'Hello, we're calling to make you aware of a new government-backed initiative. You may be entitled...' Eliot hung up. It had been unlikely, but the phone had kept ringing all the time he'd been breaking in and that had injected a little spike of hope into his day. Now, he looked round properly. The couple in the living-room, their genders revealed by clothing and their intimacy by their interlocked fingers, had that look of surprise shared by all Q-bomb victims. Their mummified corpses would start to rot now that he'd breached the air filters but, ten years after death, desiccation was so advanced that he could have left them; it would be days before they started to decompose. Only they made him feel like an intruder. Worse, if mummies can ever look cosy, this pair did, snuggling in front of the screen, a couple of glasses on the table, rosy with the residue of long-evaporated wine. The dried-out tableau of domesticity disturbed the fragile slumber of his own loneliness and Eliot quickly searched for a cupboard and pushed racks of shoes aside to make room. Knowing how brittle extremities could be, he prised the corpses' hands apart carefully before stacking the bodies neatly beside the footwear; he couldn't stand disorder. Feeling better, he followed the smell of fresh coffee to the kitchen to check the mother-soft screen. His entry had triggered a hot jug of dark, aromatic, Brazilian blend so this couple had had similar tastes to his. That boded well for supper.
Eliot poured a mug and wandered through the apartment, turning on taps to check for hot water, smelling towels and bedding for freshness. Usually he managed to avoid family homes, but there was a tiny, unexpected cadaver in the smaller bedroom, in a ribbon-bedecked pink cot. He almost picked up his bag and left but it was late and he liked this place so he laid her on her parents then carried on. Everything else was pristine thanks to mother-soft. Q-particles didn't interfere with electromagnetic activity, didn't interrupt computer systems, or the steady accumulation of solar power that fuelled this former home and the millions of mausoleums like it. They didn't interfere with most biological processes either, just zapped every synaptic connection in the mammalian brain. So the few times Eliot had entered an apartment to find it cold, damp, full of the sweet stink of rotting flesh, the intruders who'd got there before him and chewed their way into mother-soft, had scuttled away on six legs, not four. An unsought memory of that smell flooded his nostrils and Eliot turned. Abandoning his remaining coffee he searched kitchen-drawers and found a bread knife and a fish-slice. They'd have to do. Then he retrieved the dead baby. He stroked her shrivelled little cheek with one finger. 'Sorry,' he said. After wrapping her in one of her own pink sheets he took her outside. He broke the fish-slice and blunted the knife but he managed to dig a tiny grave. One this size would have been big enough for Melly, but hers had been much larger, shared with her mother. Eliot thought of his daughter as little as possible.
Although there were no cows left in the mega-farms, there was still good Daube de Boeuf in the freezer and a decent Shiraz to wash it down. Grateful this mother-soft wasn't the chatty sort, Eliot programmed dinner for seven-forty-five and headed for the shower-room. He hadn't seen another living person in ten years but had retained his standards. Besides, any day might be the day. All he insisted on was a half-decent shower, but this room had a top of the range barbepilator and twenty minutes later he was smooth of body and face and trim of perfectly re-waved hair. He gave mother-soft his clothes to clean and repair, borrowed a too-large but nicely silky dressing gown then settled on the sofa with his first glass. Eliot still missed the news. Of course, there were any number of old news channels on demand, but he slept badly enough as it was. Instead, he downloaded the BBC drama he'd been catching up on for the last three weeks; he couldn't stand American rubbish. Sherlock irritated him by being even more anal than he was and Eliot was rather hoping Moriarty would prevail in the end, but he liked Mrs. Hudson. 'Dinner's ready,' mother-soft called, and he froze Dr. Watson, ageing by series nine, but still game, in mid-leap. He never ate in front of the TV.
The pasta in the minestrone was perfectly al dente and the beef was excellent. Clearly mother-soft hadn't developed any glitches. Eliot decided to stay a second night and try the Sole Meuniere, perhaps with the 2027 Sancerre. However, just before he fell asleep, the phone rang. 'Have you had an accident recently?' he heard. 'Was it someone else's fault?' He ended the call and turned over, frowning. Mother-soft should be screening that junk out: ancient recorded messages working their way systematically through a million dead phones, akin to himself working through thousands of dead homes searching for a companion he was never going to find. Equally automatic, equally hopeless, the computers were just faster and more thorough. Accepting one such call could be random chance but two suggested mother-soft needed a reboot.
Doris had been gone for two days, fishing and gathering wild garlic. Sometimes she just had to eat something fresh and it was pretty safe out. No dogs, no cats, no rats, no bats. Magpies could be a nuisance; they'd got used to being top of the now-literal pecking order. Unlike Eliot, Doris knew exactly why she'd survived. Like her physicist mother and other members of the scientific, military and political elites, she'd been in an immersion tank when the bombs started falling. Doris's mum had been the discoverer of Q-radiation. Unlike the others, who, after the all-clear, had simply towelled themselves down and buggered off to California to repopulate the earth, her mother had never gotten over the guilt. She'd stayed to search for any lucky, or unlucky, enough to have been under sufficiently-chlorinated water when the Q-wave swept through. If you dived at the right moment almost any swimming pool would be enough to protect you. But no-one knew the right moment so the various state leaders had decided not to tell the public and, to avoid pointless panic, had disabled all internet update capacity. A few dozen people in Europe, here and in Geneva, a couple of hundred in Pasadena, and an unknown number in Korea and China had climbed into the specialist tanks as soon as unilaterally assured destruction became Kim Jong-un's official policy. Three weeks later, two hours after the first bomb fell, they'd all climbed out again.
Unfortunately, the suspension of internet up-load capability had proved irreversible and the spinning of the world-wide-web had ceased, frozen at 8.1.2033. That had made life difficult for Doris and her mum because they'd had to use ancient land-line technology, available only because of a lucky pre-war vogue for the antique. Before she opened the wrong jar of char-grilled artichokes and died of botulism, Doris's mum had traced only three survivors. However, she'd also trained her daughter and, despite several marriage proposals from California, Doris had stayed to take over the search. So far she'd found two. That made five people in ten years, four of them in the first six. Maybe Doris was the only living mammal left in Britain. Maybe her mother's sins had now been expiated. Maybe she should move west and procreate. Everyone else had, except one, a post-menopausal Secretary of State for Defence, who'd gone west anyway, to take up surrogate-grannying.
It was mid-morning as Doris cycled home, one pannier full of wild garlic, the other holding two of the three fine Cam trout she'd caught. Last night she'd celebrated an unexpected piece of luck with one fish, washed down with a rare glass of cider. She was still elated by her find which she so easily might have missed. For a change, she'd fished a new stretch of river, out by Ditton meadows, and had slept in a cottage half-submerged in woodlands. Although functioning, its domestic system had been basic and the garden had been a sea of wild hyacinths, dotted with willow saplings, that had spilled through to lap against the cottage walls. A bunch was in her backpack now and cool petals stroked the back of her neck. Beneath them was her treasure trove, the February 2022 number of British Wildlife. It had been in the cottage's sole bedroom, among piles of otherwise worthless magazines. Finding it left only two gaps in the collection Doris had inherited from her dad and maintained after his death, right up to December 2032, when publication had naturally ceased. Doris would file it in the sixth of the seven shelves that took up the west wall of her living room, then bathe before eating. For lunch she'd stuff the trout with garlic leaves and bake it, while Mother-soft made some fresh bread and a nice pot of tea. Later, she'd read the rest of the article on dormice that she'd been too sleepy to finish last night.
Thinking of food and hot water Doris peddled harder though she daren't go too fast. The landscape was as flat as her social life, but the roads were rutted victims of weather and vegetation, dotted with occasional wrecks. Only buildings were safe, and not all of them. King's College Chapel remained erect and graceful but ivy nibbled its edges, grappling for ever higher crevices. Historic buildings that had been hand-preserved by enthusiasts; technophobe's houses; poor people's homes: all these were being steadily absorbed by the landscape. But Doris's flat was safely sustained by Mother-soft. As she approached, its windows gleamed high above the lab. The grass verge was trim as ever, though lusher now only her feet trod it.
There was of course no need to lock the bike any more than the building. As Doris carried her stuff in, the sharp, sappy scent of bluebells melded with garlic into the moist, earthy fragrance of English spring, one of the four reasons she would never go west. 'I'm home,' she called.
'Hi, Doris,' said Mother-soft. 'I'll run your bath.'
Gleefully, Doris found the right spot in the wall of journals, stuck the flowers in a mug, and unloaded the rest of her booty into the fridge. 'Shit', she said, pulling a small disc from underneath the second trout. Her pager was soaked, had probably died yesterday afternoon. Not that it mattered. There had been nothing for two years. Scented steam drifted through from the bathroom, luring her. But something made her check. 'Shit,' she repeated, fiercely this time. A number had been picked up twice, last time thirteen-hours ago. 'Dial it,' Doris shouted at Mother-soft, knowing she was probably too late. All finds so far had been itinerants. Surfacing in pools, alone or surrounded by bobbing bodies, emerging to a world of corpses, people, it seemed, went walk-about. Doris could understand why they never stayed still long. She'd wanted to go looking too at first. Until she'd accepted her mother's logic. If they had only stayed put, everyone could have been found years ago. As it was, the defunct marketing networks had dialled every number in the country hundreds of times. But even if dozens were left alive, the chance of a survivor being near a land-line when it rang was minuscule. Still, as her mother had proven, it was seven orders of magnitude higher than the probability of finding one by going out and wandering randomly around looking. The phone began to ring and Doris stopped thinking, focussed on hoping.
Breakfast was excellent; not many households shared Eliot's taste for kippers. Afterwards he browsed for a while, replenishing his backpack with marmalade, firelighters, socks, a new MP33. He wanted to be organised for an early start the next day. Then he forced himself to have an auto-floss and de-scale. Although obsessive about dental hygiene, Eliot hated being interfered with. However, he rarely encountered a bathroom as well-equipped as this one. So his jaw was clamped and the final polish underway when the phone rang, and kept on ringing for five minutes. 'Bloody computers,' he thought hoping his mouth was safe with a system that couldn't even screen out nuisance calls. He was running his tongue luxuriously over smooth teeth when it rang again. Eliot was comfortable here, but this mother-soft was definitely bug-prone. He didn't trust her now.
The ringing stopped while Eliot was dressing. He picked up his bag and opened the door. It was shadowless noon and the potholed road looked smooth. There had been only one car here when the bombs had gone off and, except for a solitary pile of wreckage, the road was empty. As he'd arrived on the previous evening, Eliot had glanced inside the crumpled chassis barely registering the two adult skeletons, but failing to screen out the little one, still strapped into its child seat. All three had been pecked clean long ago. Eliot hated magpies and hoped that when his time came he'd die indoors. Although hardened to the charnel houses of car wrecks, he averted his eyes as he cycled off, whistling. Fainter and fainter, the phone rang until all he heard was the chirrup of crickets as he made his way beyond the houses and past abandoned offices and labs. A bike was casually leaning at the entrance to one building, looking as if its owner had abandoned it, not ten years but ten minutes ago. Eliot peddled on, deeper and deeper into countryside, glad he'd left. As he entered the shade of the woods, their cool damp innocence soothed him. Catching the clean scent of garlic he breathed deeply. His eyes adjusted and vast pools of bluebells took form under the trees. Beyond them he caught the glimmer of a river, the Great Ouse perhaps, or the Cam. England was still beautiful.