By Edward Ashton
Micah steps from the shuttle and onto the tarmac, eyes slitted against the hard north wind that whips across the empty runway. The sky is a flat, leaden gray, with high thin clouds too light for snow, but too thick to let the sun come through as anything more than a vague, diffuse glow near the southern horizon. Micah hunches his shoulders against the bitter cold, ducks his chin to his chest, and pulls his coat tight around him. He hesitates, glances up at the desolate stand of dead trees at the far end of the runway, then walks slowly toward the terminal building.
A sense of uneasiness, which has lurked deep in his belly since he boarded the shuttle, grows steadily as it becomes increasingly clear that he’s alone here. He hadn’t expected an honor guard, but he’d expected… something. As he reaches the terminal entrance, he looks back to see the shuttle wheel around and accelerate back down the runway. He pauses with his hand on the door. He can see through the glass that a half-dozen bodies are sprawled on the floor inside, perfectly preserved. He takes a deep breath in, then lets it out slowly as he enters the building. The scream of the shuttle’s engines fades as the door swings shut behind him.
As he climbs the frozen escalator to the arrivals lounge, Micah remembers the last time he passed through this airport. It was years ago, and he’d been on his way to visit a distant cousin in the North Country. He remembers stopping for a drink before heading to the rental car counter, intending to stay only long enough to take the edge off before a four hour drive, but instead spending most of the afternoon drinking crappy domestic beer and trading double entendres with the bartender. She was tall and lean and blonde, not young, but not yet old either, and her smile caught and held him long after he should have been on the road.
She’s dead now, of course. Lake Ontario was the epicenter. When the strike came, it was twelve thousand miles in any direction from here to safety.
Micah pulls up short as he reaches the top of the escalator. A woman is waiting for him, leaning against the gate agent’s counter. She’s short and thin, with long dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. Until she steps forward and he sees the faint lines around her eyes and mouth, he could have mistaken her for a child.
“Hello, Micah,” she says, and smiles tentatively. Micah stares, unblinking, for an awkward five seconds, until finally she crosses her arms over her chest. She runs a critical eye from his feet to the top of his head.
“Wow,” she says. “Most important diplomatic mission in the history of the species, and this is the best you can do?”
Micah blinks slowly.
“I’m sorry,” he says, “but…”
She raises one eyebrow.
“Well,” Micah says. “How are you not dead?”
Her name is Daria. Micah learns this as they walk to her car, which she’s parked in the tow-away zone immediately in front of the terminal. It’s a black Mercedes coup.
“I like fast cars,” she says in answer to Micah’s unasked question. “No point in being frugal now, is there?”
“I guess not,” Micah says as he settles into the leather of the passenger seat. Daria looks over at him with a half-smile as the engine roars to life.
“You’re gonna want to buckle up.”
She’s true to her word. The Mercedes hits eighty before they’re out of the airport, and she barely slows even for ninety-degree turns on city streets. As they tear through the suburbs and then into Rochester proper, Micah stares out the windows and wonders at the cleanliness and order. He’s the first human to see this half of the planet since the strike–the first other than Daria, anyway–and he hadn’t been sure what to expect. More chaos, maybe? More actual destruction? The city just looks temporarily empty.
“Hey,” Micah says as they squeal around the corner onto East Avenue. “Where are the animals?”
Daria glances over as she straightens the wheel, then accelerates again.
“Dead,” she says. “I thought we were clear on that. Everything is dead. People, animals, birds, fish, insects, bacteria, viruses…”
“Right,” Micah says. “I get that–but where are the bodies? Maybe all the people went indoors to die, but shouldn’t there be cats and dogs and birds all over the place? With no scavengers, and no decay, I’d expect this place to look like a taxidermy shop.”
Daria hesitates. Her eyes lose focus, and the car slows briefly.
“They’re gone,” she says finally. “Cleaned up.”
“What was that?”
She stares straight ahead, and stomps on the gas.
“What was what?”
“You glitched out for a second there. What was that?”
She glances over at him, then swerves to the curb, and brakes hard enough to throw him against the seatbelt.
“You live in the Eastman House.”
“Sure,” she says. “Why not? Nobody else was using it, right?”
Micah stands looking at an elephant’s head mounted on the wall above the fireplace in the conservatory. He remembers visiting this place as a child, wandering from room to room, ignoring the photography exhibits, but marveling at the sheer number of animals George Eastman managed to shoot before turning his gun on himself.
“I made up one of the guest bedrooms for you,” Daria says. “Want to come and see?”
Micah turns to look at her.
“I’m really having trouble with this,” he says.
Daria steps closer to him.
“Trouble with what?”
“With this,” Micah says. “This is not what I expected.”
“What?” Daria asks. “You mean the house?”
“No,” Micah says. “Yes. Maybe. The house, the city, you… I mean, what the hell is going on? I came here to meet with the people who sterilized half the planet. They summoned me. Where are they?”
Daria stares past him for a moment, then focuses back in.
“You’re tired,” she says. “You should rest. We can talk about that stuff in the morning.”
Micah’s jaw sags open.
“You’re sending me to bed?”
“Yes,” Daria says. “I’ll get you settled in, and bring you a snack. You’ll feel much better when you’re rested.”
“Hey,” Daria says, and knocks softly on the half-open door. “Are you decent?”
Micah turns. Snow has begun falling, and he’d been standing at the window, watching it pile up on the corpse of the garden below.
“Mostly,” he says. “Come on in.”
Daria nudges the door fully open. She’s carrying a tray of grilled cheese sandwiches, two bottles of water, and a bowl of tomato soup. Micah’s stomach rumbles at the smell.
“Thanks,” he says as she sets the food down on the antique desk that stands against the back wall. “Twenty hours on the shuttle, and all I brought to eat was a couple of protein bars.”
“No in-flight meal service, huh?”
“Not quite. That thing was a cargo drone, you know. It only had a seat because they bolted one in for me.”
Daria sits in the desk chair. Micah pulls a leather-bound armchair over from the corner, takes a sandwich, and settles in to eat.
“So,” Daria says. “How did you wind up with this gig? No offense, but you don’t seem like the sort of person that ordinarily gets entrusted with the fate of the species.”
Micah shrugs, swallows a bolus of melted cheese, and washes it down with half of one of the water bottles.
“I told you, I was summoned,” he says. “When your friends contacted the US consulate in Canberra, they told us to send one person, no backup. They asked for me by name.”
“Wow,” Daria says. “You must have been honored.”
Micah raises one eyebrow at the mocking tone in her voice.
“Honestly,” he says, “we were pretty sure this was a suicide mission.”
“Really?” Daria asks. “They’ve already killed five billion people. You thought this was a ploy to tack on one more?”
He shrugs again, and takes another bite.
“Let’s just say the level of trust on our side is pretty low at this point.”
“But you decided to come anyway.”
He looks up at her, then down at his hands.
“Most of the others had their families with them in Oz,” he says. “I didn’t. All my people were here.”
Micah finishes his sandwich in silence, then starts in on the soup. Daria opens her water, takes a delicate sip, and closes it back up.
“You know,” Micah says. “You’re not exactly what I expected either.”
“Really?” Daria asks. “What did you expect?”
Micah rolls his eyes.
“Aliens, actually. You are human, right? I mean, I guess I never actually asked, but based on appearances I kind of assumed.”
Daria stares him down through a long, awkward silence.
“Yeah,” she says finally. “I’m human.”
“And you’re still alive because…”
“Get some sleep,” Daria says. “We’ll talk more in the morning.”
Get some sleep, Micah thinks. Easier said than done. He lies awake in the hard twin bed, and listens to the wind howl outside the windows. What he said to Daria earlier was an understatement. None of this is what he’d expected. He’d thought he was being brought here to receive the terms of humanity’s surrender to the invaders. Instead, he’s apparently expected to negotiate in the morning–though for what, and with what, he has no idea. The invaders have already demonstrated both the ability and the willingness to sterilize the planet. What is there to say in the face of that?
“Rise and shine,” Daria says.
Micah opens one eye. She’s sitting at the foot of his bed, wearing comfortably worn jeans and a University of Rochester sweatshirt. He sits up, rubs his face with both hands, and pushes his hair back from his forehead.
“What time is it?” he asks.
“A little after nine. Apparently, you were tired.”
He yawns, and rubs the grit from his eyes.
“Yeah,” he says. “Apparently.”
“I brought you some breakfast,” Daria says. She hands him a paper bag. He opens it to find a blueberry scone, an apple, and a half-pint carton of chocolate milk.
‘Um,” he says. “Thanks?”
“Sure,” she says brightly, and pats his leg through the blanket. “Eat up. It’s a beautiful morning. Maybe later we can go for a walk or something?”
Micah takes a bite of the scone and chews slowly, never taking his eyes from her. He opens the milk, drinks half of it down, and carefully re-closes the carton.
“A walk?” he asks finally. “That’s what we’ve got on tap for the morning?”
Her smile falters.
“Well,” she says, “I mean, I just thought…”
“Daria,” Micah says. “What the hell is going on here?”
She kisses him.
Micah tries to pull back, but her arms are around him and she’s crawled across the bed to straddle his legs and the kiss has a desperate hunger to it that Micah hasn’t felt in twenty years. It goes on for what seems like a very long time, and when Daria finally pulls back, her eyes are wide with a heartbreaking mixture of hope and terror. Her face is smooth and unlined now, years younger than it seemed the night before, and with what feels to him like an audible click, something snaps into place and he sees her.
“Holy shit,” he says. “Dory?”
Her face falls.
“It’s Daria, Micah. My name is Daria.”
She rolls off of him, knocking what’s left of his breakfast to the floor, and stalks out the door without a backward glance.
Early afternoon. Micah sits uncomfortably on an ottoman in the foyer, wondering what he’s supposed to be doing here, wishing he had a way to contact Canberra, when the front door swings open and Daria walks in.
“Oh,” she says. “You’re still here?”
He stares at her.
“It’s really you,” he says. “You’re Doug’s little sister.”
She rolls her eyes and looks away.
“Yeah,” she says. “Doug’s little sister. I thought maybe twenty years later I’d just be Daria, but I guess not.”
Micah opens his mouth to speak, then closes it again. Daria walks past him, down the hall and into the kitchen. She comes back a few minutes later with a half-empty bottle of beer. She sits down next to him, their hips almost touching, takes a swig from the bottle, and leans forward with her elbows on her knees.
“Look,” Daria says. “I’m sorry about all of this. It was stupid. I’ll call Canberra and tell them to come and get you.”
“But,” Micah says. “Aren’t we supposed to…”
“Oh, for shit’s sake,” Daria says. “Do you really think you’re here for some big important diplomatic thing? Didn’t it seem strange to you that alien invaders would specifically request a low-level State Department nobody to fly half-way around the planet and negotiate the fate of humanity?”
“Uh,” Micah says. “I never… yeah, I guess that does seem a little strange.”
“Yeah,” Daria says. “You’re an idiot, Micah.”
She offers him the bottle. He shrugs, takes it from her, and drinks most of what’s left.
“So,” he says. “Were there ever any invaders? Because I’ve gotta say, I’m starting to feel like the butt of a really elaborate practical joke.”
Daria sighs, closes her eyes and rests her forehead against her palms.
“It’s complicated,” she says. “I mean, there’s definitely something here, but invaders probably isn’t the right word.”
“They attacked us,” he says. “They killed five billion people. What would you call them?”
Daria shakes her head.
“They didn’t attack us. What you guys have been calling ‘the strike’ — it was a gamma ray burst. It’s just what happens when a wormhole opens and closes, apparently. They were passing through, and we got in the way. We’re not the victims of an alien invasion, Micah. We’re just roadkill.”
“Huh.” Micah finishes the beer, and sets the bottle carefully on the floor beside them. “And I’m here because…”
She looks up at him, then closes her eyes and turns away.
“You’re here because I asked for you,” she says softly. “They feel really bad about what happened. They asked me what I wanted, offered me anything in the world, and the only thing I could think of was my twenty-years-gone high school crush. Pitiful, right?”
Micah reaches out toward her, then pulls his hand back.
“Well,” he says. “In all fairness, I’m pretty sure everyone else you ever met is dead now.”
Daria sighs again.
“Yeah, that’s true.”
They sit in silence for five seconds, then ten. Finally, Daria gets to her feet.
“So,” she says. “You want me to call Canberra?”
Daria offers him her hand.
Micah wakes alone in Daria’s bed. It’s barely evening, but it’s January in Rochester and the room is pitch-dark except for a line of light around the door to the hallway. At first he thinks it was the sound of sobbing that woke him, but when he sits up he realizes it’s Daria dry-heaving in the bathroom. Eventually he hears the toilet flush, and then water running in the sink. When the door opens, Micah sees her silhouetted against the light from the hall, pale and drawn and impossibly thin. She closes the door behind her, and a moment later he feels her climb back into the bed.
“Hey,” he says as she pushes him onto his back, drapes her arm across him and lays her head on his chest. “You okay?”
“Sure,” she says, and yawns hugely. “I’m fine.”
He smooths her hair down with one hand, and rests the other on her shoulder. Her bones are sharp edges, just below her skin.
“That’s good,” Micah says. “Because when you were in the bathroom just now, it kind of sounded like you’ve got Ebola.”
“No,” Daria says. “No Ebola. It’s just the beer.”
He lifts his head to look at her, but it’s too dark to see anything more than a vague shape curled against him.
“The beer? You drank half a bottle.”
“Which is half a bottle more than I should have. Go to sleep, Micah.”
“I just realized,” Micah says over breakfast the next morning. “That beer was the only thing I’ve seen you put into your mouth other than water, and you puked it back up. Are you bulimic or something?”
Daria has a plate of scrambled eggs in front of her, but she’s been pushing them around with her fork for the past ten minutes without ever actually taking a bite. She looks up at him, then back down at her food.
“Sure,” she says. “Let’s go with that.”
Micah’s already finished his own eggs. He takes a forkful of hers, and washes it down with half a glass of orange juice.
“Seriously,” Micah says. “What’s going on with you? You are literally the only living woman in the northern hemisphere. How could you possibly be having body image issues?”
Daria pushes her plate across the table. Micah takes another bite, and refills his juice glass from the carton on the table.
“Did Doug ever tell you about the time we hit that bluejay?”
Micah shakes his head.
“Doug and I mostly played video games and basketball,” he says. “We didn’t do a lot of soul-baring, to be totally honest.”
“Yeah,” Daria says. “I kind of figured. This was the summer before I started high school. Doug had just gotten his license, and he was driving me home from softball one afternoon when this beautiful little blue bird zipped out in front of us and bounced off the windshield. I screamed. Doug swerved over to the side of the road, and I jumped out of the car and ran back to find it. It was lying there by the sidewalk, still alive, still breathing, but hurt too badly to do much else. I picked it up in my glove and took it home with me. I thought I could nurse it back to health, you know? Feed it milk from an eyedropper or something until its bones all grew back together.”
“Ouch,” Micah says. “How’d that work out?”
She shakes her head.
“Not good. I didn’t even know what a bluejay was supposed to eat, and it was so busted up that it probably would’ve died even if I’d taken it to a vet. I kept it alive for a day or so, but really the kindest thing I could have done would have been to wring its neck where I found it.”
They sit in silence while Micah finishes Daria’s eggs.
“Okay,” he says as he scrapes her plate. “So?”
Daria sighs, and a single tear runs from the corner of her eye, and down along the side of her nose.
“So,” she says. “Imagine that not only do I not know what a bluejay eats, I don’t even know what a bluejay is. Also, it’s not just busted up when I find it. It’s totally, completely dead. How likely is it that this is going to end well?”
Micah stares at her.
“I have no idea where you’re going with this,” he says finally.
Daria picks up a napkin, wipes at her face and then blows her nose.
“I’m the bluejay,” she says. “Or maybe we’re all the bluejay, this whole stupid planet, but I’m the one who got to be the test case. They tried to put me back together, but they don’t know anything about how a human is supposed to work, and they couldn’t get any of the pieces to fit together the way they’re supposed to. I can’t eat anything. I can barely keep water down. I haven’t taken a dump since they brought me back… and a couple of days from now, I’m gonna wind up in the back yard, buried in a goddamn shoebox.”
“They’re in you,” Micah says. “They’re in your head, aren’t they? That’s why you glitch every time I ask you about them.”
Daria stirs against him, rolls half-over in the darkness and presses her back against his side.
“Right,” Micah says. “Assholes? A word, if you will?”
Daria shudders, takes a gasping breath and relaxes, and for a moment Micah thinks that he might have been wrong. But then she sighs, pulls his arm tighter around her and says, “We hear you.”
Micah takes a deep breath in, and lets it out slowly.
“You really screwed the pooch here,” he says finally, his voice barely louder than a whisper. “You know that, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Daria says. “We are aware.”
“Five billion people,” Micah says. “You can’t put them all back together, can you?”
“No,” Daria says. “Apparently not.”
She stirs restlessly, rolls to face him, throws her arm across her chest.
“What about Daria?” Micah asks. “Can you fix her at least?”
“Perhaps,” she says. “When we made her, we lacked a working model. With that? Perhaps.”
Daria moans softly. Her fingers flutter against his neck. Micah pulls her tight against him, smooths her hair back with one hand, and closes his eyes.
“Why are we here, Micah?”
Micah glances around the room. They’re in the basement of the University Hospital, near the old MRI center. He has no idea why the invaders chose this spot for their workshop, but it does seem oddly appropriate. Prior to the strike, this was an anatomy lab. Now the tables and equipment are gone, replaced by a coffin-shaped silver box against the back wall, and a shimmering black disk in the center of the floor. Cat-sized metallic spiders come and go, bringing the bodies of squirrels and birds and rats in with them and depositing them on the disk, then scuttling back out as the animals dissolve, layer by layer, seeming to sink into the floor until they disappear.
“You recognize this place?” Micah asks.
“Of course,” Daria says, and waves toward the box. “I just came out of there a week ago.”
“Right,” he says. “You’re going back in now.”
She looks up at him.
“You’re going back in,” he says. “They can fix you. They can make it so you can eat and crap and all that other fun stuff you’ve been missing out on. You’ve just got to get back in the box.”
She shakes her head.
“No, Micah. They told me there’s nothing they can do.”
“Change of circumstances,” Micah says.
Daria’s eyes lose focus for a moment.
“They’re not talking to me,” she says. “What’s going on, Micah?”
“I told you,” he says. “They can fix you. Just get in the box.”
Alone again, Micah takes a last glance around the room. The spiders are still now, watching him.
The black disk beckons.
Micah’s eyes snap open in the coal-black dark. He’s naked and drowning, lungs full of fluid, trapped on his back in a soft, narrow space. He barely manages to turn his head to the side as what feels like gallons of viscous goo pours from his mouth and nose. When it’s gone he lies back, spent and shivering.
He’s in the box, he suddenly realizes.
“You are awake,” says a whisper-voice, seemingly just behind his ear.
A crack of light appears above him, then widens blindingly as the lid retracts.
“Daria?” Micah croaks.
Her face appears above him, a half-smile on her lips, light ringing her hair like a halo.
“I’m here,” she says.
She crouches beside him.
She touches his hand.
About the Author
Edward Ashton lives with his adorably mopey dog, his inordinately patient wife, and a steadily diminishing number of daughters in Rochester, New York, where he studies new cancer therapies by day, and writes about the awful things his research may lead to by night. He is the author of the novels Three Days in April and The End of Ordinary, as well as several dozen short stories which have appeared in venues ranging from the newsletter of an Italian sausage company to Louisiana Literature and Escape Pod.
About the Narrator
Josh Roseman has been published in Asimov’s and on Escape Pod, among other places, and his reviews appear regularly at Escapepod.org (he’s on the forums as Listener). His most recent fiction sale was “Secret Santa”, which appeared on The Dunesteef last December, and he is currently seeking a publisher for his new superhero novel. He’s in the midst of a Buffy re-watch on his blog, Listener.