“The best first impression you can make is walking up to a person with a smile and asking what you can do for them.”
-Dorian Woodings, head of Paper Metal Human Resources
Moon and sun and moon. Unease and fatigue and more unease. Sadness, conjecture, curiosity, and a dash of hope. Six days of hiking thus far, and so very far she’d come. She remembered hearing that on straight ground a healthy human was capable of maintaining a pace of five to seven kilometers per hour indefinitely, other than breaking for sleep. Granted, she wasn’t exactly the peak of health. Also, the jittery way that a person’s path wobbled when not on a road or track meant she’d not gone as far as she technically could have on paper.
Even so, she was watching her progress and measuring against the world map stored on her sleeve. She gauged that her path was just now coming up on what used to be West Penobscot Bay, judging by the water barely visible past the tree-stuffed horizon. So very far from her point of awakening. So very close.
Jeanine had come to understand how big things had suddenly gotten overnight for herself and the rest of the hibernating colony, and it made her itch. Man’s mastery of nature had not gotten rolled back so much as the memory of human influence now lay remolded and striped with a most unfamiliar plumage. It was… harsh, how strongly it affected her.
Her old life had been bounced around a bit in her professional standing; assistant, varied stenographer and recitalist, errand woman, commercial-purpose human embassy, infrequent confidante, validation supplier, advice dispenser, ear-to-the-ground, flying assignment-ready human Swiss Army knife. Overall it slowly cooked her life into a pattern, where the order of the day dictated she not get attached to places or people or details. She was instead called to devote herself to principles. She must be excellent. She must be efficient. She must be conspicuously and unpremeditatedly human. Years of such conduct dialed down her ability to get swayed by or feel anything for her environment.
Over the time of her current journey on a northward heading, though, the land’s adjustments to her people’s absence struck hard. A thousand thumbtacks drawing blood. Something that should have hurt her childhood self, not the person she was. The lack of human invention constituted one part… but the really painful stuff came in the form of cadavers of human refuse. It actually got her to ask an unexpected question.
“What do people mean when they say the ‘remains’ of something?” she asked aloud.
It scared her a bit, how unnatural her voice seemed within the silence of wild noises.
That question made her frown, because she couldn’t quantify what should have been the easiest of long-solved inquiries. If she keeled over and somebody found her bones and clothes and such, they’d say “there lies what is left of a person” and then hopefully bury her. This landscape was harder.
Was the shell of an old stone house or low-slung meeting hall considered “remains” if it had gotten entirely overrun by thirteen kinds of weed and two kinds of vine and five or six kinds of nesting animal, or was that now just a natural feature? What about the exposed polymer and aluminum skeleton of a truck? What about dynamited partings in rock cliffs straighter than any fault line?
Her lips frowned even more as she stared at an earth-covered section of a nearby gently treed rise, and the faintest suggestion of right-angle ridges.
What about foundations so worn that they might actually be considered natural features by every living animal that encountered them?
Probing that ideological wound made the song of her heartbeat drop a few tones.
Yet she had a dedicated stiffness to her spine as she envisioned heavy brick walls crouching here and there on the land’s canvas. People could look at the old and put new atop it, if they were smart and hardworking and willing to separate fragments of what they ought to emulate from what was a historical object lesson.
Wisdom without quite so much baggage.
Looking around, she thought about those people directly responsible for her being here today. Not Paper Metal, but that group the media had eventually dubbed the Snippers, after the commonly-accepted name for their introduced illness.
That first transmission of theirs, that would etch the phrase “Sixteenth of July” into the book of immortality. A short speech forgotten thereafter by nobody, followed by no demands or statements of intent or lists of ideological justifications.
“Throughout civilization, it has been the male subset of the human species that has committed the majority of atrocities, great deeds, notable gaffes for the history books, and other acts that ended up being recorded by the people who compiled the annals of society - and now, that will no longer be the case.”
Such elusive people, never identified nor gathered up by the force of law, never giving more than a handful of signs they even existed outside of their woeful hobby, never voicing reasons for the pyroclasm they began.
When they’d set out to sabotage the Y chromosome of the human species, they’d surely envisioned chaos. But did they imagine the garage-lab frenzy of genetic experimentation their panic kicked off? Did they imagine that the world would quickly wind down in some places even as others exploded? Did they imagine the stunning lack of threats of nuclear retaliation when those in power realized their energies were better spent trying to mutate the human genome further, splice it and carve it and alter it until the Frankensteined Vaccinia virus of the Snipper Illness might somehow pass erstwhile victims by?
Did they imagine they’d help contribute to the creation of a world like this one?
She turned and took in the cracked prettiness of the present day.
A bee thing rose from a flowering vine, buzzing at her in contentment. It wandered off, to join a cloud of fellows. They sat partly in a bush’s shade like a dusting of humming gold.
She didn’t know what those lunatics had thought, and never would. Time to put that all into the bleached winter of the past, and worry about the human race entering a new springtime.
It wasn’t going to be easy, of course. It definitely wouldn’t be a simple affair of “find space set buildings win prize” on this novel archaic land. For one, she had zero experience in the whole “set buildings” prospect.
She frowned at the trees around her, noting a good portion of them had gray twisted flesh. Dead wood made excellent kindling and downright calamitous lumber. Maybe they could pick up some of the oaklike trees from a bit far back, carry those logs here for processing. A long journey, though.
Wait, did oak make good house-building material, or just good furniture?
She sat by the widening of a tree with dark dark bark, and huffed as she juggled ideas of plans of action. Juggling, she found a nice spot where the sun warmed her, and she could stare through a gap in the leaves. A neighboring hill had a goldenrod beauty like wheat ready for harvest, naked of most trees and shrubs, and she contemplated a future for the slope which ended with a small brick house atop it.
Maybe they could even set up a plumbing system down the hill’s length to obtain-
Distant movement from northward. Her head shot up.
Thoughts hiccuped; it wasn’t tree cover swaying in the breeze. No, the swaggering locomotion of something tiny with distance.
Hesitation roosted upon her. Best case scenarios and worst case scenarios argued, though the worst case had the more persuasive dioramas. If she stayed low and didn’t attract attention with the lens of her telescope, kept perfectly still…
The urge to shy away was muscled down and pushed aside.
She raised Terence. She looked for the source of the motion, hoping it wasn’t one of those… beasts, stalking her.
She found the movement source. She found it without trouble and followed it very closely for quite a while.
When Terence fell from her limp fingers, her lips in a chimp-smile butterfly of shock, she didn’t have the ability to even THINK curse words.
After three minutes of observation, she decided it was about time to puzzle out how to travel there from here. She had a meeting to attend, after all.