AURORA TERMINUS GOES LIVE 7 APRIL 2018–4 WEEKS FROM TODAY! PREORDER COMING SOON!
Today, I’m revealing the cover and the synopsis, sharing the Author’s Note to provide some context for this story, and giving you Chapter One as a preview.
So, without further ado . . .
The end of the world came quietly, in a breathtaking display of light and color, while everyone stopped and watched, entranced.
And then the lights went out, and death and chaos took over.
A woman went up, high above the fray, and tried to build a life alone from what was left of the world that had been.
A man stayed down, in the midst of the turmoil, and tried to find a home in the world that had become.
But neither life nor home is possible until there is family, until love and trust and hope return.
Until then, there is only survival.
THE AUTHOR’S NOTE:
In July 2012, a huge solar flare—two massive explosions of plasma from the sun’s surface—barely missed a collision with Earth.
The scientific name for such an explosion is a “coronal mass ejection,” or CME. Events like these happen fairly often; they are the cause of the Northern Lights (aurora borealis) in the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Lights (aurora australis) in the Southern Hemisphere. Normally, the power of these eruptions causes nothing more than a lovely spectrum of dancing color in the night sky near the Earth’s poles.
But the solar storm in July 2012 was the most powerful in at least 150 years. Had those CMEs hit Earth’s atmosphere, rather than being a near miss, they would have caused a global cataclysm, likely knocking us instantly back to the 18th century, in terms of technology. For an excellent discussion of the implications if the 2012 storm had hit Earth, see:
Reading about this near-miss storm two years later, when it was first publicized (note the date on the linked article), I found myself transfixed by the idea of something so lovely—we dwellers on the fat part of Earth book expensive vacations to Scandinavia specifically to see the Northern Lights in their full glory—destroying the modern world in a blink, and doing it simply by unplugging us. Reading that the 2012 storm was so powerful because the two flares on that night traveled a path cleared by a smaller flare a few days earlier, I took a bit of creative license and imagined what would have happened if the storm had been even bigger, if even more CMEs had occurred in succession, hurtling toward Earth in the same chute, creating a storm long enough to encompass the entire planet.
This is the premise of the cataclysm that ends the modern world in the story you’re about to read: a beautiful, silent, natural, cosmic event.
AND CHAPTER ONE:
The sun was bright and the air was warm, with just a light waft of cool in the breeze, like a memory of the winter not long past. Already, while the last of the snow still stretched thin fingers to cling to the ground, the wide field had gone green with soft new growth, and the air swelled fat with the rich smells of tender shoots and damp, warming earth. The returning birds sang to each other, lifting occasionally into dancing sweeps through the air before settling in the tops of the trees.
A lone doe raised her sleek head and went still, but for the alert twitching of her ears. Perched in a tree some distance away, the woman looked down at her dog, waiting on a damp drift of old needles at the base, who’d made the noise—just a snap of her jaws, probably at a flitting insect, but enough to alert the doe. Now the dog was quiet, and after a few more seconds of reassuring stillness in the spring morning, the doe dipped her head and returned to her breakfast, nibbling daintily at the fresh leaves of a bush.
The woman in the tree eased her body carefully, changing her seat so that she could draw her bow. She hadn’t meant to shoot from the tree; she’d only climbed to get a good view of this field, but the doe was there, still winter-thin and alone, with no fawn to orphan, so she had to take this shot.
She’d learned over the years to hunt in the early morning, when the world was quiet and the animals were calm, and when she’d have the light of the whole day to butcher her kill and hang the meat and hide in her smokehouse.
Managing to move without alerting the doe again, once she felt stable enough on the thick bough of the ancient but dwindling fir, the woman pulled an arrow from her quiver—slowly, carefully, silently—and nocked it, then drew. A head shot was best, so the woman waited in readiness until the doe raised her head again, chewing.
The loosed arrow struck the doe just below her ear, and she fell into the grass with barely a sound. The dog, knowing her duty, leapt forward and ran to the kill. She stood over it as the woman worked her way back to the ground.
There had been a time, in a world growing thin in the woman’s memory, when she would never have been able to climb a tree, much less shoot an arrow true. But that world was dead, and that woman was gone. This woman had made her body learn the things it needed to learn, do the things it needed to do. This woman lived in this world. Alone.
Landing softly in a crouch on the ground, the woman stood and slung her bow over her back. She crossed the field to her kill, and to her dog who watched over it.
“Good girl, Fee. Okay,” she said, and the dog relaxed and trotted over to meet her, wagging her long, flagged black tail. The woman ruffled Fiona’s wide head and, with a particular wave of her hand, released the dog to do dog things. Tail wagging, Fiona dropped her nose to the ground and went exploring.
The woman watched after her, smiling, and then, with a quick but careful scan of the field and a lingering look along the tree line, she set her bow aside, pulled three blades from the holster on her thigh, and got on with the work of dressing her kill.
Field dressing an animal was another thing she’d had to learn in this world—and butchering it and smoking it as well. The woman she’d been before had fed herself at fast-food restaurants or with microwave meals. But microwaves and restaurants were of the past, and the woman understood food in a new way now. It was nothing to take for granted. A meal was precious. Now, she took life from lives she’d taken, or lives she’d grown, and she cherished the relationship as well as the sustenance.
Before she started, the woman eased the arrow out of the doe’s body and set it beside her bow. She was glad of the clean, quick kill, without suffering or fear. The death had been gentle, and the meat would be savory and would last for weeks. She stroked the warm body—such a beautiful animal. In this world, beauty abounded in every direction. The end had come, but quietly, even gracefully.
People had brought about the death and horror and destruction at the end of the world. Nature had simply carried on—and grown stronger.
When she closed her eyes, both hands on the soft shoulder of the doe, she didn’t pray. As far as the woman knew or cared, God, any god, had died with the world before. She simply took a moment and felt gratitude for the life she’d claimed and how it would sustain her own. It reminded her that she had no special place in this world, was due no particular consideration.
Rolling the doe to her back, the woman picked up her guthook and opened the belly, starting low and cutting shallow, to avoid opening the stomach. Cutting all the way to the sternum, she then set the hook aside and emptied the abdominal cavity. She’d kept the stomach intact, so the smell was no more unpleasant than any smell of blood—sharp, metallic, but not foul. Still, Fiona caught the scent, and turned toward the woman, then sniffed her way close, crouching low, showing respect. To the dog, the woman was the pack alpha, and she hoped her turn for meat would come.
She worked carefully, but also quickly, knowing that Fiona might not be the only creature drawn to the bloodscent. Since the old world had died, bountiful wildlife had returned, and the woman understood that she was nothing more than a link in the food chain now.
After removing the stomach and entrails, the woman took a heavy knife and cut through the doe’s sternum, making the way clear to take the heart and lungs. Then she used thick snips to cut through the pelvis and remove the bladder and remaining viscera.
When the doe was dressed, the woman gathered up the entrails and carried them away from the kill site, leaving an offering to the omnivorous and carnivorous creatures with whom she shared this mountain.
Hooking her arms under the doe’s forelegs, she hoisted the body and stood, embracing the animal, as the rest of the blood drained out. Then she laid the carcass on the ground, gathered up her tools, hooked her bow across her lower back, and heaved the animal over her shoulders. The dressed doe weighed maybe a hundred pounds, and the hike back to her homestead was just more than two miles. There had been a time when such a trek would have been far beyond her, but now the woman was strong.
Pursing her lips and making a kissing sound—whistling was one thing she hadn’t learned in this new world or in the old one—she called Fiona to her.
By the time the woman had the venison she meant to preserve salted and hanging in the smokehouse with the hide she would tan, the beautiful morning had aged into a beautiful evening. A glow rose up on the near horizon, courtesy of the pinking sun glinting off the lake nearby. A few early-rising spring peepers peeped at the shore, warming up for their evening chorus. The breeze’s morning kiss of chill came back for an evening caress, stirring the woman’s hair, which had sagged from its braid over the course of the day. Her hands still bloody, she used her wrist to push the tickling strands back and felt the smear of blood she left across her cheek.
No matter; she would wash after her meal, heating water while she fried her venison over open fire.
“We get tenderloin tonight, Fee. Sound good?”
Fiona had lain outside the smokehouse, her ears and eyes alert; now, she rose to her paws, swinging her tail happily back and forth. The woman crouched at her dog’s side and gave her a hug. Fiona licked the blood from her face.
The woman closed up the smokehouse and headed to the garden, and the dog followed, as ever. She’d only sown the garden a few days earlier, but she walked through the rows, while Fiona sat on her haunches outside the rough fence, and did a quick check for signs of sprouts. Then, with Fiona as her shadow, the woman finished her evening chores: she turned over the compost, checked on her worms, closed up the chickens.
“Okay, let’s get cookin’.” As the woman and her dog turned back to the cabin, the breeze kicked up a stronger gust, and carried on it a scent that stopped Fiona in her tracks. The dog lifted her big head and took a deep breath.
The woman tried to scent the air as well, but her human nose was no match. All she smelled was spring evening near a mountain lake—and blood and smoke and salt. But she gave the dog her full attention. More than once, Fiona had alerted to trouble, and more than once, that alert had saved the woman this life she had built after the end of the world.
Her heart sped up, but only to ready her body for fight. Fear no longer ruled the woman. She’d experienced the depth of horror man and nature could visit upon her, and she knew what she could survive, and how she could survive it. She knew the lengths she would go to protect the life she’d made.
She still wore her holster of knives. Now, she pulled the heavy blade and gripped it. She had guns, too; in her years on the mountain, she’d foraged well, for all sorts of supplies to make a life alone, but she had learned early that guns were loud and could draw even more trouble. She preferred a bow for range and a blade when danger was close. She preferred stealth.
Fiona walked forward, her body tense, her attention focused on the path to the lake.
Casting a glance at the cabin, the woman wondered if she should go in for her axe. A Viking axe. Once, that axe had been a decorative piece, purchased at a Renaissance Faire, in a world that had had time for such things. But it was an authentic piece, made in the true style of the Vikings, its sharp blade Damascus steel. In this world, it had become a weapon.
Then Fiona’s tail began to wag again, and the woman relaxed. Another minute later, she heard a gruff rumble she knew well, and a large, shaggy, dripping-wet black bear lumbered over the rise. Shrek. Fiona barked a greeting and bolted forward, meeting the bear halfway to the cabin. The large dog leapt at the larger bear, and they both rolled over, doing the wrestling routine that was their friendly hug.
Smiling now, the woman sheathed her knife and went into the cabin. She’d make dinner for three tonight.
“Here. Last bits.”
The woman tossed the final hunks of cooked venison at the bear and the dog. Fiona caught hers, but Shrek missed, and his landed on the ground between his monstrous paws. Fiona tried to snag it before he could, but he knocked her ass-over-teakettle, with a grunt and a swing of a paw, and snapped the meat up.
Ass over teakettle. What a strange phrase. A favorite of her grandmother’s, in the world before. The woman paused to wonder how it had come into being.
Fiona got up and shook off whatever pains Shrek had caused her. When she went back to him, he gave her a rough snuffle, making sure she was okay. She licked his snout. Then they both sat on their haunches and stared at the woman.
She laughed and stood up from her chair beside the fire pit, in the little yard behind the cabin. “I told you, that was it. Dinner’s over. Unless you want to help me wash up, why don’t you go play.”
Shrek rose up on his haunches and paddled his forepaws before him. He flapped his lips.
“Nope.” She waved her hand side to side, and the bear put his paws down. “Sorry, bud. All done. Go play, you two.” She made the sign they both understood.
The animal friends got up and ambled off together. The woman knew they wouldn’t go far. Fiona never left sight of the homestead unless the woman was with her, and Shrek never tried to lead her away.
That night, after Shrek had gone off to his sleeping place, wherever that was, and Fiona was settled on her pad beside the woman’s bed, after the woman had washed in fire-heated water and put on fresh clothes, she sat in her cabin, in an upholstered chair that had once been her father’s and, by the low, quietly hissing light of a Coleman kerosene lantern, scanned through her diaries, looking for the memory she wanted.
When she’d first come to the mountain, she’d been cavalier about her note-taking, writing pages a day, in the large, round handwriting that had been hers in the world before. She’d started out as if she’d had a correspondent, writing her entries like letters to a friend, signing her name to every one. But after the first year, she’d seen how quickly she was going through writing supplies, and by then, she’d foraged enough to understand how short her range was for a day’s travel and to realize that someday there would be nothing left but what she could grow and craft. Someday, there would be no more paper, no more ink.
After that, she made her handwriting as small as she could and only took brief notes of each day’s main events, and, when she had a memory she wanted to keep, she wrote only its skeleton, trusting her mind to be able to conjure it when prompted.
And she never signed her name now. Her name had become alien to her, disconnected from her self-awareness, a dead thing from a dead world.
She hadn’t heard it spoken in five years.
Living all this time alone, with only her dog, and a bear, and her own thoughts, the woman feared losing her reason the same way she’d lost her name. Having done research in the world before about the psychology of isolation, she’d known to expect it, and to guard against it. She’d begun right away, keeping notes of her new life and writing down memories of her old to relive. But time worked its way, regardless, and the past had become another woman’s life.
Still, of all the things she’d studied in the world before, all the ways that study had helped her in this world, the woman thought that single idea—to keep writing, to keep remembering—had been the best. She was no longer the woman she’d been, she barely felt that past as her own, but she was still human, and she was still rational, despite everything.
Despite what lay inside the earth at the bottom of the ravine.
At first, when she’d written those long, round letters, she’d kept track of the date as well, but over the years, she’d had occasions of lost time, and she could only make educated guesses now, based on the weather and the position of the sun, about the time of year.
In her current journal, she made her skeletal, microscopic notes for this day, fitting everything into two lines on the page: Sunny, clear. Temp. ~70F. Took a doe, good kill. Good meat in smoker, good hide. No sprouts yet in garden. Chickens healthy, all 5 laid. Food: 2 eggs. Last of rabbit stew. Venison steak, fried. Bread. Green beans. Canned stores low but okay for now. Shrek was here.
Finished with her notes, she picked up the old book and found the passage she’d sought earlier, written in the expansive narrative and space-and-ink-wasting handwriting of her previous self.
Wednesday, June 8th
3 months and 4 days since the end.
Someday, maybe I won’t care anymore what the date is. Maybe calendars will be irrelevant someday. Maybe they already are. As the weeks stack up, it looks like everything I thought would be, is. This truly is the end of the world.
So far, no one has come this far up the mountain. I hiked down far yesterday—too far, and had to stay in one of the empty houses overnight. I didn’t get much sleep, but not because I was afraid someone would hurt me. The opposite, actually—there was nobody around at all. I made it all the way down to Hatterville, that weird little town Dad always called Hippieville, but it was totally empty. I know for a fact that there were a lot of people there who lived off the grid, and they should have been fine, like me, but there was nobody.
There weren’t even many bodies—they weren’t piled up in the gutters like in Pinon Valley, for sure. There was a decomposing man in the back room of the organic market, and there was a couple in one of the houses with bullet holes in their heads. A murder-suicide, or a suicide pact, something like that. Can’t be sure—no weapons around—so maybe somebody just up and killed them. They weren’t badly decomposed yet. They smelled, but they’d been dead maybe a week only. Otherwise, the town was totally deserted. Like someone had rounded everybody up.
That scared me for a while, and I walked around for an hour with my axe cocked, until my shoulders were killing me. I really need to get stronger. But there wasn’t anybody around. Whoever killed that couple, or at least took the gun that killed them, was gone, with the whole rest of the town. It wigged me out.
The town was pretty picked over, but I made a good haul, I think. Nobody ever takes books, and that’s just stupid. At the bookstore, I found a book on curing meat. It even has instructions for building a smokehouse, though I don’t know if I’m up to that kind of work. I guess I’d have to cut the wood myself. Could I cut down a whole tree? And turn it into boards? I don’t know. But I also found a little book on how to dress and butcher large game. (And learned that pulling out all its organs is called “dressing” it, and now Thanksgiving dinners and turkey dressing retroactively feel extremely weird to me. Not that I’ll ever have another Thanksgiving dinner.)
Anyway, found some very helpful books, and some novels that look good—all paperbacks, hallelujah—and a stack of blank journal books—Moleskines!—and boxes of pens. Plus a few canned goods and seasonings. Not a bad haul, though I wish I’d had something more than a couple of packs to carry things back up with. It’s too long a hike for one day, especially on the way back up. I was useless when I got back tonight. I don’t know when or if I’ll get back there, and I left a lot of good stuff behind.
But the best part!! When I got home, OMG!! There was a little bear cub, just the tiniest little guy, on the front steps, trying to get into the cabin. I could hear Fiona on the other side of the door, trying to get out. At first I was scared, expecting a very angry mama bear to come charging at me, but it was almost dark, and he was crying so pathetically, and I didn’t know what to do.
What I did was probably super stupid, but he’s just such a baby I couldn’t help it. It turned out okay when I found Fiona, right? Okay, yeah, she’s a puppy, so apples and oranges and all that. But she’s almost as big as a bear. No lie, young as she is, she’s as big as the cub. Who I’m calling Shrek because obviously. They’re sleeping together on her pad, side by side, nose to nose, and it’s so cute I could die. I think I have a pet bear cub. Unless his mama shows up. Then I just hope she doesn’t tear the wall off the cabin and kill me. But if he’s an orphan, he’s welcome to join this little orphan pack.
I hope he’s weaned. I don’t know how I’m going to give him milk if that’s what he needs. Milk is the one problem I haven’t figured out. Well, the one problem I know of so far. Everything else, I’m learning. Hell, maybe I’m even going to be able to smoke my own meat. Which would be great because I am already very sick of fish.
It’s only been a few months, but being constantly alone is harder than I expected, even with all the stuff I read about it before. Lately, my mind gets wonky sometimes. I hoped that things would settle down after the panic, and the world would find its feet again, but I don’t think that happened. Maybe it never will. Maybe I’m going to be up on this mountain alone until I die. That scares the hell out of me.
In these last couple of weeks, finding Fiona and now Shrek, it feels like the universe is trying to give me a family. That makes me a little less scared.
Okay. If I don’t get eaten by an angry mama bear tonight, I’ll write more tomorrow.
Formerly of Los Gatos, California.
Aurora Terminus © 2017 S.E. Fanetti