The Last One

by Patrick Lumley

The Last One.

She had left, the next-to-the-last of hideaways, the hangers-on. Heeded the growing call; upped and gone where . . . where people went these days. He was all alone now, had a huge medical center to his lonesome.

And who knows, maybe the entire outside world.

Roger Reardon looked over at the abandoned bed-roll. They had slept apart these past few nights, the recent upturn of the weather clearly not an added incentive to draw her into his arms. Last night he had chosen the carpeted floor, as was his wont to keep low and away from window, regardless of the slanted blinds; she, the comfort of the former Executive Assistant's leather couch. Sometime during the night, she had left, not making a sound. Not even a goodbye note.

She could be out and about the five story building, scrounging up breakfast, or splashing water on her face, but no. She never liked to go anywhere by herself. She'd have been here this morning.

Roger knew he was always slim-pickings when it came to the ladies, when there was plenty of men to choose from, but damn it, for all he knew, he was the last of the last. And still, he scored with Valerie these past two weeks about as often as a long married, pot-bellied middle-aged man scored with his equally pot-bellied middle-aged wife.

Once, and a half.

And that was only because of pleading and pestering. That annoying gesturing (from departed Valerie's perspective; Roger rarely gave it a second thought), and the convenient fact the only other hanger on that partly coincided with Roger's and Valerie's unique togetherness was another woman " gay and unattractive.

That woman, the lesbian, walked away from Hilltop Medical center nearly a week prior, after saying soft words to Valerie, but nothing to Roger. She didn't care for him, neither before the inglorious apocalypse, nor after. If anything her displeasure grew, as time passed and more people booked, drawing the hangers-on closer together, no matter how reluctantly.

Well, life, such as it now would be, had to go on. And his new solitary status hadn't dimmed his appetite for breakfast. He headed down the stairwell to the third floor, outside yet within the boundaries of the facility. In the hallway below, he didn't expend the effort to dodge the interior windows of the hospital that sat opposite the 3 east wing across the way. In between, a towering view of the ground level center courtyard was afforded.

The bottom deck outdoor caf was empty, lifeless, as it had been for longer than he liked to think about, but knew was coming up on three, no, closer to four weeks.

As he approached the stash of supplies locked away in the 3 west nurses lounge, Roger had come to accept, mostly, that Valerie's departure had come down to a question of when and not if. Lately, she had been in a mood to share, rather than follow in his footsteps silently; she had recently started to wax philosophical, tried hard to express herself in definitive, elemental terms.

Revealed her long interest in Buddhism " a crazy desire she had (to Roger at least) to avoid the cycle of re-birth and go on to a higher, better and more spiritual level. Roger, who only half-listened to the woman's soul-revealing, nevertheless endured images of the Buddha, cloudy paradises and robed, serene monks popping into his head with more frequency than he cared for.

Annoying, and Roger wasn't good at hiding his moods.

But Valerie went on, as if she was soon approaching a defining moment in her life. Roger had seen, and heard it, before. More than a few times.

Unlocking the cabinet beneath the lifeless microwave, Roger chose a can of peaches and a seat at the nearby dusty plastic table. A good choice he told himself, for he'd get solid fruit and thirst quenching juice in one meal. Though his water supplies were plentiful " the water tank of the facility across the grounds, in the boiler plant and accessible through an underground passage, was designed to hold a three day supply for over two thousand people " without power and skilled engineers, it was no longer cycled and refreshed. It was bodily hygienic and drinkable, with tiny doses of bleach, but it tasted downright awful.

His next stop was a nearby restroom, once used by occupants of a semi-private room. Inside was a cleaned out trash can of water for washing up. The toilet, remarkably, still worked, though Roger had no idea if the gravity-pressurized water was escorting the waste to an environmentally sane location. As far as he could tell, from his far too many wanderings through the medical center, it left the property, clean and free.

Cleaned up and cleaned out, and wearing a fresh pair of navy blue coveralls, everyday attire once mandatory for maintenance staff, Roger had the whole day looming before him. Alone to face it and an endless procession sure to follow, and too afraid to risk putting an end to the dreary cycle.

Answer the call? Nah, it wasn't strong in him. Besides, he pretty much chalked up the yearning to wander off to mass hysteria, given the times. Pretty much.

His first work task of the day Roger decided, trying to get his mind off that 8,000 pound elephant which dogged his every step, was to head down to the Acute Care Center and try the Emergency Radio again. A backup he and another hanger-on found in the General Storeroom and hooked up with much trouble, it had been spared the fate of the original.

The fellow who did most of the installing had been an electrician. He guided Roger in fabricating a makeshift Faraday Box to protect against further assaults: A thin cardboard box, wrapped in aluminum foil, to encase the souped-up ham radio in case history with a capital H repeated itself.

Smart guy, Roger recalled with grudging admiration.

He right off the bat speculated that first initial flash from beyond the blue was somehow an electro magnetic pulse blast, the dreaded first strike feared by military men and civil engineers since the start of the atomic age.

Except, there hadn't been a frightening, dramatic follow up. Only additional EMP flashes, or whatever the hell they were.

Earthward hurtling, thundering missiles hadn't unleashed incinerating heat, hellish fire and grueling radiation sickness. If projectiles had indeed touched down after the initial horizon-to-horizon flash, there were never any confirmed reports. Only scattered rumors and rampant speculation by those able to send out signals with what was left of the once vaunted communication infrastructure.

Not even an invading conventional Army had passed this way, which had always stuck in Roger's craw. With L.A. an hour or so to the north, and San Diego even closer to the south, he and the others who huddled in the darkness felt they'd be right in the thick of the things, or at least on the periphery.

But nothing.

No artillery fire to light up the horizon; no overheard jets streaking east from the ocean.

"Whoever brazenly kicked humanity in the balls," Roger muttered to himself as he entered the Medical Administrators office on the ground level, "was slyly keeping the follow up punch close to his vest."

Or its vest, he mentally speculated for the 1000th time.

Sitting on the swivel chair before the roll-out covered desk that held the radio, Roger switched on the hand-cranked, battery operated contraption. "This is station 5 W So-Cal, calling anyone on any frequency . . . please reply."

The station moniker was made up: 5 was for the nearby freeway to the west; So-Cal spoke for itself, vaguely. After a visit from the remnants of well-armed street gang to the south, who must have latched on to one of the earlier broadcasts, it was decided to keep the hospital's exact location something of a mystery. The dozen or so nasty nihilists, clearly not inclined to put aside old habits that only a fortnight earlier risked incarceration, showed up well-armed.

What ensued were hours of nightmarish tragedy. While the caught off-guard twenty-two hangers-on hid throughout the medical center, the thugs raided the galley area, trashed a whole wing on the first floor. Valuable supplies were stolen. Worse, two unlucky women were found and dragged out from their hiding place in the medical library " to be gang-raped. One brave man's throat got slit; from the expelled shells the others found, he must have rushed to their aid. The deceased fellow, a guy named Karl who once worked as a nurse for recovering surgical patients, probably couldn't stomach their screams. He attacked the gang in the cafeteria with a nine millimeter, one left behind by the departed security force . He did manage to empty the clip, killed two and wounded some others, before he was taken down like a rabid pig.

His sacrifice wasn't in vain; it convinced the gang to leave. So, too, the very next day, did the assaulted women. They never returned. They got right in line with the quirky passers-by; solemn yet starry-eyed lines of wanderers, all in search of an answer.

By the dozens, then the hundreds and finally in the thousands, with each passing day they filed beneath the hill that held the hospital. On the way they went, to the north and east some mumbled.

None ever came back this way.

Each day, their clothing grew more ragged, the faces more gaunt, their pace more wavering, yet never completely faltering.

Today, as of this morning, as Roger waited for an answer, listlessly eyeing the frequency bar for activity, the lines of walkers had undergone dramatic reversal: thousands had been replaced by hundreds; hundreds by dozens; dozens by the occasional pilgrim; the rare seeker by ghosts.

The whole of the earth had died, for all he knew. No one on the radio, no one on the street below.

Roger turned the radio off, sighed, and then decided he go up to the roof. From there, he could peak over the raised concrete wall and maybe see without being seen " if today were to be different from yesterday.

Up top, under a bright sun and slightly buffeted by a brisk wind, Roger did his peeking, more brazenly than he had the day before. There was no activity out there, zero. Not even animal life " he hadn't seen a bird in weeks. Neither rabbit nor squirrel flittering through the unkempt rose garden where patients, staff and visitors smoked and joked so long ago.

He'd have thought maybe a coyote might have come down from the nearby hills to disturb the unsightly mound that took up most of the garden, but no.

After the power shut off, and when the majority of the cars went dead, traveling here and there in the county could only be done by foot or bike " if you had it. If one was sick and bed-ridden, the clock started ticking, fast. With over a 100 patients in need of constant care, both human and mechanical, Roger and the hangers-on were forced to do a lot of hauling, digging and covering. The inspiration and guiding force behind this eternal consignment was the only chaplain who hadn't at first abandoned the hospital by foot to seek out loved ones, among other things. An old Catholic priest, it didn't take even a week for that man, despite being "so" concerned that the remains of the "forsaken" be given proper disposal, to hotfoot it out of there himself one night.

But the work went on, till every last non-ambulatory patient took a trip to a different place that forever elude Roger's mental grasp " but didn't evade his eyes.

To the right of the large mound, there stood nine solitary graves; employees laid to rest on the grounds. It wasn't that the grave diggers thought any higher of them, they just happened to die sooner. All suicides, one of which Roger witnessed.

The day of the first "sky-flash," Roger was on the western side of the second floor, delivering internal mail. Roger was going about his business as if nothing happened. What else was he to do?

The power shut off dramatically? It had happened before. The back-up generator didn't kick in? Well, if you live long enough, you're bound to experience a lot of unique events. Roger didn't give it much thought " then again, he hadn't yet gotten word that most of the cars in the parking lot wouldn't start. The first wave of truly chilling weirdness would come later in a few hours, as people tried to get home after word spread that every last cell-phone was on the fritz, but good.

Roger, a 44 year old possessor of a fallow masters degree in a communications, had just mindlessly but comfortably pushed his mail cart up to the office of Jack Warfer, the longtime head of medical records. Just a few years shy of social security, Jack predated Roger at Hilltop by a decade and a half. Every window on the floor had been thrust open, so the darkness of the mail-room basement hadn't dogged his steps.

"Something else, this power outage," off-handedly remarked Roger. "The way people are acting, you'd think the Four Horseman were right over the horizon." He regretted speaking up at once, because broaching conversation with Jack Warfer, Roger had learned, could lead to paths he wasn't interested at all " mainly critical Christianity. Jack was active in questioning the faith, aggressively, no matter how many warnings the EEO rep. might dangle. He seemed to have an uncontrollable fetish to poke holes in larger society's predominant need for sure answers, especially roasting its celebrated practitioners. It was like an endless, ongoing argument he loved to jump into, whenever the chance might present itself. In Roger, he had over time discovered a fellow non-believer, a possible fellow gadfly. Problem was, Roger might not believe, but he really didn't care others did, or professed such.

"I'd be so lucky," replied Jack, his tone cold, almost lifeless.

"What's eating you?" Roger at once asked, a bit startled by the passionate man's bleakness.

"Sin, and its ugly truth."

"Sin? Out of your " "

Jack's face suddenly went animated. As he whipped open the center draw to his desk, the old man snarled, "Yes, sin. No matter how I railed against its validity, its worth, its relevance, it was always there."

Before Roger's widening eyes a gun appeared in the distraught man's hand. He had an actual gun stored in his drawer, a .38, and now he held it firmly but at first uncertain just where to point it.

"And 'you' played along with me. You encouraged my willful blindness. Shame on us."

Up went the gun, not in Roger's direction, but right into Jack's open mouth. His lips closed, his index finger clenched, a loud noise ensued, and then the back of his head bulged but didn't burst.

He was dead before Roger could scream for help. Roger was to learn it would happen eight more times before the sun set. Something besides power outages, stalled cars and failed communications was bugging people, some more than others.

Never one to worry much, or hold onto things for long, he spent the first night in the mail-room with two other clerks.

That night Roger didn't sleep a wink.

The third and fourth of the five man operation both decided to try and walk home, past the endless lines of broken down cars. Roger never saw nor heard of them again.

The next day, everyone that was still within the hospital was mustered in the large conference room on level one. The actual Chief Executive was still on site, along with his wife and two children. (He lived nearby.) He had no ideas what had happened, or would happen, but everything to do with electricity had come to a grinding halt. He implored those who had remained " roughly 25 percent of a nearly 1000 man workforce " those without family in walking distance, including Roger " please stay on site. "Here" was known and safe; outside a frightening mystery, and we had important work: to save what patients that could be saved, and ease the pain of the dying.

"Who knows," the tall, thin man told the shell-shocked crowd, shooting those pearly whites that stood out so well amidst his tanned face, "things might get kicking again before we know it."

Optimism. A commodity that day in short supply. Over the coming days and weeks, it became even rarer.

Their work soon become a weeks-long funerary assembly line out to the rose garden; that, and salvaging food and water. Exploratory parties were indeed sent out, under the supervision of the Sergeant of the Security Force, but they garnered little of use outside of the obvious " that civilization ran out of juice. However, what they heard, saw and then reported chilled everyone to the bone.

No one knew much of anything, and no one was in charge. Looting was rampant, anything not tied down was soon gone. People in the way bought it, good. Or maybe they were suicides, the Sergeant couldn't always say for sure.

Others might too have hidden themselves away, for all the cars were abandoned before the passing of the first week. Or, the unseen might have joined the ongoing irregular exodus, to the northeast " individuals of the processions would mutter, if they took the time answer. Marching away from the misunderstood or forgotten past and the dreadfulness of the present, an occasional other trekker would offer, and into a sure, unending future.

"Maddeningly unclear!" shouted the Sergeant at one early "town hall meeting," after that first fateful week the trouble started, and only attended by a little more than a 100 employees. (It was right about then that the term "hanger-on" came into vogue.) "Not a one of them, out of the thousands we come across, will explain just why they're leaving and where they're going! All just happy horse shit blurts, like Nirvana, Rapture or, uh, degrees of glory, even OT Level VIII."

"Have you considered following them . . . to the end, where they're going?" asked the gray-haired assistant chief of nursing. She had replaced the Chief Executive as leader of the hangers-on; that man and his family of three had disappeared two days earlier.

"Of course we have!" snapped the heavy-set, balding man. "I had two guys, good guys " Bob the cook and Jerry my last security guard " walk with the screwy procession. Got them to promise they'd follow 'em to the bitter end. Bob came back just last night, half-starved, dehydrated and nearly naked."

A gasp went out from the gathered crowd, on a break from their ongoing funerary duties.

"Fell a bit behind the procession, got snatched and then mugged by two mangy teenagers. Happened out at the 5, near Lamuria boulevard, about 20 miles out. Took almost everything he had."

"How terrible!" someone in the audience gasped.

The Sergeant muttered, "Those punks, they were just doing like us, I imagine. Surviving, in a very mean sort of way."

"And the other?"

The Sergeant said coldly, "Got the fever, whatever it is, and kept right on walking. He hooked up with a pack of odd-balls, Queers for Christ of all things. Got baptized on the spot, with a freakin' bottle of Evian. He left Bob without even a look over his shoulder. Bob's up on level three, got an IV in him. He said to me last night the only reason he got jumped was because he was an easy target. The, uh, travelers, who seem to form packs of like-minded individuals " the muggers left them alone, as if they were afraid."

Every one at that meeting, Roger grimly recalled, was now gone. Booked, in the same direction of those once regarded weird marchers. A wind had picked up briefly, reaching the top of the roof and tousling his barely adequate comb-over.

After that town-hall meeting, things only got weirder, even more frightening. The only way Roger could cope was keeping his hands busy, reacting at a mundane level. If patients died, which happened with numbing frequency, get them into the ground. Water containers on site of the hospital running low? Then hit the underground passage and drag some back from the boiler plant.

And the radio, always check what came over the radio at the end of the day before turning in. The operators' turnover was dramatic, high in number. Conversely, the information that came in petered out over time. Roger presently hadn't received a transmission in over a week, the last one being just a two-worded blurb: " God help " .

Where it came from, or what it meant, Roger never got the chance to find out.

The 2 plus weeks of transmissions prior? Well, they offered up hints and glimpses as to what ailed the earth and its top dogs. Fitful communiques of doom, despair and, worst of all, deprivation of knowledge. Speculation, however, was rampant if not downright outrageous.

One guy, close to two weeks in, who went by the disaster inspired handle of True-b-late and prided himself on being a survivalist of the highest caliber, claimed he had read on the Internet " prior to the Flash! " that some military satellites went off-line a week earlier. Also, even earlier than that, a lot of the Doomsayer web-sites " religious and secular " really started heating up. After the power went kaput, he claimed aliens of some sort had landed (or, at least he "suspected as much," in his more lucid moments) and were here to farm humanity " for something.

The last communication Roger had listened on from the excitable fellow was that he had decided to abandon his station, because he didn't want the invaders, or whomever, getting the jump on him. He'd go to them, as a man, armed to the teeth and with his chin up. He'd show them trespassing S.O.B.'s not all of mankind could be trifled with.

Roger nudged the Radio Operator at the time aside and said into the Mic, "Where are you going?"

"Huh?" replied True-b-late.

Roger ignored the annoyed and disapproving look from that night's radioman, a sour-faced kid who once worked for the ITS department, and pressed right on. "To meet the aliens. Where are they, and how do you know?"

"To the northeast. I know they're there, 'cause . . . I just do. 'Sides, I see all them people heading that way, up north, past Encinitas."

"He's crazy," hissed the radioman through his hand. "'True' talks like this all the time."

Roger impatiently waved off the young man. "What is it they want?" he asked into the Mic.

"Who? The aliens? The walkers?"

"Both."

"Well . . . ," began True-b-late, his voice low but with an undertone of high passion, "those religionists, they're wrong. Lambs to the slaughter, they are. I know . . . sense . . . what it is they want, and I won't stand for it."

There was silence. Roger thought for a second the connection had been lost. The young man, to Roger's surprise, prodded a response out of the strange survivalist when he said, "True?"

"They want us " yet they laugh at us, coldly. You sound like a rational fellow. You'll see it, sense it, when the moment of truth comes . . . if you keep your wits about you."

"What does all this mean?" Roger said out of frustration.

"I'll try to leave you a sign."

"A sign?" Roger asked.

"Right before I open up on them bastards, fill 'em full of lead."

"How will I see the sign " where will you leave it?"

"You'll go, eventually, like all the others. You'll see it."

Then the line went dead.

The next morning, Roger presently recalled as he absently glanced at the Red Roof Inn across the way, down Mirmeza Road, it's little wind mill whirling in the wind, the Sergeant, intrigued by Truth's rambling, led a patrol out early in the morning. He and three guys headed west, toward the ocean, wanting to check out the La Jolla area, particularly the University. Seemed as good as any place; and besides, the Sergeant figured that morning meeting, if anyone had a rational explanation for what was happening, anyone in authority left there would.

The new person in charge, the one time head of Pathology, Dr. Irvin, shrugged his shoulders. Why not? he asked. We haven't anything else going on. By that time, only 50 some odd people remained. The passing crowds had thinned out, and reports of meandering miscreants had also waned.

The world, at that time, was rapidly spiraling into one dispiriting big empty, sighed a dejected Roger. Fear and ignorance were the two counter motivating forces that kept the hangers-on within the confines of the medical center.

A few voices tried to dissuade the fifty-ish Sergeant from venturing down from the hill; they were worried the hangers-on' Rock of Gibraltar might not make it back. The man, an ex-Marine, hushed one and all, winked a bloodshot eye " he spent his free time drinking quite a bit, and who could blame him " and beamed a smile from that chubby, reddish face of his. "I'll be back," he promised. "Without me," he chuckled, "you're all as useless as a pecker on a priest."

He did make it back, but not for long.

Roger, not surprisingly given the dearth of available manpower, was one of the three who got to go along on this jaunt to the west. The other two? A black man with a craggy face who used to do the grounds and a house-keeping aide, a long-haired kid right out of highschool. They spent the better part of the morning and early afternoon trekking the dozen or so miles to the University; down once busy Mirmeza Boulevard; or, more accurately, astride the road. They mostly kept to back alleys, within the shadows of storefronts and ducking from abandoned car to abandoned car.

(Riding bikes would have been easier, but they were hard to come by, having been snatched up real quick after the cars all went dead. The ones left abandoned were due to more mundane reasons: flattened tires and broken chains.)

They came across not a living soul during their outward journey, no one to greet or wave to. Just dried out husks of random folks unable for whatever reason to escape their cars; the helpless, left to face slow death in just as dead cars. And, surprisingly, even more ominous? A surfeit of graffiti.

Large, uneven letters, geared rarely toward territorial claims by one gang or another, but threats that various crucibles were at hand. If Roger were to buy into just a fraction of it, somewhere nearby Buddha, Jesus and L. Ron Hubbard, among others, had either risen, come back or landed. One particular display of artwork, all in ugly, watery capital letters, testified THE KERNEL THAT PREDATED THE PROPHETS IS AFOOT. Written across the windows of a dry cleaners, its faded red, almost brown in color lettering gave Roger the willies.

The University was just past the overpass of the 5 freeway. As they approached and passed beneath, the four scouts saw maybe a dozen or so people, in groups of ones or twos, quietly following the freeway. Wanderers. They never turned to the left nor right to look at the four from the hospital; the four from the hospital didn't waste their time trying to get them to do so.

For over an hour they scoured the school of higher learning, going from building to building, dorm to dorm, not finding a living soul. They did see an occasional corpse, whose only enemies were the erosive effect of the air and the days' passage of time. No scavengers had been at the bodies " animal nor insect.

Finally, in the place they should have looked first " the dean's office " they found a living, breathing body, sitting at an elegantly huge desk. The withered, aged man gave his name as Professor Kerrey Wunstrom, Phd in cosmology. Hardly five and a half feet tall, his hair, facial and cranial, was a ragged mess, and smelled worse than the bodies they had come across. His first raspy words to the four across the dim room were, "You're trespassing, all four of you."

The Sergeant, almost absently, placed his hand on the holstered 9 mm at his side.

"Just kidding, just kidding," quickly replied Professor Wunstrom. His teeth were an awful swirl of yellow and brown, with a couple missing. His right hand, which he lifted up from behind the desk to gently wave off the Sergeant, had long and creepily curving fingernails.

"Are you the only one here?" asked the Sergeant.

"The only one brave enough to stand his ground " to keep logically denying what I've always logically denied."

"What does that mean?" Roger asked, out of turn.

"My fellow academicians, and their acolytes, all threw reason out the door and followed their hearts. Men and women who spent years upon years of decent, skeptical investigation " flushed right down the toilet the first time something odd gets in their face . . . and heads."

The Sergeant slammed his meaty palms onto the desk. "Look, we came a long way, risked our necks to get here, hoping we'd meet someone who can make sense of what happened to the earth. So, whatever you've got to say, say it so everyone can follow " especially me!"

The Professor sighed. "Seekers who haven't gone seeking beatific panaceas, huh?"

The Sergeant glared.

"All right, all right," muttered the Professor. "If it's information you want, and not to kick the feces out of me, like those fiends last week, then ask away. I'll share with you what little I have to share."

"Well, uh. . . " began the Sergeant.

"Where is everybody going?" quickly asked Roger. "Is it country-wide? Global?"

"Yes to the later two, I strongly suspect," replied professor Wunstrom. "As to where those wide-eyed, gullible fools wandered off to? Well, I'd say a lot of places " both physical and mental."

"How 'bout the people around here?" snapped the Sergeant. "You know, San Diegans."

"City and county," threw in Roger, indifferent to the Sergeant's frown.

"Not far " but further than they've ever gone before."

"You're doing it again!" snapped the Sergeant, the veins in his neck bulging.

"Look," began the professor, "I'm sure the 'effect' wasn't just localized to this campus. You must have seen what I've seen . . . and maybe felt."

A quieting gloom seemed to have descended on the room. The professor's words hit hard, cut to the quick " but maddeningly not on the mark. The interlude was only broken when the professor spoke again.

"Something, from somewhere, is calling out " drawing those that can, then maybe 'will,' heed the call."

"You, um, got any ideas?" asked the Sergeant, his tone subdued.

"Oh, me and my colleagues talked long into the lonely nights about that, till they all disappeared, leaving me lord and master of this grand institution of learning."

"Well," butt in Roger, "this university must have been connected with some of the world's greatest intellects. Surely some of them had some inside knowledge, ideas."

"There were ideas " speculation, right from the first flash . . . even before."

"Before?" quietly said all four visitors, the other two men speaking up for the first time.

"Oh, yes," said the professor. "A week prior " um, two, more like three weeks ago, there was a bit of excitement in the astronomical community. Professor Atkins " he used to be with our space sciences department " used to go on and on over at the science faculty lounge about some sort of phenomenon observed in the Kuiper belt."

"Kuiper belt?" murmured the Sergeant, who seemed to have lost some of his early vinegar.

"It's a sort of cosmic smorgasbord of comets, asteroids and mini-planets beyond the orbit of Pluto and Chiron," Wunstrom answered. "Anyway, Atkins " after the first EMP flash " had interjected it into our endless discussions, as if it were some sort of minor weird precursor to the greater weirdness that followed. An unusual brightness had been detected there by a powerful telescope on auto-program out of South America. A sort of software-guided program."

"What did they see?" Roger asked intently.

"Um, they weren't sure. When the first human became aware the next day, he manually re-directed the 'scope back to the quadrant of the original sighting. Nothing. Whatever it was, it moved fast. Faster than any of Atkins' cyber-conversationalists would have thought possible."

"They must have had a recording, right?" Roger said at once.

"Yeah, a blurry, long distance photograph of a bright object, or objects hidden within that brightness, billions of miles away. Maybe a very large icy asteroid, or a tightly packed comet swarm. Obtaining an accurate 'extrapolation' of just what was sighted would take time " and we all know that was something mankind didn't have much of. Most, that is."

Another silence descended on the gloomy, dusty room. For some reason, an image of the Sergeant, a sympathetic one at that, had entered Roger's mind. Maybe it was tangentially triggered by the fact the professor seemed to be looking at, and only at the Sergeant when he tacked on those last three words.

The Sergeant did speak up after a bit, slowly, almost hesitantly. "Are you suggesting 'it' came this way . . . to earth?"

"Well," began the professor, "the timing was highly coincidental. And there were a couple of other things that followed on its heels."

"What?" the Sergeant replied, almost retorted. "Large-headed gray Aliens who got tired of probing and instead turned to herding?"

"You okay, Sarge?" gently inquired the former janitor.

"I'm, uh, okay. It's " I don't know, I've always, kind of, you know. Always thought the earth was a bit over-exposed to whatever lurked among the stars."

The professor sniffed, but not unkindly. "That's very revealing, Sergeant. A very un " "

"Skip it!" the Sergeant snapped. "You said there was a couple of other things. Spill it."

After sighing, the professor said, "Some Satellites " military and I think two to be exact " went off-line two days before the initial flash."

"Didn't make the major news, so how odd could that be?" insisted the Sergeant.

"Classified, mostly, but not completely. People here at the University were in the loop, and worried. And real odd, that not only one would fail completely, but two. . . ? Plus, the satellites were part of the burgeoning SDI network. Essential parts, maybe equipped with lasers, I was told."

"A preemptive strike?" Roger said with awe, almost whistling.

"Craziness," scowled the Sergeant, but his eyes belied his contempt.

"I second that," the professor swore. "Then, the night prior, another 'crazy' coincidence."

"What?" asked the Sergeant, almost hesitantly.

"Our mainframe got hacked " completely. And we weren't alone " happened to other campuses, business, whatever held storage accessible via the Net."

"What were they after?" Roger cut in. "Military secrets?"

"After? Hah!" scoffed the professor. "They took what they wanted " busted through this university's cyber-security like it wasn't there. As for what they wanted . . . ? Well, our IT chief claimed the servers for our philosophy, cultural, humanities and religious studies, along with our demographics data banks, got poached " hard."

"What would . . . 'they' . . . want with all that?" the Sergeant whispered.

"Putting aside the 'they' part, of which I have no idea, those areas of knowledge, who knows? Maybe we were being sized up, see what kind of stuff made humanity tick."

"Any other ideas?" asked the Sergeant, his tone still low.

"I spent days jawing it over with my colleagues, till they all left. We could only guess."

"Why didn't you leave?" said Roger.

"Long habit," simply said the professor.

"Long habit?"

"Whether it's telephone calls, letters or e-mails, I never respond to unrequested solicitations."

The four left the Professor to his empty kingdom. He was invited to join their little group, but he declined, solemnly predicting sooner rather than later he'd be alone again. "Why risk getting attached to anyone?" he sadly asked of the departing backs of the men.

On their return trip, they were less inclined to keep low and covered. Overconfident, or maybe uncaring.

After a bit, one of the companions, the pimply faced white kid, worked up enough nerve to ask of the Sergeant, "What's with you and aliens? If you don't mind me asking?"

"You already asked," the Sergeant groused, regaining some of his affable cantankerousness.

"So?"

The Sergeant sighed. "It's just, well, I've always been awed . . . overwhelmed, by what lies out beyond the earth's atmosphere."

"Yeah, it's pretty big out there," said the last of the four, the middle-aged African American. They were just coming up on that dry cleaners with the ominous graffiti.

"Big?" nearly exclaimed the Sergeant. "Beyond experience, in size, description, origin, age and destiny. It's like we're gnats on a leaf, too smart for our own good " one leaf part of a dark forest, that extends well beyond our vision."

The Sergeant was then silent, almost as if holding his breath in, for a moment as they walked.

"So big, so unknowable," restarted the Sergeant in a voice that almost cracked. "Even those words could never begin do it justice. They're essentially pointless, meaningless."

"Yeah?" offhandedly said Roger. "So the universe puts man and his planet to shame. Something best not to dwell on."

"Easier said than done," soughed the Sergeant.

A half a mile further and only minutes shy of twilight, they had a near death experience. The other party, a crasher for sure, experienced it in the "whole."

A young Hispanic, his eyes as wild as his unkempt hair, his jeans and windbreaker filthy, his lower face overrun by unshaven hair, rushed out onto the street from between the gap separating two darkened storefront shops. In his arms, jutting weirdly from his crotch, was a startling, organ-seizing sight: a double-barrel shotgun.

"Lookie here!" he started to exult, spittle coming out the side of his mouth. "Play-toys for my ""

Doing an excellent impersonation of a gunslinger, the Sergeant cast aside his existential funk and whipped out the 9 millimeter at his side. Bullets were flying even before he had the weapon pointed at the crazed interloper. The first, unfortunately, nicked the Sergeant's big toe. The fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh left four ugly holes in the dropped assailant, from his throat to his temple. (Two and three might have hit the man, but nowhere noticeable nor vital.)

The other three recovered after a bit and helped the Sergeant up, who had taken an ugly pratfall, but never once spoke a word of discomfort.

Not only didn't Roger find a pulse from the aggressor, nor did he find any shells in the rifle after he cocked it open. That disturbing fact seemed to push out the last lingering bit of renewed vigor out of the Sergeant.

"What the hell was wrong with that fool?" wondered aloud the one time groundskeeper. "Pointing an unloaded gun at us."

"The whole world's crazy, fuckin' crazy. There's no sense to anything, anymore," said the white youth.

"If there ever was," said the Sergeant in a voice hardly above a whisper.

"Let's get back to the hospital," urged the ex-janitor, as if hadn't heard the Sergeant. Moving his head in a slow, 180 degree semicircle, he added, "I don't like it out here, in the open."

Roger said, "Shouldn't we, uh, bury this guy? And, um, leave a note, in case someone in authority shows up? Makes itself known once again?"

The groundskeeper scoffed. "The only authority we got is right here." As he spoke he patted the Sergeant's shoulder, who stared at the ground between his legs. "Leave him for the birds and rats."

"There aren't anymore of those," mumbled the Sergeant in a near monotone. "Guys," he said further, "I know it's getting late, but please bury that poor bastard. Give him a send-off " as if he mattered."

The three dragged the body out behind the storefronts, leaving an ugly trail of blood spatters, into a little patch of yellowed grass and hard dirt. It took them a lot longer to dig a hole big enough to deposit the body than they would have liked " full darkness had descended by the time they were done. Not one of the three had a makeshift word or two of eulogy, nor any simple religious gestures of final farewell. Three agnostics, maybe one of which, an outright atheist, who turned silently away to escort their universe-phobic leader back to their dying, lonely outpost.

They damn near had to carry the Sergeant back. Life and whatever sparked it seemed to have mostly fizzled out of the man. His essence fled with that day's sun.

Later that night, or maybe it was the early morning, an emergency meeting was called. Grim news, in a note, left by the Sergeant.

A suicide note, a rambling one " if written during any other time in human history.He had shot himself, in that pudgy, ruddy volatile face of his. Dr. Irvin, the group's leader, gave the news, read the note. Which, to Roger, only put in relief who the real leader had been. The Sergeant, if Dr. Irvin had been the one to blast himself, would have kept it quiet over the night, let everyone partake in what little joy this world had, get their sleep, and then gone around individually and broke the news, gently.

Not Dr. Irvin, who read the note as if it were breaking news hot of a teleprompter.

I'm sorry to have bailed out on you, began the letter, but an old bugaboo that I thought I had buried so deep has clawed its way back to the surface.

This . . . change . . . that has overcome the world, has awakened my deepest fear: we are not alone, earth is one of many, and any neighbors capable of reaching us . . . are capable of ANYTHING. And, somehow, I'm seeing the possibilities more and more, clearer and clearer, with each passing day. That eye on the other side of a microscope . . . its decided to stick its finger in the petri dish.

I don't want to go looking for, nor even be here . . . to see what tomorrow brings.

Good luck to you all. I'd say God Bless, but that would be hoping for too much.

Sergeant John Sanders, your faithless servant.

Another wind swept in from the east, zipped across the roof and ruffled Roger's lose fitting coveralls. It was getting late, he knew, in more ways than one.

Recalling the wording of the letter brought a tear to his eye. The Sergeant was a good man, did his best for the group, and yet he felt it wasn't enough. Good, solid man, brought down by bad, uncertain times.

Almost two weeks later, and Roger was all alone, wistfully standing atop a hospital that once teemed with life given a second chance and unfortunate death met with dignity and compassion.

Roger was neither religious nor spiritual, nor capable of distinguishing one from the other without aid of a dictionary. Certainly not at any instinctual level, for he had neither the genes nor upbringing to look beyond his physical senses for fulfillment.

Roger, not a gregarious man by a long shot, but still needful of human companionship, whether in person, by picture or at the least, voice. A fellow never cursed at or spurred along by big dreams, just doing what he did to get along. Taking pleasure where he could find it, treating others as he would be treated, fully aware self-interest was his prime motive. Roger, who never looked eagerly to the future, lived each day as if an endless procession was sure to follow, for he felt, almost completely, the end of days, his or anybody's, offered nothing more than a quiet incapable of being appreciated. And it was best not thought about. But now? He had no other choice. He'd either have to sit here, alone, with no one to talk to nor touch, or head out, and discover for himself what drew and never returned. An answer was out there, one beyond this earth, and Roger had to find out. Because, frankly, it was the last thing left to do for him on this cold and empty earth.

Early the next morning Roger loaded up a backpack with supplies. Around his waist he fastened the holster and gun of Sergeant Sanders. He had enough food and water for three days. If by tomorrow he grew antsy, he'd head back and try his luck another time. What the hell? he half-assured himself. He had all the time in the world.

Where to go?

Well, he'd follow the same path of the two the Sergeant sent out weeks earlier: 3 miles to the west (coincidentally the same path taken to university), and then fourteen or so miles up the 5 freeway, to Lemuria Blvd.

If he made it that far, then what? Wait for a sign? Or. . . ?

He'd wing it, he would. He'd have no other choice, Roger knew.

A mile down Mirmeza, eagle-eyed Roger found an actual working bicycle, a sparkly blue-colored Schwinn, tucked underneath a stalled Honda Civic in the drive-thru of a fast food joint. Undamaged, someone, some time ago, must have stashed it there for safekeeping, anticipating to collect it later.

Hopefully, Roger told himself, he or she found a better way to get around. Mostly likely, he figured as he started peddling, the previous bike owner took to walking that last walk.

Soon he reached the on-ramp to the 5, but as a precautionary move, he cruised over to the other side and went up the off-ramp. The last time hospital staff went this far, so he heard, all the human activity was on the north-bound side. Well, he smartly sniffed, I'll sneakily bike the wrong way up the south-side.

As he peddled, keeping to the bike lane " slowly, what with no place solidly to get to " he tried to keep his eyes away from the long-stalled cars. But morbid curiosity eventually got the best of him and drew his eyes to the right.

Soon enough, he saw a silhouette, reaching out from the cabin gloom, teasing his eyes; a husk of humanity entombed within a Dodge van, on the passenger side. Despite his better judgement, he stopped, got off the bike, and went in for a closer look. How and why did this one get stuck, or left behind, when the cars died? he wondered.

Pulling his shirt up to his nose, he circled around the back, noticing an attached brace that once held something big. Roger, outside the shotgun position, leaned in close. Despite the gruesome sight, there was no odor to match: Anything "wet" that might have gone rancid had already run its course. Months past, and the skin had taken on a leathery texture, the pupils within the open eye-lids had hardened to marbles. Even so, he could easily tell the sex and body type of the abandoned: female and obese.

"Poor woman," Roger murmured. "So heavy, whoever was driving must have booked, with an unfulfilled promise of returning." At the very least Roger hoped the driver said as much, before leaving the immobile woman alone to face the elements.

As he got back on the bicycle, Roger also wondered if the driver was also the one who ran off with the motorized scooter which once must have been attached to the back.

Another mile up ahead and Roger espied an actual walker on Northbound side of the freeway, the very first one of Roger's own trek. He debated a bit, hesitated, and then threw caution to the wind. As he lazily peddled apace to the man's position, he called out, "Hey, fellow traveler, looking for company!?"

No reply came out of the mouth of the man dressed in threadbare pajamas and a filthy robe. To further the vision of a guy who had just jumped out of his morning bed, which quickly formed in Roger's mind, the thin, middle-aged and gray-haired man was also wearing slippers.

Roger tried again. "Hello! Second to last man in San Diego calling out to last man in San Diego!"

Again no satisfaction.

Roger was set to spin the bike's wheels rapidly; that is, after he yelled out, "Fine, jerk, don't talk to me! Explain that to your God, if you find him!"

The man turned his head and finally spoke. "It is not 'my' God I'm going to. It is 'God,' pure and simple."

"You want company?" Roger asked, even as he started to clamber over the concrete freeway divider, dragging the bike along.

The man said nothing; he continued his slow, halting walk north. Roger peddled as slow as he could, sometimes doing lazy circles around the cars so as not to get too far ahead. He even offered to share the bike, take turns, but the man promptly refused.

A tad evasive, Roger asked, "How far are you going to walk?" From the looks of him, he figured it wouldn't be very far.

"As far as necessary."

This time, Roger didn't beat around the bush when he said, "Necessary equates to what?"

"To meet the Universal yet Solitary God beyond " Who has at last opened a doorway to His presence."

And there Roger had a first person account of what, maybe, was driving humanity to disappear, if not outright extinction.

Roger learned why the man had been so late in taking up the pilgrimage. He had been bed-ridden due to a recent bout of Chemo-Therapy. His at home care-giver, a devout Catholic even before the emptying, had been thoughtful enough to move supplies up to his bedside, before she tore out of there, seeking "her" St. Peter and the Virgin Mary.

The man left behind, himself formerly a liberal Unitarian, had three long weeks to himself, with only self-reflection to pass the time while he reacquired enough strength to get up, clean himself up as best he could, and then walk out of his house. And during that time, he came across the truth, what gathered life to Itself. And he felt sorry for the woman who had left him, hoping her errant beliefs won't come back to haunt her.

For you see, he told Roger, with so much time to mull the mystery, it became less mysterious each time he took a crack at it.

Roger, genuinely interested, didn't hesitate to ask the man what that truth was.

"Three" and only "three" before had given glimpses of the truth beyond this life, the man went on with as much excitement as his frail body could muster. And it was not the artificially mandated division of God Almighty into the three unfathomable parts of the Trinity. No. First there was Moses the wise Egyptian of Israeli stock, who got the process underway; then Jesus the never born Divine Spirit who touched St. Paul, though not quite correctly; and lastly, Muhammad the desert medium, who, with inspiration from within and, unfortunately, without, split the difference between the two previous. The three interfaces to God the excruciatingly patient One, who had finally exhausted His patience and had come to collect what is His.

Roger found the man's take at first entertaining, then as the fellow expounded passionately, nearly compelling. Almost logical. The celestial sale might have been made, despite Roger's inveterate agnosticism and growing unease, if not for two mundane things: even in the open air, the man stunk to high hell; and, never mind that no clock anywhere was ticking impatiently, he moved so damned slow. So slow, Roger was reduced to pushing the bike. More like holding it up and then occasionally inching it along.

Roger had serious doubts the feeble man would ever make it to Lamuria Boulevard, let alone to . . . wherever "that infuriatingly patient God" waited. And Roger, even though he worked in a hospital setting, didn't know the first thing about first aid. There had been always doctors and nurses for that kind of thing.

After taking the longest time to traverse a mile, at the most, Roger abruptly said, "Look, I'd kind of like to see this wonder you spoken of, but at the rate we're going, it ain't gonna happen anytime this century. Why don't you climb aboard, sit on the " "

"Go on, please."

"But " ?" Roger objected.

"You distract me. Go on, you don't need for me to explain. You'll see."

"How will I find it?"

"You will."

Before he would cycle on, Roger insisted that the man take what little supplies he could carry, particularly his water canteen, which Roger strapped around his neck. (When the sickly fellow took a sip, he could only hold it down for a few seconds.)

Onward Roger peddled, soon losing sight of the man. A few miles further, and Roger got a quick reminder as to why he should get back on the southbound side.

He came upon a man who was walking at a decent clip, no doubt, but he was entirely naked. Further, he was engaged in open-air unabashed masturbation. Roger tarried a bit, having difficulty mentally processing what his eyes were witnessing: a scraggly, hairy and dumpy man, unmistakably overworking an over-stressed organ. When the man finally made eye contact, and then smiled " never once stopping what was going on below his waist " Roger had had enough and sped off. But not fast enough to miss hearing, "Viagra, the manna of heaven!"

As Roger furiously increased his separation, he told himself no matter how great his curiosity as to what had drawn so much of humanity up this damned freeway, he did "not" want to know that man's motivation, or what he expected to find at the end of the line.

For the next hour Roger rode north; he saw not another living person, only the abandoned dead: in broken down cars, on the cool tar of the freeway, all left to rot. The old, the weak, the fat and, from the gruesome looks of some of the remains, the victimized.

In the distance he caught sight of the sign for Lamaria Boulevard, the terminus for Sergeant Sanders' trackers, till one got turned and the other got assaulted. He paused, looked to the west, then to the east . . . and had no clue if either direction was the way to go. So, he continued moving north, till a pattern of migration " human, that is " struck his senses. It seemed that the withered bodies he now and then came across, mostly, had fallen a bit to their front: Southward. As if that way had been their goal, their destination.

Roger decided to take a chance and headed back to Lamaria Blvd. Once there he again looked west, which traversed some beach sand before ending at the ocean's horizon; and then east, which rolled across terra firma, as far as the eye could see.

East it would be, he told himself, for awhile.

The road at first was a four lane highway that ran amidst a marshy inlet of the Pacific, despoiled by an occasional floating corpse. A few miles further east, past tract housing and small commercial buildings, and the lanes halved. The occasional pruned tree was replaced by an abundance of a wilder breed, which flanked each side of the road. Hills in the distant were lush with chaparral interlaced with verdant green. Along the way, Roger passed some more bodies, which at first guess, he'd say they had been indeed heading east.

After another two miles of brisk peddling, he saw her. Alone, with long blonde hair flowing gently behind her with the breeze, her bell-bottom jeans rhythmically flapping with each step. Down to her slender waist the thin hair touched in turns, never blocking the clear view Roger had of her backside, the flanks of which flared gracefully.

Roger, not wanting to startle the woman in the flowery, tight-fitting blouse, first slowed his pace; and when he got within 20 yards, called out a "Hello." His surprise was pleasant when she reciprocated, with a wide wave of her hand and what seemed to be even a wider smile. Absolutely lovely she was, from both sides.

"You mind company?" Roger asked, with an eagerness he couldn't disguise, even if he had tried.

Not only was the answer "Yes," but she provided most of the conversation for the next few or so miles, even as they switched turns riding the bike and the road itself switched names, a title Roger was too preoccupied to catch.

Roger learned much about the woman, Desiree, though her birth name had been Sally. She had been the "love-slave" of a bear of a man named Doug. (Roger hadn't known such relationships existed outside the fevered, staged dreams of the Internet; it took the near end of times to enlighten him.)

It had taken her so long to come this far only because of her devotion to Doug, who had virtually kept her under lock and key, permitted only in the kitchen, the bathroom or, of course, the bedroom. This past month she strove to convince her smothering paramour to go beyond their mostly physical relationship; to develop a spiritual aspect, especially now that it was so near, even pervasive, if only Doug would open his heart.

Roger was to learn the only two things that opened in their now deceased relationship was the leg shackle that kept it out of the question of her going too far; and a big hole in Doug's face, when the man shotgunned himself to death.

Apparently, their belief systems were too different to have any kind of spiritual reconciliation. Doug was strong on guilt, mainly guilty perverse pleasures. After the time of the first flash the guilt took a dark tune; soon, it started to take its toll. He was afraid to meet his "maker."

Desiree, Roger learned in good, rapid time, had virtually no problems with guilt.

Guilt, to the woman, was too negative, burdensome, especially when it came to consensual pleasure between adults. (Oh, Roger's interest peaked at that point in the conversation.) And wouldn't that be the way Mother Gaia would want her children to behave? she asked at one point, mostly rhetorically.

Under any other circumstance, Roger would have written her off as a postmodern hippy clown " a pretty one, albeit " and yet grudgingly listened due to her attractiveness. But given the times, he was more than happy, even eager, to be a part of the conversation.

And Mother Gaia, she professed, was only a term a small human mind like hers could come up with, handed down from earlier primitives. Truly, there was a force behind that term, a driving force. And she said animatedly to Roger, many times, they were getting closer and closer. Each step, she swore, and the call of the Mother of us all grew louder.

"One only had to open your heart, put aside all preconceived notions, and listen. . . !"

To Roger, that term " open your heart " had never meant much to him; it was just a platitude. But at this moment, partner to an intimate and animated conversation with a beautiful and possibly sexually agreeable woman, nearly alone in a world gone empty and silent, he was up for anything. So, any and all preconceived notions of preternatural finality " sparse and desiccated as they were " were blithely suppressed. Or, possibly, fertilized.

And it got to him, so late in the game.

Every ensuing word out of the girl's with each passing footstep made more and more sense, intuitively.

As they penetrated deeper and deeper into the forested interior, its wildness only briefly bisected by the small road they hiked and the occasional dilapidated, rusted-out homestead, Mother Gaia, Roger further came to accept, was a presence that permeated throughout the highest strata of the earth, biological life. She expressed herself over the ages, via the ever-changing, life reaffirming process of evolution. Man, her to-date finest expression of guided Darwinism, had caused a dilemma with his never ending assault on the environment. He had gone too far with his greed, his ingratitude. Now, she had decided enough was enough, and everybody was to come back to her.

And then, who knows!?

The regret Roger felt at coming to the "truth" this late, four decades and counting, made his life prior look sad, forlorn. So caught up in poignant emotionalism, or spiritual awakening, one or the other, the old nagging, skeptical persona of Roger never had a chance to climb up from the cerebral cellar it had been banished to and reassert itself.

With a universe so mighty, so numbingly vast and absurdly old, nary a question of how "Mother Gaia" fit into the grand scheme of things ever got a chance to be asked. Was she just the queen of earth, and if so, who had the capacity to pull her strings? Was poor old Sergeant Sanders right? Was earth, regardless of august Mother Gaia, truly to be considered the center of . . . anything?

Silence, of course, greeted the unasked obvious questions. Then, they left the road occasionally littered by cars that will never run again, turning into an open space preserve once run by the county of San Diego.

"In here?" asked Roger.

"Yes," said Desiree, her smile beatific.

They again took each other's hands, gently, and started across a small bridge, beneath which a stream burbled, peacefully but lively. So unlike the stifling atmospheric "peace" of the trekked miles earlier, its mysterious cause ominous and lurking.

They came upon a sign that read "The Way Up." And up they had to travel, for certain. The dirt path that rose before them was studded by rocks. The trail itself snaked up the side of a lush mountain. A thousand or so feet one of the guideposts read. Mostly covered by a canopy of short trees that swayed gently in the cool wind, "conquering" the mountain certainly would be an endeavor. But it was a task Roger felt more than ready to take on, because he'd go where Desiree would go, till the end.

For the next ten minutes they clambered upward, here and there falling, slipping and skidding into one another's arms, having a good, respectable laugh at each others' expense. Two budding lovebirds, heading into the loveliest and lovingly embrace all of creation had to offer.

Halfway up, Roger caught site of the summit, or at least a plateau that in some geographical way led to the grand, waiting mystery. And a couple of hundred feet before even that, lo and behold he saw two other tardy pilgrims, both of whom were being considerably slowed by the meandering incline. He and Desiree, propelled by each other and the Goddess, seemed to be making better time. Real quick, they were bound to overcome the first, a tall long-haired fellow of yellowish mane, wearing a t-shirt, shorts and, smartly, hiking boots.

As they got closer, Roger resisted an urge to cheerfully call out to his fellow traveler, share the unfolding mystery of the new and good gospel they both were on the cusp of fully reveling in. But Desiree, who seemed to be reading his mind, squeezed his hand and mouthed patience.

So, Roger contained his newly found rapturous excitement, till he got close enough to see in detail the golden hairs on the back of the man's tightly wound thighs. "Sir, mind a little company?" Sharing the attention of a beautiful woman? Roger silently marveled. He truly had changed, found a solid truth to replace the amorphous agnosticism which had led him around by the short hairs for so long, ever since puberty trumped Confirmation.

The man, Roger was surprised at how thin he was, almost emaciated, turned to look at the approaching duo. His thin lips smiled, barely, and he gently shook his head. "Where and when I go, it's best I go it alone."

Huh?

That single, pervasive thought that filled Roger's head was, at the least, troubling.

"Aren't you, uh, going to see " ?"

Desiree gently shushed him. The man's . . . lack of team spirit . . . didn't seem unsettling in the least to her.

Huh!?

That internally repeated word, even more penetrating than the first instance, really cut Roger to the quick.

Rudely, Roger placed his hand on the man's shoulder, stopping cold his slow hike, and said, "If you're not here for the truth " aren't you going the wrong way, pal?"

Roger got an answer, twofold. The first, the man's words, were the lesser. He barely heard them.

"After the initial sign, and three weeks of denying myself the anchors of this world, ahead I'm ready to approach the fount of enlightenment, be emptied of lingering impurity, filled with truthful peace, and then without fear accept annihilation or incorporation."

The vivid pictures that entered his head, they spoke loudly and with authority. He saw, clearly, a blue sky with nary a cloud. At its center, disdainful of gravity, was a golden pagoda. At its entrance sat a cherubic and serene Buddha figure. Correction, the Buddha. Behind, and maybe all around it, a nearly transparent face, crowned through and through with an aura of glorious sunlight.

Roger retracted his hand, let the man go on his way. To himself, Desiree, and to the world, he nearly screamed, "What the fucking hell!?"

"What is wrong?" Desiree asked, alarm creeping into her tone.

I'll tell you what is wrong, Roger thought, something is really fucking fishy about yours and the Buddha-boy's end of time scenarios. They don't jibe!!

Further despair: Roger now noticed a few blackheads on the woman's nose, little circles under her eyes, and how mousy her hair now seemed. No angel she was, if such things ever had anything to do with humans.

But all Roger would say to the woman whom he so adored only seconds earlier was, "No . . . nothing. You, uh, go ahead. I've got to rest a bit and think."

"But " " she protested, almost whined.

"Go!" Roger snapped. "Nirvana's fucking nirvana. We'll have all the time in the world to. . . ." Almost in tears, he pleaded, "Please go."

And she left. She did look over shoulder as she climbed the sloping trail, but with less frequency the further she got from Roger.

He was alone and unsure of what to do next. Again.

But not for long.

Coming up the way he and Desiree had so happily traipsed was a man in ragged clothes, looking even more emaciated than the blond Buddhist. Shaven bald, Roger just knew the hair that had once sprouted out of his head was a color of the darkest black, judging from the thick eyebrows and piercing orbs that crowned his aquiline nose.

Roger didn't want to get to close; another revelation was the last thing he needed. Unfortunately, the path wasn't wide enough for Roger to get much clearance; and the man, with a hatred un-bottled, looked directly at him. What awful sentiment was in his head, at once made its way into Roger's.

Three weeks, your bastard kind held me; three weeks you spouted your upstart religion; three weeks you prodded and poked me with all sorts of nasties " but you didn't break me. One by one you sauntered off to the righteousness you accused me of spitefully denying. But I got the last of ya's, told the final jailer I was ready to pray to the Son. Well, he's now as close to the "Son" as he'll ever get!! Gouged the bigot's eyes out, good!!

Just before Roger fell to his knees, and vomited the sparse contents of his stomach onto the path, he caught sight of the man's fingers, amazingly still dark red, almost glistening. As he passed, he snarled, "I'll put in a good word with Pappa Moshe for you, hamthal."

Slowly, Roger got back to his feet. He debated on whether to retreat down the side of the mountain. Put the terribly nagging mystery out of his mind, try and return to that earlier, comforting state of devil-may-care agnostic; a frame of mind he so did not appreciate for its true worth.

But, as with all things these dreadful days, it was too late. His mind would never be as free as it was prior to the first EMP flash. Further, he was more than 4/5ths up the side: nearby, a plateau and a majestic awfulness surely awaited.

Sweating profusely, he hauled his worn-out self up the last trail. The path leveled out, but

squat trees and underlying brush obscured most everything but the cleared dirt ahead. Though the path meandered a bit, first a bit to the left and then to the right, it no longer climbed. In fact, it had now reversed; Roger was descending at a smoothed out angle.

Ahead and above the vegetation, Roger thought he detected a disturbance in the air, maybe a flash.

He kept on plodding, determined to his very core to see what all the existential fuss had been about. Nothing would deter him, save death. His own.

Then, abruptly, he left the trees and their tangling brush and chaparral, stepped out onto a dirt covered viewing point, bounded by a wooden open rail fence. It's onetime focus, now drastically supplanted, was a large man-made lake, a reservoir for drinking water. Complete with a dam at the far side. But something tall jutted out from the water and strikingly stood before the concrete water blockade: a definite It with a capital I.

It was a pagoda, one very similar to the image that earlier invaded his head. At its base sat a serene figure. Roger, now given a longer, external viewpoint, could see it was none other than glorious Siddhrtha Gautama. He had a halo about his head, an orange robe, and a yellowish brown tint to his pleasantly stoic face. The pagoda that rose above him was eerily similar to a one he had seen long ago in a travelogue: The Iron Pagoda of Kaifeng, China. Save the one that rose from the unreally swirling waters had a golden sheen, but not as well defined concentric circles running up and down its axis.

He was about to turn his attention to the mostly transparent God-head that, this seeing, comprised a fuller backdrop, when a minor commotion near the terminus of the path that led to the water's very edge intervened. Three sights at first grabbed Roger's attention, two of which were standing humans. The other? A crude white flag that rustled in the gentle wind; it projected out from a lump of dirt mostly hidden by branches, leaves and scrub.

One of the men was the blonde Buddhist, who was a dozen feet shy of the eerily pulsating water. Coming up fast was the tortured Jew, who violently, yet almost as an afterthought, knocked the Buddhist to the ground, and surged forward.

Then, everything changed; at least, everything important to Roger at that time.

Buddha and the eternal pagoda shimmered away. The all consuming Godhead never got a chance to take on a crystal clear form.

What was there now?

A towering statue, green from age, which hadn't entirely lost its gilded sheen. Though no religious scholar, it wasn't hard for Roger to figure out it was a depiction of a robed Moses holding dearly tight two stone tablets. This manifestation, if contrasted with the former celestial portrait of serenity, was an imposing, earthy tableaux of severity.

So caught up in the shifty transformation, Roger almost missed what happened to the Jewish man when he finally reached the water. Once he got deep to his knees, a jagged bolt of greenish energy emitted from the unseen base of the statue; it ran not above but through the water, engulfed the man, and then left nothing. The streak returned at once to the towering statue, dragging along . . . the pilgrim?

At this low mountain recluse, where an answer supposedly waited, Roger's confusion was immense. He wasn't sure if the Jew had reached the end of a pilgrimage, or. . . ? And to aggravate his doubt, the Buddha and pagoda were back, as if to once again welcome the approaching blond Buddhist. But this time, the vision wasn't so crystal, nor solid. Roger squinted at the apparition. He felt, maybe saw, that there was some deeper, purer essence. He tried to yell out to the Buddhist, but a sharp yet metallic voice erupted inside his head: No, do nothing.

The stringy man was physically vaporized, like the previous pilgrim. Nothing to sight remained of him.

Alone with a fear so elemental yet a confusion softened a bit by curiosity, Roger watched for a sign, waited for instruction. He had no idea who or what spoke into his head, or who, how or why all the rest had been drawn to this place for whatever reasons, but he was certain they were not only related, but one and the same.

Come. Peace.

Roger slowly stepped over the fence, and started down the path to the water. The words from without hadn't induced a trance, nor a kind of hypnosis. He just felt had to delve deeper into the mystery, regardless.

He'd go down to the edge of the water, get a better look, and if he didn't get any satisfaction, he'd turned tail.

But could ever hide from such a . . . thing? The rest of San Diego County, America and possibly the entirety of the world apparently never had a chance.

Shunting all doubts aside, Roger made the short trek, keeping his eye on the . . . apparition, keen to glimpse a truer vision. It's Buddhist incarnation became fuzzier and fuzzier, till the point it was as if Roger were looking at poorly printed photo of a gigantic gold colored stogie.

When he at last reached the smoothed-out, hard-packed dirt of the shoreline, a tiny peninsula that jutted northeasterly out into the reservoir, he stood below and in its presence. All else couldn't compete to hold his notice, including the odd flag-staff off to his left about a dozen yards. This close to it, but 200 feet away at the most, Roger squinted his eyes, clenched his hands, stiffened his shoulders, and asked, "Who are you? What do you want? 'Exactly.'"

I am, popped into Roger's head, in that tone that leaned in two ways: serenity or sterility.

"I am 'what'!" he shouted back.

At long last, Deliverance, to a new state, was the cool, cold response.

"Christ!" roared out Roger, his anger snuffing all other emotion and observation, from anxiety to zaniness. "It never stops, does it!?"

It can, if you step forward.

"Always, always this way, huh!? Eternal truth for the ages, doled out cryptically, by obscure sources, clouded by shaky provenance! Next, you're gonna tell me to have faith!? Don't doubt the Doubting Thomas Episode!?"

He got no answer, just silence.

Roger fell to his knees and started to cry. "Not even an Old Testament style sign," he murmured, "one I can waste the rest of my life interpreting and re-interpreting?"

Enter the water.

Roger arose, as told. He got to his feet, with the terrible realization that the only way he'd know for sure if there was "more" than this life, a chance at discovering if humanity could and still existed at some other level, he'd have to do as instructed.

Before he'd do it, he took one last look around, wanting to soak in "Mother Gaia" one last time. Through his stinging tears, he again noticed the strange flag-pole off to his left, with the unseemly projection rising up from the brush that flanked the path.

Ignore what is before and cross over.

Roger, still cursed/blessed with a streak of hesitancy (never, ever would he leap before taking a look or two), slowly started over toward the edge of the path " and was greeted with an oddly grotesque sight.

Nearly engulfed by green and yellow vegetation, flat on its back was a corpse, desiccated by days of exposure. Outfitted in camouflage pants, shirt and jacket, the skull-like forehead had a red white and blue bandana. It was clearly a man, and when Roger could tear his eyes away from the remains themself, he could see where the flagpole started, how it actually ran out from the deceased's chest!

Murder before the gates of heaven? Self-inflicted?

Access is not open-ended.

Roger's focus was elsewhere. Maybe not enough to exclude the intrusions completely, but plenty to relegate the commands to background noise. He tore his eyes away from the remains, followed the pole " really a javelin, or a sharpened hiking stick " to the flag itself. On it was scribbled words in brownish red, nearly black, lettering.

Roger had his sign and a half-remembered promise had been delivered . Maybe not one as comprehensive nor biblical as truly desired, but an honest to goodness sign, one directed at he the reader:

I was right! They're shepherds all right . . . unfortunately, we're the cattle!

True or not, it seemed to be the truest to Roger, at this critical time and moment.

Go.

Roger pulled his eyes away from what had to be the remains of True-b-late and again looked at the reservoir-bound spectacle; for the third time he was greeted with a different manifestation. Still tall, still slender, the golden sheen had become decidedly more copper-ish.

Intricacy of form and design had pretty much disappeared: nothing finely chiseled to suggest building, statue or divinity. All had been replaced by a smooth, cylindrical and quite mundane structure.

For all the world, it looked like a rocket, and honest to goodness old fashioned rocket right out of a Buck Rogers' short. He could even see the top of the stanchions that held the thing upright above the water level. This was humanity's deliverance!?

Go away.

"What are you!?" roared Roger. "The truth, Goddamn you!!"

No answer came at once, just the intervening silence of a verdant remote space on a world mostly dead. The clouds above continue to drift, the wind all around still blew, subject leaves still shook, lowly dust occasionally was kicked up, and the once life sustaining water hadn't forgotten how to ripple.

The answer finally came after a bit.

You can do nothing, so look, without filter.

And Roger did, opening his heart, mind, you name it, and fearlessly interfaced with the unearthly vessel.

He received another revelation, this time truly epochal yet drearily cold.

Through a mosaic procession of images and condensed thoughts, not overpowering in application but devastating, debilitating, due to its intrinsic meaning, he got a glimpse of a terrible yet indifferent course launched uncounted eons prior.

Before him stood a probe, built so long ago by a race of smooth-skinned multi-limbed amphibian-like creatures. Thousand upon thousands of the probes, already highly advanced at launch, were designed to be adaptive, innovative, in the grand quest to explore the universe. Launched to sate the curiosity of flesh and blood creatures, to the machines, collecting data was their all consuming motive.

They could not do otherwise.

And explore they did " but in time, the increasing distance of the home world had become so great, contact, limited by the speed of light, had become a difficult technical obstacle. .

One never satisfactorily managed.

The rocket-like explorers were too often left to their own devices: artificial self-intuitiveness trapped inside an unchanging, relatively primitive form. Through time, they had become as intelligent, self-aware and adaptive as their creators, to the limit computerized programming could allow.

Then, one day in the distant past, the base transmissions stopped all together. Somewhere deep in their shared internal programming, eventually a choice had to be made sans the makers: Continue on with their mission? Or return with their original recordings to the home world?

Cold artificial logic always involved a lot of choices " but any and all options were auto-set to further the mission " not to take into account echoes of the creators' emotions.

At some junction in their complex yet flexible instructions " at its core, binary " the former was chosen by a random number generator: They would not return home, nor would they spare a second's effort to learn the final fate of the crafters. They would continue on as they had, exploring celestial bodies and returning the results via the speed of light.

If no one would ever reap the benefits of the knowledge, that was not the concern of the probes' programming. A decision for the future had been reached; they were incapable of looking backward.

But all things subject to the laws of physics are ultimately limited by external forces. Their chemically driven power cells, ultimately fed and regenerated by the energy of light, too often ran low. They too often risked being trapped between solar systems; their mission, their very existence, became endangered over and over. The light of the stars of the universe were too weak, the sources too remote, to keep their ships running at the maximum potential " a high percentage of light-speed.

In time, and the probes had an abundance of that luxury, an alternative fuel source was added: living organisms. The decision, implemented in fits and starts, through the ages became the preferred choice. It had its randomized roots in a desire to preserve material more enduring and thus sturdily observable; whereas life could always regenerate itself rapidly. With the makers out of the picture, this course of action was not influenced, nor inhibited, by bio-chemically induced emotions.

It was arrived at first on a world teeming with life that never got beyond the bacteria stage.

Watery worlds and temperate planets were thereafter purged of life, up to the very limit. Always, a little was left behind, so as to regenerate a new source " for the probes, if for some reason they ever had to make their way past the respective solar system. The physical landscapes remained mostly untouched.

But even the most logically arrived at decisions didn't always go smoothly. On one world, for the first time they encountered a race evocative of the makers: hairy and gargantuan bi-pedals; two-headed mammals, exceedingly strong. After stimulating the simpler nerve receptors to approach, which did indeed draw out the mammals from their lush forests, matters turned violent after the first few creatures were absorbed and then converted to raw energy. The higher functions of their fellows' cooperative dual brains kicked in. Any and all imposed control was cast off; righteous rage " something novel to the probes " erupted.

Some of the probes were knocked off their stanchions and battered to an eternally inert state. The survivors fled, unsure if they'd make it to the next desirable source of energy. Faint stars would have to be tapped; cosmic dust siphoned.

To comprehensively get at "all" the life-forms, in the cold and trackless depths of space a plan soon came to be formulated.

Able to re-approximate all matters of waves, even those that emanate from organic brain centers, the probes soon came to a realization: comparing what they knew of the makers with the primitives that drove them back into space, some biological structures had the ability to produce mental signals, when taken in their whole, took on, among other things, gestalt manifestations. Powerful yearnings for things beyond their daily, earthly grasp " whether it be a verdant forest of fruits and vegetables set to eternally sate hunger and disease, or a racial reunion with a parent god figure revealed over time, unearthly desires animated these higher creatures.

And that could and would leave them vulnerable to manipulation.

If they ever came across another planet where beings had not only an awareness of themselves, but a sort of emotionally confused conception of the cosmos, they would be prepare in advance. Probe their targets from afar, comb through their transmissions " natural and artificial " learn what drives them, and then drive them to their fuel cells.

Next time, they would be ready.

And here they were, on Earth.

Roger came out of his visionary trance. Sometime during the recall he had descended to his rear, with his trunk slumped forward. He didn't know if the cyber-mechanical aliens had run into other "advanced" civilizations prior to their arrival on Earth, nor did he care at this time, for the visions had drained him.

Anyway, they had gotten their approach down pat. Roger knew as the probe knew: the dominant species of this planet fell right into their clutches, willingly with eyes wide open yet carelessly unseeing.

You can do nothing.

"No," Roger agreed as he warily pushed himself to his feet. "You, your coldness, your kind, won."

He started to walk away, return to the bowels of the empty earth, a lonely man " inside and outside. But before he had gone too far, he stooped down, picked up a stone, and hurled it at the out-world structure. It fell far short, plopped into the water, creating a brief set of concentric ripples.

The thing never retaliated, maybe it couldn't ,wasn't designed to do so. Roger kept showing it his back and started the return journey down the side of the mountain. He'd have given it the finger " but what would be the point?

He was alone, beaten, but still perversely human.

After walking a bit, he started to formulate a new motivation, a guiding path. He'd seek out others, if they existed, and they would begin to build human society anew. This time, however, they'd be forewarned. And maybe in time and enough progress, they could warn others out there in the universe.

True, a bit more upbeat Roger admitted to himself, as he journeyed under a mild California sun, his thinking was way out. Hard to imagine it'd ever come true. Much like the varied belief systems the probes manipulated to the holders' undoing. But he had to have something greater than himself to carry on his journey through what could turn out to be a lonely, largely un-distracting life.

Pausing before the first cutback that began the long winding journey back to the roads below, taking in the sweeping view of eastern and rural San Diego County laid out before him " Roger knew he had no choice.

A man who lived for his own pleasure, his own self, wasn't just whistling past the graveyard, but right up to it. No, purpose with a capital P he'd have, only with a bit of tempering rational sense; so he'd not be misled like so many others had eager been:

They had pissed away everything, just for a brief walk down the primrose path.

FIN.

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