Tue
Jun 21 2011 9:00am

The Boy at the End of the World (Excerpt)

I’m grateful for the opportunity to present the first two chapters of my new middle grade science fiction novel, The Boy at the End of the World, which goes on sale June 21 from Bloomsbury Children’s. From the publisher’s copy:

The last boy on earth is out to save humankind!

Fisher is the last boy on earth—and things are not looking good for the human race. Only Fisher made it out alive after the carefully crafted survival bunker where Fisher and dozens of other humans had been sleeping was destroyed.

Luckily, Fisher is not totally alone. He meets a broken robot he names Click, whose programmed purpose—to help Fisher “continue existing”—makes it act an awful lot like an overprotective parent. Together, Fisher and Click uncover evidence that there may be a second survival bunker far to the west. In prose that skips from hilarious to touching and back in a heartbeat, Greg van Eekhout brings us a thrilling story of survival that becomes a journey to a new hope—if Fisher can continue existing long enough to get there.

Chapter 1

This is what he knew:
His name was Fisher.
The world was dangerous.
He was alone.
And that was all.

Fisher became born in a pod filled with bubbling gel. A plastic umbilical cord snaked from his belly. When he opened his eyes, the first thing he saw through the clear lid of the pod was destruction. Slabs of concrete and twisted steel fell to the floor amid clouds of dust. Severed wires spit sparks into the air. The world was coming apart.

Something told Fisher to get up, get out, run away while he still could.

The world instinct came to mind.

He pushed against the pod lid and it came open with a hiss. The gel stopped bubbling and drained away through holes at the bottom of the pod. Cold air struck Fisher’s wet skin when he sat up. It was the first time he’d ever been cold, and he hated it.

He’d made a mistake. He never should have opened the lid. He never should have made himself become born. Maybe if he just lay back down and closed the lid the gel would return and he could go back to sleep and he’d be warm and everything would be all right.

A huge, explosive thud hammered Fisher’s ears. The ground shook and the dim lights in the ceiling wavered and died. It was some kind of disaster. Or an attack. Fisher didn’t know anything about attacks, except they were dangerous and should be avoided.

Pipes clanged against the floor and more debris rained down. More sparks, more dust. Bitter air stung his nostrils. Fisher had never smelled this smell before. In fact, it was pretty much the first thing he’d ever smelled. He was only a few moments old, after all, and hadn’t had time to smell much. Somehow, though, he knew the smell meant things were burning around him.

There was no choice now. He had to make himself all the way born and get out of whatever this place was before everything burned and crashed around him. He swung his legs over the side of the pod and set his bare feet down on the cold floor. He took a step, and then another, and that was as far as he got. The umbilical tugged him back. It was still attached to his belly. He would have to yank it out if he was going to become all the way born. But there was just no way he could do that. He knew this wasn’t how things were supposed to be. His birth was supposed to be soft. He was supposed to be soothed and bathed in light. He wasn’t supposed to be alone.

Another shuddering whomp, and Fisher’s ears popped. It felt like something massive had struck the building. Debris clattered down. A big chunk of ceiling fell right in front of him, and Fisher discovered another thing he knew: Profanity. Profanity was a collection of words that helped express strong feelings.

Fisher uttered a word from his profanity collection now.

It was the first word he ever spoke.

If the ceiling chunk had struck his head, Fisher would have been dead. Over and done with. He couldn’t accept the idea of dying before he’d even become fully born, so he wrapped his fingers around his plastic umbilical and gave it a mighty yank. The cord came out, spraying milky fluid and a little bit of blood, and Fisher bawled because now he was completely born and he knew there’d be no going back.

But he didn’t bawl standing still.

He bawled while running and shouting profanity.

 

Fisher found more pods lining the walls of vast, caved-in rooms. The pods contained all kinds of animals.

In one room, the pods held dogs. In another, pigs. In yet another, goats.

One room was full of pods the size of his hand, thousands of them, and inside were bees and worms and butterflies.

Another room held only four pods, each many times the size of Fisher’s own. Inside were elephants, their eyes shut, their curving tusks tinted blue through the gel.

All the pods were broken. The lights were out. The gel didn’t bubble. Many were cracked, their gel oozing to the ground. And many more were completely crushed by fallen debris.

Fisher knew what death was. He had become born knowing. Death was failure. All the creatures in these pods had failed to survive.

He came to one last chamber, stretching into the smoky distance, where the pods were smashed and buried. From a mound of rubble emerged a slender brown arm. A human arm.

Fisher silently approached it. He brushed pebbles and dust from the damp fingers and touched the wrist.

Cold and still.

Another failure.

A noise drew Fisher’s attention away from the dead human. Down the corridor, through a haze of powdery light, a creature was bent over another pod. The creature was a little larger than Fisher and roughly shaped like him: two arms and two legs, a torso, an oval head. It was shaped like a human, but clearly not a human. A machine of some kind. The word robot came to Fisher’s mind.

The pod had been knocked partway off its support platform, and the dead human inside dangled out of it. The creature was doing something with the dead human’s umbilical cord.

Fisher’s breath quickened with fear. He pressed his lips together to keep from making a noise and took a slow step back, then another. His heel struck a fallen pipe, and losing his balance, he went down hard.

The human-but-not-human creature’s head snapped around, turning its human-but-not-human face to Fisher.

It moved towards him.

“Fisher,” it said. “I have found you.”

 

Fisher ran. He scrambled over shattered puzzle pieces of concrete, though lung-choking smoke, through rooms where flames licked at pods of dead fish. He found a shaft of chalky light from above and began climbing up a steep slope of debris. Loose bits of concrete slid away beneath his hands and feet, and he struggled not to go sliding with them.

Behind him, he could hear the screechy movements of the creature that knew his name, but the sounds grew fainter the higher up he climbed. He kept going until, at last, he stumbled out into moonlight.

He took a moment to understand his surroundings. Creatures could kill him, but so could his environment. He knew this in the same way he knew his name and knew profanity and knew what kinds of animals lay dead in their pods.

He was on the summit of a mountain formed from colossal slabs of granite. There were no buildings in sight. Scant patches of trees smoldered and smoked. Soil and rocks tumbled from collapsing ledges. He couldn’t tell exactly what had just happened here, but he had a strong sense that the place of his birth had just been attacked from above. How, or by what, he couldn’t say.

And, actually, he didn’t care.

Later, he might.

But now? He just wanted to get away.

He took off in a jog down the mountain, his eyes never straying for long from the star-freckled night sky. As he descended, the way grew thicker with trees and ferns. Things rustled in the dark. Tiny eyes glinted with pinprick light from the high tree boughs.

Hints of old structures in the woods revealed themselves. There were small piles of concrete bricks, and crumbling sections of walls. Anything could be hiding among them.

The word predator came to Fisher’s mind. Predators were animals that used weaker animals as food. The eyes in the dark might belong to predators. The non-human creature down in the ruined birthing structure might be a predator. To deal with predators, Fisher would have to make sure he was always the strongest animal. He needed a weapon.

Keeping watch for approaching predators, he crept up to the remains of a building. There was just a mostly-fallen wall, overgrown with ferns and vines. From a jagged concrete slab protruded a thin steel rod, sticking straight up. It flaked with rust.

Fisher planted his foot against the concrete and grasped the rod with both hands. He bent it back, and then forward, and then back again, and continued like that until the rod snapped. The end was a jagged point of sharp nastiness.

Fisher knew what a spear was. Now he had one.

How had he known what a spear was? How had he known how to fashion one? His hands appeared to know things he didn’t quite know himself. For instance, they knew how to build a fire. Fisher could almost feel his fingers clutching tinder. Dry grass made good tinder. Or bark. Or leaves. Or tree resin. If he had tinder, then he’d need a way to ignite a fire. He could use flint sparks, or sunlight focused through a lens, or wood sticks and a small bow. Once the tinder was lit, he would need kindling to keep the fire going. There were plenty of branches around to use as kindling.

Fisher wished he could build a fire now. Sticky gel and clammy sweat coated his skin. It was bad to sweat in the cold. He discovered he knew the word hypothermia. But now was not the time or place for a fire. A fire might keep predators away, but it might also signal his presence to things. Things like the non-human creature. Better to get more distance from his birthing place.

A twig snapped behind him. Fisher spun around.

“Fisher,” the non-human creature said. “I have been looking for you.”

It reached for him with a soot-stained hand.

Fisher used profanity and thrust his spear into the non-human creature’s chest.

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