Author’s Note: There has to be a better name for this story than the one above, but I’m almost as bad at naming stories as I am at naming characters. Needless to say, I’m open to suggestions.
Charlie Dach stood atop a jagged, juvenile mountain at the base of the last tree within the ten-mile-or-so radius of his eagle-eyed sight. In his right hand he held an old-fashioned, double-bladed ax. He pondered it for a moment, admiring its brute simplicity. For the first time in some nine months — since the completion of the mangrove deforestation project in the Everglades, at any rate — he would, in a moment, be indulging in the rare privilege of old-fashioned, labor-based exercise. Not that he particularly needed it, as his Nipentucker kept him in prime condition, stimulating his muscles group by group, accelerating or depressing his metabolism and immune system as needed, even maintaining the tanned complexion that he was so proud of through melanin manipulation, all the while monitoring and guiding the technicolor dreams of his sleep-induced mind.
In point of fact, his excellent conditioning had played a major role in his winning the bid for the Madagascar Deforestation Project that he was about to conclude. But, need it or not, there was something about old-fashioned, old-world exercise that exhilarated him. It was one of the chief reasons why he always insisted on manually cutting down the last tree on every project. The thrill of taking on the arboreal behemoth one-on-one, with no Lop-Poppers to do the job at maximum efficiency levels; to sweat the sweat of the real sun and feel it burning the bare skin of his back; to put to rest, with his own hands, one more sad, antiquated forest and feel the rush of finality as the lone tree crashed, unhindered, to the denuded ground — all of this was, to him, like the intoxicating surge of joy he felt after a maximum dose of mood-enhancers. Only this was better, because this was different.
Shifting his gaze to the surrounding landscape, Charlie admired the testimony it gave to the dominion of man. He remembered listening, as a child, to his great-grandfather talk about the days when he was young — the days when forests were still common, when farmers still spent most of their days outside and when farming itself was still a very physically taxing endeavor.
“Sometimes the trees are a farmer’s best friend, Charlie,” Grander was fond of saying, “’cause they hold the earth in place. This trend of cutting down ever’ tree that people seem to be so fond of will come to nothing but a bad end. Somethin’s gotta be there to hold the earth in place, Charlie, or old Mother Nature’s gonna get outta control.”
But even as a young boy Charlie had suspected that old Grander had been wrong about the trees. Looking around him now, he saw the irrefutable proof of that suspicion. For as far as the eye could see, over hill and valley and mountain and plain, stretched the vast breadbasket of Madagascar. Field after field of grain and fruit marched into the distance, each surrounded by retention walls that held the earth in place as well as any tree ever could. Each tended automatically by the agri-drones that zipped along the tracks atop the retention walls and whose job it was to analyze soil samples, weather patterns, incoming information and commands from orbiting satellites and the local Central Farm Control division and, in short, to tend to every need of the plants and soil within range of their long, spider-like arms.
Turning his attention from the starburst twinkles that flashed off the ever-vigilant agri-drones and back to the lonely tree before him, Charlie took a moment to search it for the beauty that he’d heard his great-grandfather talk of so many times. But he could find none of it.
The tree’s bark was dry and smutty from years of accumulated industrial discharge from nearby Wenba City. Its branches were brittle, gnarled and starkly silent save for the raspy rustle of its liver-spotted leaves in the gentle sea breeze. It was a disturbing reminder of what it was to be old and decayed — to be what Grander had been just before he had died, before the days of youth-treatment spas and age deceleration therapy. He was doing the tree a favor, Charlie decided, as he raised his ax for the first blow — what would have been done long ago by one storm or another if not for the influence of the atmospheric control station in Wenba. He was putting the decrepit old relic out of its misery.
So Charlie Dach’s old-world ax swung and bit the old-world tree and scattered its flesh, chewed and spat out, on the ground at Charlie’s feet. And Charlie sweated the sweat of the real sun and felt it burning the bare skin of his back and marveled at the unexpectedly tenacious wood of the tree.
When he finally drew back for the final blow it was over an hour later, the red-eye sun was about to slip slowly behind the terra-formed hills to the west, and Charlie was utterly exhausted in spite of his excellent conditioning. The tree, unaccountably still standing on a mere thread of its stubborn trunk-wood, seemed almost to quiver in the late-day light — as if it were tensing its muscles for one last futile stand against its inevitable fate.
Then the blow was struck and the old tree twisted strangely, pitched itself to one side and almost leaped from its severed stump, only to crash in a spatter of dust and broken limbs to the bare earth.
Looking to the west, to the setting sun, Charlie toweled his sweat-streaked face and sore-muscled arms and chest with his shirt, then stopped as he realized that the strange thing he thought he was seeing was not, as he had thought at first, a trick of his weary, sweat-stung eyes.
Freed as it was from its natural bonds by the felling of the last true tree in Madagascar — the last true tree, in fact, in the world — the Earth, with nothing left to hold it in its place, was adjusting naturally to its new, unshackled course through the universe.
And before Charlie Dach’s bewildered eyes the sun was slowly and steadily distancing itself from the western horizon and rising back into the sky.