Set me aflame and cast me free
Away you wretched world of tethers
Through the endless night and day
I have never wanted more.
VNV Nation - Solitary
I woke in darkness and cold and listened to the keening of the wind as it tore at the walls of the staging building where we had taken shelter. It became known as Walaka. The Storm. The phrase, that word “storm” is inadequate. I remember storms from before. I jumped my car in stinging rain while Hurricane Danielle pummeled the DelMarVa peninsula in her fury. I became stranded on the side of the road in a Colorado blizzard, and dodged tornadoes while driving south on Route 55 through Indiana toward Cincinnati. At the time, those were memorable events, moments of intensity that imprinted themselves with great clarity on my memory, much the way a person would always recall where they were for the Kennedy assassination, or when the space shuttle blew up taking that teacher to her grave.
Walaka. The capital-S Storm. It caused maps to be drawn and redrawn until keeping up became impossible. Roads ended in watery tombs. Snow blanketed entire counties and states with asphyxiating heaviness, murdering thousands in the comfort and safety of their homes.
Walaka’s tempest raked the heavy door to our shelter, incessant and hungry for our meat.
Thirty-three of us left the Station that day. I was the Station’s facilities maintenance, systems, and control technician, a position someone nicknamed the “ManSac.” That’s corporate-speak for a handyman. I fixed things. I knew the Station better than anyone, I used to boast.
Maggie was a fuels tech. We didn’t talk much. I knew her face, knew her laugh. Of course we knew who each other was, but you’d be amazed at the social striations that can form in a small, isolated community. Aside from the superficial, I knew almost nothing about her but her name.
Thirty-three people left the Station, out of a population of one hundred and forty-four. Two disappeared in The Storm during the exodus. Three died en route. One more succumbed within minutes of reaching shelter from a combination of exposure and injuries sustained in the flight. Twenty-seven spent the first night in the staging building. An even dozen voted to return to the Station after food began growing scarce, maybe three months after we arrived. We don’t know if they made it. After that, the last of us flickered out, one by one.
Only Maggie and I remained.
For long minutes I lay on my cot as sleep passed and watched the smoke of my breath rise in the dim light cast by the flickering fire of the furnace. She lay on a cot like mine across the dark, cold room and pretended to sleep. I sat up and rubbed my feet to warm them, then slipped on the filthy socks I kept under my blankets before forcing stiff toes into the boots near my head. I put on my coat and walked in circles, stomping on the concrete floor until my feet warmed, then relieved myself in a plastic bottle. When I finished, I deposited the bottle into a pocket inside my parka. The warmth would be nice for a while. I glanced at Maggie, her brown hair spilling like tree roots from under the pillow she used to cover her face. I didn’t want to disturb her.
On the wall next to the door I flipped a switch which gave power to the single glass bulb that lit our compact refuge and turned the thermostat to our agreed daytime temperature: a half-degree above freezing. The room was twenty feet square, with a concrete foundation that rose to corrugated metal walls. A rope had been fastened in intervals along the walls about eight feet above the floor, forming a grid pattern two feet square. Dozens of ratted old surplus woolen blankets were interwoven in the rope to create a roof of sorts. Insulation to keep in what heat we could generate. A metal ladder painted safety yellow was installed on the wall opposite the door. It led up into the rest of the building, a parts warehouse and vehicle workshop. Some time ago there were enough of us that we lived up there, where we talked, played card games on makeshift tables and drank the meager supply of alcohol we stowed away. We had communal dinners from the supply of food that we’d stolen from the Station, mixing whatever frozen and canned treats we could into something comforting. We cooked, shat, made love, and laughed together. There existed in this shelter a small community that had fled the Station when the violence began, clinging to hope that help would come.
With a low rumble, the furnace came to life. A few long minutes later I rejoiced in the scant heat that percolated out from the aluminum ductwork, rubbing my hands under the lone vent until they tingled. I had long ago blocked all the other vents in the building, turning the furnace as low as possible in an attempt to conserve the meager amount of fuel that remained.
On a shelf on the third wall, opposite the beds, I selected a small metal can. The ones that were left had no labels. It could be potatoes, it could be beef stew. There were only a few left on the shelf, along with the small pile on the floor in the corner. A pittance from what had once held what seemed like an infinite supply of sustenance. Just these few cans remained before starvation.
I cut a slit into the top and put the day’s food near the fire at the base of the furnace; it wouldn’t be lit long enough to heat the food to anything palatable, but it would thaw enough to eat.
The light dimmed as power ran low.
“Are you awake? I’m heating some…” It was hard to see in the dim light. “Beans, I think.”
She didn’t answer. No matter. I’d save her half of the day’s food allowance. I always did. One half of one can per day, split two ways. It wasn’t much.
I sat on a bicycle in a stand, the kind used for indoor training that someone in our expatriated community had converted to generate power. Joshua, I think it was. The large, bearded man with a round face and a huge, toothy smile. He was an electrical engineer, or so I thought I remembered. Used to work in the space program. They’re all gone now anyhow.
Joshua…Amanda, the chef with the bright eyes and the constant need to sing. Elise, the communications operator with her wicked sense of humor and love of mythology. She told bawdy stories of ancient heroes at night in the dark and warmed us all with her enthusiasm. Frank, the leader of our splinter faction who brought us here to this sanctuary from the station. All gone.
I missed Elise the most.
It doesn’t matter.
The bicycle was our anchor. An hour pedaling out of every six and we had enough juice for the light. Two hours at night and we could watch a half hour of an old film on the laptop we had rescued from the piles of gear upstairs. It was a balancing act, though. You had to put in enough time on the bicycle to create the power, but not so much that you needed extra food. There were no calories to waste. We took turns. A half hour each.
I heard a rustling and saw her sit upright, pulling a tattered woolen hat down over her ears. She got up, walked to the corner and unbuckled her pants. I turned my head away, heard the splashing in the bucket. When she was finished, I turned to look at her again as she poured the contents of the bucket into a plastic bottle. Under The Storm, you don’t waste heat. The bottle went under her ugly Christmas sweater.
“I’m warming up a can.”
She nodded again and walked to the furnace, placing her hand on the can of food, testing it.
“Not yet,” she whispered.
She sat on my bed, hands clasped, looking at the stalactites of frozen breath that swayed on the walls of our shelter. The wind roared outside, leeching heat out through cracks in our walls. I pedaled in silence, keeping a slow, steady pace balanced on the seat.
When the food was ready, she opened the can and ate her portion in silence. I finished my half hour on the bike then sat next to her. She dropped the spoon into the can and passed it over. Garbanzo beans, more than there should be remaining.
I shook my head. “Finish,” I said, pushing the can back to her.
She got up and waved her hand at me. Then she went to her cot and lay down, facing the wall. I ate my allotment of waxy beans in silence.
“Not much left,” I said, letting every drop from the stick fall back into the fuel tank before screwing the lid down tight. It wouldn’t do to lose a drop from evaporation.
She looked at me through slotted eyes over the book she was reading. Yesterday I had gone upstairs to the big room and returned with plunder. A book for her, a pair of underwear for me.
“Just over six inches.”
She adjusted the filthy cap on her head and collapsed onto her pillow. I sighed, running the math in my head. Six inches of fuel left in the big tank. Six inches. We used just over two inches per month. That gave us under three months. Two and a half at best. How long had we been here? I couldn’t be sure. Not with any accuracy.
She looked at me, her blue eyes brilliant against the soot and grime that hid her face.
“We’ve got two months.”
She had already done the math herself.
“If we cut the temperature by another two degrees, we can push that out. Maybe earn another couple weeks or so.”
She shrugged, dropped her head. I could see tears falling in the dim light. I inventoried the stash of cans piled in the corner and the shelf on the wall. We didn’t have enough food for more than two months. Four or five weeks at best, and that was if we cut our ration again. Maggie wasn’t stupid. She could see the end just as well as I could. Three months was a dream.
I raised the thermostat by a couple of degrees.
It doesn’t matter.
On the small screen of our purloined laptop, three soldiers walked through the desert, the brilliant sun blinding them. They wore matching khaki T-shirts and were covered in sweat. She reached over and touched the screen, her face filled with awe. I wondered if she was thinking back to the warmth of the sun. I couldn’t. Not anymore. The wind howled and streaks of clean skin on her cheeks marked the tracks of her tears. I watched her while she watched the computer, the movie forgotten.
A timer beeped once.
“Thirty minutes,” I said, although she knew what it meant.
She sighed and checked the screen. “There’s forty minutes left,” she pleaded.
“We’ll finish it tomorrow.”
Her face fell.
“I’ll bike extra.”
She nodded and went back to her cot, took off her coat and shoes and slid beneath the many layers of tattered blankets.
“Something to look forward to,” I said, folding the laptop and putting it on the shelf next to the food. She didn’t answer.
I dressed in my parka, then covered my face with rags, then stepped into a harness and secured it tight before forcing my hands into a pair of fur mittens.
She said nothing.
“We need water.”
I picked up a clean bucket and opened the door, stepping into the vestibule. I made sure that the inner door was secure before pulling a coil of rope from a hook on the wall and securing the attached carabiner to my harness. I tested the connection before stepping outside into the gale. The wind howled in my ears and threatened to pull the rags from my face. In the lee of the building, it wasn’t so bad, there where you were protected from the worst of the wind and whatever flew in its grasp.
I searched again, looking to the south as I did every time I came out, but the Station remained invisible. Just the snow and ice and the howling of the never-ending blizzard. The Storm. That was a laugh, the word so weak in the face of this tempest, the devil possessing the world in the guise of freezing wind. I wondered again if maybe someone was alive over there. I couldn’t know that, from here. I imagined them at work in the old dining hall, a few of them cooking up a fine supper of turkey and potatoes with all the fixings while others laughed as they played Euchre and drank brandy. Maybe smoking cigars after they finished, patting their full stomachs. My mouth watered.
“They’re all dead.”
The wind stole my words away. I packed the bucket with clean snow and forced the door open against the squall and went back inside.
It doesn’t matter.
It took some time.
I melted snow in the bucket for water, then cleaned out an empty food tin, filled that smaller tin with water and put that next to the furnace to warm. It would take hours. I sat with my demons while she lay on her bed, staring at nothing. I didn’t know what thoughts were in her head, but I wondered if they were the same as those that ran through mine. I thought of my parents, back in Bellingham, Massachusetts. I wondered if Walaka had consumed them as well, or if they were safe in their home, playing with the grandchildren and mowing the lawn, collecting the mail. I knew better, but that was the stuff of hope, wasn’t it? Maybe somewhere was a pocket of normalcy in all of this, some small vestige of the old world holding on for all of this to end so they could return the world to what it once was.
I knew better than that.
The storms grew bigger and bigger over time. Changing temperatures, the collapse of the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica, and then the complete collapse of the Western Antarctic Ice Shelf fueled a flurry of monster storms and flooding. Cities were swept away by floods, or just erased from the Earth by cyclones so large that they spanned the horizon. Storms merged, gained in ferocity, and became Walaka.
Back when the internet was working we googled the name. Walaka: The Ruler of the Army. A fitting name. Even now I could hear the laughter of the talking heads on the news programs that mocked and denied what was happening right up to the end. Making fun of the name, even. Walaka, they laughed. Some people shouted warnings from the rooftops. They were derided as loons, conspiracy nuts, and crazy people. They were dead now, like everyone else. It didn’t matter. Walaka gave birth to the end of the world. Walaka laughs over the graves of those who mocked her, devouring life itself in her hatred.
Next to the furnace the snow melted and the water in the can warmed. I put on my coat and climbed the small yellow ladder up to the main level of the warehouse. I didn’t like going up there. It was a mausoleum.
The large room dwarfed our shelter by the furnace. Storage shelves had been rearranged to create makeshift rooms, with cardboard strung up for privacy. Everything was left as it had been placed before one by one they had all departed. I stepped with care between the piles of bedding, the cots, the packs and suitcases lest I step on a ghost. All of it was covered with hoarfrost and glistened like stars in the dim light that came through the windows. My feet crunched on the rime that coated the wooden floor, the smoke from my breath rising in the stagnant air.
Veronica was an Austrian astrophysicist, known as Vroni. Petite and beautiful, Vroni became the catalyst for violence as she played two men against each other: Marc, a heavy mechanic, and Stephen, the logistical coordinator. They shouted and shoved each other while some of us tried to calm them and deescalate the situation. Vroni cursed both men in a high-pitched voice thick with German. Stephen punched Marc, who fell backward into a shelf covered with tools. Marc was a big man, and when he stood he drove the tip of a flathead screwdriver through Stephen’s neck with ease. A group of us subdued Marc and tied him to a chair while Stephen bled out on the floor. There was nothing Doctor Stanley could do. The next morning, Frank ordered Marc’s execution for the safety of the group, of course. Stanley administered a fatal dose of morphine while Marc squirmed in his chair and screamed his protestations at us, spitting and snarling. He slowed, then stopped. We tossed his warm body still tied to the chair out the door into the wind.
The next morning, Vroni was gone, the first to walk into the Storm. Stanley and his wife Audrey were dead as well, bottles of fentanyl and benzodiazepine still locked in Stanley’s frozen hands.
Within two weeks, the last five were dead. All of them walking one by one into Walaka’s loving arms.
I dug through stacks and piles of old gear, avoiding them. The pair that remained, their frozen corpses hidden behind a wall of wooden pallets. I avoided them as I avoided my memories, searching until I found a couple of pieces of cloth that weren’t too dirty and a small scrap of hard soap. Grinning, I took my pillage and climbed back down into our shelter, being careful to seal the wool blankets over my head to keep in what small heat we had accumulated.
The water had warmed in my absence, so I gathered up the can and stepped over to her bunk. I tapped her on the shoulder and she turned to me.
“Turn over,” I said, and she did, a confused look in her eyes. “It’s okay.” Dipping the rag in the water, I rubbed a corner onto the bar of soap, and gently dabbed at her face. Tears appeared in her large blue eyes and rolled down her cheeks, traces of sadness mopped up with soapy water. She stared at me as I worked. I looked into her eyes but couldn’t imagine what she was thinking.
I took my time. When I was finished, I used the other cloth to dry her face.
She stared at me. “Thank you,” she whispered before rolling over to face the wall. I adjusted her blankets to cover her back and shoulders then retired to my dirty bed, climbing in and covering myself against the cold.
I woke to a quiet rustling noise. The light had gone out while we slept. I didn’t cycle tonight because I had been busy gathering and melting snow and finding the soap for her. It didn’t matter, we didn’t need the light to sleep. I’d take care of it in the morning.
I felt a tugging at my blankets and they were pulled from me, a cold blast of unexpected air. She slipped inside and fixed the covers. We had done this one other time, when the furnace went out, some time ago. A year. A week. I couldn’t remember. We split the bed to share warmth until we could get the fire lit again.
“Are you cold?”
“No.” Her voice a raspy whisper.
She took my hand and placed it on her hip. I felt bare skin, pebbled like goose flesh. She entwined her other hand in my hair and drew my head toward her. My mouth found hers, as eager and excited as my own. As we kissed, she helped me strip off my clothes in the dark.
She stood over me, silhouetted by the light behind her. She had gotten dressed and must have cycled while I slept. “Good morning.” She kissed me on the cheek and smiled, a thin thing that didn’t reach her eyes. I coughed.
“Good morning,” I murmured and stretched. I sat up and reached for my clothes that were scattered on the floor and pushed them under the blankets so they’d warm. “What’s going on?”
“I love you, you know.”
The statement took me by surprise.
“Thank you for trying. I just wanted you to know that I love you for it.” She pulled out an old plastic badge from a pocket in her coat. She stared at it for a minute and then handed it to me. I didn’t look at it. I had one of my own — a magnetic strip on one side and a photo on the other, along with my name and fingerprint. Everyone left their badge when they gave themselves to the Storm.
“Don’t.” I took her hand. “Maggie…”
“Yes.” She stared at the ground and the tears fell again. “I’m sorry.” She dropped my hand and turned, walked to the door. Outside the storm screamed, hungry to take her. Hungry for her meat.
“Don’t. I’ve been thinking. We can try for the Station. Maybe…maybe there’s someone else alive…”
She opened the door to the foyer and turned. She smiled. A real smile this time, a smile that echoed in her clear blue eyes. She was radiant. Our eyes locked, then she shook her head. “No.”
I pushed my feet into my boots and ran to her, but my feet caught on something and I tripped. I landed in a heap and skidded to a stop on the cold concrete. Maggie opened the outer door. Brilliant white light filled the room as I struggled to my feet. She’d tied my shoelaces together. I hopped toward her, but the door slammed shut and latched, echoing in the sudden darkness of the single bulb.
“No!” I fell to my knees. It felt like forever, my fingers fumbling in my haste, but I untied the knot in my boots and hurried into my parka, gloves, and goggles and ran to the door, pushing it open against the wind.
There was nothing to see except a pair of footprints that disappeared into the storm. She was gone. Gone into the hungry gaping teeth of Walaka. I watched as her footprints were wiped away by the wind. When my lungs burned from the cold, I went inside and forced the door close, stripped off my coat and slumped onto my cot. To follow her was death, and a fool’s errand.
Her badge was where I dropped it, entangled in grimy sheets. I picked up the thin piece of plastic turned it around and around in my hands.
Margaret, it read. Margaret Marshall-Pearce.
I loved her. That mattered.
I sat the box on my lap and stared at its pale brown and aged lid, gripping Margaret’s badge in my hand until my palm grew slick with sweat. With an almost inaudible groan, I opened the lid. The box was packed with matching identification cards. Frank’s smiling face stared up at me. Frank Wells, the serious font on the front of the badge read, just under the logo of the company that had brought us all down here. Frank who saved us all from the Station, but for what? I pressed Margaret’s badge against my forehead and thought of her for a moment. I pictured her blue eyes and felt the warmth of her kiss.
Was I supposed to pray now? Pray to whom? Walaka proved one of two things: either there wasn’t a god to hear our prayers, or he (or she?) heard them and didn’t give a damn. If there was a god, a capital-G God, Walaka was sent to cleanse the Earth of humanity like the flood of Noah, although this time God hadn’t bothered with the ridiculous ark. It was time to start the world again with a clean slate. A new beginning, on a fresh, frozen Earth. Someday Walaka would tire and die and a warm sun would melt through the ice, a dormant seed would find purchase and grow, spreading its fecundity across the planet. Nothing but plants and atardigrades and cockroaches pushing up through the thaw with no trace of man to pollute the fountainhead.
I set her badge on top of the stack of others just like it. I closed the box, shutting the lid on Margaret’s face. Maggie’s face.
Here, Lord lies Margaret. Margaret Marshall-Pearce. I don’t know if she was a Maggie Marshall, or a Margaret Pearce, or who Pearce even was. Was it a husband, some unknown man that she abandoned in her thoughts? Did she get the name from her parents? Of all the time we spent together I knew nothing more than her name. And I couldn’t even get that right, at the end.
Into your hands, we commend her spirit. Take her into your loving embrace and spare her from the life you let go to dust. The Earth is fucked. We’re all fucked, and we’re all going to die.
I got up and set the box back on the shelf next to the door. Then I picked up the day’s meal I had left warming by the furnace and peeled the lid back on the can. It was almost hot. I ate my portion.
“Creamed corn,” I said to no one, setting Maggie’s share next to the stove. Perhaps I’d eat it all.
Perhaps I was the last person alive.
That doesn’t matter.
I stayed in bed the next morning, and for the next couple of days only got up to eat, drink water, and relieve myself in the pee bucket. The single light bulb grew dimmer and dimmer as power bled away and the room faded into blackness. I could have gotten up to pedal the bike, but it didn’t matter. Dreams of a hammock filled my thoughts. A hammock strung between the aspens in my backyard, my dog on my lap as we stared at the clouds in the otherwise clear blue sky.
After a week I forced myself to watch the end of the film I’d started with Maggie. Everyone went home, a few got rich, and they all had a happy ending. Everyone except for the ones that died, that is. Everyone dies in the end. That could be the last chapter of every book ever written.
Years later, Gretel died from an inherited medical condition that she hadn’t known she had. That evening a distraught Hansel walked in front of a city bus and was splattered on the sidewalk. Their funeral was nice, as they were surrounded by people whom they had doomed to Gretel’s fate through ignorance and the lack of proper medical care.
The laptop went back on the shelf when the film was over. I lay down on Maggie’s bunk, consumed with guilt for not letting her finish the film when she asked. I felt dirty for having seen it. I ate. I slept.
On the third day after the movie, something changed.
I don’t know when or even how the change came about, but I was certain of one thing: I was going to die, but I wasn’t going to die alone in that damned filthy mechanical room in the dark.
That night I turned the heat up on the furnace as high as it would go, then ate a whole can of lima beans. For the first time in months, sleep came with tranquil ease, despite the howling of the wind and the rattling in the timbers of the old building.
Tomorrow I was going to the Station.
Walaka be damned.
The walls wept.
After being frozen so long, the heat in the small room melted every trace of snow and ice, and water flowed down the walls to the concrete floor as if the building itself was crying out its grief. As if the shelter knew that it, too, was going to die.
Under the covers, I was covered in sweat. It was glorious.
I dressed in this sepulcher for the last time.
Upstairs I searched for what I needed. As always, ghosts inhabited the dim light and debris. The ghosts of the twenty-six men and women I used to know. My friends.
I found a large backpack and a smaller gray rucksack and filled them with extra clothes, socks, gloves, whatever I thought I might need. A water bottle. A small coil of rope.
A nagging thought consumed me. I tried to avoid it. I tried to move on and think of something else, but once it took root, it grew and grew, its tendrils reaching into every corner of my mind. In the end, I capitulated.
On a shelf near the wall, next to the screwdriver we had taken from Stephen’s neck, I found a hammer. It took only a couple of minutes to shift and detach the debris that covered Stanley and Audrey. It took two blows of the hammer to shatter Stanley’s hand like brittle glass. I dropped the hammer and took the prescription bottles from him. A good quantity of pills remained. I went downstairs. The bottles went into the backpack.
The wind was unforgiving: chills of negative ninety, negative one hundred and ten. Every inch of my body was covered, two, three layers thick of insulation. Yet the wind found its way through, leeching the heat generated through my exertions. Cold waged conductive war through layers of protection. Visibility near zero. After a few yards everything blurred to white. Even my feet were hazy on the road.
After walking for a short while, I felt I had gone nowhere. I dropped to my hands and knees and crawled, but the hungry wind tried to take me. Months ago, three dozen of us roped together fought the tempest and almost lost. Alone, my odds were slim.
I got lower to the ground. Elbows and toes pushed me forward. The backpack acted as a weighted sail and flipped me to my side. Each time I righted myself and surged forward, an inch, a foot, a yard. Then I ducked my head and breathed in, calming my beating heart.
Two, then three hours. Inch by inch. Walaka tried to take me. Another inch, another foot as the freight train noise of the Storm threw rocks and debris over my prostrate body.
I clung to an Earth that tried to shake me off.
It was a mile to the Station: a fifteen-minute walk. Six hours passed, and I crawled, inch by agonizing inch. I could no longer feel my feet. Waves of convulsions wracked my body, from exertion, cold, and low blood sugar. I had to piss, but there was no way I would expose myself. I lifted my head and searched what I thought was the road but saw featureless white. I walked that road a hundred times before and knew every dip, twist, and stone. Covered in snow and debris, it was a different planet.
The sky grew dark over the last hour; somewhere high above the clouds, the sun was going down. I lay flat and rested in the snow, my eyes closed. My breath grew shallow. The shivering stopped. From my survival training, I knew that this wasn’t good. My body was shutting down. I was lost.
My wife was there with me in what I knew were hallucinations, at the airport in Baltimore saying goodbye. We had an hour until I had to go through security. We sat and enjoyed a beer. It was warm there in the airport lounge.
“When you get back, we’ll talk about starting a family,” she promised. She wasn’t the one that wanted children. She was on the fence, kicking that can down the road year after year. Next year, we can talk. Next year.
“What made you change your mind?”
Morgan shrugged, then smiled. It was radiant. “I’m just ready, is all.”
The deployment was to be for six months. Walaka conjured in two. Was she still alive?
I slept in the wind.
I would have faded away in the snow if not for the sound of a section of ductwork or siding that cartwheeled toward me, just luck that it missed. If I had been standing, the razor edge of the thin metal could have cut me in half. The loud banging startled me awake. In the remaining light, the metal hurtled over me and disappeared over a lip of snow. A second later, I heard a crash as the metal hit ground, far below. But there was no ravine or crevasse along the road: it was packed volcanic dirt. I gathered my strength and let the wind push me toward the edge, where the metal disappeared.
Near the edge, wind abraded snow from the ground, which here was smooth gray. Every ten feet, a line of black crossed in a grid pattern. I knew this. The surface was slick. I backed away from the burnished, rounded edge, and surveyed my location from a safe distance.
I was on top of Meir Station.
After blowing for months, Walaka had deposited so much snow on the windward side of the enormous building that I had crawled onto the roof while thinking I crawled along the road. The Station was two tall stories on top of telescoping legs. A drop of fifty feet, maybe more. Certainly fatal.
Thank you, Walaka, for your blessings.
The radio antennas for the Communications Center were next to the service hatch that led down into the Station. I’d been up here many times. Filled with renewed purpose and energy, I crawled along the roof, searching.
Ten minutes later, I fell through the hatch and down a ladder onto the mezzanine of a storage room. I dropped the pack to the floor in the semidarkness, secured the hatch, stripped off my gloves and parka. It was warm. Expecting darkness, I found on the floor below that a single desk lamp cast light into the large room. Somehow, the power was still on.
The frosted goggles came off as I lowered myself to the deck. Rolling onto my side, I pissed myself and passed out.
A single bulb illuminated the room below me, but my eyes were accustomed to dim light. I had little difficulty policing my area, gathering my things, and creeping down the stairs. There was no way to know what had become of the Station since we’d left. Caution was prudent.
Nobody notices hatches in the floor. The maintenance hatch in this storage room was by the sink in the corner.
Meier Station was designed to support and house one hundred and fifty scientists and support staff at any given time. The Station is large, but people are — were — always begging for more space, more storage. Room to spread out. Space is critical. And so many of the essential infrastructure components were built under the floors. Hatches into these subfloors provided access for maintenance and repair. That was my job. One of my jobs. I spent many days crawling through the tight, labyrinthine spaces, learning to ignore the claustrophobia that was a constant itch in my mind.
The hatch popped open, and I crawled inside, cringing at every sound, taking care to ensure the door properly seated. Certain it was secure, I flipped the switch, and light flooded the confined space. Bulbs at regular intervals lit the subfloor.
I left my cold-weather gear by the hatch under the storage room where it would be safe and out of the way. On hands and knees, I crawled under the main hallway of the Station.
In the middle of the piping, conduit, and ductwork beneath the floors was an area known to a few as The Safe House. It was challenging to find, even if a person spent time in these spaces. The Safe House was nothing more than a ten-foot square area accessed by crawling under a section of sewage piping. An area forgotten and, I noticed one day, an area excised from the Station plans. It was where the maintenance techs could go hide where no one could find them. A quiet, private spot in a facility that had precious little of either. Knowledge of its existence was passed down year to year from one maintenance tech to another. Over time, it had become crudely furnished and appointed with whatever curios and knickknacks could be smuggled down through the maze of utilities.
The Safe House was as I left it, so many months ago. Neat, ordered, and undisturbed, it contained a small bookcase, a collection of paperbacks, a stack of padding covered with comforters that made a comfortable bed, and a few boxes of supplies.
I dropped the pack and stripped my clothes, thankful for the warmth of the station. Sitting on the bed, I took inventory. Some wrapped cookies, energy bars, an orange gone to rot. Two bottles of vitamins — one multi, one vitamin C. A few bags of potato chips and heaps of chocolate. Six bottles of whiskey of various flavors, two bottles of vodka, fifteen cans of beer. I opened one of the cans, enjoying the warm, bubbly lager as it tickled my throat and swallowed a chocolate bar.
For the first time in months, Walaka couldn’t touch me.
I woke, naked and wrapped in blankets.
For the briefest moment, luxuriating in threshold consciousness, there was no Storm, no death, no apocalypse, only warmth and contentment. Lying there, I daydreamed of better times: of fruit trees and fields heady with dew, the tang of fecund earth, salt spray and the roar of the ocean, the granular heat of a sandy beach. The roar of a river and pull of a fish on the line.
Heavy footsteps on the floor above shredded the illusion. One person, then another, lighter than the first, moving with purpose. It was hard to hear over the machinery around me. A moment later the floor above my head shook as a small group thundered past. My heart thumped in my chest as I dressed. I was lacing on a pair of shoes when the scream came. Correction — screams. One choked off just as quick as it started. Another, female, went on and on. A shouted command, and she stopped. For a moment was silence, then muffled voices, and stamping of feet.
Something substantial being dragged.
The Station was silent except for the hum of the air handlers and the flush of the heat exchange. Hours had passed since the disruption — how many I was unsure.
It took time to crawl through the station, away from the direction that the steps went before. Toward the Administrative wing and the communications center. At the end of the tunnel, a last hatch opened into the hallway. I listened, counting to a thousand in my head. Satisfied that no one was walking around in this area, I eased the hatch open. I could see that the hallway was in the twilight mode, the low-energy light setting reserved for nighttime or contingency operations. Enough light to see, but not enough to read by. I waited for another hundred count. Satisfied, I crawled out and lowered the hatch into position.
The Administrative wing held a block of offices, conference rooms, and the communications center. They were all dark.
At the beginning of the Storm, the communications center buzzed with activity — radio traffic to government agencies, the home office, emergency service organizations, and families. One by one, the channels went silent until nothing but static hiss filled the speakers. Once every long while we’d find a HAM radio operator and talk, eager for news of the world. They never had more information than we did. Fuel running low, supplies meager. Family dying or dead. Help, please. There was nothing we could do. We stopped listening.
The room was destroyed. Deep gashes marred the counters, equipment pulled from racks and tossed. An axe handle protruded from a monitor. The offices were ransacked and anything of value long ago removed. Wasn’t worth searching again. Someone had probably gone searching for the gun that didn’t exist, the one that persisted in rumor. The Manager has a weapon in his office, in case things got dicey around here. I knew there wasn’t a gun. If there had been one Frank would have taken it with him when we fled the Station. Frank would have used it to subdue Marc, instead of watching him kill Stephen.
There was no gun.
Blood coats the hallway. Hand and footprints. Dark sprays that tell horrible stories. Much of it black in the dim light, but one pool of dark crimson shone. I touched it, and my fingers came away wet.
All was silent as I crept along the main hallway, away from the Admin wing toward the Galley, past the Lifeboat, and the two main berthing wings. I didn’t make a sound, but each footstep sounded like thunder over the pounding of my heart.
I passed the hydroponic garden powered down and untended. The dank smell of rot and stale, fetid water is like a physical barrier when I pull open the heavy door. It’s a punch in the gut. Who abandons a garden when they are short of food? I stand in the dark, listening again, but hear nothing beyond the typical background noise.
I walk on.
Upstairs, the Galley in shambles. Tables overturned, broken dishes, garbage strewn about. Most of the lights are out, casting the long room in dark shadow. One table remained upright, with a handful of chairs arrayed around it. Plates and silver piled in the center. The air, recycled by the handlers, is fresh, but the undertones of rot and grilled meat are detectable.
The wind of Walaka whistles in one of the windows.
The kitchen is an abattoir. A filth-encrusted butchery, counters coated in a layer of dried blood. One steel-topped table along the wall dripped thick red globules onto the floor. A waste barrel on wheels overflows with offal and bones. I don’t take a closer look, afraid of what I’d see. The pantry is empty. Racks that once overflowed with canned food and bags of flour, sugar, and spices were bare. Garbage is strewn across the scullery floor.
Across from the scullery, the freezer turns on with an electric buzz, a red light indicating that the cooling cycle has begun. Impelled by curiosity, I open the door, pulling against the vacuum seal and flipping on the light. As expected, the food is long gone, the shelves almost empty. Almost. What’s left is the stuff of horror movies and serial killers. Heads — human heads — in a row on the top shelf. A basket full of hands and feet. Bags with what I assume are frozen organs. I push the door closed, shaking.
In the walk-in refrigerator nearby, I found Gary.
Gary Redecka, one of the carpenters. We used to play cribbage together in the lounge. Smart man, dumb jokes. Hell of a card player. Gary hung by his ankles with his hands brushing the slatted-wood floor. A long gash cut his throat, and his blood drained out drop by drop into a pan underneath.
“Hey, Gary.” I pat his stomach. “I’m so sorry, man.” He’d lost a lot of weight since I saw him last. My arm looked like a twig. We were all wasting away, those of us left. “What do you call a fish with two knees?” The terrible joke made me laugh, a single choking yelp. I wiped the wet from my eyes. The last time I saw Gary was when we fled the Station. He stayed behind to help control a situation gone way beyond the ability to control.
Shaking, I close the door. This is what we ran from, all those months ago, the violence we feared was coming — the inevitable result of starvation. But our running didn’t matter, in the end. We all died anyway. The only difference between Maggie and Gary is that Gary didn’t choose his path from the world. Maggie did. Maybe I should have joined her. We could have held hands and given ourselves to Walaka as a couple.
Better than dying alone as someone else’s dinner.
Outside, Walaka reminded me of her constant presence, howling, and battering the side of the Station. She was angry at me for escaping her clutches. For a moment. She’d win in the end. Through the window, I saw the sky had changed from black to gray.
Dawn was approaching.
I realized that I knew what I was going to do. In the daylight, I’d meet the residents of the Station. Those that remained. First, however, I had to return to the Safe House. There were things to prepare in anticipation of our reunion.
I left the Galley as I found it.
There were four of them in the Galley when I returned with a bulging backpack. I watched, hidden from sight. The quartet sat around a table, talking in low murmurs — the occasional laugh. One of them smoking a cigarette. Three men and a woman. They were cleaner than I expected them to be, hair poorly trimmed and one of the men clean-shaven. My fingers went through my beard, and I tugged at my long hair. I realized that with power the showers were sure to be working — some of them anyway. The thought of a hot shower after all these months was almost irresistible.
I knew them, of course. Hickey, a small kid from Alabama, vehicle mechanic. Kevin, the electrician with a bushy brown beard, ubiquitous flannel shirt, and news-anchor teeth. Benjamin, the third, older man from Florida, generator technician, and nasty drunk. Which explained why the power was still on.
The fourth, the woman, was Angela. She laughed as she twirled her blonde hair in her fingers. She was the kind of woman who controlled men through subtle witch-magic. She was the leader, without question. The generator mechanic was essential. The muscle was Kevin. Hickey, he’d be next, after they finished eating Gary.
I took a deep breath to calm my heart and stepped into the room, mustering my composure. “Good morning.” As if I was late for breakfast, not as if I materialized after months of isolation. The group shot from the table as if I’d fired a gun, each pulling a weapon of some kind from pockets or the table: a section of pipe, a pair of chef’s knives, a baseball bat.
“Ridley?” Angela squinted and pointed a knife at me. “Jake Ridley, is that you?”
“Holy shit, it is Ridley.” Kevin slapped the table. “Fuck yeah, I can’t believe it.”
I raised my open hands in front of me. “Hey, guys.”
“Where the hell did you come from? We thought you all died months ago.” Kevin walked over and shook my hand. His shoes were covered in dried blood.
“We holed up in Field Staging.”
Angela raised her eyebrow. “Seriously? You survived until now in that shithole?”
“And made the trip there and back.” Hickey laughed and stubbed out his cigarette. “You got bigger stones than I thought.”
Benjamin slumped in his chair and studied me, his eyes piercing and hooded. “Where’s the rest of you? There was twenty-five of you guys. What happened to the rest? Where’s Frank?”
“Frank’s dead. They’re all dead.”
“Easy, Benjamin.” Angela rested a hand on his shoulder. “Give him a second to get his things together.” She smiled. The smile that lights up a room. “It must have been a rough walk up that road. We’ll have time to chat later.” She was beautiful, charming, and intelligent. Perfect hair, even now. Clean sweater and khakis. Nail polish in aquamarine. Angela acted as if she was the last woman on Earth.
“Thanks, Angela.” I returned her smile and tried to look sincere. “Any chance I could take a shower?” I knelt and dug around in the backpack.
“Of course. They still work. Water’s hot, too. Might even be some clean clothes for you.” She reclined in her chair, making it appear as a throne. “What’s in the bag?”
I held up a handful of chocolate bars retrieved that morning from the Safe House. “Some treats I found.” Kevin and Hickey cheered, and Benjamin scowled. “Some for now, a few others for later.” I handed the chocolate around to smiles and handshakes, even a hug from Angela.
She smelled like expensive perfume.
Lifeboat is a misnomer: it’s not a boat at all. The Lifeboat is a wing of the Station designed to sustain life for a skeleton crew in event of a catastrophe. A catastrophe like Walaka, but we had too many people when she arrived to utilize the Lifeboat as designed.
This section of Meir had berthing, a laundry and head module, water desalination facility, backup kitchen, survival rations, and a power plant. If the rest of the Station burned down, The Lifeboat could keep up to forty people safe until help arrived. It also held the Station’s Bar slash Lounge.
A quick search told me what I already knew — the bar had been picked clean except for a few cans of tonic water — because who drinks that plain?
In the berthing wing I located my old room. Everything of value — watches, various electronics, books — was gone. The clothes were still there for the most part, and they were clean. I took my towel, my toiletries, a change of clothes, and the backpack to the head module and secured the door behind me. I didn’t recognize the filthy, bearded, emaciated wretch in the mirror. He belonged to another dimension — another Earth in an alternate timeline.
Purloined clippers provided a haircut and took the matted beard from my face. Then a long, steaming shower. The feel of the water was electric, almost sexual in its intensity. The stream washed most of the grime from my skin, the rest came off with a cloth and a fierce scrub. I dried, dressed in fresh underpants and socks, clean blue jeans, and an old, comfortable Captain America T-shirt. Then I went to meet Angela and the others.
It was time for a drink.
In the Lounge, Angela awaited my return. She changed out of the heavy sweater into a tight-fitting tank top and lazed on the green sofa, arm draped across the back without a care in the world. Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds played softly above Walaka’s scream. It was apparent even to a dullard like myself that she was playing a part — the vixen, the object of desire.
I thought of Maggie and suppressed my anger.
She crossed her legs as I walked through the door. “Looking good, Mr. Handsome.” Her smile was devilish.
“First one in months.”
She patted the sofa next to her. “Sit down, and let’s catch up. Tell me what happened to you.”
“First things first.” I reached into the backpack. “Vodka? Or rye?”
“Seriously? You have hooch?” She stood and walked toward me, her performance forgotten for the moment, cast aside by my surprise. “For real?”
I pulled a bottle of each from the bag. “Not a whole lot. But enough to have a little fun.” I winked at her, and she patted my face. “So, what’ll it be?”
“Vodka for me.” She wrapped her hand on the bottle. I didn’t let go. “Please?” She pouted.
She was trying to bring me into her group, to remove a potential threat by bringing it on board. I wondered how far she went to keep those three boys in line. Pretty far, I imagined.
Angela sighed. “Pretty please?”
I released the vodka. Angela took the bottle with a smirk and sauntered to the bar. She grinned at me, coyly over her shoulder. “Do you want one?”
“Rye for me.” I set the bottle next to the vodka. “Stupid question, but is there ice?”
Angela laughed. “The one thing we haven’t run out of. Of course, there’s ice.” She held up a glass. One or two?”
“Two fingers, two cubes. Thanks.” She opened the whiskey while I pulled out a can of food that I brought from the shelter. Angela’s eyes grew wide.
“Real food, yeah. But no label…every meal’s a mystery.”
“Is that all you have?”
“Nope.” I stretched open the backpack, showing her the contents: more chocolate bars, two bottles of whiskey, three cans of food, a bottle of vitamin C, and Oreos. “There’s a little more where this came from, but, like I said before, not a lot.”
“Wow, Jake. You never fail to surprise.” She took the vitamin C. “You mind? We ran out a couple months ago.”
“Not at all. That’s why I brought them.”
She took the vitamins and laid a hand on my arm. “You’re a good man, Jake.”
“Well, shucks. Thanks, Angela.” I took the can and put it back, then closed and shouldered the bag. “Where are the others?”
Angela poured a glass of whiskey. “I think Benjamin is in the power plant, and the boys in the kitchen.” A vision of Gary Redecka hanging, his blood draining into a pan, filled my mind.
“Okay. Call Ben and tell him to meet me in the Galley. I’m sure they mind a drink themselves.” I took the glass from the bar and drank it down, feeling the whiskey roll through my body. “Then, I’ll have another and…” I nodded to the pool table. “Rack ‘em up. We’ll talk while we play.”
Angela picked up the phone.
I met Hickey in the Galley. He sat at the lone upright table, leaning in his chair with his feet on the table, smoking a cigarette.
“Frank would have killed you if he saw you doing that.” I took a chair across from him and set the bag on the floor.
“Well, Frank’s dead, right? Didn’t you tell us that everyone was dead?”
I took a deep breath. “Yeah, Frank is dead.”
Hickey nodded and blew smoke at me. “Fuck him. Never liked that guy.”
“How do you still have cigarettes?”
“Weren’t a lot of smokers on station when this shit went down. I looted the store. Still got tons.”
I pointed at the pack on the table. “Can I bum one, then?”
Hickey smirked. “Take the pack, Rid. Like I said, I got plenty.”
There was still more than half a pack. “Thanks.” I lit one with Hickey’s lighter and set the smokes in my bag. It had been fifteen years since I’d quit, but what the hell. “Where’s Kevin?”
“In the kitchen, cleaning up.” Hickey’s eyes narrowed. “Why?”
“I’ve got a surprise for you. Just waiting for everyone to get here.”
“Uh-huh,” Hickey nodded, then turned toward the kitchen. “Kev! Get your ass out here.”
Kevin rounded the corner from the kitchen, wiping his hands on a towel. He was wearing a filthy, blood-stained apron over his clothes. “What’s up?”
“Sit down,” Hickey commanded, and Kevin sat at the table. I think my initial size-up was in error. Hickey was obviously the senior man here. Hickey pointed a cigarette at me. “Ridley here says he’s got a surprise for us.”
“No shit?” Kevin sat up, his mood brightening. He looked at me. “What do you got for us?”
“Waiting for everyone. Where’s Ben? Angela said that she was…” The old man stomped into the Galley, wiping sweat from his temple.
“Speak of the devil,” Hickey said, dropping the chair onto all four feet. “Benny, sit down. Ridley says he’s got something for us.”
“Don’t call me ‘Benny,’ you little prick,” Benjamin said as he dropped into a chair, breathing hard. Sweat glistened on his pate. He wiped his brow with his sleeve and eyed me with malice. “This better be fucking important to bring me all the way back up here.”
“Depends on your definition of important, I guess.”
Hickey coughed and spit on the floor. “Seriously, Jake. Just get to it.”
I opened the backpack, pulled the four cans of food from within and set them on the table, along with the Oreos. “Important enough?”
“No shit?” Kevin took one of the cans.
Benjamin stood up and kicked his chair. His face mottled and purple. “Cookies? Are you fucking with me?”
I set a bottle of Irish whiskey on the table. “How’s this, then? Is this worth the trip?”
Benjamin licked his lips and his hands shook. It must have been months since he’d had a drink.
“Where’d you get that?”
I folded my arms in front of me. “I had a stash that you all didn’t find.”
“Uh-huh.” Hickey picked up the bottle and looked at it, then set it back on the table. “Bottle’s been opened, but it’s still full. Did you water it down? Or fuck with it?” The other two looked at me, suspicion clouding their eyes.
“Seriously? If you don’t want it, I’ll keep it.”
Hickey smiled. “No need to get all weird, Ridley. We’re just fucking with you.” The other two laughed. Kevin went back into the kitchen and returned a moment later with four coffee mugs.
“Nah, that one’s yours. Angela and I are going to have a chat.” I got up and took my bag. “Enjoy the whiskey, but share the food, okay?”
Hickey filled three coffee mugs and they cheered each other.
I returned to Angela.
Angela was a pool shark, cleaning the table in the first game while I drank whiskey and smoked. I didn’t get my first shot until well into the second. While I was gone the music changed from Bob Marley to Billie Holiday. The lights were lowered, creating a more seductive mood. She draped herself over the table, emphasizing her curves, putting herself on display while smiling and flipping her blonde hair. As she lined up shot after shot I relayed everything that had happened at the Staging Facility. Everything except Maggie. I kept that for myself.
By the time it was my turn, I had related my trip back to the Station. I didn’t mention the Safe House. I set my cigarette on the edge of the table and chalked up my cue as I examined the table. “So, what happened to the greenhouse?”
“Nobody knew how to run it. We salvaged what we could, but we couldn’t keep it running and everything died.”
“Nobody? What happened to Lisa?” I took my shot, sinking my first ball.
Angela snorted and slurped her vodka. “Stupid story.” She leaned back with her hands on the table.
She sighed. “Remember Brandon?”
I set my cue on the ground and leaned on it. “Big dude, one of the heavy equipment guys?”
“Lots of tattoos.”
“And dumb as a bag of hammers.” I walked around the table, slipping between Angela and the bookcase on the wall. She made no effort to move. “What about him?”
“It was a while after this whole thing…” she waved her hand in a loop over her head, “…and we were running out of everything. There were a lot of fights, people hoarding everything. Still had a lot of booze, though, which I guess was a part of the problem. Anyway, Brandon is super drunk one night and he makes a pass at Lisa. She, of course refuses him because Lisa didn’t like the boys. So sometime later Brandon decides he’s going to solve two problems at once. We found him in the kitchen grilling Lisa steaks and making stew.”
I leaned over the table eyeing my next shot. “So that’s how that got started.”
Angela was silent for a moment. She stared at me with pursed lips, then nodded. “So, yeah. That’s how that got started.”
“What happened to Brandon?”
Angela snorted again. “Brandon was next in the pot. You can’t have that kind of…”
She shook her head. “No…not uncertainty. Brandon’s actions had consequences. Serious consequences. The word I’m looking for is freelancing. Someone has to be in charge to make those calls, and people have to listen. For everyone’s sake. ”
My shot went wild and I handed the cue to Angela. “And that someone in charge…that’s you, I take it?
“Is that a problem?” She batted her eyelashes at me as the door to the lounge opened and Kevin stumbled in, laughing and holding an empty bottle of whiskey. He threw the bottle at the bar, shattering it against the wall.
“Damn, that was fast.”
“Was good, too!” He pounded me on the back. “Even old Benny is smiling.”
Angela chalked her cue. “Haven’t seen that in a while.”
“So…” Kevin put his arm around my shoulder.
“Yeah, man.” He squeezed me into a side hug. “So…do you have any more?”
It was my turn to laugh. I gave his face a light slap and hugged him back. “Of course I do. I figured you’d be asking.”
“That’s my man!” Kevin hopped in place and spun in circles, the news-anchor smile gleaming on his broad face.
I handed him the bottle from my bag. “That’s the last one, though. Like, for real. There’s no more.”
“That’s a tomorrow problem!” I watched until the door swung closed behind him, then turned back to Angela.
The cat-like grin was still on her face. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“Which question?” I pointed at her glass. “Another?”
“Please.” She downed what was left and held out her glass. Her fingers lightly brushed mine as I took it. “I asked if that was going to be a problem.”
I walked to the bar, setting the pair of glasses in front of me. I caught her eye over my shoulder and then turned back to filling the glasses. “Is it going to be a problem for me if you are in charge? That question?” In the mirror behind the bar Angela’s image folded her arms. With the glasses full, I turned and returned to the pool table and held out her drink. “No. Not a problem. Like you said, someone has to be in charge.”
She took the glass and brought it to her mouth, tipping her head down and looking up at me. Ever the temptress. “Good.”
I smiled back at her. “It’s your shot.”
An hour later and I’m on my third glass and seventh loss. Angela is slurring her words. She runs her finger along my arm; it’s awkward and embarrassing.
Angela drains her glass and pours another. “Not done getting your butt kicked, Jake?”
I shrug and gather the balls into the rack. When I’m done, I set the cue across the table and lean against the wall. “Your break.”
“Again,” she laughed. “You suck at this.”
I shrug again and slip my hands in my pockets as she took up the cue. “I have a question for you.”
Angela ground blue chalk into the tip of the cue. “What’s that?”
I cleared my throat. “How many others are left? I mean, besides you and the other three. How many are left?”
Angela froze, uncertainty in her gaze. “There’s just us. The four…now five…of us. There’s no one else.”
“Curious.” My eyes don’t leave hers.
“Why do you say that?”
I swirl the ice cube in a circle. It rattles against the side of the glass.
“You’re stalling. Why did you say that?” Angela set the cue down and leans against the table, facing me from two feet away.
“Gary is in the refrigerator, bleeding out. I’m pretty sure Kevin was butchering him this morning.”
“Look, things happened, Jake. We’ve all done things…”
“Uh-huh.” I remember Marc well, still tied to his chair as we threw him to the storm. “We have all done things we’d rather forget. That’s true. But you’re lying to me.”
“No, I’m not, Jake.” Anger clouds her eyes, her flirtations forgotten.
“Who’s the woman?”
Angela places her hand to her chest and shakes her head, her mouth hanging open. “I don’t know what woman you’re talking about. There’s just me.”
“Yesterday. When your minions…” I jerked my thumb toward the galley. “…took down Gary, a woman was screaming in terror. It wasn’t you. Who was it?”
She snorted and drank her vodka, then returned to the bar to pour another. I lit a cigarette from my dwindling supply.
“There’s nobody here but…”
The door to the lounge flew open, and Benjamin stumbled in, holding a chef’s knife in his hand. His eyes found me, and his face contorted in rage. “You…” he fumed, the blade raising to point at me. I took a drag from my cigarette.
“Me.” I set my smoke on the edge of the pool table and took the cue, holding it like a club.
“Benjamin, what’s going on?” Angela shouted from the bar, her head flitting back and forth between us. “What happened?”
The big man took two shuffling steps toward me, waving the knife. I swung the pool cue. Benjamin raised his arm to block my strike, but he was stiff and slow. He took another step, then his eyes rolled back in his head. I hoisted the cue to swing again, but he dropped the knife and collapsed to the floor, rolling onto his back. I set the cue back on the table and picked up the knife, checking Benjamin for a pulse. Weak and thready.
I approached Angela, fury in my eyes.
“What happened to him?”
“An overdose of fentanyl and benzodiazepine mixed with alcohol. Nasty combination if you aren’t used to it.” I tapped the tip of the knife on the bar. “Who’s the woman?”
Her name was Maia.
She was the Station’s admin, back before. She grew up riding horses in Montana, had a love of old books and classical music, and wrote a haiku every night expressing the joy she found.
She was a friend.
They converted the sauna into a holding cell. Maia was there, lying on a blanket on a slotted bench. She had a blanket and a bucket of water. Another bucket to piss in. She wept when I opened the door and pushed Angela inside. The two of us sat in the lounge, Mozart playing on the speakers and Maia asleep, her head on a pillow in my lap. She’d refused to leave my side even as I scouted the Station for Hickey and Kevin. Kevin, we found right away in the kitchen, face down on the red tile in a puddle of vomit. It took some searching to find Hickey, eventually locating him in the first-floor women’s bathroom, slumped against the wall with his pants around his knees.
I stroked Maia’s hair while she slept.
There was enough food for two people for a couple of weeks. There was more at Field Staging — a couple of months’ worth. It would be a rough round trip, but I did it once. I could do it again. Tomorrow I try to get the greenhouse back online and cut power to everything but the Lifeboat. That would stretch the fuel out by months. Maybe a year. Every day counted. Every day was another chance for Walaka to die and release the world from her fury. Every day was life. Life mattered.
I sipped whiskey and smoked Hickey’s cigarettes and contemplated what I’d done. After all this time surviving, I was a murderer. But these were murders that I could live with.
I was content.
Three weeks later, Maia and I stood on the roof of the Station and stared at the rising sun.