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[Fiction] Quanta -- Coda (AU)


Timeslip

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There’s a sweet little story, all of one line long, that has from time to time been thought of as the shortest horror story ever written. It goes:

“The last man on earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door…”

The horror, of course, is in those three little dots; they play to the darker corners of the imagination, the place where monsters dwell.

In this place, in this time, the story is a tiny bit different, if only in gender.

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The last woman on earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door…

With a sigh, Anna put down the tattered old paperback and limped over to the door. She had good days and bad days with the leg; this was one of the bad days. By the time she crossed the snug – if somewhat worn – room, her left knee was throbbing. Still, she managed to summon up a small smile, giving it to the face that greeted her as she opened the door. “Hola, Sean.”

‘Sean’ smiled back. Of course, she was the only one who actually called him by his old name; to the rest of the world, he was Chaos. He was, Anna mused for the thousandth time in wistful tones, quite beautiful. Prominent cheekbones worked in an oddly appealing synergy with his always-easy smile, and set off his eyes. His yellow-on-black eyes, she sadly acknowledged. Those eyes made it immediately clear that he wasn’t human.

Not that he was alone. Quite the opposite.

Hola, Anna. I wanted to stop by and see how you’re doing…oh, and I found something for you.” With a little flourish, Sean pulled the wrapped package from behind his back. Her smile grew from the wan little thing that she had forced into existence into something resembling a real smile; from the shape of the parcel, it could really only be one thing.

Gracias…come in!” She hobbled over to sit in the old easy chair; Sean took an even more worn wooden chair and straddled it, arms folded across the back as he watched her tear into the wrapping like a child at Christmas. Too much like a child at Christmas, Anna thought, and forced herself to slow to a more sedate pace. Too late; Sean was already giving her that ‘cute little kid’ grin that she had come to hate over the years.

Sure enough, the slightly musty smell of old paper wafted up to greet her as the wrapping came away from the old book. It was a nice old hardback; Libro del Cocinero Barcelonna gleamed in gold lettering over a faded photo of a veritable feast. Carefully handling the old treasure, she leafed through it. The state of preservation was extraordinary; the edges of the paper were yellowed, but for the most part, the photographic plates were still crisp. And better, the regional recipes held a promise of playful experimentation for weeks to come.

Looking up from the gift, Anna said, “Gracias…it is lovely! Where did you find it?”

“They’re doing a dig up north, around Madrid,” he started…and stopped as he saw the joy in her face fall away, saw some of the sparkle fade from her eyes.

“Um, sorry, didn’t mean to…well, you know.”

Madrid was a sore spot. She had lost a lot of good friends and even a cousin when Madrid went up in the madness after I-Day. If it hadn’t been for Sean, she would have been long dead as well…twice.

It had been bad enough when the riots started in Ibiza. Something had hit her restaurant; she never did find out exactly what – or who. But it had brought the whole place down around her, dropped her and the stove and the better portion of the kitchen down into the basement…then below that into a subbasement she hadn’t even know existed. The building piled in on top of her, and the world went to darkness.

And in the darkness, the world was changed forever.

When she woke, strong hands were pulling her free from the wreckage. Strong hands, and a familiar American voice; “Don’t worry, Anna; you’ll be OK. I’ll protect you.” This was the nova with the black eyes who had taken such an interest in her cooking over the past few weeks, who had dined in her restaurant every night, never having the same dish twice. Odd choice of words, she had thought at the time, doesn’t he mean, ‘I’ll save you’? Only hours after he had pulled her – broken and bleeding – from that deep hole, hours after he had done an amazing something that had closed her cuts like magic, hours after he had gathered her up and taken to the skies, flying her to a marina outside of Valencia and stashing her in a boat there, had she learned just how lucky – or unlucky, depending how you looked at it – she had been.

It all had something to do with microwaves, but to this day she didn’t understand it. Apparently, you needed a node to wrap your mind around the physics involved. The gist of it, however, was all too clear. During the worst of the fighting, someone had used a space-based weapon of some sort to begin bombarding Ibiza. And in response, a nova – the identity of whom was still a mystery – had changed the playing field forever. Using microwave towers as a sort of relay, he had sent a massive wave of something worldwide. Anna had heard the term “telluric wave” used to describe it, but when novas had tried to explain what that was to her, it came out as indecipherable gibberish to her ears.

But the how wasn’t really important. The results were astonishing…and horrifying. If you were a latent on 28 May 2015, you erupted. If you weren’t, you suffered massive cerebral hemorrhaging and were almost certainly dead by the 29th. Inside of a few hours, novas had gone from being a tiny minority to an overwhelming majority of the world’s sentient population.

This wasn’t to say that there weren’t survivors of homo sapiens sapiens. If you were shielded from the wave – whether baseline or latent – you weren’t affected. Anna was one such ‘fortunate’; several tons of building and bedrock had kept her alive.

Unfortunately for all concerned, the bulk of the survivors weren't people who happened to be caving or who had buildings fall on top of them. Over nine out of ten of those plain old humans who lived to see the 29th did so because they were in military bunkers, the sort designed to preserve the strategic might of the old nations back in the simple days when nuclear war was thought to be the ultimate threat to mankind.

As it turned out, a nuclear war was the end for man, albeit in a somewhat different fashion than had been imagined. World War III began on the 29th of May, 2015, when Red Army commanders made a desperate bid for humanity’s survival by launching that nation’s nuclear fury at any city on the planet known for having large numbers of novas. New York, Chicago, Tokyo, Valencia…city after city went up in a hellish pillar of flame. Within hours, missile were flying from the United States, Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel, France, Iran…the worst hell that humanity could create was being unleashed on the world. Some might have hoped that enough “real people” survived in bunkers to be able to win this final war, but spite was the true emotion of the day.

When he helped her up to the deck of the cabin cruiser, she saw the grim truth. Valencia was…gone. The skyline of the beautiful old Mediterranean town was obliterated; fires glowed throughout the city, and even the cliffs had been blasted beyond recognition. It was then that she learned of her second rescue by Sean; he was, hour by hour, healing the damage that the ambient radiation was wreaking on her body.

That was ten years ago. The world had been reborn under the careful guidance of the new race. Shining new cities had sprung forth from the ruins, cities of which no human had even dreamed. The blasted countryside had been reclaimed, acre by acre, with quantum-fueled efforts that had begun within days of war's end. The handful of human survivors were long gone; after what homo sapiens sapiens had done to the world, homo sapiens novus had been very, very thorough in removing the remaining threat once and for all. Almost, anyway. For reasons that he had never fully explained, Sean stayed true to his word, and protected her through the years. Maybe something in him was still human enough to not want to see his parent race suffer that final death. Perhaps he felt a little guilty about what had happened, since he was one of the Terats who had been rioting in Ibiza all those years past. It could even be that his threadbare excuse – that he really just loved her cooking too much to let her die – was true. But whatever the reason, she still saw the dawn each morning through the porthole of her cabin on Sean's boat, the last of her kind to do so.

True to form, Anna gave a quick hug of appreciation to her guilty savior, then settled into the cookbook. Within minutes, she was lost within the possibilities, driving the rest of the world from her mind…and eventually, driving Sean from the room in the heavy silence. It was a world that she could not be a part of if she wanted to; if novakind did not kill her, she would wind up as a sort of a curiosity, a museum piece remnant of a world that no longer existed. Over the years, she had become resigned to accept the kindness of Sean as a sort of proxy for interaction with the world.

It wasn't as though all of her time was spent on the boat. From time to time, Sean would sail out into the Med, stopping at empty stretches of beach. For all of their power, the novas were still a comparatively small race, and large swaths of the world were going back to nature; finding a safe place to spend the day ashore was seldom difficult. As time passed, however, she enjoyed these trips less and less. Aside from Sean, there was nobody to visit, nobody to greet...and after hundreds of beautiful but desolate beaches, the novelty and then the appeal had worn off.

Her isolation had been tempered for a time by Sean, but that too had changed over time. There had been, in the distant past, a point during which she was at least his mental equal, but that had slowly ceased to be the case. While he tried to hide it somewhat around her, there was no mistaking that he was now far, far more intelligent than any mere human had ever been. Increasingly, his conversations with her had a subtle subtext of a parent talking with a child...and as that subtext had come ever more to light, Anna's desire to converse - or at least, try to converse - with him had waned. So it was with little regret that she heard the door close behind him as he left.

The last woman on Earth sat alone in a room…

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