The winds of August came from the north. The cold came too, early, thickening the swamps beneath a lowering sky. Skeletons of cottonwood and poplar shouldered coats of ice veined in black. Ghosts of alligators ambled down paths laboriously cleared through an age of ice by backhoe, pick, and shovel. The heavy, oil-black bodies of the gators blundered past the remains of homes in Bill Uzzell’s neighborhood, where a few windows yet flickered with candle light, or the juice of aging generators.
Bill removed the audio phone of the crystal radio from his ear and tossed it onto the rumpled bed. The news had not been good, at least no better than it had been for weeks. There would be no break in the cold, and the forecast was for snow with freshening northerly winds. A quick parting of the heavy, thermal drapes showed Bill all he needed to know. The morning sun had already been obscured by a blanket of close, gray clouds, and if he were to make it out at all today, he would have to move soon.
From downstairs came the sound of the kids preparing breakfast. No aroma of eggs, toast, or brewing coffee greeted him on the stairs, just the humming of the microwave as it thawed yeast cakes and heated synthetic milk. Bill was grateful for the sound, for it confirmed they had power. Not every morning greeted their bellies with the warmth of food.
At the bottom of the stairs Bill paused. He was so tired, it was as if the anniversary meant nothing, and yet he was sure it meant everything. Today brought back all the memories of radiance, of things as simple as sun on sidewalk and the smell of grass, of freshly mown lawns, things that were at last curling up in the corners of his mind to die.
It was Rachel, his oldest surviving offspring, who greeted him with the surprise: a flower. The small carnation turned in her hand, as bright and perfect as a rose. Her smile betrayed none of the expense and effort, least of all the risk that had gone into acquiring it. Her younger brothers stopped their preparations about the table to watch Bill’s reaction. The three-year old, his orphaned grandchild, knew nothing more than to pound the table with a spoon.
“For mom,” said Rachel, the fingers of her free hand fretting at a patch-worn blouse. “You’d better hurry.” Her eyes flashed with command as she said the words, handing over the flower. Then, as she turned away to take charge of the youngsters about the table, Bill could almost see the set of his wife’s shoulders in the maturing young woman. Certainly her voice echoed the confidence of a time before the great cloud had enveloped Earth.
Bill said thank you, a bit too forcefully, and pressed his lips into a smile.
Outside gunfire fell from the sky like winter thunder, but no one seemed surprised. A second later, helicopter blades beat oppressively near the house, and as the overhead patrol moved on, the gunfire moved with it, sounding out in fitful spurts.
“Gator,” said one of the young boys with a smile. “Puzzled him up good, I bet.”
It was a drawn out and careful process for Bill to fit into and inflate his walking suit, but the gauge rose and settled in at one and a half atmospheres; no leaks to repair this time. He had eaten while he dressed, and at the last, Rachel helped him on with his helmet. She was about to apply a thin film of cosmolete to the line of stitches marking an old repair, but he caught her hand.
“It’s all right,” he said. “Don’t waste it. The bedroom window needs a coat, or we’ll soon have dust creeping in at the corners. My suit will do fine today. Let’s go.”
“Don’t forget this,” Rachel said, already strapping the pistol belt around his waist.
“No, mustn’t forget that,” Bill agreed sadly. He said the words carefully, his throat tightening. The weight of the gun seemed greater than oxygen re-breather, armor, and helmet combined.
The makeshift airlock in the old hallway hissed and released, opening onto a one time sun deck, and from there down into the icy streets and snow cut channels of the town. Bill looked and waved, catching his daughter’s determined and unworried eye. With thick, gloved hands, he raised the carnation in salute and turned to go.
By the time Bill realized he was still pulling the trigger of an empty gun, the crimson brightness of the attack had begun to fade. His blood outside on the ground was turning color.
Dust. It was only dust, but a dust that had been three eternities and a dozen ages in travel across the stars. At points it proved thinner than smoke, and in others joined in roiling columns solid as stone. It moved in rivers above the Earth. Each mote seemed to have a motive of its own, and together they became a vast and purposeful will.
The cloud had entered the solar system at an angle to the plane of the ecliptic, following a course unnatural to tides of gravity and the winds of light. The first swift tendrils of the cloud splashed carelessly across the far side of the moon before any attention was given. Soon after, the size of the great, dark haze became apparent, something rivalling the tails of a thousand comets, but drawn into limbed and coiling shapes. As men watched, the limbs reached out from a murky, nearly featureless center to test the winds of Earth.
As the dust reached down through the stratosphere to become a breath upon the plains and across the surface of the sea, the first of the infection moved into outbreak and then plague. The forests died and were reborn. The great seas gave up their whales and other monsters of the deep. And of the panic in the cities, there is little that can be said that is not easily imagined.
That the cloud fouled Earth’s weather, that it darkened the seasons by its presence and brought an endless winter beneath its vast mantle, these things are beyond dispute. But what was the origin of the thing, its purpose?
Bill walked without feeling the weight of his legs. It might have been easier had he been able to blot out the past, or like his younger children, remember so little of it. What he did remember, he remembered with the clarity of sunlight, so clearly, it made his vision blur behind a mask of tears. From the beginning they had had no chance.
From the beginning, Bill knew that better than anyone.
Up until he deserted, taking his family south, cross country, away from the failing labs, the panicked campus, and the chaotic streets, Bill had been in the lead, a key mind in one of the many teams investigating the cloud. He, and those with him, knew everything about nano-machines, and therefore more than a little about the alien dust enveloping Earth.
Where the cloud had come from, none could say, for it had sailed with the tides of starlight, navigating from system to system for a billion years or more. Yet however old the cloud might be, the infectious dust of its tendrils yielded easily to analysis. Each speck was a machine, a specialized worker programmed to operate in harmony with the whole. There were dust motes that altered enzymes, others that tinkered with nucleic acids, and yet more able to generate peptide bonds and manufacture proteins. Each tiny piece proved fascinating to observe, and they varied by the thousands and tens of thousands. Yet everything the alien dust did seemed related to life, but not in the natural manner with which men are familiar.
Looking up, Bill realized it was time to leave the clear cut channel in the ice. He pulled himself toward the top of the five foot wall of frozen snow, his shoulders straining with the effort. First he got one leg over, then the other, and breathing heavily, flopped face down to rest and, for a moment, gather his courage.
Before he could stand Bill saw the remains. It hadn’t been an alligator the helicopter had been tracking, but a man. A hand lay near Bill’s faceplate. The fingers seemed gray, the ghostly digits of a vampire; the wrist extended into a shattered arm, shattered in the way ice splinters over rock.
His breath quickening all the more, Bill got his knees under him. The torso seemed a snowman’s body, blackened by soot and melting under the sun, but the heat to melt it had been 50 caliber incendiary, at least. An arms length away, the head wobbled on a jaw moving in voiceless agitation. The whole seemed a puzzle of life, shattered, but striving to reassemble. Carefully, Bill kicked the pieces further apart, leaving the dazed head to the coming storm.
This was the infection. It had been Bill’s supposition that the cloud represented a genesis project, a nebula designed by intelligence and launched into the void in order to bring the darkness to life. It had power and deep set skills enough to transform worlds, and after a billion years, it had chosen Earth.
In Bill’s mind, that had been an accident. The nano-machines were designed to build life from scratch, or to develop it from the simplest beginnings. Having found complex organisms, they failed to adjust. Their very presence in the atmosphere became as a pall of nuclear winter, transforming the climate. When the cold began to claim lives, the motes moved into flesh, reanimating the dead. It seemed the height of horror movie clichés, but these were no zombies with a taste for brains. If anything, they became ghosts, dreaming apparitions grasping at some memory of their former selves. Their only danger lay in passing on the infection, and against that eventuality, the helicopter patrols provided a merciless protection.
Bill got to his feet. Half a mile distant, the hill of the old cemetery rose like an island above a sea of marbled snow. Trees, barren as crosses, marked its crown.
Stepping carefully across the broken body, Bill moved on, holding the flower out before him. In the time it took for his many, careful footfalls, a fog began to descend from the close sky, turning the world to a dreamscape, silent and gray. By the time Bill reached the mausoleums, the world had become a series of rising right angles, walls of stone blurred and leaden, illuminated from below.
Disoriented, Bill felt his way along the façade of a marble tomb. Ahead, something moved low and black in the darkness. Though it proved hard to hear through his helmet, Bill imagined he heard the weight of a heavy tail slapping stone. The thought froze him in his tracks.
Even dead, an alligator remained a dangerous brute. Afraid to turn and afraid to go on, Bill froze. He took long moments to sink to down, the stone of the tomb at his back, the fog curling around him like a blanket.
He began to cry. No tears flowed, and Bill made not a sound, for it was a sorrowful crying of the mind: long, drawn out, and close to despair.
He had thought about it many ways since the disaster began. Perhaps the last of the patricians had felt this way at the sacking of Rome. He was watching the fall of a civilization, a great change from which something dark and brooding would emerge. And the light would not be seen again for a thousand years. Or perhaps all of his understanding was no more use than the shocked glance of a Cretaceous beast, some dinosaur watching the fall of the asteroid that would doom its kind.
At the end, in these final days, Bill’s thoughts returned again and again to Donya. It was not that he loved her; that went without saying. The most secure and comforting moments of his life had been spent in her arms.
Donya was the confidant of his heart and his hopes. With her, he shared a closeness men who have not experienced the same often mock and ridicule. But no, the central fact of his love was a given. What now consumed Bill was the fate he had engineered for the mother of his children, for the mate of his soul, for his Donya.
Through the mist, a light, gray snow began to fall.
No treatment had been found for the infection of the cloud, not even the clumsy, electrostatic therapy Bill had thought to try. The only answer was to destroy those infected, to shatter them utterly and scatter the fragments of their bodies to the corners of the world. At first, when the Government remained cohesive and powerful enough, it was impossible to hide the body of a loved one. But as the outbreaks grew in number, it was no longer possible to account for every infected soul.
Believing the gator must have passed on into the maze and winding lanes of the old cemetery, Bill moved on.
His destination was close.
With each step, Bill’s breath grew more ragged. He reached to his waist, sliding the gun from its holster without looking. He should never have done this to Donya, abandoning her to the fate of a ghost. What must it be like?
Remembering love, longing to see her children once again, perhaps believing herself in the presence of her loved ones? Does she pantomime the mundane activities of life, wiping the face of a baby at breakfast, caring for the memory of a child that can never change? Does she sweep the memory of a rug and pick up phantom shoes, talking in quiet whispers to a husband who is not really there?
And how long will it go on? As far as Bill could see, the determination of the alien dust knew no bounds. The infection provided its own energies, its own motive forces to keep life going, no matter the overarching disaster the cloud had caused, by accident or ill design. Locked in her mausoleum, Donya might haunt that small space for a time deeper than the memories of Rome and the birth of Egypt.
The wrought-iron angel on the gate before the tomb identified it with certainty. Carefully placing the carnation and then his gun on a mound of snow near the gate, Bill used his gloved hands to dig a little, freeing a shovel concealed against the marble façade. With the shovel, he began to clear ice and the snow that had built up around the gate since his last visit.
As the moment came closer, tears warmed Bill’s cheeks. More than anything else came the realization that today was their anniversary. He continued to work, and at last the gate inched wide and the path to the heavy door was cleared. Bill worked clumsily at the locks and opened them. He pulled, concentrating on what seemed the opening of an ancient vault. As the door to Donya’s prison began to give, a blow took him from behind, sweeping his legs from beneath him.
The world spun and Bill’s shoulders hit stone. The weight that had toppled him at the knees pushed again, sending a stabbing pain from calf to ankle. Twisting, Bill managed a glimpse of the gator. It had shambled through the iron gate, dreaming of prey it no longer needed to survive. Larger than any he had seen, the monster looked twenty feet at least, its rounded snout and blackened teeth clamped firmly on his leg. As the beast shook its head from side to side, a fearful pain set Bill into action.
He would have had little chance against a live beast of these dimensions. But this was a ghost of power, clumsy and dreaming and slipping on ice. When it raised its jaws slightly to secure a better grasp, Bill pulled away, tearing his suit leg wide against uneven teeth. Seeing blood and feeling pain, he scrambled on hands and knees, faster than the dust-infused beast could react.
He made for the fence, for the mound of snow and the gun he had laid there. Behind him, the alligator struggled in the tight space of the mausoleum’s court, its hide scrapping ice as it turned. Bill tried to stand, but his leg gave itself up to a wave of crippling agony. Still, he continued.
Dragging himself as quickly as he could, Bill reached the mound before the gator cleared the wrought iron gate.
Pushing himself up with his good leg, he pointed the weapon and fired. His first shots went wild, but as he sank down into snow and blood, each pull of the trigger became more deliberate. The nine millimetre rounds slapped into the beast’s head like a pick into ice. Pieces of gator splashed off at each impact. As its lumbering body cleared the mausoleum, the gator kept moving, but something in the damage Bill had caused saved him further trouble. The undying monster lumbered past, one eye missing, a bullet-torn crater marking deep paths into the space its brain had once called home. The wag of the gator’s tail spread Bill’s blood in a wide swath across the snow.
By the time Bill realized he was still pulling the trigger of an empty gun, the crimson brightness of the attack had begun to fade. His blood outside on the ground was turning color. The nearest pool of it flushed gray, filling with a rush of microscopic nano-machines, some of them as new to the scene as the light dusting of snow which continued to fall.
Bill grasped at his wounded leg, using both hands to cover the breach in his suit. It did little to stop the blood all around from marching right back inside the ragged tear. He screamed for it to stop, but the fluid moved as though driven by a strong wind. It circled round the open wound and flowed back inside.
Terror kept Bill from feeling much at all. If he thought of anything, it was only that he deserved what was happening for betraying Donya, for allowing her to participate in his desperate experiments, for letting the lab work go so terribly wrong.
And then, before he could think of anything else, she was there. In the misty light and the gray wisps of snow, Donya stood over him. She must have found the open door. She was beautiful. The gray skin and the ragged dress meant nothing to him now. Her eyes seemed to be watching him in some other situation, for they were filled with a tenderness that her muddled, dreamy expression could not hide. The cold did not bother her bare feet as she moved past Bill, only to return a moment later with the carnation, the flower from her daughter Rachel, held lovingly before her. Donya appeared to breathe it in, as though it held the fragrance of life itself.
Slowly, she turned in her somnambulant steps, returning with the carnation to the now open door of the mausoleum, disappearing inside.
“No, don’t leave me!” Bill exclaimed, not quite sure of the words even as he said them. The pain was going, but in its place a strange dullness and blurring of thought had begun. Fear too had had its moment, and in its place came an easing of his soul, as if the troubled day were at an end and with the darkness would come warm blankets and the soft forgetfulness of sleep.
He blinked, half-asleep for what seemed a heartbeat, and then hands were removing his helmet, Donya’s hands.
For a second he thought to resist, and then, forgetting the reason, he helped her to disengage the clasps of the environment suit, quickly leaving its shell behind. He wasn’t cold anymore. And it pleased Bill greatly to feel the hands of his Donya against his cheek, to see her eyes gazing into his, asking without words if he were all right.
The last thing Bill thought to decide, as Donya helped him to his feet, was that he was happy. Guilt and pain were being covered by the thickening snow. The storm promised in the morning had come into its strength.
Blood and tracks and the discarded environment suit were being covered. Bill’s last concerns in life were being buried by the snow.
With a pleasant strength, Donya helped him to stand. She led him toward the darkness of the mausoleum door, demonstrating more comprehension than Bill would have believed. Once having her dreaming husband within, she patiently tugged the gate and then the heavy door closed behind them, where they would wait together beneath the snows and the dark storms until the passing of man and the dissolving of winds and the fleeting winter of the great cloud had passed into some unimaginable spring.