There are 7.1 billion people in the world today.
This is what Marcus had told himself every day of his life. There had only been six billion when he'd been nine and by the time he was in his mid-thirties there would be eight billion people. It was a comforting thought; no matter what he'd done in his life, no matter how horrible or spectacular he became, those numbers marched on steadily regardless.
When he'd been nervous about getting a date in high school, he'd told himself "There are seven billion people. One of them will love me."
When he'd been stressed over college courses, he'd thought "There are seven billion people in the world. Other people can be doctors and engineers."
When he'd decided to go exploring, he bravely stated "There are seven billion people in the world. I'll always find someone to help me."
The idea of the vastness of humanity had always acted as a sturdy security blanket for him, but now he'd found himself alone.
Two months ago, when his security blanket was still fully intact, Marcus had linked up with a few other former students on permanent holiday and headed for Kenya. One of the more domineering of the group had it in his mind to climb Mount Kenya and he wasn't going to be intimidated. After many hostiles, bogus safety training courses, and shady deals made on Craigslist and other third world counterparts, the group was finally ready for the climb.
The thought of the group together was a comforting memory to him in his current situation. He’d been scrambling around in a cave for what seemed like days.
“There are seven billion people in the world. Someone will find us.”
Not surprisingly, the numbers had thinned out as the group of amateur explorers got closer to their mountain. Starting at fifteen, the group had dwindled to just three. Some hadn't been able to afford plane tickets and been held back, others had peeled off to go to the bar after the first safety training seminar and never returned, a few had linked up with other groups and gone off on other adventures. In the end it was Marcus, the alpha male and self-appointed group leader, and a short, aggressive girl who had obviously been pushed into athletics her whole life
The aggressive girls, where had she gone? She’d been with him a few minutes ago, or maybe a few hours ago. Time was slipping.
The alpha male hadn’t made it very far. He had made it to day three of their six day expedition, and all the way up to the summit. In his haste to be the first to the top, he’d charged past Marcus and the ex-collegiate gymnast, but slipped on a rock and taken a bad spill. The overly athletic girl was the next in the line of rule. She’d been a part of the team since she was five years old and taken her first soccer game too seriously. She knew what needed to be done to keep Marcus and herself safe on the rest of the way done and she wasn’t going to let Marcus mess it up.
She’d led them to a small cave to take shelter in for the night. The temperature dropped quickly at night and it would be nice for them to have more shelter than the tiny personal tents they had in their packs. When they’d squeezed in past the entrance, Marcus had been amazed. The walls were coated in carvings, nothing naturalistic, all seemingly abstract but with repeating portions.
He cursed the curiosity of his former self as he heard rocks shifting in the darkness, but maybe it was the gymnast.
“There are seven billion people in the world, but maybe I’m the first to see this.”
With glory and adventure in his mind, he’d charged down into the cave. What started as a virtual manhole opened into a full-fledged hallway, then eventually rooms, all the while the carvings persisted, even becoming more intricate. The floors were now flat and smooth, the space between different chambers was an ornately carved doorjamb, the ceilings became vaulted. The two were amazed at what spread out before them.
That was when they still knew their way out. That was when they still had batteries for their flash lights and propane for their lamps. Their mood turned from frustrated to horrified when they first noticed that not all of the scraping sounds were coming from them.
Events ran together after that; blindly crawling through caverns, huddling together in corners and trying to get some sleep, staring into the pitch and catching pale flashes of movement at the edge of their sight. It was a wearing existence, and Marcus was beginning to doubt his sanity.
He couldn’t remember where the gymnast was, he didn’t know if creature was real or not, but his stomach dropped as his boot made contact with a soft mass on the ground. He reached out, trying to understand what he had found; wet, soft, cold. It was the gymnast. Marcus heard faint scraping behind him.
“There are seven billion people in the world.” He heard himself say out loud for the first time. “We cover the surface of the Earth and we’re constantly growing.” A growl was rising behind him and the scraping on the rocks was getting closer. “We drive species to extinction. We drink the oceans. We alter the weather.” He felt his chest swell with anger. He was bolstered by the immensity of his race and with his new found strength he gripped the climbing pick at his belt. “We are legion.”
He whirled around on the spot, swinging wildly and blindly at the flashes in the darkness. The growl grew to a scream as the pick connected, but the creature wasn’t driven away. Something came out of the dark and smashed into the side of his head. He gritted his teeth and swung again, but he didn’t make any contact, another blow from the other side this time. He couldn’t think straight anymore and his vision, what little there was, was blurring. He mustered what was left of his strength and swung the pick one last time. The creature shrieked and smashed him against the wall.
“There are seven billion people in the world.” He thought, “One more doesn’t matter.”