Drinking the coffee that others leave behind on the tables, settled in the half-light pools of condensation and spillage. There was a time when this was anathema; when in fact my body would revolt at the thought of leavings. Now, I wipe tables methodically. Rags make endless monochrome rainbows over the polished wood surface, obscuring my face with smears of greasy water. I pick up a cup to wipe beneath it, and drink the coffee remaining within. There is still warmth there. Caffeine moving slowly through my body. I replace the cup; wipe the table clean.
I haven't slept.
I'm not quite sure when I first mislaid sleep. I know, now, that I could not sleep if I were to try. Perhaps it is akin to passing a gentle hill on the path while biking in the rain; now I slide slowly down the far side, unable to stop if I were to wish to.
I suppose I could stop drinking the coffee. That might help. But if it did not, what then? Would I admit that I could no longer sleep? Strange to be such a freak; better to have an excuse. I lift a clear glass of coffee dregs with melted ice and drain it quickly. No one speaks of it, to me. No cries of scorn, of shock, of anger. I wipe this table clean and place the cup in the plastic bin for washing.
This is the last table. The brightly lit shop is set, waiting for the next day's customers. Around me, Phil and Sevra are yawning as they hang their aprons and go through the closeout ritual: emptying the register into the bank bag, counting dry goods behind the counter. I drop my rag in the sink and put the cups and glasses into the washer.
Later, I walk the streets.
It's very very dark in some places, a dark that comes from more than an absence of light. I feel my soul shivering in the gloom as I pass underneath a gnarled and wrinkled gingko tree, a streetlight behind it cut into thousands of ochre swords that pierce but do not dispel the darkness. Fruits crunch and squash beneath my feet as I
walk past, hands in coat, my breath preceding me in a fog of weary resignation.
Home is perhaps ten minutes walk away, but I make it thirty without effort, taking turns and bizarre wandering pathways that lead me between the light and dark in strange and mystic patterns.
I haven't been to school in four or five weeks. This is probably a very bad thing, but I have ceased to notice. Perhaps this happened when I ceased to sleep, but I'm not sure. No one has called, or come by to find me. This seems fair. Last I remember, we were discussing what it meant to target weapons on cities. The mathematics were fairly straightforward; adjusting the height of burst for maximum shock, blast or thermal damage. Buildings are five pounds per square inch hard.
J--- said, after class, that she didn't feel well. Why, we asked. I started to see bodies, in there, she said. And now I can't stop seeing them when I think about it. We teased her gently; a sensitive and caring woman such as herself in a program such as ours! What was she thinking?
The number of weapons required to achieve a desired probability of kill(Pk) is determined as follows. Determine the megatonnage for each weapon; combine this with the circular error probable and the hardness of the target. Remember that for a kilometer or so past the edges of the blast crater, ground plastic deformation will effectively destroy any buried targets, such as silos.
She was more cheerful the next day. The bodies had receded; replaced with the clean and clear lines and whorls of the formulae. Her homework, a perfect grade, was done in neatly crabbed handwriting with occasional sweeping charts and graphs printed on her Macintosh. We patted her on the back, and bent to our tasks.
The bodies have left her; they find me a much more attentive companion. They come to me now when I try sleep, and they won't go away until I pretend to wake. They're actually much more loyal than any woman I've been with. Not that that's many.
So I drink the leavings in the cups, and the bodies wait patiently for me outside the perimeter of the waking world with sad understanding in their burst and flash-cooked eyes.
Once I reach home, I have to stop walking. There are walls, you see. I can't turn around fast enough to avoid stumbling when I pace inside; I think my coordination has suffered from the lack of rest. So I remove my coat and hang it carefully before moving to my armchair. The armchair is old, old, old. It's yellow; sort of, at
least, under the grime. I bought it at a garage sale when I first arrived in C-----. It used to recline, I think, but the mechanism is frozen long past repair. At least it's frozen in the retracted position. The chair is wildly comfortable; unknown years of bodies have left a pleasant curve in the seat, and there is enough padding left around the imprint to snuggle into.
I settle back into it with a sigh. The routine is so familiar now. The show begins behind my eyelids, words and images-
The thermal flux from the blast will likely blind any unprotected human who happens to be facing ground zero for a distance of approximately five miles. Within two miles, flash burns will most likely kill people outright. The nuclear detonation is capricious, however; at Hiroshima there were documented survivors no more than a few hundred yards from ground zero in open areas who remain, inexplicably, sighted and alive.
I remain, inexplicably, sighted and aware. The birds greet the morning with sleepy-sounding calls from the elm tree outside my window, and the sky has turned a painfully deep blue in preparation for the dawning. I am still in the armchair, and the hours have passed until I no longer think, at least coherently. Flashes of scenery and color waver in my vision, and I must remember to blink.
I haven't slept, though. I rise, wearily, and begin to strip my clothing from my body in order to shower.
People were found some three miles from the epicenter with their clothes stripped from their bodies, killed by radiation. Unmarked, they looked like nothing so much as the remnants of an orgy, resting entwined in heaps.
Funny. It's funny, that sex and the bomb are so intricately intermixed. The feminists would appear to have scored a three-pointer on that one. The shower is warm this morning, which means I have arisen before my downstairs neighbor. He likes to take long hot showers which take the building's antiquated water heater an hour to recover from. I mull over the thought of remaning in long enough to deprive him this morning, then decide that's petty. I towel myself dry after only ten minutes and dress.
Leaving the house is a series of painful blinks designed to allow my irises to adjust to the naked sun with some semblance of ease. My days are unstructured, now. I wonder idly what they're saying, back there in lecture. Is there lecture today? I am amused to realize that I don't have any idea what day of the week it is.
There is a car on the street with several tickets on it. Dimly, I know that it is mine, but I am unable to relate it to my current existence, and so leave it there. Mail has become a pointless pile that serves mostly to keept the drafts from coming under my front door. Perhaps if they come take the car, they will have to speak with me.
No one does, you know. I'm Iscariot walking the streets, the glare of atomic fission from behind my eyelids warning off kindly strangers. I imagine that when I turn my hollow face to someone, they can see the high eV neutrons] that are emanating from behind my stare. People don't look me in the eyes much. I'm really not sure why, actually; I do shower, and shave, and clean my clothing. I cannot look that much different than they. Apparently, however, my affliction is visible. Maybe they feel that if they look into my eyes, and make the contact, they too will fail to sleep and find themselves drinking the leavings from the cups.
The park is a favored stop. I sit beneath a tree, my breath short. Although I do not sleep, my body is aware of its exhaustion. I eat something; I remain unsure of what. Purchased from a vendor, it stills my stomach. Automaton that I am, I maintain the body. Strange. I can see the body, my body, as an external responsibility. I feed it; nourish it, care for it, cleanse it, dress it. It in turn carries me throughout the day and night. I imagine that, were I to finally sleep, it would shake its head in relief and amusement and wander off into the night, leaving me in my armchair or bed. Do disembodied minds make impressions in upholstery? Would I be defenseless without the body to protect me?
The first barrier of defense will likely stop fifty or sixty percent of any incoming weapons. To determine how many are needed to penetrate the defense, you can use this figure as a base.
Strategic studies. I think, once, that the world was right and square. I remember feeling sure and well about my life and my work. The unthinkable, thought of, will likely not happen. Therefore, I sacrificed myself to society. I would think unceasingly about the unthinkable. We, the strategists, would become a cadre of guardians whose task was to think incessantly of the holocaust, in as many ways
as possible. Our daily negative invocation would keep all of us safe.
Perhaps I'm broken.
If there then is a nuclear war, did it slip through the gap in our defenses left by my absence from the ramparts?
I read an article, once, about programs such as the one I was in. It was written by feminist theorist, who stated in sharp terms that in fact these programs served to insulate us from the horror of the actual event through the creation, perpetuation and adulation of a language designed to appeal to masculine egos. We would penetrate defenses, and blow the silos. An equivalent megaton was a meg. Missile envy, and hardness of targets; patting missiles was a modern rite of passage, of mastery.
I recall my reaction. One word. And?
I couldn't imagine that anyone could think themselves clever for having figured this out. This was what we did. This was how we saved the world.
The bodies don't see it that way, however. They see the flash, instantaneous and forever. They see the buildings silently flow away, silently because they are ahead of the mach front, and the sound of the blast will reach them just behind the shock wave. The bomb is silent; there are no ears to hear it, once the blast front passes. Then the terrible winds pass, and the flames die. Then they pick themselves up, dust the remnants of their flesh and clothes from themselves, and turn to begin walking. They always, always, end up waiting just beyond my walls when I'm sitting in my armchair.
Probably tomorrow, they'll be gone. I'll go back to class. Grades will matter. Bills will elicit a groan of despair. The world will be lit in shades of light,
not of death.
Tonight, I will drink the leavings in the coffee cups, and the bodies will oblige me by waiting outside my vision.