I woke up with a feeling that something, somewhere, was terribly wrong.
I was lying on pea gravel and tar, wedged against a wall with a pipe under my head, my neck twisted around in a way that it wasn’t supposed to twist. The front of my clothes were covered with something sticky and bad smelling. The sun was coming up, painting the Arizona sky with Maxfield Parrish colors, red and gold and purple, each exquisite strand of light stabbing deep into my wounded eyes. My mouth tasted like bad things had died and gone to hell in there. Everything felt stiff, and I was sure that moving was going to hurt, probably a lot.
I also needed to pee something fierce, and I didn’t want to pee in my pants, although I suspected that sometime during the night I already had. I got to my feet, and yeah, it hurt a lot. Also my balance was shot, and I was up on a rooftop. Not a good combination.
There were a lot of bottles scattered around, mostly empty. None of them were water, which was too bad because I was horribly thirsty.
I got as close to the edge of the roof as I dared and pissed for a while. It didn’t hurt, which was the first good news I’d had today.
There was someone else on the roof, at the far end. She was mostly naked, curled up in a pudgy tan ball. Katherine. Katherine Grijalva. We had come up to roof last night, to drink and watch the end of the world.
Oh, right, that was what was terribly wrong. The world didn’t end.
We had started drinking to all the things that were going to be erased forever. Shakespeare, Dante, and Newton. Marylin Monroe and Mickey Mouse. Thunderbirds and Mustangs (both the aircraft and the automobile). The Godfather and Star Wars and Gilligan’s Island. I Dream Of Jeanie, with another shot–make that two shots–for Barbara Eden’s magnificent breasts. Star Trek–that killed most of a bottle right there, drinking to every character we could remember. The Taj Mahal, London Bridge, the Sydney Opera House, the Parthenon. Caesar’s Palace. Everything that human beings had ever built or wrote or painted or sang or did or were–it was all going to be eradicated. Erased.
I shook my head, trying to clear it, and I almost fell over. When I recovered my balance, I almost threw up. I took a deep breath and tried to remember.
The comet was supposed to hit at about ten in the evening, Tucson time. It was going to strike somewhere in the Pacific, closer to Asia than to South America, close to the equator. After that, tidal waves, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, who knew what else. No one was quite sure how to model the impact, the math was all theoretical. We knew the mass and velocity of the comet, and the density of the Earth’s crust and the underlying mantle, but how exactly the force would travel through the air, water, and rock was largely guesswork. The numbers were too big. The comet was too big.
Comet Grijalva, named after my friend Katherine Grijalva, the young woman currently passed out in the corner of the roof.
Katherine had said that she wanted to be out in the open, to make sure that we died quick and clean in the first shock wave. It made sense to me–why wait to die when we could just get it over with? Not suicide, although that was an option that millions had taken, but just… not resisting it.
Last night we had sat together on the roof, watching the sunset, sure that we would never see it rise again. Across the campus others were doing the same, but we had been alone on our roof. It wasn’t the highest or the biggest roof on the campus, but it was fine for our purposes. The Moriarity High Energy Physics Annex, where we had been living for the past two months, ever since the rioting in Phoenix had driven the Arizona National Guard to open fire on protesters in Scottsdale. It was supposed to be hushed up, but it was all over the volunteer internet in hours. Too many cell phone cameras, too many people who had nothing to lose. Rumor had it that some of the troops had posted their own footage.
Why not? What was the worst that could happen?
After I saw that I locked up my apartment for the last time and just moved onto the campus. I was a staff electrician, I had keys to everything. The population was about half of what it had been back when things were normal. Most of the students had left, but some stuck around, and a lot of the staff had moved in, as well as a bunch of people from God knows where.
There were almost dozen of us in the Moriarity building when I started sleeping there, but over time the others left. Left to try to make their way to loved ones, or to go do something, or just got tired of waiting for the end and took a header off a roof. One of the dorms was nine stories and had a wide plaza in front of it–that became the preferred spot for jumpers. Someone took a gallon of orange road stripping paint and drawn a bullseye target in the middle of the plaza.
Black humor was very in, these days.
Me, I’d never even considered it. If the movie of the human race was ending, I was going to stick around through the credits. Anything else seemed like quitting a race with the finish line in sight. I could understand why people did it, it just wasn’t me.
Katherine, I knew, had wanted to keep watching until the end. She’d enjoyed a brief celebrity as the discoverer of the comet, but that didn’t last long. The media liked being able to flash a picture of a young Native woman, but the tenured faculty wasn’t about to let some post-doc lab rat actually talk to the press. That was fine with Katherine, all she wanted to do was look at the sky and figure out how it worked. She’d grown up on Tohono O’odham land, and used to say that the sky was all they had. When it became obvious that the point of impact was going to be below the Tucson horizon she’d talked about somehow getting far west enough to see it, but by then getting out of Arizona was pretty much impossible, much less getting to the coast and finding a ship.
Someone started screaming, suddenly, long, throat-ripping howls. It was the sound of somebody dying. That woke me up.
Katherine was stirring. I made my way around the swamp coolers and through the maze of conduit, stubbing my toes a few times, which made me realize that I only had one shoe. I did have my jeans and T-shirt, though, which was more than Katherine had—she had shorts and a bra. That was reason enough for her to get off the roof—she was proof positive that brown skin can sunburn.
The screaming cut off, all at once.
Katherine had lifted her head. Her eyes were open, but not yet focused. She looked like I felt.
I squatted down beside her.
“What happened?” she whispered.
“Nothing,” I hissed back at her. The implications of waking up this morning were starting to dawn on me, and they weren’t pretty. “Come on, let’s get downstairs.”
I helped her to her feet and we staggered together towards the hatch that led down into the building. After three steps she bent over suddenly and vomited all over my foot. The bare one.
Then she lifted her head and tried to smile at me. “Sorry,” she said.
“Forget it,” I told her, “we’ve got bigger problems.”
She stopped in her tracks and I shoved her gently to get her moving again.
“What happened?” she repeated, staggering along side me.
“Nothing happened,” I told her. “It didn’t happen.”
“What?” she was worse off than I was. It made sense, she was smaller and younger, but I was going to need her awake and alert. Soon.
“The end of the world!” I raised my voice. “The comet, the tidal waves, the fire from the sky? Any of that ring a bell? It didn’t happen. The world is still here. Everything is still here.”
She stopped again and I shoved her again, not so gently this time. Staggering forward to the hatch she swung her head around to look at the landscape. White sky in a pale blue sky, buildings and scrubby trees and brown grass and distant mountains, same as always. “That’s impossible,” she said. She looked like she was about to retch again.
I kept her moving. “It’s what happened,” I told her angrily. “Didn’t happen. Whatever. We’re still here.”
Over the past few months we’d spent a lot of time on the roof, and we’d gotten good at negotiating the ladder. All the same I let her go first, I didn’t want her falling on me.
As she started down there was a fusillade of gunshots from somewhere out on the campus. She winced, but kept moving. I followed her down.
Across the hall from the roof access hatch was the lab we’d been using as a kitchen. I grabbed a bottle of water, chugged it, then felt it slosh around in my guts and concentrated on keeping it down. I handed Katherine a bottle.
There weren’t many left. We hadn’t figured we’d need supplies past yesterday.
I drank another bottle, more slowly. I was starting to feel hungry, but I didn’t want to eat yet. Not until I was sure I could keep from throwing up. All of a sudden, there was no food to waste.
Katherine was staring off into space. She repeated “What happened?” one more time, but this time she was asking herself, so I ignored it.
I was asking myself, what happens next?
We had to get out of town, that much was obvious. With no power, this town was limited to bottled water and canned food, and even with the decreased population that wouldn’t last long. I had a truck downstairs and plenty of gas for it, we could load up what food and water we had and take off.
Where, though? California was closest, but the last I heard LA was a war zone, gangs and militia and the remains of Federal troops in open combat in the streets. Going east might be safer. My head was pounding, but I thought I had enough gas for the generators to get as far as Oklahoma. I hoped that would be far enough. It had to be.
“I don’t understand,” Katherine was saying. Her bra straps were falling off her shoulders and I suddenly remembered her body on top of mine, trying to make love to me last night. Luckily we were both too drunk for it to get very far.
“Understand this,” I told her. “We have to get out of here, and soonest. This is a desert, and the power plant stopped working two weeks ago. That means no water, and no refrigeration. There aren’t going to be any trucks coming to restock the stores. If we stay here, we starve. Or we die of thirst. Or somebody kills us and eats us.”