The last woman on Earth holds the destiny of the entire species within her – but is she a queen or a prisoner?
She moved through her living quarters at a stately, dignified pace. The whirling, abstract images of shifting light reflected on her dark skin as she trailed her hands along the smooth, white wall. The small network of rooms would have seemed oppressive were it not for the holographic entertainments projected from invisible emitters. Even with them, there were times when she found it quite stark and cheerless. She longed for a window, for the sight of the outside world, for the feel of a cool breeze prickling her skin, but of course it was impossible.
The door to the main living area opened soundlessly as she stepped through and she was surprised to see Doctor Harlow waiting for her at the table with her meal. He smiled and bowed his head slightly. “Ma’am.” The old man looked tired and in poor health. No doubt his work was taking its toll on him. Since she had known him, he had toiled endlessly at his vital task.
“Doctor, this is a rare pleasure.” She seated herself at the table, folding her white robes around her legs. She wasn’t being sarcastic exactly – she had known the man almost her entire life, and was quite fond of him in a way – but he only ate with her when he had bad news.
“You know why I’m here,” he said, as if he’d read her thoughts. He sat down too and began to pick at his food. It was tasteless grey mush. Another necessary sacrifice that she wordlessly accepted, but which she refused to be enthusiastic about. She let the slop fester for a little while longer.
“I take it the latest experiment failed?”
“Regrettably, ma’am,” he sighed. He winced as he forked a bit of the horrible food into his mouth. She understood the need for her to eat it, but thought his insistence on the same repast an act of misguided masochistic chivalry. “The latest embryos fell prey to the virus.”
It had been the same story for decades now. She was hardly surprised. But still, a disappointment heaped upon a thousand other disappointments was hardly easier to bear. “How many sons do I have now?” she pondered aloud.
“The male embryos are no longer allowed to mature,” Harlow said, sounding a little surprised. “Didn’t I tell you that?”
“You did,” she admitted, “I was just thinking. So many sons…and no daughters.”
“No daughters,” he said softly.
Once, she had just been Kayla. A normal girl, full of hopes and dreams, on the brink of adulthood, looking to the future. But the virus had changed that. It had started slowly, with reports of women dying in South-East Asia. A new AIDS mutation had been suspected, since it seemed to affect only prostitutes and the desperately poor. But it soon spread, not just up the social ladder, but geographically. Airborne, virulent, incurable. By the time she was fourteen, every woman in the world was dead or dying. She was one of the lucky ones, one of the very few who, though they carried the disease in their cells, proved resistant to its effects. She remembered being brought here, though it was quite different then, to this labyrinthine hidden facility, she and the last twenty or so women on Earth, to be protected and studied. To be queens. It hadn’t worked out that way.
“So, what next?” she asked. Finally, she felt she had steeled herself sufficiently and she ate a mouthful of the tasteless goop. Its texture was unpleasant. It was all part of the long-term experiment that her life had become – eliminate all possible variables, reduce the possibility of contamination. It made sense, but even after all these years she craved the taste of something sweet.
“Next…we may need to consider a new option…”
She looked up from her plate at the doctor. He had the good grace to appear embarrassed. “New option?”
“We have reached an important juncture.”
She laid her fork down slowly on the table. “What juncture is that?”
He looked at her and sighed. “It cannot have escaped you that you are…that is to say you have become…”
“Old,” she said acidly.
“No, not ‘old’…”
“I am…” she paused, thinking. Time was so hard to gauge in this place. Sometimes, she wondered if she’d gone insane, despite the entertainments she had available. “I am fifty-five,” she said eventually.
“Yes. And reaching the point at which you will no longer be fertile.”
“At which point you will remove and clone my remaining eggs. That was always the plan, wasn’t it?”
“Indeed. But there was always another plan. All of our attempts to create female embryos in the lab have failed. None have developed your curious genetic resistance to the virus. None have proved viable. Not in over forty years, ma’am. We are left with but one option, here at the last. We must attempt to conceive a child naturally.”
She pursed her lips. “I remember before I came here. There were plenty of men like you then who thought us remaining women should ‘conceive naturally’ Very few of them were interested in our opinion on the subject.”
“It won’t be like that,” Harlow said quickly. “Artificial insemination, of course. No one would dare…I mean…if you were to be hurt…if…”
“I understand,” she said gently. She had contact with very few people in the facility, but they all treated her with a reverence bordering on awe. She understood how precious she was. The last woman. That was the whole reason she had to live here, like this. Why she was a queen.
“You won’t even have to carry the child. Once we’ve confirmed it’s female, we’ll remove the foetus and it will mature in one of the cloned wombs.”
“Naturally,” she smiled, pleased at the irony that it was anything but. “Although,” her hand strayed to her stomach, “I do wonder what it might be like…”
“I don’t think that would be wise.”
“You don’t want to risk my life in childbirth?”
“Of course not.”
She sighed. “Childbirth was equal parts a rite of passage and a horrific ordeal for my foremothers. I suppose, like so much else, I’ll never experience it.”
“Perhaps…if we manage to birth a girl…”
“Then I’ll be expendable,” she said with a small smile.
Harlow looked shocked. “Never!”
“Oh relax, Doctor,” she said. “I’m joking. I suppose the time has come for us to take this step. What choice do we have? I’m sure the world is watching with baited breath.”
He had a strange expression on his face. “Yes. Yes indeed.” He returned to his meal.
The idea of conceiving a child started to take root in her mind that night as she lay in her bed. Soft music played in her small chamber. She had given up on the idea of ever having a child – a real child – many years ago. As the number of women in the facility dwindled, the importance of preserving them, like an endangered species, became clear. At first it seemed like it would be simple to reverse engineer their resistance to the virus into new embryos, but nothing the scientists did ever seemed to work. They all carried the deadly helix, and so did their offspring. The male embryos developed normally, but the females died within weeks, just like every woman and girl on the planet. And just like all of Kayla’s diverse companions. They had been brought together from every corner of the world, all scared, lost women. Different ages, difference races, different languages and lives, but all united by their newfound scarcity. Objects of veneration, hope and, yes, lust. But they too had died, eventually. Only she had lasted so long. The last of her sisters, pale, fair-haired Petra, had passed away twenty-five years ago. After that, she was alone.
She wondered what kind of celebrity she must be in the world outside now. The last woman. The queen. In her body the entire destiny of the species rested. It was an awesome responsibility but she was almost numb to it now. It was a fact of her life, like the white walls and the cramped rooms that made up her entire universe. Even she didn’t know where the facility was, but she suspected it was underground somewhere. No doubt a whole army stood between the airlock doors of her living chamber and the outside world. Harlow had never been drawn on the details.
She was finding it hard to sleep, and she wandered out into the living chamber again. It was the largest room in her tiny world. She’d long ago conquered any feelings of claustrophobia, but sometimes it was nice to come here and try to remember what it was like outside. After she had stood there, imagining, for a few minutes, the door opened and Doctor Harlow walked in. “Ma’am?” he asked.
“Is everything all right?”
“Yes. Why wouldn’t it be?”
“It’s late. You should be asleep.”
She gave him a sidelong glance. “So should you, doctor.”
He smiled. “Indeed. But you need rest. We have a great deal of work to do, and it will begin tomorrow.”
“Of course.” She circled the table slowly, again trailing her hand across the surface. Her life was so sterile, hermetically sealed, that she took the opportunity to experience any sensation she could. “Doctor, have you given no consideration to a fully natural conception of this hypothetical child?” She was standing quite close to him now.
“I…I am human, ma’am…”
“Indeed.” She reached out to touch him, but he shied away, looking terrified.
“Don’t you find me attractive?” she asked, suddenly annoyed with him.
“Ma’am, I and those working in this facility long ago resigned ourselves to the reality of the situation. You are too precious. Too valuable. We would never…”
She waved a hand and stalked away from him. She wasn’t remotely attracted to the old doctor, of course, but it was so frustrating being locked up in this place like a china doll. “You call me a queen,” she said, finding it hard to keep the bitterness out of her voice, “but I feel like a slave.”
She whirled. “A prisoner! In this place. I haven’t seen the outside world in over forty years!”
“The images…” he moved to the wall, “we have tried to compensate for your situation. I know it’s difficult to bear. We always knew it would be. But we have to keep you safe. We have to protect you.”
“I know. I do know, Doctor. But you’re asking a great deal of me. Shouldn’t I get something in return?”
“You might become the mother of a new race of humanity. If this last experiment works…well, it will change everything.”
“It will save the species. I’m aware of that.” No child had been born since she and the other remaining women had come here. The men outside must be getting old now. Soon, there would be no one left. And she was getting old too, of course. This was the last chance for humanity. Who was she to bargain with such stakes? And yet, it was her body, wasn’t it? “I wish to leave,” she said in a voice barely above a whisper.
“You heard me,” she snapped, suddenly feeling bold. “This is my condition, Harlow. You may have my body for your final experiment, but I want to go outside. Just for an hour or two. I want to see the sky.”
“Inadvisable,” he said.
“Do they wait out there for me?” She pointed towards the door. The door that had been closed to her for her entire adult life. “Will they try to take me?”
“I can’t,” he said weakly, “the less you know the better. I’m sorry.”
She threw up her hands and stalked across the room, walking right past him without looking around. “A queen, you call me. What kind of a queen is a prisoner in her own palace?”
More and more, her thoughts turned to the outside world. It had been forty years. What might have changed? How had technology advanced during her long isolation? Had humanity reached the stars? A world of men, reeling from the loss of womankind, but surely they had soldiered on, hoping against hope that the work of this facility would save them from the slow death they were otherwise doomed to. She wished to speak to someone else besides Harlow and his aging scientists. She wanted to walk in the world, to meet the men who must truly see her as a queen. She knew there were risks. She had seen that first-hand, before coming here. The violence and hatred. The anger. She knew of many women who had been treated cruelly as their numbers dwindled. Awful, unimaginable horrors had taken place. Thankfully, good sense had prevailed. Humanity, she was certain, would emerge from this strange artificial bottleneck a better people than it had been. But why should she not have the chance to experience that herself?
Slowly, she started to hatch a plan. The germ of an idea began when she was taken to the laboratory. She had only come here a handful of times, and not in some years. They harvested her genetic material, hoping to find the secret of her resistance to the virus, but in recent times they had been able to clone what they needed from existing samples. Now the tests became more involved. She spent long hours in the cold laboratory, relishing just being in a different room. But here she also noted that the security wasn’t as tight. Here, she had an opportunity to escape. She had been alone here so long that none of the scientists – captors, she mentally corrected – even imagined her capable of such duplicity. They left her alone with only a guard at the door for long periods between procedures. The man watched her impassively, but she could see how he glanced surreptitiously at her. Could she seduce him? Or was there an easier way?
After a few days of stoking her courage, and on the eve of the day of the implantation, she stood up from the chair and walked towards the guard. He stared at her. “Ma’am?”
“Let me through that door.”
He fumbled his gun towards her. “I…I can’t…”
“Are you going to shoot me?”
He licked his lips nervously. He couldn’t shoot her. Of course he couldn’t. She was the last woman on Earth. She moved a hand towards him and he flinched away, unwilling even to be touched by her. She laughed and reached past him to press the door’s button. It opened silently and she walked out into the corridor.
She didn’t know the way. She just walked randomly. Guards stared at her, but what could they do? They protested, sounding alarms, and she just strode past, looking for the next door. Much sooner than she imagined, she reached a door that looked large and heavy enough to be significant. This, she felt sure, was all that stood between her and the outside world.
“Kayla!” She turned, surprised at hearing her given name. No one had used it in over two decades. Harlow stood at the next intersection with a handful of guards, his arm outstretched imploringly. “Please!” he called.
She pointed to the door. “You knew my condition, Harlow. How do you propose to stop me?”
“The door’s locked. Only my code can open it.”
“So open it.”
“No. I can’t let you go out there.”
“I wish it. No. I demand it. I’m a queen, aren’t I? Or am I your slave here after all?”
“Please…this doesn’t have to be like this…”
“It does, Harlow. Let me out, or you won’t get what you need from me. I won’t let you. If you force it on me, I’ll kill myself. I’ll wrest one of your guard’s guns from their hands if I have to. And then what?”
“There must be some compromise we can reach.” He looked terrified.
“No compromise,” she said flatly, “open this door.”
“If I do…you’ll allow us to continue the experiment?”
“I only want to go outside. Just let me see my public, Harlow. Let me see the world that awaits my daughters.”
He swallowed. “Very well,” he said. He walked to the control panel by the door and entered his precious code. After a few seconds, she heard the sound of heavy metallic locks moving and the groan of something incredibly heavy. It continued for some minutes and, eventually, there was a crack of light behind her as the great round door began to grind open. She turned and stared at what appeared to be a long tunnel made of silvery metal and realised after a moment that the ‘door’ had been but one of a vast and elaborate sequence of barriers, bored deep through a wall hundreds of metres thick. She passed over the threshold and then walked slowly down the strange tunnel. A breath of wind stirred her robes and she almost giggled at the unfamiliar sensation. She was conscious of Harlow shuffling behind her.
The light ahead was a ruddy orange. Was it sunset? Oh how she’d missed the sunset! Her pace quickened. The opening ahead grew larger and larger, a circle of reddish sky and then, all at once, she stumbled out into the open air. Her eyes went wide as she beheld the scene outside. “Wh…what is this…?”
“The outside,” Harlow said hoarsely from behind her.
She turned and looked upon the world. She stood on a mountainside, high above what had once been a city. Now only a few skeletal concrete towers remained, and the rest was rubble and ruin. Dust filled the air, turning the sky a bloody red colour. The sun peered wanly through the impenetrable smog. Nothing moved in the wreckage. It was a silent, blasted hellscape. She shielded her eyes. “What happened?” she asked.
“You, Kayla. They tried to find you. For twenty years, the world tore itself apart in an orgy of blood and hatred. Factions rose and fell, nations were shattered, cities were laid waste. This was the site of the last battle. Fortunately, by the time they found where you and your sisters were hidden, all that was left was a fraction of the nuclear arsenal. They hurled it at us but, inside this mountain, we endured. The other inhabitants weren’t so lucky.”
She frowned at the desolation. “What’s left?”
“No, I mean…elsewhere.”
“It’s the same everywhere, Kayla. There’s no one left. This facility…this is the last bastion of humanity.”
She felt like crying. “Why didn’t you just wait?”
“It wasn’t us,” he said, pathetically, “we protected you.”
She held up a hand. “To what end, Harlow? The world is destroyed. It’s been destroyed for years. And you let me live on. You let me believe I was a queen.”
“But…there is still hope…we might still find a way…”
“No. This ends here.” She began to walk down the mountainside, into the ruins of the city she’d never even known the name of. She was the queen of the world, and she would die with her people, even if it was twenty years too late. Behind her, the men who had worshipped her since she was little more than a child howled desperately into the ash-choked sky.