Tuesday, June 05, 2012

36. A Plausible Scenario

The last of the humans

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Small piles of waste, clearly man-made objects, covered the beach, leaving only small patches of sand still visible. Among the remains of former wonders of technology, one could see at times biological remains of sea life, of former wonders of nature. The surf rhythmically stirred more remains, in a muffled thundering, washing them onto the beach. Grey snake-like clouds over the slow agony of the dying sun closed the backdrop of a scene bereft of any signs of life.

Near a group of dried-out, blackened palm trees, against the setting sun, one could make out a remotely human-like silhouette. Sitting on the edge of a rocky cliff the waves butted against before exploding, it was staring at the horizon. It had been perfectly still for a long time. But for a slight oscillation when breathing, it might have been a statue. Totally isolated in a thick greyish overall, similar to armour, his face hidden behind a mask with two small blackened pieces of glass through which one could just make out his features, the figure seemed in slumber.
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Suddenly, among the piles of waste surrounding him, there was movement. A metal plate fell, with a short screeching sound. From behind it, a rodent's nose appeared, sniffing the air. Slightly hurriedly and very excitedly, the rat made for a different pile, from which the empty eyes of a big fish stood out. This seemed to bring life back into the figure who, like a grotesque clown, turned his head to see the devouring scavenger.

The rats. The damned rats. Blessed were the rats, for they would inherit the Earth. Damned, damned rats. He almost lacked the energy to throw a stone at it and scare it off. In these days, non-synthetic food could only come from rats, and even their meat was foul, contaminated with germs and radiation. Alone again, Tristan – what a surprise to remember his own name, not having heard it in such a long time – looked out at the ocean.

The ocean. The dark, dirty and – for what he could remember – foul-smelling ocean. Still, the view was rewarding. Sparkling winks of a red sun were cast by the waves, bringing back memories of better times, of tourist havens by tropical waters, of chattering gulls soaring over the setting sun.

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He gazed at the quiet horizon. The sea was still calm, winding its waves in the distance. Why ever was he looking on the horizon? Was he expecting anything at all? He couldn't remember how long it had been since the last bomb flashed its message of death beyond the sea; the last sign of life. It had been on a calm, clear night, in which you could almost see the stars. The stars...

With unexpected cruelty, the pain was back. With a twist of agony, he convulsively held his belly. A totally instinctive and perfectly useless action, as he could hardly feel any exterior pressure through the thick protective suit. The murderer that grew inside him missed no opportunity to remind him his days were numbered. He saw something strange on his suit: at groin level, on his right leg, there was an incipient tear. Not dangerous yet, but he had run out of materials for repairs. It was only a matter of time before his suit would tear off, so he would no longer be able to leave the shelter. So what? Anyway, it was hardly any protection any more against radiation, and the air filter gave signs of having reached the end of its life span. Had he been healthy, he might have expected to live for a few more months even in those conditions. But the cancer was already gnawing away at his guts. It was just a matter of time... little time. Whatever, it didn't matter. Nothing really mattered.

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Maybe it was best to put an end to it, the sooner, the better. A disturbing thought took him by surprise. He thought that he, and he alone, had the destiny of the whole human race in his hands. Should he want to, he could destroy the whole of mankind. Surprised by this revelation, he was possessed by an uncontrollable fit of laughter. The shrill laughter of the insane, the desperate, of the one who had signed a pact with Death. He had made up his mind.

With obvious effort, he stood up and put his hands on the helmet that covered his head. He switched the locks and took it off. He smelled the outside air and was overwhelmed by nausea. A putrid stench of decomposition hid any other smell. He held out his helmet and looked at it. He could see his bald head and haggard face reflected in the glass. Slightly smiling, showing the six teeth left in his mouth, he painfully hurled the helmet into the sea. He breathed in deeply several times. Maybe it was just his imagination, but he could feel the air burning his nose, his throat, his windpipe, his lungs. He must have been imagining it, radiation never showed any symptoms until it was too late.
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He fumbled in his pockets and found what he needed. It wasn't the first time he considered taking those pills, but this time his mind was made up. He put about a dozen in his mouth and kept the rest, just in case. The prospectus assured the ingestion of just one would produce a peaceful, painless death, but it was better to be on the safe side. Feeling free at last and in peace, even elated, he walked down the rocky steps to the sea. If he had to die, let it be in a last bath in the primeval ocean.

While he felt the wind on his face and the cold water flooding his suit, he thought of what he had done: mankind was about to be wiped out.
For, surely, he was the last of the humans.
© 2003 Daniel C. Duma

Daniel C. Duma  is a computer programmer and an occasional writer of short, very condensed, and highly metaphorical short stories.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

35. When There's a Will, There's a Way

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Surely your house looks like the one on the left – or, better to say, like one of the partitions inside it – rather than like Spielberg’s rooted house that you can painstakingly make out in the background of the picture on the right; or is it that I want it to be just a plain flat in a residential area...because it makes me feel happier by comparison (scroll down to Land of Plenty below for more details)?   
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You are going to read an article about conserving energy in the home. For questions 1-5, choose the correct answer A, B, C or D. Item (0) is given as an example.

Make Your Home Greener
[adapted from the Cambridge CAE Course, by Marta Spratt & Linda B. Taylor]

Residential buildings are responsible for consuming 27% of the total amount of energy consumed within Europe, and are the biggest source of global warming in the world. This is a fact that has, until recently, been overlooked by law-makers trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, who have concentrated their efforts on industry and transport. The EU has now issued a new directive which intends to cut carbon dioxide emissions from buildings by 45 million tons before 2010.This means that each of us can now save the planet from the comfort of our own homes.

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The first things we can do are simple and easy. We can block up draughts, switch off unnecessary lights and make sure taps are not left running. The next step requires more planning and some expense, but, as well as saving energy, we will also save on bills.

Many homes have loft insulation, but it is rarely enough. Most insulation is 100mm. thick, but to be truly effective the recommended thickness is 200-300mm. Full insulation can have a dramatic effect on energy consumption. It can save up to 25 percent on your heating bills. A variety of materials are available, but one of the most environmentally friendly is cellulose in the form of compressed recycled newsprint which has been fireproofed.

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We should use energy-efficient light bulbs. These are usually expensive to buy but consume less than half the energy of standard bulbs. Also, these bulbs last much longer than conventional light bulbs reducing the consumption of resources.

Thermal solar panels are very efficient. They are capable of providing all the hot water you need even in Britain's climate. Photovoltaic panels can be fitted as solar roof tiles or solar windows and are now capable of generating about half of an average home's electricity needs. A large conservatory with lots of glass panels on the south side of a building will tap light and warmth and reduce the need for lighting.

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We can install a 'grey' water recycling system. At present, water used to flush the toilets is of the same drinkable quality that comes out of the taps. This is an unnecessary waste of energy used in water purification. A grey water recycling system cleans water that has been used for washing and sends it through the toilet system reducing the use of clean drinking water. 

New buildings can incorporate much more energy saving features in their design. They can have a timber structure, extensive insulation, electronic environmental controls, triple glazing, a non-polluting heating system and a turf roof. However, it is how we deal with our present homes that will determine housing's contribution to global warming. It's down to each and every one of us, so get insulating!

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(0) It is the writer’s belief that
A.   efficient light bulbs are not worth the price.
B.    solar panels are unable to reduce the need of light under bad weather.
C.  it is pointless to use drinkable water to flush the toilet.
D.   not much can be done in buildings to contribute to saving energy.

1. The amount of energy consumed by residential buildings is
A.   45 million tons.
B.    27% more than that consumed by industry.
C.    mainly responsible for global warming.
D.   going to be reduced by 2010.

2. Until recently, law-abiding reductions in gas emissions only contemplated
A.   Europe.
B.    residential buildings.
C.    industry and transport.
D.   private houses.

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3. Blocking up draughts
A.   is easy.
B.    is expensive.
C.    requires planning.
D.   is energy saving.

4. The effectiveness of loft insulation relies on
A. correct thickness.
B. adequate materials.
C. recycled materials.
D. being fireproof.

5.     How can individuals reduce global warming?

a.     By buying a new environmentally friendly house.
b.      By designing new buildings with energy saving features.
c.      By insulating new buildings.
d.     By making changes in our current homes.