Carl Dinkman was making photocopies on the 11th floor of an office tower in downtown Seattle when he heard that an asteroid had hit the Pacific Ocean. His first thought was of the video game Asteroids, in his opinion the greatest of the classic arcade games. He wondered if it was a big, medium, or small asteroid.
The photocopier was 150 copies into a run of 600. He pressed the "cancel" button. At the very least, he thought, I'll get the rest of the day off, and I will possibly be killed.
More people were getting the news on their cell phones now, and going to each other's cubicles and talking. He heard the words "asteroid" and "tsunami" and "evacuate." No one would tell Carl -- he was a temp. Wait -- here comes someone. It was his supervisor, the only person whose job it was to know his name. It was nice of her to talk to him.
"Carl," she said, speaking slowly and seriously as if explaining a difficult concept to a child. "An asteroid has hit the Pacific Ocean. It's going to make a big wave. We need to evacuate the building."
Now at last Carl thought it through. She probably thought he was struggling, in his small $9.50 an hour brain, to understand the concept of "wave." He said "Any wave big enough to take down this building will kill everyone in the streets too. This building's taller than First Hill. We're safer going to the top."
For a moment, her face looked alive and uncertain, as if she was going to consider his words. Then it slipped back. "The orders are to evacuate the building."
"OK," Carl said. He walked through the office, and after glancing to see that no one was looking, ducked into a darkened conference room and hid behind a big box.
Hiding, he listened to the people clearing out. A voice came out of a public address system. "Attention. Everyone must proceed to the stairwells and evacuate the building. Do not remain in the building. Everyone must proceed to the stairwells."
Just once, Carl thought, I'd like to hear them say "go" to the stairwells. He thought, their fancy words are like a magic spell to make us do what they say. If they said "go," some of us would snap out of the trance and realize we have a choice.
When the office had been silent for a few minutes, Carl slipped out and got his backpack. He went to the refrigerator and grabbed all the sandwiches, juice, and take-out cartons that people had left. Then he crept out into the hallway.
He turned a corner and found himself face to face with another person. He jumped a foot in the air. She was someone he didn't recognize, young, a bit short and heavy, dark-skinned, bright-eyed. He decided to trust her.
"I'm staying in the building," he said.
"Good," she said. "Me too."
"We should go up."
In the USA at this time, all stairwell doors in corporate office buildings were one way: one way in on the floors, and one way out in the lobby. They could go into the stairwell, but then they could get out only by going down. They both knew this.
"Do you have a stairwell card key?" Carl said.
"No. I'm a temp."
"We need to block this door open, in case we have to come back, but we should go up and see if there's anyone on a higher floor who will let us in."
"There are still people coming down," she said. "I can hear them."
"Then let's wait."
"They might be bigger than us, and force us to go down."
"Don't be silly," she said, and opened the door.
A big guy with a security badge was coming down the flight in front of them, and stared at them in surprise. "What are you doing still here?" he drawled. "Come on."
"We're staying in the building," she said.
"The hell you are!"
Carl spoke. "Tsunamis don't have the force to knock down a steel-framed building. It's like the water just rises really fast. The top of this building is higher than First Hill. Where else are people going to go?"
The guy ignored Carl and spoke loudly over him. "The orders are to vacate the building."
Now Carl said what he wished he had said to his boss. "This isn't the military. We're staying."
The security man pulled the radio from his belt and raised it to his mouth, and the girl hit him hard in the throat, with good follow-through. He staggered back and then fell to his hands and knees, choking. Carl grabbed the radio, and they stumbled back through the door and slammed it.
"Holy shit!" Carl said. "We've got to run. The other stairwell!"
"He can't chase us," she said, and held up a white card. "The master card key, I hope."
"My name's Carl."
They hurried to the other stairwell. Just inside, they checked the card key before letting the door close behind them, and heard the mechanism click. It worked. They climbed.
Now they noticed other footsteps, above, below, ascending, descending. Carl felt the urge to open one of the floors and hide, but Jenny kept going. On 15 they met an old woman hobbling down, her breath wheezing. She said "You're going up?"
"We think it's safer inside the building," Carl said.
"I was wondering." She sat down on a landing. "Then I'm not going any farther. I'm tired."
"Are you sure?" said Jenny.
"You go on. If I hear the water rushing in I'll chase you up."
They went on. By the 23rd floor they had gathered six other people, and by 30 they were more than a dozen. "How high should we go?" someone asked.
Carl said, "The important thing is to have a view west. If we're not high enough, we'll probably see it in time to go higher."
"Yes." Carl stopped. "Look, if it's a thousand foot breaker we're all going to die no matter what we do, but tsunamis are normally like a very fast sequence of extreme tides. We'll be able to see the water rising and maybe guess how high it's going to get. Plus, I just want to watch it."
Someone murmured, "What nobody wanted to say."
A thin quiet woman spoke. "I'm working on 35. There's a conference room with a western view, and a lot of food. We had a party."
"Do you have a card key?" someone asked.
"No. I was hoping..."
"I do," Jenny said.
"Wait," said Carl, looking around. "Is anyone here not a temp?"
She called herself Mariana Trench, after the deepest part of the ocean, but she had the kind of face people draw when they personify the sun -- round and placid, with full lips and heavy eyelids and wild bleached yellow hair pulled back from her forehead. She had a quarter-time high-tip waitress job to pay the rent, and spent most of her free time watching TV and practicing magick. And when she heard that an asteroid had hit the Pacific, she went immediately to loot the corporate natural food store.
It was a cool, sunny June day. This part of the city was probably safe from a tsunami, and if not, there was little she could do. The store was only ten blocks away, a local branch of a nationwide chain of somewhat natural and very expensive supermarkets. She figured by the time she got there, the panic would have set in but the good stuff wouldn't be gone yet.
Outside the store were two cops, not letting anyone take their bags in. She stashed hers in a bush and strolled inside, and they didn't even glance at her. She was dressed conventionally enough and had her best invisibility on -- people's eyes see you but you lull their mind into ignoring you. But she wasn't nearly good enough to just march out with a basket full of groceries, not with them watching for it. Inside the store the workers were all making sure everyone went through the checkout lines to get to the exit.
"Sixteen crucified saviors," she muttered. These people's mothers are about to drown and here they are protecting a faceless corporation's wealth for $7.50 an hour. She stood gaping at the spectacle, as if it was some absurd fairy vision that any moment would break down into people with armfuls of food running screaming for the exits. But still there they were, lining up, scanning bar codes, punching in debit card numbers.
Time to move. She picked up two baskets and went up the supplement aisle, taking only one or two each of the most useful and expensive herbs. In the bulk section, yes, there it was, a nearly full container of $150 a pound goldenseal. She deftly removed the lid and dumped the whole load into a plastic bag.
Nobody was back here watching -- they were all at the front. She focused her mind and moved her hands quickly: some more bulk herbs and spices, dried seaweed, back to the supplements for propolis, over to the dried mushrooms, across to the wine section, but not too fast -- wait! Running is contagious and will hasten the inevitable run for the exits. She ran. In the wine section she picked out a single $65 bottle of port, and by then everyone was running, so she walked. She walked down the frozen aisle and pulled out one chocolate rice bar, unwrapped it, and ate it as she walked.
At the front now it was chaos. Mariana maneuvered her two baskets through the milling, shoving, shouting people, took out two double paper bags, and bagged her groceries. "Thanks for helping," said the official bagger, a teenage girl who was nervous almost to tears, her hands still frantically automatically bagging. Mariana looked in her eyes and said one word. "Go." But she didn't.
Outside there were now four cops, clubs out, blocking the people who ran out carrying store baskets. Mariana walked out carrying bags and again they never glanced at her. A safe distance away, she felt compelled to stand watching. These people were too high class for the police to be clubbing. They knew their job. They were just waiting for someone young or poor or dark enough to run out.
What's this? A guy's yelling at the cops. Fortyish, sandy-haired, a little beard, wire-rimmed glasses, stiff posture and a whiny voice. A white liberal caricature. "You should be saving lives!" he's saying. "Shame on you! You call yourselves..."
It was too painful for Mariana to watch. She set her bags down, walked up to the guy, and spun him around just as the cops were about to take him down. "Property's more important than people, " she hissed. "What country do you think this is, Freeloadia?"
He pulled back his hand to slap her, and she winked.
He stopped dead. She grabbed his arm and tugged him after her. "We need to go honey. Sorry, officers!"
She was physically not quite as strong as him, but she was willing to use her full strength and he was not, so she easily steered him back into the parking lot, out of the hearing of the cops.
"You dumbshit," she said. "They were about to crack your head."
"But someone needs to say it. This is insane!"
"I don't believe you. Did you just time warp here from Xanadu?" She went and picked up her groceries and carried them over to where she had left her bag, and started transferring the stuff.
"I don't know how to take you," he said. "Do you agree with them, or are you extremely cynical? Holy mother of God! Is that goldenseal?"
"It is! How much did you pay for..." He looked at the store, back at her. "You..." he sputtered. "That's not right!"
Genuinely surprised, Mariana burst out laughing.
He was going to say something else, but she laughed for a long time, and he forgot it, and noticed himself standing in a parking lot of a store being looted, surrounded by running shouting people, a giant wave coming, and a strange woman laughing at him. He found himself floating loose from his former reality: I'm on a rock in space, and another rock has hit it, and this all might be washed away by a wall of water or buried under a foot of ash, and what is all this? What's this hard black stuff on the ground and these yellow lines and these metal contraptions people ride in? Why have we covered our bodies with colored fabric, and why are we getting our food by going inside that giant box? My God, how long have I been in this ridiculous world?
"Hey," she said, "I know you!"
Only another minute and it will all be erased by the merciful water.
"You used to have that cable access show. You're that new age guy. What was your name?..."
Flowers will grow out of the mud and bones.
He mumbled, "That was only a role."
"Sure, if that was your real name even other new age people would beat you up. I thought your show was a parody at first. But I liked it. I learned how to make herbal salves... Hey, are you all right?" She stood in front of him and tried to catch his gaze. "What's your real name? Where do you live?"
"Shit." She pulled out his wallet. "Your name is John Sanderson. You live in West Seattle. We're in the U-district. You're not going to get home tonight."
"All this will pass away."
"But not just yet. Come on."
She led him through the streets to her apartment. The traffic was barely moving. People were abandoning cars and going on foot, and then whole lanes were stuck and had to be abandoned. Other drivers tried the side streets, which then became jammed when cars couldn't get back onto the arterials. Pedestrians were walking among the stopped cars in the middles of streets to avoid the cars driving on the sidewalks.
Bicycles were going full speed everywhere. They saw a guy on foot knock another guy off his bike and try to steal it, but the seat post was too high and his feet couldn't reach the bottom range of the pedals. He fell over and the other guy kicked him in the head and took the bike back. Next thing I do, thought Mariana, is get a bicycle. She had always considered it too undignified, preferring to walk and bus, but clearly it was time to let that go.
In the apartment she left Freejohn and went out to try to be helpful. Why couldn't I have a good
man in my apartment, she thought. Is there a man in this city who's not a thug or a wimp?
Sirach* Pierce had been anticipating the catastrophic fall of civilization for years. When he heard about the asteroid, he felt bitterly disappointed. Now everyone will think the system only fell because of an act of God. They'll all forget about the near-extermination of nature, the numb horror of industrialized existence, and imagine that their system could have lasted forever if it hadn't been for the asteroid. Now they'll never learn!
*[rhymes with hijack]
He was in the downtown library on the internet, using the second of his three library accounts to read an article about using laser pointers to temporarily blind surveillance cameras (link)
. In the minutes between the first word of the impact and the evacuation of the building, he checked an asteroid watch site, which said nothing, and a weather site with a real-time satellite view of the North Pacific. Of course it was down. The same reason, he thought, that the internet traffic cams are always down during street protests: ordinary people are not to be trusted with information that's actually useful.
As he filed out of the building with the others, he reasoned that it had to be a small asteroid. If it was big, they would have seen it coming. But then, if they saw a big one coming, they would never tell the public. He had in fact read an article about a leaked memo that explicitly admitted that policy. So it could be anything.
Seattle has a waterfront, and then a steep hill, maybe 100 feet, up to Pike Place Market and downtown. Beyond downtown to the east are First Hill and Capitol Hill. Sirach thought about the three transmission towers on top of Capitol Hill, and the three to the northwest on top of Queen Anne Hill. If this was a thousand foot wall of water, the only way to survive would be to climb one of those towers. He had a bicycle and could probably make it.
But if I climb that close, he thought, the radiation will probably fry me. And if this is just a normal tsunami, like from a major earthquake, it'll just get the waterfront, and the low areas to the south, and I'm already safe. In that case, I should take advantage of the chaos.
He had come to his bike now and stood thinking: How can I get the most in the least time -- and the most of what? Survival supplies? If this is the end of civilization, then I'm already prepared. I need to hedge my bet, to get something that's worthless now but will be valuable again if things go back to normal. Money!
"I'll give you a hundred dollars for that bike." It was a thick-necked young guy in a suit. He was holding out the cash.
"I wouldn't sell it for a hundred on a normal day. Ten thousand dollars."
"Shit." The guy glared at him and Sirach realized he was thinking about taking the bike by force. He moved into a subtle defensive stance, weight slightly forward, one hand up, resting on his chin, and stared the guy down. "Shit," he said again, and went away.
Sirach got on the bike and rode, listening behind him and watching in front of him for danger. He found himself riding toward the water, thinking about opportunities in the soon-vacated area. It was still crowded. People were pouring out of buildings and running for the high ground. Traffic was already jammed.
Could he loot a jewelry store? A pawn shop? He had only ever taken cheap things for personal use. He wouldn't know how to sell the stuff without getting caught. Somehow he doubted he could loot a bank. They would have cameras. Is electricity still on? Of course it is -- there's a lighted sign in a window. In fact, by the time electricity goes out, there will be news cameras.
Aha, he thought: Suppose there's an armored car stuck in traffic. There's certain to be one somewhere within a half mile of here, and its drivers will abandon it! But then what? I can't drive it anywhere, and the back will have a lock too difficult for me to pick. ATM's are like safes -- it would take days to open one. Damn! Time is passing. I'm wasting the apocalypse! I suppose I could just loot a corporate book store. Am I that pathetic, using a global catastrophe to steal books?
In front of him, Puget Sound was gone.
He rode down to First and Union to get a better look, and saw that the water was just low, 20 or 30 feet down and visibly draining, revealing mud, old wrecks, flopping fish. He got a mental image of the asteroid punching a hole in the bottom of the ocean, and all the water draining out, in a big whirlpool. Then he remembered that this is what happens before a tsunami -- the water goes out and then comes back.
And here it comes.