“The problem with people who are always trying to be nice is that they create a blind spot for the potential harm they are doing to others. The perpetually congenial have a knack for reducing their metric for goodness into an absurdly narrow area of consideration. In the history of mankind there has been more harm done with smiles and good intentions than a planet full of evildoers could ever possibly aspire to.”
“Damnit, Huck, do you have to give this monologue every time we meet someone new?” Brenna groans articulately.
“I do believe living in the end times is justification enough for sharing my observations whenever I please,” Huck defends himself.
“No, it’s okay. I’m interested,” the newcomer, Azlin, chimes in. “Do go on.”
“Well, that was it, really,” says Huck, shuffling in place to work out his annoyance. “Princess Buzzkill here just kinda took the sting out of it.”
“Well what is your point? That being nice is actually bad?” Azlin asks, equally accusatory and curious.
“Not bad. But just like everything else, a good thing done compulsively becomes unproductive, and often dangerous,” Huck answers carefully, to avoid creating a confrontation. “Isn’t that exactly what happened to the world? As the environment was collapsing people were proudly recycling and tweaking their purchase habits and doing all sorts of things that were too-little-too-late. They were happy to perform symbolic gestures of environmental concern, but not face the core issue, which is that there were just too damn many of us.”
“Well at least that’s not a problem anymore,” Brenna concedes.
“Okay, but what am I supposed to do with that information?” Azlin inquires.
“You’ll see when we get you underground,” Huck answers. “It is much safer than up here, but there are dangerous people there. Ambitious people who want to take control. They are trying to create a consensus to prop up their authority. You will hear a lot of very tempting promises, but they are illusions. If you allow them to seduce you, it won’t take long before it is just as depraved down there as it is here on the surface.”
“I’m no sucker,” Azlin bristles at the insinuation.
“No, of course not,” Huck says in a conciliatory tone. “That isn’t what I meant.”
“Seriously,” Brenna confirms, “he tells this to everybody we decide to take home.”
“All I am saying is that you are going to meet people who are not as nice as us. They will appear to be kinder and more considerate, but they’re either naive or sociopathic,” Huck warns.
“Or both,” says Brenna.
The entrance to the large hadron collider facility where they have created a permanent shelter is only a few miles away, but if they are going collect more supplies and avoid the more feral elements of what remains of humanity, it will take a few hours before they are back among the discordant underground community they helped create. Once the sun sets they will be easy prey to the savage surface-dwelling humans who have rapidly evolved stealthy hunting habits that are nearly inescapable in the shadows of night.
“You wouldn’t happen to know if there is anywhere east of here where we might find medical supplies?” Huck asks their new companion. “For the most part we are well stocked, but there are a few medications we are in dire need of. Insulin and epinephrine.”
“No, like I said, I haven’t been in the area very long,” Azlin answers. “But if you’re looking for weapons I passed a sporting good store about a half hour south of here.”
“We don’t fight,” Brenna responds quickly. “Don’t you remember? That is the one rule we have all agreed upon, that it is better to be killed than to add any more fury and death to the world.”
“Oh, I thought you just meant that you don’t kill,” Azlin explains.
“The gulf between non-lethal defense and killing is far narrower than the one between pacifism and self-defense,” Huck declares. “The further you get down the slope of violence, the more slippery it gets. Can you live with that?”
“Or rather, die with that,” Brenna corrects.
“Yeah, of course,” Azlin assures, but he is not entirely convincing.
“Mercy,” says Brenna, speaking the code word for ‘we will have to ditch him on the way back.
“Acceptance,” Huck responds with their secret term for confirming that plan.
Luckily, the failed prospect does not suspect they are speaking in code, and have just decided not to take him back to the relative safety of their communal lair. He just follows them silently as they stalk their way through the maze of cannibals and other assorted hazards.
The final collapse of the Earth’s ecology had happened more rapidly than anyone had guessed it could. On a Thursday morning two years ago people were dropping their kids off at school and heading into their pointless jobs, not because they wanted to do these things, but because they were forced to by the same socioeconomic system that had been destroying the environment over the last few hundred years. Before the end of the day school bells rang, 97% of human beings were dead and gone forever. An unexpected earthquake, which had been precipitated by the greedy fracking of underground fuel sources, caused a single nuclear reactor to overload. A chain reaction of nuclear events followed, and within hours the fallout had killed almost everyone on the planet. The rest were either somehow immune, or died slowly over the following days, weeks and months.
The immunity was perplexing. Nobody could figure that one out. How could people possibly be immune to high levels of environmental radiation? It was a question that would probably never be answered. Only one thing was known, and that is that the survivors all shared a single trait, unusually long index fingers.
By the time Brenna has noticed that their traveling partner has normal sized pointers, that he is somehow not what he appears to, it is to late. The now-noticeable undersized digit is floating over the trigger of the gun he has pointed at them.
“I have no desire to hurt you. But I’m afraid you are going to have to come back with me,” Azlin aims the weapon back and forth between them.”
“What are you?” Brenna asks, realizing they are dealing with something unknown to them.
“A man from the past trying to save the world before it comes to this,” he answers. “And you’re going to help. I need to understand what makes you immune, and then I can share that secret with people in my time.”
“Why don’t you just use your time travel powers or device or whatever to stop the nuclear event?” Huck asks.
“I have tried. But no matter what I do, it still happens. Different ways and at different times, but once we let the nuclear genie out of the bottle, it appears it was always going to come to this. So if I cannot stop it, I can at least find a way that we survive it.”
“Listen to yourself,” Brenna regards him saltily. “You have discovered that it is the destiny of humanity to destroy their own planet, and you want to save THAT?”
Huck walks toward the man, whose hands are now trembling slightly under the weight of the gun, and doesn’t stop until the barrel is inches from his face.
“How nice of you,” Huck declares, then seemingly out of nowhere follows it with one word framed as a question. “Exception?”
“Exception,” Brenna answers matter-of-factly.
While the two men are locked in a staring showdown, Huck has slipped a knife from his pocket without the time traveler noticing, and after his partner confirms the action, he plunges it upward into the heart of Azlin before there is time for him to fire his gun.
As the life slowly drains out of his eyes, Brenna lays down on the ground next to him, and comforts the dying man with an embrace.
“Sorry, brother, but this is the end of the road for humanity. To live is to die, for individuals and even an entire species. We had a good run, but it’s time to let go.”
With those words, the chronologically displaced interloper takes his last breath, and the world is left to die in peace. The ultimate act of kindness.