The cold blue light of dawn seeped across the windowledge and through a gap in the cheap curtains. Harriet hated it, and she hated the Finals questions which had kept her shivering at her desk all through the night, and most of all she hated the instant coffee, stone-cold now and thickly scummed with saccharine, that she had been throwing down herself at the rate of a cup an hour. A mile away across the city, a pair of dedicated hackers were breaking into one of the Pentagon defence computers while their milkman smashed a bottle on the pavement outside and let loose a whispered expletive. It was nearly half past six. A church clock close by chimed once.
She blinked slowly. It was no use; she was simply too tired to do any more work. She started blearily to sort the shallow pile of A4 covering half the desktop. Her hands shook with exhaustion and too much caffeine, her mind was numb... all this was entirely normal for a third-year student with no talent for organisation and an inhumanly active social life. The only person she had known who had never had an overnight work crisis in their entire academic career was a lawyer called, somewhat unoriginally, Dave; but he had got a First. And now he was in Australia, working at that very moment, no doubt - unlike anyone else she could think of.
It had been raining. The puddles in the Quad gleamed darkly through the morning mist, waiting for a fresh gust of wind to cover them with dead leaves or for someone to splash through them, but Harriet, mindful of the holes in her boots, walked along the edge of the lawn, squelching heavily. It was one of those awful little facts which never take the hint and go away that, although she was just under five foot five and on the lean side at that, any good pair of scales gave her weight as thirteen stone. She left a trail of deep size five prints in the mud as she passed on, oblivious to everything except the work she had to give in.
She felt fine, if sleepy, at the Lodge. She felt fine when she gave her work in, just as the more accurate clocks in the city struck the half hour. She reached up to check her pigeonhole, and suddenly felt dizzy and sick; for a moment she was only kept standing by the force of her grip on the mahogany shelves, before an effort of will and some deep breathing cleared her head. The feeling passed as suddenly as it had come on her. Embarrassed, she glanced around in case some early-bird had witnessed her slip. There was no-one in sight. The college was as quiet as the grave, without even the bawling of the dawn chorus to break the silence. There was no sound at all, not even that of distant juggernauts rumbling on the ring road. She sighed.
"If I were you," she told herself (since there was no-one else to say it), "I would go straight to bed and get some sleep." And padding back to act on her own advice, she wondered why she bothered to put herself through the hoop time and time again until she dropped, to produce mediocre work that her tutor would never even glance at. It gave her a convenient means of observing the people and customs which were her true interest, but there were other ways... Still. That was the way she had been programmed and she had no choice in the matter. She was too tired, then, to think any further.
She couldn't remember any dreams; the world seemed to have barely faded away before it snapped back into place about her like a rubber band, instantly real, solid and uncomfortable. Harriet opened her eyes and stared blankly at the ceiling for some time, not thinking, while her brain switched to `awake' mode. At last she stirred, and heaved herself clumsily onto her front, the bed creaking in protest. She squinted at the alarm clock. Six thirty, and it was raining again. Was it worth getting up for dinner ?
A great aching nostalgia for the days when Dave had made plans to sue the college for food poisoning rose up inside her - rather as the food had - and she rolled out of bed before it really started hurting. The irony had been that neither of them ever ate enough of it to poison a mouse. God, she missed him though. It wasn't that they had got on particularly well, or had even moved in the same circles. They just came from the same place, but a place so far away that having someone to talk to about their home had meant a great deal to her. Someone else to endure the jokes about lead underwear which came closer to the truth than anyone guessed, someone she could talk freely to. Her room was the best she had ever had - the result of the M.P.s finally catching up with a draft-dodging graduate - but she fled it and took refuge in the J.C.R., longing miserably for company of any kind and hating herself for her weakness.
A dusty photograph lay on the desk, where she had left it some days earlier; plastic sunlight on plastic faces that no longer existed in such unlined youthfulness, such carefree contentment. Dave the classicist, Dave the modern linguist, Dave the historian, Dave the economist and Dave the lawyer, sprawled half-naked on the summer grass with the shadow of accountancy already falling over them. The future had looked so bright then, and yet it was the one with the brightest prospects of them all, the lawyer, scholar and workaholic, who chucked it all in for a life among the sheep in New South Wales. Harriet had stood apart from the vast majority of people in backing his decision, saying only that it was just the way he was made. The image brushed a lock of dark hair out of its eyes, grinning lazily at the camera, and held its silence.
Harriet tried to read the papers, but the sun had set and there was another power cut on. She knew how they would read anyway; wars, crises, arms talks, weapons development. It was too dim for her to realise that they were all a day old. In her mind's eye she saw the college the way it had been a year ago, brightly lit and creaking at the seams with the influx of Freshers, and gazed around her with renewed pain at its present gloom and emptiness. She could barely see the opposite wall of the room, but with a sense that went beyond the merely human, she knew she was alone. Three months after he had left, Dave was envied by his unlucky contemporaries - Australia seemed safe and sunny and a long way from Civil Defence training three nights a week and every weekend.
Here... someone should have wandered in by now, Harriet thought sourly. The loss of home students to the military had been matched by the influx of foreign students hoping to put off their own draftings until the situation had cooled off somewhat, and so the college had been unusually populous over the summer vac., even without the conferences. And now they all seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth. Wondering if she could have missed Hall she peered at her watch, and found the face blank and still. The battery...
The battery was no more than a month old.
If the mountain would not go to Mahomet... Harriet stood up, and headed out into the quad. She walked the length of one side, then stopped and looked up.
The silence lay like a blanket over the whole city. It was as if the whole world had stopped. The rain had moved south, and a few stars were visible though thin patches in the clouds, faint and coldly remote. Somewhere up there would be at least one spy satelite, looking down on the country, on the city, on her. It could not possibly harm her - very little could - yet she moved inside, determined at all costs not to be alone.
Food she could do without. Bodily comforts... she was far tougher than her appearance suggested. It was loneliness that she feared above all, and her need of company was so literally built into her that she could not even bear to think of living in isolation. She hurried along the corridor and knocked on the first door she came to.
The sound echoed around the corridor with unexpected loudness. If someone had dropped a pin inside the room, it would not have gone unheard. There was no-one inside. Not in that room, or the next, or the next... well, the term didn't start until the next day. It seemed a waste of energy to carry on hammering on the doors of vacant rooms, so she stood still on the stairs and listened carefully for a sound of human activity, a radio or a bath being run, or anything at all; and only then did she realise how total was the silence. The reassuring roar of evening traffic down the high street, a train's hooter or the rattle of a cycle bumping down the lane were gone without trace. Complete silence. Nothing but a gentle sighing from the wind outside; inside, not a breath of wind or of anything else.
Six thirty at the Lodge and she had felt ill although the program was limited to sleep simulation.
"I'm not worried about the Bomb," someone had been saying only the night before, "it makes a hell of a mess and anyone can build one now. It's the stuff we don't hear about that scares me. How much gas did they drop on Britain in the Second World War?"
She switched on her emergency monitors, although she thought the emergency was long past. White noise. Nothing even on shortwave. Pioneer and Galileo were still sending, but apart from that...
Two probes from Earth, two probes on Earth, she thought dazedly. Pioneer and Galileo, me and Dave. We're alone. And then she stopped thinking altogether and stood passive and still for a time she was not consciously aware of. She didn't feel anything. The back-up program was cutting in.
Fifteen minutes later a figure emerged from the pool of darkness at the foot of what a vanished species had called Staircase XX and looked up into infinity, waiting. It didn't matter if the satellite wasn't working any longer so long as the dish was still there and properly aligned, if Dave's signal was strong enough. They weren't due to be picked up for another two years. Loneliness was no longer a problem for Harriet, but with the world all to herself and no job to do-
The signal came through.