Sirach felt all around the mattress, then with a candle and a flashlight looked around the room and inside his piles of clothing. He wasn't worried -- she couldn't get out of the house, and at her age she should barely be able to move herself at all. Did I dream the baby?
There, in the corner, on the floor, was a sliver of blackness. He remembered now that there was a hole in the floor, which he had covered with a piece of plywood. Now it was half off the hole. Was it possible the baby had moved it and fallen through?
The hole was just big enough for him to get his head and one shoulder and arm through. He shined the flashlight down and saw only the empty space under the house, dry dust on black plastic covering the ground -- dust that should leave a trail. After looking for a minute, he could make it out: She had gone toward the back of the house, where there was an opening into the back yard.
Outside the moon was high and white. Strange, he thought, that it isn't yellow or red from asteroid dust. From its phase and position he estimated that it was midnight. He kept the flashlight off and let his eyes adjust. Was that a trail through the long grass? Possibly. It occurred to him that, for a baby, this was an epic journey, like an adult walking across a continent. Why had she made it?
Against the back fence was a pile of old furniture and junk, overgrown with blackberries. Sirach got down on his belly and shined the flashlight in, and there was the largest raccoon he had ever seen, lying on her side, with two raccoon cubs and a tiny naked human suckling at her teats.
"Jesus Christ," he said. "You're not a normal baby."
By the time Mariana got to the south end of the U-district, the big wave had already passed. It had rolled over the Ballard locks and up the ship canal to Lake Union, where it had lost a lot of volume, so what was left to go through Portage Bay and the Montlake cut was only 10-20 feet. There were far more helpers than people in need of help. It was almost like a party, except for the overhanging knowledge of the terrible death on Puget Sound, not to mention the Pacific itself. She heard rumors that San Francisco or Honolulu had been completely swept away, and finally she went home to find out what the TV said.
Freejohn was already watching it. "I cannot believe how infantile television news is," he said. "Now I know why I don't own a TV."
"That's not why."
"You don't own a TV," she said, "because it's too strong for you. It's totally got you in alpha state."
"It does not."
"I can see your glazed eyes from here. How long can you practice awareness of your attention while you're watching it?"
"I bet you five bucks you can't turn it off."
Freejohn marched over and switched the set off. A shudder ran through him. "There. See?"
She took out a five and gave it to him.
"Can I turn it back on?"
"I proved I'm stronger. Now I want to see news of the disaster."
"OK," she said. "But if you fall asleep watching it, and I have to get up and switch it off, you owe me fifty bucks."
She got ready for bed and left him on the couch. In the morning he didn't have $50, so he gave her the five back and they went to the cash machine for the rest.
"Hey," he said, "you saved my butt at the store. Thanks. If you ever need a favor, you've got my number."
She took the fifty to a bike shop in Fremont and bartered with the manager to get a used road bike marked at a hundred but now dipped in muddy salt water, plus a helmet and a cheap lock. Then she rode up to Capitol Hill to a locally owned natural food store, and poured the goldenseal into their nearly empty bulk container when no one was looking. Then she rode home to check the news.
San Francisco had not been washed away. The asteroid had hit north, almost at the Aleutians, so the wave had had a straight shot into Puget Sound; the waves on the Pacific had been only a little bigger. It looked like the global death toll would be around ten million.
Apparently a couple people downtown had saved a lot of lives. One was a mysterious "Professor Veer" who had somehow foreseen the larger second wave and warned people through an enigmatic transmission. The other was a security guard who had led 40 people up the stairwell of one of the office towers. They interviewed him, a big guy with an ugly bruise on his neck, saying "A tsunami can't knock down a steel-framed building. I figured, this building is higher than First Hill. What better place to go?"
Mariana was humbled. She thought, I didn't save a single life and look what those two guys did. I wonder what they're doing right now.
Carl was up in his room, in a cheap rooming house in the Central District, playing his favorite classic PC game, Heroes of Might and Magic II. To fight phoenixes, he was thinking, I should just take a big stack of iron golems. He heard Jenny come in behind him and quit the game.
"It's OK," she said. "You can keep playing."
"That would be insulting, to keep my attention on an artificial world when there's a real person in the room."
"My parents did it all the time with the TV."
"I didn't mean..."
"No, you're right." She imagined what it would have been like if her parents had instantly turned their attention away from the TV when she came in. "It's nice. Thanks. And it's nice of you to let me stay here."
"It's not too small?"
She understood the implication if Carl did not: He would like her to keep staying.
"No. It's fine."
The room was furnished only with a bed, a desk, some bookshelves, and two chairs. Last night they had both slept in the bed with their clothes on. That was enough to make Carl very much attracted to Jenny now, but he had no idea how she felt and didn't want to embarrass himself by showing he was interested if she wasn't. She had made up her mind to be with him, and could see him coming around, but she didn't want to be so aggressive that she scared him off. Instinctively, she now sat in the other chair on the far side of the bed, by the window.
"So, you went to your old place," Carl said.
"Washed away?" He moved closer to her, from the computer chair to the bed.
"Mostly collapsed. And the whole area's still under a foot of water."
"Your stuff's lost?"
"Yeah. My sculptures are still there."
"You do sculptures? What kind?"
"Cool." Carl was impressed. "Do you need a place to put them?"
"The landlady wouldn't let you put them in our yard, but you can put them in the yard of the abandoned house next door, and then..."
He felt his face get hot. "I mean, if you're going to stay here longer, you can have them right here to look at."
She moved to the bed next to him, not too close. "You want me to stay longer?"
"No, I do!" Shit, he thought, I blew it.
"Thanks. I'd like to stay."
Carl's eyes widened. She just sat looking at him. He was terribly nervous, and she thought he wanted to kiss her. She was in no hurry, and waited to see what he would do. But he just sat there in agony, unwilling to lose the moment and unable to do anything with it.
Finally she could no longer stand to watch him suffer, and decided to throw him something.
"You stayed on your own side last night. Was that out of politeness?"
Carl took a long time to answer. "Uncertainty."
"Are you more certain now?"
Jenny felt an enormous pull between them, and wondered what Carl had in him that was holding him back. He felt like he was on the edge of the Grand Canyon, being asked to jump across. Damn, Jenny thought, am I going to have to do everything? She touched his hand.
Carl had been in this spot only a few times, and having done it right once did not seem to make the next time any easier. It was at moments like this that he directly experienced the reality of free will. He was balanced on the edge of a knife, with absolute power to make either choice, and absolute dreadful responsibility, one lonely moment carrying the weight of the whole future of the Universe. As if pushing through a powerful force field, pushing through the screaming resistance of every instinct and habit, he leaned forward to kiss her.
Later, after dark, they lay nestled together under the covers. "What are you thinking?" Carl said.
Jenny had been thinking that, in her somewhat limited experience, guys like Carl, with less ambition, have bigger dicks. "Nothing," she said. "How about you?"
"I was thinking, with all the water, the dampness around the Pacific rim, there's probably going to be a plague."