He was drunk. He took care to be always drunk. More than half the contents of his pack was gin. There was no shortage of it. Every bottle of gin distilled in the world was his for the asking. Whisky, vodka, schnapps – he ran the names through his head, faster and faster. To make it a little more difficult he tried to compose or remember rhymes, bawling them out to keep the gathering storm of despair at bay a little longer. His voice echoed in the otherwise silent streets.
“Liberty unlimited for the Lonely Man.
But be nice to see the Mars ships land …”
There are no Mars ships, his inner voice told him. We had southern hemisphere, they had northern hemisphere. They will have wiped each other out … hemi, semi, demisphere … He flung himself on the ground, wailing and kicking his legs, cherishing the echoes of his own voice in the silence. Wiped each other out, just like we did.
Night was coming on. A black, lightless night. There was a van stopped not far off the road. He went to it, flung out the carrion that had been the driver, cursing it feebly, and made himself a nest of sorts on the stinking front seat. Then he set about drinking himself into sobbing oblivion once again.
“We shall conquer, we shall win,
Back our boys with Corney’s gin …”
“Oh, but you should have tried being Lonely Man when the drones were still coming over,” he cried into the lightless falling night, “And the lonely man couldn’t die although he tried. Semi, hemi, demisphere …” He drank more gin, and screwed his eyes tight against the universal darkness.
Next day began like countless days before it. He walked the empty streets, singing and then raving. He screamed at a dark cloud.
He didn’t need to enter the houses for tinned food or drink yet; the houses with their families sitting at dinner or in front of a long-blank television screen, bare-boned, eyeless, stinking heaps of corruption, the sutures of their skulls shattered by a blast of ultrasonics from the bull-horn of a low-skimming drone. There were no drones flying now. They had run out of fuel and crashed long ago, after so cruelly, by a billions-to-one chance, sparing his life. The Lonely Man.
Once he had tried every radio-wave band in the world. There were not even carrier waves. Television and the internet were all dead. He had managed to rig up a video player once, and that had been the worst of all.
No. The worst had been when he entered a house to find a cocktail party in progress which had been going on for years. He had never dared enter a school …
Often, so often, he had thought of suicide, but drew back, thinking it would be too undignified and cowardly an ending for the human race. And there was always the pale, phantom hope, paler every day, of the Mars ships. The ideas had no more consolation now than the first words of his song, “Liberty unlimited for The Lonely Man …” He sobbed out prayers in an empty church, lay for a while on a pew, drinking, then staggered out into the street again. The black cloud was nearer.
The storm he had tried to hold at bay was upon him again. He flung himself down on the tarmac, fists and face beating on the road, weeping and screaming.
A sound louder than wind and rain filled the air. He rolled over to see what it was.
The Mars ship extended its landing legs, a ramp thudded onto the roadway, and a party of men and women, cautious in their pressure suits, descended. The Lonely Man rushed to them, screaming and sobbing. He went down on his knees and clutched the leader’s legs, making incoherent sounds.
* * *
They bathed him and shaved him, dressed his cuts and bruises, and tucked him into a bed with clean sheets. For several days he did little but sleep and eat. At night, someone sat up with him till he fell asleep. He drank pure distilled water from the ship’s plant.
The Mars ship’s nuclear motor was hooked up to the power grid. For the first time in years, there were lights in streets and buildings outside. He gazed out at the scene, trying to blink away tears.
One day the personnel officer came to interview him.
“Your survival is a fantastic miracle. I have no words for it.”
“It seems so now. Before, it seemed like Hell. I wondered what I had done to be so punished. How did you find me?”
“We have good sensors. You were the object of a major search, once we picked up a trace of you. Any human life is too precious to lose now.”
“How many … people … are there now.”
“We from Mars, number about two thousand. There are two other ships you wouldn’t have seen. Of course, most people preferred to remain on Mars. It’s our home now, even if it means living under bubble-domes. But we’re terraforming it. Say twelve thousand.”
“But the war?”
“We watched the war. We have good instruments. We saw how life on Earth was being destroyed, and we gathered all our drones and ultrasonic weapons together and fired them into the sun. We learnt sanity from Earth’s example … What did you do … before?”
“I was a physicist.”
“Oh, very good. We’ll assign you a job. You may find your knowledge a bit out of date, but we’ll soon bring you up to the mark.”
“I don’t think I want to be a physicist any more, not when I see what physics have done.”
“Oh, the assignment of jobs will be mandatory, at least for the first few years, and until our numbers build up. Has to be that way. We haven’t enough people for them to be free to pick and choose what they would like to do at present.”
* * *
Dawn found him marching along an empty road, a –full pack on his back, shouting and singing:
“Liberty unlimited for the Lonely Man …”
It was a shout of exultation.
* * *
Sally, aged six, one of the first-born on the New Earth, stood, pyjama-clad, gazing out her bedroom window. Nearby, there were strings of lights in the streets and houses. As the sun sank, a voice came to her, thin and distant, on the evening breeze:
“Liberty unlimited for the Lonely Man,
But t’was nice to see the Mars ship land …”
What is it, Sally?” asked her mother, entering to turn out the light. “Why aren’t you in bed?”
“The Lonely Man was singing, Mummy.”
“Ah, yes. He does that sometimes.”
“Poor Lonely Man! Shouldn’t we ask him in? Then he wouldn’t be the Lonely Man any more.”
“That’s just it, Sally,” her mother said, leading her to her bed. “He wouldn’t be the Lonely Man any more.”