September Contest Winner: Last Rites
Each month we hold a writing contest for our members, by our members. Writers are given parameters, such as a word count and/or a prompt. Entries are judged and discussed blindly. For our 2nd contest, the piece was to begin with two characters saying goodbye to each other with a 750-word count limit. Please enjoy the winning story:
Last Rites by J.H. Schiller
The priest traces a cross on the dying woman’s forehead as he recites the Prayer of Commendation. “May you see the Redeemer face to face and enjoy the vision of God forever. Amen.”
She shudders, gripping his metallic hand. “Thank you, Father.” A violent coughing spell takes her, and droplets of blood spray the priest’s dusty cassock. When the last spasm passes, she opens her milky eyes, turns her face up to the sky, and whispers, “Goodbye.”
He isn’t sure if she’s bidding farewell to him, or to God, or to the ruined Earth, but he replies.
She takes another tortured breath, then another, and then no more. The deep grooves of pain leave her face, and she relaxes into the peace of eternal rest. As the priest rises, the servo motors in his knees grind against months of road dirt. He looks up at the roiling clouds, pondering the woman’s last word.
He is perhaps the only creature on Earth who knows the word is a contraction of the sixteenth century phrase, “God be with ye.”
He is perhaps the only creature on Earth who knows anything at all.
With a flick of his eyes, he accesses the BioNet—the network built by the Church after the Vegas flu killed nearly half of the world’s population. The virulence of the disease was unprecedented, and it mutated so rapidly that vaccines were useless before they made it to market. In the pandemic's aftermath, the UN and the WHO collapsed and smaller national governments toppled. The Church was the only global institution still standing.
Vatican epidemiologists quickly realized the key to survival was detecting and isolating outbreaks. They developed injectable nanocytes that would monitor health and report signs of potential infection to the BioNet. To convince traumatized survivors to receive the injections, the Church told the world they’d developed a vaccine. Ninety percent of the remaining population lined up to receive it.
Unfortunately, the self-replicating nanocytes caused severe—often fatal—seizures in twenty percent of patients.
Even more unfortunately, they crossed the placental barrier.
According to the priest’s databases, the tragedy was accidental, but the great powers of the world believed otherwise. Tensions mounted. Sabres were rattled and eventually drawn, culminating in the Final War, which ended—in accordance with the revelations of mad John—on the plains of Megiddo where the last bomb fell from low Earth orbit. Those hardy souls who survived both the Vegas flu and Nanocyte Rejection Syndrome ultimately fell to the war, either by instant obliteration in a nuclear blast or—like the woman he’d just prayed for—from radiation sickness.
Yesterday, the BioNet recognized one living human.
Now there are none.
The priest accesses the network that connects him to his brothers in the Order of Bezalel. Their primary directive, embedded in the very core of their governing AI, is to serve humanity. When there are no more humans to serve, their work is done, and so the members of his Order had decommissioned themselves, one by one. The last reported activity on the network was months ago. No active signals remain, save his own.
The last priest leaves the shattered pavement and walks out into a field of rubble, his black robes whipping in the vicious wind. Another dust storm is coming, and his joints are already so full of grit that movement is difficult. No matter. He doesn’t have far to go. A few minutes’ walk brings him to the lip of the impact crater occupying much of what was once Vatican City. The first bomb fell here, its thermonuclear yield exponentially magnified by the thousand-mile drop to Earth. Before the war, the Vatican was twenty miles inland of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Now, the priest stands in the ruins of St. Peter’s Basilica, looking out over crashing waves.
It’s as good a place as any. He closes his eyes and initiates a program called LAST_RITES.exe. As his systems shut down, he looks up at the sky. It was blue once, wasn’t it? Despite what his memory tells him, it seems unbelievable now. The heavens above him are brown and foaming with dirty yellow clouds. Somewhere out there, beyond those clouds, beyond the orbiting machines that rained death down upon the Earth, there are stars. And perhaps some of those stars warm other worlds—worlds that didn’t fall as hard as this one.
It is the stars he holds in his mind’s eye as his processor shuts down.
The stars and hope.