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       After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall: A Novel, p.1

           Nancy Kress
 
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After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall: A Novel


  Praise for After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall

  “An ecological apocalypse so real that it’s like a three-dimensional object that can be viewed from all sides.”

  —Ted Kosmatka, author of The Helix Game and The Ascendant

  “Nancy Kress displays all her usual strengths in After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall: strong plotting, fast-paced action, complex and interesting characters, thought-provoking speculation. But there’s something more here: a beautiful meditation on the fate of the earth, an elegy, a warning—and a glimpse of hope.”

  —Lisa Goldstein, author of The Red Magician and The Uncertain Places

  “This is Nancy Kress in top form, but more importantly, this is SF done right. Here are big ideas about the environment and the future of humanity, married to an intimate story of family, community, and motherhood. With aliens and time travel to boot! I don’t know of another writer who balances the global and the personal with such skill. I inhaled this story, and was sorry for it to end.”

  —Daryl Gregory, author of Unpossible and The Devil’s Alphabet

  “This story, of the terrible choices people must make in the face of ecological catastrophe, asks wrenching questions—What does it take to remain human? What is survival worth?—and answers with the authority that Kress always brings to bear on both science and humanity.”

  —Nicola Griffith, author of Slow River and Always

  “The book is typical Kress, which means impossible to put down. A gripping tale of human survival.”

  —Jack McDevitt, author of Infinity Beach and Echo

  “After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall is the coming of age story for the human race. Nancy Kress has written a chillingly plausible tale of the end of the world.”

  —Mary Robinette Kowal, author of Shades of Milk and Honey

  After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall

  © 2012 by Nancy Kress

  This is a work of fiction. All events portrayed in this book are fictitious and any resemblance to real people or events is purely coincidental. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form without the express permission of the publisher.

  Cover & interior design by Elizabeth Story

  Tachyon Publications

  1459 18th Street #139

  San Francisco, CA 94107

  415.285.5615

  www.tachyonpublications.com

  [email protected]

  smart science fiction & fantasy

  Series Editor: Jacob Weisman

  Editor: Marty Halpern

  Project Editor: Jill Roberts

  ISBN 13: 978-1-61696-065-0

  ISBN 10: 1-61696-065-5

  First Edition: 2012

  Printed in the United States of America by Worzalla

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  AFTER THE FALL

  BEFORE THE FALL

  DURING THE FALL

  A NOVEL BY

  NANCY KRESS

  TACHYON / SAN FRANCISCO

  NOVEMBER 2013

  It wasn't dark and it wasn’t light. It wasn’t anything except cold. I’m dead, Pete thought, but of course he wasn’t. Every time he thought that, all the way back to his first time when McAllister had warned him: “The transition may seem to last forever.”

  Forever was twenty seconds on Pete’s wrister.

  Light returned, light the rosy pink of baby toes, and then Pete stood in a misty dawn. And gasped.

  It was so beautiful. A calm ocean, smooth and shiny as the floor of the Shell. A beach of white sand, rising in dunes dotted with clumps of grasses. Birds wheeled overhead. Their sharp, indignant cries grew louder as one of them dove into the waves and came up with a fish. Just like that. A fresh breeze tingled Pete’s nose with salt.

  This. All this. He hadn’t landed near the ocean before, although he’d seen pictures of it in one of Caity’s books. This—all destroyed by the Tesslies, gone forever.

  No time for hatred, not even old hatred grown fat and ripe as soy plants on the farm. McAllister’s instructions, repeated endlessly to all of them, echoed in Pete’s mind: “You have only ten minutes. Don’t linger anywhere.”

  The sand slipped under his shoes and got into the holes. He had to leave them, even though shoes were so hard to come by. Cursing, he ran clumsy and barefoot along the shoreline, his weak knee already aching and head bobbing on his spindly neck, toward the lone house emerging from the mist. The cold air seeped into his lungs and hurt them. He could see his breath.

  Seven minutes remained on his wrister.

  The house stood on a little rocky ridge rising from the dunes and jutting into the water. No lights in the windows. The back door was locked but McAllister had put their precious laser saw onto the wrister. (“If you lose it, I will kill you.”) Pete cut a neat, silent hole, reached in, and released the deadbolt.

  Five minutes.

  Dark stairs. A night light in the hallway. A bedroom with two sleeping forms, his arm thrown over her body, the window open to the sweet night air. Another bedroom with a single bed, the blanketed figure too long, shadowy clothes all over the floor. And at the end of the hallway, a bonanza.

  Two of them.

  Four minutes.

  The baby lay on its back, eyes closed in its bald head, little pink mouth sucking away on dreams. It had thrown off its blanket to expose a band of impossibly smooth skin between the plastic diaper and tiny shirt. Pete took precious seconds to unfasten a corner of the diaper, but he was already in love with the little hairless creature and would have been devastated if it were male. It was a girl. Carefully he hoisted her out of the crib and onto his shoulder, painfully holding her with one crooked arm. She didn’t wake.

  No doubt that the toddler was a girl. Glossy brown ringlets, pink pajamas printed with bunnies, a doll clutched in one chubby fist. When Pete reached for her, she woke, blinked, and shrieked.

  “No! Mommy! Dada! Cooommme! No!”

  Little brat!

  Pete grabbed her by the hand and dragged her off the low bed. That wrenched his misshapen shoulder and he nearly screamed. The child resisted, wailing like a typhoon. The baby woke and also screamed. Footsteps pounded down the hall.

  Ninety seconds.

  “McAllister!” Pete cried, although of course that did no good. McAllister couldn’t hear him. And ten minutes was fixed by the Tesslie machinery: no more, no less. McAllister couldn’t hurry the Grab.

  The parents pounded into the room. Pete couldn’t let go of either child. Pete shrieked louder than both of them—his only real strength was in his voice, did they but know it—the words Darlene had taught him: “Stop! I have a bomb!”

  They halted just inside the bedroom door, crashing into each other. She gasped: perhaps at the situation, perhaps at Pete. He knew what he must look like to them, a deformed fifteen-year-old with bobbly head.

  “Moommmeeeee!” the toddler wailed.

  “Bomb! Bomb!” Pete cried.

  Forty-five seconds.

  The father was a hero. He leaped forward. Pete staggered sideways with his burden of damp baby, but he didn’t let go of the toddler’s hand. Her father grabbed at her torso and Pete’s wrister shot a laser beam at him. The man was moving; the beam caught the side of his arm. The air sizzled with burning flesh and the father let go of his child.

  But for only a few precious seconds.

  Now the mother rushed forward. Pete dodged behind the low bed, nearly slipping on a pillow that had fallen to the floor. Both of them sprang again, the man’s face contorted with pain, and clutched at t
heir children. Pete fired the laser but his hold on the child had knocked the wrister slightly sideways and he missed. Frantically he began firing, the beams hitting the wall and then Pete’s own foot. The pain was astonishing. He screamed; the children screamed; the mother screamed and lunged.

  Five seconds.

  The father tore the little girl from Pete. Pete jerked out his bad arm, now in as much pain as his foot, as much pain as the man’s must be, and twined his fingers in the child’s hair. The mother slipped on a throw rug patterned with princesses and went down. But the father held on to the toddler and so did Pete, and—

  Grab.

  All four of them went through in a blaze of noise, of light, of stinking diapers and roasted flesh, of shoulder pain so intense that Pete had to struggle to stay conscious. He did, but not for long. Once under the Shell, he collapsed to the metal floor. The father, of course, was dead. The last thing Pete heard was both children, still wailing as if their world had ended.

  It had. From now on, they were with him and McAllister and the others. From now on, poor little devastated parentless miracles.

  MARCH 2014

  On the high plateau of the Brazilian state of Paraná, the arabica trees rustled in a gentle rain. Drops pattered off dark green, lance-shaped leaves, cascading down until they touched the soil. The coffee berries were small, not ready for harvest until the dry season, months away. At the far edge of the vast field, a fertilizer drove slowly among the rows of short, bushy trees, some of them fifty years old. A rabbit raced ahead of the advancing machinery.

  Deep underground, something happened.

  Nonmotile, rod-shaped bacteria clung to the roots of the coffee trees, as they had for millennia. The bacteria stuck to the roots by exuding a slime layer, where it fed on and decomposed plant matter into nutrients. In the surrounding soil other bacteria also flourished, carrying on their usual life processes. One of these was mitosis. During the reproductive division, plasmids were swapped between organisms, as widely promiscuous as all of their kind.

  A new bacterium appeared.

  Eventually it, too, began to divide, not too rapidly in the dry soil. By and by, another plasmid exchange took place, with a different bacterium. And so on, in an intricate chain, ending up with a plasmid swap with the nonmotile, rod-shaped root dweller. A mutation now existed that had never existed before. Such a thing happened all the time in nature—but not like this.

  Above ground, thunder rumbled, and the rain began to fall harder.

  NOVEMBER 2013

  The woman was hysterical. As she had every right to be, Julie thought. Julie laid her hand across her own belly, caught herself doing it, and removed the hand. Quickly she glanced around. No one had noticed. They all watched the woman, and all of them, even the female uniform, had the expressions that cops wore in the presence of hysterical victims: a mixture of stern pity and impatient disgust.

  “Ma’am…ma’am…if you could just calm down enough to tell us what happened…”

  “I told you! I told you!” The woman’s voice rose to a shriek. She wore a gaping bathrobe over a flimsy white nightdress, and her hair was so wild it looked as if she had torn out patches by the roots, like some grieving Biblical figure. Perhaps she had. A verse from Julie’s unwilling Temple childhood rose, unbidden, in her mind: “In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they were no more.”

  “Ma’am…shit. Get a doctor here with a sedative,” the “detective” said. He was a captain in this seaside town’s police. Julie had picked up from Gordon an FBI agent’s contempt for local law enforcement; she would have to rid herself of that, or else turn into as much of a machine as Gordon could be. She stepped forward.

  “May I try?”

  “No.” The captain glared; he hadn’t wanted her along in the first place. They never did. Julie stepped back into the shadows. Gordon would be here soon.

  The woman continued to wail and tear her hair. A uniform phoned for a doctor. In the bedroom the forensics team worked busily, and through the window Julie could see men fanning out across the beach, looking for clues. Had this mother drowned her infants? Buried them? Hidden them safe in baskets of bulrushes, a crazy latter-day Jochebed with two female versions of Moses? Julie knew better. She studied the room around her.

  Simple, classic North Atlantic beach cottage: white duck covers on the wicker furniture, sisal mats on the floor, light wood and pale colors. But the house had central heating and storm windows already in place; evidently the family lived here year-round. Bright toys spilled from a colorful box. Beside the sofa, a basket of magazines, TIME shouting: CAN THE PRESIDENT CONTROL CONGRESS? and THE DESERTIFICATION OF AFRICA. On the counter separating the kitchen from the living area, a homemade pie under a glass dome, next to a pile of fresh tomatoes, onions, zucchini. Everything orderly, prosperous, caring.

  Gordon strode through the door and went unerringly to the detective. “Captain Parsons? I’m Special Agent in Charge Gordon Fairford. We spoke on the phone.”

  Parsons said sourly, “No change from what I told.” On the sofa, the woman let out another air-splitting wail.

  “What do you think happened, Captain?” Gordon said. Whatever his private opinion, Gordon was always outwardly tactful with locals, who always resented both the tact and the FBI involvement. The eternal verities.

  Parsons said, “The husband took the kids, of course. Or they disposed of them together and he took a powder.”

  “Any signs of his leaving, with or without them?”

  “No,” Parsons said, with dislike.

  Nor would there be, Julie thought. Gordon went on extracting as much information from Parsons as he could, simultaneously smoothing over as much as possible of the inevitable turf war. Julie stopped listening. She waited until Parsons moved off and Gordon turned to her.

  He said, “This time your location forecast was closer.”

  “Not close enough.” If it had been, Gordon would have been at the beach house before the kids’ disappearance happened. As it was, he and she had only managed to be in the next town over. Not enough, not nearly enough.

  The woman on the couch had quieted slightly. Gordon said softly to Julie, “Go.”

  This was never supposed to be part of her job. She was the math wizard, the creator of algorithms, the transformer of raw data into useful predictions. But she and Gordon had been working closely together for over six months now, and he had discovered her other uses.

  No, no, not what I meant!

  Julie sat next to the sobbing woman, without touching her. “Mrs. Carter, I’m Julie Kahn. And I know you’re telling the truth about what happened to your husband and children.”

  The woman jerked as if she had been shot and fastened both hands on Julie’s arm. Her nails dug in, and her eyes bored silently into Julie’s face, wider and wilder than any eyes Julie had ever seen. She tried not to flinch.

  Julie said, “There was a flash of light when they were taken, wasn’t there? Very bright. Almost blinding.”

  “Yes!”

  “Tell me everything, from the beginning.”

  “Can you get them back? Can you? Can you?”

  No. “I don’t know.”

  “You must get them back!”

  “We’ll do what we can. Was it a short teenage boy with a wobbling head, as if the head were too big for his neck? Or was it a girl?”

  Mrs. Carter shuddered. “It was a demon!”

  Oh. It was going to be like that.

  “A demon from Hell and he has Jenny and Kara!” She began to wail again and tear her hair.

  Slowly, painfully, Julie extracted the story. It wasn’t much different from the others, except that this time there had been two children, and the husband had disappeared, too. Apparently he had been hanging onto one of the kids. Was that significant?

  How did you know what was significant when it was all unthinkable?

 
; Eight other children in the last year, all vanished without a trace, each taken from a different town on the Atlantic coast. Only three of the abductions had been witnessed, however, and one of those had not succeeded. The mother had beaten off the kidnapper—a young girl—before the perp vanished in a dazzlingly bright light. Or so the mother said. But children disappeared all the time, which is why the press had not yet gotten the larger story. But even the unwitnessed disappearances followed a pattern, and patterns were what Julie did. There were other incidents, too: mostly thefts from locked stores. She was less sure those fitted, and her algorithms had to weight for that. But the geographical pattern was there, if bizarrely nonlinear, and what kind of kidnapper was both smart enough to plan ten flawless abductions and stupid enough to leave any signature at all in their geography?

  Julie was not law enforcement. Gordon was, and they had discussed the question endlessly over the last months. Gordon’s answer: A psycho who wants to be caught.

  Julie had no answers. Only terrible fears.

  “It was a demon! A demon!” Mrs. Carter suddenly shrieked. “I want Ed and my kids back!” She tore out of the dune cottage, robe flapping and hair whipping around her ravaged face, as if she could find her husband and children on the cold beach. A cop leaped after her; she was of course a suspect.

  Julie wiped the blood off her arm where Mrs. Carter’s nails had pierced the skin. Did that mean she needed a tetanus shot? Was a tetanus shot even safe for her now?

  She crossed her arms over her belly and closed her eyes. When she opened them again, Gordon stood watching her.

  APRIL 2014

  The sun rose above the salt marsh on the Connecticut coast. The tide flowed gently out, toward the barrier island that sheltered the land. A light breeze ruffled the cordgrass, although the breeze was not strong enough to cause waves on the pearly water. A blue heron did disturb the water, landing on a mudflat to dip its long bill, searching for breakfast. A sea-pink bloomed on a raised hummock, turning its dome-shaped cluster of flowers toward the sun.

 
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