The thought caught her by surprise. She'd turned that possibility over and over in her mind since she'd been out here, in an endless inverted he loves me, he loves me not. She'd analyzed every memory, replayed every argument, every tender moment, and she'd come up with a different answer every time.
Clearly she'd needed to wait until the world had ended before deciding that she did love him.
Loved him, wanted him. It was the same thing, wasn't it? A pull, a stretching of the tether that started with the other person and ended somewhere deep in your chest. She'd felt that tug when they'd talked on the long-distance airwave at the port. When was that? Three weeks ago? The conversation was stilted and artificial. Even though he'd shuttled out to the capital cluster's long-range station, the time delay was so marked that while she was speaking, the mouth of his crackled doppelganger was still moving to the echo of his last remark, as though he were talking over her. He was going to Earth for a few weeks, he told her. Work. He just wanted her to know. In case...
That in case had been left hanging between them. That was when she felt that tug. It wasn't strong enough to make her say what she knew he hoped she'd say. But when he asked if they could talk again when he got back, she agreed. She'd even found a smile for him as they said good-bye, although it hadn't quite felt like it fitted, and she didn't know if he'd seen it before the connection was severed.
He'd been heading for Earth.
Four billion people on Earth. Four thousand survivors.
What were the chances of them both making it? She felt suddenly weak and couldn't work it out. Panic was starting to swirl up inside her chest.
She walked over to the cupboard. Underwear, a pair of jeans. She pulled them on. No T-shirts.
The clothesline. She'd been hanging out laundry when the first spasms had sent her to her knees, and then, by slow increments, to the medicine drawer.
She stood still. Until she went outside, this could all just be a game of what if? Zero point zero zero zero one.
"Shut up." Her voice sounded thin and rusty, and she swore, another harsh scrape of sound, then opened the door.
The sun was high overhead, the sky its usual denim blue, fading to smoky marl at the horizon. Outside the cabin a half line of laundry swayed in the breeze. At one end, a bedsheet trailed from a single peg, the line sagging under its weight. The laundry basket was on its side, her clothes streaked and crumpled in the dirt.
She realized she'd instinctively wrapped the towel around her before stepping outside, just as though one of the farmhands might wander by with a casual wolf whistle.
'Little things', she thought. It was too easy to forget, to fall back into past habits, paying too much attention to all the tiny, insignificant things.
She kept the towel clamped against her sides until she'd unpegged a gray T-shirt and pulled it over her head. Her boots were abandoned by the door, as usual, and she sat to lace them up.
The birds had scattered over to the boundary fence, their quarrel muted by distance. The turbine turned quietly, and the cattle grumbled from the barn. She stood up, stretching her cramped limbs, forcing herself to look around. The main house was still and silent and she turned away, toward the open land beyond the station fences. A couple of faint scraps of cloud drifted over the hills, carrying a vague promise of rain.
Her thoughts were spiraling out, beyond the simple fact of the warm breeze and clear sun. This world had long growing seasons, regular rainfall, a simple infrastructure. It would be an easy enough place to survive, if surviving became all there was.
The door of the main house was closed, but the curtains were open. Someone could be looking out right now. Or perhaps someone had heard her. Maybe they were stumbling to the window. But she didn't move.
There was a rumble from the barn. If the Calgarth herd had been milkers, they'd have been protesting their swollen neglect long and loud. But these were breeders, and their complaints were probably focused on being barn-bound and out of feed. If those basic needs were met, they wouldn't be troubled by the decimation of the human world.
She turned away from those empty windows and walked down to the barn, swinging back the bar that kept the cattle from the yard. She found the herd outside, gathered in the shade of the back wall, near a trough of greenish water and a pile of fodder spilled from an upended bin. The scattered feed spoke of someone using their last strength to make sure the herd had enough to last until...for a while.
Her heart felt small and hard, as if her illness had turned it into something other than flesh. She hadn't spent much time with Jim Cranwell, who ran the farm, despite being his resident veterinarian, but he'd always been courteous. She'd had more to do with his grandchildren, who'd run in and out of the barn, clambering between stalls and treating the cattle like oversized pets. At first she'd wished they would leave her alone. She found their constant questions distracting, and she veered between patronizing, oversimplified answers and curt, too-adult responses. But she'd gotten used to their presence, even playing the odd game with them, although she always tired of it before they did.