The First Time

The First Time

“Do not despair once you have entered the path, for the Creator assures us of success if the direction of our aspirations is correct.”

Talmud, Psachim

 

A quote found in the journal of Art Baker

Chapter 1

Black ooze.

It bubbled up from the ground, hissing and stinking. It emerged along the gray pathways and in the gravel pits. Sending its stench up into the filthy air, it was ever present and everywhere.

A thin spiral of dust briefly touched down, swirling and twisting. And then another. Caught up in their suction were twigs and dirt, embers and ashes. Going nowhere. Landing after the whirlwinds had completed their dances, to be picked up another time.

Heat. Heat so intense the entire landscape wavered.

Trees stood leafless, their charred, withered branches reaching upwards, begging . . . pleading. Upwards, to the putrid yellow sky. The distant cumulus spat lightning, and sheets of virga fell. But no rain would ever reach this place.

Nothing was living there.

Nothing was alive.

Nothing.

Chapter 2

     Rain.

     It has a certain smell to it. Especially in the desert. A scent of earth and sky.  You can sense its dampness before it is upon you. Taste it. The Greeks had a name for it. Petrichor. The blood of the gods, fallen from the heavens.

     He longed to experience that divine aroma. But he knew he never would. Nobody would. It was impossible. No one would ever go outside again without a hazmat suit.

     Outside.

     Into the sticks.

    Staring out his window into the growing twilight, he could see clouds stretching to the horizon as always, the underbelly of a great gray sea. As the darkness grew, so did his image in the glass. He knew what it showed. A hard, chiseled face. A few premature wrinkles. Specks of gray in his short brown hair, cut in a military style. His body, still toned and muscular, was clothed in a crisp blue uniform bearing a name-tag above the breast pocket. Although backwards in the reflection, he knew what it said: “Baker.” Silver bars on his shoulders identified him as an air force captain, wings on his lapel indicated he was a pilot. The shadows under his hazel eyes bespoke his condition.

     Tired.

    He stood on the seventeenth floor of an immense building, encompassing an entire metropolis. Shaped like a huge, arcing sand dune, the city was three miles from tip to tip, and fifty-seven stories tall at the highest point in the center. Its back was turned to the scorching summer sun and the punishing westerly winds like a man with his collar pulled up against the weather. From the sky the metropolis looked like a crescent, and hence its name: New Moon City. It rose from a barren desert once called Ash Meadows. “Meadows” was now a vestigial word. Ashes were plentiful. But as for meadows, there were none.

     Toward the end, it hadn’t merely been the demons possessing the leaders of the world that undid the planet, nor the holocaust that followed. It was the planet herself. She expunged much of the human species, like a fever rids the body of a virus.

     Long before Captain Baker was born, the changing planetary weather patterns had begun. Places previously hospitable to human life became too hot, or too cold. Not enough water.  Too much water. Mass migrations ensued.

     Although forewarned, people were still surprised by the rising tides and the withering winds. Local conflicts over scarce resources became regional conflicts, eventually spilling over international borders. As the polar icecaps melted, their great weight was redistributed and the equilibrium of the earth shifted.   Monster earthquakes shook the planet. Fissures opened where none had previously existed. And then the true extinction began.

      When the Yellowstone caldera exploded, a massive fireball ascended into the sky. The shock waves of the blast destroyed everything within a hundred miles in a brief instant. Ash in unimaginable quantities spewed into the atmosphere, encircling the globe. War followed, sparked by the calamity of Yellowstone. And then . . . winter. Decades of winter. 

     And finally, the fever broke.

     Glaciers gradually crept back down from their mountain retreats. Oceans receded. Torrents of rain washed wind-blown ashes from the charred remains of trees, their branches standing as petrified testaments to the vanished vegetation.

     Although most of civilization had crumbled, some outposts had managed to ride out the storm. The surviving enclaves had been prepared to exist completely on their own, either by intention or sheer luck.  New Moon City was one of the very few to withstand the disaster.

     New Moon had been built in western Nevada where a mammoth underground reservoir of Pleistocene water once bubbled up from the ground in a crystal clear hot spring. During the early years of the twenty-first century, the government had “repurposed” the property, turning it from a wildlife refuge into a national security site. The ancient aquifer now provided steam heat in the winter, electric generation all year long, and a virtually inexhaustible supply of fresh water. The city was completely self-sustaining, its totally enclosed environment secure from the ravages of weather as well as the dangers of war.

     Those who could afford it, those who were needed, those who were lucky or sneaky found refuge in the sheltering citadels before the undoing of habitable earth came about. The others perished. They perished in great numbers through war, through pestilence, through starvation and greed. The unfortunate ones numbered in the billions. The remainder of humanity hunkered down in their fortress cities. No one dared to go outside again. The air and the ground were considered poisonous. Inside the sealed confines of the enclosed cities, one could still survive. The remnants of civilization were linked by a fragile filament of air corridors. With resources scarce, and air travel dangerous, flights between cities were limited.

    Captain Baker, a member of an elite cadre of pilots, was one of the few people able to witness the world from the sky. As he looked out the window, a spark jumped between the clouds, suddenly illuminating the putty colored hills beyond. There were no living plants outside, nor any life at all. Only toxic air, poisoned land, and blackened trees, their withered limbs silhouetted against the sodden sky. And yet, the city stood intact, its crescent shape stretching out like the wings of an earth-bound phoenix.

     The storm furiously battered against the thick glass, a thousand icy fingers scrabbling to get in. The captain watched it buffeting the building below him, yet he knew he would remain safe and dry. Not a drop of moisture would ever penetrate the confines of the hermetically sealed city.

     In his hand, he held a drink. Manhattan, complete with amarena cherry. He swirled it, took a sip and wryly grinned to himself as he thought about how he had obtained that dark red fruit, quite a rare commodity. It was good to have connections.

     On the coffee table next to him lay a tattered manuscript, its pages crumpled and dog-eared. He had read it many times, he knew its every page. As he turned away from the window, he ran his left hand slowly over the cover of the document like a person caressing a lover’s skin.

     Maybe tomorrow it would be sunny. Maybe the clouds would part.

     Highly unlikely.

     He did know one thing for certain though.

     Tomorrow, he would die.