Authors: Jack L. Chalker
For my father, Lloyd Allen Chalker, Sr., who will never read it, and probably wouldn't like it anyway, and for my mother, Nancy Hopkins Chalker, who will but might not like it, in minor payment for letting a crazy kid Iike me have such weird habits and com-ing out a writer. No one who enjoys my books will ever know the contributions we all owe these two people.
A Del Rey Book
Published by Ballantine Books
Copyright © 1979 by Jack L. Chalker
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada, Limited, Toronto, Canada.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 79-84749 ISBN 0-345-27926-3
Manufactured in the United States of America First Edition: August 1979
Cover art by Darrell Sweet
Main Line +2076
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WHEN THE END OF THE WORLD IS NEAR, SPEND THE remaining time in a bar.
The little man looked out the slightly frosted win-dows of the bar and scowled. Although it was closer to noon than to evening time, it was dark out there, and there was a reddish color that made the scene more ominous. The frosting twisted; distorted, and bent the coloration, making it a deep, sparkling red wine.
That reminded the little man of what he had started out to do, and he turned back to the bar itself. "Another double," he ordered, his voice high and raspy, with a trace of accent that seemed to belong vaguely to Europe but to no particular language.
The double arrived and he surveyed it critically, sniffed at it, then started to sip. He looked around at the others in the bar.
Not many. The bar was near the University, but there were no classes now, hadn't been since The Accident. The only people still around these days were the ones working on research projects, trying desperately to find some way to stop or reverse what was happening, or, in the worst case, to cope with the terror that was rapidly approaching-too rapidly, the little man knew.
Some might survive, at least for a time. Some, but only a very few.
And only for a time.
Those others here-these few. He looked at them carefully. A couple of old drunks; several tired-looking middle-aged men and women, some in lab whites, sit-ting, not talking, trying to take some sort of break from nonstop work before they dropped. They'd be sleeping now, he knew, but for the fact that they were too tired to do even that.
Who could sleep now, anyway?
None of them fit, though. None were what he wanted, what he had to have. That disturbed him; he had been sending the summons out for days now, and there had been little or no response.
People who would do, who would fulfill his needs,
about here, somewhere. He could feel them, sense their auras-not per-fect, of course, but adequate.
He sighed, drained the double, and fumbled in his pocket. From it he brought a small object that seemed to blaze with a life of its own, a large precious jewel of absolute precision.
He put it in front of him on the bar and stared at it hard, stroking it with his right hand as if caressing a loved pet. The barman glanced over, looked curiously at the thing and the equally odd little man, and started to go over to him.
The man felt it, felt the disturbance. He slowly took his eyes off the gleaming jewel and stared at the bartender. The curious man suddenly had an odd expres-sion on his face, then turned to continue wiping the glasses. The little man returned to concentrating on the jewel.
His mind went out. Yes, he could feel them, Yin and Yang, male and female. Close by, so close, yet not here, not in proximity. He concentrated hard on them, locked in on them, called them hither.
Not perfect, no, but they would do. They would do -if they would just come to him.
A terrible, cold wind was sweeping through the streets of Reno, Nevada. The woman shivered and pulled her coat closer, trying to ward off some of the icy effects. It didn't help much.
She shouldn't be out in this, she knew. She shouldn't be anywhere near this place-and she didn't know why she was here now, or where she was going, either, yet she kept walking, kept fighting the wind and the cold, barely looking where she was going.
Her mind seemed fogged, slightly confused. She had resolved to end it by the sea, with the Pacific now lapping at the Sierra Nevada, and had prepared for it- yet she was here, in Reno, a mountainous desert that no longer had much of a purpose. Most of the people were gone, or huddling inside, or praying in churches for some sort of deliverance. Although she'd never been religious, she had considered joining them at the last. With all other hope gone, the church was the only thing left to cling to.
That was what she had started out to do, out from the fairly comfortable room in a now-deserted motel, out to find a nearby church.
And yet, now the church didn't seem so important any more. Only walking, making her way through the byways and back alleys of this low and spread-out city, going somewhere, it seemed, but she had no idea where. Her legs seemed to have a mind of their own.
The only traffic left now was some military vehicles making their way along streets where only the howls of lonely and deserted animals were heard and an oc-casional rat would scamper.
She rounded a corner and suddenly felt the full force of the strong wind; it bit into her, and she low-ered her head to try to protect her face from the new blast.
She wished she knew where she was going, and why.
He was a strong, strikingly handsome man dressed much like a lumberjack. He, too, had no idea why he was here. He had been going to New Zealand, he recalled. That was where they said the best chance would be. He had been ready to go, had gotten a corporate jet authorized, and gotten into his fancy sports car in Denver for a ride out to the airport.
But he hadn't gone to the airport, a short distance away. He had continued, as if in a dream, driving all-out like a maniac for this place a day ago.
And now he found himself wandering the cold, wind-blown streets strewn with litter and garbage and the remains of civilization in which nobody cares any more. Wandering, still not knowing why.
Wind whipped and buffeted him, and he pulled up his collar and wished idly that he'd thought to pack a ski mask. It was getting hard to see, like skiing without goggles.
He bumped into the woman before he saw her. It was a hard bump, and they both tumbled over and gave out oaths which, once composure returned, turned into mutual apologies.
Both were back on their feet so quickly that neither could offer the other assistance.
"Hey, look, I'm sorry," they both said at once, stopped, and laughed at their synchronisticity.
The woman suddenly stopped laughing and a strange look replaced that of mirth.
"You know," she said wonderingly, "that's the first time I've heard laughter since The Accident."
He was suddenly serious, too, and nodded for a moment. "I'm Mac Walters," he told her.
"Jill McCulloch," she responded.
He looked around. "Hey! It looks like that little bar is open over there! Let's get out of this crap and relax," he suggested, then added, "That is, unless you have something more important to do."
She chuckled dryly. "Does anybody these days? Lead on."
They quickly crossed and walked past the few' aban-doned storefronts down to the place. THE
LIGHTHOUSE, the small sign announced.
A blast of warmth greeted them as they entered and shut the door behind them. Electricity was getting to be an intermittent rarity; to find a place such as this, with everything working and all looking so normal, was like finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It couldn't exist, not in these times, but it did. They didn't question it, just found an empty booth and sat down, exhausted, across from each other.
The barman spotted them. "What'll it be, folks?" he called.
"Double bourbon and water," Walters called back, then looked over at the woman just now getting out of her heavy fur-lined coat.
She is damned good-looking,
"Scotch and water," she told him, and he relayed the order to the barman. The drinks were there in less than two minutes; in the meantime they just sat there, more or less looking at each other.
She was small-no more than one hundred and sixty centimeters, maybe shorter-but she seemed ex-ceptionally-solid? He struggled for a word.
he decided. Like a gymnast or a dancer.
Her hair was cut short and seemed just right for her face, a sexy oval that seemed somehow almost perfectly childlike.
She has green eyes,
he thought suddenly.
While surveying, he was being surveyed. He was a
man, not much under two meters in height, but there was no fat. He was in excellent condition, and his ruggedly handsome face was complemented by a rich, full red beard and long but professionally styled matching hair.
And while they looked at each other, they were in turn being looked over by a strange-looking little man sitting on a bar stool.
The woman seemed to sense his intrusion and turned to look at him for a moment. He averted her gaze and turned back to his drink, but he had caught the look in her eyes.
Haunted eyes. Both
of them. They know the score. They've given up hope.
The song oh the radio was over, and an announcer's voice was on.
"The massive flooding has pretty well wiped out the Midwest; the Great Plains are once again covered by a sea, as in prehistoric days," he told his rapidly dwindling listening audience.
"Refugee shelters were established but the panic in recent days blocked the highways, and the massive distances involved were too great for most. Like those in most lowland plains areas, the people were trapped with no place to go."
Chalk one up for Reno,
the little man thought smugly. No ocean was going to get between the Cas-cades and the Rockies, certainly not to this elevation.
He reached into his pocket for a cigarette, found an empty pack, and cursed under his breath.
Funny, these people,
he thought. Money was still important to them even when the world ended.
He sighed, got up, and went over to the slot machine, then fumbled in his pockets. Finally his hand seized on a quarter, his last. He put it in the machine, pulled the handle, and didn't even bother to look at the spinning wheels. There was
a chunk, chunk, chunk
of tumblers falling into locked places; it came up three bars and clinked ten quarters into the little tray. He scooped them up mechanically, went over to the cigarette machine, and fed four of them in.
It suddenly occurred to him that he could have done that with the cigarette machine and nobody would have cared or noticed.
Never do the obvious.
estimate the asteroid will strike within the next seventy-two to eighty-four hours," the radio was saying. "It is believed that some will survive the im-pact, even those not at a tangent to the strike area or its opposite position. Your local Civil Defense units will be giving instructions on impact and post-impact procedures. Please pick up these instructions and as-sociated equipment at local-disaster relief stations as soon as possible."
The little man chuckled. He knew the rules. The thing was being attracted to Earth like a bee to honey; it was on a dead-straight collision course, and it was picking up speed. There had been some talk that it might hit the Moon, but calculations quickly showed that a vain hope. Wouldn't have mattered, anyway, he knew. The rogue asteroid that was now looming in the sky, blocking heat and light and causing massive up-heavals in the Earth, wasn't any bigger than the Moon, anyway. A direct hit on the satellite, forcing it into the Earth, would have the same effect as the asteroid's strike.
The worst part of it was that they'd done it to themselves. A little glitch, that was all. A huge, juicy, fat rogue asteroid, coming very close to Earth. What a nice chance! Go up, discover that it has tremendous mineral resources on it-a treasure house, they called it. Headed toward the sun in an ill-fated parabolic orbit that would bring it too close to the burning orb. It would have been incinerated, all that wealth a waste. How nice instead to take the challenge to make it a new satellite of Earth, far enough out so that it didn't do much harm, of course, but close enough to be easily and cheaply worked by the plundered Earth.