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Benjamin Lightwood yawned and reached out to switch off his alarm. As he did every morning, Benjamin slurped a mouthful of water from the glass he habitually kept next to his bed and then picked up the remote control to turn on the television.
The TV hissed quietly in the corner, the screen reflecting only white flecked snow. Benjamin frowned and picked up the remote again, flicking through channels. More snow.
He pulled himself upright and turned on the bedside radio. Static. He twisted the dial. More static.
Perhaps there had been a power failure somewhere. If there was, Dynanet would know about it. He swung his skinny legs out of the bed and padded over to his computer terminal still dressed in his pajamas. He quickly requested a host session and waited to be connected to Dynanet's mainframe. Host not responding.
Now that was really strange. Dynanet never went down. Certainly not once in the nine years Benjamin had worked for the data processing company. As a remote operator, Benjamin was contracted to accept programming assignments which, once completed, he transmitted back to Dynanet. All of which he did on his own PC at home, not even needing to open his front door to go to work. A bit lonely some might say, but it paid the bills and had the added benefit of eliminating office friction and company politics.
Benjamin reached for the telephone. Maybe the network people could get his terminal up again.
No dial tone.
A hollow appeared in the pit of Benjamin's belly. This had moved beyond the realm of strange and was now firmly entrenched in the bizarre.
He would have to go Out. Benjamin did not like going Out. Out was a place filled with people, and Benjamin did not relate very well with people. Computers he could understand. He was good with computers. Brilliant even. But, unlike computers, people were unpredictable, unreliable, inefficient and more often than not, vindictive. Benjamin wanted as little to do with people as possible. He even ordered his groceries on Shopnet.com and was as abrupt with the delivery boy as he could be. No, interacting with fellow members of the human race was not on Benjamin's list of favorite pastimes.
Not that he never went Out. Even brilliant computer programmers needed fresh air occasionally. This was best done late in the evening when the streets were deserted and he could walk down the road at harmony with the night. On his own.
And he could drive.
Benjamin loved to drive. It was something else he could do without fear of human interference, safely cocooned in isolated comfort. As long as it was when the mass of humanity was at home safely in bed and the only conflict he needed fear was the occasionally inquisitive cop. Benjamin could comfortably have lived as a hermit in a forgotten mountain cottage whiling his days away in quiet solitude, but instead, he was cursed with a love for modern day technology, which resulted in his paradoxical lifestyle on the fringes of a concrete hell.
Benjamin dressed carefully in gray flannels, white shirt, conservative striped tie and dark blazer. He locked the apartment door and walked down the two flights of stairs to the garage where his five-year-old Toyota was parked. He sometimes wished he could afford something a little faster, a little more exciting, a little less mundane, but even if his modest salary could stretch to a BMW or Mercedes, the by-product of those sleek machines was the attention that was inevitably focused on the driver.
Benjamin was surprised and pleased to note the absence of traffic on the roads leading from his apartment block, but his pleasure soon turned to alarm as he approached the city. There was not another car in sight.
Not just vehicles, but the sidewalks also seemed to have been swept clean of human presence. No street vendors selling their wares, no pointsmen directing the traffic, not a pedestrian in sight.
At first he considered that it might be a public holiday he had forgotten, or perhaps he had somehow lost a day or two and it was Sunday; but even that would not account for the absolute desertion of the streets.
He pulled into a shopping mall, his mouth dry. The parking area was devoid of cars. He stopped at the main entrance and slowly climbed out of the Toyota.
The shops were open, the lights on, but there was no evidence of people anywhere. He stepped through the open door into a large department store and strode quickly through the floor looking left and right, for the first time in his life desperate for any sign of humanity.
The store was ready and open for business, but no shop assistants manned the registers or clients the aisles.
It was eerie.
Feeling as if some dark presence lurked unseen behind the racks of clothing,
Benjamin spun on his heels and ran out of the mall as if chased by the very hounds of hell themselves.
He fumbled with his keys and pulled thankfully away from the mall, tires burning two stripes into the blacktop.
What was going on? Was he the only person left in the city? On the earth?
He drove slowly into the heart of a city that looked like the final set of Neville Shute's "On the Beach." He considered various possibilities. A plague had swept through the land wiping out its entire population. But overnight? And death seldom left no signature in its wake.
Perhaps an evacuation due to some unnamed threat; nuclear fallout perhaps.
While he doubted the logistics of moving three million people overnight, even it was true, then where was the evidence? Abandoned motor vehicles; looted stores; silver suited military patrols.
No matter how quickly an evacuation team might work or how speedily a disease swept through the city, certainly some, if not most, of the people affected, would at least have had time to lock their houses or shut up their stores.
All of these theories were all very interesting but none accounted for one simple fact. Why had Benjamin Lightwood been left behind? Why was he the only soul in an empty city? Or were there other of the forgotten few roaming the streets?
If there were, Benjamin could certainly see no sign of them.
There was, of course, one advantage to being the only person left in the city.
Only an advantage if your name was Benjamin Lightwood, and you had an avid dislike for people of any shape or size.
No people equals no intimidation. No confrontation and no conflict. This added to the fact that Benjamin had an entire city at his disposal. An unpeopled city full of unlimited pleasures at no cost.
Thus began Benjamin Lightwood's day of hedonistic indulgence.
First on the list was a brand new off-the-show-room-floor Mercedes 500SL convertible, discovered in a dealership just off Main Street. Keys in the ignition ready to roll. Benjamin vaulted over the doorframe and in less than twenty seconds was cruising at plus one hundred through the deserted city, the wind of his passage ruffling his meticulously combed hair.
The machine felt like a wild beast beneath his feet, and Benjamin came alive.
He only returned to his apartment as the sun was setting, the trunk of the Mercedes loaded with electronic equipment that would convert his humble apartment into an extravaganza of hi-tech gadgetry. He was not fool enough to believe that the electrical power still lighting the city would last, so he had even raided a portable generator. He reasoned that there was enough gas left in the thousands of gas stations scattered throughout the city to keep him going for many years.
He left the car on the street as he was too exhausted to park it in the garage.
Also, there was no need. Who was there to steal it?
He nuked dinner in his newly acquired microwave and relaxed in a recliner, still filled with jubilation over the possibilities the future held for him. The world had become his, and only his. He could do whatever he wanted, and never again need be filled with fear when he went Out.
Benjamin was not stupid; he knew he was different. In the beginning he had been concerned that he might be on the brink of insanity, but he had finally come to accept that his condition was a simple phobia; just like other people were scared of spiders or heights. Even if the rest of the world thought him anti-social, he could live with himself. Not a complete existence, but an acceptable compromise.
Now all of that had changed.
He had the world to himself with all the things he loved at his personal disposal. He collapsed into bed and immediately fell asleep still dreaming of the paradise that had so irrevocably changed his world for so much the better.
Benjamin Lightwood yawned and reached out to switch off his alarm. As he did every morning, Benjamin slurped a mouthful of water from the glass he kept next to his bed and then picked up the remote control to turn on the television.
As he touched the button, he thought: how stupid, there will only be snow on the screen, but by then habit had already won and he pressed the "on" switch anyway.
The television set jumped into life, the eyes of the pretty blond girl reading the news seemingly acknowledging his sudden presence.
What? How? Benjamin fell back against the pillows, a cloud of depression instantly descending over him. Damn it to hell! It had all been a dream. He stared at the girl on TV morosely.
" ...And on a rather strange note, yesterday morning a brazen car thief walked into Exclusive Cars just off Main Street and drove out in a brand new Mercedes convertible in full view of three stunned onlookers."
Benjamin's jaw dropped open. It couldn't be...
"But it seemed as if this thief was not content with just stealing a luxury car. A man fitting the same description, only minutes later, went on an unprecedented rampage through most of the city's electronic stores stealing enough equipment to... "
Benjamin stopped listening, sprang out of bed and rushed over to the window.
"...Police sources confirm that they already have a suspect, and expect to make an arrest shortly... "
Parked directly below Benjamin's apartment was a silver-gray Mercedes 500SL with the top still down. Benjamin closed his eyes, but instead of seeing the bars of a cell close around him, he saw a suffocating legal system filled with so many people that nothing, absolutely NOTHING could ever shut them out.
In the distance a siren began to wail.
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