They huddled in the dripping room while the things could be heard above them, shambling, directionless. Except Gemma knew they weren't directionless; their boosted olfactory senses locked onto human scent like Sidewinder missiles tracking heat. It was only their graceless and deceptive gait that suggested a lack of purpose. For they had purpose: an unrelenting hunger for human flesh and human viscera. Almost as if, should they consume enough, their own lost humanity might be returned to them.
In the youthful world now passed, this place had been an industrial park threaded with sweeping arteries of asphalt as the highways curved through the blaring living city. All now void of freight and everything ossified.
But what of beauty? The constant dripping from broken pipes had become the maddening new music of an altered world. Yellow-umber stains on cracked concrete its strange new art. Carrion birds the brave new letters on the dismal grey pages of the sky.
Gemma had noticed one in particular: a woman. Yes, what of beauty? Beauty still clung to this one in places, as with a blighted tree still flowering its final spring while its bark peeled and most of its leaves browned and curled like the imploring hands of babies in the ashen wake of a terrible fire. One of her eyes still flared green like a dying sun. Her chestnut hair, where it still clung, hinted at the lustre of its prime. Even her gait, that appalling lurch of her kind, was offset by the jut of her resting hip, a plaintive sexual echo. In her nihilist soul Gemma found herself wanting her, craving some cheerless consummation.
There was no song, no prayer, no lament, could do justice to the magnitude of their loss. The slow parade toward annihilation had always been inevitable, all things growing cold and alone as space itself stretches and drops over an irreversible horizon. Heat death. But not like this. Not like this.
Song or not, believer or not, in her fitful dreams Gemma found herself praying to the unliving woman she called the Last Beauty.
On this her final night, unaware their camp had been breached, that those pitiless jaws with their unholy sepia teeth were almost upon her, this was her final entreaty, which became her elegy, her requiem for the great abandonment, played for an audience who'd left long ago:
"Come, O woman of the endless shade. Here. Where we follow traces of gold in the gloaming; where we contort our falls to preempt our crushing newborn lambs, whose ripe eyes are glittering seeds for distant new worlds; where we slip silently into the bay, oars laid gently down, rifles now readied; where the shriek of loss in the night ward arrests our hearts while the lusty cry of an infant restarts them; where a timely unbidden song breaks the impulse to self-murder; where the compulsion of sex follows the double helix down into the damp heat of the earth, spiraling—a dark caduceus, kundalini's echo; where the dust-mote cathedral hush and floating becalmed at night under the shimmering cosmic blurt are counterparts; where a fawn emerges unsteady on a quiet floor of dew before even the birds begin their welcome, nose and tail both twitching as if for balance; where Kalashnikovs stutter a Parisian night; where the morning cool holds its delicate breath; where magic still dwells; where all things seem true; meet me here, with all of this, and help me to understand you."