Twitter says that Los Angeles is gone. Twitter says that Seattle is gone. Twitter says that Las Vegas is gone, flattened, obliterated. A mushroom cloud billowing over a bloody crater in the earth.
The lab tabletop was cold, ever so slightly sticky under my elbows as I perched uncomfortably alongside it, bare legs crammed to one side against the bench. The day—fourteen years ago, it must be, now—is still slick in my mind like freshly printed ink: ancient AC unit whirring ineffectively, air ripe with sweat and chalk and new pencils, Physics I Recitation, Section 12 carefully lettered on the blackboard. You were sitting to my left that day; quiet, unassuming, a clean, no-nonsense notebook open before you, your pencil pattering against the page as if some secret morse code could fast-forward you through the awkward meeting of classmates.
You had too much hair. That was my first impression of you, the one that has stayed even as bits and pieces of you fell away. It was the dun of the sand volleyball courts outside, and it couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be waves or curls, but it sure took up a lot of room trying to figure it out. Your rosewood eyes seemed warm and alive behind thick frames. Maybe they even were, back then.
You didn’t find the code, or you didn’t find it fast enough, because the guy on my right had already waggled his eyebrows and asked me what my major was. Physics, I muttered. His calculating gaze was one I would come to find hideously familiar—the dissecting stare of a man slicing you into small parts, manageable pieces: looks, availability; intellectual threat. Such a subtle thing for another man to notice, yet somehow you understood.
Me too! you blurted out, helpfully, with a grin. My name’s Jul.
I am in my office, and like most other days spent hacking at research left unfinished when the National Science Foundation was defunded, I am not accomplishing much. Instead, I pick up and inspect the knick-knacks that cluster around my sun lamp—inventorying, mindless remembering: a Bohr model atom with my school’s logo on the electrons; a heavy blue mug featuring the New York skyline from a long-past conference; a little statuette of Krishna with his flute a friend bought for me in India.
Once, they all sat on the windowsill above my desk, but that is where my clothes, stacked in leaning, sloppy piles, live now. The boundaries which used to partition my life into home and work have crumbled away, my toothbrush occupying the mug alongside my pens, coffee pot plugged in where the lamp used to be, pillows and blankets and medication bottles from home cluttering the sofa that has become my bed. I know exactly how many pills are left in each one.
But today I am not thinking about the diminishing white tablets, because today is the day the world finally goes mad.
It’s funny how words lose their meaning over the years, how phrases like “nuclear capabilities” and “inter-continental ballistic missiles” open the front door and hang their coat up like they belong there, and how after a while you just get used to them staring hollow-eyed from the kitchen, from the living room, from the television. You might think that this would diminish their power over you, but it does not. You might think that when the time comes that words will be the thing that makes it all feel “real,” but that is not true either.
It’s coming from the West, I say aloud, but it doesn’t feel right. The rhythmic squeaking that issues across the narrow space comes to an abrupt stop as Cherie, my office mate, swivels in her chair to face me. I meet her eyes—dark, tired, framed on one side by auburn curls worried to frizz. Her mouth forms one syllable—who?
I don’t know. At this point, with the UN dissolved and the Baltics aflame and the bombs falling in Beijing, it could be anyone. Too many people hold the fuse to the world, and someone has finally lit it.
Twitter says that Albuquerque is gone.
It is all so viciously ordinary. I scan the space in front of me, searching for just one thing out of place so that I can nail terror to reality. My dusty stacks of textbooks, Stellar Photospheres and Statistical Techniques and Nuclear Physics of Stars have not budged. The wind blows the same handful of leaves around the empty stone courtyard. My notebook lays unflapped, open to the most recent entry. September 19th, 2031: need updated Th-232 decay rate—ask Jul?
Hardly anyone is left on campus, the last bastion of electricity and WiFi for god knows how far. All of my friends, sensing that the end was near, have returned to their families. Not all of us had that option. I don’t know why Cherie stayed and I never asked.
Twitter says that Denver is gone.
It’s nothing, you tell me. I’m just in a mood, that’s all.
I take another butter-soaked bite of my waffle, chewing for too long as I try to work out what to say that will fix it. It is 5:30 am, and I failed the Physics II exam yesterday, which is why we’re once again at Nick’s Patio, the town’s only 24/7 diner. The news is on, the news is always on, nowadays, wherever we go. Concerns are being raised over the new treaty between Russia and North Korea…
But why? I ask. What caused it? Cause and effect is the rule of the universe. If Jul can just identify the source of his problem, then surely, logically, he can solve it.
Nothing, you insist. You’re twisting a paper napkin to shreds that fall in your lap like ash. It just—I have these clouds, you see?
I don’t see.
They follow me around. Sometimes, they all swarm in from the horizon at once and then—everything goes dark. I feel like I’ll never find my way out. I can’t control it any more than I can control the weather.
He winces as my knife scrapes across my plate.
Sorry, I begin. Doesn’t the school have, like, counselors you can talk to?
It’s not that simple.
And so we go around again.
The semesters curl off like wood shavings. You had to ask so many professors for work; they all said I don’t have funding, I don’t have time, come back next year, but eventually, Hardwick gave you some junked data from a failed test of his new detectors.
You guess you’re a nuclear physicist now. I smile. I dream of the stars. That makes us the same, in a way. There are no nuclear reactions, I like to remind you, without stars.
Yeah, but all the best ones, you say, a rare smirk tugging at your lips, the good stuff, the actinides and the fissiles and the isotopes yet undreamed-of—happen when they die. Kapow! Plutonium!
Well good luck, I reply, waiting for the next supernova. I prefer stars alive.
The death wave is coming. The basement, I say, the lab. Maybe we could be safe there. Cherie nods.
She whispers under her breath some Slavic curse. I lock the office door behind us, absurdly, unnecessarily, habit bereft of purpose.
Our shoes sqrk against the linoleum as we step out into the empty hall. My legs shake, but I force myself forward. I feel ridiculous, insane. This isn’t really happening, right?
But it is. And if it is, then time is running out. I quicken my steps, and by the time we reach the stairs we’re at a nervous jog. The door to the stairwell bangs against the wall like a gunshot and sends paint chips flying. Dust-choked sunlight gleams off the worn steel railings as we scramble down floor after floor. We hit the basement at a sprint.
Four years passed and we found ourselves robed and tasseled, sweating in folding chairs under the hot Florida sun. I was invincible that day, taller than a mountain, greater than the sea, full of crackling pride and ready to take my next step toward the stars. And best of all, you would be right there by my side.
It’s funny how we ended up at the same grad school, you and me. You, the department golden child ever since you found and fixed that flaw in Hardwick’s beam schematics; me, the slacker, the has potential but doesn’t use it; dedicated researcher, indifferent student. What a pair we made. You could have gone to sunny Santa Barbara or beautiful Michigan or prestigious Boston, but instead you’re here, deep in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, with me.
You’re just as high-strung as ever, but now there’s something else there, too—a mist, a darkness, a veil that gets harder to peer through each day.
The door to the lab is locked and the lobby is empty. I search the hallway in hopes of something I could use as a crowbar, something to break the small, reinforced window with.
Even in these dire circumstances, I absentmindedly check my phone. Twitter tells me that Dallas is gone, that Topeka is gone, that Des Moines is gone. Twitter tells me that what’s left of the United States nuclear arsenal has been launched in retaliation.
Cherie shouts from someplace far away.
She’s found a dewar, one of those big, noisy steel affairs that make an awful racket when they roll past in the halls. We grab it by cold, smooth handles, then we push it, faster and faster. The thing is heavy. I squeeze my eyes shut and hope that means it won’t explode when it slams into the doors.
Yeah, yeah, I want to get out of here, too, I tell you. There’s no sunlight, it’s cold year-round. The beauty of the mountains and forests doesn’t make the neighboring town less dull.
Everyone around you is apathetic, you tell me. They have no ambitions, just shuffling along until someone decides they’ve been around long enough and hands them a PhD. I nod. I know. It’s hard to be here. Suspended in the endless drag of overcast days, time is a thick syrup, resisting motion in any direction.
You’re unhappy here. You’re destined for better things, headed for an appointment at a national lab; Los Alamos, maybe, or Livermore. You can see your path out of this place but somehow, it only weighs you down more.
I want to believe that I, too, am destined for better things, but three years of graduate school have taken their toll and now I spend my time wondering if I am really cut out for a life in academia. My sense of self pitches and rolls with the endless fog. Only my love for the stars is steadfast, and every day I hope it is enough. Your voice is the only one to reassure me that it is. I wonder if you know how much I need it.
One cold spring day, a Department of Defense flyer appears on the bulletin board. INTERNS WANTED, it reads.
CRASH-snap of wood, groan of steel. The lab doors shriek off their hinges like knees bent the wrong way. The dewar tumbles down the stairs, deafening metallic clangs swallowing the world for a few moments. They diminish to a menacing hiss of escaping gas in the empty lobby.
Sure hope that was a nitrogen dewar.
The accelerator room is devoid of life, celadon consoles glassy, cold and ancient like rows of sarcophagi. Servers buzz, the last stalwart guardians of the beam, monitoring a dark labyrinth of collimators and chambers, splitters and tubes that will never see another operator. But the accelerator room is not my destination.
You got the internship. So did everyone else who applied.
It feels like there’s too many people here, you say when we talk over the phone one night. Something isn’t right. You can’t tell me any more than that. I’m sure it’s always like that, I reply. I don’t think I believe me.
Three months pass. On the last day, a woman you’ve never seen before tells you to apply for the weapons division.
Looks like the Dee-Oh-Dee got another one, goes the department grapevine. I’m happy for you, and you seem happy too, for once. I didn’t understand you in college, but maybe I am beginning to now. I think that work is your weapon against the clouds, that maybe if you have enough terminals open, they will finally banish the dark.
I still wish I could fight it for you.
Shaky metal grates clang under my feet. We crawl into the maze-like bones of the lab like explorers in a giant mechanical beast. Neatly color-coded veins of fiber-optic cables snake their way through low-slung aluminum girders, and the stale air is rank with WD-40 and static discharge.
Grunts and heavy thuds from deeper within tell me that I am heading in the right direction, and that I am not the only person who has had this idea.
I turn the corner to see a lone figure, swearing as they stack dull grey bricks ever higher, encompassing a rough oval clearing among lab detritus. A face I’ve passed a handful of times in the halls, another postdoc, I think. Sweat pours down his face and leeches through a white t-shirt. Wild eyes and trembling, skinny arms. We step over tools and empty boxes, chunks of foam, stripped wire, all shoved and kicked and thrown outwards in the asymmetry of panic. He eyes the two of us, and then the structure rising meager inches from the floor. The exchange is wordless. You need help. We need shelter.
My cell signal is dead. The WiFi has finally vanished. Chicago is gone.
I don’t hear from you so much anymore these days. You graduated, but the Department of Defense had you signing paperwork months before your dissertation.
I graduated, too, and after nine years together, we finally parted ways, you to the dry heat of Los Alamos in the New Mexico desert, me to the rust-fed desolation of the Midwest. Memories of the Florida sun start to feel like another lifetime.
I miss you. I don’t think that anyone here would take me to the all-night diner and buy me waffles when I’m feeling down.
Most of my coworkers are married. They come in at eight, work quietly until five or six, then leave to go home to spouses and children. Is that what people get PhDs to do? Spend ten years toiling in the absolute trenches just to work the same nine-to-five as everyone else? We used to stay up until six am drinking Mountain Dew Classic and playing that dungeon crawler game, our eyes red and strained, backs sore from sitting on the floor for so long, laughing until our voices cracked and the smog of adulthood evaporated into the night.
I hate them and I feel alone. I long for the days when our biggest problems were balls on slopes and blocks on pulleys.
I call you up one evening, the way I try but sometimes forget to do once a month now. What’re you working on these days? You can’t tell me, but a tremor in your voice does anyway. I shouldn’t have asked.
We help the postdoc pile up bricks like an igloo around us. Now I realize what the grunting was about: we are heaving lead, salvaged from the walls which contain the lab’s various detectors. They protect its scientists from the radiation their experiments produce.
And now, I hope, they will shield us from the hell to come.
Cherie is smarter than us. She leaves and returns with a ten-gallon jug of water from the lobby cooler, puts it down with a heavy thud, and turns to clamber back to the lab’s kitchen.
How long are we going to be trapped here?
I am more useful fetching bricks. While I scramble through the debris, I think about the PBJ sandwich I had for lunch. I think about the puddle I couldn’t avoid stepping in this morning that soaked through my shoe. I think about the shade of red that rings the edge of summer-green trees outside my window. I think these things so that my brain does not shatter into a thousand useless, screaming pieces. I think about the tabs of papers waiting to be read that I minimized with an ugh twenty minutes and a thousand eons ago. It was the last normal thing I did before I refreshed Twitter and learned that the end of days had finally arrived.
You stop reaching out to me, but I pester you anyways.
How’s New Mexico? Do you ever go hiking? Have you been to Carlsbad yet? What are your coworkers like?
You answer my questions dutifully but there is something going on behind a heavy curtain in your mind, some sinister background process that eats away your energy, your will. You tell me you spend twelve, fourteen hours a day at the lab. I know your process; I know this is how you deal with things. I hear the flatness in your voice, and I can’t see your face, but I feel the hollow in your cheeks, the deadness in your eyes. I want to ask you how long your sky has been black but I know that script by heart now.
I found some people here. They like board games and camping and last weekend we went up to Wisconsin and we almost got lost and then it started to rain and it was miserable but we still had fun and the forest was really nice. I miss forests, don’t you?
I long for a version of you that no longer exists and perhaps never even existed at all. You’re falling away from me and I can’t catch you and I can’t even tell which direction you’re falling. It is so hard for me but I would never put that on you because I know how hard it is for you just to be most of the time.
I can only hope for this cloud to pass too. I hope that one day you will come back to me and I will find a bright yellow little notification on my phone for an Always Sunny gif or a funny story or you’re just saying hello. You were always so funny and I know it’s just because you’re so sad all the time but I miss it. Maybe I could fly out to see you this summer.
There aren’t enough bricks, I see that now. Our small garrison comes up mid-thigh. Even if we push the walls in as close as we dare, there will still be a huge opening at the top.
How much time do we have, anyway? I knew this once. I used to know what would happen if a nuclear warhead were dropped on nearby Seattle. The answer surprised me. I guess I would have thought that it could flatten the whole region in a microsecond. But the blast radius is actually not very big, and it takes time, time for the radiation to propagate fatally outwards. It will bloom like a terrible flower and then pass, I have heard. Well, the lesser of it, anyways.
We better remember this, we joked amongst ourselves during the lecture. Now I wish I really had and I try to calculate how much farther we are from Chicago than I once was from Seattle. Or are we closer?
The gamma wave must have already passed through us, I realize.
What would that feel like? Should it have felt warm? My skin is red, but is it from radiation or from carrying lead bricks back and forth for forty-five minutes? Is this burning in my chest my organs melting, or just terror, pure and pressurized?
The worst is coming, borne on the shockwave of air that booms out from the detonation site. Alpha and beta radiation are bigger, heavier, slower—and for that reason, it is more dangerous.
Cherie has found sheet metal. It might as well be tissue paper, but together, we lift it on top of our makeshift shelter and stack everything else we can find on top. Cinder blocks. Hard drives. It’s not enough. It’s not enough. Hot tears begin to well as I wedge a crowbar into a million-dollar set of clover detectors and begin to pry.
It was a cloud. And all clouds end.
It feels like it has passed beyond our mutual horizon when I see you sitting alone outside the tiny municipal airport. You’ve changed so much over the handful of years, far more than a person should, your once-wild hair thinning and ragged at the ends. You look breakable, frail, permanently tired even though you tell me you’ve been sleeping normally.
How’s research? Oh, you know that’s not what I mean. How do you like it?
You tell me it’s fulfilling. You’re grinning, gesticulating, and I revel in it. We’re flying down the desert highway, windows open, radio blasting, sunshine hot on our faces. Looking back, you shout over the music, it’s the only path you could have taken. All that bad stuff in the news—your research is going to put an end to it. What you’re doing is going to help people, it’s going to protect them. All you need is more time.
There is almost a gleam in your eye again. You have a purpose. It is all you need and as long as you have it, you can keep going forever. I am so relieved I want to hug you but I just smile genially instead.
I find an all-night diner and drag you to it. We go out to the bar with your reasonable adult friends and leave at a reasonable adult time. I load up the dungeon crawler (so many hours racked up playing alone), but this time I’m the one hoarding treasure and you’re falling in the traps. We don’t make it very far. It is an approximation of good times. I do not care to look at the residual, the space between memory and reality. This is good enough. It is all I can ask for.
Feverish in the paltry blue glow of his iPhone, the postdoc punches in numbers and curses fearfully as he calculates how long the death wave is going to last. It had already started, he informs us, long before I demolished someone’s neutron beam experiment.
It is hot, unbearably hot, in the lead igloo. The mournful crrrrrrk of our salvaged Geiger counter is ever-present and unending. Hunched over, head pressed against the fallible ceiling, arms wrapped around my knees, I struggle to take deep, measured breaths, struggle to keep the fear in my chest from closing my throat. Bodily sensations overwhelm me. My head throbs, my stomach roils, my arms burn and my hands shake. Every voice in my head agrees on one thing: I am pretty sure that I am going to die.
In the darkness, at the end, all I can think about is you.
Are you ok, out there in the desert? Would they let you live? When the world is burning, am I allowed to care? What is one death to one million if the one is yours?
Maybe in eighteen hours we could crack the roof and see what the Geiger counter does, the postdoc says.
It looks like I will have a long time to think about it.
Bile burns up my esophagus and a strange taste like battery acid stings my tongue. Los Alamos is probably equipped for a disaster like this, I try to reassure myself. I imagine you safe in a bunker far, far underground with your colleagues, with food, water, light, a radio. Comfort.
But I know that deep down you can not, will not survive this. I know that for you, it doesn’t matter where the bombs fall.
If I make it out of this awful darkness, this lead dungeon, I am coming for you; I will find you, I promise. I will walk this world of ash, cross the barren plains, ford the poisoned rivers until I stand at the desert’s edge, an infinitesimal backlit against oblivion. My skin will burn and peel and burn again, my hands will callus to stone, my fingernails will shatter but that will not stop me. The days will rise and fall and live and die, the moon will shudder and crack and shed anew again and again and that will not stop me either. The years will crumble to sand in the wind and I will not stop. I will scour every grain of searing, red desert until I find what is left of you, all of your scattered pieces, the iron of your blood and the molten glass of your purpose.
I will hold your shards in my palms until the sun burns down the sky and there is no more horizon; at last the long, wretched day will wither into night, and the cold stars, the beginning and the means and the end, will wheel above us forever.
I cannot face this broken world without you. And your bones are dust on the desert wind without me.