art by Melissa Mead
by David D. Levine
David D. Levine has sold over 40 science fiction and fantasy stories to all the major markets, including Asimov's, Analog, and Realms of Fantasy. He's won a Hugo Award, been nominated for the Nebula, and won or been shortlisted for many other awards as well as appearing in numerous Year's Best anthologies. His web page is www.bentopress.com/sf
Joan put a hand into the beam of her headlamp, carefully inspecting the white LED light on her pale, pale palm. Was it fading already? She checked her fanny pack to be sure she had a spare battery.
Sometimes she thought it would be easier to do her foraging during the day. But going out by night not only avoided the need for heavy protective clothing, it was less disturbing. At night she couldn't see the roiling brown sky, or the blackened shells of burned-out buildings, or the bleached and crumbling remains of billboards and road signs.
What little she could see in the circle of her headlamp's light was bad enough. The asphalt beneath her bicycle's wheels was cracked and uneven, slumping here and there into potholes. The wrecked cars that lay in her path looked decades old, their paint faded and their tires and trim shredded like old silk. And, of course, there were the corpses. They were all desiccated now, dried-out skeletal mummies, but some of them lay with necks and backs bent backward and mouths stretched wide in silent screams, tendons drawn tight by the baking sun.
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She'd found a path to the gas station that avoided most of those. As long as they didn't enter the light she could pretend they weren't there.
But as she pedaled along this night, she found that a huge pothole now gaped all the way across the road on the near end of the bridge over I-405. It had just been a large crack the last time she'd made a fuel run, but there had been a couple nights of freezing weather since then and frost heave must have opened it up. She swore and backed up awkwardly, the empty jerry-cans clanging in her trailer.
New potholes and wrecked cars drove her four blocks out of her way, forcing her off her comfortable path, making her confront things she'd been able to ignore for so long. A pile of glittering glass lay at the base of a window that must have been smashed in the first hours after the event. A faded, shredded plastic banner flapped in the breeze, promising IF YE HAVE FAITH YE SHALL BE SAVED. A whole family of mummies sheltered in a doorway, two adult skeletons draped protectively over two children.
But the thing that made Joan lose it was a Subaru Forester.
The car sat on its four wheels, waiting patiently in a curbside parking space for an owner who would never return. The tires were flat, of course, the windows yellowed and frosted, and the green paint of the hood and roof bleached nearly to white. In these aspects the car was no different from dozens of others Joan had seen this very night.
But in the fading light of Joan's headlamp a bumper sticker on the car's back window was still legible, barely: KEEP PORTLAND WEIRD.
Dan's car had been a green Forester. And he'd had one of those stickers on it.
Joan sat still, feeling her lower lip tremble, for a good solid minute before she gave in, put her head down on the handlebars, and bawled like a baby.
The silence had been her first clue, though she hadn't realized it at the time. Even before they'd emerged from the cave in which they'd spent a long weekend meditating and eating vacuum-packed seitan curry, Joan had noticed that the birdsong that had echoed off the cave walls on the way down was strangely absent on the return trip. This struck her as odd, but--trying to hang on for a little while longer to the quiet mind she'd just spent so many hours cultivating--she'd resolved to notice it and then let it go, rather than allowing her busy monkey-mind to grab onto it and try to find a reason.
The four of them hiked without speaking along the last gravelly stretch of cave floor before the entrance. Joan was dead tired from the long clamber back out of the cave, and her left foot squished in its shoe on every step from the deeper-than-expected underground rivulet she'd stepped in a few hundred yards back. Although she'd had a relaxing three-day holiday from her everyday life, right now she just couldn't wait to get to the car, to sunlight and warmth and dry clothes. She planned to sleep through the drive home, then ask Dan to take her to Old Wives' Tales for a hot dinner.
Then Roger, who was in the lead, took in a short sharp breath. Joan nearly bumped into his skinny back before realizing he'd stopped dead. "What?" she said. Roger only pointed upward. Annoyed, Joan stepped up next to him and sighted along his pointing arm at the sky outside the cave mouth.
The sky was a mass of roiling brown clouds. "Is that a storm brewing?" she asked.
"Doesn't look like any storm I've ever seen," Roger replied, stroking his raggedy moustache.
Coral and Bethanie joined them a moment later. Coral was Joan's friend--they'd met when they were both volunteering at Friends of Trees--three years younger than Joan at fifty-five, though thinner and with more of a fashion sense. She was just as much a novice at caving as Joan. Bethanie was Roger's wife, and like him she was an experienced caver, thirty-something, blonde, lean, and fit. Neither of them had ever seen a sky like that either, but at least it didn't seem to be raining. They trudged onward toward the car.
This whole expedition had been Coral's idea. She'd been the one to introduce Joan to Roger and Bethanie, who lived in her apartment complex, and it had been she who'd thought that a long weekend in a cave would be a perfect way for her and Joan to get away from their daily lives and find some inner peace. In exchange for Roger and Bethanie's caving expertise and the loan of some equipment, they'd do all the cooking and provide instruction in meditation.
Everything had gone pretty much as planned, but somehow it just hadn't been quite right. The cave was quiet and peaceful, and the company pleasant enough, but still she felt... obligated. Apologetic for her heavy, awkward, inexperienced body and for the way she felt she was holding the others back. Concerned that Roger and Bethanie might not enjoy the vegetarian meals she'd prepared. Afraid that Coral would regret bringing her along. Even isolated from every other care in the world, the presence of three other people was still enough to distract her from perfect satori. Still, she did feel a bit calmer, and counted the weekend as a qualified success.
But as soon as Joan squeezed herself through the narrow cave mouth--she was the only one of the four for whom it was much of a squeeze--she realized that something was seriously wrong.
Every tree in the vicinity looked sick. Leaves drooped limp, with many lying on the ground as though it were late fall instead of early spring. Small branches sagged. Even the conifers were shedding needles like a month-old Christmas tree. The undergrowth looked no better.
"Something's wrong with the trees," she said.
"Not just the trees," Roger said. Joan followed his gaze.
A dead squirrel lay in the path.
They all looked at it in silence. It lay on its back, white belly exposed and little paws curled, eyes open. There were no visible marks, no swelling, no bleeding, no sign of what had killed it.
"Squirrels die all the time," Bethanie said, prodding at the body with a stick. But she didn't sound very sure of herself.
"Birds," Coral said, pointing to one side of the path.
Joan didn't understand what she'd meant until she realized the brush held dozens of little brown birds, blending in with the undergrowth, difficult to see because they weren't moving. At all.
Nor were there any flies, or crawling insects, on them.
Joan poked at the loose mulch with the toe of her boot, gray with cave mud. Nothing scrabbled away from the disturbance, but a pillbug rolled down the path and lay still. She poked it gently with a fingernail. Dead.
Suddenly Joan's throat felt tight. "We've got to get out of here."
Coral was staring in all directions, as though expecting something to leap on her. "What's happening here?" Her voice trembled with near-panic.
"I dunno," Roger said, "but I'm leaving right now." He started down the hill with deliberate haste, crashing through hanging branches and sending gravel rattling down the trail ahead of him.
"Be careful," Bethanie said from behind. But when Joan turned back, she saw Bethanie coming on nearly as fast as Roger was departing. Joan picked up her own pace to match.
As she hurried down the trail, minding her footing on the loose gravel, Joan's anxiety grew. The lowering sky was a sick yellow-brown color, churning and seething like a pot of dirty poison on a low boil. A dead crow lay atop a patch of wilted fiddlehead ferns like some ghastly entree. And there was no bird song, no grasshoppers or crickets, no rumble of traffic. I-84 was miles away, but when they'd entered the cave on Friday the traffic had been clearly audible.
What the hell could have caused this?
Joan wasn't in the best shape, and after half an hour of rapid descent her heart was hammering in her ears and her breath was ragged. "Hold on a minute," she gasped, and leaned against a tree for a moment.
"You don't look good," Coral said. "You're flushed."
"You too," Joan replied. Coral's skin was bright pink, shiny and taut like a big pink balloon.
Coral looked down at her hands and arms with alarm. "What the hell?"
Roger, hearing the exchange, turned back and climbed up the hill toward them. He was as pink as Coral, but didn't seem to have noticed it. "Give me your hand." He pressed Coral's forearm with his thumb. The thumbprint turned white, looking like plastic against the overheated pink of Coral's skin, and took several seconds to return to its previous pink color. "Aw, you're just sunburned, is all."
Coral shook her head. "Roger, we've just spent three days in a cave. We've been out here for less than an hour and it's cloudy. How could I possibly get sunburned?"
Roger put on his smug I'm-an-outdoorsman-and-you-aren't expression. "You can get a nasty burn even on a cloudy day."
But Joan was thinking about the dead squirrel. "I don't think it's just sunburn."
They all looked at her.
"I think it's radiation."
"Can't be," said Roger.
"Why not? You know anything about radiation?"
None of them did. "So what are we going to do about it?" Coral asked.
"Get the hell out of this place as fast as we can. Where's the nearest hospital?"
"Hood River," Roger said without hesitation.
"Maybe it's nothing. But if it is radiation... or, I don't know, toxic chemicals or something, we need to get ourselves to a doctor as soon as possible."
The car was another hour's hike away even at the best speed they could manage. The whole way, Joan worried that invisible particles were sleeting through her body, damaging her chromosomes, twisting her cells. What did radiation feel like? What symptoms should she be alert for? Was she really seeing bright flashes when she closed her eyes, or was it just her imagination? Could anything else have caused the animal deaths and sunburn-like symptoms?
And was there any treatment?
They arrived at the car, flung their packs in the trunk, and peeled out. Joan dug her cell phone out of her purse, but though she had one or two bars of signal here, trying to call out just produced a fast repeating tone. Everyone else's phone had the same problem, and there was nothing on the radio but static.
So much for retaining the quiet mind she'd achieved in the cave. She tried closing her eyes and thinking the syllable "so" on the inhale, "hum" on the exhale, but between the noisy jostling car and the constant fear of what they might have been exposed to, her meditations went nowhere.
Joan had been seeking peace for most of her fifty-eight years. She'd worked as an accountant during her twenties and thirties, but when just one of Dan's Intel stock options had brought in three times her annual salary they'd both realized they didn't really need her to work. So she'd become a "kept woman," gardening and volunteering and keeping their two-person household running. But even with "nothing to do"--and she always reminded herself that just because she didn't work outside the home that didn't invalidate her--she still found her mind constantly running like a hamster in a wheel. This weekend of underground meditation was just her latest attempt to calm that hamster down.
It had helped. But like the yoga and the art classes and the acupuncture, it hadn't helped enough or for long enough. Of all the things she'd tried, she still liked gardening best. Alone in her own back yard, humming Crosby Stills and Nash as she dug and pruned and weeded, the hours seemed to fly by. But with Portland's climate she couldn't do that all year round.
They crossed the Columbia at Bridge of the Gods. The toll gate stood open and there was no one in the booth. "Where is everybody?" Joan asked, voicing what they'd all been thinking.
"Maybe it's the Rapture," Bethanie said. Her voice was level and Joan didn't know enough about Bethanie's faith to know how seriously she meant it. Joan's own spirituality was much less conventional.
"Isn't the Rapture supposed to take only God's chosen?" Coral said. "And we haven't seen a single car on the road." They'd seen a few pulled over on the shoulder, but they hadn't wanted to stop and see if there was anyone in them. "Why would God take everyone but us?"
"Look at that sky!" Bethanie gestured through the windshield. "That's no natural sky. That's an angry-God sky."
Coral didn't have an answer to that one. Neither did Joan.
Roger just kept driving.
There was no one in Hood River, either, though the place didn't look evacuated... plenty of cars sat in street parking as though it were an ordinary day. Here and there a car had smashed into a light pole or run up onto the sidewalk. Behind the windshields, Joan thought she could see drivers and passengers slumped in their seat belts. She tried not to look too closely. It helped that it was starting to get dark.
She felt she ought to say, ought to do something. But what? Yell, "Stop the car"? Even if they did, what could they do to help?
When they arrived at the hospital, they found the parking lot jammed with cars, most of which contained at least one dead body. Large hand-lettered signs directed drivers to park on the street and proceed to triage, but when they walked in the front door...
"Oh God," Bethanie said, and threw up on the floor. Roger held her heaving shoulders as she stood, hands on knees, retching.
Bodies lay everywhere: draped across chairs, lying on gurneys parked in the hall, slumped in corners. Their skin was deep red and peeling away in large patches; most of them were covered with clear weeping blisters. Many were dressed as doctors and nurses.
The lights were still on.
There was no smell at all, other than disinfectants and bleach.
Joan looked at her own arm. She wasn't nearly as badly burned as the dead people, at least not yet, but she had a few blisters already. She supposed it was only a matter of time before she wound up like the people here. "What happened, I wonder?" she said.
This must be what shock feels like, she thought.
"I'd stopped worrying about the Bomb," Coral said. Bethanie and Roger were in their thirties and didn't know how it had been. "When I was a kid we had to duck and cover. But I thought... after the Soviet Union..." She trailed off, waving one hand vaguely.
Roger crossed his arms on his chest and shook his head. "Terrorists, maybe," he said. "Dirty bomb. Cobalt 60. Something like that."
"So..." Bethanie began, wiped her mouth, tried again. "So what are we gonna do?"
Fear rose up from beneath Joan's breastbone, breaking through the stunned apathy. Fear for Dan. "We go home," she said.
Roger shook his head again. "No point. Portland's only an hour away. If there were anyone left alive there, they would have sent someone here by now."
"You don't know that!" said Coral, at the same time Bethanie said "Unless whatever-it-is is localized to here."
Roger planted his hands on his hips. "We need to head for Bend, or Idaho. Away from the big cities."
The other three all started talking at once, but Joan raised her voice. "Take. Me. Home," she said, seizing the conversation back. "I need to find my husband."
"Oh Jesus," Coral said. "Oh Joan, I'm so sorry, I didn't think...." Coral was thrice-divorced and alternated between insisting she was completely quit of men and dating two or three of them at once. Of course she would have forgotten about Dan.
Joan brushed Coral's comforting hand from her shoulder. "Maybe he's okay." But even as the words emerged from her mouth she realized she didn't believe them.
Bethanie took Roger's hand, her expression pinched. "Let's take her home."
"Crazy," Roger said, and started to turn away.
But Bethanie put two fingers on his chin and turned his head to face her. "C'mon, honey... Coral's single, you and I have each other... we need to take her to her husband."
"Aww... shit." Roger shook his head, but dug in his pocket for the car keys.
Joan followed him to the car, feeling hollow even though she'd gotten her way.
Darkness had fallen while they were in the hospital, but the street lights and some of the commercial signage had come on. Automated, Joan supposed, and wondered how long that would last without maintenance. No one in the car spoke as they drove through silent streets back to the freeway.
The trip to Portland took almost three hours. Roger drove cautiously, saying he expected to meet a roadblock at any moment. But they didn't encounter any roadblocks, or indeed any sign of anyone alive. For all they could tell, everyone was dead except them.
Dan's a smart, resourceful guy, Joan told herself, and he works in a big high-tech office complex full of smart, resourceful people. If anyone had survived this... this whatever-it-was, it would be him.
She bit her knuckle, staring out the window at a car that had come to rest against the median barrier. It didn't seem to have been moving too fast when it hit, but as they passed the headlights revealed two bodies in the front seats. She wondered how long it would be until she joined them. At least it didn't hurt much--it just itched, like a bad sunburn, and it didn't seem to be getting any worse. In fact, the itching and the blisters seemed just the same as they had been in Hood River. Maybe they were moving away from the source of the radiation, whatever it was, and Portland would be okay?
But even as they approached the city, her phone still gave her nothing but a fast busy signal.
They stopped at the top of the Marquam Bridge. The city below looked much as it had, with lights glowing in most of the buildings and traffic signals blinking their steady progression from green to yellow to red and back. But even from up here they could see that nothing moved in the streets. Portland was a pretty small town for a big city, but even on a Sunday evening it shouldn't be this... dead. They didn't stop downtown, but continued on to the west-side suburbs.
The Intel parking lot was three-quarters full, cars sitting neatly in their parking places. "Whatever it was," Roger said as he pulled into an open space, "it must have hit on Friday."
Joan didn't reply. She was thinking of all the times Dan had worked weekends, sometimes not returning home until two or three AM and then heading right back to work in the morning. Perhaps he and his co-workers were gathered around a table in some conference room right now, eating pizza and helping the mayor or the governor with some technical aspect of this crisis....
But inside the building they found only silence. The security guard at the front desk lay face-down, unmoving. Acres of gray fabric cubicles stood empty beneath the cold fluorescent light, colorful screen savers spinning on some of the computer screens.
The people were all gathered in the huge cafeteria. Most of them lay on chairs and tables near a temporary aid station, but a few dozen were bunched around a big-screen television in one corner. That's where Joan found Dan. He was slumped in a plastic cafeteria chair, skin red and peeling away, his glasses askew and reflecting sixty inches, diagonally measured, of high-definition solid blue.
"Oh, Dan..." she said. She reached out and straightened his glasses, but though she longed to hug and kiss him, the seeping blisters made that unpalatable.
He was where he'd have wanted to be, she thought, surrounded by the co-workers he'd respected. People he'd survived many a crisis with.
But not this one.
"I'm so sorry," Coral said, and gathered Joan into an embrace.
Joan pressed her lips together and took a long breath through her nose. Tears pinched behind her eyes, but they didn't seem ready to come out yet. "Thanks."
"It's... it's okay, Joan...." Coral sobbed, "you'll be seeing him again soon anyway...."
Bethanie came over and hugged both of them, patting Coral's back, but not saying anything other than "hush, hush."
Roger just stared at Joan. "Yeah," he said at last. "I'm, uh, I'm sorry too." He turned and started walking toward the cafeteria line. "I'll see if I can find us something to eat."
Joan extracted herself from Coral and Bethanie and looked at Dan one more time. But although the red and blistered corpse had Dan's glasses and thinning hair, it wasn't really Dan. The real Dan was somewhere else, and Joan's hand-assembled New Age spirituality didn't have any reassuring answers about where that might be or whether Joan was likely to join him there.
And she didn't know how she felt about that.
She and Dan had been married for almost three decades. They'd grown together over that time, like two old trees leaning on each other for support, and had expected to remain together for the rest of their lives. But somehow, in all those years of being Dan-and-Joan, she'd wondered what had become of... Joan.
She'd depended on men all her life. First her father, then her teachers, and then Dan. Now, suddenly, they were all gone. And that made her look back on her life with new eyes.
In the last few years, she realized now, she'd been looking for something more. She'd thought it was peace she sought, but now that everything in the world had gone quiet she wondered if what she'd really been seeking was... herself. But she'd been too comfortable where she was to go out and look for it.
And maybe she'd found it now.
Just as she was about to die.
She turned away from Dan's corpse. "Let's get out of here," she said to the others. "There's nothing here for us."
Coral raised her head from her arms, folded on the table where she'd been sitting. "And go where?" Her eyes streamed with tears. "Why bother? We might as well die here as anywhere else. Everyone else is dead...."
"Maybe not," said Roger.
They all looked at him. He was standing next to a table on which several computers hummed, an untidy pile with cables running everywhere.
He pointed to one of the screens. "This one lit up when I walked past. Must've jostled the mouse. And, well... take a look at this."
Joan walked over and looked at the screen.
It was the CNN home page. GAMMA-RAY BURST THREATENS LIFE ON EARTH, read the headline, accompanied by a photo of a man in surgical scrubs. His face was buried in his hands, the visible skin of his forehead blistered and peeling.
"See?" Roger said. "We aren't the only ones left alive."
Joan peered more closely at the screen. "This is from Friday." She clicked the Refresh icon in the toolbar. "Let's see the latest news." The page blanked, the cursor spun... and kept on spinning for half a minute before the page was replaced by an error message.
"Shit," said Roger.
Bethanie reached for the keyboard. "Try another website."
CNN, the New York Times, the BBC, and every other English-language news site they could think of were all down. But Google was up, even though most of the links it found were dead. After a while they left the cafeteria and its corpses and moved to the computers in a nearby group of cubicles.
They finally found what they were looking for on a site called jp.wikipedia.org. A Google search on "gamma-ray burst" found a page there in English, though the navigation links on the left and top were all in Japanese. The modification date at the bottom of the page was today. "Well, at least someone's alive somewhere," Coral said.
A "gamma-ray burst," they read, was one of the most energetic events in the universe, a star suddenly releasing a supernova's worth of energy in a focused beam over just a few seconds. They had been observed since the 1960s, and were thought to result from the collapse of a giant star into a black hole, or from the merger of two neutron stars. It had long been speculated that if a gamma-ray burst occurred nearby it could mean the end of life on Earth, but the chance of that happening had been considered remote.
Until Friday at 2:39 in the afternoon, just two hours after they'd entered the cave.
Links on that page led to other pages that were still up, mostly in Japan, Australia, and India. Many of them were in English, or something like it. The story they told wasn't pretty.
Half of the Earth, including all of North America and Europe, most of South America, and a good chunk of Africa, had been bombarded by a beam of radiation from a previously-unremarkable star four hundred light-years away. The burst had not only been unexpected, it had been far more powerful than any theory had projected. Just about every person, animal, plant, and microbe in that hemisphere was killed by a massive dose of gamma rays, X-rays, cosmic rays, and ultraviolet radiation. Most people had lived for about four hours, but fatalities had approached 100% after eight hours. The only known survivors had been those who were deep under ground or water.
But even those who had survived were in trouble, and that included the initially-untouched continents of Australia, Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. The gamma rays had only lasted thirteen seconds, but in that time they had destroyed half of the Earth's ozone, basically turning it into smog. That was why Joan and the rest had gotten second-degree sunburns in only an hour after leaving the cave, but the damage had stopped as soon as the sun went down: the roiling yellow-brown clouds above were letting through almost three times as much UV per hour as before the event.
Staying indoors during the day would keep them from getting burned any further. But with the ozone layer half-gone, even those parts of the Earth that had escaped destruction by the burst itself were being sterilized by ultraviolet radiation. The death toll in Australia was already above 30%, three days after the event, and the ongoing ultraviolet burn was killing every crop on land and the photosynthetic phytoplankton on which all life in the sea depended. Natural processes would eventually restore the ozone, but it was expected to take five years or more.
Roger stood up and rubbed his eyes. It was nearly three in the morning. "Bottom line," he said, "we're screwed. Even if we could get to Japan or Australia, by the time we got there we'd find everyone starved to death. Just like here, but slower and nastier."
But Coral was waving them all over to look at her computer. "Wait, wait," she said. "Look what I found!"
It was another Japanese Wikipedia page: "List of Survivors in North America." At the top were instructions on how to add yourself. It seemed like quite a long list, thousands of names, until Joan realized what a tiny percentage of the original population it was. "Mostly men," she commented.
"Yeah," said Coral. "Look at where they are."
Most of them were in places like Washington DC, Colorado Springs, and San Diego--military towns. A lot of the rest were in big cities with deep subway systems. There wasn't one name in Portland; the largest concentration of names in the Northwest was Bremerton, Washington. "Bremerton?" Joan asked.
"Submarines!" Roger shouted, pumping his fist. "Bremerton's a big sub base. Even bigger than San Diego." Any subs that had been submerged at the time of the event, he explained, would have been shielded from the radiation by the sea water above them, and they would have returned to base as soon as they found out what happened.
A Google search quickly found the home page of the Bremerton sub base. The page was dominated by a large, amateurish-looking box, yellow with a red border: "Naval Base Kitsap is open for business! We have food, weapons, and supplies and welcome all US Citizens! UNITED WE STAND!" There was an email link, and a map with the location of the base indicated by a red arrow.
Roger tapped the arrow on the screen with his finger. "That's where we gotta go," he said. "We'll hole up here during the day, then hit the road right after sunset tomorrow."
Roger, Bethanie, and Coral began chattering excitedly--where to find supplies, what to bring, whether they'd be able to get gas--but Joan just sat, a sick sensation settling in her stomach.
"Joan?" Coral said after a while. "You're awful quiet. How are you doing?"
Joan considered the question seriously. "I... I'm fine. I just don't want to go."
Roger looked baffled. "What? Why not?"
Again Joan thought about why she had this reaction. It was a gut feeling, but after a while she realized where it had come from. "Look... I like men. I've been surrounded by, supported by, loved by men, for my whole life. But when I think about living the rest of my life on a submarine base... all those young, horny sailors who'll look at me like I'm the last woman in the world... because I am... and all that 'Go U.S.A.' crap..." She closed her eyes and shook her head. "No. Just no. I'm not going to be the nursemaid for the next generation of patriots."
The others tried to persuade her. They cajoled, argued, and screamed until the sick yellow-brown clouds began to lighten in the east. They moved into the windowless kitchen area and kept arguing. But Joan could not be budged. Finally they left her alone and went off to discuss the matter among the three of them.
Coral squatted down in front of Joan and took her hands in her own. "Joan... we've made up our minds. We're going to Bremerton, with you or without you."
"That's fine," Joan said. "Go, with my blessings."
"So... so are you just gonna stay here all alone for the rest of your life?"
Joan squeezed Coral's hands and looked straight into her eyes. "I don't know what I'm going to do yet, Coral. But I'm going to do it for myself, and no one else."
She'd settled at Powell's Bookstore, having found her own house too full of memories and the library too cold and drafty. Sleeping through the day, foraging by night, surrounded by all the books she'd never had time to read before, it wasn't a bad life. There was more canned and packaged organic food at the Whole Foods next door than she'd ever be able to eat, and since everything in the world had been irradiated it would never spoil. And when the power finally failed, she found a big motor-generator set and ran strings of christmas-tree lights down every aisle. Her cheery little book-lined cave.
Sometimes she wondered what was happening in the rest of the world, and how Coral, Bethanie, and Roger were getting along. But her generator couldn't power the whole Internet, and her short-wave radio got only static and a few garbled syllables in what sounded like Japanese. Even if the Japanese decided to come to America, she thought, Portland would not be their first stop.
She'd never added her name to the Wikipedia page.
The night she'd found the green Subaru Forester, almost a year after the event, became a turning point for her. After she'd dried her eyes, blown her nose, and returned to her cave she realized three things: she'd finally found herself, and achieved the peace she'd sought for so many years, and it wasn't enough.
Two nights later, after a serious bout of research, she went out with a crowbar and a trowel. Prying the manhole cover off was harder than it looked, but a year of self-sufficiency had made her strong and she managed it. And finally, at the bottom of four rusty metal ladders, in a dank and drippy vault lined with pipes and cables, she found what she was looking for.
Soil. Soil that smelled like soil. Soil teeming with bacteria, not like the sterilized dirt at the surface.
It took her the whole night to drag up enough of the stuff to fill three small planters. The next night, aching though she was, she went out and hauled back every seed packet she could find at every garden store in Northwest Portland that hadn't completely collapsed.
She planted them all. Every single seed. She'd read a lot about food irradiation, and knew that some of them would have to be viable. It took two weeks and many trips to the sewer for more soil.
She found some grow-lights, keenly aware of the irony of bringing UV lamps into a dark basement when UV outside was her biggest problem, and positioned them over the planters. She filtered rainwater and rigged up a gentle drip system.
Five weeks later a few sprouts, a handful of hardy survivors, poked their tender green heads above the soil.
She tended them, and watered them with tears.
This story was first published on Friday, October 1st, 2010
The seed of "Finding Joan" was planted at the Launch Pad workshop I attended in 2008, a NASA-sponsored workshop to teach real astronomy to science fiction writers. The soil it grew in was my home town of Portland, Oregon (I wasn't born here, but I've lived here for more than half my life) and the many things I love about this place. I like to think of this as a story in which everyone in the world dies but it has a happy ending.
- David D. Levine
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