Josie Radek turns the desk lamp on. It illuminates very little except for the small rectangle in front of her, leaving the far corners of the room in deep shadow. The bulb is old and the light it casts is warm and yellow, not like the blinding white fluorescents of the sterile labs, or the airy afternoon light of open lecture halls. Her small bedroom becomes a cave; she imagines the light flickering, causing the shadows of her books and unwashed clothing to dance against the walls like paintings by Neolithic man. She feels safe and brand new, huddled at her desk, a singular spot of light in a world gone dark. She is the first and only woman on Earth.
She drags a razor blade across the inside of her forearm.
Josie dropped the knife back into the rusty waters of the swimming pool. Her fingers were numb.
Anya helped her out, and the two of them retreated from the building. Outside, in the blazing sunlight and encroaching greenery, she was finally able to catch her breath. But her heart never stopped pounding.
Waking up in The Shimmer with days worth of missing memory had been confusing, but not completely unexpected. Getting attacked by an alligator with shark teeth had been frightening, but that was why they had automatic rifles. Josie had prepared for disorientation and danger. But watching a man get his stomach cut open, only for him to then dissolve into fungi…. There was no preparing for that. There was no reconciling it with rational thought.
“Don’t think about it too much,” Anya told her, over and over, as they made a slow circle around the compound. She claimed they were keeping watch but she seemed more interested in pounding the grass beneath her boots with every step. “It can look really weird the first time you see it, but intestines? They move, all the time. That’s how digestion works.”
Josie didn’t reply. She wasn’t thinking about the intestines.
“And a swimming pool like that, especially without the normal chemicals? Perfect environment for breeding bacteria. Lena will tell you—it’s hot, it’s wet, it’s dark. Fungal paradise.”
“You’re right,” said Josie. She wasn’t thinking about the fungus, either.
“As long as we stick together, we’ll be all right,” Anya carried on. “The men turned on each other, but they were military anyway. Looking for something to fight. But it’s just animals here—we’ll be all right, as long as we look out for each other.”
“Yeah,” said Josie.
She was thinking about the knife. She remembered the soldiers carving into each other’s stomachs and felt as if her own was being torn out. Months had passed since the last time she drew a blade through her skin but she remembered the bite and the sting, the guilty euphoria. She felt the itch under her flesh that ached for it. But not like that . She already knew what lay under her skin, and she would have never put the knife in someone else’s hands.
What a terrible, tragic irony it would be, to lose her life on the other end of someone else’s blade.
“Hey, Josie.” Anya touched her shoulder, and when Josie looked up, she was embarrassed by the concern fixed on her. “Take a breath, okay?”
“I’m okay,” Josie assured her, because that was what you were supposed to say to other people who were worried about you. She took her glasses off to clean them, giving her a good excuse to keep her head down. “I have no idea how I’m going to sleep tonight, but I’m okay.”
“We’ve got something for that,” said Anya, and she put her arm around her. “Just stay close. I’ll look out for you.”
Josie didn’t know what to say to that, but she didn’t want to seem ungrateful, either. She hummed, letting Anya draw her back toward the building where the others waited.
That night, huddled in the guard tower to sleep, she couldn’t stop thinking about the knife, up until the drugs put her to sleep.
Dr. Ventress stares at Josie from across the desk. Josie thinks she should be used to it by now—the silent, measuring stare of the psychiatrist. Their patience wears at her. But Dr. Ventress isn’t quite like the rest. There isn’t any hint of sympathy in her face, forced or otherwise. She’s studying Josie as if there is only one question on her mind, only one answer that matters.
“You graduated in the top five percent of your class,” says Dr. Ventress, flipping through papers in a file on the desk. “Top in your department. But I don’t see any indication that you have a job lined up yet.”
“No, not yet,” says Josie. She doesn’t elaborate; the reason must be in her stack of papers, after all. It would only confuse the matter to attempt an explanation.
“That’s good news for me,” Dr. Ventress continues, but there’s a dull, drawling inflection to her tone that prevents any positive sentiment from making it through. “A sharp mind with open availability. What did your advisor say about the proposition I have for you?”
“Not much,” says Josie, which is and isn’t true. “Just that it would be a job for the government.” Her advisor also said, without saying, that she ought to be wary about accepting such an offer. “Classified” seldom meant “enjoyable” or even “career-advancing.”
“It would be. Technically this is a military operation, but you wouldn’t be called on in that capacity. Obviously.” Dr. Ventress stops her flipping and eyes Josie with what could easily be mistaken for indifference. “I can’t tell you the specifics unless you agree to come aboard,” she says. “I can’t promise your safety, physically or emotionally. But I can promise you access to a field of study you won’t find anywhere else. I’m inclined to think that idea appeals to you.”
Josie manages to look back at her, uncringing. “It does,” she admits quietly, which is and isn’t true. It’s less a matter of appeal than necessity. Despite any misgivings, she can appreciate the promise of a military career: orders, certainty, stability. Maybe it will provide her with much needed self-discipline. Control she can assert that doesn’t need to come from her. “I would like to...challenge myself.”
Dr. Ventress’s eyebrow raises slightly, and she closes the folder. “Challenge,” she echoes. “I’m glad you said that.” She folds her hands on the desk. “It sounds like a healthy attitude for you to have, given your...recovery.”
Josie has no trouble meeting Dr. Ventress’ gaze then. The hint of anger tightening her throat is a badge of honor. “Thank you,” she says, not meaning it.
Dr. Ventress’s lip twitches. “Welcome aboard, Dr. Radek.”
Cass Sheppard was dragged away during the night. It was an animal again, like the alligator. It was hard for a city girl like Josie to wrap her head around the idea that there were still places in the modern USA that stone-age era creatures could hunt down and kill armed humans. She’d seen a bear only once before. In a zoo.
What remained of the team continued on through the dense forest. It was more like a jungle, thick vegetation stretching down from low tree branches, all manner of birds and insects hollering just out of sight. Josie sweated all through her jacket, and was sick with relief when they took a rest, even if it was just so Lena could confirm what they all already knew—that Cass was dead.
But as they sat among the fallen trunks and stretching ferns, Josie took a moment to catch her breath and allow herself a few moments for appreciation. She had always been relatively fit, but she had never exerted herself like this, to the point where her muscles ached. Her feet were sore and her eyes stinging from sweat. Her hair was matted to her scalp. And with every breath and blink she surveyed the area around her, conscious of the ever-present threat. Her skin prickled with goose bumps with every distant crunch of the underbrush. Despite the heavy layers of clothing she was naked, exposed, her mortality splashed across the forest floor like her own shadow.
There was no control here. Her forearms itched, and instead of the knife she thought about bear claws raking her open, and what they might set loose.
When Josie first hears the name “The Shimmer,” she internally scolds whoever came up with such a childish and unscientific moniker. When she sees it, she understands.
The colors glide upward across an invisible barrier, like the surface of a soap bubble. They swirl and form aimless shapes, a pastel Jupiter, storm spots appearing and absorbing. Even several miles away it’s striking, impossible. Dr. Ventress has lived up to her word.
“It doesn’t seem to be exuding any toxins,” says Cass Sheppard. In two months she’ll be dead. “It does have a dome a few hundred feet up, but as far as we can tell, it extends deep below ground level. We haven’t been able to tunnel under.”
“And it’s growing?” Josie asks quietly.
“It’s growing,” says Cass. “Very steadily. Nothing they’ve tried seems to have any effect on it.”
Josie watches the colors mix and climb. She picks a spot among the trees, watching to see if she can judge the speed at which The Shimmer is expanding. But either the growth is so minimal or her eyes so dazzled by the colors that she can’t tell.
“You’re an anthropologist,” she says. “But this area isn’t historically significant, and the event is recent.”
“Seems strange, doesn’t it?” says Cass. Do they really believe there’s anything “human” about The Shimmer? She smiles with a somber energy that Josie immediately appreciates. “I guess we won’t know until something makes it back.”
In two months, Josie will be gone, too. In that moment, she can almost feel it, when faced with the swelling enormity of the prism ahead of her. It reminds her of the primordial soup the earth’s first living cells called home. Simple. Innocent. First. She feels envy.
The expedition reached a small village half devoured by trees and shrubbery. The wilderness was taking it back much like The Shimmer was expanding outward all the time. Everyone was exhausted, on edge, jumping at shadows. Josie’s forearms were itching again. She drew her sleeve back, convinced that she would find an open wound beneath, but there were only the same scars she’d always had. As she studied them, a pair of delicate wings fluttered past her face, and a butterfly came to rest on her outstretched wrist.
Josie wasn’t an entomologist by any means, but after several days of encountering the bizarre, she was easily convinced that she was looking at a species unknown in nature. The wings were peach blending into brown, with long, black tendrils flaring off their edges like eyelashes. Black and white stretched across the delicate wing structures and formed a circular shape. The veins directed inward like lines in an iris. As Josie continued to stare, it looked more and more like the shape of a human eye. And then it blinked.
Josie flinched, sending the butterfly flittering away. She watched it disappear into the trees and wished Cass were alive to see it. There were humans alive in The Shimmer after all, she thought.
Josie turned back toward the group. Flowering trees in the shapes of men rose out of the fields, graceful and silent. Everyone else was still stunned by the revelations they provided, going through the various stages of denial and panic. But seeing those stoic figures gave Josie a feeling of peace more than anything. They were connected to a vibrant world all around them, a little piece of them in everything else. They might exist until The Shimmer swallowed up the rest of the world completely and they would never be alone.
Anya is everything that Josie has difficulty dealing with when it comes to other people. She’s outgoing and energetic and she speaks her mind, loudly. She speaks a lot.
“I’m going to be the medic on our trip,” she tells Josie as they eat lunch together. She makes it sound so normal. “So I think it’s a good idea that I get a baseline on your vitals before then. You know, to be prepared.”
Josie continues mix peas into her mashed potatoes. She’s not used to having someone pay such close attention to her, and she doesn’t know how to react, even enough to be embarrassed. “I’ve had plenty of physicals,” she says.
“Come on, not like another is gonna hurt,” Anya presses. When she grins, Josie can count all her teeth. “Can’t you at least let me take your pulse?”
She reaches for Josie’s arm; Josie is well practiced enough that she slides her hand out of range without jerking it away, as she used to. “Maybe later.”
“Sorry.” Anya’s smile gets a little sheepish as she pokes at her lunch. “Is my game that rusty? I’m not used to being around the cute ones.”
Josie blinks at her, startled. She’s so rusty it takes her a few beats to understand what Anya even means. Even once she does, she has no idea what to say or how to react. Probably, she should play along. It’s just flirting, she tells herself. Soon it might not matter either way. But those genes just aren’t in her makeup, and all she can do is shrug shyly.
Anya chuckles fondly, and Josie wonders what it would be like to be her.
Josie took the rifle in her hands. She wrapped her finger around the trigger and squeezed until the creature was dead.
Her hands shook for a long time afterward. She stood back as Ventress and Lena argued. She felt that if she unclenched her jaw enough to speak, she would rattle apart. Light-headed, she stumbled into the hallway and found Anya’s body, mangled and leaking on the rotting hardwood. The walls seemed to creak and flex with the echo of her scream still vibrating the foundations, and Josie crouched down to close her eyes and mouth.
If anything of Anya survived in the prism, Josie hoped it would be her spirit from when they had started out—her strength and her determination, her protective nature. Not the same moment of anguish that had survived of Cass.
“...the person who ends this won’t be the person who started it,” said Dr. Ventress in the next room, and despite the panic beneath her usual calm, Josie found the words oddly comforting. Already she wasn’t the same person she had been. Evolution lay beneath her skin, ripening. Part of her would live on. Maybe like Cass and Anya it would be only her anguish, but even that was a kind of immortality that would have frightened her before. She was already becoming someone new.
Dr. Ventress left, and Lena approached, shaken and at a loss. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to be out in the dark,” she said. “ Anything could be out there.”
“I agree,” said Josie. She stood and faced Lena. They weren’t anything alike, she thought to herself. Both scientists, maybe. But Lena with her dead, mad husband, who had come to The Shimmer for hope or knowledge or even revenge, was as different from her as an alligator to a shark. As different as a woman to a bear. A butterfly to an eyelash.
But not for much longer.
The last night before the team is schedule to head into The Shimmer, Josie sneaks out of her room and heads to the observation deck on the roof.
In the moonlight, The Shimmer’s colors are pearlescent, glowing. The forest just beyond its reach is reflected in the climbing rainbows. Knowing that she’ll soon be inside, a witness to its mysteries, dulls rather than excites her apprehension. The enemy of fear is understanding, after all. Once a thing can be unraveled, it can be accepted. Even if it can’t be overcome.
Lena joins her at the railing. They don’t speak for a long time, because Lena is distracted and Josie just doesn’t want to. She’s never been good in situations where interaction is expected, and Lena isn’t a good candidate for words of comfort or reassurance anyway. She’s been humming with anxious energy since the moment she stepped foot onto the base.
“You’re really sure about this?” Lena asks, so predictable. “Going in there?”
“We’ll never learn anything if someone doesn’t,” says Josie.
“But,” Lena starts again, and Josie knows the words before they’re out of her mouth. “You’re so young.”
“I’m really not,” says Josie, not that she expects Lena to understand. “I’m actually a pretty good candidate for this.”
Lena casts her a look. Of course she doesn’t quite comprehend. But that’s okay. Josie is used to that.
“You don’t have to go,” says Josie. “Even if you can’t leave, you don’t have to go in. We can bring back samples for you to study.”
“No.” Lena faces the The Shimmer. The muscles under her skin seem to shift as if trying to mimic its rippling across her cheeks. “I have to do this,” she says with conviction not untainted by fear. “I have to.”
Her determination is palpable. She’s terrified but resolute. What is it like to feel emotion that strongly, let alone two opposing impulses?
Josie doesn’t understand Lena, either. But she wants to.
Josie didn’t get any sleep the rest of that night. As soon as the sun rose she left the attic that she and Lena had holed up in for the remaining hours and stepped out into the tall grass. Already the heat was sweltering, so she took off her jacket. It didn’t matter anymore if Lena saw.
She sat down in the grass and closed her eyes, letting the sun smother her bare skin. Letting sweat collect on her pores like dewdrops, letting the wind sway her. The warmth was rejuvenating, and she wondered if this was what photosynthesis felt like. Billions of years ago, the cells making up her body had thrived in swampy heat, at the start of the world. It was very much like home. Lena the biologist certainly understood that .
It had frightened her, watching snakes coil and squirm in a man’s stomach. But if she took the knife to herself now, only soft, growing things would spill out. She could feel them creeping out from under skin as if they had always been there. She looked forward to planting her feet in the earth like Anya, sturdy but askew. She imagined small butterflies with brown eyes blinking at her while they fed, studying her. She smiled with the prospect of gaining Dr. Ventress’ stoicism. She wanted her cells under Lena’s microscope.
It wasn’t that she appreciated them so much. In fact, in the end, they mattered to her very little. But they would be together, now. They would be a part of her just like every man and woman who had come before them, and eventually, every living person on the planet. Every cell, every atom, dissolving piece by piece, until they at last returned to the primordial lights of The Shimmer.
Lena still didn’t understand. She chased Josie through the overgrowth. But with every step Josie relinquished all those human traits she no longer needed, latching on instead to the ancient texts hidden within her DNA. She grew and twisted, dissolved and expanded. Her scars peeled back and shriveled away, her flesh became glossy and soft. Her bones twisted and her joints become knots. She blossomed.
And in the embracing warmth of a dewy morning, Josie returned to the earth in her simplest, cleanest form, on her own terms, and of her own mind. As the rest of humanity descended through their denial into annihilation, she alone would remain.
The last woman on earth.