Wondrous Days15 min read
“We should make a map,” she says. “Just to keep track of things.”
I keep my mouth shut, try not to look at her.
* * *
We live in a sooty half-dawn that never wakes. Nights are so dark it’s better not to think about it. (The nights had only just begun to get dark at all; for a while it was just as bright as the day, from all the fires eating through the dry forest, and we walked until we dropped just to keep ahead of the smoke.)
Sleeping is the worst. You don’t know if you’ve been asleep for ten hours or ten minutes. I’m never rested–the darkness and the smoke have swallowed everything–and there’s nothing to go on, and whenever I open my eyes everything’s still pointless, and she’s already awake.
“It’s morning,” she says, or, “It’s afternoon,” like she knows any better than I do what time it is, and she’s looking away from me and out at the wreckage.
Maybe that’s why she wanted to make a map; just to pretend that there was something better coming, that we’d meet someone who would need it.
* * *
The real map of the new world is tacked to a wall in the Darkroad Project wing of the Ames Research Center. It’s already yellowing; NASA’s acid-free paper can’t hold up against the atmosphere.
The map is stuck with little green pins where explosions are most likely to affect the tectonic plates. There are circles drawn in black and red, in orange and purple and green. The map key names them: twenty years, ten years, five years, one. The black circles are widest, and marked Xibalba.
The papers posted around it are from algorithms that have been run on the Pleiades supercomputer. They’re printed thickly with core temperatures, trade winds, a Refractive Index to gauge the best chances to preserve the ice caps. There’s a list of temperate vegetation six pages long, Latin names and English names side by side.
There are smaller maps, anonymous close-ups of deserts and forests and plains and islands. Beneath each map there are pages of notes on maximum water levels, likely periods of drought, natural shelters; each one has a tacked-up list of flora and fauna marked with Xs, or E for Edible.
It’s a drastic future, carefully planned, waiting patiently for its day.
* * *
She looked like she had been ready for something. She had hiking boots that laced up her calves, and a backpack big enough to live from. My canvas sneakers lasted less than a week; I had to wrap them with drawstrings from my jacket until we found a corpse with my shoe size.
She never said what she had been doing in the forest. She hardly ever talked. I talked; when we met I talked about what had happened, about where my girlfriend was. (“Dead,” she said.) I talked about where we should go to look for others.
There were none. Just corpses with my shoe size.
After we’d walked where I wanted for ten days, she said, “I think we should try another way.” It was the longest speech she’d made, and the way she said it sounded like the whole thing was my fault.
“Like you know where to go,” I said, but we headed another way.
That was when she started the map; like wherever I’d been going didn’t matter.
* * *
She kept a book in her cargo pocket where she made hashmarks for the dead. She had a page for women, a page for men. Sometimes there was no telling from the parts who it had been to start with; those hashmarks had a page of their own.
“You should give up,” I said.
She knelt, turned the body over.
(Eventually you stop throwing up when you see corpses; your body holds onto whatever nutrients you can get.)
* * *
We found a deer. Most of the meat had turned, but maggots had kept part of the loin clean enough to eat.
She cut off what she could with the knife in her pocket, and she found a cave deep enough to block the wind, and after she had twisted grass so it would burn, I used my lighter to start the fire.
Weird what you’re good for, when circumstances change.
* * *
In the morning she’s sitting at the mouth of the cave, looking out at the boggy forest. She doesn’t like to be near me; when we’ve got tree cover she sleeps out of reach; when we’re in caves she sleeps as far away as the walls allow.
(Cave living. Shit. Sometimes you wish you had died.)
After a second I realize she’s looking at the sky; maybe she could navigate just by the stars, back when there had been stars.
Something turns over in my stomach. Hunger, maybe.
* * *
Point Zero, an activist group of historians and academics, had held a rally in New York to protest The Darkroad Project’s access to Pleiades. They carried signs that read 13 TO ZERO; SCIENCE NOT SUPERSTITION; THE MAYANS WOULD BE ASHAMED.
“The Mayan Solstice is just resetting a clock!” one guy shouted into the cameras. “We’re wasting taxpayer money on an astronomy lab that only generates scare tactics! Mindless superstition like this is catching!”
Point Zero vaulted to Public Enemy Number One. The Pope declared the intervening year a gift, and bid his congregation, “Use these wondrous days to make peace before the End Times, when Jesus calls His faithful children to Heaven.” Superstition about 2012 spread faster than the media could track it, and Point Zero’s rationalism looked like a losing fighter until twelve of them took over the NSA’s Sequoia computer.
(They’d had an insider on the development team, which the NSA never admitted.)
They hacked C-SPAN, announced the takeover, activated the nuclear grid, and held the Svalbard Seed Vault hostage.
“We have no wish to harm Norway or any other country,” they broadcasted, “but we are willing to take drastic measures to force humanity to confront its own future and to work for the planet’s survival.”
Norway provided boats for evacuees. (The Wildlife Federation sent in their own boat teams to rescue the reindeer, bears, and foxes that had been forgotten in the crisis.)
The Point Zero faction also demanded the dismantling of the Darkroad Project at the Ames Research Center, and the public acknowledgement of any quakeproof cities being constructed.
The manifesto they disseminated talked about “the fetishization of disaster as religious experience” and “the inevitable emergence of suspicion as commodity.”
It named the Darkroad Project “an underreporting think tank whose members should be using their intelligence to educate the world about astronomic research, rather than burying their disaster-scenario findings under government hush money.”
“Unless this 2012 Doomsday theory is debunked publicly,” the manifesto concluded, “we will protest the waste of international resources in any way necessary to make it clear that we are serious about our goal, and ensure that we eliminate the rising and dangerous power of mass delusion in the hands of the under-informed.”
The manifesto was roundly decried as sensationalist.
Construction on several subterranean cities came quietly to a halt.
(No one could tell what Point Zero might already know; no one knew what Sequoia could do in the hands of the right people.)
* * *
I was driving across the mountain when it hit.
The earth snapped once from side to side, like a wet dog shaking off the rain, and my car flew into the rock face sideways because the road had spat it out.
(I was lucky. The others must have been spat out the other side, down the rock face.)
When I finally came around, I broke out of the car and limped back onto the road, and I couldn’t even recognize where I was; the mountain had crumbled to dust around me, and I was standing in the center of a world I didn’t know. It was like a pile of puzzle pieces snapped together by a careless kid; everything looked unfinished, forced together with gaps between them, so two halves of a tree were suddenly standing a mile apart.
Everything was colorless and dim, so I thought it must have been almost night, and I dragged my way back to the car to sleep until it was morning. (I didn’t know yet that there were no more mornings.)
* * *
I go ahead of her with a walking stick, in case of animals or sinkholes. Whenever I look back, she’s frowning off to one side, making notes on her cheap road map (my cheap road map, the most useful thing I’d offered).
Finally she says, “We should go back to the cave tonight. The ground is too soft here to sleep on.”
Her profile is sharp and bright against the grimy day, and I feel like I’ve faded to nothing, like she’s the only living thing left.
* * *
I watched her fall asleep near the cave mouth (where there was still enough light to see). She had her book tented on her chest, her head turned away.
I slid the book out of her fingers (her fingers were cold, she was too close to the cave mouth), and tucked it into the inner pocket of my jacket.
(She trusted me only because she had to, because otherwise there was nothing left. Let her ask for it back; find out what it’s worth.)
* * *
After the manifesto came out, the Ames was publicly cleared out; the governor insisted it was for the safety of employees, not as a concession to Point Zero.
The Nobel Mathematics Committee issued a statement disowning the “Point Zero extremists, who turn a legitimate standpoint into a terrorist platform.”
The board members of the mainstream Point Zero held a vote and had a very long discussion. Zeropointzero.org went offline.
Reset13.org popped up the next day, its homepage dotted with strings of 13s and 0s and a palatable explanation of b’ak’tuns and k’atuns. It had a comic strip featuring a pair of sarcastic Mayans who cracked jokes about resetting a long-form clock.
Their members list grew.
A week after the taking of Sequoia, there were only those twelve members of Point Zero left, and they were surrounded by police, locked into a little operating room with a world at their fingertips.
* * *
She doesn’t mention the book. All day I walk in front of her, tense and waiting, ready for a fight that never comes.
I had figured she’d be better than this, somehow. (Better than what? My mind is muddy; I breathe through the coat of grime on my lungs, put one foot in front of the other, grind my walking stick into the ground so I don’t fall through.)
Behind me she breathes a steady in-and-out, like she’s drilling slowly through my skull.
* * *
We don’t start fires at night. You find cover and you huddle in and hope not to freeze. At first it was awful, but now I don’t really even shiver any more; my body’s bracing itself for a very long winter.
She hunkers down into her coat, and I try to make out the line of her profile against the crawling night, until it gets too dark and I give up. I can’t see a thing at night since the fires stopped.
(Strange, the things you miss.)
“Why were you skywatching, before? What were you looking for?”
After too long she says, “What makes you think I was looking for something?”
Bullshit. She’d been looking for something since the day I staggered through the woods delirious from hunger and half-sick from my own smell, and she appeared out of nowhere to take me back to the hollow trunk where she had made shelter from the grimy light.
“Don’t lie to me,” I say. I hardly recognize my own voice, like the dark distorted it.
But I had listened to the news back when Point Zero was protesting. I knew that if you looked up at the night sky you saw Xibalba Be, the Dark Road that the Mayans had seen, the biggest clock humanity could set by. Someone from the think tank had gone on the news and explained the galactic alignment with a computer graphic. The planets had already lined up like a string of beads; nobody knew if anything would happen before they split, but you had to think that something could.
I wait for her to call me a liar; to ask about her book. I count to ten. To ten. To ten. She’s so quiet I can hardly hear her breathing.
I keep my eyes squeezed shut (you get vertigo at night trying to look around with no light anywhere), but there are little white flecks in my vision, a tiny constellation of angry stars.
* * *
It’s the dark that does you in. It’s the dark that slides over you worse than the ash or the wind, because you know that all the ways to keep back the dark are gone, that when your lighter is gone there will be no more fire without flint and sticks and admitting that there’s no hope for anything better.
The dark swallows up the new geography that’s been shaken out over the old one, swallows up everything but you (she’s sleeping next to you, propped up against the cave wall, but the cave is so small you could reach out and slide your hand into her pocket), and you wake from nothing and know that the dark has pooled like oil in your ears and your nostrils, and even with your eyes squeezed shut you know it’s stained your vision until you can’t see, that you’re walking in circles as the ground under you is crumbling, that with the next step you’re going to fall, and then you wake and open your eyes, gasping, your hands scraping at the roof of your mouth to claw the darkness out, and she’s leaning over you, marking on your body with pencil where she’ll carve away the good meat, and when you scream at her the darkness slides into your stomach, and you wake to the sooty sky and her silhouette already standing outside the cave, untouched and impenetrable, and as you sit up something coils around your lungs and squeezes tight.
* * *
Point Zero knew they had been abandoned; they knew that whatever happened, their lives were over, and it was only left to decide how they would go out.
They didn’t want to damage the seed vault, no matter what. They never had. Of all the doomsday propositions Point Zero dismissed, the swift extinction of nature was not one. (They cheered when they heard that the animals were being evacuated from Svalbard.)
Resolute, they wrote a new broadcast, where they would announce additional targets; they’d force oil fields to stop production, they’d frighten the world into a worldwide cease-fire. They would sit in the Ops Room with Sequoia and slowly starve out, to buy enough time for the world to come to its senses.
“These wondrous days you’re waiting for don’t come from prayer, but from deed,” they wrote. “They are the provenance of those who care enough to make sacrifices for a better world. We are your caretakers; we will craft these days for all of you.”
(Hunger was setting in; they were getting evangelical.)
They didn’t know about the room in the basement of the Ames with maps tacked to it, with pinpoints and predictions from the Darkroad Project about how a new world could be carved from the old one.
Point Zero didn’t know there were plans that had already been made.
* * *
The next day is dark and heavy, heavier than yesterday; I can’t breathe (she had stuffed soot down my lungs overnight) and with every step I can feel her staring at my back like she knows something I don’t—
I turn on her.
“Is this about your fucking book?”
She doesn’t say anything, just gives me that hard, closed-off look I’m getting pretty sick of.
“If you want it back,” I snap, “you can ask for it.”
“Why did you take it?” she asks, like there’s an answer, and all I can think of is, “It’s a stupid thing to carry,” I say, which is the truth but it isn’t an answer.
But she doesn’t question me, just says, “You can’t do that,” so calm it stings, and I sink an inch into the mud and I hate her for pushing me like this I hate her and my hand flies at her and as she ducks I scream, “I’ll do what the fuck I want to you!”
She staggers a few paces back. Then she looks at me for a long time, and I feel like I’ve sunk into the ground up to my knees. I make fists at my sides.
Finally she says, “I’d like it back.”
The last fucking thing I need from her is that tone, that tone like she’s disappointed in me, like I’m the one who’s not making sense.
I yank the book out of my jacket and throw it on the ground at my feet. It hits the mud with a wet thwack, hovers for a second before it starts to sink.
She never looks at the book; never looks away from me.
I step on it as I turn around, just for the satisfaction of forcing it down, and then I keep walking.
Eventually, I hear her footsteps behind me. When I look back at her later, there’s no mud on her; she’s finally wised up about that worthless thing.
There’s no need for it. Not like the past is going to change.
* * *
After the second broadcast from Point Zero that stated their intentions and put a dozen cities under the gun, there were stampedes from the cities into the countryside. There were cease-fires in war zones as countries pulled their troops back to handle the home fronts. Churches were overrun with congregations hoping to make amends before Point Zero pushed the button.
No one was thinking any more about an empty Research Center; it was nominally under guard, but since Point Zero had ignored it, so had the police. All five members of the Darkroad Project slipped in through a side door without even being seen.
As world governments argued about how to protect against the threat posed by Sequoia’s nuclear grid, as Point Zero’s broadcast was picked up by news stations with panicking anchors, as people rioted over canned food in grocery stores, the Darkroad Project stood at the control console of Pleiades and executed the program they had been working on for two years.
Xibalba.exe ran flawlessly; they knew as soon as the earthquake hit and the room buckled.
(They were too close to a fault line to expect to survive; but a true scientist must accept the risks of the experiment.)
* * *
We walk for hours. We walk until the dark is almost on us; I want to see how long she’ll keep up. (Every step; I have to stop myself from looking over my shoulder.)
The dark rolls in from all around us (the dust hides everything), but she doesn’t stop, and I can’t–I can’t show any weakness, not after all this. I keep walking. Soot has coated my nostrils, and the whole world smells like char, and the darkness is sliding over me.
“It’s getting dark, I say, “we should stop,” and my voice is small in the dark.
She says, “If you’re tired.”
Fuck her. I keep walking.
My legs are numb; I feel like I can hardly walk, like I’m falling asleep from the bottom up, and my walking stick isn’t helping. I let it fall; I need my hands for balance, and I swing them out a little away from my sides, my hands fisted. I won’t stop until she stops.
Behind me, she says, “I voted yes, you know.”
Her voice is far away, and it pushes me deeper into the ground. I turn–I try to turn, but I’m thigh-deep in mud, and I realize her voice is far away because she hasn’t followed me. She’s been paying attention to the lay of the land.
“Get me out of here,” I say.
She says, “I voted yes. It was a two-two split until I voted. I thought it would be worth it to suffer for a while, until everything could be set right. We thought it would be worth it, to start over.”
The mud is slimy against my stomach.
“I was willing to die,” she said. “Then I made it out, and I was willing to help anyone I found. I helped you.”
I realize she’s speaking in past tense; that she’s done helping me.
I try to step back out of the sinkhole, but the mud is slick and heavy, and it pulls me off-balance, and I sink deeper. I take a breath, trying to calm down. You can’t fight sinkholes, you have to spread your arms or something to slow yourself down; I remember this from a movie, I can get out of here.
“Point Zero was right,” she says, and her voice is angled toward the sky. “The threat would have been better. We gave too much credit to people.”
I choke out, “Fuck, I’m sorry,” in a tone that cuts the roof of my mouth.
It falls quiet. The inky dark has made my other senses sharper; I can hear the mud sucking at my clothes, my pulse pounding in my ears. Far off, I hear an owl.
“I’m sorry, too,” she says, and I hear leaves crunching under her feet as she steps back.
I scream; I kick wildly, I dig into the mud to try to swim out, but it’s too slick and I’m in too deep and the oily blackness swallows me; when I scream, I choke on it.
“The new world has to be better than the old one,” she says. “That’s my project now.”
I can hardly hear her. The darkness has slid into my nose and my ears, leaking past my squeezed-shut eyes, and I know the next time I open my mouth I’ll swallow clay and it will be over.
“Next time,” she says, not unkindly, “I’ll know better what kind of person to look for,” and there are two footsteps before the mud closes over me.
(Strange what you’re good for, when circumstances change.)