DESOLATIONby Fred H Schuetz
One section of smoke-blackened wall was still standing, rearing skyward like an admonishing finger. The rest was debris, an endless sea of rubble stretching away in all directions. A cloud of odors hung above everything, giving off smells of dust and of decay; the stench of rotting bodies was nauseating. The midsummer sun shone down, uncaring.
A rich city, pulsing with life, had stood in this place. The pall of death now hung over it.
Looking around, First Speaker sighed. "This is depressing!" he said. He was First Speaker by virtue of having opened his mouth first.
The Other cast him an oblique glance from beneath furrowed eyebrows, then looked away. He said nothing.
First Speaker sighed again, deeply. "We must do something!"
Number Two humphed. "What would you do?" The glance from staring hazel eyes underlined the skepticism reflected in his voice.
"Rebuild!" cried The First impatiently. He sounded like in his mind the deed was accomplished fact.
The Other's eyebrows climbed upwards. "Rebuild? How? What with?" "With our hands if necessary!" cried the First excitedly. "We must find others to join us. Then we will clear the rubble away, find material to con-"
He was interrupted. "Where will you put the rubble?" asked Number Two.
"Were it is convenient to put," replied Number One curtly. Then he hesitated. "Why? What do you ask that for?"
"I've come a long way." Number Two expelled breath in a long sigh. "There's not a stone left on the other. Rubble everywhere ..."
"And people," cried Number One eagerly. "What about people?"
"Not a soul." Number Two shook his head. "Looks like we're the only two left."
"But surely there are others," said the First, unwilling to give up. He was visibly shaken. "Perhaps if we looked further afield ..."
"Look around you," said Number Two sharply. "When was the last time you saw a bird?"
First Speaker squinted at the sky, shielding his eyes against the sun's glare. The sky was empty. As empty of life as the ground. Not a bee droned. Silence reigned, interrupted only by the wind's susurration He knew a dull pain in his breast. He wanted to go home ...
He looked at his opposite instead. "How'd you survive?" he asked, sudden suspicion open on his face.
The Other shrugged, grinning sheepishly. "I was working the dig ..."
"A silver mine. I filed a claim for it, went to it every evening after office hours. I was fifty feet underground when it happened."
"Were there no cave-ins?"
"Oh yes!" Number Two frowned at the memory, then looked up grinning. "The whole thing collapsed. Only the main shaft-" he paused, for breath or for effect, then continued, "The main shaft filled with large blocks, with a lot of gaps between them to squeeze through.." He held out his hands, palms up to show them skinned. "Took me a long time to climb out!" He looked at the taller man before him. "You?"
"Wine cellar!" said First Speaker smugly.
"Wine cellar!" Number Two grew big eyes. "You hid in your basement?"
"The Caves," explained Number One. "They're ideal for wine storage. I'm a wholesaler ..."
"But - but the Caves are unsafe!"
"Jim - the guy that worked for me - thought so too," Number One said grimly. "He ran out when the rumbles started." He shrugged. "That was the last I saw of him. No," he added. "The Caves are entirely safe. Not a pebble fell .."
Number Two grinned. "Well, you won't die of thirst, then."
"Why should I die of thirst?"
"Because the water mains are down, and surface water - what there is of it - will be contaminated," Number Two said seriously.
"I - I hadn't thought of that," admitted First Speaker. He took a deep breath, let it out with a hissing noise. "You are right, of course!" He studied the smaller man's features critically. "How come you know all that?"
Number Two shrugged. "My field was engineering." He shrugged again. "Not that it matters any more."
"You ought not to say that," protested the First. "It has such a ring of finality."
The Other shrugged a third time. "This is curtains!" He looked about himself morosely. "Civilization has ceased to exist! Life is over and done with!"
"You mean we're the only survivors?" asked the First in a shocked tone.
"If there had been any others, they'd have crawled out by now! More than enough time has passed."
"What do you think happened?"
"A meteorite, a big one from space, crashed down on us! It's the only explanation."
"But I felt nothing!"
"You felt the earth tremors and the hot winds, didn't you?"
"And the fires, yes." Number One nodded. "But no impact as they said would occur. It can't have been such a big one, then."
"Or it fell so far away you only felt it along with the tremors," said Number Two, determined to prove his theory. "The equatorial region seems a likely candidate."
"So how come the air is clear," insisted Number One. "They said there would be a heavy cloud cover ..."
"How much time do you think passed since," cried Number Two hotly. "It's been months!"
"But they said it would be years, decades even ..."
"Well, you can see it didn't take so long, after all!"
"But how can they have been so far off in their estimate?"
"How should I know?" Number Two shrugged, looking away across the waste. "Freak weather perhaps-"
Number Two looked back at him sharply. "Yes, freak weather! Some tropical storm here and there occurring simultaneously or right after the impact could have sucked the dirt from the atmosphere."
"Isn't that a bit farfetched?" First Speaker pressed on. "A comet-"
"All right, a meteorite from outer space and hurricanes at the same time ...?"
"What other explanation is there?"
"I dunno. You tell me ..."
"I'm telling you! There isn't any other! None that holds water!"
"But ..." Though visibly shaken, Number One was not ready to give up without a fight. "If this is a limited phenomenon ... Not global as you say?"
"Have you listened to the radio lately?" asked Number Two blandly, casting a sly look at his opposite.
"N-why, no." Number One's eyes bugged in surprise. "There is no power! How can-"
"I've a portable one," cut in Number Two, "that runs on batteries. It has four shortwave bands, capable of catching all stations around the globe." He paused momentarily, then let out his breath in a rush. "There's not a whisper!"
"This may just mean they can't broadcast having no power." First Speaker defended his position to the very end. He fetched breath and continued, "There may still be pockets of survivors around the globe ..."
"And you're all set to go out and find 'em!" This was a statement rather than a question.
"Be my guest," said Number Two merrily. "I, for one, am making for your caves, where, presuming your permission now that you can't sell 'em, I'll avail myself of some of your bottles to hang one on before the world ends!" Grinning up at his opposite, he tipped a finger to his right temple. "So long, partner!"
First Speaker stared after him morosely, watching his back until he slipped out of sight amid the ruins. Then, sighing deeply, the man turned and walked off in the opposite direction, toward the distant horizon ...
They never met again. It may be safe to assume that they both perished sooner or later, one of them at least in an alcoholic fog.
They had not been standing still during the heated conversation, and the ground was covered with footprints for yards around. In one of the deepest depressions a tiny plantlet, carelessly overlooked, had been crushed into the ground. Presently it fought itself upright again and, pumping chlorophyll into its veins, began to grow, thus marking the beginning of a new life cycle on the devastated planet.
Copywrite by Fred H Schuetz, 2005