The world had just ended, and Hester was thirsty. Not the kind of delirious burning thirst that consumed the whole brain and made stranded sailors drink sea water, but the irritating, dry-throated sensation that a glass of ice-cold water would taste finer than the most expensive wine or the most aromatic coffee. And Hester was very partial to her wine and her coffee. She supposed they would have to go by the board. She was oddly calm. Are you in self-denial when you know it’s self-denial, she wondered.
Project Usher, it had been called. There were those who thought it might be linked to Poe’s tale of the Fall of the House of Usher, and those who thought it might be an acronym, and those who thought it was because it was meant to usher in a new age. It was true the last possibility was a felicitous coincidence but the project was called after the man who first mooted the possibility of Neonanotechnology, Jonas Usher. There was an image of him in the great laboratory, projected onto the walls. He looked like your favourite grandpa, and the few old-timers who had known him said that it wasn’t an erroneous impression.
She couldn’t quite remember who had mentioned that there was also some historical cleric called Bishop Usher who thought the world was created 7,000 years ago (well, he wasn’t unique in that!) and had also predicted its end to the exact date. Hester couldn’t recall that date now, but she had an idea it was in October (well it would save a fortune on Trick or Treat!) and in any case, it was now well past. So even if you believed that kind of thing which, it goes without saying, she didn’t, then it was nothing to worry about and there was no need to find the name especially significant.
There had been some siren voices about Project Usher. But they came from the same sort of people who thought that the Large Hadron Collider would destroy the earth by creating a black hole and that the Pyramids had been built by spacemen. At times Hester came perilously close to seeing why they could believe that, but it was the kind of thing they didn’t mention. Anyway, as all real scientists agreed there was probably more chance of aliens having constructed the pyramids than of Project Usher doing any harm to so much as a flea. Or even to one of that flea’s molecules.
Though Hester was fairly low down the food chain, she still knew it was seen as a massive honour and privilege to work on Project Usher, and when she was first accepted on it ten years ago she had been sure she was working on air (which was, of course, another impossibility).
They were often accused of secrecy, but that was unfair. True, you had to get permission in advance to enter the complex behind an electrified fence on the wild North Sea coast, unless, of course, you were one of the fortunate few (okay, few hundred) like Hester who had one of the holographic iris recognition accreditations. But this permission was only refused for a good reason, and they had open days.
Along with the doomsayers, there were also those who said it was a colossal waste of money chasing a chimera. Or words to that effect. But they were proven spectacularly wrong when the first Neonano-Fusion occurred. It made splitting the atom (with all due respect to Rutherford) seem like knapping a flint. Free electricity for everyone, imaging available to hospitals that made the most advanced of MRI scans look like toddlers’ daubs, and all so green that even the Green Party couldn’t disapprove of it, perhaps because from the start they had been wise enough not to use terms like atomic or nuclear.
Hector had joined Project Usher barely a month before Hester. Some of their friends joked that it must be love for a couple called Hester and Hector to be so devoted. It would have made a great title for a cartoon. They were technically on the same grade, but the fact that his work gave him access to the Core of Usher added a certain mystique to him. “There’s really nothing that spectacular about it,” he said, with charming modesty, “It’s just like the boiler room, I suppose!” She didn’t want to demonise Hector. He was no villain. Not really. But it was pretty plain that they weren’t going to be still good friends (a stage they had never gone through anyway) when she found out he was seeing a woman called Lydia, who also had access to the Core of Usher.
She was relieved when Hector and Lydia were relocated to Usher’s West Country Branch. She never found out if they had asked to be but suspected they were as relieved as she was.
Eight months later, her daughter was born. She determinedly thought of her as my daughter and not our daughter, but, with a deeply heavy heart, decided that it would be best for the child if she were adopted. Her own mother had desperately tried to dissuade her and Hester came so close to changing her mind, but she didn’t.
There had been some warning signs, but spokespeople from Project Usher assured everyone, in a series of press conferences where they proved they were trustworthy scientists by wearing lab coats but proved they were regular human beings by wearing brightly coloured sweaters or shirts underneath them, that it was absolutely nothing to worry about. That the little earth tremors were perfectly normal geological and seismic activity, and that the sudden dramatic overheating of radiators was most likely a purely mechanical problem and their engineering colleagues were already on the case.
By now Hester had moved a few grades further up the food chain, though she was still a very long way from making decisions or being a spokesperson. But she knew enough, and knew enough people, to know that whilst nobody had told any direct lies, they had somewhat rationed the truth. Rumours were already circulating on the Internet. That could almost have been comforting, given the general standards of accuracy of rumours on the Internet, but she had also overheard one of her seniors saying, “God help us if they find out even the half of it,” “God help us anyway,” a colleague said. It’s just a turn of phrase, thought Hester. They don’t even believe in God! But she didn’t sleep well that night.
She had never thought that an explosion could be so quiet, though she wondered if the initial blast had deafened her in a split second so she didn’t hear it. Can I hear now, she asked herself, anxiously. There was nothing much left to hear. There were no birds to sing and no trees to rustle, and no clattering footsteps and no whirring or whistling, not so much as the tap of fingers on a computer keyboard or the sound of an overhead aeroplane. It was as if the heart of the earth had stopped beating in its desolate, bleached body. Absurdly, she clapped her hands, and she heard the clap as clear as thunder rending the air. So I can hear, she thought, I can still hear. But what is left to hear? Who is left to talk to, and what music is there in the world?
She would have expected the air to be thick and clogged with smoke, and perhaps it had been, whilst she was unconscious (she didn’t know how long that had been – it could have been seconds or months) but now it was almost too clear, and the horizon seemed so far away, because there was nothing inbetween. Or so she thought until she saw a figure walking towards her. So there is at least someone else, at least another person, she thought, and as she felt the first flickering of the earth’s heart still beating, she felt her own pounding too.
The stranger had not come much closer before Hester realised that it was not a stranger at all. It was the last person on earth she wanted to see. The awful appropriateness of that phrase made her burst into mirthless laughter, and with her throat so dry, that set her coughing. “Hector,” she whispered. Even now, there was still a need for explanations, “I – had moved back to this area,” he said, his own voice hoarse “I left Usher three years ago. There were worries, even then.”
“But you didn’t speak out!” she exclaimed.
“Did anyone?” he asked, in a tone of quiet despair that didn’t hold any defiance or defensiveness. “And if they had, would anyone have listened, or just called them one of the nut-job conspiracy theorists?”
“I suppose you’re right,” she admitted. The last thing she wanted (oh WHY were there so many of these phrases that were now hideously appropriate?) was to ask him any favours, but she also, though she wasn’t quite sure why, wanted to live. “Will there be water anywhere?” He shrugged his shoulders, “I wish I could tell you definitely. So far as I know it is by no means impossible. But – we can’t be sure it wouldn’t be tainted.” Such an old-fashioned word, tainted.
“I know where there’s water! I’ve been drinking it for two days now!”
They turned, and they saw a child. A beautiful child, poised on the edge of the unfolding of womanhood, still coltish but with an innate grace. Frightened and confused but with courage and determination in her eyes.
And in a silence that spoke more than myriads of words, Hester and Hector joined hands, and reached out their other hands to their daughter, so she could lead them to the well.