Cosmic Charlie
by Bryan Zepp Jamieson

The Charlie Effect
by Keith Campbell

Cosmic Charlie
by Island Girl

Cosmic Charlie
by Misha

KamiCosmic Charlie
by Colin Campbell

Sea Foam
by Swagman

Cosmic Charlie
by Jeffrey P. McManus

Holy Lunch
by Aidan Butler


to Swagazine


by Bryan Zepp Jamieson

I should be getting used to the sight of an eight-lane expressway without other cars, but I haven't. It's unnerving."God, 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.

I was 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.

We set 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.

I 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.

I 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.

The 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 killed humans.

To my 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 white again.

And now 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.

I felt Kathy's hand on my shoulder. "It's not here yet. We're alive, so there's still hope."

I managed a grin. "That obvious?" At her nod, I continued, "I feel sometimes like it's chasing me, personally."

She looked pensive. "I guess if I had moved twice because of it already, I might wonder the same thing."

"Guilt, 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."

"But didn't the doctors say . . . ?"

"The 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!"


"Heh. Yeah. Cosmic Charlie. You'll probably meet him today. He's one of Syd's regulars."


A few 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.

"You afraid it's going to blow away on you?" I shouted.

"Ayup." Syd continued staring pensively at his suspect eaves.

"What's this 'ayup' crap? You going native on me?"

"Ayup." 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.

I gave Syd a looking-over. New England agreed with him. I turned and introduced him to Kathy. They exchanged 'meetchas, and we went inside.

Syd is 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 drinking.

Syd got 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.

The 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.

We 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.

Syd poured some coffee, and sat down with us.

"Syd, how far native have you gone? I'd have thought you'd be pleased to see me. Or at least surprised!"

Syd 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 coming today."

"Charlie said that, eh?" I shook my head and grinned. "He still a demon weather predictor?"

"He forecast this storm."

I shrugged. Some of the locals probably saw it coming a week earlier.

"Back in August."

"In 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?"

"Not 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."

"And I'm sure Charlie wouldn't want you to write them down, either. Probably it's just a routine to cadge drinks."

Syd shook his head. "Charlie doesn't cadge drinks. He's got money."

My grin widened. "OK, so he likes to bullshit people."

"Well, 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?"

"Light." In fact we only saw a couple of dozen cars the whole way. "Manhattan is emptying out."

"Everyone going inland?"

"Mostly. 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."

"Must be pretty slow for you at work."

"I'm out of work. The paper folded."

Syd looked shocked. "The New York Times folded!?"

"That's 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 coast."

Syd 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."

"Inland is still OK. Doesn't look that bad around here, either."

"It's 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 this trek?"

"I figure to get out and talk to people."

"And . . . ?"

I shot my arms out, pantomiming holding a notepad and pencil. "Tell me sir, quoth I, what is your story?"

Syd laughed. "You realize that every out-of-work reporter in the country is doing just that?"

"I've 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."

"I imagine they're pretty much against them, guy."

I gave Syd a look of mock deep agreement. "You see my problem. How do I ask that without it sounding idiotic?"

"I'm not sure I understand what you are asking."

"Hmmm. Did you ever read much science fiction?"


"Any end-of-the-world stuff?"

"Sure." Sid rolled his eyes in recollection. "On The Beach, Lucifer's Hammer, Forge of God This Is The Way The World Ends."

"Fine. You ever notice how in those stories, people are either resigned to their collective fate, or pissed off, or in a total blind panic?"

"Childhood's End?"

"Well, 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."

"Well, 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?"

"You've heard about Australia?"

"Uh-huh. Plane went down near Adelaide. They think everyone on board was dead when it crashed, right?"

"So 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 Sydney."

"So 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 too well."

"So 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?"

"Remember the Ukraine scare last year?" Kathy looked at each of us in turn. "They found a small town full of dead people."

"And 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.

"There 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.

"She knows, Syd." I tried smiling. I suspect I failed miserably. "It seems I scream in my nightmares."

Syd 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?"

Normally, 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.

"I 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."

If 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.

It had 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.

It had taken me several minutes to realize he was dead.

Syd 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 are."

"We've 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."

I 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."

"I think we're safe from lynch mobs. Nobody wants to take out their frustrations on us."

"Even if the Australian thing turns out to be true?"

"Even 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."

"The '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."

"Exactly. 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 drop."

"What was that line of Woody Allen's? Death doesn't scare me. dYING scares me!"

Syd laughed. "That's it. This is a gentle death. It doesn't scare people the way something spectacular like spontaneous combustion or exploding would."

"Ugh. I don't even want to think about that."

"Some 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."

Kathy caught my eye. "This the same Charlie you were talking about earlier?"

"Yeah. Good old Cosmic Charlie." Syd chuckled.

"Some barkeep you are! This guy is in, night after night, and you don't know if he's a vet or not?"

Syd glared at me. "Fine. You try getting a straight answer out of him!"

"I thought you guys liked him."

"We 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."

Kathy 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?"

"Basically." I leaned forward to try to explain. . . .


Morning 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.

We 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.

Syd and 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 that.

"You could ask Nicole," Syd said. Nicole was a Berkeley Survivor. "She might . . . ohmigod."

"What? What is it?"

"How could I forget? Nicole called the day before yesterday. She's in Nova Scotia."

"Well, that's convenient."

"No, no." Syd waved my response away. "Nicole was in Trenton last week."

I 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.

"How is Nicole?"

"Shell-shocked, 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."

"But not harmed by the 'zone?" Syd spread his hands, shrugged. "We should give her a call."

"Wait until dark. That's what Charlie says. Says she needs to hear from us more then."

"That's pretty insightful."

"Especially 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."

The conversation paused. Kathy, lost in her thoughts, gave a slight shudder.

Syd got up, threw some wood on the fire. "Getting chill in here. Dark outside."

I 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?"

I looked blank. "Oklahoma? What's in Oklahoma?"

"What's his face. The Scottish preacher. "

Kathy snapped her fingers. "Kevin Campo."

"Campo. Yeah. The one who says that the 'zones are a warning from God and all that."

I gave Syd a sour look. "Why should I visit him?"

"Knock some sense into his head, maybe?"

We both 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 live."

"Also," he continued, "we had a lot of friends who died. Good people. Who is he to second-guess the validity of their lives?"

Kathy nodded. "Bad enough that every tinhorn preacher around is making that noise. Now we have to import them from Scotland."

A new 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 deserve death."

Kathy 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 Stonehenge.

Syd glared, and said, "Dammit, Charlie. You enjoy scaring people, don't you?"

"Not my fault if people aren't alert."

"That's no answer." Then, "How did you get in? The back door's locked."

Charlie 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 in 'em?"

Syd 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 friend."

"Well, how did you get in?"

Charlie ignored the question, instead going behind the bar, scooping up a glass, and pouring himself some wine.

"Makes himself right at home, doesn't he?" Kathy muttered.

Syd 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 about."

I chuckled. "Does he pay for that?"

"Always. Two bucks a night, in cash."

"That seems cheap." It wasn't any of my business, but I couldn't resist. "How much does Charlie drink, anyway?"

"He'll take that glass of wine and nurse it 'til closing.. Believe me, I've watched."

"But he's always soused."

Syd's 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 limping!"

Charlie 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 Quasimodo."

"Quoi . . . quoi . . . "

"Nasty 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-kathy . . ."

"OK-k-k-k, K-k-kathy. What's your last name? And I hope it doesn't have any 'k's in it!"

Kathy's expression tightened. "McEwen."

Charlie looked delighted. "Oh, HO! A Scot! Und wha' parrt a' Scootlund be ye frrrm?"

Kathy's tone was glacial. "A small town called New York."

"Ah, a lapsed Scot. Pity. I was going to ask if Kevin Campo was a friend of yours. Are you Laotian?"

"What? Do I LOOK Laotian?"

"Are you Laotian?"

"No! Why do you want to know if I'm Laotian?"

Charlie puffed out his chest. "Because I'm the Chairman of the Fair Play for Pol Pot Committee."

Kathy wore a dazed expression. "Pol Pot? The guy who murdered all those people in Cambodia?"

"The very one. Don't you think he deserves fair play?"

"No. Of course not. He's an evil man!"

Charlie's 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?"

I spoke up. "Charlie, Pol Pot killed Cambodians. Why are you worried about Laotians?"

"For 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 emerge."

I 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.

"Charlie, when have you ever talked to any Asians?" Syd confronted him. "Have you ever been outside of Maine?"

"There's Asians in Maine . . . still." Charlie rattled off something in a strange tongue.

"What was that?"

"Hmong. It's the language usually spoken in that part of Asia."

We 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.

"Do Survivors hate the dead zones?"

That 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 impersonal?

"Charlie, 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 . . . "

"You 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."

I gaped 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."

Kathy rallied, and snapped back, "Are you a Survivor?"

Charlie grinned again, his facial expression softened. "Kathy, we're all Survivors until we die."

Charlie 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, stopped.

The 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?"

"Whose storm?"

At 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."

"You think so?"

"Replace it before November next. You'll be fine."

Syd cocked an eyebrow. "You figure we'll still be here then, huh?"

"Oh, yes." Charlie chuckled. "Maybe the dead zones are afraid of me."

I shook 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?"

Charlie gave him a bland look. "You asked the wrong question. You're supposed to ask how the Survivors feel."

"I know how I feel. I was asking you."

"Do you?" It was Syd's turn to look bland. "Very well." Charlie sipped his wine, regarded us. "They heal the earth."

"They've killed billions of people."

"They 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?"

"Yeah." 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 Gaia's body."

Syd grinned. "Are we lice, or are we cancer? Sounds like he didn't like people very much."

"He 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."

"Why would that make him mad?"

"Maybe because a louse is an individual life form. There was a subtle reminder that individuals were getting killed, rather than some large, amorphous indistinguishable mass."

Charlie, listening intently, looked up. "Did you ask him why he was still alive?"

"Um." 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."

Syd sucked his cheeks and looked pained. Charlie asked, "Did he?"

"Commit suicide? No, of course not. He moved to Minnesota instead."

Kathy spoke up. "I don't see how this ties in with healing the earth."

"Let 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?"

Charlie 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."

"Well, hell, Charlie, there's less people." Syd objected.

"You're 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?"

That sounded about right. We nodded.

"So the murder rate is just one per cent of what it was. The war rate is exactly zero percent. Now, why is that?"

Charlie 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.

Charlie 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.

Delighted, but a bit appalled at the strength of the reaction I had provoked, I asked, "OK, so what is it?"

"Why can't you tell me?"

"I don't know."

"Sure you do. You just haven't thought it out."

"Charlie." 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 as Survivors?"

"I'm 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 worthiness."

I 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."

Syd and 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 first.

"Charlie, I think I know why."

"Oh? Tell us, Miss. What is it?"

"People appreciate each other more."

Outside, 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.

Charlie sat down, facing Kathy. Resting his chin lightly in a lined hand, he almost whispered, "I think you might be right. Go on."

"We MATTER more. We've all lost so much, what we have left means more."

Yes, 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 unique."

"Did you lose so much, really? Or did you gain?"

"Um. 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."

"We care more." Charlie looked at each of us. "Is there a greater gift then that?"

"We're scared, Charlie. We all think we're going to die, so we huddle together for comfort. Like a bunch of kids out in the storm."

Charlie looked at me. "Are YOU scared?"

"For me, no."

"For whom, then?"

"For all of us, I guess. Humanity. Are we finished?"

"I 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."

Charlie's 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.

"So you care more. Does that sound hokey? Can you say it?"

I shrugged. "OK, I care more."

"That 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 fight here?"

"About six months ago. Um, you talked them out of it."

"Yeah. 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."

Syd 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."

Charlie 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.

"You 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."

Charlie 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."

Kathy 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. Trust me.

"For 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 losing it?"

I stared. It was the very image of the thoughts running through my mind.

"ARE 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 numbers?"

Charlie 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!"

"Charlie, are you religious?"

"Me?" Charlie started, glared at Kathy. "Never been in a church in my life. Don't aim on starting."

"You talk about learning. This implies a teacher."

"Learning implies learning. Nothing more. But suppose there is a big sugar daddy in the sky. Is he a meanie?"

"Killed two billion people, is all."

"And 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?"

"Charlie, 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."

"Are 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."


"No 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, OK." Syd raised trembling hands to his temples.

Charlie rested a hand on Syd's shoulder. "Sorry. But am I right?"

Syd buried his face, but nodded.

"What 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?"

I 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 almost horizontally.

"The 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 kitten."

Kathy's face was a study in horror. My cheeks were numb — and to my surprise, wet.

"And 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.

"Hunters 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.

"Eventually, 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 made.

"You 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 that."

"I'm not sure. I'm alive because the universe is random?"

"You don't like being alive?"

"I don't like the idea of the universe being random. Lonely feeling."

"Suppose 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?"

I 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 Survivor."

"BOTH reasons. You don't like being one of God's select?" Charlie's eyebrows went up in mock surprise.

"It invalidates the lives of nearly everyone I ever knew. Bullshit on that."

Charlie's eyes glittered. "OK, let's talk about God for a minute."

"Must we? I thought you weren't religious."

"I'm 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 sky.

"OK." 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.

"Well, 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.

"Right. 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.

"So 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.

"Things 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.

"God 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!

"Well, for god, this isn't working out at all. He's ready to blow his Holy Lunch over the whole thing.

"So 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 dead."

Charlie 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?

"So 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.

"He's 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.

"So 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."

I felt restive. This was beginning to sound like Campo's garbage.

"In 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."

Charlie 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."

Syd looked wistful. "Sounds nice. So what would this message be?"

"Something 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."

Charlie 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."

Charlie 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 . . .

Kathy caught my eye. She smiled. "That would answer a lot of questions about the world, wouldn't it?" Syd nodded.

"It's 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 for them."

"You don't think people can outgrow that idea? Can they stop being kittens?"

I smiled. "Like I said, it's an appealing idea. But I don't even know if there is a God."

"Listen." Charlie inclined his head toward the doors. I listened, heard nothing.

"The storm's letting up," he said. "Don't you folks want to get up to Nova Scotia by tonight?"

"Ah, no. we're going back to New York first. We have to close out a few things."

"No. Don't go back to New York. Go straight to Nova Scotia."

"Charlie." I paused, struck by the intensity of his look. "Look, Charlie, tell us why we shouldn't go to New York."

"A 'zone will open there tonight." Charlie hooked a thumb at Kathy. "She might not survive, and I think she should."

I laughed my exasperation. "Charlie, even you can't predict the 'zones!"

"Can't 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?"

We got 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.

He 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.

And 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.

From 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"

I turned. "Charlie? Are you . . . ?"

Charlie 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 myself."

I 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.

Charlie 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."

We 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.

The storm, a steel gray hammer, moved on toward New York.


Next Page