“Don’t pay the ferryman
Don’t even fix a price
Don’t pay the ferryman
Until he gets you to the other side”
– popular song, Second Millennium *
I was climbing the mountain to be closer to the stars. It was nearly dark when I came upon the hidden cabin and the old woman. She said nothing but knew I must be of the Chosen and what I must do. I was tired from my wanderings; even a strong, young boy of seventeen winters becomes tired walking so far, for so long.
“Your cleansing can wait for the new day,” I told her. She fed me a stew of spiced vegetables and I slept.
He slept until dawn. I was awake earlier in the pre-dawn cold. He lay on my bed, a boy only half my age. He was not tall but was broad-shouldered; his hair was razor cut in the way of his kind. His skin was dark from walking constantly in the sun. He had a mismatch of warm clothes but now wore only a sleeveless, black undershirt. He had left a crossbow leaning against the door; with his muscles, I knew he could pull it effortlessly. A quiver of small, steel bolts lay near the bed. When the art of making bullets had disappeared, his kind had resorted to arrows.
He woke and lurched outside. His shirt was wet, and beads of water glistened on his arms. I watched as he fingered my small collection of books, opened cupboards but only glanced inside them. He came and sat at my table, idly playing with his knife.
“I have no weapons.”
I was not looking for weapons. If I had cared whether she had any, I would have searched before sleeping. The woman stood before me; she was as old as my mother. Her hair was long and dark from washing. She had washed in the waterfall as I had. She kept brushing the hair away from her face. I did not ask how she came to be here but she told me anyway.
“My husband and I fled to these mountains from the College. He died just after we built the cabin. I had thought it sufficiently hidden to keep the Cleansers away. There were so few of you left then.”
“It is not proper that you have lived so long past the time of your compatriots.”
I meant proper for the Planet, not for me. I am not sure she understood. I resolved to tell her that which my father and mother had explained to me so many times, around so many campfires. I told her as she gave me a meal of hot oatmeal.
“My name is Cray. Listen and I will tell you the purpose of the Creed of the Cleansers: All humans must die so the Earth can be clean.”
“Autogenocide.” I whispered the words, then louder said, “I know your creed. The first Cleansers spouted it enough before they were punished.”
“My father said the Word was talked about by many people in the beginning. Even passing back and forth in the sky. Some of us were put to justice and executed. My mother would laugh at this, saying it was a strange iron-ey.” He smiled and for a moment looked just like a normal young boy.
“There is no one to stop you now. No one to bring you to justice.”
“Humans are the most sig-nif-ecant threat to the future of the planet.”
“Yes, you say it like you learnt it by rote.”
But it was just an idea. An idea so simple that it was difficult to refute and barbaric enough so that no civilised person could possibly accept it. Most responsible citizens and environmental groups agreed with those seeking to reduce the population, at least the richer ones did. Many thought that only a great reduction and maintenance of a much smaller population would be sufficient to reverse the damage to the ecosystem.
“Will removing the people make the world a better place?”
“It is true — just look around you. Is not the sky blue and the Earth green?”
There always have been groups who for their own reasons wish to radically alter the balance between themselves and others. The reasons vary from race, to colour and creed. The Cleansers were no different except in scope. Deaths from wars large and small and the smaller number of people killed or dying naturally had always been far outweighed by births. No natural catastrophe or deaths in early childhood could slow the rising population. Until they came.
“And so we came. Stopping babies was not enough; the parents also must be cleansed. The first Chosen used the water supplies. Many martyrs died in accidents at new-clearar power plants.”
Soon communities and whole countries began to lose their cohesion, their ability to deal with the attacks. The survivors were unable to prevent the decay, unable to cope with the scale of the deaths and injuries resulting from the aftermath of the attacks. Most times unable to prevent the killers escaping to continue their cause. I must have said ‘killers’ aloud because Cray spoke.
“Not killers, it was cleansing. You do not understand.” I told her, but she was not listening.
Soon the larger, more prosperous nations lost any thought of interfering in the desperate needs of the poorer ones. Beset with problems of their own as people continued to kill others, the survivors retreated into smaller and isolated groups.
“With so few people left you might have been stopped, the end justifying the means.”
“Our task became harder but it was still a duty.”
Even when I was young the number of people had reached that critical level where the limited number of healthy births did not make up for the continuing deaths. Deaths that not only came naturally as before, but from people who had determined that cleansing must continue until it was final. These few had passed beyond the fanatics of the recent past, beyond even the lunatic fringe of the environmental groups. They had taken the idea to its ultimate, illogical conclusion.
“Everyone has to die? I’m not a threat, just one person.”
“It is the only path.”
For the mostly young people, their sole reason for living was to eliminate humans. Divisions of ethnic origin, and differences of religion or nationality became irrelevant.
“My father said, ‘More and more are born each hour to practise the vile arts of humanity.’ And you can still bear children.”
These killers sought to be the last; rapidly eliminating those surrounding them and moving on to find others. The decline in population also had taken away most of the more technological methods of mass killings. The way of death became face-to-face, knife not gun, rocks not bombs. These last exterminators reached a point where in their quest they saw only others of their kind.
“You used to let others of your kind alone.”
“It was the way for those who felt the need to cleanse the world. We must let another pass unmolested so that the work could continue.”
“But as the number of Cleansers became fewer and fewer, you turned upon yourselves.”
“It is true that when the work was almost done, some joined the sacrifice in suicide. Some fought in final combat, stopping only when all were ready for death.“
“But you were born?”
He did not understand the heresy of his birth.
“I learned the way and joined my parents in the task as soon as I had the strength. Another of the Chosen killed my father, and then he too died. I did not need to interfere. My mother and I journeyed together until she fell from a jagged hillside. Since that day last winter I have seen and dispatched only two more of my kind. You are the first I have seen who was not a Cleanser.”
“You left your mother to die?”
“She told me to leave her. I wanted to end it for her quickly, to stop the pain. She told me it was better this way, saying she would not ask a son to dispatch his mother.”
“That’s easy to understand,” I said, even for someone like your mother, which I did not say out loud.
“You could leave me here too.”
“It is not the way.”
“What will you do when they are all gone?”
“When the Earth is at last free? I should leave too, but my father told me once about the stars in the sky. He said there were other Earths out there and maybe other people.”
“You mean to cleanse them too, the whole sky, by yourself?”
“I could teach others the way.”
“How would you reach the stars?”
“They will come and fetch me.”
“Seek you out because you are the last of your kind?”
She laughed and looked at me with wide eyes.
“Go then, seek your Charon. Will you have the coin to pay him for safe passage?”
I was still puzzled by her last words as I climbed the mountain. I left the green Earth and climbed towards a clear, blue sky. I had only gone a short distance when the stars claimed the black sky. I searched the blackness for signs. *
About the Author: Derek Smith is a long-term resident of Australia’s capital, Canberra. He began writing full time late in the last millennium. His preference in writing and reading is for “hard” science fiction. His short fiction has been published in Oz paper magazines and in both Oz and US webzines. His first book, “Rat2rap”, was published in 2001. His second, “Spire City”, was published earlier this year.
(c) 2004 Derek Smith http://www.members.optusnet.com.au/~clipstone
About the Artist: Romeo Esparrago lives by the digital pen, not the digi-sword.
(c) 2004 Romeo Esparrago http://www.romedome.com
* Lyrics for “Don’t Pay The Ferryman” copyright Chris De Burgh.