The memorial to the fallen of the Pan-Atlantic War was a long tube of glossy, storm-gray marble. It reminded Aaron of a sewer pipe, or of the subway passages where he remembered hearing civilians had sheltered some nights when the bombers flew low overhead.
He pressed the button on the arm of his wheelchair and rolled forward another inch, scanning a new column of white names in the blue light from the fluorescent bars in the tunnel ceiling. He was looking, as he had for years, for the name of Naomi Sheldon.
That she was dead he knew; everyone was dead, they told Aaron, except himself. He only wondered if she had died during the war, or after.
Cody West… Susan Alberts… Maria Coffel…
They were listed in chronological order, from the first death (Robert Banks, April 2, 2420) to the last (Terri Kreiger, September 30, 2420). The six months in between were strewn with names, civilians and soldiers both—as casualties of the last war, each one must be remembered.
He could look in the databases, perhaps, and find out about Naomi that way, but the thought didn’t sit right. That was the point of this rock tube, that you could look at the names inside it and learn who died. And it wasn’t all that important, anyway, to the point that he had to discover the truth so quickly.
He would live a while yet, long enough to learn.
Aaron had never expected to be the last, not during the war, not even after it. There were so many others. But all of them — on both sides, every comrade in arms and every enemy he ever took a potshot at — were gone. Only he remained. If he checked them, the databases would confirm that.
He moved on to the next column.
A little girl’s footsteps echoed down the tunnel. Her parents must be the silhouettes he saw against the blinding daylight at the end of the monument — it was hard to make out faces here. Aside from himself, the family were the only ones here. People didn’t like to see this monument, to be reminded of the War that Ended Wars. He wondered what the man, the woman, and the child would think if they knew who they shared the marbled space with — the last soldier to have outlived war.
He heard the girl stammer out names — Kev-in Simm-ons, An-a-bell-ahh Coop-per… then, very faintly, so he wouldn’t have been certain he had heard it if his pulse hadn’t frozen right at that moment, Na-ee-oh-mee Shell-dun.
He looked up. The little shape in the plush pink coat ran down the tunnel, as if running from his gaze, to the two silhouettes in the daylight at the end. Aaron wheeled his chair to the spot he thought she had been standing. He quickly scanned the wall, took in the date inscribed above — August 9, 2420 — sought, found it, found her.
He had seen her for the last time on August fourth. He still felt the pressure of her last chaste kiss against his lips.
Aaron closed his eyes and felt his hands clutch the arms of his wheelchair.
It didn’t matter. He would follow her soon enough.
Very soon. The doctors said the reports from his blood scans were poor. They had advised against traveling, even the short trip to the capital, and this monument.
He hadn’t listened. Perhaps he had known he would find her this time, on the walls of the tunnel he had been searching for three years, since its rushed completion in 2426, a little after the tests came back proving the level of radiation he had experienced in battle was fatal. As it was for all of them, every soldier who fought in that war. The reason they were all gone.
The last veteran of the Pan-Atlantic War bowed his head.
He was twenty-nine years old.
Therese Arkenberg is a student at Carroll University in Wisconsin. Her fiction has been published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and the anthologies All About Eve, Things We Are Not, Warrior Wisewoman 3, and Sword and Sorceress XXIV. Her novella, Aqua Vitae, has been accepted by WolfSinger Publications for a 2011 release. Several of her short stories are also available at AnthologyBuilder.com