by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
should be getting used to the sight of an eight-lane
expressway without other cars, but I haven't. It's
what a lovely morning!" Kathy wriggled a shoulder
stretch in the cramped passenger seat of my Civic and
gazed uncritically over the Atlantic. "I'm glad now
that we got an early start. New York is the pits this
time of year!" Any time of year, I thought,
but said nothing.
glad to be out of the city myself, but didn't share her
joy in the weather. The sky had a brassy sun in a high
steel haze, and the Atlantic was silver sullen, waves
in- decisive in a fitful breeze. In the coves invisible
from the highway the locals would be moving boats to the
leeward sides, and carefully stocking firewood, water
and other provisions. You don't have to live long in
these parts to know when a big blizzard is coming. I
wasn't looking forward to driving back this night. We
were freelancing it, hoping to get some samples of local
opinion on the disaster. The story would be pretty thin
Yankees, I knew, would not be too concerned with
events in a place like Trenton. But I hadn't seen Syd in
over a year, and I needed to get out of the city myself.
forth at the hideous hour of 4 A.M. with the glee of
kids on a family picnic. Sunrise found us well along the
495, near Harvard, well away from the miles of urban
squalor that predawn darkness had cloaked for us.
considered Kathy from the corner of my eye. Born and
raised in New York City, 25 years old. Knew less about
the local weather than I did, and I was a California
transplant, arrived just two years earlier. But the
first year had been in New Hampshire, where you could
still see the stars.
wondered, idly, if the stories were true that city folks
once lived to ripe old ages without ever seeing a star.
Certainly, you still couldn't see any from the bright
miasma of Manhattan.
stars had been bright over Berkeley, but Berkeley was
gone. If stars still shone there, they shone on
blood-scented water and a plague of the earth that
left was a hillside, sparsely settled by birch with
patches of snow in the shadows. Inland, the snow was
deeper, whiter, but here, where the salt air was, snow
didn't linger. By evening, I knew, the slope would be
Trenton. The thought came back, insistent, refusing to
be deterred by the innocent splendor of the New England
coast. The plague was there, right next door to my new
home, just like in Berkeley. For years we had read with
horror of the spread Asia, to Africa, to Europe, to
the Americas. And then the West Coast. The world's
population had reduced to a billion people, and no end
to the carnage was in sight. Blooming spots on the face
of the earth, and a new colony growing yet again.
Kathy's hand on my shoulder. "It's not here yet.
We're alive, so there's still hope."
managed a grin. "That obvious?" At her nod, I
continued, "I feel sometimes like it's chasing me,
looked pensive. "I guess if I had moved twice
because of it already, I might wonder the same
maybe." I changed lanes for the turn-off.
"That was the hardest part, both for Syd and
myself. We survived three years now, and no after
effects. No physical after effects, that is. We're part
of that one tenth, or whatever, of one percent that
Survived. Makes me feel a bit conspicuous."
didn't the doctors say . . . ?"
doctors don't know shit. All the tests came back normal,
which is no surprise since they don't know what the hell
it is they're testing for! At least Charlie says that
we're either lucky sons-of-bitches, or blessed by God.
That's probably closer to being right than the doctors
will ever be!"
Yeah. Cosmic Charlie. You'll probably meet him today.
He's one of Syd's regulars."
minutes later we pulled up to Syd's place. The sky had
gone almost pure white, with thin bands of gray cloud
here and there. Syd was standing out in front of his
place, looking apprehensively at his porch.
afraid it's going to blow away on you?" I shouted.
Syd continued staring pensively at his suspect eaves.
this 'ayup' crap? You going native on me?"
Syd suddenly turned, a broad grin giving the lie to his
indifference. We exchanged a big bear hug. Survivors
have a way of being extra glad of seeing one another.
Syd a looking-over. New England agreed with him. I
turned and introduced him to Kathy. They exchanged 'meetchas,
and we went inside.
a good bartender. He doesn't drink. He watched his older
brother take the long slide of alcoholism, eventually
dying at the age of 46. About then, Syd decided that he
just didn't need a drink anymore. Syd maintains a
relaxed attitude toward others' drinking as long as
they have a similar relaxed attitude about their
the place about a year before, dirt cheap. The owner
took note that the dead zones appeared in coastal areas,
and had decided to move to Nebraska. He explained to
everyone that he was tired of seeing the salt air do a
number on the paint of his car, which got him a variety
of grins, and off he went.
barroom was one of those large and cozy types of places,
with a big stone fireplace, cathedral beam ceiling and a
warm light. When Syd took it, hunting trophies had hung
along one wall, and antique whaling equipment along
another. Syd promptly replaced the trophies with
wildlife photos that he had taken himself, of animals
experiencing the joy of life. The whaling paraphernalia
was replaced with lovely oil paintings of sailing ships
that he had gotten from God-knows-where. Without
disturbing the atmosphere of the place a bit, Syd
managed to change the entire tone. The juke box lost
most of its collection of country and western, to be
replaced with Gaelic ballads and folk music. The
regulars came in, sniffed suspiciously at the new decor,
and settled back in. The only change that anyone ever
noticed was that fewer people spent time crying into
their beers, and there were fewer scuffles. Syd wasn't
out to reform anyone; he just let them see that there
were gentler ways of living.
grouped at a table next to the bar. The place,
unsurprisingly, was empty. It was still early in the
morning, and most of Syd's regulars would be out getting
ready for the coming storm. Syd observed that the place
would probably crowd up once the storm really got going.
Yankees didn't fight nature. They did what they could,
and then they waited. Syd's was a good place to wait.
poured some coffee, and sat down with us.
how far native have you gone? I'd have thought you'd be
pleased to see me. Or at least surprised!"
grinned. "Pleased, yeah. Surprised, no. I would
have been, I guess. Last time we talked, you were
planning to go to Atlanta and follow up on that
corruption story. But Charlie kept saying you were
said that, eh?" I shook my head and grinned.
"He still a demon weather predictor?"
forecast this storm."
shrugged. Some of the locals probably saw it coming a
August. Right." I gave Syd a skeptical look. He
seemed sincere, so I added, "Has anyone bothered to
check his accuracy on any of this stuff?"
that I've heard about. The locals take it in stride.
So-and-so can put a hex on his neighbor's catch, and
Charlie can predict weather and visits from distant
friends months in advance. No biggie, as far as they're
concerned." Syd gave a weak grin. "First, I
never pay much attention until it's too late. And then,
I don't want to annoy people. They like having a
'psychic' sort on hand."
I'm sure Charlie wouldn't want you to write them down,
either. Probably it's just a routine to cadge
shook his head. "Charlie doesn't cadge drinks. He's
widened. "OK, so he likes to bullshit people."
I'll have to start writing them down," Sid gave a
vague wave, presumably at whatever he thought he might
write on. "He works cheap, give him that. I wonder
how much those bozos on TV get paid to forecast
yesterday's weather? How was traffic coming up?"
In fact we only saw a couple of dozen cars the whole
way. "Manhattan is emptying out."
Some are moving out on the sound, taking over empty
homes. I don't think there's a million people in New
York these days."
be pretty slow for you at work."
out of work. The paper folded."
looked shocked. "The New York Times
why I'm here. I figure to head to Nova Scotia in a few
days. I want to start out talking to the New Acadians,
and then work my way southeast to Yarmouth. From there,
back inland, and maybe wind up near the west
regarded me doubtfully. "That's a long trek. Are
you sure crossing the country is feasible? I hear that
gas stations and restaurants are getting scarce."
is still OK. Doesn't look that bad around here,
not bad here. Most of the locals have lived here all
their lives. Little things like the threat of sudden
death aren't going to scare that lot off. So why make
figure to get out and talk to people."
. . . ?"
my arms out, pantomiming holding a notepad and pencil.
"Tell me sir, quoth I, what is your
laughed. "You realize that every out-of-work
reporter in the country is doing just that?"
got something else in mind. I'm not interested in
hearing about where they were the day Seattle died, or
how Aunt Bertha bit the big one. I want to find out how
they feel about the dead zones."
imagine they're pretty much against them, guy."
Syd a look of mock deep agreement. "You see my
problem. How do I ask that without it sounding
not sure I understand what you are asking."
Did you ever read much science fiction?"
Sid rolled his eyes in recollection. "On The
Beach, Lucifer's Hammer, Forge of God This Is The
Way The World Ends."
You ever notice how in those stories, people are either
resigned to their collective fate, or pissed off, or in
a total blind panic?"
that was a bit different. You had what amounted to a
deity manipulating humanity. That isn't happening here,
and you aren't seeing the types of reaction you might
expect. People are taking the 'zones in stride. You
don't hear talk about the world coming to an end, except
for the religious fanatics, and when AREN'T they
talking about that? Most people, on the other hand, act
as if this is just some sort of adjustment period, and
afterward there's going to be all kinds of prime
beach-front property available."
that's because everyone figures that they are safe
inland. Get fifty miles from salt water, and you're
safe. So why think the world is ending?"
heard about Australia?"
Plane went down near Adelaide. They think everyone on
board was dead when it crashed, right?"
it must have flown over a dead zone. Must have. What
else would kill everyone at once? But it was never
anywhere near an ocean it was flying from
somewhere in the Outback, there's a dead zone that
hasn't been noticed because it's so remote. If someone
was trying to keep the lid on that, they didn't manage
it would seem." I rubbed my hands together.
"So we might have an inland 'zone. Shouldn't
people be running around screaming 'shit, we're doomed!'
or some such?"
the Ukraine scare last year?" Kathy looked at each
of us in turn. "They found a small town full of
it turned out to be pneumonic plague." I had done
peripheral write-ups on the story. Compared to the Black
Death, the 'zones were a good, clean death.
still wouldn't be panic. People are getting used to the
'zones." Syd lifted an eyebrow at me. "Been a
while since I heard of any Survivors got lynched."
I saw his eyes flicker at Kathy.
knows, Syd." I tried smiling. I suspect I failed
miserably. "It seems I scream in my
nodded. Kathy rested a hand on his. "Syd, I don't
have any problem with Survivors. Honest." Syd gave
a noncommittal nod. "What was your story?"
the best way to strike up a conversation with a Survivor
was to ask him what his story was. At least, if you
happen to be a Survivor yourself.
was in my apartment. I heard a crash, and went to the
window to see what happened. Traffic was still moving,
but it was moving aimlessly. I watched a car plow into a
fire hydrant. Water gushed up, nobody seemed to notice.
I went outside, and found everyone dead."
Kathy was disappointed, she hid it well. Or maybe she
realized that some people couldn't even acknowledge it
even happened. Compared to some, Syd's narration was an
exercise in vivid detail. Syd had accepted Kathy.
taken me six months to tell her just the beginning of my
story. I had heard a knock at my door, and went to
answer. A kid was leaning against the jamb, with the
pizza I had ordered propped against the same jamb. The
expression on his face was that worn by anyone waiting
for an answer at a door. It didn't change when I opened
the door, and it probably still hasn't. He might still
be standing there.
taken me several minutes to realize he was dead.
broke in on my thoughts. "A few months ago, I would
have been pretty paranoid about you knowing about me.
People aren't used to Survivors, few as we are. But they
are also used to the 'zones, as many of them as there
come a long way from Hong Kong." I nodded, Kathy
looked puzzled. "There were about a dozen Survivors
from Hong Kong. We think. All we know for sure is that
24 hours after Hong Kong died, one Survivor had
committed suicide, another had gone mad and murdered
another, and a third got lynched as he was coming into a
clear area. The other Survivors all simply vanished.
Hiding or dead, nobody knows."
added, "There were rumors of Survivors getting
lynched here in the States, although I don't think we
were ever able to verify any." Syd pursed his lips,
shook his head. I continued, "But we got careful,
real fast, just in case."
think we're safe from lynch mobs. Nobody wants to take
out their frustrations on us."
if the Australian thing turns out to be true?"
then. I think part of it is the way the 'zones work.
Death is instant, and apparently painless. It's a spooky
death, but it's not terrifying."
'zones are scary, but the death isn't. You're right:
I've heard people say enough times that if you gotta go,
that's the way to do it."
They cordon off the 'zones so people don't blunder into
them by mistake, but they are suicide Meccas. People
simply jump the barricades, run in a hundred yards, and
was that line of Woody Allen's? Death doesn't scare me. dYING
laughed. "That's it. This is a gentle death. It
doesn't scare people the way something spectacular like
spontaneous combustion or exploding would."
I don't even want to think about that."
advice. Don't get Charlie started on it. He started
talking about gory deaths the other night, and got so
graphic I thought I was going to have to kick him out. I
think Charlie's a vet. He's got the blood-and-guts
descriptions down pat."
caught my eye. "This the same Charlie you were
talking about earlier?"
Good old Cosmic Charlie." Syd chuckled.
barkeep you are! This guy is in, night after night, and
you don't know if he's a vet or not?"
glared at me. "Fine. You try getting a
straight answer out of him!"
thought you guys liked him."
do, we do. It's just that Charlie is pretty off-the-wall
sometimes, and when he gets like that, you want to take
him in small doses."
looked baffled. I tried my hand. "Charlie's . . .
interesting." Kathy looked resigned. I think she
realized that she wasn't going to get anything more
coherent out of us. Syd cleared his throat. "OK. So
what you're saying is that people aren't reacting to the
'zones in any way that you think they should, and you
want to find out why. Am I right?"
I leaned forward to try to explain. . . .
drifted fitfully into early December afternoon. The sky
became mackerel skin, scudding. At one point, Syd had me
get wood and start a fire. Syd wasn't avoiding a chore.
He knew that I was from the back areas, and realized how
much I missed those mundane little tasks.
spoke of the life of the distant past, Berkeley's towers
and light comedies at risquι little theaters, hiking on
overpopulated trails, visits to the City. And the
'zones. The winds outside gusted fretfully, whispering
threats to the oil-paint clippers on the walls within.
I tried talking out some interviews, but made little
progress. I wanted to get at people's deepest feelings
about the 'zones, and we didn't know how to go about
could ask Nicole," Syd said. Nicole was a Berkeley
Survivor. "She might . . . ohmigod."
What is it?"
could I forget? Nicole called the day before yesterday.
She's in Nova Scotia."
no." Syd waved my response away. "Nicole was
in Trenton last week."
stared, letting the implications sink in. Trenton died.
Last week. Nicole was in Berkeley when it died. She was
in Trenton when it died. We knew that Survivors alone
could reenter dead zones without harm. Indeed, some had,
finding the dead to be easier company than the living.
But what none of us knew was whether anyone could
Survive the onset of a 'zone twice. Did all 'zones kill
in the same way? Would anyone who Survived one 'zone
Survive any 'zone? Did the onset of a 'zone differ in
any way from onset to establishment? Was the one in
ten-thousand (or less) survival rate a matter of
happenstance or something else? Nicole's case promised
to provide some answers.
as you might imagine. She was on a crowded bus when it
happened." I imagined, and shuddered. "She had
to climb over a lot of carrion to get out."
not harmed by the 'zone?" Syd spread his hands,
shrugged. "We should give her a call."
until dark. That's what Charlie says. Says she needs to
hear from us more then."
since I hadn't told him about Nicole when he said for me
to do that. He's had me call her every night, sometimes
early, sometimes late. He has a knack for knowing when
she needs company the most."
conversation paused. Kathy, lost in her thoughts, gave a
up, threw some wood on the fire. "Getting chill in
here. Dark outside."
glanced out. The sky was a steel warning, the barrel of
a gun. Syd sat down, and continued. "You were
saying that you plan to go from Nova Scotia to the
southwest, right?" At my nod, he continued,
"Are you going through Oklahoma?"
looked blank. "Oklahoma? What's in Oklahoma?"
his face. The Scottish preacher. "
snapped her fingers. "Kevin Campo."
Yeah. The one who says that the 'zones are a warning
from God and all that."
Syd a sour look. "Why should I visit him?"
some sense into his head, maybe?"
looked puzzled, so Syd continued, "This Campo
fellow says that the unrighteous perished in the 'zones
and only the elect survived. I don't like being fingered
like that. I don't feel superior to those who didn't
he continued, "we had a lot of friends who died.
Good people. Who is he to second-guess the validity of
nodded. "Bad enough that every tinhorn preacher
around is making that noise. Now we have to import them
voice sliced the dimness of the room. An anile cackle,
followed by, "Scotland doesn't have much in the way
of an 'inland.' Campo must think all his countrymen
gasped, and I jumped, spilling my coffee. I whipped
around as I stood, and stared into empty space for an
instant. Then my eyes swiveled down, and I found a pair
of blue, blue eyes staring back up at mine from about a
foot lower. Charlie grinned up at me, teeth like
glared, and said, "Dammit, Charlie. You enjoy
scaring people, don't you?"
my fault if people aren't alert."
no answer." Then, "How did you get in? The
back door's locked."
smirked and crossed his arms. I looked at the front
doors unlocked, but with a series of cowbells strung
down them to announce the comings and goings of people.
"Syd, are those for show, or do you keep clappers
looked disgusted, strode over, and gave the door a
gentle nudge. The bells obligingly clamored. Charlie
gave that cackle again. "Charlie knows about bells.
You try to put bells on Charlie, but bells are Charlie's
how did you get in?"
ignored the question, instead going behind the bar,
scooping up a glass, and pouring himself some wine.
himself right at home, doesn't he?" Kathy muttered.
considered, whispered his answer. "He's pretty good
about that, you know? He'll do it when no one is here,
or in a case like this, where it's 'just friends'
visiting. Doesn't try it when there's customers
chuckled. "Does he pay for that?"
Two bucks a night, in cash."
seems cheap." It wasn't any of my business, but I
couldn't resist. "How much does Charlie drink,
take that glass of wine and nurse it 'til closing..
Believe me, I've watched."
he's always soused."
warning look cut me off. I watched Charlie's shock of
white hair bobbing toward us. "Charlie," I
called out. "Did you hurt yourself? You're
made a peremptory wave at Kathy. "She expects me to
walk this way. So I thought I'd oblige her." Kathy
flushed. Charlie grinned at her. "My name is not
. . . quoi . . . "
stutter you've got. Or are you just asking me 'why' in
French?" He stuck a gnarled finger in Kathy's face.
"What's your name?"
. . ."
K-k-kathy. What's your last name? And I hope it doesn't
have any 'k's in it!"
expression tightened. "McEwen."
looked delighted. "Oh, HO! A Scot! Und wha' parrt
a' Scootlund be ye frrrm?"
tone was glacial. "A small town called New
a lapsed Scot. Pity. I was going to ask if Kevin Campo
was a friend of yours. Are you Laotian?"
Do I LOOK Laotian?"
Why do you want to know if I'm Laotian?"
puffed out his chest. "Because I'm the Chairman of
the Fair Play for Pol Pot Committee."
wore a dazed expression. "Pol Pot? The guy who
murdered all those people in Cambodia?"
very one. Don't you think he deserves fair play?"
Of course not. He's an evil man!"
smile was gentle, but his eyes were shark-like.
"Suppose I told you that maybe Pol Pot wouldn't
like the fair play I had in mind?"
up. "Charlie, Pol Pot killed Cambodians. Why are
you worried about Laotians?"
Laotians, Pol Pot was an inconvenience. All those
refugees invading their neighborhoods. For Cambodians,
however, he was a personal disaster. He transcended
anger for them. Ask a Cambodian about Pol Pot, and he
shrugs. He cannot begin to explain it. Ask a Laotian
about Pol Pot, and he'll look annoyed. Ask about Pol
Pot's victims, and the Laotian's anger will
thought about that. When the disaster was big enough,
people always seemed to be more militantly angry about
injustice and tragedy for others than for themselves.
when have you ever talked to any Asians?" Syd
confronted him. "Have you ever been outside of
Asians in Maine . . . still." Charlie rattled off
something in a strange tongue.
It's the language usually spoken in that part of
looked at one another. None of us spoke Hmong, or even
knew what it was supposed to sound like. In the gust of
laughter that ensued, Syd said, "OK, we'll have to
go along with you and assume that was Hmong." He
grinned and shook his head at what he doubtlessly
considered Charlie's audacity.
Survivors hate the dead zones?"
stopped the laughter cold. Despite myself, I pulled my
head back. What Did I feel about the 'zones?
Themselves? How could I hate something that large, that
when I came here, these guys," her face a mask of
indignation, Kathy waved at us, "were telling me
how sharp you were. But you are a vulgar, rude . . .
are not a Survivor!" Charlie's voice was like a
whip. "You hate the 'zones, don't you? You are
angry at what the 'zones have done to your
friends!" Charlie turned to me. "Now you know
what to ask when you cross the country."
at Charlie. Don't ask people the obvious; ask them how
they think the Survivors feel! Through projection, their
true feelings would emerge.
. . And if the person you're speaking to happens to be a
Survivor, the answer will be even more revealing."
Charlie finished my thought for me. He turned to Kathy,
who was still sizzling mad. "Please forgive my
rudeness. My friend thinks better if he has to defend
someone he cares about. To get him thinking, I was rude
to you, and I apologize."
rallied, and snapped back, "Are you a
grinned again, his facial expression softened.
"Kathy, we're all Survivors until we
reached out and took her resisting hand, gently.
"I'll slow down. I promise." He gave her a
warm smile. She returned the smile, obviously against
her better judgement. The corner of her mouth twitched,
building gave a slight heave, and the walls groaned. We
could hear branches clashing in battle. Syd stood up.
"Sounds like your storm just got here, Charlie.
Kathy, you want a drink?"
Kathy's nod, he went behind the bar. Charlie listened,
ear cocked to the ceiling. He called to Syd, "Stop
worrying about your porch. It'll hold."
it before November next. You'll be fine."
cocked an eyebrow. "You figure we'll still be here
yes." Charlie chuckled. "Maybe the dead zones
are afraid of me."
my head. "I shouldn't wonder." Syd brought a
beer to Kathy, sat back down. "So, Charlie. How do
you feel about the dead zones?"
gave him a bland look. "You asked the wrong
question. You're supposed to ask how the Survivors
know how I feel. I was asking you."
you?" It was Syd's turn to look bland. "Very
well." Charlie sipped his wine, regarded us.
"They heal the earth."
killed billions of people."
heal the earth." Charlie repeated, as if my
interruption simply amplified his remark. After a
moment's silence, Charlie looked around. "None of
you have any problem with that?"
I paused, gathering my thoughts. "I've often heard
that maybe the 'zones were doing exactly that. I knew a
guy in New Hampshire, he didn't know I was a Survivor,
and he kept going on about how Gaia was combing the lice
out of her hair. To him, Gaia the Earth Mother
was a sentient being, her mind being a composite of all
living things. He saw Humanity as being a cancer in
grinned. "Are we lice, or are we cancer? Sounds
like he didn't like people very much."
didn't. Used to spend all his time explaining how all
evil was a product of our minds, and that if we all did
get killed, the earth would be a garden of Eden. He got
mad when I pointed out that I would rather be a louse
than a cancer."
would that make him mad?"
because a louse is an individual life form. There was a
subtle reminder that individuals were getting killed,
rather than some large, amorphous indistinguishable
listening intently, looked up. "Did you ask him why
he was still alive?"
I felt the tips of my ears get hot. "Actually I
didn't handle it quite that well. I got fed up with the
'granola-without-the-crunch' philosophy and asked him
why he hadn't committed suicide yet."
sucked his cheeks and looked pained. Charlie asked,
suicide? No, of course not. He moved to Minnesota
spoke up. "I don't see how this ties in with
healing the earth."
me save a bit of time here, Charlie." Syd gave
Charlie a humorously exasperated look. "Charlie has
been talking about this stuff a lot. In short,
he's been pointing out that we're already seeing major
improvements in the air quality, and that the plankton
along the coasts seem to be increasing rapidly."
Syd glanced at Charlie. "Does that cover it?"
looked sour. "No. Does anyone want to hear the rest
of it?" Taking noncommittal silence for approval,
he went on, "The air and the ocean are just a part
of it. The dead zones have become wildlife sanctuaries,
rivers are starting to come back a bit, and there's even
some indications that the ozone layer is starting to
replenish. There hasn't been a war anywhere in
over a year. Terrorism stopped dead the first year.
Violence of all kinds is down. The United States had
what was it? Fifty eight thousand murders four years
ago, 510 last year."
hell, Charlie, there's less people." Syd objected.
on the right track, but you don't know it." Charlie
leaned back against his chair and smiled at us.
"Sure, there's less people. But there's not that
many less. Figure that maybe 75% of the people alive
four years ago are still around?"
sounded about right. We nodded.
the murder rate is just one per cent of what it was. The
war rate is exactly zero percent. Now, why is
was getting a little pedantic for my taste. I decided to
light a fire under him. "The dead zones are killing
all the bad people and leaving the good." I gave
Charlie a smug smile.
bounced to his feet, chair crashing behind him.
"No, no, no, NO!" He brought a fist
down on the bar, making some glasses dance. "That's
not it at all!" He glared at me, face red, any
didactic decorum gone.
but a bit appalled at the strength of the reaction I had
provoked, I asked, "OK, so what is it?"
can't you tell me?"
you do. You just haven't thought it out."
Syd leaned against a wall, gunslinger's posture. "I
think I detect a bit of resentment. Now, are you asking
us this as friends," Syd's voice dropped, "or
asking as a friend and yes, young lady, I'm asking
you, too. I know what you're really asking, Syd."
Charlie looked disdainful. "Believe me, you two are
proof that being a Survivor equates to no special
sucked on my teeth. Syd guided us squarely into that
one. Not that I shouldn't have expected it; we had been
playing up the survivors versus everybody else until
hell wouldn't have it. Charlie sighed. "OK, I
apologize." He pointed at me. "Not bad. That
was the oldest debating trick in the book, and old
Charlie got sucked right in. But I had no business
letting irritation cause that remark."
I both nodded, understanding. Making the type of remark
I had to a non-Survivor carried potential risks. Hell, a
snide comeback was getting off light, in some quarters.
I opened my mouth to apologize in turn, but Kathy spoke
I think I know why."
Tell us, Miss. What is it?"
appreciate each other more."
the wind howled agreement. I paused, apology forgotten,
to taste the idea. When was the last time I was mad at
the world in general? It had been a while.
sat down, facing Kathy. Resting his chin lightly in a
lined hand, he almost whispered, "I think you might
be right. Go on."
MATTER more. We've all lost so much, what we have
left means more."
that felt right. Charlie watched Kathy intently. She
continued. "Life didn't mean much, not when you had
to face the billions and billions of lives around you.
There were so many of us, and we were all so tied up in
trying to protect what little we had that made us
you lose so much, really? Or did you gain?"
Both, I guess. We lost friends and relatives, great
people, cities, lovely places. There's a lot of us left,
but we're threatened. So we care more."
care more." Charlie looked at each of us. "Is
there a greater gift then that?"
scared, Charlie. We all think we're going to die, so we
huddle together for comfort. Like a bunch of kids out in
looked at me. "Are YOU scared?"
all of us, I guess. Humanity. Are we finished?"
think not." Charlie pulled back his head, and for a
minute looked for all the world like a man adding
numbers in his head. "No, I think not. I don't
believe that anyone really thinks that, either."
echo of my thoughts earlier in the day made me consider.
Charlie was right; only a few people really believed we
were all going to die.
you care more. Does that sound hokey? Can you say
shrugged. "OK, I care more."
wasn't too easy to say, was it?" I nodded rueful
agreement, a bit puzzled at myself. "I'll explain
that in a moment. "So people care more. It's not
something anyone thinks about; not in those terms. But
if you've ever had a sick child, or even an ailing pet,
you tend to be a little bit kinder, even if the malady
is minor. And this isn't a minor malady. With so much
death already, why would anyone want to kill? Or hurt?
Or even threaten? Syd, when was the last time you had a
six months ago. Um, you talked them out of it."
Some silly dispute over the Red Sox. Wasn't even a real
fight. A few years ago, people used to get into
punch-ups fairly often here."
nodded. He'd heard stories. "Now, Syd, part of that
is you. You hate violence, and you despise drunkenness.
But in the old days, that wouldn't have been enough.
Hell, you'd have gotten ganged up on! These Yanks fought
for fun. They never hated one another, this place
is too small for that. But then they stopped fighting
for fun. It wasn't fun anymore."
tapped the edge of his wine glass. "Been hearing a
lot lately about 'survivor's guilt.' Only they call it
'Survivor's Guilt,' with the capitals. I reckon you two
have been hearing that phrase a mite, here and
there." Charlie shot us a speculative glance.
"Psychological mumble, for the most part. But you
both had something real that you had to deal with.
both find it hard to say 'I care' because you are alive
to say it. You wonder what gave you that right. From
there, you doubt that you have any rights at all,
including the right to love."
looked at Kathy. "But you have a form of it, too.
You wonder if you would have whatever it takes to be a
Survivor. You wonder what you'd think of yourself if you
don't have what it takes," Charlie held up a hand,
"and don't tell me about how patently absurd that
was. The human mind is usually patently absurd. Part of
you is perfectly prepared to feel inadequate in the
event that you die!" Charlie grinned.
"Amazing, but true."
giggled. Charlie continued, "Now you have a key to
yourself. You have to play around with it, getting it to
open up that part of your mind, but it WILL fit.
you Survivors, it's a bit tougher. You've HAD to
stop to count the cost. You wonder if this 'kinder,
gentler' world is for real. Is a child good to a sick
puppy because he loves the puppy, or does he just fear
stared. It was the very image of the thoughts running
through my mind.
you just children, huddled together against a storm? Or
has this just brought out something that the tide of
Humanity had squashed under the mass of its
spread his hands. "Humanity survives, and maybe 100
years from now, everything will be like it was a few
years ago. Or maybe it won't. Personally, I think there
is good in people. I think they CAN learn!"
are you religious?"
Charlie started, glared at Kathy. "Never been in a
church in my life. Don't aim on starting."
talk about learning. This implies a teacher."
implies learning. Nothing more. But suppose there is a
big sugar daddy in the sky. Is he a meanie?"
two billion people, is all."
the five billion that lived before them. Syd, do those
nine billion people mean anything to you? Why should
they mean more dead than they did alive?"
I can't think in terms of billions. I'm not equipped for
it. But I can think in terms of two dozen." I
gestured at Syd. "He lost that many people who he
was close to. So did I."
you insisting that I wallow in your guilt? OK: You lost
people you cared about. But, Syd, chew on this; running
this bar, there are a lot of people here and now that
you are closer to than anyone in Berkeley."
maybe about it. Suppose a 'zone opened up here tomorrow,
and you Survived alone. I was dead, Jeff was dead, Lou,
Pete, Abe . . . all your regulars. All dead. Lying on
this floor in front of you."
OK." Syd raised trembling hands to his temples.
rested a hand on Syd's shoulder. "Sorry. But am I
buried his face, but nodded.
you lost is not equal to what you have gained. You're
learning how to love, my friend. You just don't know it
yet. Listen." Charlie held up a finger. "Do
you hear it?"
frowned, concentrating. The wind hammered a demand for
entry. Somewhere telephone lines shrieked their
defiance. And then I heard it; a sibilant hiss that came
from everywhere and nowhere. Granulated snow, falling
storm is a tiger. But its true voice, that of the snow,
is one of a kitten. Before tonight ends, hundreds of
deer will die. Tens of thousands of mice, rabbits
squirrels, and yes, a few kittens, these all will die.
Somewhere, right now, a majestic elk will labor into the
blowing ice, searching for food that is not there,
shelter that cannot accommodate it, finally succumbing,
alone and frozen. It will be the storm's voice of the
face was a study in horror. My cheeks were numb and
to my surprise, wet.
if any should think on it at all, they will dismiss this
tragedy as being just nature's way. They won't even see
it as being cruel.
like to talk about how storms like these weed out the
weak specimens, the impure specimens. But in reality, an
animal's chances mostly depend on pure individual
happenstance. Tonight, millions of kittens, no match for
that mighty elk, will live. But they are inside, warm
and cozy. Another, smaller elk will live because he
happens to be on the leeward side of a mountain.
people will notice that the world is a nicer place. Some
will say it's because only the best Survived. I think
that this would be the most tragic mistake that could be
see, Survivors aren't special. You did nothing to
'deserve' to live. You merely failed to 'deserve' to
die. You are no better then those who died. And
emphatically, you are no worse than those who died,
although it's going to take a while before you believe
not sure. I'm alive because the universe is
don't like being alive?"
don't like the idea of the universe being random. Lonely
it wasn't random? Suppose that the Great Holy Muffin or
whoever is running the show said 'I'll spare that
kitten, and that one, but not the rest of those? Aren't
you right back in the category of being 'special'
somehow one of God's elect, maybe? Isn't that what
that Campo fellow is saying?"
heaved a sigh. "Charlie, I know you want to help,
but neither of those answers help much. Either I'm a
lucky son-of-a-bitch, in which case I'm 'lucky' in a
cold and chaotic universe, or I'm one of a capricious
God's chosen. Both strike me as rotten reasons to be a
reasons. You don't like being one of God's select?"
Charlie's eyebrows went up in mock surprise.
invalidates the lives of nearly everyone I ever knew.
Bullshit on that."
eyes glittered. "OK, let's talk about God for a
we? I thought you weren't religious."
not. Churches are for idiots. But let's figure out this
God chap someone's hand has to be on the throttle,
or it is all random. So let's take a look at God
as a builder, rather than as a great cosmic tit in the
Charlie rubbed his hands briskly, raised them above his
head, a magician's gesture. "God creates . . .
Everything! Blooie! He's got it down pretty good
stars, planets, galaxies. Nice big pretty toy for him to
wander around in. Maybe he's getting lonely, or maybe
he's aching over the question of where He came
from, and wants help in solving it. Or both. At any
rate, he gets ambitious, and decides to make himself
some people for company.
biological life is fantastically complex. Even an ameba
has several million chemicals in it. Humans have
billions, and god isn't as powerful as people make him
out to be. He does his best, but humans have
limitations, maybe the same ones he has.
He's got himself some company and folks willing to guess
at answers to the great cosmic riddle. Fine. But after a
while, there's too many people, and they've gotten the
idea that god is this unapproachable, omniscient being
that isn't into their reality.
he pulls the great cosmic chain, and flushes. But he
grabs this chap named Noah, and says, 'These people
weren't righteous, but you are, so build a boat and . .
.' But you know that story.
dry out, and Noah establishes a new civilization. But
Noah tells his kids 'We survived because God thought we
were special.' His kids take that and run with it.
They're saying, 'Yeah, we're pretty hot shit.' But some
of them like you don't really buy into that
idea, and they branch off. They form new beliefs,
different cultures. The True Believers, convinced that
they are the Holy Hot Shit, go out and start massacring
the others for their own good, of course.
rubs the bridge of his nose, and wonders tiredly why he
didn't realize that they would screw it up like that. So
he starts talking to people, telling them, 'No, that's
not what I meant at all.' He even tells some, 'Go out
and tell 'em to care about one another and drop that
dreadful arrogance that you are Holy Hot Shit.' All that
happens is that people start running around saying that
they are Holy Hot Shit bECAUSE they are humble!
for god, this isn't working out at all. He's ready to
blow his Holy Lunch over the whole thing.
he takes off to think things over for a while. When he
gets back, things have gotten 'way out of hand. There's
six billion people, with weapons that can destroy the
planet, and the planet itself is desperately sick. In a
few more years, most of those people are going to be
paused and looked at us. "Did any of you think that
if the 'zones hadn't shown up, people would be dropping
like flies by now, anyway?
here's god, and he's already concluded that extreme
measures are called for, and he has come back to find
that those extreme measures aren't going to amount to
much more than whether he does it himself, or lets
people do it to themselves.
already figured that there is a population ideal
let's say that he thinks that five million people is
about right. But that's less than one-tenth of one
percent of the population. He can weed out the truly
vicious and useless people, but most people are at least
passably decent. He can get rid of every person capable
of murder, for instance, and three days later the
population is just what it was before, because most
people are not power-mad or evil.
he starts the 'zones. He's got them set up to be pretty
much random; kill all who fail to meet standards, and
kill all but .x% of those that do. Don't go for the
best, because their kids will just develop that damn
superiority complex all over again."
restive. This was beginning to sound like Campo's
about ten years, most people are gone. Meanwhile,
because of the 'zones, people aren't paying close
attention to the fact that in other areas, certain, ah,
Select Individuals have picked up this habit of suddenly
dropping dead for no good reason at all. Not many people
at all, and the rest haven't really noticed that the
loss of these individuals presents no loss to everyone
around them. But life is getting better."
leaned back, clasped his hands behind his head, an
guileless expression on his face. He shrugged. "So
maybe god's next move is to get the word out that
there's going to be a new approach, and hope that this
time, people get it right."
looked wistful. "Sounds nice. So what would this
along the lines of, I'm not perfect. You taught me that,
because I made mistakes with you. Stop trying to pretend
that I am perfect, or we'll never be able to
communicate. And that's the real reason you exist. To
talk to me."
leaned forward, fiddled with his glass. "Most of
the holy stuff says that god created man in his image.
Suppose that this is literally true: Humans are about
equal to god, who has the same flaws? God started out
wrong, by not seeing his own limitations. But he needed
to learn and grow, just like people do, and he's grown
enough to realize that he and people have to grow and
learn together from now on."
stopped talking, and the ticking of a clock filled the
room. A new image came into my head; God as a harassed
kid, barely out of adolescence. Trying his best, and
being frustrated and dismayed because most people were
too damn dense. Taking his good ideas and turning them
into monstrous evils . . .
caught my eye. She smiled. "That would answer a lot
of questions about the world, wouldn't it?" Syd
nice, Charlie," I agreed. "But it won't wash.
People need a cosmic tit, not a flustered kid. That's an
appealing idea of the nature of God, but people won't
accept it. They either want God to have all the answers,
or they'll look to people like Campo to provide answers
don't think people can outgrow that idea? Can they stop
smiled. "Like I said, it's an appealing idea. But I
don't even know if there is a God."
Charlie inclined his head toward the doors. I listened,
storm's letting up," he said. "Don't you folks
want to get up to Nova Scotia by tonight?"
no. we're going back to New York first. We have to close
out a few things."
Don't go back to New York. Go straight to Nova
I paused, struck by the intensity of his look.
"Look, Charlie, tell us why we shouldn't go to New
'zone will open there tonight." Charlie hooked a
thumb at Kathy. "She might not survive, and I think
laughed my exasperation. "Charlie, even you can't
predict the 'zones!"
I?" Charlie gazed at me intently. "OK."
He slapped his hands on his thighs and stood up.
"Let's take a look at the sky, shall we?"
up and accompanied Charlie to the doors. I watched the
back of his head bob in front of me, and wondered.
Charlie has always had a strong personality, but I had
never seen him so hypnotic, so powerful.
stopped at the doors and ushered us in front of him with
a sweeping, theatric gesture. He wore a wide grin under
glittering eyes. Puzzled, I stepped past him.
stopped dead. A warm sun shone down on the parking lot,
yellow through a little bit of summer dust. Along the
edge of the parking lot, tulips stood proudly, petals
just starting to droop, the first sign of early summer.
Grass waved in a gentle breeze, and the scent of pine
was on the air. The ocean was a deep, deep blue. A
perfect, cloudless summer day.
behind us, Charlie spoke. "I'll put it back in a
moment. But that is my new promise for your future.
Please don't call it a Covenant"
turned. "Charlie? Are you . . . ?"
held up a hand. "The name Charlie will do just
fine. Nova Scotia. Don't go to New York. Don't speak of
this. You're right, people aren't quite ready to accept
these changes. Not without my direct help, anyway. And
I'll be up to help you. I've learned a few lessons
stared at Charlie's hand. Where it had been, what it had
done . . . a million thoughts went through my head, and
I don't think all of them were mine. "Uh,
thanks." I managed.
gave Kathy and I an impatient shove. "Go," he
said. "Syd and I need to talk a bit here. I'll be
in Nova Scotia next week, and don't worry I have
ways of finding you." He grinned. "We'll talk
then, I promise."
turned and walked across the parking lot, gusts of snow
blowing up around our faces, biting at our cheeks. We
could make Nova Scotia by dawn if we left now.
storm, a steel gray hammer, moved on toward New York.