This Quintessence of Dust

Two astronauts return to Earth after fifty years in space to find a world completely depopulated by a terrible plague. The last survivors of a doomed planet, the two men eke out a grief-stricken pointless existence, foraging in the ruins of shops and warehouses as they wait to grow old and die. The fact that they are such good friends does help, but the crushing sense of loss and isolation is always with them. Until one day...

This Quintessence of Dust
or: EXTINCT 'R' US
by Laika Pupkino

This is the story they warn you about in those science-fiction writing seminars...

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====O=[ 1. ROUND TRIP TO NOWHERE ]=O====

Four months into their journey something sheared off the primary and secondary communications arrays. There was a blood-curdling scream from the proximity radar, and less than a second later it struck- a terrifying metallic BANG that made their hearts clutch and their sphincters spasm.

And in another second it---whatever it was---was out of range again, seemingly pulling the pulverized remnants of the two units along after itself in a glittering cloud of debris. And they had thought they were travelling fast!

After they got the ship pointed back in the right direction, Dr. Evan Dreyfus, the civilian physicist and engineer in charge of the potentiality conversion drive, sent a rovercam out to assess the damage. It circled the Athena, propelled by precise little spurts of CO2, sending back photographs and X-rays of the spacecraft.

While provisions had been made for the main antenna conking out, something as statistically freakish as this was never considered as the cause of its failure, and the backup unit had been positioned right alongside it on the ship's hull. With both gone their link to Earth was completely severed. Which was bad, but it was better than to suddenly find themselves sucking vacuum.

"So what do we do now, Flaco?"

"What can we do?" shrugged flight commander Adam 'Flaco' Flannigan. He tapped the monitor displaying images and analysis from the rovercam, "Nothing else seems compromised, I guess we go back to playing blackjack. And give thanks to the patron saint of foolhardy volunteers that it didn't hit the crew module or the propulsion train..."

The Commander had a patron saint for everything. And his crewmate's next line was supposed to be an inquiry as to what saint that might be, allowing him to to reel off some off-the-wall story about his fictitious saint. Instead Dreyfus said glumly, "Everyone's gonna think we died out here."

"I suppose so. But when we show up alive after so long they'll all go nuts. It would be like Amelia Erhardt suddenly landing on the deck of the U.S.S. Gerald Ford. They'll be throwing us ticker-tape parades for weeks!"

"But what about my mom? And your folks? By the time we get back they will be in their nineties, and they'll have spent all that time thinking we bought it. Or they could all be dead by then, without ever learning we were okay."

Flaco swore and threw his cards at the bulkhead. He wasn't mad at Dreyfus for pointing this out, but at himself for not thinking of it. For being so glib about this.

=O=O=O=O=O=

Other than that one mishap their flight had been an uneventful one. A trip to quite literally the middle of nowhere---a portion of the way to Proxima Centauri---undertaken to test how well the revolutionary new propulsion system worked before a real crew was sent forth on a real trip to the stars.

Due to budget cuts it had been necessary to scale the original plans for the mission way back---the crew compliment having been reduced from five to just the two of them---and there was a minimum of science conducted. They'd compiled data on particle densities in interstellar space, and had monitored their own health to see how their rather low-tech form of artificial gravity compared to the real thing. There was an experiment involving pine saplings, and four others dealing with quantum physics that were boxed off and that they'd been warned not to mess with. The mission's real scientific dividend would be in proving once and for all that the "theory" of relativity was nothing short of a law; as these astronauts only eighteen months older than when they had left were welcomed home by nieces and nephews with graying hair.

So it was a lot these two spacefarers had been asked to sacrifice for such an unglamorous mission. They were basically forfeiting their whole lives, to start out all over as a pair of historical oddities. They had expected that they would arrive home to find technologies they'd never dreamed of in use, to see everyone dressed very strangely, using unfamiliar slang and listening to ugly, incomprehensible music. In short, to experience in their mid-twenties and in one fell swoop the severe culture shock that people usually go through when they're a whole lot older.

The consultation that had been arranged with a man who had woken up in 2017 after a twenty-eight year coma was especially eye opening. This was not just some dickwad shrink or behavioral theorist- the guy had been there. And after hearing his story they were prepared to face some real emotional rough spots when they got home.

But even with all the environmental and political troubles mankind was facing when they left in 2022, neither astronaut was pessimistic enough to doubt that there would be anyone around to greet them on their return...

=O=O=O=O=O=

It felt weird to be weightless again. A constant rate of acceleration and then deceleration on the return leg had provided the equivalent of 1.22 G's. As they orbited the Earth they were now close enough to pick up ordinary broadcast radio---for which no fancy directional antenna was needed---but they couldn't hear a thing. And there were no twinkling grids of city lights on the planet's night side.

"Maybe they all decided to go Amish," suggested Flannigan.

The physicist chuckled weakly at this. A far more likely explanation for the silent world below them could be read in both men's eyes.

They brought the Athena's lander in (wondering what idiot had named it the Icarus...) using only its onboard telemetry and their own piloting skills. At the end of their long bone-rattling arc through the upper atmosphere they were relieved to look down and see that Edward's Air Force Base's Runway #4 was unobstructed, since one way or another they were landing.

=O=O=O=O=O=

The old wizard was sitting on a camp stool outside of Macy's in the afternoon sun, playing Prokofiev's "Lt. Kieje" on his fiddle. He was coming up on that fast part with all the crazy squeaky quarter-notes that always gave him trouble, when he heard a very distant peal of thunder.

Which was odd. The skies over nearly the entire country had been calm and cloudless all week. Then it dawned on him what he had just heard.

He stood up---stretching, his back issuing a series of faint pops---and smiled widely. "Welcome home boys!"

=O=O=O=O=O=

With the lander's last bit of forward momentum they managed to coast right up to an open jet hanger, where they popped the hatch and clambered down the retractable ladder. They stood on the tarmac, the desert wind whipping the cuffs of their coveralls, and peered into the building.

Skeletons in tattered uniforms lie in contorted poses. A forklift had smashed right through the wall of a boxlike little glass-walled office, embedding its tines in a bank of filing cabinet.

Dreyfus counted six dead, but as his eyes adjusted to the interior's darkness he realized how many more sets of bones had been scattered about by coyotes. He gasped, "Oh fuck me!"

"I guess we can kiss off our ticker tape parade," said Commander Flannigan hoarsely.
.

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====O=[ 2. THE GOOD DOCTOR'S JOURNAL ]=O====

The base's infirmary had been busy toward the end. The twenty regular hospital beds looked original to the place, but nearly a hundred cots had been packed in here, each of which now held mummified human remains, beneath a forest of metal stands and shrivelled IV bags. It was gruesome, and a hard space to navigate, but this seemed like the place to go for answers.

"DEATH TOLL AT TWO BILLION" screamed the headlines of a crumbling newspaper. The date on the 11x17" printout informed them that these people had all died three decades ago, twenty years into their fifty year absence.

They got the building's emergency generator running and whooped in triumph when the doctor's computer---so small that they had at first mistaken it for a modem---came to life. It had what they decided was some kind of neural interface device sitting on top of it.

The headset was a novelty model that had been marketed for little girls- a gaudy tiara made of silver plastic and studded with cheap glass rubies. The base's chief physician had bought it as a joke, after so many of her underlings had ribbed her about her being the tyrannical queen of the infirmary. But the two astronauts had no way of knowing this.

Flaco Flannigan picked it up, snorting, "Can you believe this thing?"

"It is pretty goofy," chuckled Dreyfus.

"What isn't goofy around here? I mean....... like that Coke can there."

"I guess they started making them out of cardboard."

"No, but look at it! The artwork."

"It looks like it was drawn by a six year old."

"Kind of. But it's not all cute and pudgy and colorful like it should be, if that was what they were going for. It shouldn't be all scribbly and closed in on itself like that, or using those gruesome colors. And d'you see how it's all crowded down into one corner? It's like the 'patient art' you'd see in some book about schizophrenia. It gives me the creeps!"

"What got to me was that newspaper, the ads in there," said Dreyfus. "Everybody was bald. Moms, dads, kids; and with no eyebrows. And it's not like they were sick or something, they paid to look like this. 'Zizzing' they call it, whatever that means."

"So then you know what I'm saying. And all this is from just twenty years of their time. How'd you like to have to deal with fifty years of changes?"

"I think I'd like it just fine," said Dreyfus flatly.

"Right. Point taken," grimaced Flannigan, and they were silent for a while.

Flaco slipped the cortical interface unit onto his head. He closed his eyes, and tried to open his mind the way he figured a psychic would. Lights across the tiara's filigreed top began to blink.

In his head, an insistant male voice was saying what sounded like: "You must do the Wild Watusi!"

But at the exact same time Dreyfus asked, "Anything?"

"Shut up," snapped Flannigan.

He concentrated, staring at the backs of his eyelids. But after a few minutes he frowned, and yanked the tiara off his head. "Nope, nothing. Here, you try."

For a second it seemed that the device liked the civilian better. The lights on it flashed far more frenetically and he cried out, "I see something! Like a store in a mall, but the letters on the sign are all screwy- Oh hell! It's gone..."

There was probably some trick to using it that anyone from the 2040's would know, but they were stymied. They spliced an old keyboard and screen into the computer, and managed to convert the information to text.

The monitor showed them images of a deceptively beautiful virus like a sleek blue sand dollar, and dense blocks of medical jargon that was somewhat over their heads. But between the two of them they managed to work out that there had indeed been a catastrophic plague. Airborne, and able to travel for miles outside of a warm blooded host. Absorbable though the lungs, the mucosa, the surface of the eye.

But could the virus survive for thirty years? Looking at the room full of dessicated bodies, they decided that if this bug was that hearty then it was already too late for them.

=O=O=O=O=O=

Dr. Cassandra Washington's private journal was far easier to understand than the medical data. Up to a certain date it was just a normal diary; discussing her pride in her college age kids, and how her husband was so cheap about certain things that it was actually comical---the lengths he'd go to just to save a buck or two---and all the familiar gripes about military beauracracy and workplace politics.

But by the sixth to the last entry it was clear that she was now writing a eulogy for herself and everyone she knew. Calling the two astronauts "You who read this".

Flannigan, already shaken by the death all around them, found this unnerving. It was as if this long-dead woman---seated in her swivel chair, grinning horribly with her cordless stethoscope still clipped to the collar of her labcoat---was speaking directly to them. Like she had known they were coming...

Until he realized there were probably thousands of documents like this scattered across the globe. Impassioned requiems and prayers for some sort of continuance which would never be read.

Her journal revealed the horrible truth about the plague. While it did put forth theories about the functioning of Virus 459 and possible cures, much of it was a bitter rant against the "psychotic bastards" who had deliberately loosed this pestilence upon the world.

The fourth to the last entry, dated 7/07/2043, explained that by ten years after the Athena had been launched:

... DWINDLING RESOURCES, EXPLODING POPULATION, THE ACCELERATING GLO-WA, THESE GREENHOUSE 'CYLONIC SHIFTS' AND THE RESULTING FAMINES ...... THE WRITING WAS NOW ON THE WALL CLEAR ENOUGH THAT EVEN THE MOST STUBBORNLY OBLIVIOUS WERE FORCED TO ADMIT IT, THAT THINGS WERE BAD AND WERE GOING TO GET A LOT WORSE

AND TRUE TO FORM, MY SPECIES STARTED LOOKING FOR REMEDIES IN EXACTLY THE WRONG PLACES

[The odd wording of "my species" seemed to imply that she felt that if anyone read this they would not be human. Aliens, or some newly evolved dominant species. Which said a lot about just how hopeless this physician considered the situation...]

THEY CALL IT SOCIAL TRIAGE, BUT THOSE WHO ADVOCATE SUCH STEPS NEVER SEEM READY TO BE THE ONES WHO ARE SACRIFICED FOR THE COMMON GOOD

I NEVER WOULD HAVE BELIEVED IT, GROWING UP WHERE AND WHEN I DID, HOW ALL THOSE LONG DISCREDITED VIEWS ON RACE COULD MAKE SUCH A COMEBACK ...... ONLY THIS TIME EVERYBODY HAS JOINED IN ON THE GAME, WITH REASONS WHY THEIR LITTLE TRIBE HAD BEEN CHOSEN BY GOD OR SOME BIOLOGICAL DESTINY TO BE THE FIRST INTO THE LIFERAFT. THE TWISTED SCIENCE, THE PIOUS SOUNDING BLASPHEMIES

AND NOW THIS. EVERYONE ACTS SO DAMNED SURPRISED

THE IDEA OF BIOWAR WAS NEVER PUBLICLY SPELLED OUT: "WE'RE GOING TO DO A, B + C"........ BUT IF YOU TOOK THESE LEADERS AT THEIR WORD, AND DIDN'T JUST BLOW OFF THEIR CRAZIER STATEMENTS AS JUST TALK (GRANDSTANDING FOR THE FANS WAY UP IN THE CHEAP SEATS) IT WAS ALL RIGHT OUT IN THE OPEN

VIRUS 459H (SOME CLOWN NAMED IT "SATURDAY NIGHT HEMORRHAGIC FEVER") WAS DESIGNED TO BE RACE SPECIFIC. ON PAPER THIS MUST HAVE SEEMED LIKE A PERFECT METHOD OF GENOCIDE. INEXPENSIVE, ELEGANTLY SIMPLE. JUST SIT BACK AND CLAIM YOU'RE AS BAFFLED BY THIS AS ANYONE AS IT TAKES OUT ALL OF "THEM" WITHOUT AFFECTING "US" AT ALL. WHICH IT DID, IN JUST OVER 90 DAYS

THEN IT MUTATED, BYPASSING ALL ITS SUPPOSED SAFETY PROTOCOLS

IT'S A VIRUS. WHAT THE FUCK DID THEY EXPECT?
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[The third to the last entry read:]

7/08/43:
NEG/ PRESSURE QUARANTINE WENT OUT 0900. WHEN SGT. CHENG TRIED TO FIX IT I SAID DON'T BOTHER JIMMY. AND THEN HE KNEW. OH GOD, THE LOOK ON HIS FACE

PATIENT IN DELERIUM SWUNG HIS ARM, HIT CPL PHILLIPS IN SUCH A WAY SHE JABBED HERSELF. SHE WAS DEAD 5 HRS LATER. A DAY EARLIER AND SHE'D AT LEAST HAVE GOT MORPHINE, BUT WE RAN OUT

WHERE DO WE PUT THEM ALL? NOT LANCASTER GENERAL, THEY HAVE THEM LINED UP AROUND THE BLOCK

[There was a picture of a magnolia tree in full bloom, with a tire swing, a boy and a girl hanging on it in old-timey outfits, like an oddly solarized lithograph, and the caption:]

MIND DRAWING BY QUEEN CASSANDRA
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[July 9th's entry was brief:]

HEARD ON THE SW TODAY NORWAY GOT ITSELF PRETTY THOROUGHLY NUKED BY ITS OLD NEMESIS SWEDEN. LUCKY BASTARDS
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[And finally on July 10, 2043:]

7? I WAS ASLEEP? I DON'T FEEL WELL

GOD I HOPE YOU'RE SMARTER
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=O=O=O=O=O=

By the time they set out on the road a month later the two men would lose all fear of getting sick from the virus. It was clear that when the last human hosts had expired the plague had died with them, give or take a few months. If the California high desert was any indication, coyotes were now running the show...
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===O=[ 3. SIX WHEEL DRIVE ]=O===

In a restored Eisenhower-era jeep that must have been some officer's pride and joy they explored the tumbleweed choked streets of nearby Victorville. There was no trace of lawn anywhere, and sand dunes were piled against the windward sides of all the houses.

Dreyfus looking up and then down the half buried street. "It's like one of those old mining towns they gave up on. Do you really think nobody survived?"

"I have no idea. But that doctor sure made it sound hopeless."

"Then again, she wasn't really an epidemiologist."

"But she was in touch with enough of them. The CDC, USAMRID........You saw the dispatches. You could tell they weren't holding much back," said Flannigan in a strangely nonchalant tone, like he was discussing a four cent an hour increase in the internet tax.

"You're right, I did see those," said Dreyfus. He seemed to literally deflate.

"Look on the bright side. We can park in the handicapped spaces now!"

Dreyfus gawked at him. "Sometimes I just don't get you..... How you can joke about something so horrible?"

"Well the thing is, see, I've gone completely fucking insane," said Flannigan brightly as he suddenly swung into a strip mall, coming to a stop in front of what had been a business called NYC PIZZA, and hopped out, grinning. "Hang on a minute, I gotta talk to the lady..."

"What?! Did you see somebody?"

The Commander didn't answer. He trotted the few steps to the restaurant and fell to his knees beneath the fifteen foot tall weathered plywood cutout of the Statue of Liberty, hanging his head and groaning slowly, as if dazed by a horrendous realization, "My God. We did it......We finally....... really....... did it!"

He started pounding on the asphalt, shrieking in anguish, "You maniacs! You blew it up! Aughhhh, Damn You! GOD DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!!!"

It dawned on Dreyfus that his friend was acting out the final scene from the old twentieth century science fiction film Planet of the Apes- "Come on Flaco, that's not funny!"

"Not funny? Are you kidding me? The astronaut, the Statue of Liberty- How could that not be funny?!" roared Flannigan. He fell over onto his back, laughing horribly, tears streaming down into his ears.

Dreyfus guided him back into the jeep, and ran his hands over Flaco's back as he sat slumped over the steering wheel, sobbing.

His face buried in the sleeve of his jumpsuit, Flannigan muttered, "This is not like anything. Do you realize that? Nobody anywhere has ever been through this before. Not like this. And they won't. It gets to be us..."

"Come on, we're going to find somebody," said Dreyfuss.

"You think so?"

"Well if not, at least some talking apes."

Flannigan turned and stared at him, for a second not comprehending that his own joke had been lobbed back at him.

Then he got it and began to laugh.

And laugh. A warmer laughter, without that raging tempest of despair behind it, the kind of laughter you could share in. Which Dreyfus found himself doing, until they were both queasy and yet grateful for the release.

Heading back to the base Flannigan was feeling embarrassed and foolish. "I can't believe I freaked out like that. Something in me just, like, collapsed! It was scary! Sorry..."

Dreyfus pronounced sternly, "Well you should be sorry. Good God man, get a grip! It's not the end of the world- Oh wait."

"Boy, you're just full of sardonic little comebacks today. So you're trying to be me now?"

=O=O=O=O=O=

Whoever had paired these men up for the Athena mission had really known what they were doing. The two made a great team, working efficiently together and getting along quite amicably. Flannigan was more of a clown, and more sarcastic, but he knew when it was time to be sincere. Dreyfus was somewhat more introspective, more prone to verbalize what he was actually feeling, but he knew how to lighten up and to shut up about these things. There had been that one fist fight out past the Oort Cloud, but they'd returned to Earth better friends than they had left, and were both glad they had someone they really liked to face this with. With a little prompting each would admit without shame that he loved the other; but between themselves they rarely said as much...

That having been said, there would be times over the course of their journey when each would gladly trade in his bestest buddy on Earth for even a miserable contentious ball-breaking shrew if she had the right qualities. Boobs, and that warm inviting little cavity nestled between her thighs.

=O=O=O=O=O=

All they had seen so far told them that it would probably be futile to search for survivors. But it did help to have a plan, and they had everything to gain if they found someone.

The Air Force base had machine shops enough to build almost anything. From various vehicles---but mostly the base commander's RV---they cobbled together the behemoth they would be travelling in, their laser torches flaring long into the night. It was this sort of monster-truck-motor-home-thing about a lane and a half wide with six immense tires and a limber, jointed suspension system that could take them across flooded out roads and rockslides. The two front seats came out of the Icarus. They were insanely comfortable, and since they had cost the taxpayers $37,000 a piece it seemed a shame not to use them. The gun turret in the roof (taken from an old B-29 bomber on display next to the main gate) would never be used for defensive purposes, but it made a great skylight and observation post.

As they worked, they couldn't help but make jokes about yet another old movie from the golden age of dystopian science fiction, Mad Max. Not the remake, which was a plodding mess of a film with a pointless romantic subplot tacked on, but the original- starring that Australian actor who in later life would go crazy and shoot up that big outdoor Picasso sculpture in Chicago, screaming about giant shapeshifting Jew lizards from space.

Beacuse this really was a very "Road Warrior" kind of vehicle they were building. Its ungainly utilitarian design radiated sheer masculinity. And while this appealed to the adolescent male in each of them, their leviathan's bad-ass panache was overshadowed by the reality of why they needed it to be so formidable. This wasn't some movie after all.

There was a huge repository of gasohol at Edwards AFB, and they would bring as much as they could carry. After that ran out, since the pumps at the gas stations had no source of power, the craft had its own pump, with a snorkle that they could thread down into the underground tanks. Many of these would turn out to be empty after thirty years, but they would find enough gas to keep going. They also collected a small arsenal for the journey. Nothing too exotic; just a shotgun, a few rifles for game, some explosives, and a tripod mounted .50 caliber machine-gun for "just in case"...

Dreyfus wanted to name their creation the TIVKA, after an Israeli woman he had met in Paris, but Flannigan pointed out that he was just as entitled to name it after someone he knew. He wanted to call it the IDIOT WIND, which Dreyfus rejected as too damn negative.

They christened the ATHENA II in a brief ceremony, with march music provided by an amazing little box, courtesy of a certain Colonel Tolonen, that held nearly the entire history of recorded music. After sitting for thirty years the Colonel's champagne was only good for smashing over the front bumper, but his anejo tequila was still perfectly tasty. They were nowhere near shit-faced when they got underway, but it was nice to not worry whether your blood alchohol was at .079% or .083.

And if they did happen to get pulled over, you would never see anyone who was so happy to go to jail!

=O=O=O=O=O=

Two thousand miles away, the old sorcerer raised a glass of dry sherry, toasting along with them as he watched them pull onto 1-15 southbound with his Magic Zoom Spy Goggles TM.

He sighed disgustedly over his recent attempt to communicate with them. "Do the Wild Watusi" indeed!

These two weren't all that psychically dense, for a couple of science geeks, but he was having the damnest time calling them to him. His powers of telepathic communication had seriously atrophied, after he'd sent his assistant Danni to go stay with some friends of theirs in the 19th century and only had a series of cats, dogs and wolves to link minds with.

He supposed he could move his whole operation to intercept them---his shop was a veritable TARDIS when it came to moving it through time and space---but he liked this area. The fishing off the jetty down at Veteran's Park was excellent, and he would hold off on relocating unless he absolutely had to. Besides, the more his final two customers saw of this world the more willing they would be to participate in what he had planned for them...
.

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====O=[ 4. FUNERAL IN ORANGE ]=O====

Interstate I-15 brought them down into San Bernardino.

Flannigan nodded his head to indicate the roadway ahead of them. "Not so bad, is it?"

"No, not at all. I didn't even know if we'd be able to take the freeway. I figured it might be totally jammed, like in a flood or a volcano, when everyone tries to evacuate at once."

While there were a few to a dozen vehicles dotting the four southbound lanes every mile, these could be gone around. For the most part the people of 2043 had been considerate, not packing the freeway with cars full of skeletons. Most folks took to bed when they got sick. Or if the were driving while infected and suddenly felt worse, they pulled it over.

Dreyfus looked out over the silent suburbs. Every unpaved space was overgrown with weeds, the cracks in the sidewalks like hedgerows, undisturbed by pedestrians.

"Did I ever tell you that I was a volunteer at the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence for a year?" he asked.

"You said something about it. Back in college, right?"

"Yeah, we were supposed to listen for patterns in radio emissions the computer had flagged as possibles. The idea was that the human knack for pattern recognition might find something that the computers missed. It was damn boring but I got credits for it. We didn't find anything, obviously, or it would've been all over the news. But our professor was absolutely convinced that we never would..."

"That's nuts! There's gotta be something out there."

"He didn't think so. His idea was that intelligence that lead to technology was an evolutionary mistake. Because whenever a species became more powerful than its environment, it would either overpopulate itself into extinction or have a nuclear war or something. So there was only this tiny window between the dawn of higher intelligence and when it all went ka-blooey."

"That sounds awfully pessimistic. Why would he even be with SETI with an attitude like that?"

"I couldn't tell you. But Dr. Nyehill was like that. He never cracked a smile, and he spoke in this deep, slow gloomy voice..."

"Did he wear all black?"

Dreyfus laughed, "No, actually he wore these awful sweaters with like sailboats and pepper grinders on them. I think his wife picked out his clothes for him. God, we used to love to make fun of him! Now I wonder if he wasn't on to something."

"It's a big universe. Somebody out there must be getting it right. And who knows, maybe Homo Sapien's day isn't over yet. Somebody could have ridden this out."

"You think so?"

"We've only searched sixty kilometers, I don't have enough information to have an opinion on way or the other. To me that means there's still hope. And as far as your teacher's theory goes, I can't see what possible good it would do to speculate on that. Let's just focus on the search for terrestrial intelligence right now."

=O=O=O=O=O=

As they travelled south through Riverside, Flannigan realized that the City of Orange lie not too far off of the route they had picked for the start of their journey.

"Well of course we should," said Dreyfus, after his partner told him of wanting to visit his childhood home, and if need be to bury his parents.

But the house was empty of bodies. There was a note still stuck to the front door by an orderly array of five tacks.

TOOK MARY TO IRVINE MED CTR

"So do we check the hospital?"

Flannigan shook his head, "They could be anywhere in there, or might not even be there at all."

He took a family photo album, and a refrigerator magnet----a galloping Ford Mustang logo that he had whittled and painted at the age of eleven---and they left.

"Is this the way back to the freeway?"

"Not the shortest, but as long as we're here there's something I want to see. I used to love this place when I was a kid..."

In the center of a historic downtown district was a park in the middle of a large traffic circle. Big oak trees, a fountain that was dry but had a large statue in the middle.

Even untended like this it would have been pretty, if it hadn't been the site of a mass cremation. Gasoline cans around a towering pile of charred skeletons and the remnants of wooden pallets.

They stopped and got out, each silently calculating how many bodies it would take to make a hill of bones this size.

Dreyfuss was chanting something under his breath. Flannigan waited for him to finish.

"Was that the Kaddish?"

"Something like that. The Maley Rachamim. For the-" a sudden flush of emotion forced him to gulp, "for the souls of the innocent..."

"I thought you didn't believe in that stuff."

"I guess I don't. But I had to say something. Funny that I still remember it from Hebrew School."

"Makes me wish I knew some prayers," said Flannigan as they started back toward the Athena, "I've never even been inside a church. Or hardly ever. Nancy and I got married in a church, and I attended a few other-"

"Her in a church? I'm suprised the ground didn't open and swallow her up!"

"I don't know. I said a lot of things about her early in the flight that........well you should really take them with a grain of salt. But anyway, I've been to weddings but not to church church, like for services. My folks weren't religious at all."

"They were atheists?"

"Not even that. I mean an atheist at least has opinion about if there's a God or not. And an agnostic wonders. But they didn't know, didn't care, couldn't bother. I remember my Dad used to like to joke that we belonged to the parish of Our Lady of the California Angels. Always told the Jehova's Witnesses 'Just keep walking'. And it seemed weird to me that they never thought about why we're here, or how it all got started. Because I always did."

Dreyfus went up the Athena's ladder first, "What about now? Do you believe in God?"

"No, not really," said Flannigan. He pointed, "But a lot of them believed in him, and it's like we owe them........respect or something. I'm glad you said that thing you did."

=O=O=O=O=O=

The trip through the L.A. basin was particularly eerie. It was all so vast and sprawling yet complex, a place where everything about it insisted that it ought to be bustling, crazy with activity instead of this two thousand square mile ghost town; these endless silent vistas of vacant apartment villages, strip malls, auto dealerships, billboards, refineries, schools, foundries, churches of every stripe, tire warehouses, the bizarre ruins of miniature golf courses, taqueria this and burger that, these plastic sea shells and orange 76's looming into the sky on metal poles; and this vast gridwork of limp, bedraggled palms delinating block after block after block of houses with fading paint...

From the elevated freeway each small detail seemed to stand out with a spooky, unnatural clarity, and it took them a while to figure out why. They were the first human beings to see a completely clear day in this area in over a hundred years.

=O=O=O=O=O=

That night, after a magnificent sunset over the ocean off of Point Dume, Dreyfuss had the dream for the first time. He was searching for survivors on foot, in a woods somewhere in the South, the trees overrun with kudzu vines.

When he came to a clearing, he saw an old, comfortably run down wooden house nestled between a pair of willow trees, the sunlight coming through their luxurious manes of drooping branches bathing everything in a magical calm green.

A frail African American woman who looked to be about a hundred years old was sitting on the porch in a rocking chair. He was extremely drawn to her, the supernatural goodness that he sensed radiating from her.

She spoke like the 'negroes' in really old Hollywood movies, "You come on and see your old Mother Abigail now, Chile'. T'aint no needs fer you ta fret, everthing's gonna be all right!"

And suddenly he was running toward her, and he felt something bouncing on his shoulders, and he realised it was his own hair, very long, divided into a pair of pigtails...

Running the short distance across the yard seemed to take forever, but the woman coaxed her on, "That's it! You come on home, Girl!"

And then Dreyfus realized that she WAS a girl- that it wasn't just her pigtails that were bouncing as she ran. Which was quite weird, but there was no time to wonder how this could be. The important thing was getting to the old woman, because she knew somehow that what this nice old lady was, was magic, and she would make everything all right. Dreyfus wanted nothing more than to drop to her knees and bury her face in Mother Abigail's apron, which she knew would smell like everything good and wholesome, all cinnamon and sunshine. To let her stroke her hair and make everything better, healing all the loneliness, grief and despair inside her...

But when she got up onto the porch the woman had turned into an old white man in a tattered bathrobe, with a long grey beard and devilish eyes, who was laughing insanely!
.

.
====O=[ 5. THE ABYSS STARES BACK ]=O====

Oregon...

Washington...

British Columbia...

Their first few months were a concerted search for survivors, a succession of goose chases that if nothing else kept them occupied. "This city has a neighborhood called Little Armenia. Maybe Armenians have some natural immunity..." Or: "Sure is empty out here. What if there's some little town way down one of these dinky highways that missed being exposed?" So there were lots and lots of side trips as they meandered across what had been the United States.

It was amazing how many things could sound like a human voice when you were desperate to hear one. Running brooks, clotheslines squeaking in the wind, tomcats m'rowing in odd pitches as they psyched up for a fight.

And several times at night they got excited upon seeing a light off in the distance, only to have their hopes dashed when they discovered it was some unusually long-lived light at a bus shelter or someplace, powered by a solar cell, that had been dutifully coming on every night for the past thirty years...

=O=O=O=O=O=

British Columbia...

Idaho...

Wyoming...

Eventually they stopped looking as hard as they had at first. Their binoculars lie dangling against their chests more often than not now. At times it seemed like they were travelling just to be travelling, having settled into a dull day-to-day struggle for survival...

But with all the clothing and canned food available, the returning herds of game, overgrown orchards, and a whole world full of lodgings to choose from, survival was not a struggle at all. Their lives were far too easy to take their minds off of just how meaningless whatever they did had become.

They were facing a whole gamut of human instincts that had no chance for fulfilment. The need for a mate and a family might have been the most obvious, but other powerful drives were making themselves known. Social instincts that make a life matter on some fundamental level, and that can be fulfilled even by neighbors that you spend all day complaining about. Just knowing they're there.

But they had none of this. Nothing to even compare themselves to. It was a sense of void far more oppressive than the one they had felt four months into their journey, after the sun had completely disappeared into the field of stars and there was no clear way home.

=O=O=O=O=O=

Someone else going through the things they were might have gotten as drunk as possible as often as possible, or started raiding pharmacies for the best opiates. But having grown up as rather studious and goal-driven geeks, neither man had ever been much of a partier. And while not tee-totalers, it just didn't occur to them to seek refuge in psychotropics.

Instead, to take a vacation from the routine, they occasionally engaged in acts that arose out of what you might call a child's notion of decadence; the sort of outlandishly destructive games you only played because there was no one, anywhere to answer to. Like spending a long day getting two locomotives feuled up and radio-controlled so they could stage a head on train wreck in the center a spindly tressle bridge high over some gorge.

But these elaborate stunts were becoming less and less frequent. Their "Great Money Bonfire" in the Seattle business district left each them feeling sick, both from the ink in the paper and because right in the middle of it they suddenly realized that it just wasn't funny at all to them...

More and more their jokes fell flat, as each withdrew into a shell of numbness, it's inner landscape clouded over by a ghastly sense of survivor's guilt. They were as dead men walking.

=O=O=O=O=O=

Who would have thought that it would be so hard to break into the Norad facility at Cheyenne Mountain? Flannigan had joked.

When knocking on the big front doors of the underground fortress didn't get a response, they began drilling and blasting. And when they got inside two days later, they found at least part of what they'd hoped to.

The old Strategic Defense headquarters had been built with nuclear warfare in mind, but through a series of sophisticated air filters it was protected against biological and chemical attack as well. And somebody had quickly pursued a plan to garrison a hundred healthy men and women down inside there, to wait down there as long as it took to save a core of the human race.

But evidently one of them had not been as healthy as they had thought, and...

=O=O=O=O=O=

Colorado...

Utah...

Down through the Four Corners...

One day Flannigan went into his Dreyfus' little room looking for the duct tape.

Dreyfus was sitting in his little rebar and canvas parabola chair looking at a magazine. As soon as he saw the mass of flesh tones on the open page Flannigan started backing quickly out of the room, "Oh shit! Sorry."

"It's okay, I wasn't jerking off."

Which Flannigan could see now was true. His pants were up and his fly shut. But still...

"Yeah, but I should have knocked. I could've sworn you were out riding your Suzuki."

"I was. It died on me about two miles out. Walked back. I'll pick up a new bike in the next town," said Dreyfus. He seemed to want company. He held the magazine out and said wistfully, "Look at this girl here. Tell me she doesn't look a lot like Tivka!"

Flannigan took it from him, sat on the bed across from him, "You're not kidding. She does."

The naked woman was beautiful. Large tits of course, on a small and atheletic body, and her mussy brown hair and patina of perspiration suggested she had been fucking recently and would soon be again. But the expression on her face was an odd one for a girl in a skin magazine. She was staring at the camera, almost defiant, as if to say you and she could have the most rapturous time together, but she wasn't going to put up with any nonsense or pretend to be somebody she wasn't just to gain your approval. This even more than the amazing resemblance in face and body reminded Flannigan of the young astronaut trainee.

On the pages before and after this one she didn't wear this expression, but just the usual contrived looks of lustful abandon. But this one picture was pure Tivka.

"I only met her that once," nodded Flannigan, "at the Kennedy Space Center barbecue, but I sure liked her. She was smart, but not egotistical about it at all. She seemed so positive about everything."

"Yeah, she sure was," said Dreyfus wistfully. "I remember when I met her at that physics conference in Paris. She said 'Tell me something interesting about yourself, Evan.'"

Flannigan had heard this story before, but he prompted him to continue with a grunt.

"And when I told her I was an astronaut I thought she didn't believe me. That she was making a joke when she said that she was one too. I mean what are the odds? She was a trainee like I was then. Transferred out of the Israeli Air Force into their space program. She just couldn't believe they had really picked her."

"I think we all remember that moment," chucked Flannigan, "You dream about it when you're a kid, but later on you realize just how slim the chances for it really are. So when you actually wind up on the roster it's like- WOW!"

"And it really was her dream. She was so excited. Coming here for a training course that the Negev Space Center didn't have, and meeting some of her heroes from the old shuttle days at that barbecue....... But it wasn't long after that they found the heart murmer. Told her that she could kind of stay in the game as an instructor, but they weren't going to risk sending her up."

"That sucks! So many of these medical disqualifications turn out to be nothing. Remember Clancy?"

"This was exactly like Clancy. And you know, that's better than really being sick. But even after that, she still had that great attitude. She was going to be the best damn flight instructor on the planet!"

Flannigan laughed, "She beat the snot out of me in the simulator. Did you know that?"

"Yes, she told me. And she was the one who talked me into the Athena mission....... I didn't really want to. I mean fifty years, it was basically saying goodbye. But she talked about duty, how my combination of skills made me so qualified for this flight. 'To each according to their needs, from each according to their abilities' and all that. And I could tell it was really important to her that at least one of us get to go...

"I talked about getting back together after the mission. I just couldn't imagine not being in love with her. But she thought the age difference would be a burden on me or whatever.... Shit! I really should've stayed here. Declined the slot on the mission. She would have bitched at first, but got over it quick enough......... Even with the virus, we would have had those twenty years."

"At least you had a really good year with her. People smiled when they saw you together. Even Chief Harrington, and you know how he was. But Nancy and me..."

A meadowlark warbled somewhere. Dreyfus took the magazine back. He laid it aside, and waited.

Flannigan stared at a spot on the floor, "I know I said a lot of stuff about her. Let's just say my account of the situation was pretty slanted. What I told you, that was how I saw it then. Every wrong thing she did. The way a colored lense will block out one whole end of the spectrum. I felt betrayed. It was all about my pain, how she hurt me when she split. Me? I couldn't have had anything to do with it..."

"It's hard to see ourselves objectively."

"Especially when your head's up your ass. But I see it now. I was jealous of her. I don't mean afraid she'd be off balling some guy, that I could kind of keep some perspective on, didn't really obsess on it. When I say jealous, I mean jealous of her. The way she could make friends with just about anybody. I couldn't do that, so I didn't want her to."

"You don't seem at all like that! You're relaxed, take things in stride, you seem to get along okay with everybody."

"And how many people have you seen me interact with besides you? You met me in training, which was a pretty controlled environment. We were all on our best behavior, knowing we were being evaluated."

"They never let you forget that," grinned Dreyfus, "I think they were trying to notch up the stress."

"I always had some reason why her friends were assholes. This one was too shallow and superficial, that one was a back-stabber..... But you know what they say: If you meet three assholes in a row, go home and look in the mirror! And the thing is, she really did want to be with me. She put up with it as long as she could."

"You really think you're as bad as all that?"

"I was. And I've grown up a lot since then. Spent a lot of time out there just thinking." Flannigan snorted, "But with the current dating scene being what it is, what good did all this new insight do me?"

"It never hurts to grow up."

"The FUCK you say!! Seeing what a jerk you can be? Knowing you blew it?! Nancy probably would've stopped the divorce at any time, but I was like, 'See? I don't need you either!' I just ran. And when I got a shot at the Athena mission, I loved the idea of putting a billion miles between me and her."

Dreyfus tittered. "Sorry, I wasn't laughing at you. But I just got an image you in some grimy little office in Algiers, signing up for the French Foreign Legion..."

"No, you're right. That was pretty much what it was. And so eighteen months of soul searching later, we get home, a-and we find out..." the Commander's voice became a heart-rending anguished whine, "Alright, so maybe I was a jerk! Alright? And there was some......some lesson I needed to learn! But GOD DAMN IT I deserve better than this! I mean God damn it! You know? It's just-"

As the tears rolled down his face Dreyfus sat on the bed beside his friend and held him for a while, a few reassuring thumps on the back, which were gratefully, even desperately received, until he was suddenly pushed away.

Sad that there was nothing more he could do for his friend, Dreyfus left. It was actually his room, but he wasn't about to bring that up.
.

.
====O=[ 6. THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN ]=O====

New Mexico...

Chihuahua, Mexico...

Texas...

By now they were thoroughly used to the dead being all around them. It was a horrible awakening when they realized that for several weeks they had been kicking their way through bundles of clothing and bones like they were just so much trash. Flannigan and Dreyfus vowed to never forget that these were people they were stepping through.

So now, whenever they came across a scene anything like the one they had found in Orange County they held a sort of service for them, what they called a Ceremony of Remembrance. A few black ribbons would be tied someplace, and then each would speak. They didn't make any generalizations about the lives of these people they had never known, or speak of a celestial paradise they could not believe in, but would simply address them with whatever words came to mind. This usually boiled down to: "We know you wanted to live and we're really sorry you died."

After a remembrance service in Van Horn Texas, Flannigan stopped beside the skeleton of a young girl who either hadn't made it onto the funeral pyre, or had died there a few days later. She had a teddy bear with her, which he carefully pried out from under her. The half that had been exposed to the sun these thirty years was totally bleached, and the half that had been lying under her gingham skirt was a bright blue.

He saw something glinting. Reached down and straightened the charm necklace that had settled in among the bones of her upper thorax, so that he could read the pudgy little gold plated letters.

"Her name was Casey," he said softly, then held the toy bear out at arm's length and looked at it appraisingly. "And this was...........Well I'm sure she had a name for him."

He placed the bear gently on top of her, and they left.

=O=O=O=O=O=

"Christ, she was just a kid!" swore Dreyfus suddenly three hours down the highway, bringing the Commander out of his daydream.

"Who? Oh Casey. I know....... The kids, that's always the worst when you see it. Maybe everyone was a victim in this, but the adults......enough of them had to have gone along with leaders like that General Asahara to make this happen. But kids like her, they didn't have any say in any of it!"

"Yeah," sighed Dreyfus; and a half a minute later: "So did you and Nancy plan to have kids?"

"That was the ONE thing we agreed on. We both really wanted children. With the way we fought I don't know if it would've been a good or a bad thing if we had. Would I have tried harder, thought about more than just myself? I'd like to think so ........ And what about you and Tivka?"

"We talked about it. We planned on two kids, but later. Our careers, you know? We were going to retire from work in space at thirty-four, find jobs in the private sector, have one baby at thirty-five and one at thirty-seven. They'd both have been put through college by the time we were fifty-nine."

"God, you really had it all planned out. Nancy and I were just going to let nature take its course. Have however many kids came along, whenever they came along. Each of us had a lot of brothers and sisters, so we're used to the chaos and noise of a big family..."

"Mine wasn't big, just me and my folks. They spoiled me with presents, but not about how I behaved. It's funny you mention the noise. Well it's not funny, but that's the one thing I really, really miss. The sound of kids playing. You know, just up and down the block, shouting and carrying on. I wasn't all that crazy about it at the time, took it for granted, but now ........ the world just feels so wrong without it."

=O=O=O=O=O=

Texas...

Texas...

Texas...

Colonel Tolonen's amazing music box contained more music than a person could listen to in a lifetime. And so much of it was stuff they had never heard of. By now both of them were skilled at using headsets like the one that had baffled them back at Edwards AFB. Dreyfus slipped the stereo's control interface onto his head and brought up the menu. Picked something from the list of titles that had formed in his mind and thought "PLAY".

"What's that?"

"Something called 'electric gamelan jazz', from Bali or someplace."

"Not bad! Kind of mellow."

Under the cool gonglike strains of the music the radio receiver could be heard faintly, the hiss changing in pitch and texture as it scanned every frequency. It was always on, and they hardly even noticed it any more. But if anyone was transmitting they wanted to hear it...

Suddenly what was unmistakeably a human voice spoke. One sentance.

"Quick!" yelped Dreyfus, "Where is that?"

"Fm band- 101.1 megahertz. I'm locking it there!"

He turned it up. Nothing but static now.

"What did he mean by that? 'Got to wear wet tofu?'"

"Is that what he said? Sounded to me like 'Go to war with tissues'..."

They played it back, the whole past five minutes, and heard only a steady hiss.

"That's weird," groused Flaco. "How could it not be on there?"

"I don't know," murmered Dreyfus faintly. All he knew was that the voice sounded really familiar somehow, and that it scared the hell out of him.

=O=O=O=O=O=

Occasionally they saw some place where they just knew they had to spend the night. They had stayed at historic Hearst Castle and the historic Gates Mansion. The walls of their monster RV were soon decorated with priceless originals by Albrect Durer, Winslow Homer, Marc Chagall and Chesley Bonestall.

And now, since New Mexico, a beautiful Georgia O'keefe so large that it took some rearranging to find a space for. A great fleshy orchid in rich red hues that Dreyfus was profoundly moved by.

He tried to explain his almost spiritual connection to the painting, "It's like life itself, just bursting out- so exuberant! I mean, like there's all the hope in the world, right there."

"I like it too. It looks like a big fat juicy cunt!"

Dreyfus looked away as he felt his face flush.

On reflection, the flower's ruddy folds really did look like a pussy, and Flaco's saltier remarks had never much bothered him before, but had merely stood out as a bit juvenile for someone as intelligent as him. So why did Dreyfus suddenly feel debased, embarrassed and offended by this comment, the sniggering tone of it?

He wasn't sure, other than he knew it had to do with the dreams.

=O=O=O=O=O=

He hadn't wanted to worry Flannigan by talking about this (because what could they do about it if he was?) but he was becoming more and more convinced that he was cracking up.

Not only did he keep having the dreams about the old black woman and of him turning into a girl, but they kept becoming more and more elaborate. It was taking longer and longer for Mother Abigail to turn into the crazy old man. One time they baked cookies together from scratch, the whole process from mixing the flour and water to letting them cool, the old woman's soothing patter causing her---Dreyfus---to giggle uncontrollably.

But then the old lady turned into a six-foot tall glowing foetus, hovering there, eerily still and upright in the middle of the room, telling her that "something wonderful" was about to happen.

Somehow Dreyfus didn't find this at all reassuring. Especially since he was certain that these nightly visitations were more than dreams. And while you can dream all kinds of crazy shit and not be crazy, it was this growing conviction of his about them being some kind of premonition---totally irrational and counter to everything he believed in---that had him so worried for his sanity.

=O=O=O=O=O=

Oklahoma...

Kansas...

Nebraska...

Sitting in their aluminum rowboat in the middle of Silver Pine Reservoir, Flannigan was growing restless, and was behaving for all the world like a spoiled, petulant brat. Dreyfus had been looking forward to this all week, to be on this lake he had fished a lifetime ago with his Dad, who had died when he was sixteen ........ and the lout was doing everything he could to wreck it! Just being a total idiot-

"Hey, you want to hear a song?"

"Not if it's another song about why fishing sucks. I told you to bring your ThinkMan."

"I know. I should have. I could be in ZONE WARS III right now, fighting the Futurian Slime-Hoards. I just didn't think we would be sitting here a-a-a-a-all day."

"We've been out here about an hour. I like fishing. It's relaxing..."

"If I get any more relaxed I'll be in a coma. This is pointless! I mean it's not like we don't have plenty of food."

"Hey, I didn't complain when we went to the Ice Hockey Museum. I hated that."

"At least when we went there we weren't just sitting."

"No, we were bumping into everything. It was too dark to see in there. But did I squawk?"

"Well I thought it was awesome. I mean, just because you're a big doofus who likes to sit around all day with his pole sticking out."

"If you'll stop kicking my goddamn seat and take a look around, you might notice that it's pretty amazing out here. I know patience isn't exactly your strong suit, but just look at this place..."

"Right. Patience. You know my Dad had this tee shirt-"

"A tee shirt? Really? Oh wow! Outstanding!" mocked Dreyfus, giving a little payback in kind.

Flannigan ignored this. "It had a couple of cartoon buzzards on it sitting on a branch. And one of them was saying to the other, 'Patience, my ass! I'm gonna go kill something...'"

And with that he tossed what Dreyfus took to be a rock into the water. Dreyfus whirled to face him, "Hey asshole! You're gonna scare the fish."

Flannigan held his palm up. "You'd better grab onto something."

Just as he registered the steel pin looped around the Commander's finger, the whole front of the boat reared up, as the surface of the lake erupted- a great mass of water rising up and then collapsing!

Dozens of dead fish and pieces of fish started popping to the surface.

"There. We fished," grinned Flannigan, and tossed the plastic handled landing net to his partner. He grabbed ahold of the oars, "I'll row, you scoop."

=O=O=O=O=O=

With his Magic Zoom Spy Goggles TM, the Wizard had watched Flannigan's stunt with mounting dread. The way he had not hurled the grenade but just indifferently tossed it a foot or two, counting on it sinking far enough to buffer the blast.

He spoke to his cat Faustus, "Him and his damned hand grenades! That's the third one this month! Doesn't he realize what's at stake here when he risks their lives like that? No, of course he wouldn't..."

Dreyfus was holding up fairly well, considering that he was the one being bombarded with subconscious suggestions every night. His self doubts were normal, even beneficial under the circumstances.

It was Flannigan who had the Wizard worried. His infantile tantrums, his increasingly reckless behavior, the insane way he was driving these days, which more and more had Dreyfus taking ATHENA II's helm, even though he disliked driving.

And the Wizard could see what the Commander refused to, a huge welling of black despair, like a column of highly pressurized magma, forcing its way toward the surface of his consciousness. When it broke through, whether it manifested itself as rage or as depression, it was not going to be pretty.

He decided that---ready or not---it was time to bring them in.

=O=O=O=O=O=

Dreyfus had the United States map out. He'd been staring at it the last time Flannigan walked through the RV's "dining room" area, and he was still staring at it now. He looked up. "Well I'm all out of ideas ....... Where would you want to try next?"

"South, eventually. Come Winter time."

"Sure, but that's a ways off. I meant right now. Any preferences?"

"Not really. Should we try the eyes-closed thing again? Las Cruces turned out to be awesome."

"Sure. You want to do the honors?"

Flannigan shrugged, closed his eyes and stabbed at the map with his index finger.

"Milwalkee?" asked the physicist in surprise, "Why did you want to go there?"

"I didn't. It's just where my finger landed."

"Okay, that's just bullshit," said Dreyfus matter of factly, "Your hand was headed one way and then at the last second completely changed course. You were obviously peeking. If you want to go to Milwalkee you should just say so."

"Believe me, I have no desire to go to Milwalkee. Why don't you pick where we go?"

"It's okay. Milwakee is fine."

"No it isn't! Not if you're going to accuse me of cheating."

"Nobody said you were cheating. If you got that impression then I apologize..."

"What kind of apology is that?"

"Well I'm not going to get on my fucking knees about it!"

"I didn't say you should. It was that ..... that subtext you put in there! 'I apologize if you feel that way' is like saying 'I apologize for you being wrong'. Like saying you didn't just insult me and call me a liar."

"All right, I apologize for how I apologized, and I apologize- You know what? Fuck you! This is ridiculous," said Dreyfus, who in the next second had closed his eyes and brought his thumb down on the map.

They looked at it. Flannigan whistled. "Well I'll be dipped in dogshit..."

=O=O=O=O=O=

Straight through Missouri...

And Iowa...

And on into Wisconsin...

The main drag of one little town they passed through had been hastily converted into a mad, apocalyptic theme park. Flames had been painted on windows, mannequins lashed to telephone poles at odd angles, and nearly every vertical surface was covered with ranting imprecations and Bible quotes in big angry red letters. Whoever it was had managed to misspell both REPENT and WAGES.
.

.
====O=[ 7. WAUWATOSA ]=O====

They were just outside of of Milwalkee itself, driving down an elevated highway with the unlikely name of the Zoo Freeway.

Their thumbs on the map hadn't been precise enough to tell them WHERE in Milwalkee they should be looking, but Downtown along Lake Michigan seemed like a good place to start. They headed toward the tallest buildings.

Flannigan had his feet up on the dash and was paring an apple. He pointed with his knife. "The map said this takes us to the 94 East, which runs us right into Downtown."

"I know. I'm following the road signs. Say, did I ever mention I was with SETI for a while?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact you did. Your professor thought intelligent life was some perversion of nature that would always destoy itself, et cetera-cetera-cetera. But I've been thinking about that."

"So it got to you?"

"What he said didn't, no. At least not in the sense that I ever bought into it. But it did bug me. I mean, the guy was supposed to be some kind of scientist, right?"

"Yeah he'd published, early on. One pretty important paper on quark condensation."

"Then he should know better than to fall into a bullshit syllogism like that! I mean, even if he was right about humans, he had some insight or he just made a lucky guess- we're only one species. It's just absurd to try and extrapolate one single case into some theory about all intelligence everywhere!"

"That's true enough about Professor Nyehill. But there's also the fact that SETI had been going on for almost a half a century by that time. Never heard a peep."

"Well maybe there's an explanation for that. Remember what you were telling me about that boxed experiment we had in Hold #4?"

"Sure. It was measuring 'quantum effect at a distance'. But someone was supposed to be monitoring the mass at this end. They died. The data we collected is no use to anybody now..."

"Maybe not to us. But someone else out there must have done it. What if you could harness this effect? You stimulate a nucleus on one planet, and lightyears away, the one that it's linked to through this quantum shit, it reacts instantly. So what if you did that in like Morse code or something? Think about it! No waiting years for radio waves to-"

"The quantum telegraph? They've been kicking that around since the 1920's, but there are reasons why it won't work. If you really want I can explain them to you," grimaced Dreyfus, like this was the last thing he wanted to try to do.

"Okay so no quantum telegraph. But something besides the radio signals you SETI guys were trying to hear. Maybe to "them" that's like sitting twenty miles off of Manhattan, looking for smoke signals, and getting all bummed out because you didn't find any. I bet if we ever did invent whatever it is they're using, it would be like stumbling into some big galactic block party! And they'd be like, 'Howdy y'all, come on in!'"

"But we didn't invent it. We were just another of the millions of species that came and went on Earth. I sure wish we could have made it to that party, Flaco..."

"I don't know, we may get there yet. I have a strong feeling about Milwalkee. That we're going to find someone, something........like this is going to be a turning point somehow."

"And I have that same feeling. But just remember what happened in Denver."

Flannigan nodded solemnly, "Right. I was so depressed after that. That hunch of mine, goin' up and down the streets like I had some sixth sense, trying to feel the 'vibes' like some dipshit third-eyer ......... What a crock of shit! Maybe we're just getting desperate and superstitious about-"

"WHAT'S THAT?!" shouted Dreyfus as he slammed on the brakes.

Flannigan dropped his apple, "Jee-sus! I almost cut my damn thumb off. What're you doing?"

Dreyfus had brought the binoculars to his eyes. He pointing at a churning black column of smoke in the distance.

"That?" shrugged Flannigan, "Just another fire. These cities are tinderboxes now."

Although it was very odd the way it rose straight into the air in a dense column for what seemed like miles. The wind coming off the lake should have scattered it.

"No it's not. It's three of them. I think you'd better look at this!"

Dreyfus adjusted the focus with his thumb. "Son of a bitch, that does look deliberate! The way they're spaced. We have to check this out..."

=O=O=O=O=O=

As they descended the offramp an ivy covered sign welcomed them to the Milwalkee suburb of Wauwatosa.

Suddenly the true wording of the cryptic message they'd received on several occasions became clear to them. It had nothing to do with tofu or tissues or dancing the Watusi...

"GO TO WAUWATOSA!!" they shouted out together, and laughed.

Flannigan made stupid siren noises out the window as Dreyfus gunned it down the wide empty boulevard toward the blazes, which were now definitely three separate fires.

And nearer still they could tell they were bonfires, made from huge piles of wood and debris, arranged in a triangle in the parking lot of an ancient 1980's style shopping mall. The three seperate plumes braided themselves together about fifty feet up before spiralling skyward- each strand clearly defined. It was safe to say that this was not a natural phenomonon.

The Athena II jounced and squeeked as they hopped the curb into the Mayfair Mall's parking lot and pulled up next to the signal fires. The doors of the nearest entrance were propped open by trash cans.

They grabbed flashlights, and Flannigan pulled the shotgun from the rack before thinking better of it and putting it back. They jumped down, using only the ladder's handrails, and they made their way toward the entrance.

=O=O=O=O=O=

It was dark inside the mall, but not as black as the interiors of some buildings they had been in. Muddy, sepia tone sunlight filtered in through filthy tent-shaped skylights overhead.

The little shop stood out like a beacon in the mall's dim cavernous interior because all its lights were on. Other than what they had rigged up, it was the first time they had seen electric light being used in any concerted way since their returned to Earth.

A crude banner made from a bedsheet hung out in front, proclaiming: SPELLS R US. The R was backward.

And even more astonishing, there was an old man out in front, trying to do something about the fifty years worth of dust and pigeon shit in front of his store with a large push broom. But the whole mall was in such decay that it seemed like a heartbreakingly futile gesture...

With his long white beard and wrinkled face, Flannigan thought he must have been about fifty when the plague hit. Dreyfuss thought even older. In either case, after being alone for thirty years, the poor old coot must have been half-insane. Because with all the nice duds hanging in windows a few steps away he was dressed in a tattered old bathrobe.

When he notice them approaching he tossed the broom aside and grinned at them, oddly casual for someone meeting other people for the first time in decades.

Reaching down into one of the pockets of his bathrobe he withdrew a little heart shaped glass bottle with a gold cap. He held it up, gesturing to Dreyfus with it like it had great significance.

In the light from the shop window behind it, whatever was inside it glowed red like a ruby.

To Flannigan this odd pantomime seemed like an encounter with some naked primitive deep in the Amazon jungle. And a crazy one at that. But then again, his partner seemed to be acting rather peculiar too.

In a daze, Dreyfuss took the bottle, "You're the man from my dreams."

"I like you too!" winked the old codger.

Flannigan huffed loudly. "Does somebody want to tell me what's going on here?"

The old lunatic just smiled, "Hello Adam. Hello Evan. I've been waiting for you..."
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====O=[ 8. THE ADAM AND EVE STORY ]=O====

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"Why don't we go inside," suggested the Wizard, "I'll explain everything. I'm .......well my friends call me the Wizard."

Inside the strange shop the Wizard served brandy in little black mugs shaped like tikis. They had been surprised when he called them each by name, but they'd been quite big in the news fifty years earlier, so it was not impossible that he knew who they were.

Flannigan especially was skeptical of the bizarre claims the old man was making, and made some rude insinuations about his sanity. Magical transformations indeed!

The wizard had to perform a few minor feats of levitation and teleportation to convince him that he was on the level. As they became convinced that his outlandish claims were true the wanderers felt something stirring in their hearts that they almost didn't recognize.

Hope. If such a thing were really possible then this nightmare of total annihilation would all at once be over. All they had to do was become a male/female couple and start making babies, then do all they could to ensure the safety of those offspring. If they managed this, everything that had happened---while certainly horrible---might with the passage of the eons be nothing more than another population bottleneck for scientists to wonder over.

=O=O=O=O=O=

And while he hadn't possessed the slightest transsexual inclinations, Dreyfuss realized that this was the most important thing he would ever do; or maybe that any human would ever do. He remembered Tivka's maxim about 'From each according to their abilities'. Well, this would provide him with some abilities that the world was in desperate need of. But still...

He paced the room, the bottle in his hand."Why can't he be the one to drink it?"

"What? And louse up a perfectly good Adam and Eve joke? Come on kid, I've been waiting around this shithole for thirty years! Give me something here..."

Dreyfus uncorked the bottle, "So I just........drink it?"

The Wizard nodded.

"I'll try anything once," quipped Dreyfus with a bravado he did not feel before tilting the bottle back and draining it in one gulp. And suddenly his heart was pounding like it was trying to batter its way out of his ribcage!

Adam looked on with concern, "How do you feel?"

"Terrified!" groaned Evan, as the powerful juju coursed through his body.

And then he fainted.

=O=O=O=O=O=

Eve awoke a minute later, shaking her head in disbelief.

Flannigan helped her up off the floor, "Are you okay?"

"I..... think so."

His friend was barely recognizeable. How could a person lose that much body mass in a flash like that? "Did it hurt?"

She moved her arm gingerly, "I smashed my elbow when I hit the floor. I think that was worse."

He released her and she took a few steps across the room in her now oversized tennis shoes, "It feels strange to move. Everything ........ has shifted."

She ran her hands over her ass and widened hips and up her abdomen. She felt her chest, then peered down into neck of her baggy shirt and giggled nervously. "This has been a very weird day."

She reached a hand toward her crotch, then stopped.

"Turn around," she ordered the two men. "Both of you!"

They did, grinning foolishly at each other.

"Wait for it," whispered the old man knowingly.

A few seconds later they heard an alarmed and disbelieving squeal.

"Having fun?" chuckled the Wizard.

"SHUT UP!" she snapped, not at all amused by their amusement.

Some seconds later as she was cinching up the belt of the now very baggy denim trousers, she said, "Okay. You can look now."

=O=O=O=O=O=

The Wizard reached down in the pocket of his bathrobe, "Here. You're going to need these too..."

He produced a second bottle for her, and one for Commander Flannigan that held a royal blue liquid. "Drink these after you've had your first kid. These will just radically change you genetic structures. Good for the gene pool. Your bodies at least will be different people each time. And your kids will come out as if from entirely different parents. Which should cut down on the psychiatrist bills."

He started pulling out red and blue phials, "And then these two, and these two, and-"

When he was done their cupped palms were full of little clinking bottles.

"All six of them?" asked Eve.

"Seven, counting the one you just drank. You're going to be a very busy little mother! Probably best that you both drink yours at the same time, whenever she's done nursing the most recent child. Just don't mix them up and take each other's. Now I'm afraid I'm going to have to be a bad host and run you out," he said, and bruskly ushered them out the door.

When Eve turned to thank him the shop was gone...

=O=O=O=O=O=

The man and woman stared at each other, trying to decide how they felt about this abrupt shift in their relationship.

"Seven kids, wow....... What do you think? Are we ready for this?"

"I guess we have to be."

Flannigan laughed, "'Have to be'..... Not exactly a romantic start to a relationship, is it?"

"I guess not. But I think we've proven that at least we can get along."

Flannigan reflected that Eve was a really cute girl. But the knowledge of who she had been just minutes ago made it weird and unreal and disturbing. "It would be nice if we felt more though."

Eve thought about sex with a man. A cock up her. It didn't repulse her or seem wildly inappropriate. And hadn't they once agreed that it would have been nice if they were gay, so they would be suited for each other sexually?

And when Adam had helped her up just now---his concern, the ease with which he'd hauled her to her feet---she had felt something stirring, not in her crotch but in her heart. A warm feeling. It had felt really nice.

"I think maybe it could be more," she said.

He chuckled at the awkwardness of it all, "Kind of like an arranged marriage, isn't it?"

"They say those can work out okay."

"You realize I can be a real asshole sometimes," he warned her.

"You told me about that. And yes, I've seen it. But then we've both seen each other at our worst; and I've also seen that you can be considerate, respectful, kind, caring. I'm glad it's you Adam. If this is my.....fate or whatever, I'm glad it's with you."

"Wow that's....... I mean me too. You were good company on the flight, but since we landed it's been different. Deeper. You kept me going when it just seemed impossible to go on."

"So should we kiss or something?"

"I don't think we should do it because we feel like we have to. Why don't we go for a drive, go down and see the lake?"

"Sure."

And so they did. It wouldn't be that night that the first member of the next generation was conceived, but it would be.
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=O=O=O=THE END=O=O=O=
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[This was originally posted as an entry into the "What it was, was Magic" story contest at StardustR.us]

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One of the first things they tell you in a Science Fiction writing class is that you should NEVER attempt to write that cornball story where they turn out to be Adam and Eve at the end. These instructors warn you that it might have been a halfway clever gimmick the first time it was done, but since then every no-talent jerk who ever sat down at a keyboard has knocked out some variation on this idea ......... Once I heard this, like an idiot standing in front of a WET PAINT sign, I just had to try it.

Many of the stories I've posted here have tended to be glib and jokey and deliberately weird. With THIS QUINTESSENCE OF DUST I tried to tell a more straightforward story and to delve more deeply into the realm of emotion........ One of my goals here was to portray a close, healthy friendship between heterosexual males that wasn't some condescending burlesque marked by goonish, knuckle-cracking, fart-igniting behavior and chortling homophobic banter; while I also explored what it might feel like to be in the unenviable position of being the very last humans left alive.
~~~Laika

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