The Last Of Them

In an unknown city in the United Kingdom, a man lives by himself in an ancient, scenic city. An ancient, scenic city decimated by a fungal infection which has destroyed humanity as he knows it.

In the man's past is trauma and horror. The loss of family and friends and everyone he could ever think of meeting. Yet more importantly, in his past is the secret to where the world-ending Cordyceps fungus originated.

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1. I.

At the top of a spiral staircase, in a bright wooden rooftop conservatory, Neville Mason watches the horizon. His eyes, dozing shut, scan slowly across the distant silhouette of the city’s buildings, castles and hills. The glowing sunlight of the room warms his beard. He can feel sleep coming. But he won’t sleep. Not yet.

From the South-facing main window, he can see all the way to the castle at the city’s center. A front seat for the end of the world. Every evening, he watches this horizon from his deck chair, observing the silhouette of a dead city. As his eyes trace over each ruined tenement, each castle, each modern building, each crest of hill or trough of valley, he tries to remember what it was like before.

When he was younger, reading all he possibly could about any science, he read about memory in a cognitive psychology textbook for teenagers. He read about methods for improving memory recall, mnemonics and abbreviations. One of the best methods was the locative technique. You imagine, or memorise, a walkthrough, a route of a place you know well. And for each detail in the place that you look at through your mind’s eye, you associate with it something you want to remember. So in a bathroom you might think, ‘the toilet seat, I’ll associate item x with this.’ Then in the walkthrough in your head, look at the sink basin and think, ‘the sink, the taps, the plughole, I’ll associate items y and z and b with these,’ etcetera. Sometimes card counters or professional magicians would use such techniques. It excited him.

Two years ago, he realised that he had forgotten what his mother’s face looked like. In a spurt of panic he spent two days, stressed, writing down everything he never wanted to forget. As he was alone, he figured, there was no one to remind him of things which were good in the world. From now on, he had to do it himself.

So he spent these two days prioritising his memories, and ultimately associating different memories with each object on his window’s horizon.

Now, sitting in the conservatory before the window, he stares at various buildings on the horizon. Looking at the mountain on the left, the houses bustling around its skirt, the bulge of its peak, he thinks of his friends hiking up it. He pictures Ged huffing up winding and gravelled paths, ranting about the new improvements he would make to his rental home in the North. Ged's wife Doris would walk along amiably just behind, smiling as if her endorsement would make Ged’s facts better yet. And their young son Andy strides abreast, silent and pale; friendly whenever you spoke to him, but distant, with his thoughts on high school, or some idiosyncratic interest.

Neville watches the mountain intently for several minutes. Next, he looks at the castle, dead ahead of his view. He imagines walking through its ruined bulkheads with his wife. He remembers his wife’s face and the wide, closed smile that would stick the corners of her lips to her ears whenever she was content. Her messy, fair, bobbed hair and pale skin. He sees her stepping through squares of sunlight from the castles high ballustrades and empty windows. For a moment he pictures her with a swollen belly as she avoids cracks in the flagstones; but the second Neville sees the image he rectifies it. There is no swollen belly. There is a little girl instead.

Before he can fix the thought properly and dwell on the child, Neville’s eyes widen slightly as he notices a giant dark green cloud slowly looming to the West, gradually filling in the window to his right. His eyes widen and he sits up in his reclining deck chair. He was about to look that way and consider the rest of his memory map, but the cloud seeping into the gaps between the taller buildings of the central financial district in the distance breaks the train of thought. He stares at the financial district, towering over the crowds of houses and tenaments between Neville and the skyline. A tapestry spread out over the ground, a record in dead architecture of the way things were like tracks left by snails aeons ago. He watches as the emerald haze creeps in between the cracks of the buildings like expanding foam. The city submitting itself to mould. He looks down by his side to check the gas mask is still there. It is.

His reverie broken, he glares at the swathes of fungus floating turgid through the air towards him, and lies back again on the plastic chair. The sporewaves are worse now, every month. They had been getting worse for the last year. He barely got a day in a week where he wouldn’t have to keep the mask on for at least a couple of hours. The city got worse. The loneliness got worse. Everything got worse. From his current perch he could pretend that the spread in front of him was the same as it had always been, especially if he kept his eyes half shut. People living out their daily lives, working, sleeping, travelling; all the houses empty of life and humanity actually bustling with the stuff. The cloud of spores to his right, however, halted this fantasy.

Neville looks around him, and tries to remember what it is he should be doing. The room he sits in is small, its walls a light beechwood chassis, and every wall is a wide window, except the floor and the back wall which connects to the penthouse. He manages to keep it clean, and maintain a small greenhouse in it, sheltered from the spores. Plants don’t get infected by this strain, but spores can still stick onto the underside of leaves and branches, and get on his food despite thorough washing. Extending into the back wall is a corridor that leads to the rest of the house: a penthouse in a three story semi-detached building. The only way up here, and the only way out to the city itself, is the spiral staircase, next to him in the floor, which winds downwards from the center of this conservatory room, like a well connected to a sewer of streets. A downward spiral staircase winding to hell.

The green cloud sweeps over the castle directly ahead of him, near the horizon. Sometimes he wonders if in another, bigger country, the fungus didn't have as much of a chance. If there were bigger communities of survivors, if the spore never had a chance to propagate enough to fill the air and sweep across country. He wonders.

Neville stands up, turns around, and gazes down the corridor to the end of the house. His head is still in its dozing memory state. Cloudy images of his wife and friends merging with the real cloud of funghi, which he tries to process. He shakes his face as if slapped, and jogs down the long corridor to the other side of the house. He passes a room cluttered up to the ceiling with furniture and a kitchen on the left, and takes the final door next to the kitchen. In this living room, which he keeps spacious despite the rest of the house filling up with the materials of solitary survival, he peers out a window and down the street to the left. The cloud is pouring down his street like a tsunami of pollen. Scattered cars and debris are swept under it like a carpet. It is particularly thick; and he knows this might be his only chance to reach some more supplies. In spore-fog this dense, they can’t use their clicking very effectively to track you by sound. He returns to the conservatory, slipping on his gas mask early just to be sure, and runs down the steps into the darkness beneath the house.

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