I guarded him for thirty-one years like he was the last man on earth. It wasn’t easy. Even as a schoolboy in Lima he’d had an appetite for danger. When he broke his femur and collarbone racing horses, I protected his spine. Later, when the nuclear winter spread to Peru, it was me who guided him clear of radiation zones. He died, like the generations before him, without knowing I was there.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Ava said when she found me sulking on the solar railroad.
An automated train whirred through my intangible wings. I folded them tighter and gripped the tracks with my hands, manipulating my density so that when the next train passed, I would feel it.
“You performed admirably,” she said. “Better than the rest of us.”
“I can’t believe they’re gone,” I said, gazing out over the withered dust flats where pearl lupins once grew wild and purple in the sun. I kicked a patch of irradiated soil and shuddered as another bullet train shot through me. “I had a dream, Ava. A dream that I was the guardian of a chosen race. That I spent the last five million years growing with them, laughing with them, correcting their mistakes as one by one, in minuscule intervals, they died.”
Ava glided down to sit beside me. She was golden and ageless and naked as the sun. Perhaps I was that beautiful once, I do not remember. Her lips on my temple were like the touch of lightning.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “for acting like I’m the only one. How did yours die?”
“He died alone,” she said, her voice distant. “A year ago in a bunker a hundred meters down.”
“Starvation, mutations, suffocation?”
“He took his own life.”
I shivered, but not from the cold. I looked up at the winter-dark sky, at the mountains of featureless ice, at the desolate remains of Lima and the old rainforest where insects swarmed and bacteria ran rampant through skeletal trees.
The world is a more dangerous place than humans realized. We could shield them from some things, but not from themselves. My last charge possessed a genetic resistance to the ionizing radiation that enveloped this planet like burial cloth. But in time, even he succumbed, bald, emaciated and coughing blood—the last man. In the low sierra, alone, eating wasps and centipedes, he had no contact with others. I wanted so many times to speak to him, but try as I might, I could not even say his name in the dark. Perhaps loneliness can kill as decisively as leukemia or organ failure.
“He died without fear,” I said. “In all the innumerable men and women I have guarded, he was exceptional. He did not know he was the last as he slowly froze. I wanted to follow his soul as it ascended in splinters of ethereal light, but my wings could not beat fast enough.”
Ava gave me a long, appraising look lasting the space of five trains, all of which operated autonomously, and would continue running until the solar grid failed due to excessive particulates in the troposphere. I increased my density, and the next train set my skin tingling with electricity.
“Come,” she said. “I want to show you something.”
She took my hand in her long, smooth fingers and led me into the sky, through clots of rotten dust and sparks of ice, a depleted ozone sick with contaminants, bombarded by radiation from the surface as well as from space—a planet dying. I caught glimpses of legions of unemployed angels clustered in prisms of silver mist, wings touching. No one spoke. There was nothing left for any of us.
Passing through the fractured atmosphere to a vast wilderness of stars, I forced my eyes to absorb every wavelength. What I saw was beyond color. Radiant and numerous and unchanging, the stars no longer glimmered, but glowed steadily, moving in tiny increments across the sky.
I listened to the immeasurable silence, my wings spread wide in the airless dark. I smelled the planet Mars, road dust and fire, and the planet Mercury, a torched metal smell. I watched the slow turning Venus and gazed into the precious sun whose distant violence now fed life and light to dead things, crawling things that would evolve differently now that the earth was so changed. I did not want to wait and see what they became.
“I was assigned to an astronaut once, centuries ago.” My voice cracked with emotion, needing no physical medium to propagate. “That’s the last time I was up here. I got her home safe, then she died of pancreatic cancer.”
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Ava said, galaxies spiraling in her eyes. “The human race was given a seed of life, an imperishable spark to carry and to preserve. It belongs to us now.”
I looked out at the infinite stars, each growing more distant as the universe expanded, accelerating toward some expiration date pre-inscribed in a teaspoon of cosmic ingredients. I felt my hand tremble in hers. “What’s it all for now that the chosen creatures are dead?”
She smiled, and in that instant the elaborate drama of human evolution and achievement condensed in my mind. “It’s for us,” she said.