On another day, he would have welcomed a storm like this one. He enjoyed when the sky darkened and the air cooled, when the view from his window was broken up by the silvery droplets and he had something other to look out at than the dust and the distance and the spiny silhouette of the dead city beyond. Thunderclaps were like voices, like celestial beings calling him – the boy couldn’t go to them, of course, but it was nice to imagine someone was looking for him. Then afterward, there would be a few hours during which the dust would be weighted to the ground, and he could go out and breathe freely without having to protect his mouth and nose and eyes. And then the plants would grow. All the plants that ever tried to. Of course, all that was going to be true today too, but he wasn’t going to enjoy it. Everything he liked about storms was dependent on him staying inside. Today he was outside.
And a ways from home. He’d seen the cumulonimbus clouds on the horizon in the morning and had tracked them moving his direction, but then he’d forgotten about them when he saw the motion out in the grass. The shadow slipping across it, as something moved underneath and bent its blades momentarily away from the harsh late-morning light. That was something that couldn’t be ignored. It could be an animal.
He’d gotten on his boots quickly, his hooded polyethylene coveralls, face mask and protective glasses. He was still zipping it up on his way out the door. At once, the heat from the sun had bitten into him like an entire swarm of insects. (A comforting thought, that there could be enough insects left to swarm.) Then he had found the distinctive mutant clover he knew the maybe-animal had passed, and searched for sign.
He didn’t know much about tracking. It wasn’t one of the things the average kid was taught on the way here. There wasn’t supposed to be much to track, anyway, and if there were, then the adults would do it. But the adults had left, and if there was any tracking to do, then there was only him to do it. For now he could just keep in mind where he had seen the grass shaking and speculate as to where something, something alive and mobile, might want to go.
He had written off the pond, because of the direction of the thing’s movement, directly away from the building. It might have been to the pond earlier, though. He’d looked over the grimy surface, layered heavily with toxic dust that mostly obscured the remains of the blown gasoline tank below. The dust had been broken up enough, he thought, that something could have come through and drunk.
In the distance, to the east-northeast, the grass ended and there was dry, cracked earth for miles. Something alive – a mouse, say – would not want to be there. There may not be any owls or cats anymore, but instincts would remain. The sickly vegetation continued on a little farther in the north-northeast, and he had wagered on that.
And been glad he had, because that was where he saw it. It was not, in fact, a mouse, but something that looked molluscid, resting on its side in the sun with eight tentacular pseudopods stretched out to catch the heat. (Things like that didn’t surprise him anymore. An animal such as he might have read about in a book wouldn’t survive anymore, life had to be different now.) It had a sleek shell along its back and wearily splayed eyestalks. He moved for it, because he had to document any new life he saw – just in case there might be another person some time who may read about it – but it hopped up with unsurprising speed and rushed along.
Though he had easily seen enough to sketch the thing out, he made the quick, unthinking and unwise decision to go after it. It wouldn’t have anywhere to go soon except back into the grass, or else risk getting too much sun. He doubted it could see the ruined city in the distance, endure long enough to reach it. It may even be smart enough to understand the implications of the suspended mushroom cloud at the city’s center. Therefore, he bet that he could catch it, get his hands on that shell and take it back, put it underneath the empty fishtank in what had once been the gas station’s back office and observe it just a little.
The next decision he’d had to make was whether to keep going, when it managed to stay ahead of him and made it far past the line where any plants grew at all. It darted between hunks of rubble and the remains of insta-fossilized trees with what he would almost have called shrewdness. He almost had it a few times, but tripped over himself trying not to leap recklessly and crush it. (He’d seen a bug squashed once, on the earthbound transport where he had lived his first eight years, and he didn’t care to see anything get squashed again.)
And he’d failed to be aware of how far he had chased the thing. He stopped, realizing it all at once, when the creature darted past the gates in the wall around the city, erected hastily in those last warring years before migration. He looked up at the decaying towers, twisted by the force of the explosion but unable to fall because of the stasis field. Orange-gray mushroom cloud towering over them, preserved as it had been ninety seconds after impact.
The snail thing scurried on in, clearly – unwisely – more scared of the boy than of the obvious deadness of the landscape it entered. There wouldn’t be anything in there for it: no plants, no mildew, maybe not even bacteria. If it got to the stasis field, then no moisture at all. In chasing it, the boy had doomed it. He had to make some attempt, then, to get it back out. He slipped under the old crushed gate too, and attempted a slower, subtler approach.
Not long after that was when the sky began to grow dark, and he remembered the clouds. He was now a long way from his home in the old gas station, and the rain would begin mixing the dusty earth into treacherous mud long before he could get back. Any shelter here was dangerous, because strange things spun off from the edges of frozen time, sometimes living – or lifelike – things.
There were about three city blocks between the gate and the edge of the stasis field. When the rain started falling, the boy could only pull the hood of his hazmat suit tight over his head and let it hit him. He glanced to the eyestalks peering out from behind the wreckage of a disintegrated car and dared their owner to make another move.