Carl got to the west-facing conference room on the 35th floor just in time to see the water coming back into the empty sound. It looked something like an almost-finished wave, filling in a muddy beach with a few inches of water, except this was a hundred feet of water and miles wide. It came in from the north, around Magnolia and into Elliott Bay, swelling up over the piers and the waterfront streets, a little higher, then no longer rising but still moving, flowing into Pioneer Square and the industrial area. Then it began dropping.
Around him the other people stared. Nobody wanted to be the first to speak, to seem insensitive by putting words to the event, like "Wow!" or "Do you think we can go home now?"
Then Carl said "You know it's not over."
"What do you mean?"
"It's going to go down and come up again, probably higher. Like ripples on the edge of a pond when you throw a rock in."
"We've got to warn them," Jenny said. Down on the streets, people were still standing around.
"I wish I knew how," Carl said. He noticed they were all looking down at his left hand, and he followed their eyes: He was still gripping the radio he had taken from the security guy. "Oh," he said, and looked at it numbly. "Does anyone know how to work this thing?"
"Here." Somebody handled it and it crackled with sound and voices. "Push this and talk."
Carl found it difficult even to talk on the telephone. He was terrified of making a mistake or sounding ridiculous. Without being able to see the people he was speaking to, he had no sense of how to fit the words in.
"Just tell them what you told us."
His thumb pressed the button. His voice trembled. "There's going to be another wave. Get the people higher."
Voices responded: "Who said that?" "Please identify."
"Shit." Carl looked at the others, his thumb off the button.
"Just tell them the truth."
"They won't believe me. I'm just an ordinary person. They want to hear it from an expert."
Someone reached for the radio but Carl pulled it back. "I've got it." He pushed the button. "My name is Professor Veer. I'm a geologist specializing in the effects of earthquakes. One of your men has given this to me so I can explain it. It's like a rock in a puddle. It's not one wave but ripples, and they can get bigger. There's going to be another wave."
Carl exhaled a great breath and sat leaning against the wall. Jenny sat close beside him. "You're more afraid of people than you are of this whole disaster."
"Of course. Rocks and water are simple. People are complex."
Down on the street, Sirach Pierce watched the water drop. It had come about halfway up the hill. It was full of debris, and here and there he saw limp bodies, or people still struggling to stay afloat. He was a poor swimmer and would certainly die if he went in. He could do nothing, but he refused to avert his eyes. Maybe, he thought, when the water goes back in the sound, if it leaves anyone, I can go down and do CPR. He had forgotten about looting.
The water was dropping quickly. It looked like it was going to go back below the normal level -- as if something was pulling it. And if it goes below, then...
"There's going to be another wave!" He heard the shouts faint in the distance. "Get away from the water."
He doubted the second wave would be bigger than the first -- he hadn't read anything about that. Still, he decided to get a little higher. First Avenue slopes gradually upward and north from Pioneer Square to Pike Place Market. But if he went any farther up First, he would go behind the Market buildings and be unable to watch. So he walked east, halfway up to Second and Union, and turned to look.
The water was lower than it had been before the first wave, and still dropping. He felt a surge of panic. I need to tear ass to the hill now
. He mounted the bike and heard a cry down at First.
How could he help anyone? The bike wouldn't hold a second person. But he hesitated. He began to hear a distant rumbling. Down at First, a woman appeared, heavy, staggering, trying to run but so exhausted she went only inches with each step. She was carrying a baby.
Around Magnolia came the wall of water. Sirach sped toward the woman. She held the baby out and he grabbed it with one hand while steering with the other, leaning to the right, around the corner and up First toward Pike.
He had grabbed the baby by the clothing on its back, and now he held it to his chest. It was difficult to steer with one hand. He didn't understand how he had made the corner. He should have wiped out. Behind him the roaring grew louder. Everything seemed lower pitch, and slowed down. At Pike the streets leveled and he wobbled and turned right, east. His bike was a singlespeed with a freewheel, so he didn't have to shift, and could powerfully accelerate, but his maximum speed was limited. That didn't matter here, where the streets now became choked with stopped cars.
Only a few seconds had passed since he had turned the corner, and he now became aware of what he had seen then out of the edge of his eye -- water, a brown swell like a rolling hill, beyond the rooftops of the Market. Ahead of him it was almost a half mile before the hill began. He was not going to make it.
He wouldn't have seen it if he hadn't been thinking about it earlier: Ahead of him was an armored car -- a very heavy vehicle with a high roof and a ladder going part way up the back.
As gently as he could, he tossed the baby on the roof and scrambled up. A second later the wave hit. It was fast and strong, but only about six feet high. Lighter vehicles were knocked aside but the armored car held. Water rushed up over the roof. Sirach braced himself, one foot in front and one behind, and held the baby with both hands.
The water was rising, wave on wave, over his ankles now, his knees. It felt like fording a powerful river. The current was slowing, or it would have swept him off. It reached his hips, his chest. He held the baby over his head and the water kept coming, slowing, rising. It was at his neck...
And it was still. And cold! Sirach shivered, straightened up, and for the first time, looked at the baby. He was pretty sure it was a girl, pale, red-haired, he couldn't tell how old. Strangely, she was not crying, but looking, fascinated, at all the water. "Well," he said to her, "that was a little too close."
Then the water rose again. It was flowing back toward the sound, and he saw with a shock that it was higher inland than it was here, the gentlest slope of frothy brown death going up Pike to Capitol Hill, and now, sliding down upon him. He took as many fast breaths as he could, to get oxygen in his blood, then one deep breath as the water covered him. Still holding the baby over his head, he lowered slightly and braced his weight against the expected current.
When relaxed, he could hold his breath for two minutes. Having just been active, he doubted he could go one minute. The water was still moving slowly, but already he felt that his feet were about to slide. He realized that under the water he was almost weightless. His body was naturally dense -- in swimming pools he could exhale and sink like a rock -- and he had the weight of his clothing, and the baby above the water, but still, if the current got a little faster it would sweep him away. It was getting faster.
There was only one chance. He pulled the baby to his chest and dropped, and with his free hand he grabbed the mirror assembly on the top rear corner of the armored car.
He did his best to cover the baby's nose and mouth, and held on as the current increased. The urge to breathe in the cold water was overwhelming. He focused his attention directly on the urge, on the pain of suffocation, and tried to relax every muscle but his arms. He grew dizzy and lost all sense of time. How long had he been like this? Seconds or years? Had he ever lived another life, before this world of cold tugging water and darkness? Strangely, past a point, holding his breath became easier. He felt euphoria, and knew he was very near death. Somewhere there was a light...
And then the water was gone, draining away behind him, and the light was not on the impossible back side of his field of vision, but there in front where it had been before, the harsh blue light of Earth. He gasped the strange barely-remembered air and found his feet under him, touching pavement, his legs barely holding him up in the knee-deep water. With dread, he looked at the baby.
She spat water in his face and giggled.
Up in the tower, Carl and Jenny watched the water rise and fall. Even hundreds of feet above it, Jenny felt a surge of horror when the second wave engulfed the base of the building. Carl's eyes could not dart around fast enough. He knew this was something few people in all of history would ever get to see, and he didn't want to miss any of it: the sight of the tops of low buildings vanishing under the water, the shifting alien coastline, and most of all the mesmerizing motion of the water itself, filling in the spaces, bouncing off the West Seattle peninsula in slow-motion fifty foot swells, making a miles-wide undulating nightmare landscape where it was usually just flat and blue.
The third wave was not even as big as the first, and by the fifth they both began to relax. Carl wondered if Jenny liked him. She was still sitting close to him, and had clutched his arm tightly when the second wave came. She wasn't his type, and he didn't feel physically attracted to her, but he felt drawn to keep hanging out with her, and with hardly any income or upper body muscles, he could hardly afford to be picky.
"What are you thinking?" Jenny said.
"Um, about where the asteroid hit, and what happened in the rest of the Pacific, like Japan or Hawaii."
"I was thinking about all the people still in trouble down there."
"We should probably go help them," Carl said.
"Should? Don't you want to?"
Carl weighed his words. "I'm not very emotional."
"So you just help people because you think you should?"
"I do the best I can with what I've got."
Jenny was at least impressed with his honesty. She was not attracted to Carl in any normal way, but she found him somehow compelling, and as the afternoon passed, and they helped out in the streets, she noticed that he was by far the most stable and grounded person there. Not that he was heroic or even decisive, but everyone else was in fight-or-flight mode or staring like an animal in the headlights, while Carl might as well have been on an easter egg hunt, not pulling dead and half-living bodies out of the waters of a global catastrophe. She felt a desire to stay close to him that was deeper and even stronger than sexual attraction. So she decided to tell him:
"I live down in the industrial area. I'm sure my building's been destroyed."
"Do you need a place to stay?"
Sirach found his bike a half block away. He looked in the backs of cars and spotted a blanket, and was about to kick the window in when it occurred to him that it might be unlocked. It was. He took the baby's wet clothes off, wrapped her in the dry blanket, and tucked her into one of his bike panniers, her head poking out so she could keep looking around.
He had decided that if an even bigger wave came, they were both just going to die. There is a limit to how much stress is worth survival. When he came to bodies, he turned them face up and moved on. That will at least give them a small chance, and it's more than the people up in the buildings are doing, still afraid to come down. But in a few minutes they did begin coming down, and he also saw people like himself, drenched and shivering, who had been in the water and survived. They looked awful and he realized that he must look at least that bad. A man offered him a sweater and he gladly put it on after dropping his own wet shirt in the gutter. He had made a mistake in not taking it off right away. Now he felt much better.
He was climbing First Hill, where the hospitals were, intending to drop the baby off and go home. But as he got closer to the hospitals, for the first time, she began to cry, and he quickly saw that this was no place to leave her. It was full of screaming and hurrying and dying, and a cold hungry baby would be so low priority that she would probably be stuck in a corner and forgotten for a day. I wouldn't want someone to leave me here, he thought, or leave me anywhere. He decided to take her home. She became quiet.
Sirach's home was a squat, an abandoned house in the Central District, two miles east and a little south of downtown. For now, he lived here alone, and he wondered which the tsunami would create more of -- new abandoned buildings or new homeless people to try to live in them.
He wheeled his bike through the back door, on which he had picked and then replaced the lock when he moved in. Inside were a mattress, a table, a propane stove, several water jugs, a shelf of food and a few piles of clothing. Beams of sunlight came in through cracks between the boards on the windows.
He set the baby on the bed, changed into dry clothes, and looked through the peaches he had found yesterday in the dumpster. One of them didn't even have a bruise, just a cosmetic flaw on the skin, and he mashed it with a fork and tried to feed it to her. She scrunched her face and kept her mouth closed. Strange, he thought -- she should be ravenous. Even if she was fed right before the wave, it's been... It's been only an hour! Is that possible?
He was more exhausted than he had ever been, and still shivering in the warm clothes. He ate the peach himself and two more, lay down under the blankets with the baby next to him, and slept.
When he woke up hours later in the darkness, she was gone.