20

Short story or novella from a few decades ago:

A Russian woman, the last surviving human as far as she can tell, has been so far surviving an extreme nuclear winter by traveling in a heavily insulated vehicle from a joint U.S.-Soviet collaboration project she was participating in at the time that nuclear war broke out. (It had been a project sponsored as some kind of relationship-improvement type project by the two governments.)

(It emerges in a flashback that when the ICBMs fell, she actually was responsible for locking out of a bunker an American scientific collaborator, as she was enraged and bitter with grief from the knowledge that her own family and everyone she knew back home was dead.)

As she travels around the wastes of North America in the vehicle (sometimes imagining the howls of impossible wolves -- in reality, everything else is frozen, dead) she comes across a building that is lit.

She meets not surviving humans, but a crew of vaguely duck-shaped aliens. (She dubs three of them them Huey, Dewey, and Louie.) Communication is difficult (the aliens are highly intelligent but have very different mindsets from humans, and have to play-act out certain scenarios amongst themselves to understand new concepts), but it eventually emerges that they are peaceful aliens who had been sent on expedition to meet and study humanity. (I guess they had recognized that there were radio broadcasts emanating from the Solar system.) She fills them in on what she knows about what happened.

Over weeks that they get to know each other and the aliens learn more about what happened, a few individuals of the alien crew commit suicide, to her alarm.

She ultimately learns that during the aliens' maneuvers to begin deceleration at the midway point of their journey to Earth (the alien vessel or vessels had traveled at some significant speed, like .1c or something), there had been an accidental release of material, I think maybe just hydrogen. I think an alien craft might have been lost, I'm not sure. One or more alien craft from the group were able to successfully decelerate, but the stray particles (continuing on at that peak, relativistic speed relative to our system), had enough velocity that when they months or years later swept through the solar system, enough of those high-energy nucleii impacted Earth's atmosphere that the high altitude showers of secondary particles set off nuclear attack detector in the U.S. and/or U.S.S.R., prompting retaliatory ICBM/sub nuclear launches. (I don't remember if it was determined whether one side launched first or both misinterpreted the initial data; if the alien direction of approach was close to the ecliptic it might have depended on which side of the Earth was facing that direction at that time of day/year; in any case, the result was the same: both sides launched their missiles.) The decelerated alien craft arrived a few years after, finding a frozen world.

7

"Candle in a Cosmic Wind," a story written by Joseph Manzione. ISFDB says it was first published in Analog (August, 1987). I first encountered it in The Year's Best Science Fiction: Fifth Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois.

Your plot summary is pretty accurate. The viewpoint character is a Russian woman named Avdotya Nazarovna. As we first meet her, she is traveling alone through a post-apocalyptic North America in which everything else is dead and frozen; nothing resembling a functional biosphere. As far as she or we can tell, she is literally the Last Woman on Earth. (And no men are left, so there is not likely to ever be a "next generation.")

She does, in fact, meet alien explorers who remind her of very large ducks.

They were ugly, she decided. They resembled three-meter-tall, rust-colored ducks, with curved fangs set in long, leathery snouts. Their arms were short and thick, and folded over large round bellies hidden in heavy cloaks. Skinny, chitinous legs held them up, and their naked knees were knobby and bent backwards. They were manifestly adapted to colder weather, and wore brightly-covered turbans around their heads. Avdotya did not know whether to laugh or be terrified, or simply amused at the irony, for their circumstances were clear now.

They're as lost as I am in this place, she realized. And I was going to shoot them.

Since she never learns the duck language (probably couldn't pronounce it), and it takes a long time for them to establish good communication, Avdotya has no idea what the ducks call each other, so she mentally uses names of cartoon ducks for the aliens with whom she has the most interaction. In the copy I'm looking at, there's a trio she thinks of as "Huey and Dewey and Lewey." (Either the author misremembered the correct spelling of the name of the Disney character "Louie," or else he deliberately chose to do this in order to remind us that English is not Avdotya's native language, which means occasional misspellings are bound to happen.) Also, the one she thinks of as an "anthropologist" -- because he spends long hours, for months, learning to communicate with her via written English -- is the alien whom she thinks of as "Daffy Duck."

One thing that your memory seems to have blurred: We eventually learn that there has not been a devastating nuclear war, although you are correct in remembering that both sides (USA and USSR), when detecting strange and scary radiation surges, started launching missiles from fear that the other side had commenced a sneak attack! But it turns out that such launches didn't make the slightest difference in what happened next.

For most of the story, Avdotya Nazarovna has believed that she is the sole survivor of a nuclear war which somehow killed everyone and everything except herself in a truly extreme case of nuclear winter . . . but the aliens eventually admit to her that the human race is in no way responsible for its own extinction. Here's an excerpt to illustrate my point. Daffy Duck, the anthropologist, is speaking the first line. (This is after months of effort to master the English language, and then program a computer to translate spoken English into spoken "duck," and back the other way as necessary, so that he can hold a realtime conversation with Avdotya instead of their exchanging messages carefully written in English.)

"There was no war. At least, no nuclear conflict. You were mistaken."

Avdotya chewed on her thumbnail and thought. "Someone told me the same thing a long time ago. But I was in it. I witnessed an order to launch a large number of missiles. The missiles flew . . . I was there."

"Yes. They flew. We scanned the wreckage."

"What happened?"

"The missiles went up. I do not believe that any reached a target, however. We did find some rare detonation sites, perhaps where warheads exploded when the malfunctioning booster vehicles impacted the surface. Guidance systems were destroyed or scrambled by radiation, or the vehicles themselves were knocked down by massive detonations high in the atmosphere."

Avdotya shook her head in confusion. "I don't understand. What caused the radiation? What about the airbursts?"

"Dust traveling at relativistic speeds," replied Daffy, staring at her with a shockingly contorted expression. "Several days ago I told you a little bit about how our ships operate . . . and about the accident one of them had while decelerating into this system."

Daffy then goes into further detail about just how the "dust" released from their ship -- moving at more than nine-tenths of lightspeed -- did irreparable damage to both the Earth and the Sun. Daffy also mentions that thus far seventeen members of this alien expedition have committed suicide from guilt because their accident exterminated a sentient race. And the number is expected to increase exponentially when word gets back to their homeworld about what happened.

  • Thank you, that's the one! Thank you for also taking the time to set straight the aspect I mis-recalled. As you say, my memory blurred part of her original assumption into the ultimate revelation. – Jacob C. Dec 11 '17 at 19:22

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