The following week, John was once again alone with his dog, chopping firewood and filling the shed as if preparing for the end of the world. The sauna builders had felled a few birch trees from the surrounding mixed forest, trimmed them, and sawed them into logs, providing John with an outlet for his frustrations or a means to tire himself into a deep sleep. However, John's intended solitary life as a hermit didn't last more than a few weeks before a young woman appeared on the forest path. She had a large backpack on her back and was dressed in hiking gear, as if she were planning to climb a mountain.

John was astonished by the strange visitor, assuming the woman was lost or intending to set up camp by the lake. He missed his mark on the log, the axe slipping sideways; it was a stroke of luck that it didn't hit his foot. Meanwhile, the fragile yet spirited-looking woman, who had a soulful and beautiful demeanor, came towards him with an outstretched hand and introduced herself, a cheerful expression in her blue-green eyes. She was Helen, a journalist for a renowned Polish science publication.

Helen, a recent graduate with a master's degree in science journalism and a doctorate in theoretical physics, showed John her credentials on a tablet screen, which he recoiled from. She wasn't lost; she had specifically sought out John's cabin using directions obtained from the village. She had persuaded her editor to give her the assignment and decided to spend the weekend interviewing John, whose act of seclusion she had heard about from her American science magazine friends. Intrigued by John's choice to isolate himself from civilization, her editor had finally agreed to the story. Helen did not expect to meet a clean and polished man with his dog, chopping wood ineffectively. She had hoped for a bearded, indifferent, and hostile hermit to provide the needed contrast between past and present for her article. It seemed like it would be a dull piece, not even fit for the last pages of the magazine. But she kept her thoughts to herself and smiled as pleasantly as she could.

A dark lock of hair had escaped from under Helen's hat, as if seeking attention. After staring at each other briefly, they snapped out of their handshake, and John sighed, thinking there was no reasonable explanation for an interview. How on earth had he even been found? Only his cousin, the sauna builders, and his family knew the location. How could he get out of this situation? The woman was intriguing and oddly appealing nonetheless. He immediately mentioned his electromagnetic hypersensitivity, apologizing for his unintentional slip, meaning to say he didn't want people and their electronic devices near his new life.

Helen laughed, and John felt more embarrassed than ever, realizing she had misheard and understood something else, as her amused expression suggested. His subconscious meddling felt like branding iron to his stuttering mind. Helen took off her backpack, lifted it, and smiled as sweetly as she could, placing it on a large rock a distance away. The puppy, wagging its tail, followed her, and she bent down to pet it. The dog licked her hand like a best friend.

"I'll put the devils here," Helen said, dangling the bag with a straight arm like a foul-smelling waste bag before theatrically lowering it onto the rock and then picking up the eager puppy for a cuddle.

They both smiled a bit artificially, a strange expression on their faces. John knew, with frustration, that he had lost the first round, and Helen wouldn't leave without her interview—or maybe not at all, damn it. She even held his dog as if she were its owner. She might be a Mata Hari spying on him for her former employer, getting close through seduction. Just who knew anything about him at all? Although he recalled giving a few interviews to the respected science publication Techpolis and had been in the spotlight a little, knowing some of its expert contributors as former classmates, he never considered himself recognized or notable.

To escape the awkward situation, he fetched an armful of dry firewood from the shed and walked over to the log cabin by the lake, which still glistened with resin, and said gruffly, "To make sure our guest doesn't get cold in this chilly autumn weather, let's heat up the sauna." He immediately regretted his choice of words and corrected himself. "I mean, I'll heat the sauna," he said, hurrying to the sauna without looking at the woman.

After lighting the fire in the sauna stove, with Helene watching amusedly from behind, he took her to the house, showed her around, and pointed out a bedroom upstairs farthest from his, saying softly, "Welcome to the house. I'm sorry this trip turned out to be unnecessary. I'm not going to send anyone away at night, and the journey through the forest on that root-filled path is dangerous in the dark. You'll find bedding in the dresser. Let's grill something on the campfire after the sauna. I'll make coffee."

"Let me do that; you go to the sauna, I'll find everything," said the woman, opening cupboards and looking for coffee cups.

John frowned but did as he was told, leaving through the door with his dog staying behind with the woman, getting water in its bowl as if it was their routine. "What the hell is going on here?" John muttered to himself as he walked away.

John regretted every clumsy word he had spoken. He did not want to appear foolish, but then, what did it matter? By tomorrow, the woman would be gone, and surely she wouldn't write about him as a grumpy loner who rudely sent her away.

After they had coffee, sitting silently lost in their own thoughts in the comfy deck chairs on the terrace, John went to the sauna and announced it was ready. While rummaging through the cabinets on his first days there, he had found women's and men's bathrobes and swimsuits mixed in with some leftover outdoor clothes. He grabbed swimsuits and bathrobes for both Helene and himself.

In the sauna, John explained that in Finland, it was common for unfamiliar men and women to sauna together naked, and the rule was not to stare. He thought, "What an idiot, why did I say that?"

"What do you mean?" Helene asked, a puzzled frown appearing between her eyes. "Where I come from, people rarely use the sauna, and certainly not naked with men."

"Nothing, forget it. Finns are a bit crazy. We don't sauna together in the U.S. either, much less naked," he said, accidentally throwing a whole scoop of water on the stove in his flustered state, forcing him to dash from the sauna into the icy lake.

After they had splashed in the freezing lake and returned to the sauna benches shivering, Helene suddenly said,

"I understand Finns now. This wet swimsuit is really uncomfortable," and began to take it off. "Should I get you a towel?"

John asked gallantly. "No need," she replied, laying her removed swimsuit beside her. "As long as you don't peek."

"Of course not," John said, but he couldn't help glancing at her naked body, noticing a long horizontal scar on her lower abdomen. The brief sight of her pubic hair made him involuntarily aroused, and he struggled to hide his erection.

"This is unfair to men," Helen said. "Let's be proper Finns and adults. No need to peek when we can just look."

She then began to stroke John's swimsuit, revealing his erection and moving her hand up and down. John climaxed almost immediately into her fingers.

Then they climbed off the benches and raced each other, splashing into the icy water from the end of the pier. Returning to the sauna, they sat apart in silence, each lost in their thoughts, unsure of what to say. John threw a ladle of water onto the stove, and Helene yelped as the hot steam hit her skin.

"Are you trying to kill us, you madman?" she exclaimed.

They sat on the benches, careful not to glance at each other, while the stove hissed angrily as the water turned to steam, mixing with the carefully selected stones from John's grandfather.

"No peeking now. I have to go to the bathroom," Helene said as she stood up, making no effort to cover herself, while sneaking a glance at John to gauge his reaction, her eyes smiling.

They both burst into laughter. On her return, Helene teasingly nudged John as she climbed past him onto the bench, giving a quick look towards his groin. John, not yet fully recovered from earlier, felt embarrassed and suggested,

"How about we cool off in the lake again? Too much activity in here could give us a heart attack."

"I think I've had enough of the sauna. I'll just take a shower."

As Helene stood in the shower, she felt a touch on her buttocks. It was John, his erection pressing between her thighs from behind. She spun around angrily, both of them breathing heavily as they stared into each other's eyes, reminiscent of an old Korean romance movie.

"You know nothing about women. What happened earlier was just an impulse, but that doesn't mean my love life is sleazy porn or that I tolerate forced advances," Helene said, shoving John away forcefully.

John retreated to the sauna in shame. He felt that this was the end of their interview, and poured water over the stove. When he finally dared to come out, he saw Helen fully dressed by the shore. He approached her hesitantly and apologized,

"I misunderstood what happened earlier. I'm not good at these things; I've spent a lot of time alone."

Helene turned her head, looking at him intently. She gently stroked the back of his hand and said,

"Maybe it was my fault. I wanted to make love too, but I can't stand being groped or having someone try to take me without my full consent. A few bad experiences still make me jumpy. Let's go ahead with the interview and forget about the rest. You're not a predator, you're actually quite sweet, and I might have let you make love to me if things had gone a bit differently."

"Yeah, let's do it," John replied quietly, and then he went to start the fire in the pre-prepared campfire.

Soon, they were sitting side by side like a pair of doves on a large, fallen pine log, with the flames reflecting in their eyes, lost in distant thoughts. They waited for the fire to die down into embers to cook the trout John had caught with a lure during his morning row on the lake, while sipping the Austrian white wine Helene had brought and cooled in the lake.

"How incredibly strange," escaped Helene's lips without her noticing.

John asked, "What is?"

And got a playful shove and a cheerful, "You are such a dolt, John Lunden, if you can't figure it out."

John couldn't think of a better response and said, "You speak English really well. Your pronunciation is perfect," he marveled, and learned that Helene had studied in the U.S. at Harvard for the last three years completing her Ph.D. in theoretical physics.

"Got it," replied John, perhaps I should avoid thinking out loud about my stupidity.

"Don't be silly, nerd."

John went inside to fetch utensils, potatoes for baking in the coals, butter, and preserved accompaniments, releasing Iivari, who dashed outside at full speed to jump around Helene and nearly singed his tail fur on the hot embers where John was setting up the grill rack.

Their initial meeting had been mutually evasive, with an underlying tone of wary hostility, as if someone was threatening their personal boundaries in a way neither was prepared for. Can't make sense of this, John thought. Never seen a more stunning woman naked and then messed up by being too forward. Yet he knew that there was some kind of direct connection between the two of them.

They sat close together on the log, the sunset casting its final hues across the clouds. John was just about to gently wrap his arm around Helene's shoulders, shivering from the cold, when something peculiar happened, something he couldn't explain. It was as though a warm wind passed through the cells of their bodies; at the same moment, Helene's laptop in her backpack and the communicator left on a stone near the beach burst into flames without any visible cause. The entire surroundings seemed to shift with a faint hum, as if an invisible force moved through everything, creating an unreal sensation like a warm breeze blowing through their body's cells, tilting them like a boat hit by softly undulating waves.

John said, with a strange expression on his face, "This is really bizarre," though he wasn't referring to Helene's burning devices or even the blossoming deep feeling for her.

Helene just stared ahead, dazed, not visibly reacting to the events. John saw a thin wisp of smoke coming from the open window of his upstairs study, where his computer system encased in glass was located.

John rushed inside. All the solar-charged, wireless LED lights on the walls had burned out, and Iivari was barking frantically. John dashed up the stairs and in the study, he found the computer monitor smoldering in the heat-damaged glass casing, with the battery still flaming. He shouted from the window to Helene, "Bring water, bring it quickly, there's a bucket in the sauna!"

Then he bolted to the roof hatch since he had seen black smoke there too. Once on the roof, he frantically tore away the smoldering solar panel wires and threw them as far as he could, starting to stomp out the flames licking the roof. He remembered the fire extinguishers on both floors and rushed to get them, sliding down through the roof hatch. John grabbed an extinguisher, climbed back to the roof, and sprayed foam onto the glowing panels, whose surfaces crackled into shards.

Helene climbed up to the study with a bucket of water, emptied it over the smoking devices, and managed to extinguish the flames. The glass enclosure had prevented a major fire, although the terminal inside had melted. John remembered seeing a fire extinguisher in the corner of the large downstairs room and dashed to fetch it while Helene hurried to the lake to get more water using two buckets. John efficiently doused the remaining smoldering parts in the ceiling with the extinguisher and went around the house tracing the routes of the electrical wires connected to the solar panels, tearing off the burned cables and spraying foam into the scorched black streaks they left on the walls. They continued carrying bucket after bucket of water, pouring it into the fire-charred holes in the roof, ignoring potential water damage, until they were certain that no smoldering embers remained.

The most peculiar thing was that upon examining the exterior damage, they discovered the batteries of the lake water pump had also exploded, despite the cold water, as if something extremely hot had struck them. Exhausted and panting from their efforts on the shore, they tried to figure out why every electrical device and wire had been destroyed as though hit by an enormous electrical surge. Even some thin, less conductive metal objects had twisted strangely regardless of their location—old-fashioned forks and knives in the kitchen drawers, small initial fires had erupted all over the house and in the sauna, which had extinguished themselves. The warm sauna stove had broken when the electrically monitored water tank attached to its side melted, causing the entire stove to collapse, and the hot stones scattered onto the wooden grate, igniting it. Luckily, the water from the side tank had gushed out and stopped the spread of the fire by the boiling steam, preventing the complete destruction of the sauna.

All the frames of the solar panels that had been knocked off the roof had melted into shapeless masses. John had pried them off with a crowbar he found in the shed to uncover any hidden embers, and now they lay useless on the lawn in front of the house, along with the foul-smelling burnt kitchen appliances and charred, melted batteries.

"What the hell was that?" John muttered to Helene as they sat exhausted and sooty on the lawn after hours of hard work.

Helene squeezed his hand tightly and then collapsed into his lap, instantly falling asleep. They both knew they had revealed every small character trait to each other in the heat of the battle, deeply and permanently falling in love. They felt they knew each other completely without knowing anything about their past lives.

Thick plumes of smoke rose from behind the forest, and perhaps similar incidents had occurred in the villages. As scientists, they knew better than to jump to conclusions but were certain it was some form of natural phenomenon. Due to his sensitivity to electricity, John had thoroughly studied the causes and effects of electromagnetic phenomena and suggested to Helene,

"It must have been an electromagnetic pulse from a solar flare, affecting only conductive materials. Strange that my allergy didn't detect it and send my body into shock."

"Which is actually a good thing," said a recovered Helene, her head in his lap. "Or maybe it's the earth shaking and nature sparking after a tight situation," she added, referencing their awkward sauna encounter with a good-natured irony in her voice. "Your fault," she said, wrapping her arms around John's neck, pulling his face close, and kissing him deeply. Fortunately, they had removed their watches, rings, and other jewelry that might burn their skin before going into the sauna, and there was not much left of those items on the still-standing shelf in the sauna's antechamber.

Helen, serious as ever in her role as a physicist who had investigated everything for the science journal, said:

"I think it's likely a gamma-ray burst from outer space. I recently reviewed an article on the prediction of such an event because something extraordinary happened far away in space a collision between the gravitational fields of black holes at the centers of two galaxies that collided long ago. This caused huge amounts of pure energy, created from the plasma of ingested stars, to spew into the cold space, akin to a mini Big Bang, followed by a massive gravitational wave in all directions, possibly covering the entire known universe. One hypothesis also suggested that gamma radiation could be emitted as an energy pulse in a random direction due to the black hole's rotation, like a laser beam thousands of kilometers thick, potentially wiping out entire star systems as it travels, growing stronger."

"Imagination or truth, who knows? Such horror stories circulate in scientific publications all the time. At least we're still alive," said John, utterly exhausted from the recent firefighting efforts.

"According to calculations, it should reach our solar system around now," Helen laughed. The article had been treated as sci-fi fantasy at the office and filed away with conspiracy theories and crazy ideas.

Helen suddenly kissed John gently on the cheek and whispered, "Forgive me for the shower incident. My reflexes are overly sensitive to unexpected touches."

John turned to her, and for a moment they gazed into each other's eyes before kissing, a force seemingly binding them together forever. Soon, they lay on the shore, making love with such passion, indifferent to the potential destruction of the solar system. Love, the strongest of natural forces, commanded them to unite with their perfect partners irresistibly.

They clung to each other, making love tenderly yet fiercely, the event sparking wild emotions within, climaxing simultaneously. Helen's vulva tightened, drawing John's seed deeper within her, her primal instincts urging every sperm towards fertilizing her egg. Helen understood that semen intensified her orgasm and always allowed it inside during intercourse to achieve a hormonal climax. Her pupils dilated with pleasure, she moaned, gripping John's thigh painfully as she came with him deep inside her.

Helene had a modern contraceptive implant that could be deactivated with a simple code. Reflecting on it, she recalled experiencing sudden fleeting pain from her implants, of which she had three. She hadn't given it much thought due to other overwhelming events happening simultaneously. She knew the contraceptive implant had been destroyed and it wouldn't prevent the next natural ovulation. Fortunately, it hadn't administered any medication, merely used her body's own cells to produce contraceptive blockers. It didn't seem to matter much now, and she pressed closer to John, her tears mixing with his strongly musk-scented sweat.

Exhausted, they lay on the grass for a long time, embracing and listening to each other's heartbeats as if sharing whispered secrets. The joyous brightness of their hormonal connection shone like stars in a dark sky. They had found the keys to their compatibility away from dating guides, city bars, algorithm-matched online services, or friends' set-up dates. Far from the media's tricks of civilization, they laughed as they ran to the cold lake, scrubbing soot from each other's skin.

The next day, a dark cloud of smoke loomed behind the forest on the horizon, growing steadily. As John patched the roof with wooden boards he found in the shed, hammering the bent nails he'd straightened, he sighed, "Damn it, why did this have to happen?"

That evening, the sky glowed ominously redder than ever before, hinting that something inexplicable had happened in the entire area.

The following morning, John and Helene decided to head to the nearest village to find out the cause of the massive smoke cloud and contact their loved ones and Helene's workplace. Taking the forest trail leading to the village, they discovered the horrifying truth: the entire village had burned to the ground. The nearby dwellers were fleeing towards the lakeside town, clutching whatever belongings they could salvage, looking like a convoy of evacuees. The roadside had a crashed and burned hovercar, a charred tractor, and a thresher between which lay badly burned men.

Stopping a passerby, Helene learned that he came from a small town farther away, where an instantaneous power surge had destroyed all electrical appliances, metal objects, and illuminated buildings, causing countless accidents and fires. Chaos ensued, with everyone either losing everything in the blaze or trying to escape the spreading fires into the countryside. Once busy roads became fire barriers flanked by fiery forests and fields. Fortunately, recent rains had dampened many forest areas, which only smoldered after catching fire on the outskirts. Roads with cleared verges allowed mass evacuations despite similar disasters on both sides. There was hope that the lakeside town, built entirely of stone after an ancient great fire, might still be intact. At least the large lake next to it would provide drinking water, and fires wouldn't spread across water, and the sea was not far away.

John's inherited property and the surrounding areas were just a few hundred meters from the unguarded German border. An old checkpoint, long dismantled, had left a rusty sign that once read, "Welcome to Poland!" In practice, the border was almost nonexistent, though some official matters still needed to be handled in each respective country.

In her conversations, Helen refrained from mentioning their hidden sanctuary behind the forest to anyone she encountered, fearing that refugees would flock there because of the small lake. She wanted to keep the preserved buildings and the safety of their forest haven concealed. A brewing storm approached, precluded by the first tentative raindrops. At the edge of the charred field, a thick curtain of rain was fast approaching. It had already reached the mournful scene behind the hill, where thick, hot steam rose from smoldering fires, forming a dense fog that mercifully obscured the sight of burnt bodies and carcasses.

Helen and John discreetly retreated back into their forest, finding their hidden path and hastily making their way to the safety of their cabin, stumbling over the roots along the way. They were baffled and helpless about the endless distress and chaos they had witnessed on the road, uncertain of how to assist without inviting the turbulence into their sanctuary. They decided to think through what they had seen and heard, their own impending doom seemingly just a step behind. They were certain that organized help was already on its way to the affected areas.

"Hasty actions are always the worst mistake in difficult times," Helen said, as if to justify their self-preserving retreat through the forest. They deduced that the refugees were unlikely to wander deeper into the woods, as the mass exodus had a clear direction and destination. After all, humans were social creatures.

They lamented their lack of communication tools to reach the outside world, noting that even the refugees they met had none. Some refugees bore burn marks from their wrist communicators. "Dead ends everywhere, and no help in sight," one man had said.

Watching from their cabin, they saw the relentless downpour and heard the fierce gale that swept away anything loose or scattered items across the yard. John was thankful that he had, despite exhaustion, diligently repaired the roof immediately after extinguishing the fire, resisting the temptation to leave it half-done.

Their sudden, multifaceted love sustained them—a feeling so encompassing it resembled sorrow, driven by a constant desire for intimacy, like a vital flame stoked by their anxiety. The storm raging around their cabin served as a dramatic backdrop to their desire, blending tenderness with the wild ferocity of nature's fight for survival. Their dog, Iivari, had retreated, whimpering, to its corner.

Chaos ruled outside, with trees crashing down, their roots torn from the ground to reveal large, rapidly flooding pits. Makeshift sheds for building supplies collapsed, sending wooden planks flying into the cabin's sturdy walls. Using all his strength, John had secured the storm shutters before the tempest reached its peak intensity. The tornado whipped the landscape, creating a water spout on the lake that toppled trees on the opposite shore.

Helen and John felt grateful for their sturdy, well-anchored buildings and thankful they had returned in time. The storm subsided as quickly as it had begun. The next morning, they reflected on the devastation they had witnessed, the memory of fleeing crowds etched into their minds.

"It felt like a war had broken out, killing indiscriminately," John muttered. "Even took the sauna."

"Your sauna, always the sauna," Helen retorted. "It's unbelievable this is happening. I'll head to Warsaw once my clothes are dry."

"Go ahead, but don't write about me."

"I'll write what I want, but do you really think talking about you is my priority?"

"Of course not. I'm sure your family and boyfriend are worried sick, knowing what's happened here and unable to contact you. I'll escort you to the town."

"Absolutely not, I can manage," Helen snapped, packing her bag.

"Let's take some supplies from the cellar to share with the refugees. It's safer if I come with you; there's anarchy everywhere and who knows what could happen to women alone."

"Nothing worse than what you've already done," Helen replied, tears welling up as John held her, whispering comforting words, "Stay here with me, sweetheart. Let's wait until we know more and things calm down. The trains likely won't run after this storm today."

"Then tomorrow at the latest," Helen sighed, nearly falling asleep on her feet.

Days passed with scarce conversation and little contact; they slept in separate rooms, as if preparing themselves step-by-step for an inevitable farewell. They solemnly cleaned up the storm damage, stealing glances at each other from under the remnants, sighing involuntarily. The weather remained good.

"At least any smoldering fire spots in the area would've been extinguished by the downpour," John remarked out of nowhere.

"Something positive, at least," Helen replied, knowing she would stay forever if John asked again.

They wanted to help but knew it was best to wait; who knew what other calamities might sweep them into turmoil? Appetite waning, Helen burst into tears, clinging to John, and they made love tenderly on an old rug, woven long ago with the joys and sorrows of their forebears. Iivari, oblivious, sniffed the air in his corner, sensitive to the unsettling scents.

With no media, they were in complete isolation, relying on their senses to understand events. Black smoke still spiraled on the horizon, signaling ongoing fires. They knew people, having lost everything, fled towards the large lake, traveling great distances.

John and Helen's lake was about the size of a large forest pond, a small, sparsely populated dot on maps, hidden behind a long stretch of forest that few knew existed. It was as much a sanctuary as it was a home for them—this they understood. Most of the locals had forgotten the location of their cabin, and it hadn't crossed anyone's mind in a time of need. Perhaps none of them had even survived. John and Helen, in their newfound harmony, decided to remain undisturbed at their forest lodge for the time being without revealing themselves. However, they knew this wouldn't last long and it would be best to contact the city, announce their presence, and offer their help. Helen knew she couldn't travel to Warsaw without John—not now, not ever. John wouldn't agree to leave his repair work without being pushed, but Helen didn't want to force him, knowing he would go if she went. She wanted to return to the road as soon as possible, perhaps joining others still wandering and heading to the city to help if she could. Most importantly, she wanted to reconnect with Warsaw.

Helen tried to discuss going to Warsaw with John several times while they shared a bed, but John only frowned and stubbornly insisted she should go, promising to escort her to the city. The city had a high-speed train connection to Warsaw, or at least it used to. They had their first arguments, and when Helen refused to go alone, they sulked, not wanting to part or lose sight of each other. Then Helen spoke firmly,

"I'm staying, period."

John knew the matter was settled, though under duress, he might have agreed to go to Warsaw.

"Fine, stay then. I can't bear to be a hermit anymore anyway, with my mind fixated on you like a reflection staring back at me everywhere. I'd go mad if you left."

Helen pinched him hard on the arm.

"I know exactly what that hairy thought is, my dear Romeo. Let my flesh be yours, now and forever. Fuck me, hit me, kill me, do whatever you want. I'm your unofficially wedded wife, John Lunden, because I can't help it, because I love you with every cell, and you are my man whether you want to be or not, until the end of my life."

They clung to each other once more, standing for a long time listening to the sanctity of their sealed love, with the sole witness being Iivari, the mixed-breed shepherd puppy, nipping jealously around them and wagging his tail, and the entire universe echoing their declaration of happiness on all frequencies. The Warsaw issue still troubled them, along with the worry about their loved ones.

John often comforted Helen, saying they could later visit to fetch belongings and meet Helen's family and everything else she had left behind. The Warsaw issue was further complicated by the fact that they couldn't report anything about what had happened. People there were probably even more worried, hearing bad news about events happening locally. Eventually, they would have to go to the city to find out everything, get information, and contact their families to let them know they'd survived.

In the morning, they quickly packed their backpacks with whatever they thought would be useful. They filled Iivari's water bowl and food dish, tidied up the doghouse they had earlier repaired, and hugged the dog as if apologizing for their departure. For a moment, they considered letting Iivari inside the house but ultimately decided he should stay in the doghouse with a long leash that reached down to the shore.

"There are hungry predators in the forest," said John. "But if we leave him free inside, he might chew everything in frustration. We can't take him with us, or can we? I don't have the heart to leave him in the doghouse."

"He's a big boy now, and we have a leash for him," replied Helene as she fastened the collar around the excited Iivari's neck.

"Let's bring an extra water bottle for him, so he doesn't drink any contaminated water from puddles. And we'll pack some dog food in the backpack. Almost forgot the food for us; the journey is long, and I doubt there will be any hotdog stands or, if there are, they'll probably have long queues."

In young love, the desire to touch is triggered by the smallest gestures—a casual touch or an unintended word. Throughout packing, they frequently paused to embrace, while Iivari barked anxiously, unsure whether the humans were doing good or harm to each other as they clung together and made strange noises.

After their final checks, the couple set off with Iivari sniffing everything and marking his territory, though it was unlikely there were other dogs in the remote forest area.

"Maybe animals recognize scents from different species, like a fox knowing a dog has marked there," joked John, lightening the mood.

"You're funny; maybe animals think, 'That crazy cabin dweller or his silly girlfriend peed here,'" replied Helene.

Reaching the roadside, they noticed a sparse stream of people, all heading in the same direction. They leashed Iivari and joined the procession, which resembled an extras team in a refugee film in its surrealism. It was odd that everyone was moving towards the Polish border, even though they were Germans; they should be heading to German cities, especially as it was already the third day since the fires started. It seemed strange to both of them. Helene asked a nearby man about it.

"It's much worse in that direction," he said. "Everyone left behind is dead. The air ran out, and only a few managed to escape. We are the last stragglers. We waited at the edge of the devastated area for a day for the storm to pass, but no one else came; they all died, animals too, even the flies. Everything is gone. We rested for a long time before daring to move again, with rumors of robbers making us cautious. But now, we have to find food and water. We sent some young men to scout Zolts a week ago, and they came back yesterday. Not everything was lost; they're setting up a refugee camp by the lake and helping with everything. But there's no contact with the outside world either. Maybe, once the situation clears up, the rest of the world will come to help."

Helene translated for John, and both were bewildered by the news. A storm is one thing, but the air running out didn't make sense, nor did mass extinctions. Maybe the man was just making explanations for things he didn't understand. But when they asked others, they received similar chaotic descriptions of the terrors left behind. The German-Polish border post was deserted; some soldiers on bicycles with old-fashioned weapons passed in small groups, refusing to answer any shouted questions.

"Is this a war?" wondered Helene. "A nuclear war? If these people's stories are true, it doesn't end with the first bomb."

John would have liked to joke that it was good they stained their doormat on the way out, given the world's end was coming, but he understood to keep his mouth shut. After crossing a small hill, they saw the city and, next to it, a large chaotic crowd where it was difficult to discern any order. Near the town of Zolts, the long-flowing river of people had broken up into a large, teeming mass, with soldiers guarding them like sheepdogs, keeping them together. At the head of the bustling crowd, on the road leading to it, there was an armed checkpoint set up by soldiers, allowing a group of about twenty newcomers to pass through at a time, offering instructions and warnings. The soldiers monotonously repeated the same message to each group: there was an emergency; an unknown natural disaster had hit the area, but it was worse beyond these boundaries, and this was the only safe haven for now. They advised against trying to go elsewhere. There was no registration or headcount, as it was impossible. There was no electricity anywhere, and no one was allowed into the guarded city. Similarly, the lake was completely closed off as a drinking water resource to prevent contamination. Drinking water was delivered in horse-drawn tanks and distributed in rations in plastic canisters, with attempts to counter hoarding managed by handing out handwritten permits in different parts of the crowd. A refugee camp was being set up at a safe distance from the lake, which was under military guard, and food and water were distributed by Red Cross workers from the city. The rationing was strict—although there was enough food and water, there weren't enough horses for transportation, and there was a shortage of suitable carts. All operations were driven by ingenuity and were continuously improving, but many of the weaker individuals succumbed to disease, hunger, and thirst before help reached them.

A military unit from the German barracks had the highest authority, and anyone capable was expected to assist in this prolonged emergency situation. A hastily painted large sign beside the checkpoint read:

"We seek understanding and participation. Let us help one another and adhere to the laws in their entirety. The penalties under martial law for any offenses are severe, immediate, and include the death penalty. Disobedience to commands and regulations in life-threatening situations may lead to armed intervention with all its consequences. Please comply and proceed to the designated distribution points on-site. Thank you."

The guards ensured that everyone entering the camp read the sign aloud. Only after going through this procedure were they allowed to proceed and join the dense crowd in search of a solution to their plight. No one allowed into the area was permitted to leave. Helene and John decided to step out of the queue and gather as much information as possible, hiding their dog in a backpack after hearing that dogs were being eaten if caught. Fortunately, they encountered an official coming from the city who recognized Helene from science programs on TV and was pleased to discuss the situation as if being interviewed for media. Helene used her authority to extract every bit of information from the young man. He revealed that while the city faced an equally desperate situation, it had fewer people, and the aid organizations were fully prepared to channel help where it was most needed. Their motto was: essential measures in the right order at the right place—food, water, hygiene, the sick, and the dead were the top priorities. Epidemics had to be prevented at all costs. Situation assessment was also underway, with bicycle patrols circling the countryside. It had been confirmed that on the German side, sixty kilometers away, there was a severe boundary beyond which everyone perished, and the latest reports indicated a similar situation in all surrounding areas of Poland at a specified distance. It was as if they were in a prison with a fifty-kilometer radius, with a deadly invisible fence around it. Though without electricity and vehicles, they were, despite everything, the lucky ones because some of them were still alive. The man sighed, mentioned he had to go, said it was nice to meet them, and see you later, seemingly assuming that Helene and John had already been recruited into the relief effort.

It was clear that the last express train from Warsaw had gone, all connections to the outside world had fallen silent, and that they would be needed to assist. However, they decided to head back along the forest edge with Iivari stuffed into a sack, hoping to reach their path and, with some luck, make it to their cottage before the full darkness, which was just a few hours away.

"Spending the night at the city hotel was literally a ruin," John chuckled, as he went to relieve himself, thinking about how a massive number of homeless people crammed into a small strip of land managed such normal bodily needs.

Helen, squatting nearby, thought the same and said, "I guess the Red Cross set up toilets first and the camp residents dug pits to empty waste buckets and made latrines in the woods for their needs."

Night fell more quickly than they had expected, and they camped in the woods, spending the night dozing hidden among the roadside trees. They made it back to their cottage at dawn, hearing an owl hooting to its mate. They slept through the day in their own bedrooms and, once somewhat repaired, heated the sauna, continuously pondering how to proceed.

Eating dinner as breakfast when she woke up, Helen said, "Two weeks. We'll stay here for two weeks and let things progress in Zoltsi. They need to get logistics in order. We wouldn't be of any help there at this stage; they have enough hands for every task, and we would only be in the way."

John agreed, "Indeed. There might be pressure to let people come here. Let's prepare first. In the initial chaos at the refugee camp, anything can happen, and when people compete for essential resources, many could die. Hopefully, the military unit we saw can handle a real situation, and there will be enough food and clean water for everyone. I'm sure the aid organizations will recruit enough capable people from such a large crowd to help with the emergency response."

"Surely there are practiced procedures for such situations, with reservists and emergency stores buried in the hills. Aid groups from all over the world are probably hurrying there. Hundreds of tents were already set up, and people were building shacks from the scrap metal delivered to the camp," Helen added.

"Let's hope so. Some people will probably return home as soon as it's possible. It's strange though, those mass destruction areas everywhere, preventing large groups from returning anywhere. That guy did mention that if you tried to enter, you would die immediately. There's no theory that explains that if it's true; perhaps we could be useful in investigating it."

According to the official, all aid was now dependent on this somewhat intact area, the stone-built city, its large lake, and the nearby sea.

"To get a clearer picture, we'd need to go to the city and the refugee camp," Helen said, driven by a journalist's curiosity.

John cautioned, saying they should first prepare thoroughly here, repair their place, inventory their food supplies, and think about their safety more carefully. The surroundings were peaceful; reconstructing the stove for the sauna had been straightforward after a fire caused by the electric heating of the shower. Thankfully, the fire had been extinguished when the water tank broke from the sudden heat. They'd only needed a framework for the stones, a firebox underneath, and a chimney attached among the stones. Luckily, the chimney was made of some modern composite material that conducted neither heat nor electricity, installed by the village blacksmith according to fire safety standards, and still pointed skyward as before. It looked like sheet metal, but contained no metal, remaining cool to the touch even when the stove stones sizzled from the steam.

Many objects and tools in the year 2089 were made of composite materials for their lightness and durability, which did not react to electromagnetic fields, hence many utility items remained intact. Carbon fiber and other super-hard composite objects successfully imitated metals and were common in households, remaining completely undamaged.

On the other hand, electricity was the main power source for almost all devices requiring motion or surveillance in everyday tasks, transportation, and construction. Hospitals, factories, and generally all services and operations depended on electricity, and its loss brought the entire society to a halt or crippled it. It was clear that the cottage, having been used in the most old-fashioned ways possible, had survived even though battery-operated kitchen appliances had been destroyed, causing a fire they had extinguished with foam extinguishers.

Days passed working on repairs around the property. Smoke from behind the forest dissipated, and the surroundings gradually appeared normal. Maybe most people had returned to their homes and everything was getting back to normal. There must have been a lot of aid arriving from outside the area by now, if it was even needed. It was peculiar, however, that no rescuers from elsewhere in the world were seen patrolling the skies in their airships; surely the entire planet couldn't be in the same turmoil, or could it?

"We need to see the area that is off-limits," Helen said thoughtfully.

"Let's check Zoltsi and the refugee camp first to get an idea of the situation and see if there are any prohibitions about heading in the other direction," John suggested.

"Otherwise, we won't know what's going on. We might be of help if we figure out the cause of all this," Helen insisted.

John countered, "Surely they have their own experts, with time and equipment to find answers to the mystery of those death zones. Perhaps various experts from around the world have already arrived to help, as they always do when something unexpected happens."

The matter continued to trouble them both as they pondered various possibilities, inspecting their respective damages.

"Do you think a larger-than-usual solar flare could have caused it by destroying the weaker electrical devices? It is a bit strange that no aircraft were visible, but there must be an explanation for that too," John wondered aloud, looking at Helen.

"It would match with the electrical devices burning out, but not if large areas are contaminated by radiation. It can't be the effect of a nuclear weapon because radioactivity would affect human tissues, not electrical devices. The worst effects need to be seen in person to make any guesses. Let's just leave it for now and go take a look," Helen tried again.

John held firm in his stance, "We're not going until we know more."

They were both frustrated by the lack of contact with the outside world and the absence of reliable information about what had happened. Adding to the oddity, the distinctly late-autumn chill had suddenly shifted to summer-like warmth, with even the nights remaining bearable, despite it being November according to the calendar. Normally, at this latitude, it meant the onset of a frosty early winter. It was as if a mild, sparse summer had been rewound into the landscape, where the vegetation had flourished into lush greenery within a couple of weeks, and birds were chirping their summer songs. Even Helene's garden was reddening with a tomato harvest, with yellow flowers on stakes promising more to come. It was all very strange, they muttered repeatedly during their activities.

Concerned about security, John had set up some rattling tripwires in the forest at a distance to alert them of any potential intruders so they could prepare to face such challenges. In the gun cabinet, he found composite shotguns with shells in the barrels and a quiver of sharp arrows next to hunting bows.

"Desperation and hunger turn people into beasts," John said as Helen shook her head at his militant defense plans without saying a word.

Even Iivari, the dog, was unusually quiet, as if sensing something wrong.

As scientists, John and Helen speculated for a long time, pondering the events, and eventually suspecting it might have been some sort of cosmological event, whose effects reached our solar system after millions of years. The more they thought about it, the more their suspicions grew, and in that case, it could potentially affect the entire Earth.

They sighed over the uncertainty surrounding Zolts' situation, but they hesitated to go to the city, almost as if avoiding finding out, despite telling each other otherwise. Deep down, they perhaps wanted to keep everything as it was in their budding relationship, which had developed a streak of circumstantial necessity, like a doubt about the authenticity of the other's feelings.

At night, they shared stories about their lives in bed. John hesitated but couldn't stop himself from answering when Helen asked with genuine curiosity in her voice about his life story. It felt safest to talk about his work history, and that was pretty much all he had, he thought gloomily. Helen was a worldly woman, social and determined, who probably had multiple relationships in her past, maybe even a steady boyfriend she hadn't mentioned to keep John engaged in their difficult situation or to get her story. A modern woman, she was adaptable to getting what she wanted. John immediately felt ashamed of his thoughts. He knew that falling in love was a rollercoaster of doubts and hopeful dreams, but even so, nothing in their relationship felt inauthentic, whether there were secrets and lies involved or not.

The recent past seemed distant, with the everyday unusual oddities altering their perceptions of reality, and nothing meant the same as it did before.

"– The interview isn't over yet, so tell me everything," Helen teased as if she had guessed John's thoughts, pinching him painfully on the stomach and planting a wet kiss on his cheek.

John sighed and began to tell his story honestly, as a form of contrition for his recent thoughts:

"My last years of study were a blur. Although I graduated with a degree in computer engineering with acceptable grades, I couldn't find any jobs other than temporary positions at high schools. I wasn't particularly proud of my accomplishments. I then got involved in a peculiar future project that collapsed under its own impossibility within its first year. I took additional courses related to artificial intelligence and statistical mathematics to possibly pursue a doctorate. These required deep knowledge and good grades across various areas of informatics, not just a dissertation on a narrow topic. My engineering degree provided a lot of supplementary knowledge.

In all my endeavors, I was always just a bit too inadequate or unlucky, never advancing in my career or life. I seemed to be learning about my strengths and weaknesses in real life without them balancing each other out, as they were apparently entirely different things within my brain, not supporting each other. I was good at mathematics, no doubt about that, reasonably good at computer science, very poor in relationships, and mediocre in financial matters.

Given my situation, it was easy to choose when academic job placement services found a temporary remote job involving coding modules for an artificial intelligence project. I applied and got in because I excelled in the grueling week-long aptitude tests designed to challenge AI specialists, particularly in algorithm development. I knew my stuff, and the tests weren't really a big challenge.

However, my career in IT almost ended before it began, as I found the field utterly detestable. Despite this, I knew too much about technology and was damn good at developing baseline algorithms. Not knowing how to be worse at it, I couldn't weasel out of my bad decision. Consequently, the military and space agency's joint AI office, without asking my opinion, decided to conscript me into alternative service, citing the conscription law. After a long period of training, this led to a five-year service obligation.

The carrot on the stick was a chance to pursue advanced studies in machine learning techniques using some of the world's most powerful quantum computers, leading to a doctorate from one of the best institutions in the field. During this period, I was paid a decent salary, and significant military projects had unlimited state backing. Despite the length of the contract and the obligatory direction, my studies and subsequent tasks weren't strictly military assignments, although it might sound like that. I got to work in my own way, and most of the study period was actually working on secret projects as an algorithm developer. The reports I made from these projects served as my doctoral dissertation without a public defense or opponents since all the material was classified. Suddenly, I was considered one of the top specialists in the field.

Due to the nature of the work and my peculiar personality, I often bent or violated rules without consequence, acting as a 'maverick genius.' When my electro-sensitivity condition emerged, I was more or less free to go. I had successfully created an AI team more capable than myself for the most demanding tasks of my projects. I'd become more of an ethical liability than an asset. So, I left to pursue other interests in the German wilderness, with a generous lifelong pension, strict confidentiality, and a special tracking chip mandatory for anyone aware of military secrets. I don't think it works anymore, or else the intelligence officers would have caught up with me since I removed it just before you arrived and placed it on the fireplace mantel. I didn't dare destroy it entirely due to the threat of a death penalty. I'd cite infection risk as my excuse for removing it if questioned.

Due to my very strict confidentiality obligations, I can't tell you anything about my work, no matter how much you tempt me with your charms, or even if the world were ending. To ensure my silence, my brain was manipulated to forget the content of my projects, likely using a brain signal localization technique and robotic laser surgery I developed myself. I went through each of my projects in detail under the supervision of a specialized AI, which mapped out every piece of project-related information in my brain and erased it with gentle impulses without destroying the brain cells. If it was general professional knowledge or something affecting my cognitive abilities, it was left intact or linked to some harmless content from my study days. Complex, but apparently effective, as I don't feel mentally different since my early retirement. I can still solve difficult equations and create complex machine learning algorithms, but I don't remember the name or content of any of my projects—probably something lethal.

Helen burst into laughter, "Oh yeah, General AI."

John tried to continue, "I suspect the procedure also worsened my electro-sensitivity, hastening my retreat to the middle of the forest to escape modern times."

"Wow," said Helen, snuggling closer. "But what about you personally? That was all about your work. What were you up to before that? And don't forget the romantic escapades. Or did they wipe those from your memory as porn in the name of decency?"

John grumbled, feeling uncomfortable. "There's nothing to tell that would interest you. Sure, I crashed my bike, fought with the neighbor's kids, smoked weed at parties, that kind of thing. When I got older, I traveled here and there to shatter my illusions about the world. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time a few times, which cost me my travel funds and so on. I was shy and didn't make many friends."

"And what about the girls? Your first kiss, sex, and love," Helen said, stroking John's body. "I imagine you were quite a beast in bed and good with women, judging by our skillful interactions. You're a pretty decent guy too, not some nerd or a Nazi."

In truth, Helen didn't really want to hear about his past with women. She teased him out of habit, a hint of jealousy clear in her voice. John thought for a moment, not picking up on the tone, and finally said,

"Okay, let's see if you can handle this story: In my new role as a tech nerd, I had access to really expensive and comprehensive continuing education. In my field, ongoing knowledge updates were more or less mandatory. Twice a year, AI mandated our participation in week-long seminars that culminated in certification for a new skill set. It was exhausting and kept me tied to the same employer for a long time.

My misfortune began at one of these generously liquid seminars where I met Elisa, who was the study secretary or something. Maybe she was just hired to charm the attendees. She was a stunning woman who, by either chance or design, ended up next to me at the evening's closing event. We had been warned about seductive spies, but drunken lust led us to my hotel room. A year later, she tracked me down with a quick DNA test kit, claiming she was pregnant.

She wasn't a spy since she was still alive; such matters were strictly checked. Casual sex was actually tolerated because people need to release their urges to clear their minds. National security was ensured by secretly giving entertainers a lethal injection afterward if any leaks happened apart from seed spills. Perhaps this leniency was a trap to catch foreign agents, and we were unwitting honey pots. We knew this and let it happen as part of the job.

In any case, this is how I became the father of a three-month-old suckling boy who would become the compass for my actions for the rest of my life. X would be my joy and Elisa my burden. We confirmed the relationship and moved into a stormy family home for a year-long marital relationship doomed to fail.

The relationship ended as abruptly as it began when it was revealed during a doctor's visit blood test that I couldn't be the boy's father. The DNA test had been a hoax, and Elisa was forced to find her child's biological father. I demanded this on the grounds that the child had the right to know his genetic heritage for health reasons. Our miserable and rejecting sex life took on a new disgusting aspect, and I refused to comply with manipulative make-up sex. She announced she wouldn't let me take care of the child if she had to leave, at least not for free. Losing contact with the child hurt, but I didn't want to share my life with Elisa, and I knew no court would grant me custody. Being deceived wasn't the main reason for our breakup, but it gave me an opportunity to get rid of someone I liked even less than myself."

The situation was resolved surprisingly quickly and painlessly when a hairy biker showed up at the door wanting to meet his son. My security camera recorded the entire lively event, during which I was mocked as a coward who would get beaten up and ordered to the bathroom during the "dad visit." After this footage was reviewed, a quick court decision annulled my marriage the very next day, and with the help of some familiar police officers, my former combative wife was carried out of the house kicking and screaming. The child welfare authorities came to pick up the boy that same evening, which saddened me the most because I already considered him my own son.

The biker gang circled the block numerous times in the following days, but they stopped after an intensive crackdown was ordered by the army, and half of the gang—including the freshly minted dad—ended up behind bars for weapons, drugs, and who knows what else. As a precaution, I moved to the other side of the city. That was supposed to be the end of it, or so I thought. Elisa tried to claim half of my assets and a hefty alimony, American-style, with the help of a lawyer who saw a potential windfall. They had prepared a comprehensive set of accusations, from rape and domestic violence to fraud, concealment, prostitution, and psychological terrorism, with each additional charge increasing the compensation demand by another million dollars.

My employer's ten-member legal team showed up in full dress uniforms and medals for the initial hearing, and Elisa's lawyer, who lost his license on the spot, was taken to pre-trial detention, while Elisa screamed for justice, her artificially inflated lips splitting in rage. She was carried out of my life for the second time. I tried to locate her son, intending to help him as best I could, but all information about him and his adoptive parents was sealed. I could only hope that the boy would fare well in life.

Helen liked this account more, and her whole heart overflowed with empathy as she wept for John, who was no longer touched by the memories. Seeking consolation, she reached for John's lips with her own, and they made love slowly, confessing their love with every inch of their bodies, their chemicals mixing into a shared scent like a spray of happiness in the room.

Nearly out of a sense of duty, John asked in a sleepy voice, exhausted from their lovemaking, more out of courtesy than genuine curiosity, much like responding to an "I love you" to ensure the relationship continues after the pleasure has been received.

"And what about you, my sweetie, my dear wife?" John asked, his eyelids falling shut involuntarily.

"Tomorrow, I'll tell you everything, or almost everything. Let's sleep now," Helen saved herself, hearing the first snore from John's sleep and planted a kiss on his hairy, sweat-damp chest.

She knew the matter would be forgotten for a moment, but someday she would have to tell her own relationship drama, maybe when she needed to the most and when the end of the world was no longer the foremost concern. But not everything; that she knew she couldn't bear even herself.

Two weeks after the initial visit, it was time to return to the city of Zolts to gather information, introduce themselves to the aid organization, and volunteer for a suitable task. They lamented not having bicycles for the journey and filled their bags from their basement with sausages stored there by a cousin. John had rented spaces to a butcher in his hometown, and when the butcher went bankrupt, he received the stock as payment for the overdue rent. He had stored it in a large wine cellar beneath John's inherited cabin, waiting for a suitable buyer. Hundreds of dried hams and other preserved meat products, along with various gourmet canned goods, were neatly arranged on the shelves. John's cousin had kept them there, promising John could use anything he wanted, as long as he kept a record so the inventory would match the list. "We'll settle on prices based on how much you've gained when I come back," his cousin had jokingly threatened.

"It's a blessing in disguise," said John to Helene, as he filled his backpack with food supplies he intended to trade for information, and perhaps even acquire bicycles.

They arrived at the outskirts of Zolts around noon, after a four-hour brisk walk. The scene was different now; the area between the city and the lake was filled with tents and makeshift huts quickly assembled from nearby ruins. On the edge of the camp were rows of smelly latrines surrounded by clouds of flies, each with a line of waiting people. Anticipating this, they had both taken care of their needs in the forest, equipped with a roll of toilet paper and an extra water bottle for handwashing. At the front part of the camp was a trampled-down square, with various distribution points and makeshift sales tables set on planks supported by sawhorses. The hustle and bustle resembled a bustling market. Near the shore was an enormous stone-built bonfire site, and a bit further away, a stone structure resembling a wave-breaker served as a cremation platform, already stacked with wood for the next ceremony, scheduled to start in two hours.

Soldiers with guns patrolled in every direction, guarding the camp. At the entrance, they required identification and a clear statement of purpose, as access was granted on a need basis without formal passes. Helene told the soldiers that they wanted to contact the aid organizations to join the efforts. John fished a salami stick out of his backpack and asked if they would like a taste. The soldiers laughed, took the sausage, pointed towards the camp, bowed, and said, "You're welcome."

As they walked toward the Red Cross tent, identifiable by the red and white cross flag, Helene whispered, "Let me do the talking since I know the language; we don't want any misunderstandings."

"Fine," John replied, "just don't promise too much or mention our cabin to them."

Growing tired of the long line in front of the tent after an hour of waiting, they decided to read the announcements on the nearby notice board. There would be daily ceremonial cremations at the cremation platform for up to a hundred bodies as long as needed. It was crucial to report all deaths and promptly send the bodies for communal cremation to prevent epidemics. Relatives and friends were encouraged to attend the cremation ceremonies.

"Terrible," said Helen.

"We should attend the ceremony. It starts in fifteen minutes, and it's a way to participate in this tragedy as well," said John, squeezing Helene's hand more firmly.

In the initial weeks, burying the dead to prevent epidemics was a priority, and bodies were collected from the entire region for communal cremation as quickly as possible. Volunteers and suitable handcarts or horse-drawn carts were needed for body transport. In the absence of volunteers, soldiers randomly conscripted the strongest-looking men, and the task was mandatory. Now, deaths occurred within the camp, and bodies were collected routinely every morning.

As they arrived at the cremation site, the place reeked of burnt flesh and gasoline from previous cremations, and the blooms collected by mourners scattered around the stone heap couldn't mask the smell. The bodies to be cremated now lay on carefully stacked layers of logs in jute sacks, and there were over a hundred mourners present.

At exactly the stroke of the hour, the ceremony began. An official dressed in black read a poem chosen by a designated relative for each burial, then bowed deeply. The pyres under the bodies were ignited with an ancient copper-accented pump fire sprayer, fetched from the fire station museum, which had been polished to a shine and filled with gasoline. Upon receiving the signal, a firefighter dressed in historical parade attire sprayed gasoline through flaming torches, setting the blaze alight as the fiery stream hit the already doused woodpile. Firefighters stood at attention with long-standing brass-adorned helmets under their arms, while the colleague given the honor steadily pumped the handle up and down in tune to the sorrowful music, sending flames shooting through various points of the constructed pyre.

Each day, a changing crowd gathered for the cremations in their hundreds, singing the old hymn "Traveler of the Earth" alongside a leading choir, swaying in their solemn devotion as the corpses crinkled beneath the red-yellow flames. Thick black-grey smoke twisted skyward, akin to a field of souls waving in the wind.

After the ceremonies, the fire brigade would douse the smoldering ashes with water fragranced by crushed flowers to mask the stench, though it was purely a ceremonial and ineffective gesture.

Helen clasped John's fingers convulsively as she wept. In his backpack, Iivari, terrified by the stench of death, curled up silently. A moment of silence was observed, and the group then left with bowed heads. The same routine would repeat tomorrow, as many continued to die from their injuries, diseases, and the lost will to live, especially the elderly. Suicide and homicide rates were higher than usual. Nonetheless, the number of bodies being brought in was gradually decreasing, as John learned in his conversation with a departing firefighter. The deceased were cremated as quickly as possible due to the lack of cold storage, without verifying identities, and each body was simply added to a tally. Tens of thousands of bodies found in rural and roadside areas had already been mass buried earlier, awaiting a common memorial to be erected someday in the future. Survivors would be registered by the military later on, once it was officially declared that the emergency had ended.

The firefighter shared, "Although there are mass funerals every consecutive day, we never compromise on the ceremonies. Each one is filled with the same profound sorrow, and the event always touches me deeply. I only hope for an end to this madness."

The strong stench of burned bodies clung to the clothes of Helen and John, lingering long in their nostrils, never to be forgotten. They joined a Red Cross queue seeking information on how they could assist in the area. However, the place was closed, and the queue dispersed grumblingly with instructions to return in the morning. The evening grew dim, cooking fires burned in the shanty alleys, with firewood handed out in pre-measured bundles, redeemable with slips—each household received one slip per week, as per the cardboard instructions at the distribution point. The slips were distributed at doorways by roving patrols to prevent misuse. Restrictions were also meant to facilitate procurement and distribution of wood and to minimize air pollution, as preliminary reports suggested that the surrounding 'death zone' might have lost its atmosphere, leaving breathable air confined to a tapering cone above the preserved area.

To find a place to sleep, Helen and John needed to avoid the refugee camp, which felt dangerous, and they still couldn't enter the city without a special permit. At one of the makeshift stalls selling miscellaneous items, John asked about bicycles. He struck a deal by offering some sausages and a dried lamb leg, but the price was triple what they could afford. The vendor showed him the rusted, rickety bikes they could buy, which came with a pump and tire repair kits, but wouldn't budge on the price. John then asked if he would trade the bikes for a hunting bow, promising to deliver it the next day at the edge of the forest. The vendor's eyes gleamed greedily in the candlelight, and he agreed, accepting the sausages and lamb leg as a down payment. John added ten carbon fiber arrows to the offer for working lights on the bikes.

The seller wandered around other stalls and returned with a grin, holding a set of oil lamps designed as focused beam headlights, clearly the work of a clever tinkerer. It had cost him a whole lamb leg and an additional string of sausages. After shaking hands on the deal, the seller, not entirely trusting John's word, demanded Helen's prized, curious-looking melted gold ring as collateral. Since they could not part with their dog Iivari, which was considered a family member, John reluctantly agreed to leave his leather jacket as collateral.

They tested their rickety bikes by riding around, laughing and wobbling as they updated their rusty skills, and then pedaled away. Iivari settled back into the backpack pocket, growing accustomed to the bumpy ride.

"This will be a tough race home," John joked.

The soldiers at the entrance checkpoint were puzzled by how they managed to acquire such valuable items from the camp's black market and resolved to be more vigilant next time the couple showed up, thinking they might shake more goods out of them.

Helen and John biked to the start of a trail, competing playfully, and decided to walk the rest of the way through the pitch-dark, rugged forest path using the oil lamp to light their way. After an hour, they reached the moonlit yard of their home.

John heated the sauna, wanting to get rid of the smell of death and smoky food and the sweat from their ride. They swam in the moonlit lake's shimmering path, made love softly, and then sat in the sauna's gentle steam, sharing their experiences. They agreed to stay secluded for a month until the situation in the city and the refugee camp calmed down—whatever normality might mean then.

John kept his promise to the vendor the next day, not wanting to lose his leather jacket or Helen her ring. He biked to the meeting spot with his hunting bow to pay for the bikes, which probably wouldn't last many more trips. However, they could be useful, as he pondered fitting them with dynamo setups for generating electricity.

He brought a box for Iivari, now filled with a few sausage links and a dried ham from their cellar, hoping to trade with the vendor for something useful. Before leaving, he asked the vendor to find a local map and miscellaneous technical knick-knacks, especially copper. He also mentioned he would be interested in old communication devices and computer remains, the older, the better. John promised to return in a month to see if anything was worth buying. Tempting the vendor further, he mentioned a composite shotgun he might part with as they had no ammunition for it, the mention of which made the man's eyes gleam with desire.

The vendor tried to probe for their home's location, and John regretted mentioning the shotgun. Still, he had to keep the vendor motivated. Quickly thinking, he described a vague coastal area far from the city with a small livable boathouse and nearby cellar filled with food.

The vendor pressed for their location on a map, promising to deliver goods directly to avoid dangerous eyes at the camp. John firmly declined, reminding him that no one shared addresses in such times.

As they shook hands goodbye, John knew a horde might soon search for them. To avert it, he emphasized that Helen's cousin commanded an enforcement unit ready to protect them and swiftly punish anyone who dared to threaten them. He warned the vendor not to mention them or this deal, as the captain would be merciless. As they concluded, John assured the vendor that for their own safety, it was best to act as though they didn't know each other if they showed up at his shop.

John saw how the previously cunning expression turned into frightened fear, and he knew that the merchant's budding scheme had come to an abrupt halt. Hesitantly, the merchant took the bow and said he would hide it for at least a year before selling it on, to avoid any trouble from loose-lipped acquaintances. Then, changing his mind, he timidly said, "I would rather keep the leather jacket and let the bow be, if that's alright," while glancing longingly at the bow case he had set down.

"Fine," John agreed, "if I get Helene's jewelry back." The merchant, bowing repeatedly, promised there was something in the storehouse and assured that the shotgun was unnecessary since he lacked ammunition. He promised to return within half an hour and came back in just fifteen minutes, pushing a cart. He managed to get only some sausages and a lamb leg, despite his desire for the bow case. He hurried back without looking over his shoulder, knowing he wouldn't be accused or targeted for worthless scrap.

Returning home, they had Iivari the dog occasionally barking joyfully from the back of the bike and a small burlap sack filled with miscellaneous electronic junk and worn-out copper wire—a good haul, even though John had lost his cherished leather jacket. He had also found a trustworthy trade partner, and he laughed for a long time about the recent scene, having something to tell Helene as well.

After a month of agony and vegetable gardening, Helene, eager to quench her unbearable curiosity about world events, equipped herself with a backpack and an old knobby staff found in the cottage corner. Leading her bike, she walked through the forest toward the road that led to the city, hoping the bike would at least make it one way, though the other bike had already punctured, sometimes pedaled without catching, and the chain slipped on hills. They planned to get better ones once they got acquainted with the city's folks and figured out funding without wasting food supplies.

Worried, John watched as Helene disappeared into the forest, wondering whether to follow, but ultimately returned to his work. He had removed all damaged devices, tested the water pipes and rainwater collector, which still had intact carbon filters. There was little metal in the structures—most were plastic, composite materials, or carbon fiber. But none of the electrical devices worked; their innards were fried, and unrepairable. Solar panels were also beyond repair, as were the lake and well pumps, needing new solutions. Copper from the coils had melted into lumps, perhaps he could reprocess them into wire for solar panels. He needed plastic tape from the refugee camp hustler for insulation. His head buzzed with energy crisis solutions, having forgotten his electromagnetic sensitivity. Oddly, his body didn't react to electrical storms anymore—perhaps his mind fabricated the ailment to escape his dreary job. After all, every cloud has a silver lining.

Work was the best currency even in Zolts, and they would eventually find their niche, maybe something requiring a better bike. Helene rode with resolve until the pedal slipped, making her hit her chest on the handlebar and fall, hurting her hip. She got up slowly, kicked the bike in frustration, and once the pain subsided somewhat, she straightened the handlebars and continued, wary of the next pedal slip, which infuriated her each time.

Then it started raining not drop by drop but furiously, as if a bucket of water was dumped on her. The storm tore and ripped at everything in sight, and Helene barely made it to the forest for shelter, where the wind howled and trees creaked. It felt like the apocalypse, starting with a storm, as a final clutch from vengeful gods. When it calmed as suddenly as it had started, it was merely a new climate's outburst. Sore and soaked, she felt no gratitude for being alive. She hobbled back to the cottage, relieved not to have ridden far. Reaching the path, she hid the troublesome bike in the bushes like a murdered body.

Progress was slow, but there was enough daylight to make it home. The storm raged again, perhaps having turned back from the lake, finding no one else to torment. John was likely lounging with Iivari by the fireplace while she struggled through the woods. Angry, she strode more forcefully, not watching her step, and a root gap caught her foot like a cursed tendril, causing her bruised hip to scream in pain. "I'll just stay here. Won't get up. Damn it, I'll die here just to spite them. Let them fetch my body as firewood for the sauna tomorrow," she thought, the idea amusing her. It would be a cremation of sorts, a pungent farewell in the sauna's steam.

John glanced at the sky, where another storm seemed to be brewing. Damn Helene, she likely wouldn't make it back before the tempest hit. He had never worried about anyone like this before and feared for Helene more than for himself. As the first raindrops hit his forehead, he rushed into the cabin, fervently hoping that the roof he had repaired would withstand the impending storm. Through the reinforced glass windows, he saw the treetops bending ominously, almost to the breaking point. The forest echoed with the crashes of falling trees, and a bolt of lightning struck the lake just before the heavens opened with torrential rain, accompanied by non-stop, thunderous roars, as if the world were ending. Only a fool would be out in such a hurricane, one that even the bravest lifeguard wouldn't dare to confront.

John donned a hooded raincoat and a pair of fishing waders with suspenders and integrated rubber boots he'd received as a gift. Bracing himself against the wind, he set off down the forest path. He was about halfway to the road when he saw a small figure struggling, the wind tossing it around. The figure tripped over a root and fell face-first onto the ground.

John rushed over and scooped up the exhausted Helene, backpack and all, in his arms. Neither knew whether the streams of water on their faces were rain or tears. Helene felt like a damsel rescued from a fire by a strong firefighter, thinking inappropriate thoughts until she whispered hoarsely,

"Put me down, I can walk."

Whether he didn't hear or chose to ignore her amidst the deafening roar, John kept moving. Helene finally screamed,

"Put me down, damn it, it hurts!"

John set her down and kissed her rain-soaked face with all his love. Helene leaned against him with her full weight, mumbling,

"Oh honey, oh," and just like in bad romance novels, the rain stopped, and the storm eased into a gentle caress, or at least that's how it felt to both of them. The sun breaking through would have been too much of a cliché.

Helene's twisted ankle couldn't bear any weight, so John hoisted her onto his back and carried her home. He undressed her by the fire he had built, gently touching the large bruise on her side with his fingertip, dried her carefully, and laid her on a fur rug in front of the still-glowing fireplace. Iivari, their dog, alternated between bustling around importantly and licking Helene's face despite her weak protests.

The next morning, Helene sat in bed, nibbling on a strange pastry John called bread, topped with a thick slice of smoked ham and cheese. She drank coffee and said she would get up unless John had other plans for her. When she tried to stand, pain shot through her hip, and she fell back onto the edge of the bed, grimacing.

John watched and said,

"That's not good. I'll go into town and find help. There must still be doctors there, though I doubt they'll have an X-ray."

"Don't worry, I'll take some painkillers. Fetch that fancy walking stick of yours, and I'll hobble to town if I have to. They say you should try to move if you've injured a joint, or else it'll stiffen up."

"The pain is in your hip."

"Are you saying there's no joint in the hip?"

"Well, there is, but—"

"No buts, get that damn stick."

John relented, muttering,

"You're quite the feisty girlfriend."

To escape the uncomfortable situation, he fetched an armful of dry firewood from the shed and walked to the still resin-scented log building by the lake. He gruffly remarked, "So the guest won't catch cold in the chilly autumn air, let's heat the sauna." He immediately regretted his awkward words and corrected himself, "I mean, I'll heat the sauna," before hurrying off to the sauna without looking at the woman.

After lighting a fire in the stove, with Helen watching his back, seemingly amused, he took her to the house, showed her around, and pointed out the bedroom furthest from his in the upstairs. He said quietly, "Welcome to the house. I'm sorry this trip turned out to be pointless. I won't send anyone away in the middle of the night, and the journey through the forest on a root-covered path is dangerous in the dark. You'll find bedding in the chest. We'll grill something by the campfire after the sauna. I'll make coffee."

"Let me, you go to the sauna, I'll find them," said the woman, opening cupboards in search of coffee cups.

John, frowning, left as told, and even the dog stayed with the woman, getting water in its bowl as if it was a routine between them.

"What the hell is happening here?" John muttered as he left.

John regretted every clumsy word he had spoken. He didn't want to appear foolish, though it wouldn't matter as the woman would be gone tomorrow. He hoped she wouldn't write about him as a grumpy mumbler who had chased her away out of spite.

After having coffee on the terrace, sitting in comfortable lounge chairs, both thinking silently, John checked the sauna and announced it was ready. On his first days here, searching through cupboards, he had found women's and men's bathrobes and swimsuits among the outdoor clothing left behind. He fetched swimsuits and bathrobes for both himself and the woman. In the sauna, John told her that in Finland, strangers often sauna together naked, and the rule was not to stare. He immediately thought, "What a stupid thing to say," and feared what she might think.

"What do you mean?" asked Helene, with a puzzled wrinkle between her eyes. "Back home, we rarely sauna, and never naked with men."

"Nothing, forget it. Finns are a bit crazy. We don't sauna together in America either, let alone naked." Flustered, he accidentally threw a whole scoopful of water on the stove at once and had to dash from the benches to the icy lake.

After swimming in the freezing cold lake and sitting on the benches shivering, Helen suddenly said, "I understand the Finns. This wet swimsuit is really unpleasant," and began to take it off.

"Shall I get a towel?" John offered chivalrously.

"No need." She placed her removed swimsuit beside her and added, "Just don't peek."

"I won't," he answered, but couldn't help glancing at her naked body. A long horizontal scar on her lower abdomen caught his eye, and the brief view of her pubic hair gave him an erection that was hard to conceal.

"That's unfair to men. Let's be proper Finns and adults; no need to peek when you can look," said Helen, starting to caress the front of John's tight-swelling trunks and then revealing his penis, rubbing its skin back and forth until John quickly climaxed into her hands.

Iivari barked commandingly in response to Helene's angry voice and nearly nipped John's calf, knowing who he was herding. With a once-regal bearing, Helen hobbled downstairs and began bustling about, groaning as she picked up the damp clothes John had left on the floor yesterday. John and Iivari were nowhere to be seen.

The pain increased with movement, and she collapsed onto the sofa, crying as much for her hip as for her fate or something else. Everything seemed so bleak and miserable. She fell asleep and woke up an hour later to John striding inside, calling out, "Is anyone here?"

In her dream, Helen had been at work in Warsaw, arguing vehemently with the editor-in-chief to go interview that crazy American hermit near the German border. "It's not a story," the editor shouted through a megaphone next to Helen's ear. Helen shouted back, "Yes it is," and kicked the editor in the shin.

"What is?" asked John,

Helen, still in a dream, glaring furiously at the ceiling, realized that was a dream, and John was real. She burst out laughing at John's bemused expression. "You, it is."

John had peculiar-looking sticks in his hands, which he demonstrated as crutches, explaining they needed padding on the crossbars, so she could walk without straining her hip. He showed her how they worked and was promptly hit by a pillow.

Helen, tears in her eyes, whispered, "Don't propose, darling, I couldn't say no. Besides, I might faint anyway."

"I would propose, but I'm not sure you'd manage the wedding waltz. Try the crutches, future wife. Let's see if this style suits you."

Helen stood up in her fluffy pajamas with little cat pictures, placed the makeshift crutches under her arms, and found they supported her despite multiple bends, with no hip pain as long as she didn't put too much weight on her bad leg. After a week of hobbling, she abandoned the crutches and began to plan her future on her two healed legs. John had made a stationary bike from a variety of parts, allowing her to exercise her stiff hip. After a week of use, the pain was completely gone, and they took a short bike ride to a nearby village that had burned to the ground, finding no sign of life. The charred wreckage of a crashed air taxi, the stoves with their chimneys still standing, a collapsed church, and the blackened debris on either side of the road told of a once-vibrant community. Now, only a startled rabbit fleeing was a sign of life. The fields along the road were littered with burnt harvesters and tractors. They continued towards the border, beyond which all life had been exterminated, warned by signs kilometers before the hell's gate appeared. They turned back at the first warning, restraining their curiosity, knowing they needed more information before approaching closer.

The bike ride filled Helen with new enthusiasm for her city trip plans, and John decided to join her to gather supplies for his ideas, also worrying about Helen's still cautious step. He resolved to make her see a doctor in the city. He meticulously checked the bikes, tightened the bolts, shortened the chains, lubricated them with cooking oil, and swapped the problematic bike for himself, hoping to later find the reason for its slipping rear wheel drum.

Life at their idyllic home resumed its routine with daily chores, and John began designing a windmill to pump water from the lake to the sauna and the well to the house. But there was no wind except during storms; the weather stayed sunny day after day.

"A bit more wind would be nice," John grumbled, shaping blades for his windmill from found scrap metal.

Helena tended to her garden as if it were her own child. She planted sprouted potatoes that she had found in the cellar into furrows plowed with an improvised plow made from the root of a fallen tree. John had acted as the horse, pulling the plow while Helena pressed it into the freshly turned soil with a spade. Occasionally, she playfully whipped John's bare back with a makeshift switch made from twigs, leaving marks, which seemed to excite him. Every now and then, they'd make love on the lawn, with Iivari, the dog, curiously sniffing around with his own excitement. It seemed that both animals and humans share similar instincts, each recognizing the scent of hormonal surges, especially during springtime's mating season.

After recovering from her poisoning, Helena was ready for another attempt after a month. They prepared for the journey by filling their backpacks with lamb chops and salted sausages still plentiful in the cellar from the cousin's depleted butcher shop. John thought about the upcoming Christmas as he packed their bags.

After two days of Helena urging, John agreed to go to Zolts, but only after he had tested Helena's physical condition by involving her in heavy tasks related to his windmill project. They erected sturdy pine poles, digging them deep into the ground to withstand the fiercest autumn storms or thunderstorms. As they worked, John pondered if he might find better materials in the city for the windmill blades, something that could be melted into a mold and hardened to be durable and smooth. The city might have useful items, and they could bring things to trade. This thought made him more accommodating despite his concerns for Helena's safety on the city trip, knowing they couldn't hide out at the cabin indefinitely while others struggled for survival.

Before departure, they cleaned up at the sauna, and John pondered aloud on the benches,

"Why are there no aircraft in the sky? No help seems to come from anywhere, which is unusual in disasters, no matter the location. Solidarity knows no bounds in natural catastrophes, yet now only flies and mosquitoes buzz overhead."

Helen recounted a story she had heard from a young man,

"He said that where he escaped from, there was a curved, steep boundary like part of a vast circle. Those who crossed it instantly died, and anyone who survived was within that boundary despite the wildfires, somehow safe. Outside the boundary, only death – withered plants, lifeless animals, and corpses everywhere. Life seemed drawn out without warning, turning mornings' ground into thick frost cover, and during the day, a deadly scorch. Inside the circle was the only direction to move, with roads between burning towns and villages filled with suffering and horror for those clinging to life, having lost everything, even their families. Many suffering unbearable pain committed suicide amidst toxic smoke or ran screaming into the flames."

"We should think about safety," said John. "There's no telling what might happen on a trip to the city if people are desperate and fighting for survival, starved. Things at the camp looked grim."

The cabin had a shotgun with a ceramic barrel, always loaded, and a carbon fiber hunting bow similar to one given to a peddler, with a quiver full of homemade sharp arrows. John suggested, "What if we wrapped these in a burlap sack and tied them to the rack? We could scare off any roadside bandits if necessary."

"You can't bring weapons," Helen was alarmed. "The army would kill us without question if they found a gun on us."

"Probably right," John admitted. "And maybe things have settled, perhaps they'll even let us into the city."

Their bike ride went swiftly, thanks to John's prior clearing of the path and filling of the worst potholes. Leaving early in the morning, they approached the city in a couple of hours. The roads were now deserted of people, but the remnants of wreckage littered the road margins.

John surveyed everything as they passed, mentally noting items to collect on the return trip – mirrors, tools, and such – although he suspected most useful things had long been scavenged. Hopefully, so too had the charred bodies in the burnt-out vehicles.

"People must be in safe zones by now," Helen said, "not wandering around looking for supplies. It's a good sign, at least there seems to be some order."

As Helen and John arrived at the city gates, they noticed numerous campfires burning in the refugee camp near the lakeshore, with smoke spiraling upwards in the gentle breeze. The city and the roads leading to it were still guarded, but it looked like people could enter and exit with some sort of permits. Goods were being transported continuously between the city and the camp in both directions. Helen and John introduced themselves to a German-speaking soldier, showing their passports and explaining that they had been living separately in a small hunting cabin in the woods, where they had taken shelter during the storm. The soldier examined their passports, retained them, and then called over a nearby young boy, instructing him to take the passports to the city's occupation office.

"Occupation office?" inquired Helen.

"Yes," the soldier replied, "We have a military-led interim government over the entire area, and citizens are required to register for various duties according to their professions."

"What area?" asked John in English, which Helen translated to German for clarity.

The soldier responded, "We have a contamination-free zone with a diameter of a hundred kilometers, and venturing outside of it can be lethal. There's no need for a fence because the boundary and its dangers become evident on their own," he chuckled at his own joke, which they didn't yet understand.

The boy returned, panting and awaiting a reward for his service. Money was of no use, so John handed over a small ceramic pocket knife. The soldier tried to snatch it, but the boy was quick and ran out of reach.

The soldier grumbled, "He'll trade it for something useless, and there goes my Christmas ham, damn it."

John rummaged through his backpack, pulling out an air-dried, lightly smoked leg of lamb he had taken along for situations like these, and discreetly handed it to the soldier, who quickly tucked it into his waistband, grinned broadly, and handed over a permit commanding them to report to Colonel Shulz at headquarters.

"Just go straight ahead and ask for directions. There are plenty of people to help, just remember money is no good here, but food is high currency," he said, patting the lamb leg hidden in his pants.

They found their way by offering half a venison sausage and silently thanked John's cousin once again as they entered an imposing, well-preserved building that had witnessed centuries of life. A young woman greeted them, introducing herself as Annette, the city clerk. She led them upstairs to the second-floor command center where staff were lighting composite oil lamps burning with canola oil.

Annette explained along the way that it was unusual for new arrivals to be received here; they were typically directed to the refugee camp's registration center.

"However, the Colonel happened to be here when the boy brought your passports, and he is interested in meeting you. Helen is a well-known scientist and celebrity in this region of Germany and Poland, often commenting on scientific news. No one expected her to turn up here since she lived in Warsaw, far beyond the contaminated zone. Other than an agricultural university, there's nothing here that could be called a scientific institution, and it rarely makes news even locally."

She then looked at the bearded John, "An American wanderer would be unusual in these remote parts, though they often roam everywhere. But your story of being here together as a couple piqued the Colonel's interest, and many others', making it too compelling for us not to hear, even as our workday ends."

The grey-haired German Colonel sat behind an ancient, large desk, his thin lips pressed into a line. Helen and John introduced themselves for the third time, now a bit more expansively and truthfully about their place of residence, as being caught in a lie could be fatal. The Colonel introduced himself as Franz Shultz and began to explain in detail the current situation of the area and its background.

"We have a hellish situation here, with no clear plan, let alone executors. We desperately need anyone who might be able to tell us what happened and why. The outside world is silent, and we are surrounded on all sides by an area that is steadily freezing into a thick glacier, where everything is dead, including people, stretching as far as the eye can see. The land and sea are frozen over, making it impossible to set foot on without dying. This area is becoming an arctic wasteland, much like the North Pole, minute by minute. All communication and electronic devices were destroyed in an instant. In what is referred to as the 'preserved area,' hundreds of thousands of people have died in horrific ways. Metal objects containing electronics have twisted regardless of their size and strength, depending on the size of conductors and components. You can imagine the lightning-fast destruction of power plants, power lines, transformers, large electric motors, and data centers in a massive surge of voltage, destroying everything around them in an instant and causing explosive fires everywhere. Two large airliners with thousands of passengers each have crashed into the area, and all vehicles with burned-out electric motors are useless scrap. Fires have destroyed our villages and towns; perhaps the whole world, apart from us, is gone. No one has appeared to help.

"Here in the town of Zoltz, we are in Poland, but our military division was twenty kilometers inside the German border, and we moved here within the first week after making an official agreement with the Polish authorities in the town to help restore order in the chaotic situation. We now call the area that survived the ice age 'Gerpol,' but the name might still change.

"The Colonel paused and examined the strange couple, who appeared surprisingly healthy compared to other refugees. Then he continued:

"For almost a century, national borders have not practically existed, and we were part of the same European military organization. According to information brought by their forest ranger, behind the lake in the forest, on the other side of a sharply curving boundary, the living environment disappeared in a short time. The air was extremely cold at night and unbearably hot during the day. Dead forest animals lay here and there, and as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but completely destroyed nature, with colossal smoke clouds on the horizon. Some immense force had killed all life, and no mass exodus of animals had occurred.

"In our direction, on the German side, there were many small and large settlements and major cities just a hundred miles from the now freezing area, but not a single refugee from outside Gerpol has been seen. The fires and death forced people to flee for their lives in all directions and eventually make their way here, the only somewhat functional place, with water and the partially habitable town of Zoltz surviving. People continued to die from the injuries they sustained, and there was little we could do. One of our army divisions survived because they were on field exercises without their usual personal electronics, as it involved activities like water crossings that were hazardous for the equipment.

"In the barracks, there were both lucky survivors and those who faced destruction, roughly in equal numbers, about two thousand of each. Even among the survivors, many were injured, and only half are still fit for duty. My luck was that I was in the forest with a special unit of five hundred fighters, and only my watch burned on my wrist. The silicone strap did not heat up at all, but the melted watch burning into my flesh was incredibly painful, and now it feels almost good that I have also taken my share amidst all this pain and misery."

The Colonel showed the red, round scar on his wrist, as if proudly displaying a war trophy. John and Helen stood there, feeling like awkward students in a school principal's office, listening intently to the Colonel, who seemed to be unloading his burden to the first outsiders he could.

"Our army division also suffered heavy casualties, and all so-called 'cyber soldiers,' who had various body-enhancing devices installed, have died in a terrible manner. Robots, computer rooms, electronic surveillance and combat equipment were destroyed, causing a massive fire in the barracks. All our transport vehicles, aircraft, and military hospital are lost. There was suddenly no power, and the materials conducting electricity were melted or twisted beyond use. The list of destruction and losses is endless. We moved here like refugees and set up our own camp, and it is not hard to guess that there is a shortage of everything. But we are doing our best and maintaining discipline and order, both in the town and in the refugee camp, without making distinctions based on nationality. Everyone is equal, and for now, martial law is in effect. We were fortunate that some of our fireproof ammunition and weapons depots remained intact, and our diminished military force, fortunately, holds physical dominance in Gerpol, which is beneficial in trying to impose order in the anarchic chaos."

The colonel sighed and continued his monologue, seeming to use the opportunity to review the situation more for himself than for his guests, who felt a vague sense of shame about their relatively mild suffering.

"In the refugee camp—if you can even call it that—there are over one hundred thousand hungry mouths, and we have about two thousand soldiers left from our five-thousand-man army. I am the highest-ranking surviving officer. You must understand that we need to locate everyone in the city and the refugee camp who has any level of training or useful skills to help us organize and restore livable conditions. We, as armed soldiers, are the highest authority in an area where our jurisdiction is self-determined due to the emergency, across the borderlands of two sovereign states. We now consider the entire area to have merged into a new state, which we have agreed to call Gerpol. Please don't read too much into the name; it doesn't reflect the distribution or power dynamics of the Polish and German populations here, even though I am a German and the military commander."

Helen and John had inadvertently exchanged resigned looks, prompting the colonel's stern clarification.

"We have food and water, fortunately, from the canned goods in the warehouses of food factories that halted operations and livestock that survived the fires. There is enough water in the lake, and the groundwater hasn't been poisoned because we were quick to burn all the human and animal corpses we found. We have enough supplies, which we are trying to use and distribute as best as we can to all survivors. Simultaneously, our military unit is attempting to maintain order in a situation verging on anarchy, alongside the remaining Polish police forces and volunteer reserves. We don't have a complete picture yet, and there's a desperate need for storage and other utility spaces, as well as for more support personnel."

Anette, who had briefly stepped out, returned with a steaming pot of coffee and a basket of freshly baked bread, announcing proudly, "Just baked from my cellar bakery, enjoy."

The colonel's face cracked into a grin as he voraciously attacked the bread basket, gesturing for his guests to help themselves. Yet he couldn't stop talking, even with his mouth full, eager to keep hold of the thread of his speech, which could easily slip into repetition if prolonged.

"The worst part of the refugee camp is its lawlessness. The number of disciplined volunteers isn't enough for more than just disseminating information. Natural solidarity brought about by suffering and human empathy isn't always enough to manage situations, and we're hearing increasing reports of theft, violence, and other crimes. We lack the resources to address all the security issues in the area, so we mainly focus on protecting the relatively intact city around the clock, including from within. The industrial areas of Zolts, power plants, and data centers drilled into the cool rock were outside the city walls, which helped preserve them. Additionally, the office buildings and public spaces had effective roof-mounted pressurized water tanks for fire suppression, and many large buildings survived with minimal fire and water damage because the chemical smoke detectors triggered the sprinkler vents automatically. Residential damage varied and depended on whether occupants were present to put out fires ignited by their devices. Decades before the catastrophe, Zolts had experienced a major fire, so all reconstruction had been particularly focused on fire safety, using non-flammable and non-toxic materials, with stringent regulations even for older buildings. This is why Zolts is a miracle in the Gerpol disaster."

The colonel grumbled, stroking his mustache with an angry expression, then sighed heavily, as if shedding a burden, and poured himself a cup of coffee. Helen and John stared at their shoes, unable to think of anything to say, as the colonel, refreshed by the coffee, continued.

"Well, we are doing something to improve the situation. Food distribution happens in large tents in front of the refugee area, managed by hastily formed aid organizations that also register the population and recruit individuals for various tasks. We try to avoid conflicts with the refugees and don't attempt to isolate anyone, though entry to the city requires our authorization. Similarly, the self-governance that has emerged in the refugee camp requires anyone entering to have their own permit, which can be obtained at an office set up in a makeshift shed next to the food tents. There are rogue elements with their own police forces that we haven't authorized, which we suspect to be some kind of quickly-formed criminal organization using violence to achieve their obscure goals. As I mentioned, our administration and police forces manage the refugee camp, organizing food and water distribution, work parties for constructing and organizing living conditions, and daily emptying of waste pits with horse-drawn carts. Our own equine unit transports drinking water from distant groundwater wells and food to the front of the camp after thorough bacteriological quality checks by the agricultural university team. Fortunately, the lake water is somewhat drinkable as it is, but any water fetched independently from the lake is advised to be boiled before use. There are guards around the lake extending to its distant, icy edge to prevent contamination with waste. All unauthorized and unapproved activity on the lake is prohibited under threat of death."

He contemplated for a moment what else he could share, feeling as though he might have already gone too far in his explanations. After all, the woman in front of him was a renowned science journalist. Hell, who knows what she might twist and misquote if she managed to contact the outside world. I'm such a blabbermouth, he thought but continued with a stern warning,

"Fortunately, we still have our composite machine guns with hard plastic bullets, and we have unfortunately had to use them in some skirmishes inside the refugee camp where we conduct raids based on intelligence we receive. We are expanding our influence there by recruiting reputable people into service and arming them to combat crime with a strong hand. We also have a tough elite unit to support them when needed. We've refused to negotiate with the mafia about the arrangements at the camp, even though they've offered various services and goods. They seem to have hoarded every valuable item that has made its way into the camp. People can be bribed to do almost anything or bought entirely for shady purposes, which is why we have a small secret team dedicated to fighting corruption. We make a public example of those who get caught, and any bad apples in our ranks receive a death sentence and a public execution, regardless of their status. We are meticulous in proving guilt—an allegation alone is not enough to convict anyone. There must be unequivocal, unstageable evidence for any punishment, even though provocation and infiltration are allowed. For now, we are not systematically hunting down habitual criminals or deceitful officials because our resources are limited. Our operations largely depend on tips and complaints. The time will come for that once we have enough righteous, incorruptible agents freed from other duties for such tasks."

The colonel, well-trained in rhetoric, then shifted to a more personal tone, trying to soften the heavy impression he had given to the visitors, who he already deemed important for his plans and wanted to win over.

"Every night, I have nightmares about the stinking pyres that have been burning for months. We have conscripted refugees to help with this task. At the same time, we have registered every living and dead being we've found in the area, conducting brief interviews to establish the backgrounds of the living and assigning tasks accordingly. No one can refuse, no matter the task. There are endless concerns, but fortunately, there's no shortage of ordinary day-to-day workers because we can order anyone to clean toilets. It's better to show what you can do right away—'idleness is the root of all evil,' as they say," the colonel chuckled, now more relaxed.

After a brief pause, he continued playfully, with a grin,

"Now we have you, too, forest dwellers with your diverse scientific backgrounds. Therefore, with my supreme authority, I commission you here and now to find out what the hell is going on with this divine scourge, whether it could happen again, and if it could turn even our remaining area into an ice cap, killing every living creature."

Helen and John had listened quietly to the colonel's vivid and knowledgeable briefing from various perspectives. When the colonel finally paused to catch his breath, they both said in unison,

"Of course, we'll do our best, whatever you ask."

The colonel raised his hand,

"You're not the only scientists still alive here. Because of our important agricultural region, we've always had our own university, which mostly has researchers specializing in food science and soil utilization. But they're useful for many other things, too. Among them are also specialized engineers, various chemists, a few physicists, and one out-of-work cosmologist who did research on nutritional needs for the space program with some scientific community called Techpoli, if I remember the name correctly."

John interjected,

"Techpoli is familiar from my own work. It's a fully self-sufficient scientific city built inside a mountain on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean, if it even still exists."

The colonel said,

"Oh yes, I remember now, that damned virus bomb that was completely sealed off after killing millions with their viruses."

John clarified,

"No, they were just isolated, and later contacts were restored with the scientific institutions. It was somehow agreed upon, but no one would ever be allowed out of there. If I remember correctly, they probably aren't responsible for this catastrophe, but who knows what caused this wave of destruction."

"Probably not, okay, enough about that," the colonel grumbled. "We've now asked everyone, as much as possible, to return to their homeland to continue their lives. The fires have been extinguished, and the fields are flourishing on many abandoned plots of land, thanks to an unknown reason for a favorable summer-like winter weather. We're identifying surviving farmers, and a large working group is already preparing to harvest the area's grain. We're gathering craftsmen from all over to make old-fashioned scythes, horse-drawn or ox-drawn threshers, and whatever else is needed to run agriculture. We won't have to worry about famine in what was once the breadbasket of Germany and Poland, now that the panic has subsided. Much has been lost, but much remains, and we no longer have to feed half of Europe. We are already gathering loose cattle on a few large fields, and non-burned barns have been cleared of dead animals and filled with those that had been grazing in fields when disaster struck. These cows have been organized into systematic milk production, being hand-milked daily to prevent their udders from drying up before the dairy carts come for the milk. Older women are the best workforce for this; they quickly learn old-fashioned methods and don't complain about the smell of manure or the reek of cows. The agricultural university coordinates everything related to farming and has established its own refugee camp unit for recruiting farm workers. There certainly won't be a shortage of pork and lamb, although it seems we are currently slaughtering too many. The strange thing about all this is that the weather is almost always the same, apart from rare storms and rains. It's Christmas, and yet it feels like midsummer," he puffed, through his beard.

He then asked, "You mentioned living alone in a forest by a small lake without much damage. Do you have any ideas on how we could use such an idyllic place to help our situation?"

Helen immediately realized that their peaceful cabin life would be interrupted one way or another and suggested, without looking at John, "We could possibly establish a village for orphaned children on the property, with daycare centers and elementary schools. The lake is small and presumably shallow, and the water might not be drinkable due to the marshy area, but well water is very good and should suffice for a few dozen people without running dry."

In reality, the lake is fairly deep, with rocky shores and at least partially sandy bottoms, and the clean water is almost drinkable directly. John thought that the locals probably knew this, and maybe it was even marked on regional maps. Helen, having sighed happily about it many times, certainly knew the true state of things.

"We're expecting a child as well, so it would fit on a personal level too," Helen continued, gently caressing her stomach before taking John's hand and squeezing it tightly.

John was too stunned by Helen's statement and her white lies about the child to speak, even though as the cabin owner, he was expected to respond.

The municipal secretary and the colonel congratulated them in unison, and John felt faint, not knowing if it was from happiness or fear.

The colonel then apologized for his urgency, "I have to go; there's another of those damned meetings that last from morning till night. Anette will guide you to the information center, where you'll learn more about today's situation as we know it. You'll find your place in the organization soon and then go to your cabin to plan your tasks. We expect you back in a week, fully prepared in body and mind, with your action plans ready."

Anette checked the colonel's schedule and confirmed the time.

As he left, the colonel called out, with a somewhat unsuccessful attempt at laughter, "Don't be late; we follow military discipline here, and I am its supreme commander."

The door slammed shut, and Helen and John stood there, flabbergasted. Helen finally said something just to break the silence, "Don't worry, the baby is only a month or two along," and suggested baking a cake at home to console John.

John burst into hysterical, hollow laughter. Realizing the news was too much for him, Anette addressed the situation with feminine wisdom, "Shall we go? You can talk about everything later."

John, still in shock, followed the two hurried women. He muttered something about being a lucky guy, desperately trying to remember how to act in such situations. Helen just kept walking briskly, glanced back, and smiled with a baby aura about her.

At the information center, there was little material available on paper because there were no printing presses. A clever engineer had rigged up a hand-cranked copier, but it wasn't very effective. Texts were quickly set on its replaceable baseplate with makeshift lead types, and thick ink-like substance was brushed on every tenth sheet. This was the only way to produce duplicated material at the moment, quickly tiring both the crank turner and the typesetter. Summaries, rules, orders, and general instructions were provided on paper and were comprehensive enough to give a clear picture of the situation.

Anette, pressed for time, didn't wait and left their guests in the care of the center's only assistant. Before that, she handed over official papers she had prepared, signed, and stamped by the colonel, saying briefly, "We'll see you in a week at noon. Don't be late. If you can't reach home before nightfall, there's a bug-free communal shelter at the end of the street," releasing a bright laugh at her own joke.

She laughed again and cheerfully said, "Goodbye."

Helen and John sat on the steps of the information center, seriously discussing the baby news, which ended with a long kiss. Hand in hand, they began to wander the bustling city, which, despite its ruins, was surprisingly functional. Helen managed to trade their last sausage for various seeds for her garden. They were most interested in the refugee camp, but it was too late, and they were out of trade goods. Entry into the camp required special permits, granting access only to the gate and the initial market area. Anette had given them canola oil for their bike lamps, and they decided to head home under a magnificent starry sky.

"My man is a romantic," said Helen as they got off their bikes on an uphill slope, stretching to kiss and celebrate their baby bliss.

"Indeed, even the slightest bit of chocolate melts a heart," John replied, turning his front wheel to touch Helen's legs.

After a couple of hours of cycling, they were looking for the start of their path, with the rapeseed lanterns sputtering, the forest edge appearing identical everywhere with its dense thicket of ghostly tree trunks. Helen wouldn't have gone into the forest, leading the bike for an hour, in any case. She was tired, so they sat by the roadside to wait for morning and ate the remaining snacks, which the checkpoints and the colonel had taken their best share of. Even Anette had gotten the last half of their salted sausage, leaving them with nothing but a bit of cheese for their bread.

John couldn't help but return to the main topic that was circling his mind:

"Why the hell didn't you tell me about the baby at home? You wouldn't have come along on such a dangerous trip. And what was that village for orphans idea? I've never heard anything crazier. One baby of our own is fine initially, but having a hundred screaming kids around all the time is a whole different story. The peace of a lonely man in his forest cabin would be seriously at risk, and once set in motion, there'd be no turning back. Let's think of something else and a good reason why not."

"What if it's twins?" Helen whispered in the darkness and pinched his arm painfully.

John just stared helplessly into the woods. Helen stroked his hand and said cheerfully,

"Poor you. Always thinking about sex, and when there's a result, you're scared and dumbfounded like in war. The point of sex is making babies, isn't it?"

"You're kinda silly," Helen concluded and shed a few hormonally charged tears. She then leaned her head on John's chest, who was already dozing off with a smile, happier than ever. They fell asleep curled up together on the mossy ground, under the forest's shelter. A large-antlered stag sniffed the air for their scent, snorted, and continued on its way.

Morning dawned as the sun rose like an orange ball in the sky, and they woke to the sound of human voices in the distance. They hurried to retrieve the bicycles they had hidden at the edge of the forest and watched from their cover as a group of refugees passed by, likely returning to their abandoned homes. Adults guided a few mooing cows with sticks and carried infants as bundles on their backs.

John nudged Helen and whispered,

"The first residents of the orphan village are already arriving."

Still groggy from sleep, Helen sighed,

"Let it go already. It's a good sign that people are returning to their homes or what's left of them. I had to suggest something to the colonel so they wouldn't shove us right into the refugee camp. It's still a good idea. We'd have a nursery right in our yard for our child." She admitted that it was better to think of something else.

After the group had passed, they found their path through the woods, recognized from remembered landmarks. They hurried along the trail, their bikes rattling over roots, back home to ponder their future. Surely, Iivari was pacing between the door and the upstairs, waiting. Luckily, it had learned to do its business in the big cupboard-turned-litter box, though who knows what else it might have come up with for revenge, with a couple of old, unused sneakers strategically placed near the door as a decoy.

They spent the whole day finding things to do far from each other to contemplate the situation individually, both knowing personal privacy was now a thing of the past. Despite this, they had to figure out what to give up, what to negotiate, and what to agree to right away. They wouldn't talk about such matters to each other, but inevitably considered the shift from a random encounter and circumstantial bond into a deeper commitment, filled with love but devoid of promises.

Helen watched her brooding man in her thoughts. He chopped wood, built a fence around Iivari's dog house, and always found something to do around the property, staying outside until dusk. When Helen called him for dinner, he smelled an aroma that was hard to ignore.

"Damn," thought John and felt a trap spring with a new kind of happy feeling, like having his boots stuck in syrup. He grumbled, his sweaty face gleaming in the dim light,

"I must stink. I didn't know we were having a celebration," he muttered before heading to the sauna to wash up, feeling hungry.

"My man can smell like hard work as long as he doesn't dirty the carpets."

With just a few words, they bridged the gap and rekindled their closeness, leading one thing to another. In their interactions and touch, there flowed unspoken questions and answers, weaving their minds together toward an unknown future. It was a deep, intense feeling of bonded companionship.

The next morning, they slept in and when they woke, John began gathering provisions from the cellar. Helene watched in curiosity, wondering what he was planning. After the news of the baby, they were now like a husband and wife arranging their responsibilities with cautious deliberation. Personal matters between them were no longer private in the same way.

"Where is he off to now?" Helen wondered, but she didn't ask and found herself seeing him differently, as if he wasn't the same person from a few days ago. She noticed flaws she felt needed to be fixed before the baby arrived. She decided she wouldn't nag about everything like her mother did with her father. Never.

John glanced at Helen and, as if reading her thoughts, explained that he was going to explore the border area to understand it better and maybe come up with some ideas for the meeting next week.

"I'm coming with you," Helen declared.

"No you're not. Think about it. You might expose yourself and the baby to unknown radiation, and he might grow ears down to his ankles."

Helen burst into laughter. "I am coming. It's much worse if daddy turns into a zombie and eats his kid, or at least takes a bite out of his wife. We'll proceed cautiously and not get too close to the border. We're both supposed to consider these things, and I trust only what I can see for myself. Besides, I'm the only one here with a PhD in physics."

"Who will take care of Iivari?" John tried to insist.

"I already changed his bedding in the closet. He'll be fine. His kennel has an enclosure," Helen replied with a touch of sarcasm, referencing John's avoidance the previous day.

John overlooked the jab and said, "I still need to make a gate. I'll get to it once I find some hinges. Inside, he'll make a mess, and we can't take him with us."

Knowing how stubborn his briefly acquainted partner could be, John eventually relented. He lengthened the dog's tether and reminded her that they shouldn't go too far. They'd simply observe from a distance using the old binoculars they found in the cabin, with manual zoom lenses, no fancy digital zoom, infrared, or display screens. They didn't need them now, but such technology wasn't available anyway.

Both packed their bags, preparing for the exhausting 30-kilometer bike ride there and the same distance back. They added extra gear for an overnight stay, including a musty old tent and sleeping bags they found in the attic.

On the road, they passed desolate, burned forest patches, but most fields were thriving with their usual crops as if it were summer, even though it was winter. Soon, it would be time to harvest the grain and hay. Some fenced fields already had cows and sheep grazing, oblivious to human woes. They spoke with a returning farmer repairing a fence. He had settled in a temporary dwelling on the ruins of his old house, which had burned down. He planned to build a smaller house with the help of a construction team from the town's refugee camp, who would also bring building materials. In return for his aid to the town, he was optimistic about the harvest due to the new climate favoring farming, despite it being winter. A hundred dairy cows were the minimum requirement, supporting a hundred people. Initially, they would live in tents and build homes for their families through communal labor, sharing the produce equally. The farmer only owned the land, needing all other resources from the town or government. He was hopeful that the arrangement to divide the land fairly among the workers would maintain their motivation and productivity.

John and Helen listened, absorbing the farmer's resilience and hope, reflecting on their journey and the unexpected future ahead.

The farmer began this arduous task just to cope with his sorrow. He toiled throughout the day to be able to sleep at night, uncertain whether he would survive or end it all with a rope instead of work. Helen and John listened in silence, understanding there was no comfort for such grief, and continued on their way, promising to stop by for coffee when they passed through again.

There was an ample supply of coffee for distribution, having discovered large stores already roasted, ground, and packaged. At the refugee market, five packages were allocated per family until spring free of charge, until either the best-before date expired or the storehouse was emptied. The remaining green, raw coffee beans that could be stored would be roasted gradually, and the ready-made coffee would then be strictly rationed, as real coffee would no longer be available once those ran out. An agricultural university was developing a substitute bean with a similar taste, but no one believed it would be just as good. It was the same with all other foodstuffs and consumer goods brought in from elsewhere. This situation painfully reminded everyone that there were no longer connections outside Gerpol.

"We need to remember to stockpile coffee when we go to town next week. And we'll request new bikes and strollers from Anette. We'll emphasize that we haven't received any support despite working the land like everyone else," John said.

Helen replied, "That's a bad idea. We'd end up under production surveillance, and the army would be assigned to help. They'd cut down the forest around the cabin to make way for fields and set up a tent camp for the workers. We should present ourselves as essential for preserving the area's natural state. Just taking on a few student research assistants might be enough to highlight the importance of maintaining all the forests for the climate."

John just nodded at his cunning partner, who always managed to dismantle any opposition with her arguments. He observed Helen's midsection, suspicious of her deception. Later, embarrassed by his jumbled thoughts, he muttered quietly to himself, "I'll have to carve curved rocking chair runners for the crib."

"What did you say, dear?" Helen called out from up ahead.

"Just talking to myself," John replied.

"We could attach ropes to the beam for a swinging cradle," Helen suggested as she slowed down about five kilometers from the disaster zone. They came upon the first warning posts with a skull image and the text: "Entry Forbidden, Great Risk of Death, Move at Your Own Risk."

They stopped, and John, startled by the poorly drawn skull, scanned the forest edge for a place to set up a tent where Helen could wait while he cautiously approached the boundary. It was late afternoon, but the sun was still hot, and his intention was to observe changes in the area before sunset.

While setting up the tent, Helen said, "If you think I'm going to stay here resting, you're mistaken. I want to come within sight of the danger zone since we're so close. We were ordered to find answers together. How could we otherwise research the causes and culprits if the one who understands the most is left lying in the forest? I'm in the Colonel's service, not tied to your leash like a pregnant cow."

John said nothing but marched angrily towards the border with Helen following close behind. A kilometer from the deadly boundary, there was a hill, and John climbed it to view the area where the road ended with makeshift barriers. He was surprised because the scene revealed a gradually rounding icy perimeter glistening like a turquoise fairyland, with steaming puddles on its surface. The steam was peculiarly thin and colorless, resembling air shimmering over hot asphalt. Still angry about Helen's insistence on coming along, he silently handed her the binoculars.

"How strange," Helena exclaimed. "I suppose the colonel's scientific team has already taken samples, measured radiation levels, and analyzed everything down to the last atom."

"You seem to forget that the colonel's team lacks the equipment to do anything. They probably don't even have any ideas on what to do, otherwise, he wouldn't have asked us to join the research the moment he caught a glimpse of you. I'll try to get a bit closer before the sun sets. Meanwhile, you can use the binoculars to think of theories that might explain what's affecting that otherworldly border. I'm detail-oriented and will note everything I see. As you know, I'm a coder; I can even count every insect corpse if you need."

Helen guessed John's intent when he cut down a slim, four-meter birch tree on the roadside without removing its leaves and began walking towards the border, dragging the tree trunk with its top slung over his shoulder.

"Don't you dare march over there poking death with that stick!" Helen cried in distress. "If you go, then I will too, and we can all, or should I say the three or four of us, die together."

Despite her threat, John continued his determined march forward, leaving Helen no choice but to follow his advancing back. She knew she would have done the same if she weren't pregnant. Half an hour later, John returned, saying he threw the stick to the roadside before climbing back to the hill. Keeping a few meters from Helen, he said, "Let's keep our distance until we're sure I haven't been exposed to anything. The experiment only showed that it's impossible to venture onto the ice; the birch leaves died and shriveled instantly. The test suggests that natural laws are still intact, at least for this experiment. The radiation barrier isn't solid, but it's a defined, sharp boundary where particles in the air halt abruptly at some strange force field. Physics can't get any stranger than this. Let's continue observing with binoculars when the sun sets and rises. We'll try to estimate the temperature fluctuations between night and day and the speed of these changes. Let's choose an elevated landmark now, so we can gauge any noticeable changes."

"Okay," Helen agreed. "Now tell me precisely what happened when you poked around and what you saw right next to the border. What did the steam look like up close? Were there really corpses, and if so, did their skin show signs of radiation burns? Did you notice the color and texture of the ice? Give me something to deduce whether the catastrophe originated from solar activity or a gamma-ray burst or something else. Radiating terrain or ice should exhibit color differences based on how it releases oxygen and nitrogen when subjected to extreme heat."

She figured John hadn't merely discarded the long stick into the ditch but had prodded recklessly, risking his life if the stick had breached the barrier toward him.

Then she muttered irritably, "You don't understand any of this. Your brain has atrophied into a raisin, leaving AI to handle all your thinking. Poking the world's destroyer with a stick."

"It was quite horrifying," John admitted. "Bones were sticking out of the ice, with flesh seemingly dissolved, probably in boiling water. The border itself was incredibly sharp, like a segment of a gigantic circle drawn with a colossal compass. The preserved circular area's surface area is easy to compute from the curvature of the boundary if it's entirely round. Presumably, they've already investigated by traversing the entire radiation ring. We'll know for sure when we meet the colonel's scientists next week. The ice under the water was oddly mottled, not dirty, but with hues resembling Vaseline and faded mustard yellow, very smooth. The steam was thin, almost invisible, and clearer than mist."

Helen relented,

"That's something at least. Forgive my outburst. On one hand, I really wanted to go with you, but on the other, I was terrified you might end up dead out there, leaving me powerless. Good job nonetheless, stranger. Initially, I suspect a massive gamma-ray burst from outer space hit, and Earth's magnetic field dispersed it around the planet like an atmosphere, disrupting the climate. This might be the primary cause of this catastrophe, and it's not a good sign because the entire planet's life could be at risk, except for one anomaly with some protective counterforce against radiation. Probably it's a significant mineral deposit, likely iron ore, that has turned into a permanent magnetic barrier around Gerpol. No theory matches this, but some miracle has kept radiation at bay in Gerpol's circular area. It's possible that the rapid magnetization of iron ore deposits during lightning strikes shielded the area from the shockwave by binding the radiation belt unexpectedly around the region. Although this explanation doesn't fit any known physical theories or laws of nature, it exhibits a cause-and-effect logic, especially in the regular shape of its influence where particles bond under some law. It's also odd that the sharply fluctuating temperature doesn't spread beyond this boundary, which makes no sense either. The only way to investigate this radiation is from inside the area using highly sensitive radiation detectors capable of detecting the slightest changes caused by test conditions. Building such devices might be impossible under current circumstances, but we have to try. The Colonel will hear our plan, needing time and resources, everything we require."

"Intriguingly dreadful. And let's not forget to ask for better bikes and trailers," John added, having seen such in Zolts.

The sun began to set behind the Earth's curvature without changing its color; only the quickly congealing water occasionally refracted the light like a brightly colored rainbow. "How beautiful," Helen whispered, trying to get closer to John, who jumped away to avoid potential contamination. Then, it turned completely dark, and they barely managed to light their oil lamps to illuminate the way back to their tent.

John said he'd sleep outside near the tent in a sleeping bag. He didn't believe he was exposed to anything, as the boundary was so sharp and he hadn't prodded with the stick but thrown it like a spear into the bubbling water puddle on the other side of the ice. Even if he had been exposed, none of the bacteria he knew could survive such a high temperature, potentially a thousand degrees or more. The wood likely didn't transfer potential radiation through its trunk or emit it carried by air into the radiation inferno.

Helen nodded, "Exactly. The danger is over, let's say that, but let's not test it again, okay?"

John's concern wasn't eased by the physicist's assessment. "Let's still be cautious. A large dose of radiation would have killed me, a moderate one would make me vomit, and even a minor one would make me tired. I have no symptoms, but let's wait until tomorrow and keep our distance. No touching, even though I want to more than ever," he said, pointing at his bulging trousers.

Helen laughed, "Something already affected me before coming here," and she vomited beside the tent.

John wanted to say something to express his affection, showing that he didn't just want her as a woman. During their strange conversation the previous night after making love, they had agreed not to use pet names or let the baby make their life syrupy and sentimental. John insisted with his veto that the naming ban did not apply to their future child. Nuppu, Nappula, Kakara—there would always be a suitable nickname depending on the situation.

They returned early in the morning to the hill to observe the sunrise and the reaction of the ice surface. Before the sun had fully risen over the horizon, the ice surface gleamed like a mirror, and the frost-covered charred remains of houses in the distance quickly transformed into stark black silhouettes. Helen carefully documented the changes in her notebook, estimating the passage of time using a makeshift sundial made from a twig. She drew the shadow cast by the stick next to each of her sketches for later verification.

"She is incredibly skilled and methodical. Even her handwriting is beautiful," thought John proudly of the woman who, though not officially his wife, wore a birch bark ring he had crafted for her.

As the sun reached its zenith, they cycled home, chatting lively but avoiding the daunting task ahead. Instead, they reminisced, sharing memories and trying to outdo each other with amusing anecdotes. Thirty kilometers is a long way on poor bicycles, and by evening, exhausted and having dismounted their bikes, John remarked as they reached the path to their home:

"Only ten thousand steps left. Should we stop here?"

"Let's not," Helen replied. "I want to go to the sauna and take a swim."

She then lit the rye oil lamp, held it under her chin, and said, "Boo!"

Occasionally they tried to ride their bikes, but they kept running into stones or roots in the dark, so they decided to walk. When they finally reached the cabin, it was pitch black, with the Milky Way stretching across the night sky like a sparkling cloud of smoke drifting from the earth. John kindled a fire under the sauna stove, stripped, and dove into the lake, surfacing with a splash. Helen watched her man intently; something significant had changed between them, as she now saw John as an integral part of herself.

John's second cousin, along with the people who had helped him build the sauna, had their village completely destroyed, leaving nothing but smoke-scented ruins. The charred bodies had been either buried or taken away, and perhaps no one knew the location of their hideaway anymore. This secrecy was beneficial; perhaps they could keep it hidden somehow. A more accessible lake known as a recreational area had a proper forest road leading to it, where refugees from the camp and the city sought shelter.

The next day, they enthusiastically prepared the planting beds for the seeds Helen had acquired during her city visit and set up a small greenhouse, having found a large roll of plastic left behind by the sauna builders. To ease the worries caused by the colonel's expectations, they made love, with a quiet hope in their hearts that it could always be this way. They no longer discussed the orphanage idea, knowing it would be impractical due to the long and difficult supply routes for many years. Any potential aid would be scarce, as there was plenty of work to be done in the city, with the main objective being to get people out of camps and back to farming the land.

John, having abandoned his hermit ambitions, began searching for something more suitable on his property to offer the colonel in exchange for protection. He proposed,

"What if we establish our own research center for selected assistants around our projects? Perhaps the prefabricated house production for dismantling refugee camps will gain momentum, and we could bring one here for students' housing, clearing an area in the forest far from us," John suggested.

"Then we could collectively turn the path into a cart track and fence off our property as a private area. What do you think? Would that be enough to deter thieves and attract the colonel's interest?"

Helen replied, "Good idea. Let's think it through carefully and make a rounded proposal in the city that aligns with the given tasks, making it easier to accept. The old barter that smelled of moldy meat no longer works, and with our food stores dwindling, we need a livelihood to secure food and other necessities. We need to get all the labor for free and only trade ourselves as professionals who require absolute privacy."

"Until then, we need to focus on our garden to avoid running out of food and begging. Maybe we'll get some low-maintenance animals—a cow, chickens, and a horse," John suggested. "We'll fence a meadow at the edge of the forest and build a chicken coop."

In the following days, John roamed the countryside looking for more tomato seedlings and other plants for their garden, while Helen prepared a proposal for the colonel.

John found himself near a devastated area and couldn't resist visiting the edge of the destruction again—a compost heap steaming in the scorching heat. He realized it was too dangerous to even stick his hand in it. However, he repeated his earlier experiment with birch branches; as he thrust a twig into the inferno, the leaves shriveled instantly as if acid had engulfed them. He threw the twig away and muttered with a slight chuckle:

"Seems like the secrets won't reveal themselves through stick science."

Helen's team did not have artificial intelligence or a network at their disposal. They planned to keep track of changes in the border area by alternative methods. If they could get hold of some reliable mountain bikes, they could explore the thickening edge of the glacier. Perhaps in time, they would understand what had happened, what was happening, or what was about to happen on the other side of that strange contaminated border. Helen made a note in her journal to mention the bikes when they met with the colonel on Christmas Eve.

One day before they were scheduled to visit the city, Helene, excitedly waving papers with her calculations, ran to John, who was clearing the potato field.

"It must be so, it must," she exclaimed, waving the papers in front of his nose. "We need to find a strong magnet right away and a map that shows the area's iron deposits. We also need those bicycles so we can move around measuring magnetism. The rotten tires on both bikes are flat again."

"I know, and it's clear," replied John, as he inflated a tire beside a bowl of water, watching for the location of the bubble indicating the puncture.

Before they left, they sketched out their plans on paper, drawing elaborate diagrams of the tasks and their requirements, including how many assistants were the minimum needed. They aimed to make the plan as convincing as possible to deceive the colonel. In truth, they had no real idea of how they would carry out their research. The entire perimeter of the circular border was approximately 314 kilometers if the radius was 50 kilometers. Just circling and examining the Gerpol area alone would take a considerable amount of time trudging through forests if given the assignment. It was crucial to look for even the smallest deviations in radiation, get detailed data on the area's minerals, and identify connections and the sustainability of the situation. Understanding the global condition of the Earth was also a priority.

Helen and John usually only used the sauna at night to avoid drawing attention with the smoke from the chimney. However, such secrecy felt wrong in a circumstance where collective effort was needed to solve problems. Helen planned to share her preliminary findings with the colonel's scientists the next day. They would seek individuals with the right education and knowledge about the area's geology among the colonel's ranks. Possibly, there might be some useful research equipment available. The city did have two museums, and perhaps something old-fashioned but functional could be found from their collections, or from forgotten university display cases.

Both institutions had survived surprisingly well due to fire suppression systems. Unfortunately, many of the older research instruments were electronic and had sustained serious damage due to short circuits in attached sensors. The newest devices had been entirely electronically automated and digitized with artificial intelligence. However, some optical microscopes and cameras might have been made from non-reactive carbon fiber materials required by certain research conditions that didn't tolerate electromagnetic radiation, and the fire damage to these might be minimal. With the right technical skills, even intact lenses could be turned into various optical research devices. John reasoned and said,

"Constructing high-magnification microscopes and cameras with lenses for capturing on light-sensitive emulsions would be relatively easy with pre-cut lenses. It's unlikely that all the glass optics were melted. There must be some ancient analog microscopes and cameras preserved in collections, in private use, and on enthusiasts' shelves."

"We'll keep an eye out for such stuff when roaming around, but be careful with that swindler merchant—it could cause us all kinds of trouble," Helen warned.

With Helen's permission, John had spent another night and day camping by the thickening glacial edge, observing its wildly fluctuating weather. He realized, even without precise measurements, how the temperature sharply varied from boiling hot days to freezing cold nights without transitions. It was clear that the atmosphere was disappearing entirely beyond that peculiar natural phenomenon's line, but it was hard to grasp why there and not here. The ice would keep thickening as long as it absorbed moisture from the remnants of the atmosphere, possibly growing tens of meters thick over time, freezing the seas to their depths. If the atmosphere was truly evaporating, it most likely concerned the entire planet, including Gerpol sooner or later. It was crucial to quickly devise protective measures and airtight, radiation-shielded, vast habitable spaces with complete self-sufficiency, including oxygen production, and water and air purification, food production, and ongoing recycling of all materials. Creating such a society would require massive resources and high technology, items not readily available for a long time, though one should not underestimate the ingenuity of well-educated individuals. They had to try.

But what had caused that sharp line between life and death to form exactly here, and what was it truly made of? The only certain thing was that it existed, arching precisely like a conical atmospheric boundary around a life-supporting land area, with its airspace extending up to the edge of space. It was as if Gerpol was surrounded by a radiation ring, whose particles moved in a circular pattern, bonded to each other due to their geometrical properties, perhaps reacting to the area's magnetism, which they repelled. This had created a kind of permanent stalemate between Gerpol and the radiation ring, which was hoped to last for thousands of years or at least long enough for its inhabitants to develop technology to escape their predicament.

Helen pondered the observational data John had brought. It would be a good starting point for their project to try to find explanations and predict the stability of the situation. If the elementary particles in the protective radiation ring had a strong bond to each other, it could be almost eternal unless a massive energy spike disrupted it. There were endless questions for the colonel to mull over, such as how to prepare for and protect against a potential collapse of the protective barrier. If the atmosphere began to vanish quickly on this side of the boundary, swallowing Gerpol into its destructive embrace, it wouldn't be just a fear but a logical probability if the protective influence of the radiation ring's counterforce ceased.

John was coming up with more practical ideas for his agenda. Perhaps the existing underground mine on the site could be sealed to retain breathable air and tap into an underground water source to create a large subterranean greenhouse for soy and vegetable cultivation, ensuring self-sufficiency in food within the mine. John was crafting these visions with his eyes closed, planning to refine them into detailed scenarios before bedtime, inspired by the self-sufficient farming practices of Techpol. Surely, the community would appreciate such ideas, especially since tangible destruction surrounded them everywhere, and there was no contact with any other surviving humans, assuming there were any left elsewhere; no one had come to their aid or made contact from across the frigid desert.

It seemed like life on Earth only existed in Gerpol, and this was just as strange as the idea that life in the universe existed only on Earth. As Helen pondered this, she felt it was akin to the futile search for extraterrestrial life using indirect methods without the ability to physically verify it. Vibrant life might exist elsewhere, but there were no means of making contact. It was unknown whether similar life pockets existed around the globe, separated by unsurpassable deadly wastelands where the protective and temperature-regulating atmosphere was vanishing.

The collapse of advanced technology offered few quick opportunities to manufacture protective gear for an expedition to explore beyond the zone of destruction. The especially extreme temperature fluctuations made it impossible to undertake round trips over long distances during the cold night without fast-moving vehicles. It would be impossible during the day. Radiation and its properties and effects needed thorough study before attempting to cross the ice wasteland.

"A suit with strong magnetization and a vacuum layer between a super-tight outer surface and inner garments could work to block the radiation," suggested Helen, continuing, "If we understand what happens between the destroyed zone and Gerpol, we'll have a working model for researching at least the nearby area."

John said, "First, we need to set up a workshop and lab to build precise measuring devices to obtain reliable data. That shouldn't be impossible for our engineers and scientists. We just need to find them and get them to collaborate on practical ideas and solutions in the right order. There's probably already some organization of workgroups in that direction, as the colonel mentioned, we aren't the only surviving scientists in Gerpol."

The tires on both bikes were punctured again. The rubber had probably deteriorated over the decades, and once the included repair kits were exhausted, the bikes wouldn't be practical as transport anymore. John was already planning stands that could allow them to generate electricity through friction if he could construct a dynamo and a battery to store the energy. Furthermore, he envisioned using the pedaling motion to also power a homemade water pump. Helen smiled at John's inventive spirit and eagerness to find solutions for their household and research needs.

"We will manage," John kept repeating as he hammered some piece of metal into shape.Enter your text here...