The following piece was presented at the Jersey City Writers’ monthly genre event–Worlds of Ruin: A Literary Celebration of Apocalyptic Science Fiction. Please enjoy.
Nora can’t remember how she died. She can’t remember where she was, who she was with, or in fact anything about her own lifetime, except that she lived one. And she certainly doesn’t remember this plump little woman standing beside her now, who calls herself Maeve.
Maeve shifts her weight from one foot to another, waiting for Nora to stand up. But Nora needs time to examine the gray smudges on her hands, the shredded edges of her jeans. Her hair is longer than she expects, and braided for some reason. She observes that she is not uncomfortable. The dust she sits on looks like the middle of a blast that took down a city made of stones, with a few lopsided buildings still standing at the edge of the blast, chunks of their sides torn out. But nothing scrapes her skin even as she presses her palms down to steady herself. It is not cold or hot or windy. And everything she sees—everything—is gray. Even now, the overcast sky lightly snows down flakes of deep, fluffy gray. Maybe the air stings her nose a bit.
“How do you know we are dead?” she asks.
Maeve shrugs, kicks a pebble. “We don’t,” she says. “But what makes sense? Everyone shows up here the way you did—just appeared. Everywhere it’s the same rubble. We all know we had lives before this, and this was not it, but here we are.” She pinches her own cheek, hard. “I know I should feel this, but I don’t.”
Nora looks away to the horizon, and spots a lone shadow of a man limping toward them. She points. “Who is that?”
“Uhh,” says Maeve. She shakes her head. “He’s harmless. You don’t really want to listen to him, but he’s harmless.” She reaches out her hand. “Come on. Let me take you to the others. It’s a bit disorienting, at first. But with each other, we’ve built a nice little life here, so to speak.”
They climb their way through a street of broken stones. Nora thinks she sees things in the periphery of her vision, like a fallen street sign, or a charred store mannequin. Whenever she turns to look more clearly, though, the image escapes. There is nothing but stones, some pieces larger than the others.
Maeve chatters about the others: Bud, the very handsome engineer with a passion for Renaissance trivia; Lily, the doctor with a predilection for scatological humor; Ahmed, a somber man who says he was a teacher all his life and swears he must have been minister of education at the time of his death. And on and on. But none of them exactly remembers the time immediately preceding their death. Maeve herself was apparently a therapist, but Nora doubts that she ever let her clients speak.
“Let’s move faster,” says Maeve. “He’s gaining on us.”
Nora looks back. The limping shadow has taken an angly form, and wears a leather jacket and boots. A large cowboy hat covers his face. As everything else, he is entirely gray.
“Come on.” Maeve tugs Nora’s arm. “It’s better to face him with the others.”
“Why?” says Nora. She plants her feet firmly where she is.
“Come on,” Maeve repeats, a bit shrill this time. “It’s not funny. Let’s go.”
“You said he was harmless?”
“Then why not wait for him?”
Maeve lets go, glances back, takes a step forward. She stops and hangs in tense limbo.
“Nora!” The man’s voice is raspy, deep. Both of them turn.
“Leave us alone!” Maeve shrieks, at the same time Nora asks, “How do you know my name?” But Maeve jumps between Nora and the approaching man, a mama bear with claws out, ready to pounce. “Go away!”
“Nora!” the man repeats. “Do you remember me?”
It is hard to get a long look at the man’s face with Maeve bouncing anxiously in front of her. And what she sees does not feel familiar. Yet, without understanding how she knows: “Sage?”
The man lets out a triumphant “Ha!” and slaps his thigh. He tips the brim of his hat to them and bows low. “Absolutely. And always at your service, my dear.”
Nora pushes Maeve aside. “How do you know me? How do I know you?”
Sage straightens up and pulls the cowboy hat off his head, revealing a smooth, gleaming dome interrupted only with a few regretful wisps of hair. Finally, a solid memory pops into Nora’s mind: that gleaming dome across a desk from her, bent over a keyboard, typing madly away. Tendrils of smoke curling up from a cigarette stub barely able to hang on between his lips. Sage is entering code as fast as he can. She, too, is frantically typing away, but not the code he feeds the program; she is creating a file for the neural network of each civilian needed to populate New Earth, which Sage will translate into code. They have no time, but she is almost done. The last file is her own.
Now, here, Sage lifts a cigarette to his lips, the glowing end of it already gaining the better half of the stick. A flick of his finger kicks the end away, and smoke plumes in an arc to the ground.
A word drops like a weight in her gut, heavy with certainty: “Ashes,” she says, but she struggles to make sense of the emotion that word brings. She feels like she is searching for a constellation through a cloudy telescope.
Sage nods. “Project Ashes,” he clarifies.
“I still don’t understand.”
“You don’t want to,” Maeve says.
“Do you want to?” Sage asks.
Nora flings her arm at the broken, gray realm around her. “This,” she says. “This is Project Ashes. Am I right?”
Maeve pulls a whistle out of her pocket. “That’s enough. I am going to call the others, now, Sage, if you don’t leave.”
A flake of gray drifts onto Nora’s eyelashes. She wipes it off. “We must have lost the war,” she says. “But even if we lost, we are supposed to all be safe in New Earth. All of the chosen. Project Ashes was supposed to exist only if we lost someone essential. If we’re all here, are we all dead?” She pauses. “And—are we all dead?”
“Do you want to know?” asks Sage.
Nora looks at Maeve. Looks at Sage. Turns around to take a long look at the rubble stretching forever and ever around her. Then plucks the cigarette from Sage’s fingers and sucks a deep breath through the ash.
“Tell me,” she says.