It was the year the population of Earth fell below one million.
It was the year the population of Earth fell below one million.
Kenner Smith lay stretched out on the soft grass, his head nestled in Violet’s lap. His eyes were closed. His mind teased her mind through the Cloud. Her fingers twined in his hair, tugging gently.
“Let’s have a baby,” Violet said.
It was not a new idea to Kenner. The thought of a child frolicking in the grass nearby was a pleasant fantasy. But their present life was so good, their love so free from the storms that rocked some loves — and he had his friends, his club — no worries, no responsibilities.
“There’s no hurry,” Kenner said. “We have all the time in the world.”
He opened his eyes and looked up at Violet’s face, pleasingly plump, framed by long, dark hair hanging down. Behind her the bole of an ancient oak rose into the blue sky, its boughs drooping almost to the ground, swaying gently in the breeze.
Violet’s face turned blood red and then black.
illustration by Tepa Lahtinen
Kenner sat up blinking, uncomprehending. Her face was gone, her eyes blackened sockets. Smoke rose from her smoldering hair. He felt a pain in his chest and his face tingled. He scrambled across the grass on hands and knees, looked over his left shoulder.
Not far away at all, the nozzle of a gun was pointed straight at him. Above it blue eyes, a broad white forehead, curly red hair.
Kenner crawled behind the trunk of the oak and stood, scraping his back against the rough bark. He was panting, could not get enough air.
Climb the tree! Call for help! Attack the man! Run away! Kenner froze, unable to move.
The man would be coming around the tree at any moment. No, the man would run away. Up the tree he would be safe. No, trapped. He pictured himself running away and felt the shirt burning off his back. Violet!
He ran out from behind the tree and collided with the gunman. He grabbed the smooth, hot, oddly shaped metal. It had a narrow waist between nozzle and trigger. He wrapped his fist around it and yanked. The gun came free in his hands and he flung it away. Immediately, he wished he had held onto it.
Laughter fled the stranger’s face, his blue eyes flicked from side to side. Kenner was looking down on his red hair. The killer was short and fat, nobody to fear.
“Empty Earth!” the man shouted, a note of triumph in his voice. He ran. Kenner ran after him.
As he ran, Kenner sent his thoughts into the Cloud, along with the images he saw. “Empty Earther! Look out!” Kenner called for a scooter, kept running.
It would be minutes before the scooter arrived. The man was getting away. Ahead, a flock of nudists. Their all-over tans made them seem almost clothed. They were old but fit. Kenner shouted, “Stop him! He killed Violet!” They scattered like sheep. Then, directly ahead, he saw a young couple with a small child — too far away to make out if it was a boy or a girl. Fear for the child drove out all other thoughts. He broadcast into the Cloud and then shouted out loud:
“Protect the child! Empty Earther! Protect the child!”
The Emptier was now running directly toward the family. The child was a boy of three or four. Kenner ran faster, panting. The adults seemed frozen. The Emptier reached them, snatched up the child. Too fast for Kenner to make out exactly what happened, the limp body was cast aside. Again the triumphant shout, “Empty Earth!”
He pushed himself to run faster, past the still uncomprehending couple, past the twisted body on the grass. His legs felt like they would give way, but the killer must be tiring as well. He stumbled as he ran. The scooter should be here soon. There it was! The silver metal flashed in the light of the afternoon sun; the scooter rushed toward them. Kenner reached out his right hand. No! The scooter passed out of reach and pulled up next to the fleeing man, who flung one fat leg over the saddle and sped away.
Kenner stopped, turned this way and that. There! The scooter he had called was moving toward him from behind. He grabbed the handlebars and felt the hot engine between his legs. Air rushed into his face. He closed his eyes, fumbled in the compartment for the hood, pulled it over his head, opened his eyes.
The park seemed empty. He twisted the grips and the ground fell away. Looking down to the left, he saw dark green masses of trees dotting the lighter green of the grass. No other scooter was in sight. Then, looking up, he saw a flash of sunlight on metal.
He turned toward it, sun at his back, and gunned the scooter. There was no hope of overtaking the killer: All scooters had the same speed limit. But the man must land some time.
Tears blurred his vision. His nose was running. He held the scooter on a steady course. With his left hand, he pulled the hood up and wiped his face on his right sleeve. Knees gripped the engine. He pulled down the hood, blinked, tried to catch another glimpse of the scooter somewhere in the sky ahead. There was no scooter visible in the pale blue sky.
Many incoming messages were demanding his attention, but he ignored them and broadcast, “An Empty Earther has killed a woman and a child. He’s fleeing East on a scooter. Please! Somebody! Do something!” He appended his location to the message.
Wasn’t there a club dedicated to fighting the Empty Earth movement? What were they called? The Club of Man. That was it. He queried, “Is there an incoming message from the Club of Man?” There was. He opened it. The voice in his ear was deep, masculine, calm, commanding. “We don’t have anyone near your location. Try to keep the Emptier in sight. Help is on the way.”
He could see more clearly now. A silver rail flashed below, no train in sight. Beyond, yellow fields spread to the horizon, dotted here and there with red harvesters. From this altitude, the harvesters seemed motionless. Over the horizon rose the colourful towers of Wichita, last city in North America, his home. Kenner blinked rapidly, forcing tears from his eyes. The window of the hood pressed against his nose. The murderer — Violet’s burned face — the murderer’s scooter should be the same distance ahead as when they started, neither gaining nor losing ground. Unless he had turned. But why would he turn? He must fear pursuit, could not know how far behind the people chasing him were.
Yes he could! The message Kenner had sent giving his location — the murderer would have received it. Still, to turn would be to risk being cut off. No, the Emptier was headed for Wichita, to lose himself in the crowds, among the thousands in that great city.
There were moving dots, now, in the blue, cloudless sky ahead, other scooters swarming around the bright towers. The killer was getting away.
One dot grew rapidly, coming straight toward him. Kenner fought the temptation to swerve. Scooters could not collide. He held his course as the other scooter grew larger. Red sun reflected in the window of the driver’s hood as it shot past. His own scooter wobbled in its wake. He turned, as tightly as the scooter would allow, leaning into the turn, gripping the handle bars. The sun blinded him — then the window of his hood darkened, and he could make out the scooter ahead. Close! Close! He felt his lips pull back from his teeth.
Why had the killer turned back? He had gotten away. Why had he turned back? Of course! The Club of Man would have a chapter in Wichita. They would be waiting for him. Kenner checked his messages, accepted the most recent from the Club of Man.
“I see you. Help is on the way.”
The wheat fields below were darker. The rail dividing the field from the park flashed red in the setting sun. Long shadows of oaks lay across the grass. The gun! The Emptier was returning for his gun, which Kenner had left just lying there.
He raced as low above the grass as he could make his scooter go, following the scooter ahead as it dodged trees through patches of light and shadow. Then, the other scooter seemed to move backwards, shot past him, his own scooter automatically swerving out of the way. The killer had stopped. Kenner slowed and turned, racing back across the grass to where an empty scooter hovered. He jumped down. There were several people among the trees, none wearing a hood, none with red hair. Was that the oak under which Violet —? So little time had passed, but Violet’s body had been removed, if that indeed was the oak.
Kenner ran here and there, searching for the Emptier, searching the grass for the gun. A man was bending over, black against the trees. He straightened, faced Kenner.
He had something in his hand.
Kenner’s eyes widened and he dodged behind a tree. He pulled himself up to a low limb and waited. There were screams. Kenner stretched himself out on the broad bough and sent another call for help into the Cloud.
The top of a man’s head passed below the limb on which Kenner lay. Even in the shadows there was a hint of red. The arm that held the gun was stretched out, the funnel-shaped barrel pointed forward. Glowing red circles flew off the rim of the funnel, lighting the trunks of trees. More screams. Kenner could have reached out and touched the man, but did not.
As soon as the Emptier had gone by, Kenner swung down from the branch, scraping his hands on the rough bark, and let go. He landed heavily, took a half step to follow the killer, thought better of it, began to back away into the shadows just in time. The killer turned and hunted, the gun pointing in whichever direction he looked. Kenner froze.
The Emptier moved toward him, passed just a few feet away, still turning this way and that. Kenner held his breath. As soon as he was on the other side of the tree, Kenner ran. Dark bodies lay on the grass. The evening breeze carried the smell of burning meat. A moving flash of red lit the trees and Kenner dodged, running all out.
“Club of Man. This way.” A man with a bushy yellow mustache waved his right arm, turned and ran. Kenner followed. Expanding red circles flew past, missing him by inches. The woods were thicker here. Kenner followed the retreating back of a dark jacket moving in and out between the trees.
After each red flash the darkness became impenetrable, and Kenner blundered into tree trunks, no longer sure that he was running in the right direction. He was tempted to fall flat. The Emptier must be as blind as he was, might pass him in the dark.
A cry, from behind. He looked over his shoulder and could just make out two figures struggling. He started to run toward them, when the taller figure fell and a flash of red showed the man’s moustache burning and black. Kenner dropped to the ground, rolled over. Beneath the oaks was rough dirt, acorns, no grass. He pulled his arms under his body, hid his face.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are.” The voice sounded excited, exhilarated. Kenner felt fear unlike any he had felt before. He tried to muffle his breathing with his sleeve. The thin cloth was damp. He fought the temptation to jump to his feet and run, lay still.
“Think how much cleaner the Earth will be, with all us maggoty humans gone. It will happen eventually, you know. Why not sooner rather than later? Why fight it? Think how peaceful it will be when you’re dead.”
The high-pitched voice had a hint of laughter in it. It moved away to the left, then circled back. Silence. The faint creak of moving boughs. Kenner’s shirt lay cold and damp on his back.
He got to his hands and knees, then scrambled to his feet, and looked frantically in all directions. There was something in the shadows, not far, moving away. He followed, keeping his distance, wishing he could find a fallen branch to use as a club. But the people who maintained the park had done their work well. Remembering what had happened to the man with the yellow moustache, Kenner tried to hold his anger in check, but when he caught up with the shadowy figure his rage boiled over.
He grabbed the gun with his left hand. With his right, he pounded the Emptier’s face until his fist hurt. The man twisted and turned, but did not let go of the gun. A ring of light flew down into the grass at their feet. The flesh of Kenner’s hand was burning, but he held tight.
The two men staggered, off balance. Kenner fell on top. He held the gun down on the ground and continued to pound the other man’s face, until the body under him went limp. Kenner’s mind felt a flux in the Cloud. The killer’s consciousness left his body, fled into the Cloud. Kenner followed.
It had been years since Kenner had sent his mind out of his body. Like all teens, he had experimented, joining his mind to others, especially people with greater sexual experience. As an adult, he valued his privacy too much to keep it up, although he knew people at his club who did little else. Like riding a scooter, you never forgot how. He followed in the Emptier’s wake.
He slipped into the slack mind of a proud member of a working club, contentedly polishing to a high gleam the bright metal of the Wichita Machine. He felt a sense of frisson as the Emptier’s mind brushed up against his. The Emptier’s mind rushed away. Kenner followed.
The sky was filled with clouds of birds. Pronghorn antelope by the thousands bounded past. He was living a natural life, outside the Wichita microwave barrier. The Emptier curled around the mind of the natural man, grew stronger. Then, the host mind threw them both out, and they tumbled into the Cloud.
He was a woman riding the gravity train from Wichita to Berlin. The vacuum tunnels connecting the few surviving cities of mankind were the last and greatest of the engineering feats just prior to the long decline of man. The woman’s mind was idle. He and the Emptier rested. The Emptier moved on.
He was a priest in a small village in France, leading choirboys in plainsong. The priest was marveling at the beauty of their voices. His community was one of the very few on earth where the population was actually increasing. Be fruitful and multiply. The thoughts of the priest were painful to the Emptier, and he moved on so quickly Kenner almost lost him.
He was a woman, a member of the Starship Club of Geneva, drawing plans for the generation starship. Her mind was a turmoil of hope and fear. The crew will all die long before they reach another world. But a destination will give the crew a reason to have children, to continue the race.
He was a woman too old to have children, who wished she had made different choices.
He was a poet, depressed because no one read his poems. They would be forgotten the day he died. There was too much art in the world, no need for more. The Emptier settled in the poets gloom, grew strong. Kenner sensed the justification the Emptier felt and allowed their minds to merge slightly, groping for a name. The Emptier fled.
He was a worker in the Beijing Machine, helping a man describe to the Machine exactly what it was to make.
He was a young father, whose love for his small child was so strong it was almost tearing him apart. The Emptier was shaken. He fled back into the Cloud and from there down, down into his body. Kenner followed and fought the exhausted Emptier for control, forced his hand to open, to let go of the gun. All the while feeling his own limp body pressing down on them.
Fingers spasmed; the hand was empty. Kenner shifted to his own body, snatched up the gun, and rolled away, keeping the gun pointed at the Emptier.
His finger would not pull the trigger. He could not kill a human being when so few precious souls remained. Instead, he sent out a call to the Club of Man. “I have the Emptier prisoner. Send someone for him.”
Kenner was so tired.
Some residue of the Emptier’s thoughts lingered in his mind. The need to dominate, the desire to be noticed, the self-importance, the contempt for others. The unbearable feeling of being contaminated, which the Emptier felt every time he entered another person’s mind. It was almost strong enough to erase Kenner’s memory of his own feelings of joy at sharing the lives of others. The ecstasy of killing Violet and the child.
He woke screaming and his finger tightened on the trigger.
Rick Norwood edits Comics Revue, a magazine of classic comic strips, including Flash Gordon by Harry Harrison, Tarzan by Russ Manning, and The Phantom by Lee Falk and Wilson McCoy. He reviews movies and television for Sf Site.