Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Chapter 8

    The sky seemed darker than it had been two days before, the sun's feeble light somehow weaker. Outlines were indistinct and fuzzy. Deserted buildings with gaping windows, cars abandoned along the street, out-of-use mailboxes - all possessed physical boundaries that weaved in and out of Steven's vision. Each object melted into the one beside it.
    Some buildings were beginning to fade from the ground up.
    Out of habit, he crossed at the corner, at a nonfunctioning traffic light, his route taking him along an avenue that had once sported street signs on every corner. The signs were gone now, and he found it annoying that he could not recall any of their names. There was simply nothing in his mind where that information should have been.
    There was something horribly wrong with his sense of direction as well. For a moment he thought the direction he followed was south. The next instant it felt like west. Then he was no longer sure. Here, in this strange world at the end of time, direction no longer had meaning.
    As he passed the remains of a building that had once housed a camera shop, he heard a noise behind him: the sharp tap of claws on cement. He spun about, crouching into a defensive stance, his hands working awkwardly before him without the ax handle.
    Ten yards down the sidewalk came the same pack of dogs he had encountered two days before, the pincher/pit bull now the leader. They advanced slowly, their massive heads swinging from side to side, scanning the street for prey.
    Amazingly, they hadn't seen him.
    But that couldn't be! They were certainly near enough. Could this be some new tactic they had learned to confuse their prey? Were they trying to lull him into a false sense of security? Could they be that smart?
    Panic took hold of him, and he turned and sprinted down the sidewalk. He lunged into a looted drugstore and crouched behind a door sagging on broken hinges, then peered out from behind its chipped and peeling frame. Holding his breath, he waited for the pack to enter his field of view.
    His armpits were suddenly moist with perspiration, and the hair at the back of his neck bristled. A rivulet of sweat ran between his shoulder blades as the tapping of the dogs' claws on the pavement became louder.
    He crouched lower behind the door as the dogs went by in a tight group. They should have seen him. They should have smelled his fear, heard his heart pounding or the harsh rasp of his breathing.
    Gradually, the staccato tapping of the claws faded. He remained huddled behind the door, trying to calm the fear rising in him, trying to understand what had happened. He could do neither.
    When he finally did leave the store, the cloud-shrouded sun hung low in the sky. He was sure he had been hiding in the drugstore only a few minutes, yet now it was nearly dusk. And that filled him with sudden dread.

    He walked quickly down the middle of the street, a stiff wind at his back. He had to find the grocery he had been hunting for several days before. No, matter what, he still had to eat. But he had forgotten where it was.
    Far ahead, also in the middle of the street, he spotted something. It was a human figure - harsh, angular, bathed in a cone of strange, blue-green light. The lines of the stationary figure grew softer as he drew near, gradually rounding into the form of a woman.
    There was something familiar about her even from a distance. Steven knew her. He knew only too well that stance of one hip thrust slightly forward. This time there was no doubt. The figure ahead in the middle of the street was no manikin, no phantom dredged up from the depths of his tormented subconscious by the crystal chip buried in his brain.
    It was Pamela!
    Stumblingly, he ran. Twice he fell, tearing his trousers and scraping his knees and the palms of his hands. Both times he got up immediately and ran on, inarticulate moans escaping from his throat. He feared she would disappear before he could reach her.
    Soon he stood before her, his body numb and shaking, his heart pounding in his chest like a jackhammer. His breath came in harsh gasps, and he felt a slick film of perspiration over his entire body.
    Pamela stood as still as a statue. Her body was draped in a long, flowing gown covering everything below her neck except her hands.
    Suddenly, Steven knew this wasn't his Pamela. She was somehow different, but he couldn't quite....
    Then he knew what it was. This girl's eyes were green instead of blue, and her hair was cut short. It was platinum blonde, not the color of honey. And there was a softness around her eyes and the corners of her mouth he had never seen in the Pamela he had known.
    Still, there was enough familiar about her that he knew she was Pamela. A Pamela.
    He watched her chest, but he could not detect the steady rise and fall of breath. Her face was frozen in a quiet, smiling expression very much out of character for the Pamela he had known. Her piercing green eyes stared straight ahead, seeming to look right through him. Even her hair did not stir in the cold wind.
    Calming himself with an effort, he forced his tremors to stop and his breathing to become more regular. Then he reached out for her hand where it lay against her out thrust thigh.
    His hand passed through hers without the slightest resistance and entered her leg. He watched in horror as his fingers clutched and wriggled inside her.
    Withdrawing his hand, he stumbled back a step. He bit his lip hard and tasted blood. Suddenly, he was aware of the steel skeletons of partially vanished buildings visible through her body. But somehow it would no longer register; he knew what he was seeing and how he should react, yet his numbed mind merely found it amusing, some strangely curious phenomenon that neither touched nor moved him.
    His legs became suddenly weak, and he sat, drawing his knees up to his chest and resting his chin on them. He hugged his legs tightly against the cold, hard wind and rocked silently back and forth as he watched the phantom Pamela in the fading light. It soon became dark, and still she did not move. Still she remained bathed in the strange blue-green light.
    Closing his eyes, Steven again concentrated on the microcomputer in his head. With difficulty, he reconstructed its image in his mind as he had seen it in the electron micro-graphs months before. Then he again tampered with its structure, as he had before in his hospital bed, altering the molecular circuitry in his imagination.
    I might be doing nothing at all, he thought. I might be fighting something I simply can't hope to win against.
    But Pamela was there before him. He opened his eyes and looked at her. She wasn't the Pamela he had known, but somehow she was a Pamela. Maybe he had done that. Maybe he had brought her here.
    He closed his eyes again and concentrated on altering the computer embedded in his brain.
    Soon, he fell asleep.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Chapter 7

    When Steven opened his eyes, the light in the room was different than it had been before he had fallen asleep, somehow more diffused. The strange light gave everything in the room a feeling of unreality.
    The room was clean, white, antiseptic. It contained two other hospital beds: one neatly made, the other recently slept in. This was obviously one of the university's first-aid clinics. Hansen had taken it over.
    Steven got out of bed, found his clothes hanging neatly in the closet, and quickly dressed. He fumbled in the drawer of the cart until he found the cigarettes he'd had when he left his apartment.
    How long has it been? he wondered. He stepped to the mirror beside the bed and studied his reflection. His beard showed no more than three days' growth.
    Taking a cigarette from the crumpled pack, he placed it in his mount and lit it. The first lungful of smoke seemed to take the edge off, calming his nerves. Somehow, it brought a bit of sanity back into his world.
    Suddenly, he realized what was making him feel so strange. He felt much better than he should be feeling. The fever was gone, and his wounds no longer hurt. There was only a touch of headache behind his eyes.
    He brought his right hand up and examined his wrist in the strange light. The gash was gone; there was not even the merest trace of a scar. He tore the crude bandages from his arm. That wound, too, was no longer visible. It was as if he had never received those injuries, as if the last few days had not happened.
    But he knew they had. At least, he thought they had. He searched his mind for the events of the past few days and found he could remember only gross generalities. The fine details and the sharpness that marked the computer-generated memories were missing. It was as if someone had told him about what had happened, instead of his actually having lived it.
    Or, like he had dreamed it.
    Still, the bandages - and he did remember some of it.
    The feeling of unreality became suddenly stronger, a heavy mix of both old and new. Had those things really happened? Had he actually met the dog pack? Had Hansen....
    Too many questions, and far too few answers.
    Again he thought about Hansen. Should he try to find him before leaving?
    No, he decided. He had to get out of this room, out of this building. And he had to do it now.
    He shuffled to a low counter on the far side of the room. A piece of hard bread only partly wrapped in aluminum foil lay beside a brown-stained hot plate. He picked the bread up, unwrapped it, stuffed it in his mouth. It crumbled dry and powdery on his tongue and scratched the roof of his mouth. He was tempted to spit it out, but he needed its nourishment.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Chapter 6

When Steven finally awoke he felt much better. Hansen was there, sitting nearly rigid in a straight-backed chair. When he noticed Steven was awake, he took a heavy mug from the tray and handed it to Steven. “Be careful,” he said. “It's hot.”
    Steven looked at the steaming liquid and smelled its rich aroma. “Coffee!” he said.
    “Only instant, I'm afraid.”
    Who cares, Steven thought. It was coffee, and he hadn't had a cup in months. And with cream! Or was it milk? Neither, he decided. All processed milk and cream would have gone bad long ago, and Hansen certainly wasn't keeping a cow. Not here. It had to be a powdered non-dairy creamer.
    He brought the cup to his lips and sipped. The hot liquid burned the torn flesh around his mouth, but it tasted like heaven.
    “Thank you,” he said. Hansen nodded and sat quietly, watching Steven as he enjoyed the coffee.
    After a while they talked. Light conversation at first, but soon the discussion turned to their strange new world.
    “I guess we're both pretty lucky,” Steven said.
    “Are we?”
    “What? Oh. I see what you mean. Sure, it's rough out there. But even at its worst, life is preferable to death.”
    “Under most circumstances,” Hansen said, “but certainly not under all.” Then he smiled a strange, haunting smile. “But this doesn't have a thing to do with death.”
    “What are you talking about? This is the end of the whole damn world!”
    “That's true. But I don't think all those people died.”
    “You're insane.”
    “Perhaps I am,” Hansen said calmly. He smiled again.
    There were several seconds of awkward silence. Somewhere the whine of an electric motor - perhaps the fan in an air conditioner - wavered, then died. Steven knew with a detached portion of his mind that it would not start again.
    “Just what are you trying to say,” he finally asked.
    “Only what I did say - that they're not dead. How can I possibly explain this?” Hansen paused for an instant, chewed nervously on his lower lip, then continued,
“They're in another dimension, in another universe, in a world existing parallel to this one. When this,... our sphere of reality... when it all began to fall apart, they transferred to that other world.”
    “And we can't get to that other universe?” Steven sensed a ring of truth to what the boy was saying.
    “I can't. My condition is permanent.”
    “Are you saying that I can?”
    The boy shrugged. “I was thinking about that while you were asleep. My condition is natural, there isn't a thing I can do about it. Oh, it can be controlled to a large extent, with drugs. But it will always be with me. Your condition isn't natural. You are trapped here because of memories of this world continually being reinforced, regenerating this world for you second by second within your mind. These memories are called up by the artificial device implanted in your head. They make you too much a part of this world to be able to cross over into that other one.”
    “And? Make your point.”
    “Well, I can't take it out of your brain; I wouldn't know where to start. But maybe you can disable it somehow, from inside your head.”
    Steven was silent for a few beats. This was unbelievable, something he simply had not expected. Pamela might actually be alive, waiting for him somewhere. If only he could reach her.
    “Do you have proof of any of this?” he asked.
    Hansen shook his head. “I'm in this world,” he said, “as trapped as you are and lacking any kind of contact with that other world. But the new quantum physics does call for such things. Look at how everyone acted just before they disappeared.”
    They had acted strange, Steven thought, like their minds were elsewhere while their bodies were still here. And suddenly he remembered that last night he had tried to make love to Pamela - a harsh, vivid, somehow accusing memory.
    “All right,” Steven finally said, “I'll take your word for it that it's possible. But how can I possibly disable this computer in my brain?”
    “That I don't know. Maybe you can shut the thing off by just willing it so. Have you tried?”
    Steven shook his head. “Until now, I hadn't even thought of it.”
    “I wouldn't be too disappointed if it doesn't work the first few tries. You're still pretty weak. This bout with the fever has taken quite a bit out of you, and you're not entirely through with it yet. Maybe it could even help in a way. Your elevated body temperature might have weakened the device some. Electronic circuits are delicate, particularly susceptible to damage from heat.”
    “This thing in my head is supposed to be self-repairing,” Steven said. “It's made of molecular circuits, and it uses my body tissues for raw materials. Very experimental. They just couldn't go breaking into my skull every time some little thing went wrong.”
    “What can you lose by trying?” Hansen said with a shrug.
    Steven remained silent. He thought about the microcomputer buried in his brain. He thought about a parallel world, a hypothetical place of dreams and wishes that might or might not exist.
    And he thought about Pamela.
    “That's enough talk for now,” Hansen said, shattering Steven's thoughts. “You still need a lot of rest; it'll be a few days before you can get up and around. Besides, there are a number of things that need my attention.”
    Without another word, Hansen turned and hurried from the room.

    Steven closed his eyes. But this time he did not allow himself to sleep. This time he forced his thoughts on the computer locked in his head, trying to visualize it. It wasn't hard; he had seen electron micrographs of it before they'd placed it in his brain, and now the computer itself called up sharp, clear memories of its own pictures.
    He saw the brilliant blue-green field of the gallium-arsenide chip vivid in his mind. On the chip, nearly indiscernible, was the delicate golden lacework of the circuits.
    Gone was the crude metal-oxide-semiconductor technology of his youth. In its place were organic circuits, constructed of strands of protein, billions of times more compact than their predecessors. A biochip. A fine web to one side of the chip was the computer's interface adapters, the molecule-thin electrodes which carried minute jolts of current to shock memories from Steven's subconscious.
    With his mind, he tried to alter the molecules that formed the computer's circuits, jumbling them in his imagination, rearranging them, making random connections. But, try as he would, he could not change them. And he could not make them disappear, even in his imagination. 
    Finally, totally exhausted, he slept. His sleep was troubled by a disturbing mixture of memory and nightmare.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Chapter 5

    A memory - irrational, out of place, yet horribly vivid - exploded in his brain.
    He is again a child of eight. He is in bed, shivering and sweating, his body raging with fever, his mind a hodgepodge of confused thoughts. Golden summer sunlight streams into the room from a window to his left. His mother hovers above him, large-breasted and sweet-smelling, her blonde hair a soft halo in the sunlight.
    He looks down at his right arm. It is bright pink around the sting, swollen to nearly twice its normal size. He cannot believe something as small as a bee can cause so much pain.
    His gaze brushes the closet door on the far side of the room and he turns quickly back to his mother's face.
    “You'll be all right, honey,” she says. She takes the hot wash cloth from his forehead and replaces it with a cool one. Then she smiles down at him. “Sleep now.”
    But he cannot sleep; he does not dare close his eyes. He had heard his mother talking to Aunt Clara on the phone earlier that day, telling her what the doctor had said about his allergic reaction and what it could mean. He knows he will not be all right. He can feel death waiting for him - a large, dark, bearded old man who lives in the closet. He knows that if he closes his eyes, the old man will come for him in his sleep.
    “Sleep,” his mother says again, soothing his brow with her cool fingers.
    His eyes become heavy, but he fights approaching sleep. Soon his eyelids start to sag shut. He forces them open again. They begin to sting, then burn, but he keeps them open. Finally, he can fight sleep no longer, and closes his eyes.
    And he hears the barely discernible creak of the closet door opening.

    First the sound, then the familiar ritual of waking....
    But this time something was missing. The memories were gone. They were no longer being projected against the blank screen of his mind.
    His name and identity were gone as well.
    Frantically, he searched for the missing parade of his past, that glut of memories which should have been marching continually out of his subconscious into his
 conscious mind.
    Then suddenly, there it was: Steven Collins. And his memories filled his thoughts.
    He lay on his back, a sheet pulled up around his neck. He felt his body drenched in perspiration. The fever still raged in him, worse now than before, and he continued to shiver uncontrollably.
    The room was unusually warm, and the air smelled strangely antiseptic. The light entering through his closed eyelids was not right, either; it seemed too bright, too clear, not yellow enough.
    He opened his eyes.
    Back-lighted by the strange white light, a face hovered above him. Lean, almost emaciated, it belonged to a youth no more than twenty years old. Above hollow, clean-shaven cheeks, light blue eyes held a haunted look. The boy bit nervously at his lower lip as he gazed intently into Steven's eyes.
    Beyond, the walls were white, institutional - like a hospital.
    “You feelin' better?” the youth said. His voice was high and thin.
    Steven tried to speak, but his mouth and throat were too dry. His attempt came out a hoarse croak.
    “That's all right,” the boy said. “Take your time.”
    Clearing his throat, Steven swallowed hard and tried again. “Where?” he said hoarsely, glancing around the room.
    “The university,” came the boy's answer.
    The boy nodded. “The university has its own generators.”
    “Who....” Steven swallowed again. Damn! Why couldn't he take the hint and get a glass of water. “Who... are... you?”
    “Hansen. Roger Hansen. But look, don't talk just yet. You're too weak, and you need something in your stomach.”
    The boy turned from Steven's bed and left his limited field of view. He was gone for several seconds. When he returned, he carried a tray on which rested a laboratory beaker filled with water, a bent piece of glass tubing for a straw. There was also a bowl of something steaming.
    The boy placed the tray on a low, wheeled cart to the bed's left, then brought the beaker up to Steven's mouth. Steven took the glass tubing between his lips and sucked. Only a trickle of water reached his parched throat, but it was better than nothing.
    Taking the beaker away, Hansen put it back on the tray. In a few seconds he brought a spoonful of hot, thin liquid to Steven's torn lips. Steven couldn't tell what it was - there was something wrong with his taste buds - and he had trouble getting it down.
    “I know,” Hansen said, “it isn't very good potato soup. But I doubt your stomach could handle anything heavier.”
    Steven didn't try to respond; he only hoped his expression conveyed gratitude. But right now he needed information almost as much as he did food and water.
    Seeming to sense this need, the boy talked while he feed Steven, relating his experiences since the End.
    “I was a sophomore here at the university before it happened,” he said, “majoring in physics. School during the day and janitorial work in the laboratories at night. Sweeping, cleaning lab equipment, things like that. And occasionally I'd help one of the profs, Dr. Samuels, with his work.”
    That name, Samuels - it triggered a flood of memories. Steven forced them down.
    Hansen laughed, almost spilling the soup. “It's funny, in a way,” he said. “Those dog packs roaming the city?” Steven nodded. “They're from here.”
    “From... here?” Steven managed. He was beginning to feel a little stronger.
    “That's right. And I guess I'm to blame. Dr. Samuels was using the dogs for research into various brain dysfunctions - you know, performing lobotomies, augmenting
their brains with electronics, that sort of thing. It was a large experiment. When it all started falling apart, I turned the dogs loose; I didn't want them to starve to death in their cages. I didn't know.” He shrugged.
    Steven nodded. That explained the strange scars and hardware he had seen on the dogs when he was attacked. “You didn't... didn't know what? That they'd... go wild?”
    Hansen shook his head. “Brain dysfunctions. That's what keeps the dogs here. And that's what keeps you and me here, too. I'm epileptic.” He waited for Steven's response.
    “I'm not,” Steven said, and instantly realized the boy would take it wrong. He hadn't meant it the way it had sounded.
    “Not just epilepsy,” Hansen said, with some pain in his voice. “There are other brain dysfunctions, both natural and otherwise.”
    Hansen nodded. “You know, like the dogs. It can be caused by radical brain surgery - lobotomies and the like - or by electronic augmentation.”
    “You mean like... computer implants?”
    “That's right.” Hansen brought the spoon to Steven's lips again. Steven swallowed the rapidly cooling soup. “You have one, don't you?” Hansen said after a few seconds of awkward silence.
    “Yes. This girl I knew before - “ the thought brought a sudden torrent of memories, sharp and harsh. He pushed them back into his subconsciousness. “She was doing her doctoral studies here. Then we found out I had this disease, similar to Alzheimer's. She talked me into signing myself over to a government-funded research group that was doing work on the physiology of memory.”
    “I heard about the study,” Hansen said. “They were working closely with Samuels. There were two of you, I think. Two operations. Let me see... Collins and...
    Instantly, the newspaper stories Steven had read about Alvarez prior to that other's operation flashed into his mind. Raul Alvarez had possessed symptoms similar to Steven's, but his condition had been attributed to the bite of a black widow spider a few years before. He had spent nearly two years in a coma. When he came out of it, his mind began to deteriorate.
    “You must be Collins,” Hansen said, shattering the memories.
    Steven nodded. “They got to me at a relatively early stage, so I was just what they were looking for. But my short-term memories were beginning to fade fast. I guess I shouldn't complain. They gave me quite a bit of money to let them put their computer in my head.” He tapped his right temple with his index finger and felt a sudden lance of pain. Was it real? he wondered. After a few seconds it passed, and he continued. “I wasn't even supposed to know it was there, unless I wanted to remember something specific.”
    Again the memories flooded his mind, and he shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. But the strikingly vivid parade of events from his past would not dissolve.
    “Now there's something wrong with it,” he said. “It seems to be going out of control. The memories keep coming, whether I want them or not.”
    “That explains why you're still here, in this world,” Hansen said. “But look, you're too sick for this kind of exertion. You need rest. I want to give those antibiotics I pumped into you while you were asleep a chance to do their stuff.” He placed the bowl down on the tray just out of Steven's reach.
    “Thanks,” Steven said, suddenly realizing how exhausted he really was. His entire body ached with the fever and quivered uncontrollably beneath the perspiration-soaked sheet. Hansen was right; he did need rest now more than anything else.
    The boy smiled down at him. “See you later,” he said. Then he turned and left the room.
    At first, in the irrational fog of fever, Steven fought sleep, trying desperately to think through what Hansen had said. But it did no good; he couldn't think clearly. The effects of the fever, combined with his exhaustion, made thinking impossible. Soon his eyes closed and he was asleep.

    He sits across the large walnut desk from a small, gray mouse of a man, wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a hearing aid. The man keeps pushing his glasses up on his nose with his middle finger, and talks with a lisp.
    “You realize, of course, that this procedure is highly experimental,” Dr. Hadley says.
    Steven nods. “Then I'll...” He pauses. For an instant, the thought won't come. “I'll be the first,” he finally says.
    Today is a good day. The thoughts flow relatively smoothly through his mind. His ability to express himself is less impaired than it has been lately.
    “No,” the doctor says, again pushing his glasses up on the bridge of his nose. “There's one other operation scheduled before yours.”
    Steven must think about that for a few seconds before it makes sense. Hadley waits patiently.
    “The other.. he has... what I have?”
    “Yes. At least his symptoms are much like yours. And again, we can't be sure just what it is, but it shares many symptoms with Alzheimer's Disease.”
    Has the doctor told him this before? He can't remember. But there is a question he wants to ask. If he can only think of it.
    “Who...” he begins, but it is gone again. After a moment it returns. “Who is the other....”
    “A man named Raul Alvarez,” the doctor lisps. “He teaches architectural design at a community college in San Diego. His operation will be nearly three months prior to yours. On...” he flips forward through his desk calendar, “October thirteenth.” Again he pushes his glasses up.
    Another question tries to form in Steven's thoughts, one he is not sure he has asked before. It hangs just beyond his mental grasp, refusing to congeal.
Then suddenly, it is there. “How does the device work?” he asks.
    “You have asked me that question a number of times, Steven,” Dr. Hadley says. “If you think hard, I'm sure you will remember.”
    Steven concentrates, and slowly the memory surfaces. But before it is completely in his conscious mind, it again vanishes.
    “No,” he says. “I can't remember.”
    Hadley nods and smiles patiently. “We'll go over it one more time,” he says. “Your memories are always there, in your subconscious. Everything you have ever experienced or witnessed is stored in your brain. But the mechanism which calls up memories for most people, bringing them from the subconscious level into the conscious mind, is dysfunctioning in your brain. Although the memories are there, you cannot access them.
    “The device I intend to implant in your cerebral cortex will electronically manipulate that faltering access function. On demand, it will literally shock the memories from your subconscious into your conscious mind.
    Steven nods. The only thing that matters to him is that he will again have his memories.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Chapter 4

Again the sound woke him, the hollow echo of the world's end.

He opened his eyes slowly, allowing the dirty-yellow light to seep in a little at a time. It was late morning, and the symptoms of a hangover were again present: stale cotton mouth, the bitter sting of nausea at the back of his throat, the dull headache. But he hardly noticed these symptoms; he had lived with them for so long they were merely a part of his existence.

What he felt this morning was not merely the hangover. There was something more, something entirely different. And it was far too intense to ignore.

Pain beat behind his eyes and his vision blurred. His arm throbbed as if it was on fire. The bandage was tight around the wound where his arm had become swollen during the night. Blood soaked both the bandage and the bare mattress beneath him, and perspiration covered his body. Not the cool glaze of the last eighteen months, but a sticky coat of tepid sweat. His body flared with internal heat, yet he shivered in the morning chill. He was burning with fever.

I must go, he thought. But go where? The fever scattered the thought in his mind, and he suddenly realized he did not know.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, he tried to bring his thoughts together. This was important; he must think it out. But now, when he needed to make a rational decision based on past experience, his memories were no longer there. Now, only one thought remained clear in his pain fogged mind: He must find the ax handle!

A small portion of him, a bit of his mind somehow unaffected by the fever, warned that this was utter insanity. He knew he should remain in bed. He was sick, and he needed rest. If he got up now, it would only worsen his condition.

That spark of rational thought, however, did absolutely no good. The weapon seemed, in his fever-distorted thoughts, the only thing standing between himself and total annihilation.

He struggled out of bed and stood for a long while in the middle of the room, tottering on weak legs. Then his knees buckled and he lurched forward, his hand going out to grab the door knob. He pushed against the door, and stumbled out into the hall.

Without closing the door behind him, he went down the stairs and out into the street. He shuffled to the middle of the street, then staggered along the center line, retracing the route he had taken the night before.

Ahead, in the distance, he saw something. Blinking away tears of pain, he squinted. It was a man, walking toward him.

Panic scurried through his fevered thoughts like a small rodent. He knew instantly how truly vulnerable he was. Even if he still had the ax handle, he would be no match for the man; he was far too weak.

Turning, he started back the way he had come at an awkward, staggering run. After only a few steps, his feet tangled, and he lurched forward. He felt a sharp stab of pain as his front teeth pierced through his lower lip, and his face hit the pavement.

Mercifully, he blacked out.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Chapter 3

His arm throbbed with renewed pain as he gingerly removed the blood-soaked jacket and tossed it into a dark corner. Sitting on the bed, he examined his wounds in the flickering light from the candle on the table.

The gash across his wrist looked worse than it actually was. The glass hadn't severed a major artery, and the bleeding had already stopped. The wound in his upper arm was another matter. He picked away clumps of blood-matted down, then poured half the contents of a bottle of bourbon over it. The pain increased, and he swore through clenched teeth. He blinked away tears, then again examined the wound.

It was deep--he could see the yellow of tendon and the red-stained white of bone--and it was already beginning to show signs of infection. The tissue around it was red and puffy. Then blood welled up, filling the wound and making further inspection impossible.

For an instant he considered pouring the rest of the bourbon over it, but decided against that. If the first cleansing hadn't done the job, subsequent bourbon baths wouldn't help. Instead, he took a long drink from the bottle, then put it down beside the candle on the night table.

He got up from the bed with a great deal of difficulty. He was weaker than he had thought; the battle with the dog pack, the walk home, loss of blood--all had taken their toll. And he had never really gotten over his bout with pneumonia.

Staggering to the corner near the door, he pulled a soiled blue work shirt from beneath the jacket and carried it to the bed. Should be sterile, he thought as he sat and began tearing the shirt into three-inch-wide strips. But it was the best he could do.

When he had enough strips, he began to bandage the wound. It was slow work; his arm hurt more now, and he was becoming steadily weaker. The bandage kept slipping. He stopped often to drink from the bottle.

Finally, he finished. The wrappings were loose, and they didn't stop the bleeding, but he had done what he could. If he bled to death in the night, no matter; he would probably die soon anyway from the infection.

Besides, what was there to live for? Once life had meant something. Now, everything was gone.

Picking up the bottle, he took three long swallows. The bourbon burned down his throat, and the pain slowly left his arm. He placed the bottle back on the night table, nearly spilling it.

* * *

The springs complained loudly as he groped beneath the bed. He sat up, placing the small newspaper-wrapped book in his lap. He could not bring himself to unwrap it. There were both good and bad memories there, but none of them fit now. They belonged to a different world, a dead world he wished he could forget.

But the metallic-crystal chip in his brain would not let that happen. Even with the book's wrappings still intact, entries from it flashed through his mind, beginning with the very first page. He took a deep breath and forced the memories from his consciousness.

The remainder of the first bottle and a good part of the second were gone before he had worked up sufficient courage to tear away the soiled wrappings. He let them fall to the floor, then sat fingering the journal's leather binding. When he finally did open the book, two neatly folded newspaper clippings fluttered to the floor. He bent and picked them up. One he put back in the book. The other he carefully unfolded. Before he could read it, the words painted themselves in his mind, called up by the microcomputer buried in his brain.

WASHINGTON--(UPI)--The Pentagon announced Saturday that it is still unable to explain the twelve-day-old epidemic of mysterious disappearances both in the U.S. and abroad.

A spokesman said it is highly unlikely the disappearances are being caused by a new Russian or Chinese weapon, biological or otherwise, as several cabinet-level officials have theorized. He said no nation has been spared.

"We think it might be a virus of some sort," the spokesman said. "But we can't be sure. We haven't seen anything like it."

The spokesman said that by a conservative estimate a little over three percent of the world population has so far been affected.

* * *

He pushed the memory from his thoughts and refolded the clipping without reading it, then put it back in the book with the other article. That one was an Associated Press story originating from Kitt Peak National Observatory, where astronomers claimed to have discovered several inexplicable changes in the sun and other stars. The observatory's staff said fewer stars had appeared in the sky each night over a twelve-night period. They said the light emitted by the remaining stars as well as that radiated by the sun could no longer be broken down into spectra. The story mentioned the theory of one astronomer that the physical universe was coming to an end, literally running down. His colleagues had considered the theory mildly amusing, but nothing more. They thought the phenomenon was caused by an as yet un-isolated change in the atmosphere, a consequence of pollution.

What had caught Steven's attention in the first place was that this article and the one about the strange epidemic had appeared in the same issue.

He flipped through the journal's pages, letting his eyes scan the small, neat script without actually reading it, forcefully keeping the memories from his thoughts and picking up only an occasional key word. His gaze was snagged by one short passage and he read aloud:

"Again last night she told me more about herself than I told her about myself. She always opens up much more than I do. But that might be natural. Once I told her I'm nothing more than a mirror--I reflect her, whatever she is becomes echoed in me. And perhaps I was right."

He nodded drunkenly. Perhaps he was right. Of all the people who had lived in Boston before the End had come, only Steven and a mere handful of others remained. Maybe that's why I didn't disappear with Pamela and the rest, he thought through the bourbon fog. Maybe there just wasn't enough of me to disappear.

He turned the pages quickly, knowing precisely where he wanted to stop, then closed the book on his middle finger. Keeping the memories at bay, he picked up the bottle and took another long drink. Then he placed the bottle back on the night table and again opened the book. Following the lines of writing with a shaking index finger, he leaned close to see the script in the flickering candlelight. The handwriting was sloppier here than throughout the majority of the journal; he had written this as he was now reading it--drunk.

As he read, the memories again flooded his mind--sharp, clear, and painfully vivid. He remembered every time he had read this entry in the past. He remembered writing it, and he relived the actual event that had caused him to write it in the first place. And with each memory came a difference in the shading of his feelings and emotions.

Steven was literally drowning in his past.

* * *

It is like a scene from an old movie, bigger than life and sharper too, yet somehow twisted and surrealistic. He has gotten drunk; all night some fool has been buying him drinks he neither needs nor wants, but is too polite to refuse.

At about 2:15 A.M., he packs up his music, counts his tips, and stumbles out the door. It isn't raining yet, but the threat is in the air.

All the way up Harrison Avenue he keeps thinking: What if she isn't there tonight? What if she's gone--to wherever it is she goes, to whomever she sees? Or worse, what if she is there, but not alone? She hasn't done that yet; she hasn't deteriorated quite that far.

He goes up the stairs slowly and hears water running in the bathtub as he stands outside the door. Pamela unlocks the door before his key is in the lock.

"Oh, it's you," she says, peering around the door. Her long, blonde hair is piled up on the top of her head. A few strands have come loose and are hanging down in front of her face.

She doesn't seem at all happy to see him, and the vision of someone sneaking out the bedroom window leaps into his mind. It is a rather humorous image, and in spite of himself he snickers drunkenly under his breath.

"Just a minute." She closes the door again. He knows she is getting into a bathrobe, the pink one with small blue flowers he gave her last Christmas. After several minutes, she lets him in.

He drapes his coat over the desk in the living room, places his case of sheet music atop it. She goes into the bathroom without another word.

The television is on, but the sound is turned all the way down. On the screen is a fine-featured black man wearing a small mustache and goatee. His hair is cut in a neatly trimmed Afro. His gaze has that disconcerting quality produced when each eye looks in a slightly different direction.

Burton, Steven thinks. The man's name is Hilborne Burton. He is a psychic of considerable notoriety and has his own weekly television show.

When Steven enters the bathroom, Pamela is already in the tub.

"Sit down," she says, motioning to the toilet. Steven puts the lid down and sits.

"Want some company in there?" he asks.

"Oh, I don't care."

He nods, gets up and goes into the small dressing room between the bedroom and the bathroom, and begins to strip. A knock comes at the door. He zips his trousers up, but leaves them unsnapped and the belt dangling loose to discourage whoever it is. Again the thought that it might be some other man gnaws at the back of his mind.

It isn't. It's the girl from down the hall returning a book she had borrowed.

Steven places the book on the desk in the living room, then finishes undressing.

"Who was it?" Pamela calls from the bathroom.

"Sylvia," Steven says, peeling off his socks. "What's her last name?"


"Yeah. Sylvia Fedderman. She brought a book back. I didn't know you were interested in archeology."

"Yes," she says, almost too quickly. "Sylvia's loaning me a book on the subject."

When he returns to the bathroom, Pamela is lying full length in the tub.

"Move over," he says.

She sits up and pulls her legs up to put Steven in front of her. He wants to be behind her, where she can lie back against him. He has the logistics of how to turn her from cold to hot all mapped out in his mind.

"The other way," he says. "Move the other way."

She moves down and sideways, pulling her legs up until she is sitting sideways across the tub, her chin resting on her knees. Steven is disappointed and a little mad at her maneuver.

The water is hot. It feels good as he sinks into it. Keeping his legs drawn up, he begins splashing himself with the water. Immediately Pamela complains about what a bad day she's had, how every muscle in her body hurts, how tired she is.

That's all right," Steven says, but he puts as much disappointment into his voice as he possibly can. It isn't really all right. They haven't made love in weeks, and Steven is beginning to feel a strange emotional wall building between them.

He takes her arm and gently pulls, trying to coax her around to the position he had originally intended.

"Damn it, don't pull," she says. "My body aches, and you're pulling on me!"

Rejected, he lets go of her arm. He slips his left leg down across her back, lets her lean on it. Again she starts in about how tired she is. Again he reassures her.

He splashes water on his face. He can see it coming. The same thing that happened the last few nights is happening again. He doesn't want it to happen, but he knows there is no way around it. Somehow, Pamela is changing. She is no longer the woman he once loved.

He gets up, begins toweling himself.

"Where are you going?" Her voice is harsh, carping.

"To bed," he says.

Pamela gets out of the tub behind him, grabs the other towel, begins drying herself. By the time she enters the bedroom, Steven is in bed.

They make love. Rather, Steven makes an attempt at it. Pamela just lies there, unresponsive, a limp body lacking the mind to move it; her mind is obviously somewhere else. Steven catches himself simply going through the motions, without feeling, like a programmed automaton, and he quits. He tries to sleep, but he can't.

* * *

The next morning he touches her and feels it again--that strange barrier between them. They both push against it, trying to break through, trying to reach each other. But it doesn't work. The barrier is stronger than it was the night before. Hard. Rough. Cold.

* * *

Three nights later he finds her in bed with Sylvia Fedderman, the girl from down the hall. The morning after that Pamela moves out into Sylvia's apartment. For a month Steven visits her several times a week. She seems to take less notice of him each visit.

By the end of the month, she starts to fade physically.

* * *

Steven closed the journal and placed it between the empty bottles on the night table, then stared into the candle's flickering flame. His gaze drifted from the half-burned candle to the sweater beside it. The frog prince squatted atop the sweater and smiled blindly at him, its outstretched human hands gesturing in empty futility.

Glancing around the room, he surveyed his small world. It was filled with shadows of the old, dead world and cluttered with empty bourbon bottles. Yet, it seemed so very empty.

He looked to the door, where the ax handle should have been leaning. It was no longer there. It lay in a gutter somewhere, stained with blood and sweat, notched several times at one end.

It really doesn't matter, he thought through the bourbon haze. Nothing mattered anymore.

He closed his eyes. Sometime during the night, probably closer to morning, he fell asleep.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Chapter 2

A low scud of clouds blew from the south, a torn canopy seeming to snag on the tops of the tallest buildings. Litter whipped in the gutters and danced down the deserted street. The sun was a pale blotch of light almost at zenith.

Steven drew the collar of his shirt up against the wind and crossed the street to the sporting goods store. His steps crunched in broken glass from the store's shattered front window. Among the shards of glass were the scattered contents of several cartridge boxes. He shook his head as he stepped through the window frame. Less than a month ago men had killed each other for a gun and bullets. He had even killed for them.

Instantly the sharp memory pierced his mind:

The smell of rotting garbage hangs heavy in the air about him as he crouches in the alley, behind a mound of trash. He hefts his ax handle and hears his own breathing loud in his ears. His heart pounds hard in his chest.

He is waiting for the large black man he saw entering the deserted grocery store only a few minutes before. The man had a pistol tucked into his belt.

Footsteps, coming toward him in the dark. The black man is coming. It has to be him.

Yes, it is him. Steven sees the black man's hulking form in the dim shifting light of a fire burning out of control three blocks away. He has a soiled pillow case bulging with canned goods thrown over his left shoulder, and his right hand rests on the pistol at his belt.

Shaking with fear, Steven waits an instant. He has never before killed another man. He knows that before all this is over, he will undoubtedly have to kill many.

He takes a deep breath, stands, and steps from the alley. Bringing the ax handle around in a vicious swing, he screams out his fear and rage.

Later, he carefully carves the first notch in the blood-stained ax handle. It is only then that he becomes aware of a strange musty odor. In his excitement, crouching in the alley and sweating with fear, he had wet himself.

Although there is no one around to see it, he feels shame.

* * *

Steven pushed the memory from his mind. A gun wasn't a functional weapon now. That special chemistry that had made gunpowder so very useful had somehow broken down. Like so many other things in this strange life at the end of the world, gunpowder simply no longer worked.

In a dark corner at the rear of the store he found what he wanted: a rack of down-filled ski jackets. He knew they would be there; he had seen them many times in the past few months, without actually being aware of them. Until now, he hadn't needed one. It was, after all, mid August, what used to be called the "dog days of summer." Yet each night the wind grew just a bit colder. Each day the sun shed a little less warmth.

A light pang of guilt touched him as he pulled on a dark-blue jacket and zipped it up. Then he strode past the burglarized cash register and out through the empty window frame. This was totally out of character for him, something he wouldn't have even thought of doing in the old world. Oh, he had stolen merchandise from neighborhood stores as a kid. What boy hadn't? But always small things, and never with as little effort or as much blatant disregard for the law.

The guilt passed quickly--it had to. There were far more important things to consider now, and the search for food was among them. His stockpile of canned goods, laboriously collected and hoarded over the past eighteen months, was now dangerously low. He had been ill for three weeks with pneumonia, unable to go out for the long periods necessary to gather food. Before his illness, it had become necessary to travel farther each time to obtain the food he needed. The local grocery stores were becoming looted out.

Often in the last eighteen months he had thought of moving his residence with his continual search for food. Why shouldn't I become a nomad, he's asked himself, instead of ranging farther and farther each time out? He didn't have many possession: his journal, Pamela's sweater, the key-chain bauble, the ax handle, a small bundle of clothing that could be replaced out of any clothing store. But in the end he had always decided against it. He simply could not bring himself to live like that. He needed some permanence in an otherwise chaotic existence.

* * *

He walked north, his destination a supermarket he remembered seeing before becoming ill. The store was far enough away from the center of town that it might not be empty yet.

"Where did they all go?" he asked aloud, his gaze roaming the deserted street. He remembered when Boston's streets had been glutted with cars, when its sidewalks had been alive with pedestrians. But now the crowds were gone. During the months since the End, the great mass of humanity--of life in general, for that matter--had somehow vanished. Now the city's only inhabitants were the savage dog packs, and a few solitary individuals like himself.

Something to his left caught his eye--not movement, but a presence. He stopped and turned to look into a small boutique across the street. Amazingly, its ornate, imitation stained-glass window was undamaged. It was difficult to see beyond the tinted glass, but everything within seemed in good condition. It was one of the few stores located near the center of town that had not been looted.

But then, there was no reason to loot it. It contained neither food nor anything that could be used as a weapon. It held nothing but the refuse of a society now totally obsolete.

Deep in the shadows at the back of the store, bathed in the week glow of rose and aquamarine light slanting through the window, stood a lone figure. The figure's back was to him, but he could tell it was definitely a woman. There was something strangely familiar about her, about her long honey-blonde hair and the way she was dressed, about the way she stood with her hips cocked at a slight angle.

He crossed the street at a run. Of course there was something familiar about her. It was Pamela! She had returned!

The store's door was locked, so he used his ax handle on the glass. It proved harder to break than he'd thought it would. When it finally shattered, a shard cut a jagged gash across his right wrist.

Once inside, he stopped for a moment, letting his eyes adjust to the dim light. Again he located Pamela's form in the shadows, then advanced. He called her name as he drew near, but she did not respond. His hand went out, hovered above her shoulder for a seemingly infinite instant, descended.

The shoulder beneath the silk blouse was hard and cold. Its flesh did not give under the pressure of his fingers. He spun the figure around, and it clattered to the floor. The pasty white face of a manikin stared up at him, its garishly painted smile mocking and jeering.

Sudden rage filled his thoughts, and his vision blurred with tears. How can this be happening to me? he wondered. It all seemed so unfair. First, Pamela was taken from him, then her form came back to torment him.

His foot went out in a savage kick and the manikin's head rolled noisily across the floor. He kicked again, and the toe of his shoe crushed the tough shell of the manikin's body. He raised his ax handle high above his head and brought it down hard, raised it again....

A low growl froze the ax handle at the apex of its vicious arch. He spun around, snapping his club down diagonally across his torso. The growl came again.

Then he saw them. Five dogs stood between him and the door. They were of mixed breeds, but they looked like highly capable fighters. Three had unusual scars on their heads, as if they'd had operations of some kind, the skin neatly stitched back in place. The two remaining dogs had metal boxes implanted in the top of their skulls, complete with electronic terminals to connect the boxes to something else.

A huge German shepherd--one of those with a metal box implant--advanced cautiously. He was obviously the pack's leader.

Almost calmly, Steven's mind assessed the situation, coolly determining and rejecting alternatives. If he took a step backward, it would show fear, and the dogs would attack. But the reverse could also be dangerous. They were accustomed to responding to either instant attack or swift retreat. If he was patient, waiting for the right moment, he might get out of this alive. But he must wait for his chance, then kill the shepherd. Only then would the remainder of the pack lose heart and fight with less spirit, or maybe even give up entirely.

He stood still and faced the snarling pack in a deadly scene out of dim prehistory.

The German shepherd began stalking slowly to its left, sniffing the air as it circled. It smelled the blood from Steven's wound. A dark rivulet seeped from the gash across his wrist, ran down his palm to trickle off his fingers onto the floor at his feet.

Nearly too late, he realized what was happening. The dog was trying to maneuver him between itself and its companions. If it succeeded, it would cut off his only route of escape. He had to act now, if he hoped to act at all.

Spinning to his right to face the German shepherd, Steven's stance shifted from defensive to offensive. The shepherd took a quick step back, and instantly Steven seized the opportunity. As he charged the animal, his ax handle flashed around in a vicious baseball swing, its tip hitting the dog's left side and ripping away a large patch of fur and flesh. The animal cried out and lunged, its powerful jaws snapping shut on Steven's left arm just above the elbow. Its fangs pierced flesh and muscle, grating against bone.

Steven screamed and jerked his arm from the dog's grasp. Its fangs tore a deep gash in his arm beneath the jacket. Instinctively, he raised his ax handle above his head, and brought it down with all his strength. The animal's skull gave beneath the blow.

The German shepherd crumpled like a toy with its stuffing knocked out. It lay on its side, breathing in shuddering gasps and twitching for several seconds, blood flowing from its nostrils and slack jaws. Then it was still.

One of the other dogs--something that looked like a cross between a Doberman pinscher and an American pit bull--strode slowly up to the dead German shepherd and sniffed the carcass. Then, paying no attention to the man, it turned and stalked from the store, the new and as yet undisputed leader. The others followed, also ignoring Steven. By killing the German shepherd, he had earned the right to live.

He stood unmoving for several seconds, gazing down at the German shepherd's limp body. Only a moment before the animal had been a threat, and now it was dead. Everything in this strange life at the end of the world seemed to change so incredibly fast. Nothing remained what it seemed for long.

He turned and stumbled from the boutique, the numbness of shock not yet beginning to deaden the pain in his wounds. And for a time, buried beneath that pain, the memories were gone.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Chapter 1

Welcome to  the serialized version of my science fiction novel, Worldmaker.

This novel was originally published in 1985 by Ace Books. It was reprinted in Germany in 1993, and was reprinted in 2007 by iUniverse.

At one point it was optioned by an independent Los Angeles production company, for whom I wrote a script. I might publish that script here after serializing the novel.

I will try to keep to a schedule of at least one post per week, but hopefully I can post more often than that.

To see all my other books and e-books, with links to purchase, go to my website at

Enjoy the first chapter of --

A. C. Ellis




A midsummer night, less than a month after Steven and Pamela met. They sit in Pamela's apartment watching television, and for just an instant Steven forgets who the black man staring out at him from the screen is. Then he remembers. It is Hilborne Burton, the psychic. He and Pamela watch Burton's show nearly every night.

Pamela watches the screen, her long, honey-blonde hair piled atop her head. She holds it in place with one hand.

"Have you ever thought of wearing it short?" Steven asks.

"Never," she answers, turning toward him. There is a strange fierceness in her voice. "It's my trademark, my emblem of ultimate independence."

"Independence? From whom? From me?"

"From everyone." She turns back to the television.

Steven shrugs and tries to imagine her with short hair. Nice, he thinks. Especially if it is a few shades lighter.

* * *

Steven holds Pamela close in the dark, her head resting on his bare chest. They have just made love.

"I love you," he whispers.

Pamela grunts her response.

"I mean it."


"Will you marry me?" he asks. He feels her stiffen in his arms.

"You asked me that last night, Steven."

"Did I? And what did you say then?"

"It wouldn't work."

"Why not? We live together.... I can't remember how long we've been living together."

"A bit more than a year."

"And it's working fine, isn't it?" Again there is silence. "Well, is it or isn't it?"

"Yes, Steven, its working, but only because at any given moment either of us can call it quits."

"Do you want to call it quits?" he asks.

"I didn't say that. I just meant marriage wouldn't work for us."

"It wouldn't work for you."

"Okay, for me."

They are both silent for a long time.

* * *

Two months later Steven sits in the living room, waiting, while Pamela gets ready in the bedroom. They are late for... for what?

It is happening again, as it has several times in the past few months. He can't remember where they are going....

Then he remembers. The party. They are already late for the party. And Pamela has to mess with her hair.

"I think I'll get a permanent next week," she calls.

"Why? Your hair looks fine the way it is."

"I know. But I want something different."

Steven thinks it should be called a temporary instead of a permanent. At forty-five dollars a throw, you should at least get honesty.

* * *

The dream-memories scattered, as they had every morning for the past eighteen months, interrupted by the muted thud that marked the world's end.

He snapped awake, cold perspiration coating his body, his trousers clinging wet and clammy to his thighs. A mattress button chewed into his left shoulder blade, a spot of dull pain.

Where was he? Who was he?

A single thought pressed in through the fog in his mind--the computer. With it came questions: Was he finally free of the computer? Somehow, in that instant between sleep and total wakefulness, had it stopped functioning?

With that thought the computer awakened. His body tensed and began to tremble as a torrent of memories flooded into his mind.

First, the dream-memories returned, the same ones he had just awakened from. They were from Denver, from before the operation.

Immediately behind them came the relentless parade of his past. Everything from his first dim awareness as an infant, to the nanosecond prior to falling asleep the night before.

He fought them, trying to push them from his conscious thoughts, but they would not recede. They clung like the last leaf of autumn to the porous bone inside his skull. The sub-microscopic computer locked in his head, its ultrafine electrode network fanning out across his cerebral cortex like a spider's silken web, continually shocked them from his subconscious mind with minute jolts of electrical current, projecting their images against the larger-than-life screen of his consciousness, bestowing on them a hard-edged sharpness they had never possessed in reality.

Foremost among the memories was his identity, and with it came his name. Steven Collins. Then the dual realization: He was perhaps the last sane human being in a world gone totally mad, and he was on the verge of losing his mind.

He pushed that thought down into his subconscious, and concentrated on the mattress button beneath his left shoulder blade. Somehow, zeroing in on that point of pain helped center his thoughts on the task of forcing the memories back down into his subconscious mind. It focused his attention on the present, the here and now.

Opening his eyes, he could barely make out the spotted and peeling ceiling and the naked bulb hanging unlit from its frayed cord in the dimness above. The window to his left was hung with makeshift curtains; little light sifted through the coarse burlap.

What was today's date? He couldn't be sure; he had lost track months ago. It had to be summer, though. Around mid August, 1989.

But it really didn't matter anymore. Nothing had mattered much since...

Again the memories flooded back into his thoughts, threatening to throw him over into raging, screaming insanity. And again he forced them down by concentrating on the immediate.

This time he focused on his body in general, and on its surrealistically sharp sensations. He felt the cold glare of perspiration and the heavy fabric of his trousers clinging to his legs. His breath hissed in ragged bursts, tickling and warming his upper lip, as white pain pulsed behind his eyes and cramps tore at his stomach. He smelled the sourness of his unwashed body and fought down a wave of nausea.

Turning on his side on the bare mattress, his gaze fell on a gray-and-black checked sweater folded neatly atop the night table. In the center of the sweater squatted a green plastic frog, a two-inch tall key chain bauble wearing a yellow crown. Its hands were humanoid and spread. Once it had carried a small yellow replica of the world. Now its hands were empty, and it appeared to be shrugging.

Both the sweater and the frog had belonged to Pamela. They were all he had to remember her by.

Pamela had left almost eighteen months ago, only a couple weeks after the End, before anyone was willing to admit it had actually arrived. Steven still had more trouble accepting her absence than he did the world's end. Many nights he would turn restlessly on the bare mattress, feeling her warm breath on his neck. Often he mumbled something to her in his sleep, only to wake in a cold sweat and remember she was gone.

Reaching out, he fingered the sweater's soft fabric, and again the memories flooded in--harsh, painfully clear.

One was the memory of a night seven years ago, when he was still playing piano three nights a week in a run-down motel bar in Denver. It was the night he first met Pamela.

* * *

She is twenty-six, two years younger than Steven, but looks no older than twenty. Her hair is honey-blonde and falls in soft waves to the middle of her back, and her eyes are the color of a summer sky. Her body is small, almost boyish, her features those of a delicate porcelain doll. Her nearly white, untanned complexion enhances that effect.

Apparently only fluff, Steven thinks at first.

But as the night progresses, as he talks to her between songs, he begins to realize that there is a deceptively quick mind behind those enchanting eyes. She is considerably more than she appears.

Dinner for the next night: that's what he has in mind. After the last set, only fifteen minutes before closing, he finally works up the nerve to ask.

"No," she says, taking him totally by surprise, "we'll take in a show tomorrow afternoon. I'll make breakfast at my place this morning."

That fast and direct.

That straight forward....

* * *

A dog barked somewhere outside, snapping Steven's thoughts back to the present. Another added its rasping call, then several others. A shiver climbed up his spine.

He sat on the edge of the bed and felt blindly across the hardwood floor for his shoes. The heel of his hand hit an empty quart bottle and sent it rolling noisily across the room. The dogs stopped barking.

Dead soldier, he thought into the silence, wondering how a dead anything could make so much noise.

As he groped beneath the bed, his fingers brushed something husk-dry and roughly rectangular. His journal, wrapped in newspaper.

For a long moment he toyed with the idea of picking it up and unwrapping it, but he realized that would serve no real purpose. Shortly after Pamela left and his world fell apart, he had decided that there was no longer anything left in his life about which to write. The only other reason for opening the journal now would be to read from it, and there was no need to do that, either. The gallium-arsenide semiconductor in his brain was even now supplying exact memories of the words he had written years before.

Again he drove the memories from his thoughts, then found his shoes, pulled them on and laced them. They were old shoes. He knew he could have a new pair any time he wanted, but he would have to break them in; these were already comfortable. It would simply be more work than it was worth.

The bedsprings complained as he stood and went to the wash basin on the far side of the room. He turned on the tap and a slow stream of warm, rusty water trickled out. He splashed it on his face, in his hair, rubbed some clumsily across his bare chest. He lifted an aerosol can of shaving cream from the narrow metal shelf beneath the shattered mirror, shook it, then sprayed foam out onto his fingertips, applied it to his day-old stubble, and began to shave.

Halfway through, he stopped. There was no longer anyone to shave for. The society to which that ritual had meaning no longer existed.

He toweled the lather from his face, then threw the soiled towel on the bed. Going to the corner near the door, he picked up a red flannel shirt from the pile of dirty clothes, pulled it on and buttoned it up.

Soon, he would need more clothing, Steven thought. But there was no rush. Again, there was no one for him to dress for, no one but himself. And he no longer cared.

He picked up the ax handle leaning against the door and hefted it in his hands. It felt good. It looked good, too. The oils from many handlings had stained the wood nearly as dark as the backs of his hands.

He ran a calloused thumb along a row of notches at one end of the weapon and thought with shame of a time when he had counted his victories. It had taken him nearly two months to realize that there were no victors in this new world. Only survivors.

Consciously keeping the memories at bay, he opened the door and stepped out into the dark hall. Then he locked the door behind him and descended to the street.