Authors: Alexandra Oliva
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Literary, #United States, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Suspense, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Post-Apocalyptic, #Literary Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Psychological, #Dystopian, #TV; Movie; Video Game Adaptations
The Last One
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 by Alexandra Oliva
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
BALLANTINE and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
Hardcover ISBN 9781101965085
ebook ISBN 9781101965092
International ISBN 9780425286005
Book design by Donna Sinisgalli, adapted for ebook
Cover art and design: Carlos Béltran
The first one on the production team to die will be the editor. He doesn’t yet feel ill, and he’s no longer out in the field. He went out only once, before filming started, to see the woods and to shake the hands of the men whose footage he’d be shaping; asymptomatic transmission. He’s been back for more than a week now and is sitting alone in the editing studio, feeling perfectly well. His T-shirt reads:
COFFEE IN, GENIUS OUT
. He taps a key and images flicker across the thirty-two-inch screen dominating his cluttered workstation.
The opening credits. A flash of leaves, oak and maple, followed immediately by an image of a woman who described her complexion as “mocha” on her application, and aptly so. She has dark eyes and large breasts barely contained in an orange sport top. Her hair is a mass of tight black spirals, each placed with perfection.
Next, panoramic mountains, one of the nation’s northeastern glories, green and vibrant at the peak of summer. Then, a rabbit poised to bolt and, limping through a field, a young white man with buzzed-off hair that glints like mica in the sun. A close-up of this same man, looking stern and young with sharp blue eyes. Next, a petite woman of Korean descent wearing a blue plaid shirt and kneeling on one leg. She’s holding a knife and looking at the ground. Behind her, a tall bald man with panther-dark skin and a week’s worth of stubble. The camera zooms in. The woman is skinning a rabbit. This is followed by another still, the man with the dark skin, but this time without the stubble. His brown-black eyes meet the camera calmly and with confidence, a look that says
I mean to win.
A river. A gray cliff face dotted with lichen—and another white man, this one with wild red hair. He clings to the cliff, the focus of the shot manipulated so that the rope holding him fades into the rock, like a salmon-colored slick.
The next still is of a light-skinned, light-haired woman, her green eyes shining through brown-rimmed square glasses. The editor pauses on this image. There’s something about this woman’s smile and the way she’s looking off to the side of the camera that he likes. She seems more genuine than the others. Maybe she’s just better at pretending, but still, he likes it, he likes her, because he can pretend too. The production team is ten days into filming, and this woman is the one he’s pegged as Fan Favorite. The animal-loving blonde, the eager student. The quick study with the easy laugh. So many angles from which to choose—if only it were his choice alone.
The studio door opens and a tall white man strides in. The editor stiffens in his chair as the off-site producer comes to lean over his shoulder.
“Where do you have Zoo now?” asks the producer.
“After Tracker,” says the editor. “Before Rancher.”
The producer nods thoughtfully and takes a step away. He’s wearing a crisp blue shirt, a dotted yellow tie, and jeans. The editor is as light-skinned as the producer but would darken in the sun. His ancestry is complicated. Growing up, he never knew which ethnicity box to check; in the last census he selected white.
“What about Air Force? Did you add the flag?” asks the producer.
The editor swivels in his chair. Backlit by the computer monitor, his dark hair shimmers like a jagged halo. “You were serious about that?” he asks.
“Absolutely,” says the producer. “And who do you have last?”
“Still Carpenter Chick, but—”
“You can’t end with her now.”
But that’s what I’m working on
is what the editor had been about to say. He’s been putting off rearranging the opening credits since yesterday, and he still has to finish the week’s finale. He has a long day ahead. A long night too. Annoyed, he turns back to his screen. “I was thinking either Banker or Black Doctor,” he says.
“Banker,” says the producer. “Trust me.” He pauses, then asks, “Have you seen yesterday’s clips?”
Three episodes a week, no lead time to speak of. They might as well be broadcasting live. It’s unsustainable, thinks the editor. “Just the first half hour.”
The producer laughs. In the glow of the monitor his straight teeth reflect yellow. “We struck gold,” he says. “Waitress, Zoo, and, uh…” He snaps his fingers, trying to remember. “Rancher. They don’t finish in time and Waitress flips her shit when they see the”—air quotes—“ ‘body.’ She’s crying and hyperventilating—and Zoo snaps.”
The editor shifts nervously in his seat. “Did she quit?” he asks. Disappointment warms his face. He was looking forward to editing her victory, or, more likely, her graceful defeat in the endgame. Because he doesn’t know how she could possibly overcome Tracker; Air Force has his tweaked ankle working against him, but Tracker is so steady, so knowledgeable, so strong, that he seems destined to win. It is the editor’s job to make Tracker’s victory seem a little less inevitable, and he was planning to use Zoo as his primary tool in this. He enjoys editing the two of them together, creating art from contrast.
“No, she didn’t quit,” says the producer. He claps the shoulder of the editor. “But she was
The editor looks at Zoo’s soft image, the kindness in those green eyes. He doesn’t like this turn of events. This doesn’t fit at all.
“She yells at Waitress,” the producer continues, “tells her she’s the reason they lost. All this shit. It’s fantastic. I mean, she apologizes like a minute later, but whatever. You’ll see.”
Even the best among us can break, thinks the editor. That’s the whole idea behind the show, after all—to break the contestants. Though the twelve who entered the ring were told that it’s about survival. That it’s a race. All true, but. Even the title they were told was a deception. Subject to change, as the fine print read. The title in its textbox does not read
In the Dark.
“Anyway, we need the updated credits by noon,” says the producer.
“I know,” says the editor.
“Cool. Just making sure.” The producer purses his fingers into a pistol and pops a shot at the editor, then turns to leave. He pauses, nodding toward the monitor. The screen has dimmed into energy-saving mode, but Zoo’s face is still visible, though faint. “Look at her, smiling,” he says. “Poor thing had no idea what she was in for.” He laughs, the soft sound somewhere between pity and glee, then exits to the hall.
The editor turns to his computer. He shakes his mouse, brightening Zoo’s smiling face, then gets back to work. By the time he finishes the opening credits, lethargy will be settling into his bones. The first cough will come as he completes the week’s finale early tomorrow morning. By the following evening he will become an early data point, a standout before the explosion. Specialists will strive to understand, but they won’t have time. Whatever this is, it lingers before it strikes. Just along for the ride, then suddenly behind the wheel and gunning for a cliff. Many of the specialists are already infected.
The producer too will die, five days from today. He will be alone in his 4,100-square-foot home, weak and abandoned, when it happens. In his final moments of life he will unconsciously lap at the blood leaking from his nose, because his tongue will be just that dry. By then, all three episodes of the premiere week will have aired, the last a delightfully mindless break from breaking news. But they’re still filming, mired in the region hit first and hardest. The production team tries to get everyone out, but they’re on Solo Challenges and widespread. There were contingency plans in place, but not for this. It’s a spiral like that child’s toy: a pen on paper, guided by plastic. A pattern, then something slips and—madness. Incompetency and panic collide. Good intentions give way to self-preservation. No one knows for sure what happened, small scale or large. No one knows precisely what went wrong. But before he dies, the producer will know this much:
Something went wrong.
The door of the small market hangs cracked and crooked in the frame. I step through warily, knowing I’m not the first to seek sustenance here. Just inside the entrance, a carton of eggs is overturned. The sulfurous innards of a dozen Humpty Dumptys cake the floor, long since past possible reassembly. The rest of the shop has not fared much better than the eggs. The shelves are mostly empty and several displays have been toppled. I note the camera mounted in the corner of the ceiling without making eye contact with the lens, and when I step forward a ghastly stench rushes me. I smell the rotten produce, the spoiled dairy in the open, unpowered coolers. I notice another smell too, one I do my best to ignore as I begin my search.
Between two aisles, a bag of corn chips has spilled onto the floor. A footprint has reduced much of the pile to crumbs. A large footprint with a pronounced heel. A work boot, I think. It belongs to one of the men—not Cooper, who claims not to have worn boots in years. Julio, perhaps. I crouch and pick up one of the corn chips. If it’s fresh, I’ll know he was here recently. I crush the chip between my fingers. It’s stale. It tells me nothing.
I consider eating the chip. I haven’t eaten since the cabin, since before I was sick, and that was days ago, maybe a week, I don’t know. I’m so hungry I can’t feel it anymore. I’m so hungry I can’t fully control my legs. I keep surprising myself by tripping over rocks and roots. I
them and I try to step over them, I think I am stepping over them, but then my toe catches and I stumble.
I think of the camera, of my husband watching me scavenge corn chips off a country market floor. It’s not worth it. They must have left me something else. I drop the chip and heave myself upright. The motion makes my head swim. I pause, regaining equilibrium, then walk by the produce stand. Dozens of rotted bananas and deflated brown orbs—apples?—watch me pass. I know hunger now, and it angers me that they’ve allowed so much to go to waste for the sake of atmosphere.