of the inch of glass that separated them. Behind her huddled the other children, all trying to nudge their way to the front of the pack. Tiny elbows thrusting this way and that. Sophie turned to look at them, shooting scorn from one discontent to the next. Once settled, she turned back to Jacob.
“Mr. Jacob Sir, it’s the first of the month,” Sophie said.
“I’m well aware of what day it is. I need not be reminded by a child.”
Sophie’s head dipped, her gaze falling to the floor as she patted down the front of her worn jumper.
Jacob’s lip trembled with an apology but that was as far as he let it go. He pulled his lips up into a tight line and cast as cold a stare as he could muster out onto the wading children. “I suppose you’d like to know who gets to leave for vacation this month.”
Thirty heads all bobbed in agreement. Eager eyes peaked around the heads in front of them, everyone trying to be seen without displeasing old Jacob. He often wondered how they thought he chose. Did they think it by looks? Perhaps by manners?
“Get on with it then,” called a knotted haired boy from the back. He pushed and pulled those children that did not yield to his presence until he reached the front. He glowered at the others.
“Now you listen here, Cole,” Sophie said to him with pointed finger, “stop pushing everyone around. Just because you grew a little faster than the rest of us this past year is no reason for you to go bossing everyone around. Besides, no one with your manners ever gets to go on vacation, anyway. So you might as well go back to your grumbling in the corner.”
Cole’s palms slammed into Sophie’s chest, knocking her to the floor. “Keep yer grubby finger out of my face. I’ll do what I please. Aint no one here to stop me.” He shot a look across the others, then stared flatly at Jacob, “Is there?”
Jacob’s nostrils flared.
“So who is it then?” Cole asked. He walked over and grabbed one of the children by the hand and held it up. “Tommy? He’s been oh so good about keeping his fingernails clean. Or maybe Sue,” he grabbed the little blonde by the arm and pulled her forward, “she stacks up her toys oh so nice like.”
A twisted smile deformed his lips as he let the two children go and sauntered over to where Sophie sat on the ground. His fingers plunged into curly hair and he hauled her up by it. “Or what about little miss perfect? She’s the most deserving of us all, aint she?”
The collective gasps of the children crackled through the speakers as Jacob reached for the lock on the door. Their eyes, even those cold orbs of Cole’s, watched his fingers hesitate in mid air. All was still. Not even Sophie, with her hair tugging at the roots, dared move. He stayed himself.
That wicked smile of Cole’s, that for a moment had weakened, sprung back to life as Jacob’s hand fell to his side.
“No,” Jacob said. “We have a new system. Vacations are no longer granted on merit.”
The collective shock left even Cole speechless.
“There are far too few of you now, and it has become quite the task to choose between you. So it is that I must introduce a lottery.”
Hushed whispers flitted through the stale air within the children’s chamber. They pressed closer to the glass as Jacob produced a small sack, holding it out for all to see.
“Each of your names has been written on a bit of paper. I will choose a name at random. This will give you all an equal chance as we near the end.” He swallowed hard.
He placed his hand into the bag, swirled his fingers around to give a good show of it, then pulled out a scrap. Their eyes, so transfixed on the paper, did not notice that Jacob did not bother looking at it before he called out the name written there, “Connie.”
There were the usual tears and celebrations. Some children sulked, others helped in packing. Most of the children wished her farewell at the special door at the other side of the room as she waited for Jacob to press the right sequence of buttons that opened it remotely. It slid open with a hiss, she stepped inside, her face all alit with expectation. The door closed, and with it Jacob pulled the drapes shut.
He crossed the room back to his chair and eased himself down. He pulled out a sheet of paper and began ripping it into pieces. “Computer,” he called. “Open ongoing journal, current date and time.” A beep acknowledged his request.
“Today is the tenth anniversary of the plague. I have just sent the one-hundred-and-twentieth test subject into the outside world.” He watched through the window as a light flashed above a door at the other end of the facility.
“Their immune systems continue to adapt with the increase of poison into their atmosphere, but I fear that they do so too slowly.”
The light stopped flashing and the door slid open. Connie, carrying a small case in one hand and a doll by its arm in the other, stepped out into the lush spring day.
“It used to be easy. Like picking guppies from a tank. There were so many that you couldn’t tell who was who. Not anymore.”
Connie dropped her things. She ran out into the thick grass, arms spread like a bird as she circled about.
“Now they all have names, personalities. I’ve tried my best to find reasons to test the troublesome ones without making it look like I’m rewarding bad behavior. It’s so important that they remain pleasant, that they go willingly. But with each one that goes, another one crops up. I’m afraid that no matter what I do, the world will end up being left to the kind of person who brought all of this about.”
He organized the twenty-nine pieces of paper and pulled out a pen, but had to brush away a tear before he could continue. Connie’s flight had slowed. Her head tilted oddly to one side as she tried to comprehend what she was looking at.
A familiar pain struck Jacob in his chest. He reached up and tried to rub it away.
She turned back towards the lab, eyes falling on the window that he watched through. When the tests first started he watched with scientific intrigue, noting every detail, but that grew more difficult over time. Eventually, he could not bear it, and stared at vital statistics on a monitor instead. Now he forced himself to watch. He owed them that much.
“Test subject number one-hundred-and-twenty has fared much better than those before her. She lasted ten minutes and thirty-seven seconds before her lungs gave way to the poison.”
A mechanical arm reached out from the lab and removed her still form from the field, placing it alongside the remains of her brothers and sisters.
“Her name was Connie,” he said as he set pen to paper and started in on writing next month’s name.