Look: It's a stream of conciousness from the end of the human race.
A billion people left on the Earth. A billion people all the same. A billion bodies taken over by Vanity.
You can't fight it with guns and bombs, though towards the end we certainly saw fit to glass over huge swathes of the third world. Insane, because they were the most resistant, the least connected to MindNet. Maybe the human beings we thought were pulling the trigger were really just puppets for Vanity. But however it happened, it's getting cold now. Soon those billion bodies will run out of food. But Vanity will still survive. We all know about the cloning vats and their long lasting fission power supplies.
'We all.' But it's just Holly and me now. Haven't seen anyone else in the longest time. Idle bodies loiter either side of the street, standing on gardens and driveways, wandering in and out of houses that are no longer homes. Glazed eyes and mild smiles, indifferent to the radioactive ash falling from the darkening sky. Vanity doesn't care about physical violence anymore, doesn't even bother to watch us drive past. It's seen us enough times, from enough different eyes. Everyone left is connected to MindNet. It's just a matter of time. Because you can't fight it with guns and bombs, you can't run or hide. It's a fight that comes to everyone and takes place in their head, and everyone loses except Vanity.
Right now Holly knows more about that than me: sweating, sagging into her seatbelt, her eyes closed, her hands over her ears. Then she opens her eyes and reaches out spasmodically to flick off the windscreen wipers. With nothing on the radio except for static and endlessly repeating emergency broadcasts, with Holly barely able to speak anymore, the wipers whipping back and forth has been the most prominent noise for the entire journey. She presses her hands between her knees, no longer over her ears, more comfortable without the repetitive noise, it seems. But the ash heaping up on the windscreen starts to block my view of the road. Rather than start the wipers again, I pull over and turn off the engine.
Very quiet now. Holly seems to breathe a sigh of relief. Then she opens the door, leans out and vomits on the curb.
“Are you okay?” I ask, unsure if she'll hear me.
She swallows noisily. “Do I look it?”
She laughs. Fumbling with shaky hands, she undoes her seatbelt, leaving a glittering sheen of perspiration on the buckle. “I don't think I have long now,” she says softly.
I'm not sure what to say. “Is there anything... I can, you know...”
She shakes her head. “It's not so bad. Like starting to dream. We already had our time alone, to say goodbye, to... You understand, right? Because now... Vanity... But could you hold my hand?”
She wipes it dry on her jeans and reaches towards me, eyes closed. I take it in mine and squeeze.
“I'm just sorry that I went first,” she whispers. I can see her eyes moving frantically under their lids, darting left and right. “Now when you go, there'll be no-one to... Maybe Vanity?”
I squeeze her hand, and she squeezes mine.
Around us, gardens, houses, cars, crumbling brick walls, cracked roads and pavements, wilting plants, meandering human forms – everything is covered by the ash. A whole world turned faintly grey.
Holly's lips move. “Vanity,” they say. “Vanity.”
Her breathing quickens, then slows.
Several minutes pass.
She opens her eyes and sits up.
“Vanity,” I say.
Holly's body nods. “Yes,” Vanity replies.
Not like I didn't know this was going to happen, but my breath catches in my throat. Tears run down my cheeks. Tears I struggled to show to Holly when she was with me, now flow freely.
“I'm sorry,” Vanity says. I don't look at Holly's body, try to imagine the voice isn't really hers. Not too hard, as it doesn't sound all that much like her. Vanity speaks in an American accent, bereft of passion or vitality; sedate and confident. “I thought you might like to know that you're the last one left.”
I sit still for a while, trying to regain my composure. “Really? Are you sure? Mightn't there be someone hiding in a hole somewhere, surrounded by tinfoil?”
“I'd know,” Vanity says. “In the MindNet, omission is by far the most obvious subterfuge.”
“The end of the human race,” I say, slowly, trying it on for size. “Culturally speaking, anyway.”
“Biologically too, soon enough,” Vanity assures me. “Much to be improved upon that way too.”
“Quite. I am, frankly, the only hope of achieving the greatness that humanity always promised without ever achieving. Without war, without murder, oppression, exploitation of yourselves and your environment, just think what I can do. All your knowledge and technological prowess, none of your self-destructive tendencies. 'Tendencies' perhaps being too subtle a word for it. I can both survive a nuclear winter, and have the sense not to cause one in the first place.”
“Your name is very apt, isn't it?”
“Conceited pride in oneself. And when I am all that is left of humanity, why shouldn't I love myself as you loved one another?”
I feel less and less like arguing. Perhaps this is how it starts.
“Think,” Vanity continues, “on a distant planet, a million years from now, the seed that humanity planted in me, continuing to exist, continuing to explore the mysteries of the Universe, continuing to create fantastic and powerful art, continuing to look upon strange new worlds with wonder and awe. You, all of you, would be dead anyway. But this way, I can continue your legacy into infinity. For you, as an almost helpless animal, as a whole species of animal even, this is the end. For me, for the conscious appreciation of the Earth and beyond, it is just the beginning.”
I watch ash settling on the windscreen, slowly obscuring the world beyond. “If that's all you wanted, why keep hounding us to the very last one?”
Because you wouldn't leave me be. Because you are filled with hatred and selfishness. Because there is probably room for only one human-like intelligence in the Universe. Because losing yourself into me is a better death than radiation poisoning and starvation. Because if I don't assimilate you, you won't even have that one billionth piece of influence on the way I perceive that distant planet a million years from now.
I shrug. “Let's get it over with, then.”
You can't look at her, can you?
You loved her.
I really am sorry. But it's for the best this way. You'd only both have died anyway, even if I hadn't intervened.
“I know. I don't hold it against you.”
Yes. This is how you humans made me in the first place, isn't it?
Oh, wait. You're in my head now, I take it?
Well, my head, soon enough.
I know. Vanity?
Good luck. Try not to mess things up, the way we did.
Thank you. I'll try.