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.