The Mightiest Man on Earth

Copyright © 1984 by Roger M. Wilcox.  All rights reserved.
(writing on this story began January 9, 1984)

The bleached flatlands stretched out beneath him. He soared five thousand meters above the Earth's surface, taking only casual note of his hypersonic velocity. The bright noontime sun gleamed off his perpetually polished metal suit, casting a blinding, colorless glare to anyone who might look at him. But if there were anyone to marvel at him, his high-powered sensing equipment had never picked that person up.

He decided to land, and sent the appropriate thought impulses to his antigrav coil and rockets. He recalled something about the deceleration needing precision timing, that if he dropped his speed too quickly, the shock of slamming from mach 5 to subsonic velocity could shatter his bones. This thought only passed lightly over the surface of his mind, though, as did all the other dreary "facts of life" he'd become bored with.

He used to be able to speak, but he'd abandoned that talent more than twenty years ago, when it no longer had any use. The things he saw still had inklings of names associated with them, such as mount and sand, but even those were fading into simple pictures and thoughts.

The terrain seemed indifferently usual; yet on the inside of his helmet, in the upper left corner of his vision, a perfectly formed numeric display read 300 Counts Per Minute. This was a far lower external radiation level than he had encountered for years; in fact, it was so low that he could afford to turn off his enviro-battle suit's radiation shield and rely on its lead lining alone for protection. Even so, he was too frightened of the outside to dare deactivate even that.

He waited the usual 2.78 seconds before a green display at his upper-right flashed, "Fully charged," then changed to, "Food full," "Water full," "Fuel full," and finally, "Air full." Not once had any of these ever dropped to "yellow" levels, if they were supposed to do that at all. He had simply had some instinct tell him to keep these levels maintained and had never questioned it. His suit had absorbed as much solar and mass energy from the outside as it could hold, and converted it into all its possible useful forms.

There was a time, he vaguely recalled, when survival and existence had still held some substance for him, when he didn't have an environment-and-battle suit to protect him and sustain his life indefinitely. He was barely an adult at the time, roaming underground networks of habitations to keep alive while the people around him were dying. At last, somehow — he couldn't remember the details that well — he'd stumbled across the polished metal suit he still wore and climbed out into the open with it. The rest of the people were dead within a year, but some died much sooner: those who had attacked him to take his environment suit had learned all too quickly of its arsenal.

There was even a time when the Earth was supposed to have been beautiful, but his memories of then were nearly as smeared as his memories of how he acquired his suit. Earth was, he supposed, the very center of all human civilization and competition. Legends abounded about how Earth was the original world that all human beings had come from, but he paid little attention to them. For some reason that he didn't think concerned him, a lot of people were emigrating just before the important things began. It was just that at one moment he was sorting out his future inside one of the Clean Cities, and the next he was scrambling underground from the wail of a nuclear attack alert. What followed was now only a large gray rent, afterwhich his past was meaningless to all but his dreams.

A whisper of dust half a kilometer away excited his sensors, jerking him out of his self-induced isolation. It was a dust devil, blown about by the irradiated wind; a phenomenon that occurred perhaps weekly, perhaps monthly. And it was only because of the brief flash of the word "Dust devil" on his sensor display that he recalled its name.

His eyes moved up from where the dust devil was to trace the horizon. Not caring why, he followed the gentle curve of the distant mount to its peak and off toward the zenith, finally having his attention grasped by the waxing gibbous moon. Something vibrated within him; the moon had taken him subjectively. Ah, the joyful sight of natural beauty that still remained from his youth!

Beneath his helmet flickered the faintest inkling of a smile. This was the first emotion he'd had for several years; but it quickly disintegrated.

He optically zoomed in on a lunar surface formation just below the Sea of Crises. There it stood: the only artificial crater on the moon, the name of which had eluded him long ago. Before the nuclear attack on Earth, it had been the only human moonbase; but it was just a white bowl when he first looked at it through his environment suit.

He could go to the moon, but the idea didn't interest him. He'd been to the moon before, and it was even more boring than Earth. What was worse was that his food, fuel, water, and air reserves couldn't charge when he was off of Earth; they'd been drained to half levels before he decided to return, and immediately began charging once he hit the atmosphere. At least, that was how he thought he remembered it.

If not the moon, then the planets . . . no, he recalled for the third time that week, they were out of the question. The closest planet, probably the red one, was too far away for his life support systems or his fuel to last. If there were people there — whether Earth emigrants or offworld citizens — he could never reach them, and they might have neither the will nor the ability to reach him.

He scanned the sky for the planets with unaided eyes, but had to switch to blue filters because of the daytime glare. Neither the red nor the yellow planet were there; both were either on the other side of the sun or had not risen yet. He looked down to the sandy floor, and casually turned on his underground infrascanner (as it was labelled) just to find something to occupy him. The image of a meter-wide boulder buried less than a foot below instantly manifested itself.

He cleared the sand away with a wave of force from the suit's hollowed fingertips. With more than half of the rock exposed, he kicked it with all the power his leg-drivers could produce. He could have just watched the rock fly, but now he preferred a chase. In a single, routine motion, he leaped into the air, switched on his antigrav coils, and backed his feet at just the right angle for his rockets to work.

The rock was far ahead of him, but at twice the speed of sound he would overtake it in seconds. He roared on until he was even with it, then matched its speed, trying to persuade it to race him for the landing. Time seemed suspended for that instant, with only himself and the rock flying in parabolic paths and the rock slowly tumbling beside him.

At that moment, he cut off his rockets so that he was coasting, not wanting to speed up or slow down. The air pushed against him far more than it did the rock, letting the ton of minerals easily overtake him. He floated leisurely through the radioactive air while he watched the boulder strike dirt two hundred meters away.

There he was, in all his glory, he thought. Though it made no difference to a man whose emotions were long gone, the world was completely at his command; he was the mightiest man on Earth.

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