This year’s round robin is The Ultima Storm, a sci-fi/dystopian story.
No one dared to draw a breath. The ascent from take-off would push the massive station through the stratosphere in a handful of minutes. Dozens of rockets propelled the egg-shaped shuttle up into the chaotic dark clouds, threatening to open a new funnel at any moment. As long as it cleared the worst of the weather, there was hope.
The team and I watched from the observation tower. Adrenaline and excitement drained quickly once the brilliant flames of the rockets were out of sight. All around the world, similar shuttles had been launching for days. Most of them made it through the maelstrom, Mother Earth’s protest against humanity and the damage of hard-living that had stolen her beauty. The few that failed were ripped to bits by her ferocity, thrown about for miles, leaving a wake of further destruction. There were no survivors.
The majority of the cargo was people, tens of thousands of them. Each was cryogenically frozen, a memory locked in time, with only a small personal bag a piece to take with them to the new world. Every person had been chosen by a lottery, though we all knew that those with the most to spend had bid everything in deals kept under dirty tables to ensure a proverbial Golden Ticket. Those without such wealth were left behind, now flooding the gates and barely kept at bay by the numerous defenses set in place.
As for the launch specialists, my team and I weren’t abandoned completely. Once the station had cleared the atmosphere, we had been instructed to report to an underground launch bay half a day’s journey from the shuttle launch. From there, we would piggy-back on the main station. With the launch past the point of no return and out of our control, it’s where we need to head to now. But with chaos on the streets, and Armageddon in the skies, it’s not a journey we’re looking forward to.
I take off my headset and let out a deep breath, wishing it would do more to calm my nerves. Fingers dig deep into the skin of my face and massage around the dry eyes there, deprived of decent rest for weeks now and in desperate need of a break. “That’s it, boys,” I call out to my team. “Hit the kill switch and shut ’em down.”
The rest of the team looks as wary as I feel, trembling limbs moving in slow motion. Some just sent family and friends away, expressions of melancholy joy on their faces. There’s still a chance that they will see them again, but that chance is slim and growing smaller by the minute.
Screens all dark, we grab our gear and head towards the stairs, spiraling down some fifteen stories to ground level. I’m all too ready to be far away from the height of the tower, that kind of exposure to the elements is just asking for trouble.
Henry is waiting for us down in the garage. He looks up with a grimace. “Those defenses aren’t going to hold out much longer. Mob must think there’s another ship here.”
“Is there a clear way out?” I ask.
Large shoulders rise, then slump, followed by a slow shake of the head. “Nothing that simple.”
“Well just run them over!”
“Carl!” I shout, infuriated by his request. “I know this is hard on you, it’s hard on all of us. But we can’t lose our humanity and certainly can’t forget that those are people out there. Our people. Driven to desperation by fear and anger.”
“What do you propose, sir?” Henry asks, the large man looking awkward in his discomfort as he shuffles his balance from leg to leg like a kid trying to hold in the call of nature.
I sigh. I’d already planned for this, of course. I just didn’t like the course of action, but it was the best one the situation presented. “Is the rover gassed?” I ask, inquiring about the old, six-wheeled all-terrain vehicle we’d used a number of times exploring the surface of Mars, collecting data to confirm whether or not it would be habitable.
“It is, but…”
“I’ll take it, set up a distraction and draw the crowd from the gates. We’ll set launch time for twenty-four hours from departure, giving myself time to catch up. Anybody who wants to come with me is welcome, but…” I choke, my throat closing with emotion before I can continue.
“But there are risks involved,” Caleb finishes for me. “Consider me aboard.” I smile gratefully at the young man, remembering his embarrassment when he was discovered attempting to smuggle his girlfriend aboard the station. Once he’d admitted her pregnancy, the rest of the team and I pulled strings to ensure she was granted passage. It was highly against protocol, but nothing worse than the bribes the government had been taking.
“I’ll go too,” says Joe, a middle-aged man who’d lost his wife to the storms, but seen his kids grow into adults and launch only minutes ago. Like me, he’d been with the program from the beginning, sacrificing good wages for an opportunity of a future.
“I don’t much like the idea,” Henry mutters, “But I’m just here to follow orders.” He walks to a lockbox mounted on the wall and opens it up, grabbing a ring of keys and tossing them to me. The tag attached is marked with the number 5.
“Fair enough.” I wave Joe and Caleb to follow and head towards bay five. “Give us about a ten minute head start, then you guys should be free to leave and begin the countdown. With a little luck, we’ll see you at rendezvous in a day and be one step closer to our new home.”
“Good luck,” he calls after me, already forming the rest of the team into a slumped and defeated line behind him.
“You too, buddy. You too.”
Caleb and Joe fall in line beside me as we walk through the garage. “You know what you’re getting yourself into?” asks Caleb.
“Not a clue.” We get to the rover and pile inside. The motor roars into life, then settles to a dull hum. In front of us, the bay door creaks open, spilling pale gray light inside the warehouse.
I locked and loaded my weapon, a sexy, titanium clad .50 caliber, fire-spitting, death-dragon of a gun. I verified the others had their gear and weapons. I put my helmet and goggles on and peered out through the slowly rising, mechanized bay doors. We rolled a few feet and I squinted out at the unprotected, unruly, unrelenting exterior world. I could feel an odd buzz in the earth; a sort of humming vibration in my feet. I ignored it and focused on the task.
We scanned suspiciously the area in front of us to ensure intruders could not enter the opening garage.
As I looked out, I stopped suddenly, interrupted by a mental vision of the past, transfixed by an odd musical memory. At that bizarre moment, for some reason I recalled a song I had heard many, many years ago as a child. The song was recorded in the 1980’s, over 70 years before all this environmental and societal meltdown had begun. The song, as I recalled, was by a band called The Fixx. For some reason I could hear the words and melody in my head being, sung by my long vanished father, in better times. The lyrics struck me as prophetic and pathetic; a long ago warning of doom, and a weirdly accurate prediction of this pivotal and harrowing moment:
Crying parents tell their children
If you survive don’t do as we did
A son exclaims there’ll be nothing to do to
Her daughter says she’ll be dead with you
Is this the value of our existence
Should we proclaim with such persistence
Our destiny relies on conscience
Red or blue, what’s the difference
An empty face reflects extinction
Ugly scars divide the nation
Desecrate the population
There will be no exaltation
Stand or fall
State your peace tonight
The words of the long forgotten song were packed with meaning, but somehow rang hollow as there was no peace now, and no “fix” either. I sat motionless staring forward as the rover began creeping out of the warehouse.
“Drake.” I could hear the voice and the snapping fingers in my ear, but couldn’t listen, lost in the strains of a distant melody from yesteryear.
“DRAKE!” Caleb screamed at me this time, as he looked back with a panicked expression at the pregnant girl running toward the vehicle. I slammed the brake. Joe lurched forward in his seat and bumped his head on the dashboard.
“What?” I belted back, now fully engaged and annoyed. I knew exactly what he was about to suggest. I did not want her coming with us for a myriad of reasons: she would slow us down, she was not invited, she would distract Caleb, she would distract me, or even worse, she might reveal that I was just as likely the father of her child as Caleb.
“We can’t just leave her.” Caleb’s strange and imploring expression was both easy to read and hard to ignore, though I tried.
“No, Caleb. The final shuttle will take her away in the next 24 hours. She can’t. We can’t”
“But sir, I….” Caleb paused and inhaled. His broken look defeated me. Or was it her swollen belly, as she trotted toward us with a backpack. I shook my head, knowing I would relent.
“Fine! Get in.” I said, as I looked at Sera staring apprehensively at me. It was fear and gratitude.
“Now!” I barked, pointed and shook my head. Joe glared at me in disgust as he dabbed his head bruise with a towel. He knew the consequences of an uninvited guest in this vehicle and on this perilous and uncertain half day journey to the place that would be our “big boat home”.
“Let’s roll.” I pointed forward as Sera jumped in the rear seat. Henry and Carl were watching us roll away into the disarray. They looked relieved.
The rover’s engine grumbled and rattled, and moved forward nervously, as if this inanimate object knew what it was about to face outside. The mechanics of the machine worked well on Mars, but the vehicle had not been used in quite some time, and never been used much on this planet. There was no choice for us at this moment; it was our Golden Ticket to the underground launch bay and a ticket out of here, after a 12 hour journey from this shuttle launch. The old bucket was our six-wheel, all terrain mule, out of this hellish wreck, we once called home, and once called Mother Earth.
We ascended a short hill outside the facility to the crest and stopped. We gazed down at the chaotic carnage in front and to all sides of us. There were a smattering of soldiers trying to maintain order in a sea of clambering bodies and desperate souls. I panned the horizon, then gazed around the valley below at the smoldering buildings, stinking and decayed dead bodies, ashen earth, gray smoke plumes and scarred vegetation. I thought of the beauty and majesty that was once this panoramic view from atop this peak.
This spot, this country, this earth – a place with a storied past, a crumbling present, and no foreseeable future. We had finally succumbed to the excesses of greed, impatience and ignorance. I have the opportunity to leave this mess now and begin a new life, but these scared people being held at bay by the forces assigned to protect us, did not. Furious frustration was all over the scarred faces; yearning for a future, desperate for a savior, trapped in time. It was the stench of imminent death.
The flurry of activity in all directions in this murky haze was punctuated by colored sounds: white noise, black silence and a strange yellow buzz in the ground. I felt the vibrating earth again. The numerous defenses set up to protect the launches still held so I released the brake and we moved down the hill, dodging the fracas of people running at us. The skies overhead loomed. The haze blackened as we sideswiped a truck that was intended to collide with us.
For several hours we bobbed and weaved in every direction possible. Joe had a map and was navigating, then occasionally firing his weapon at incursions to our space or breaches to our thin moving perimeter.
“OVER THERE!” He yelled. “Look out.”
Caleb’s head was like a bobble-head on a swivel, from Sera, to the right, to the left, to the rear. His youth and bravery were valuable, but his impulsive naivete and quick temper made him a liability sometimes. He was both useful and useless, at differing intervals.
“How far Drake?” He shouted several times. I gave him the response that everyone does to the “are we there yet?” question. “Stop fucking asking me that!”
Sera had a small weapon and attempted to scan the area. But she had neither the meddle of a soldier nor the metal of a decent weapon.
We moved faster as we approached a long highway with an opening through some hills above. The rumbling from the skies above increased as the silhouette of a raging angry climate gone haywire spit threats of looming violence against us. The earth’s stomach grumbled again, I could feel it in my feet. These were the same threats that had previously turned real as many of the ships were torn apart in the cumulus fray, ripping the shuttles to shards of metal as they tried to escape this planet.
I slowed near the approaching gap of highway between the hills and then slowly braked. The rover stopped and we all stared incredulously at something we had never seen before. A sight of mystifying majesty, serene beauty and unbelievable, breathless, terrifying horror! We gasped.
A swirling mass of black sky and jagged lightning hurdled over the hills and swallowed the horizon. Cyclones spun viciously over the landscape, nine… ten… no, eleven vortexes ripping up stone and earth and flinging them like bottle rockets. Lightning interconnected the twisters at the base of the funnels in a constant electrical charge, and scorched the ground where they struck. They stretched across the skyline like a god’s black claws raking the ground in a raging fury.
Though the factions that believed in one god had died out in recent years, a few fanatics and old relics of religion remained. Most of the surviving population, including the ones in this vehicle, believed in none of any kind.
One thing was certain as I watched the storm and skies dissolve the landscape before me, if there was ever a god, by any name, he’d left us a long time ago.
The charge in the air made my hair stand up across my arms, and from the rearview mirror my head as well. Sera made a whimpering sound behind me, but my throat was choked with fear.
“Get us out of here!” Caleb yelled.
I spun the rover around, as well as the clunky vehicle could, and charged back the way we came. Everyone’s head was turned the other way, watching the destruction in our wake. Chunks of rock and concrete smashed into the ground around us, exploding in heaps of charred earth and clanging off the side and roof of the rover. I dodged heap after heap of debris that crashed on the highway, everyone swaying with each tilt and swerve.
“There has to be a way around this,” Sera called, ducking from another slam of rock just outside her window, and cradling her rounded stomach. “Or we’ll miss the last launch.”
“We can’t outrun it,” Joe answered, his eyes glued to the side mirror. “We have to find a faster vehicle or someplace underground until it passes.”
“If it passes.” Caleb gripped the bar above his head to keep from careening into the front seat as I slammed on the brakes to swerve around another pile of concrete. “Before the last launch, the station reported lightning storms engulfing half the globe.”
My stomach fisted into knots as I fought to control the rover through the minefield before us. Old and useless hover cars, abandoned over the last few years of decay and destruction, spotted the highway before me. What I wouldn’t give for one of those with a full nuclear charge, much faster and easier to handle than this decrepit metal trap. We’d escape this massive storm and reach the launch site with hours to spare. I only hoped the rest of our team made it past this thing in one piece. All of this chaos just to avoid a damn mob.
I felt, more than heard, the ball of fire explode behind us and vibrated all the windows as the cyclones passed over an old electrical station. The heat scorched by us a split second later and my eyes instantly watered.
Sera’s violet eyes connected with mine in the rearview mirror, wide and terrified. The plea in her face was easy to read: save me. She gripped her belly again, an instinctual protective move from the jostling of the car. The whole world, really.
“What the hell is that?” Caleb howled while staring out the back window.
I glanced in the side mirror at the closest vortex and a silver object spun around its base, spiraling into the air, down again and disappearing back into the funnel, over and over again. It was larger than the rover, but dwarfed by the sheer monster of the twister gaining on us faster than I wanted. Two other twisters spun close to the first and the object was passed from one vortex to the other.
“That’s a transport,” I murmured, trying to focus on driving instead of the dread slicing through my gut. Our team had left in one right after us, along with the rest of the field crew in outlying observation towers. The longer hover trains, reminiscent of subway cars, were faster— and lighter— and apparently no match for the storm they drove straight into.
“There it goes,” Sera screamed. “Caleb, it’s coming right for us.” She reached for him and he wrapped an arm around her, cradling her head in his shoulder. I was too afraid to be jealous or hurt.
“Keep your eyes on it! Tell me where it’s gonna land,” I shouted.
“Drake, over there!” Joe pointed off to the side as I dodged another chunk of debris, though I refused to admit it looked like a charred body. My eyes darted to where Joe pointed and I saw it. Three hundred yards away tucked behind a small hill was an old parking garage. The top level had been stripped away from earlier storms, but the rest of it looked intact.
“It might have an underground level.” Joe continued. “And pushed up against the hill like that, we might stand a chance.”
The cyclones had expanded in the mirrors as it consumed more earth and debris, the swirling air on fire from constant lightning strikes. Without another thought, I veered off the paved highway and rattled over the trembling ground, desperate to reach the structure. It was our only hope.
My head scraped the roof a dozen times as we bounded over the decaying fields, the wind louder and more brutal with every second. Just as I saw the entrance to the structure, a massive chunk of debris landed in front of the rover and I swerved, narrowly missing the front end of what used to be the silver transport. The windows were shattered and the hull dented and seared, but not as badly as the bodies trapped inside. No doubt cooked from the repetitive electric currents.
“Oh my god!” Sera screamed and covered her face. I wanted to heave, but didn’t have the breath in me.
The earth trembled beneath us as I floored the last remaining yards into the darkened entrance of the parking garage. We careened down the ramp and slammed into something at the end, ducking our heads on impact. Wind started to suck the rover back out of the tunnel and my ears popped as the raging cyclones reached the garage. I punched the accelerator again, forcing us back down the ramp.
The wind howled around us and the structure shook over our heads for endless hours. Or maybe just one, I’d lost track of the time. My hands never stopped shaking and I’d lost count of how many times my ears popped. No one spoke, but the sickening grimaces on everyone’s faces were enough to confirm we all thought the same thing. Caleb and Sera held each other the entire time, as Joe and I kept our eyes on anything else.
“Well,” Caleb started with a frown. “At least there will be more room now on the shuttle launch.”
Sera buried her face in his chest and either started crying or hyperventilating. I couldn’t tell which. I only scowled and swallowed the bile rising in my throat.
“If it’s still there.”
A flash of light followed by a deafening crack threw me against the window. My whole body shook with the charge arcing through my limbs. Then the unmistakable stench of burnt hair and flesh filled the car and Sera screamed.
Part 4 – Jennifer Bennett
Joe’s shout came from behind a wall of thick glass. Or at least I thought it had, until his face darted in and out of my line of sight, and his grip pulled my helmet off. But move? I could hardly breathe, much less move.
“Get inside! There! Through that door! Go! I’ll bring him! Just go!”
Joe’s arm was a steel band around my chest. He pulled me out of the rover’s smoky interior, and the smell of raw, upturned earth replaced the stench of fried electronics and singed flesh. An angry, green daylight came from the top of the ramp. The funnel that tried to suck us in had passed, but the wind still howled and pelted shredded road signs and dismembered tree limbs through the parking garage’s ground level exit. Other than our rover, the place was completely deserted.
“Good God, your ears are bleeding! Hang on, Drake. We’re almost there!”
He propelled me towards a door, a rusted metal slider that Caleb and Sera were just now disappearing behind. Above, in flaking black paint, were the words: Ciniza Refinery. Behind us, the wind gave way to the roar of an incoming freight train.
“It’s another one! Hurry!” Caleb shouted through a layer of warm, wet fluid.
Joe and I tumbled through the opening, and Caleb threw his weight against the steel handle. Squealing in protest, the door slid closed. I knelt and tried to regain my breath. The crash had crumpled the front of the rover, and the steering column had hit hard against my chest. I fingered my sides looking for signs of broken ribs. They appeared to be all right, but I was definitely in for a serious full-body bruise.
“Where are we?” Caleb stepped deeper into the hallway that appeared to run in a straight shot through the middle of the facility. Along the mildew-stained walls, at intervals of approximately 20 paces, were old-school emergency lights. This place hadn’t been used in ages.
“An old oil refinery,” Joe replied, and I nodded. The U.N. had banned international consumption of fossil fuels over twenty years ago, and the refineries were one of many related industries that went under soon after. We had all believed that the change was a step in the right direction, a new hope for a clean and sustainable planetary environment. But the new energy source (touted by both energy conglomerates and governments alike as our “savior”) had unexpected side effects. Something had gone horribly wrong, and scientists were never able to agree on what.
I looked down at my watch. Before we had left the launch site, I set a countdown to track our 24 hour deadline. 21:32. Over two hours had passed and we were farther west of rendezvous now than when we had started. Whatever happened to us from here, we were on our own.
Below the thick concrete flooring, the earth rumbled. I pulled myself up.
“Keep moving.” I was still breathless but the words held the urgency I needed them to convey. “We have to find an alternate means of transportation, whatever we can scavenge. Joe, you take point.”
The refinery’s main hallway branched off into a maze of old offices, empty now except for the peeling whiteboards an overzealous janitor had screwed into the cinderblock walls, and darker, narrower hallways. We’d just passed what looked like the building’s communal break room when we heard the voices. They came drifting from a huge warehouse just beyond. Murmurs. Unclear chanting that rose and fell beneath the distant scream of the storm far overhead. Joe inched forward for a closer look.
“Hoarders,” he hissed back to us. “About 30 by the looks of it.”
Hoarders were religious fanatics – “Believers” who refused to face the fact that Earth was dying. I moved up behind him and leaned in for a look of my own. The hoarders had gathered on the warehouse’s far side, and beyond them were pallet stacks of military grade food rations and drinking water. The men, women and children sat circled around a bright bonfire that had been set in an old oil drum. Out of the group, an elder stood and lifted his face and arms upward. The hoarders began to sing.
“You can stay if you like.”
I whipped around, my right hand ready near my weapon’s holster.
An old woman stepped forward into the dim circle cast by the emergency light overhead. Her long, white hair – pulled back into a tight braid, and a thin shawl draped over her stooped shoulders.
“All of earth’s children are welcome here,” she smiled and reached out to us.
“Who are you?” Sera stepped forward. “What is this place?” Caleb hissed something in Sera’s ear, and his arm snaked around her swollen waist. The intimacy of the gesture sent a wave of jealousy burning through my gut.
“We’re just passing through,” I replied, and my hand relaxed. “The storm chased us down here. We’re looking for transportation. Do you or your friends have anything you’d be willing to sell to us?”
The old woman cackled. The sound echoed down the hallway, high and shrill, until it was swallowed by the wind. Then she fell quiet, and whispered, “You are leaving me too then?”
I glanced at my watch: 21:03. “There’s nothing here.” I turned to Joe. “We have to keep moving. This warehouse is enclosed, but farther down there might be a delivery dock. If there’s anything in this place we can use, it will be there.”
Joe nodded, but didn’t respond. His brow furrowed and I could tell he had something on his mind.
“Wait.” The old woman put her hand on my arm. It was brown and weathered like the ravaged earth above. “I can help you. But …” she turned to the shadows, “where you go, you must take my child with you.” As she spoke, another figure stepped forward out of the darkness – a young woman. Long black hair fell to her waist, and over her willowy features, she wore jeans and a white t-shirt with “Gallup” stenciled in red lettering. She could have been sixteen or thirty; it was impossible to tell.
“I’m sorry,” I shook my head. “But it’s just us. It’s too risky up top. She’s safer down here.”
Joe leaned close. “Did I ever tell you that my grandmother was Laguna Pueblo?” he spoke quietly, but his tone was dead serious. “Listen to her, Drake. I can’t explain it, but I think you should do what the old woman says.”
“Have you lost it?” I said. “We can’t take anyone else, Joe. You saw what happened out there. It’s bad enough that Sera is here! We can’t be responsible.” My head swiveled as if it had a will of its own, and my eyes rested on Sera’s swollen belly. “I can’t be responsible.”
“I can help you,” the old woman repeated. Her eyes, green like jungle undergrowth, studied me as if she could see right through me. Then she turned and began to walk quickly down one of the smaller, darker passages. “Follow!” she called. “What you need is this way.”
20:59. It seemed crazy, but time was flying and our options were non-existent. “Let’s check it out,” I relented.
The old woman led us down a flight of stairs, to another long hallway, narrow and lined overhead with rusted pipes. The twists and turns left me disorientated. I wasn’t positive, but I suspected we were heading to the western side of the refinery’s complex.
“I’m Zoe.” The old woman’s daughter trekked along beside me. She eyed me curiously, maybe eager for conversation to break the eerie silence, but I was aching, anxious, and definitely not in the mood for making nice.
“Life,” Sera called back from just ahead. “Your name. It means ‘life’ in Greek.”
“That’s Sera.” I stuck my index finger in my right ear and twisted. My hearing seemed back to normal, but there was an itch deep inside that was making me twitchy. “She was studying to be a librarian before the storms hit.”
Caleb turned and stared at me, his expression fixed with surprise.
“Drake! Come and check this out!” Joe had followed the old woman into a cavernous room where tubes the size of transports came to some sort of intersecting crossroads. Joe hunched next to a huge map fixed to one wall. His finger trailed a path downwards across its length. “These are old oil pipelines. This line here is a straight shot to the gulf. That would put us just a few miles east of rendezvous!”
The old woman approached the tarnished metal side of one of the huge tubes. She pulled a lever, and a door in the tube’s side swung open. Inside sat a transport, its control panel lit and humming softly as if it had been expecting us all along.
“I’ve read about these,” Sera rushed forward and poked her head inside. “It’s called a sweeper. The old refinery crews used these to build and repair sections of the mega-lines. They can go up to 200 miles per hour as long as the line is clear.” She turned to Caleb and smiled, her eyes bright and hopeful. My stomach rolled.
Caleb shook his head. “Those lines run underground. Everything is shifting like crazy. How can this be safer than up top?”
Joe put his hand on my shoulder. “Which will it be, boss? Up … or down.”
I pulled in a deep breath. Images of the devastation from the storms above, images of charred bodies and broken transports, flashed behind my wide open eyes. I looked down at my wrist. 20:45. 200mph meant we could make rendezvous in less than six hours. It was a no-brainer. “We go down,” I said.
The old woman gripped my arm. Her fingers dug into my flesh as if they were trying to reach the bone beneath. “Keep her safe,” she hissed. Her eyes captured mine and bored deep. “The place you travel to is a dead space. Soulless. Lifeless. You will need her there. All of you will need her there. So keep her safe. Protect her until the end.”
I stared back, my muscles tense and my mouth dried out. I swallowed nothing but air. “Yeah … sure,” I mumbled. Then she turned, and, shuffling wearily back into the darkness, the old woman disappeared.
Zoe stared at me and I shifted under the weight of her gaze, though I had no idea what the hell her mother was talking about.
She offered no explanation, but her beautiful face was serene, one corner of her mouth up. She knew something she didn’t want to share with the class. Where was my voice to ask?
“Boss?” Joe’s deep voice jolted and I glanced at him before my eyes grazed my watch. 20:40. We’d been standing here five minutes?
“Let’s go,” I barked.
Sera jumped and wrapped her arm in Caleb’s. The younger man pulled her closer to his side and rested an arm around her shoulders.
I swallowed back a scowl. It doesn’t matter. She loves Caleb, not you, idiot. She was clear about that, if nothing else. I should have been grateful we’d be able to save her life—and the life of her unborn child—instead of wallowing in my own damn unwanted feelings. I was the one who’d done Caleb wrong. And he hadn’t a clue. I might not like the kid all the time, but he didn’t deserve it.
“What happened between us was a mistake, Drake. I’m sorry.” Her voice haunted my thoughts. I wanted to close my eyes against the memories of tears in big violet eyes. Her regret.
Mistake. The word throbbed in my ears.
Pain I didn’t have the luxury to think about. My head hurt because my ears had been bleeding anyway.
I could only hope her kid came out with blonde hair and fair complexion—like both Sera and Caleb. Of course, I’d let her explain the dark hair if the baby looked like me. I was a mistake, so I didn’t have a say, right?
“You know how to drive this thing?” I asked Zoe as we all climbed inside the sweeper her mother had opened. It floated—actually floated—inside the tube line.
Looking around, I sucked in a breath. This was it. Our last shot. My ribs ached. I wouldn’t be able to move later if I sat still for too long, but we had a long ride ahead. I needed to get comfortable. We could all benefit from some rest.
The inside of the sweeper was utilitarian at best, but we were still better off here than battling over rough ground on the rover, had it not been destroyed. And this thing should be faster, too.
Rows of bright lights came to life the further we went inside, the sensors anticipating us even without the touch of a button. Cushioned bench seats lined either side of the rounded walls, and the control panel dominated the far right end. It had a cockpit of sorts, with two seats and a dashboard full of toggles and lights not so different than the one at the launch center.
“She won’t have to,” Sera cut in, taking my attention. “From what I read about sweepers, we just program the coordinates and it’ll take us on its own.”
I wanted to scowl at the impressed look on Joe’s face when he caught my gaze. But I couldn’t. Sera was lovely, beautiful and smart. But she wasn’t mine.
“Then get it done,” I bit out.
Caleb quirked an eyebrow, his blue eyes scorching me. He muttered something I didn’t catch, but knowing his mouth, it would have pissed me off anyway.
Zoe remained stoic as she took a seat, her mile-long legs beckoning my sight. Even in jeans, I could sense her muscular calves and thighs. How she had the body of an athlete growing up in a group of hoarders puzzled me, but I had to tear my gaze away and chide myself to focus.
She was every bit as gorgeous, but dark to Sera’s light. Brown eyes, olive skin and that long ebony hair a guy could wrap himself in.
The world is literally crumbling, and here you are thinking about women. Geesh. Do you even deserve a spot on the transport?
I shifted on my feet and glanced at my watch. 20:25.
“We need to go,” I said.
“Working on it, boss,” Joe said as he strode to the cockpit and slid in the captain’s seat.
Caleb dropped his pack and slid onto the bench on the opposite end of Zoe. Sera quickly went to him, burrowing into his side. They whispered to each other. I winced when he rested his hand on her distended stomach, inadvertently meeting Zoe’s dark eyes when I couldn’t stand to see Sera’s head on his shoulder anymore.
Zoe said nothing, but her appraising gaze made me squirm. I didn’t even know the girl, but she could see right through me, as much as her mother had. For some reason I felt guilty.
“Joe, you need some help?” I called to the other man. Anything to get away from those eyes.
My long time teammate threw a smile over his shoulder, his gray eyes bright. Like a kid in a candy store, they used to say.
“Boss, I haven’t seen anything like this in years, c’mere.”
It dawned on me that before joining up, Joe had been some sort of engineer or programmer nerd.
“Well, you know where we’re going?” I asked, forcing my voice steady as I took a closer look at the panel over his shoulder.
The co-captain’s chair looked inviting, but I couldn’t sit down.
“Yup. I memorized the right line on the map.” Joe nodded. “Straight shot to freedom.”
“Then get us the hell out of here.”
I ordered everybody to get on board, women first. As soon as Joe secured the entrance hatch door a female recorded voice proceeded with a ten second countdown. When the countdown reached three, everyone tightened their grip on their armrest expecting the G-force sensation of an airplane taking off.
“Hold on everybody,” I shouted.
The vehicle moved forward, but not as I had expected. With no windows in the vehicle, I estimated the speed, by the lack of G-force that it was travelling at five miles per hour.
“What the fuck is that noise?” said Carl.
“It must be the sweepers attached to the front,” said Sera.
“Joe, open the hatch door and I’ll take them off,” Carl volunteered.
“I can’t. Once we are in the pipeline it can’t be opened,” a worried Joe replied.
“We’re trapped! Sera screamed.
Her screaming started a panic among the group, except for me.
“Stop that screaming,” I shouted in a loud voice, but it didn’t make an impact. “SHUT THE FUCK UP!”
Everyone clammed up and turned in my direction.
“Look if they had used this vehicle for transportation then there must be a switch to turn off the sweepers. Joe play around with the switches and you Carl keep track of what switches Joe turns on and off. We don’t want to repeat a sequence over again,” I ordered them.
Everyone sat quietly while I watched Joe play with the numerous switches like he was playing battleship on a computer. Suddenly the brushing sound from the front of the vehicle became silent and then those of us that were leaning forward in our seats were thrown backwards violently. The vehicle accelerated like a turbo sports car.
“This should get us to our launch site in no time at all,” Joe sang out.
“Look the screen is showing our speed is sixty miles per hour,” said Carl.
“Shall I try to make it go faster?” asked Joe.
I looked down at my watch; it read 19:55.
“No. This thing hasn’t been used in years and we don’t know what’s ahead of us. It would have taken us twelve hours to reach our launch site with the land rover at twenty miles an hour. Now that we are travelling at sixty miles an hour we should get there in four hours,” I explained to them.
The group let out a cheer like the one you hear when an airplane lands safely at its destination.
I told everyone that this would be a good time to eat some of our food rations while there is calm.
“I don’t have any food to eat,” said Zoe.
With her wide grayish puppy eyes directed towards me how could I not offer her to share my rations with me?
Satiated now and worn out from the tension we had been through, the smooth ride rocked us into a deep sleep.
“What the fuck?” I shouted as I was thrown against my seat belt harness and intuitively I pressed my hands against the seat in front of me to protect my face.
Caleb’s first thoughts were for Sera and their future baby.
“Honey, are you all right?” A concerned Caleb called out.
“Yes. Luckily you made me sit in the rear facing seat, but what happened?”
“By the sound of it we must have hit water, Joe open the hatch,” I ordered.
When I received no reply,
“Caleb see if Joe is injured.”
“Dammit. I think he and Carl are dead.”
“Did you check to see if they have a pulse?
“I will. Give me a few seconds. Both of them are dead. The abrupt slamming of the vehicle into the water caused Joe’s and Carl’s faces to be crushed against the vehicle’s consul. It looks like they forgot to fasten their seat belts,” said a solemn Caleb.
“Zoe are you all right?” I inquired.
“I’m a little shaken, but OK.”
I asked Caleb to reach over Joe and open the hatch door. I warned him to be cautious because I didn’t know if we are under water or not.
Caleb pulled on the handle very slowly, ready to close the hatch if water came flowing in. When he heard the pressurized air escaping from the vehicle and no water flowing in; he slowly opened the hatch door and looked out. Flashes of lightning lit up the darkening sky giving him visibility to his surroundings.
“We are only in a few feet of water in the middle of a small lake. I see a farm house and… ”
BANG. Something hit the top of the hatch door. Caleb jumped back inside closing the door behind him.
“What was that…?” I never got any further because numerous loud bangs followed the first one.
“Is someone shooting at us?” said a frightened Zoe showing emotion for the first time.
Taking Zoe’s hand, I tried to comfort her by explaining the loud banging noise,
“If someone was shooting at us with bullets they would have penetrated the metal skin of this vehicle.”
The banging noise stopped after fifteen minutes. I checked my watch. 16:31.
Caleb slowly opened the hatch door to peek outside.
“Ha-ha” He laughed out loud when he saw what had caused the banging.
“What are you laughing at? I asked.
“No one was shooting at us, it was a hail storm and they are the largest hail stones I ever saw. So many had landed we can walk ashore on top of them.”
I ordered everyone to get out of the vehicle, ladies last this time.
“What do we do about the dead bodies?” asked Caleb.
“We leave them,” I said rather coldly.
“What I don’t understand is why the pipeline ended in the middle of the lake.” Caleb asked.
I didn’t answer him. My concern was that none of us fall through the hail stones and drown in the water.
“This is fun. It’s like walking on a tambourine,” said a giddy Zoe.
I took Zoe by the hand to be ready if she fell through the hail stones. I didn’t want to lose anyone else, especially her.
Caleb and I checked out the rundown farm house, but found it deserted and full of dusty covered spider webs. It had lost its smell of people previously living there.
“Caleb, see if there is anything in the barn, transportation wise that is,” I asked.
“I found hidden in a stall in the barn what may be our next transportation.”
“What’s that, horses?”
“No. A couple of antique motorcycles and one of them has a sidecar.”
When I entered the barn I saw two pristine camouflaged- painted World War Two BMW motorcycles.
“How are we going to ride these old cycles when gasoline is no longer available?”
“We don’t need gasoline. Their tanks are full of ethanol fuel. The farmer must have had his own still.”
“See if they will start.”
“We’ve got transportation” I said as I approached the ramshackle porch with peeling yellow paint.
Zoe and Sera looked up from their conversation as I climbed the squeaky steps towards them sitting on an old swing that was somehow still swing-worthy. The metal chains were dry as a bone sounding like fingernails on a chalkboard and irritated the hell out of me.
Sera sat up at the sight of me.
“He’s checking the bikes we found in the barn to make sure they will run.”
“We’re going to ride bicycles the rest of the way?” an incredulous Sera stared at me.
Before I could correct her Zoe looked at me like I had sprouted naturally purple hair.
“She can’t ride a bike all that way while pregnant. At least I don’t think she can.”
“No—motorcycles. There are two old motorcycles in perfect condition in the barn. Caleb is checking the sparkplugs, clutches, brakes to make sure they are roadworthy.”
“Motorcycles? Do you and Caleb know how to ride them?” said a skeptical Sera.
“Yes. Both Caleb’s and my grandfathers rode in motorcycle clubs back in the 90’s. They kept their bikes and we learned from them.”
To Sera, “And one has a sidecar you can ride in” and, smiling inwardly, “Zoe, you will have to ride with me.”
Her lips started to smile and one eyebrow lifted just a hair as she turned her head away from me. Another wave of electricity rippled through my body once more at the thought of her arms wrapped about my waist as we traversed the chaotic countryside.
“How much further?” Zoe’s husky voice turned back to me with some concern.
“We started out at four hours away and stopped at about three and a half. If we can still go sixty miles an hour it will be just another thirty minutes. Most likely there will be debris in the road which will make the trip longer. Still have plenty of time to get to the shuttle before it takes off though.”
At this point we heard the sound of the kick-start and rumble of ancient bikes come to life. The ladies sat up, startled.
“What’s that?” – In unison.
“Motorcycle engine” the sound turned me around and led me in the direction of the barn once more.
“How’s it going?”
“These BMW’s sure live up to their reputation” said an excited Caleb like a kid who got what he wanted for Winter Feast Day and continued,
“Man, my grandfather loved riding these things. Once you get your hands on them you’re hooked.”
I thought back at the irony of the situation.
“I remember my grandma telling me that lots of relatives were ashamed that she married a biker.” I laughed. “I don’t think anything I learned from the so-called ‘respectable’ family members will help us much to get to that shuttle right now.”
Caleb chuckled in agreement and said,
“While I was working and looking around I noticed what could be trap doors in the floor. If so maybe there’s something in them that would be of use to us.”
The musty scent of ancient wood and dirt filled my nose as I walked over the creaky floorboards then kicked away dried earth and old stale hay. The rusty handle was in plain sight so I reached down and pulled hard expecting resistance which sent me flying backward and onto my backside. The open door slammed against the floor with nary a squeal. Crawling over I peered in, found a switch and flipped it to the “on” position.
Light filled the underground space that seemed to be a root cellar complete with shelves filled with foodstuffs and other survival gear. By this time Caleb had seen me skid backward and was at my side to help but instead of a hand up he gazed into the light too.
“What the hell is that?”
Our eyes saw what our brains would not. We both climbed down the ladder and into an oasis of supplies. Bottled water, military-grade food rations, dried fruits and vegetables, old-timey flashlights with batteries, waterproof matches and more filled floor to ceiling shelves. There were saddle bags for the bikes so we each grabbed one.
A worried female voice called down to us,
“Caleb?! Drake?! Are you okay? What’s going on? What was that loud bang? It’s starting to hail again!” Caleb and I stopped for a moment to listen to the frozen ice from the sky make a racket on the barn roof like we were under a popcorn popper. Then the husky voice said,
“What is this? A cellar? Sera, you stay here, I’m going down.”
Zoe’s endless legs descended the ladder; her face not at all surprised at our find.
“Ahhh, a Hoarders hiding place. We call them Joseph’s Storehouses. I knew there were other sites besides the one I came from but don’t know where they all are.”
“Hoarders?” Caleb thought of the deserted farm house and condition of the homestead.
“There isn’t anybody here. Is Sera okay?” he asked.
“I’m up here Caleb. I’m okay. Just worried at the crash sound that came from the barn.”
Zoe continued to Caleb,
“They may be in another hiding place on the property or gone somewhere else – Hoarders usually keep the stores separate from where they live in case they are found.”
Surprised, I declared, “Found? I didn’t think there were enough of them left to be chased after by the A. A. R. P. anymore” Though not religious myself, I think people should be able to believe as they like long as they don’t try to stuff that crap down my throat.
To me she asserted,
“The ‘Thought-Police’ are alive and well and won’t stop until all the Believers are dead or re-educated.”
Confused now, Caleb said, “A. A. R. P.? Thought Police? What’s that?”
“American Anti-Religious Police. They are against any kind of belief in any spirituality and force everyone to believe as they do. They claim it’s best for the world in order for everyone to get along but what they’ve done to my family and others is right out of the Inquisition” Zoe explained with disgust in her voice.
With sarcasm I said, “I hope they don’t mind if we partake of their goods. It shouldn’t take us long to get to the shuttle but I believe in planning for the worst.”
“So do they” said Zoe with husky filled sarcasm right back at me. Then, a little softer,
“They won’t mind. It’s here for whoever needs it. Take as much as we can carry.”
Caleb grabbed a couple more saddle bags and we filled all four with food, water, matches, flashlights, and batteries. I went further into the cellar and found an old Hope Chest filled with hand grenades, explosive grade putty, charges, wire and claymore mines.
“Hey! Come see what I found.”
“You really think we’ll need these? Do you know how to use explosives?” asked Caleb. I was just about to answer that we would leave the putty and charges when Sera called down,
“I do. My mother was a Loizeaux. They were experts in demolition for over three generations before the laws were changed and they weren’t allowed t…..”
Quiet filled the hole in the barn floor and Sera was gone. With fear in his voice now,
“Sera! Sera! Where are you?!!” as Caleb ran to the ladder he began to climb. The future mother appeared at the opening once more.
“I went to close the barn doors. Someone’s here. Their cars and trucks look official. What do we do?”
I followed Caleb up the ladder and we peeked through the scum covered window. They wore uniforms I had ever seen before. They also had weapons locked and loaded.
“Shit! The Inner Sanctum!” I didn’t hear Zoe come up the ladder behind me, but when I turn she is there, knocking into me, and then shoving me aside to get a better look. The barn doors open only a crack and we press our faces to that aperture. The golf-ball sized hail still comes in a steady stream and when they hit the ground shards from the ice pop up stinging our faces. The pounding on the roof and our proximity from the men seems to mask the noise of the engines.
“Caleb!” I motion to the bikes. He runs over and shuts both of them off and then is back at the barn door peering through the opening.
Zoe says, “Remember when I said the American Anti-Religious Police won’t stop until all people of faith are dead or re-educated?” She faces me and her gaze bores into mine. I nod, not wanting to look away but I do because the heat coming from her prickles my skin.
“We’ll these are their hateful older brothers. A cell within a cell. A faction that believes anyone not with them is against them. They once killed nineteen members of their own group as they slept, because they let a pregnant woman live to have her baby.” Sera moans holding her belly at this revelation and Caleb goes to her side, putting his arm around her. Zoe and I crouch low. Sera and Caleb stand leaning into one another.
Outside, despite the hail, six men perform a highly methodical search of the outbuildings. We didn’t bother to check the rusting steel silo or the two portable steel buildings, but the men wearing tan and light green dessert camouflage uniforms complete with camouflaged hoods covering their heads and faces, take nothing for granted. The men start at the silo, which is located, closer to the road. The leader, holding a .50-caliber death dragon, makes a circling motion and the other five take up positions around the building.
I check for my holstered weapon and finger its sleek titanium body. It is so lightweight and I am so used to it, I often forget it is there. Caleb checks his weapon, too. Our time ticks away: 13:23 before liftoff.
Zoe sinks to the floor and sits on her haunches. She says, “We’ve got to kill them. There is no other way.” She stares straight ahead. Two of the men burst through the silo door, one high and one low. Zoe turns and scrabbles on her knees to the trap door. She looks at me and then at the others. “Are you coming?”
The men burst through the first steel building. Like the building near it, it is about eight feet by 40 feet. After the two building, the men will either come to the barn or the house. Glancing at the motorcycles, I know there is no way we can retrieve them without drawing fire. Right now we have three advantages: surprise, weapons and our will to live.
“Caleb, go with her and start passing up the grenades and the explosives. Leave the claymores. We won’t have time to set traps. Sera, we need your expertise. Can you work fast?”
Sera freezes at the window. Following her gaze I see the earth rising up from beneath us. The barn shakes and I struggle to stay upright. Lightning crackles and seems to split the ground into four pieces. We see the cone shaped sonic booms, one after another, before we hear their deafening shock waves. Sera drops to the floor, holding her hands to her ears. She screams, “It’s the beginning. Ultima is here!”
“No, not yet! We have time!” But as I look out the door and the once stationary landscape starts spinning around us, I believe she is right. The earth is dying right before our eyes. The silo pulls from its roots like it is a gangly weed and sails across the horizon. The storage buildings stay rooted for now but are hit by flying debris like wheelbarrows, paint cans, garden tools and the back seat of an old car. Wooden boards kept in a pile by the barn fly through the air looking like pick up sticks. The earth swirls around us bringing with it blinding dust that makes the outside world look like thick mushroom soup. The pressure knocks me to the floor. I crawl toward Sera, gravel digging into my hands, arms and knees. Both bikes fall over with a clatter and skitter across the bare earth floor. I grab Sera by the waist and drag her to the trap door opening. She whimpers and I know the rocks are digging into her body too. I also know if the men of Inner Sanctum are still alive, they will seek shelter. They will abandon their search and head for the house or the barn. Can they make it? Can we make it?
Caleb pops his head up from the cellar. “Take her!” I yell. We both grab Sera. I hold her under her arms. Caleb wraps both arms around her legs. Together we lower her onto the ladder.
The wind forces the barn doors to open wider. A wooden slat skitters across the floor. I trap it under my elbow.
“Hurry!” Caleb yells peering up from the cellar. I take the slat and walking at a fifty-degree angle fight my way to the door. Grabbing both doors I pull them toward the center, then slide the slat into the handles. Before the door closes, I think I see figures walking toward me. Hurrying I climb down ladder and shut the trap door. As I do so, I say a prayer.
Here we sit, the four of us, huddled at the base of the ladder in the cellar. Zoe is quiet. Is she praying? Sera is crying now. I’d tell her to keep quiet, but the howl of the wind and the clatter of smashing debris is drowning out everything else. If the Inner Sanctum men saw us going into the cellar, it wouldn’t matter. I pull my gun and point it up the ladder at the cellar door, waiting for my first target. Caleb does the same. The whole world’s dying. Why do we have to face death from these idiots too?
The light coming through the cracks in the cellar door above accented the top of my hand like a spotlight on a stage actor. Showtime! A shadow darkens my hand. I fire. Three shots. Caleb chimes in, emptying his gun. There is no return fire. We hear a grunt, that must be the sound of unexpected pain. The cellar door showers us with light from the seven holes, then the light spigot is shut suddenly as it is blocked by the fallen body of our would-be executioner. The impact on the cellar door bumps a cloud of dust down on us. Silence… except for Sera’s soft crying. Moments pass. I smell the powder in the air from the guns.
“I think that’s it,” Zoe says.
“What about the other four?” Caleb says.
“I’m hoping the storm persuaded them to go somewhere else,” I say, “preferably in bits and pieces.”
“I don’t think we should sit in here waiting to find out,” Zoe says, “if they see those two up there, they’ll figure things out real quick. Then we’re fish in a barrel.”
“Zoe’s right,” I say, “we need to get out of here.”
I holster my gun and climb up four rungs of the ladder. I heave my shoulder up into the cellar door. It moves an inch, but no more.
“Our luck. We’ve got dead weight up there.”
Caleb rises and holsters his gun. “Let me help.” He climbs onto the ladder with me.
“Ok, now.” We both thrust our shoulders and necks into the bottom of the cellar door. Two inches.
“Shit.” I climb down.
“What are we going to do?” Sera says.
“Out of the way, Caleb.” I draw my gun. “Sorry ladies.”
I fire six shots into the corpse on the other side of the cellar door.
“Oh! You’re kidding. That’s… no,” Zoe says.
“I’d say he’s lost a few pounds now.” I holster my gun again and watch as the blood streams down through the cracks onto the ladder, pooling on the floor below. The smell of the blood fills the small cellar in short order.
“Watch your step, Caleb.” I climb back onto the ladder. Caleb joins me. This time we manage to shove the door open, as the body slides off to the side.
Climbing out of the cellar, I see the other man, who was considerate enough to die a few feet away from the cellar door. I retrieve his gun from the floor beside him and tuck it into the waist of my pants. I nod at Caleb and then to the dead doorman’s gun. He picks the weapon up and sticks it under his belt.
The wind is filled with dust, but the boards and bigger debris are settled now. I step forward and look outside. The clouds blanket the sky, blurring everything below with gray and a lack of shadows. The air is hot one second, then cool the next. One. Two. Three. I look for another moment, but I can’t see the fourth body anywhere.
“Our friends are testing their views on religion now. You two can come up. It’s safe.” Safe as a world can be three weeks into the Apocalypse, anyway.
Sera reaches her hand through the cellar opening at the top of the ladder.
“Let me help you,” Caleb kneels and takes her hand, as Zoe gives her a little boost from below. “Are you alright?”
Sera looks at the two bodies on the floor, then turns her gaze away from them. “No. Maybe.” She climbs out and stands, then leans into Caleb’s chest. “What are we going to do?”
Caleb holds her face to his chest and says nothing. The only response he has is to be there for her.
Zoe climbs out of the cellar. “We must keep trying,” she says, placing her hand on Sera’s shoulder. “There is still hope.”
I walk outside knowing she’s right. The land around the farm is shredded and disfigured. If there was a road leading to the farm, it wasn’t to be found now. In the distance, blocking the last few miles to our ark, the Ultima rages.
“Caleb, throw a few things in one of those saddlebags. We’re not done yet.”
I step back inside and look over the two bikes. “They’re alright. It’ll be rough, but it’s the only chance we have.”
Zoe moves to the doorway and looks outside. “There’s nowhere to ride, Drake. We’ll never make it.”
“That’s not acceptable, damn it!” I look at Sera and what could’ve been my future. Then I turn to Zoe. “Look, I’m not a good man, but I’d rather die trying to undo that than to give up on you three now.”
“My mother knew what she was doing when she sent me with you,” Zoe says.
“Drake!” Caleb drew his gun and stepped between Sera and whoever was coming through a door at the back of the barn.
“Please, don’t shoot.” A young girl walks forward. She is all of twelve.
A gangly boy comes up behind her and takes her side. “Can you help us?”
Caleb lowers his gun.
“Oh no,” I say, “this keeps getting better.”
Zoe walks over to the two. “Don’t be frightened. Are you alone? We’re friends.”
The girl answers, “We were supposed to wait here. It was only going to be a day, but they never came back.”
Zoe looks at me, “We need to take them with us.”
I turn my palms up and shrug.
“It’s not a question, Drake.”
I look out at the tempest on the horizon and the unforgiving landscape it has created. “The ride is too dangerous. There isn’t room.”
“There’s another way,” the boy speaks. His voice is deeper and more mature than I thought it would be.
“Let’s hear it,” Caleb says.
“The pipeline,” he says.
“No good,” I say. “We came here through the pipeline and it ended in your pond over there.”
“No, it doesn’t,” the boy says. “There’s another branch to it. I can show you.”
Zoe walks over to me and takes my hand. “You’re a good man.”
For a few seconds, I forget that we’re on a farm surrounded by destruction, with two dead bodies at our feet, two old motorcycles as our only transport, and two too many passengers looking to hitch a ride to avoid the end of the world.
Packing up the remaining supplies doesn’t take long. The stench of blood pooled at the bottom of the ladder makes sure of that.
Zoe wipes a tear from the girl’s cheek with a smile that would make angels cry. The boy huddles with the young girl in the sidecar, holding her trembling shoulders and whispering into her ear.
The kids are both skinny, but his arms and cheekbones are more visible than hers. Whatever she is to him— his sister or girlfriend— no doubt he’s given his ration of food to her as much as he can. Charity like that is rare in this world, especially now with Ultima plundering outside and sucking the remaining life out of Earth.
Zoe stands and holds my gaze. In thanks, fear, acceptance? I can’t read her emotions, but something tells me there’s more to her; a bigger purpose. And these two kids are now a part of that. She turns and helps Caleb with the rest of the supplies.
I pinch the bridge of my nose and fight off the guilt gripping my gut. I had considered leaving these kids behind along with Sera back at the launch pad. All those Hoarders and the rest of Zoe’s family were stuck at that old refinery. Thousands of other people would never stand a chance against these storms.
I can’t help everyone. I can barely save myself.
The boy holds the girl’s hand, rubbing his thumb along her knuckles, and all I can do is sigh. I reach into the saddlebag behind me and pull out two bags of dried apples and toss them in his lap. He glances up at me with a wary stare.
“There’s more if you’re still hungry,” I say.
“Thank you,” he mumbles back and offers a bag to the girl.
If all humanity is lost by the end of the day, at least I can say it didn’t start with me.
“What are your names?”
“Lucis,” he replies and shoves a few pieces into his mouth. “Amara’s family owned a farm several miles from here, but had to run when those gunmen raided their stockpile. We’ve been hiding here for a few days while they went to barter a way to the city, but…”
His voice trails off when Amara starts to cry again.
He doesn’t have to finish. If her parent’s hadn’t made it back by now, the storms probably killed them. It doesn’t matter now, anyway. The city was destroyed last week by lightning storms and then razed over by mobs. I can’t bear to say the words to them, though. She’d probably start sobbing. And I don’t have time.
“The shuttle launch is our only hope now,” I reply. “The pipes lead us to it and maybe her family has found a way there.” It’s the only thing I can say to ease her fears.
“See, Amara?” The boy smiles and rubs her arm. “Your parents are smart. They’ll be waiting for us there.”
For a second, I hope for it, too.
Zoe and Sera finish packing the saddlebags on the other bike, while Caleb fills the tank up with the remaining ethanol fuel. Sera can’t fit on the back of the bike, so she squeezes her swollen body in the sidecar. Zoe is forced to ride behind Caleb to keep the weight down on my motorcycle. When the dark beauty straddles the bike and wraps her arms around Caleb’s waist, Sera scowls.
I shake my head. Lucky bastard.
“Where’s the pipeline from here, kid?”
“East, about two miles.”
I turn the key on the motorcycle. It sputters to life and rumbles on the softer fuel of ethanol. Caleb springs his bike to life and I inch forward out of the barn. The cold wind slaps me in the face and it’s hard to breathe. But at least it had stopped hailing. For now. The wasted landscape before me twists my heart into overdrive. Getting through it on these bikes would be near impossible. But so was surviving on Earth as long as we have.
A flashing red light from my watch catches my attention. 10:00 to launch.
I long for the covered rover while chased by a dozen cyclones. Back when we still had over twenty hours.
“Keep your heads down,” I yell to the kids over the rumble of the bike and surge forward.
Two miles feels like fifty. The motorcycle dips and sways along the torn up ground, and we nearly tumble over a deep crevice. Amara screams into the cavernous space, echoing off the walls. But she clings to Lucis, who has a death grip on the sidecar. A falling rock slams into the back of Caleb’s bike and rips off one of the saddlebags, tumbling into the canyon below.
I clamp down on the accelerator and force us back onto stable ground. Another gust of wind almost topples the bike over and I struggle to keep it upright. A rock or tree branch hits me in the face, slicing into my cheek, but I push forward.
“Over there!” Lucis points to a hill fifty yards away. A storm drain the size of an electric car jutted out the side of it. I cower over the handles and in only minutes, we cross the remaining terrain and drive into it, Caleb close on my rear. The engines echo off the concrete walls and the sound is deafening. But the ride is smoother and faster.
“This connects with the pipeline,” Lucis screams beside me.
I grip the accelerator, ducking my head from the few hanging slabs of concrete. Everything around us grows colder the deeper we go. But fifty miles an hour on this antique bike wouldn’t get us there in ten hours. What I wouldn’t give for a transport at 100 miles an hour. Or even a tank of gasoline to reach eighty. We’d arrive with hours to spare.
Finally we reach the main pipeline, twice the size of the storm drain. I glance at my watch again: 9:00 left.
Two miles in an hour. “Shit.”
I have no other choice. Though I have no faith left, I pray. To anyone or anything that will listen. Please, give us a chance.
Less than a mile ahead, someone listened.
An empty transport tube, waiting like it was made especially for our little dilapidated group. When the bike stops I rush forward and climb inside. If praying worked once, twice couldn’t hurt.
I press the button. The lights switch on and the nuclear power block hums to life.
“Get in! Hurry!” Everyone loads the supplies, clearly aware of the time crunch. When the door slides shut, I glance back at Lucis who has hopeful eyes. “This ride is for you, kid.”
He smiles and straps himself into a harness beside Amara. Zoe takes the co-pilot’s seat and winks at me. It’s strange not to have Joe at the controls beside me, almost painful, but Zoe’s vibrant brown eyes warm my insides.
“Luck’s on our side,” Caleb calls out with a childish grin, rubbing Sera’s belly in the back seat.
“Don’t jinx it,” I reply and bury my optimism. Idealistic tendencies are not my forte.
Three hours later, Sera and Caleb are sleeping in the back as Amara and Caleb play a simple hand game. Aside from the gentle hum of the transport, their giggles are the only noise. Sounds I’ve forgotten over the years. Zoe glances back and smiles at them.
“They’re the future, Drake,” she whispers. “My mother told me of a prophecy once. New life would blossom as long as light and love were present.”
It’s hard to keep from rolling my eyes, but I’ll admit it’s a sweet sentiment. And I won’t dare take away another person’s prayers.
“You don’t believe me,” she says.
“Lucis and Amara,” she recites with a smile. “Latin for light and love.”
My mouth opens, but no words come out. If that’s a coincidence, I’ll take it.
A dim light grows brighter ahead of the transport and I slow the vehicle. By the time I recognize daylight, the transport careens into water, splashing against the window. We jolt forward and finally stop, with more water stretching ahead of us. And daylight.
I open the door and climb on top of the tube, where the pipeline crumbled away and reveals the source of the water.
The gulf flooded everything to the south, no doubt from the storms. I turn and fall to my knees.
In the distance, beyond ten miles of scorched earth, is the gleaming silver shuttle, lights flashing for pre-launch check.
Just beyond it is a black sky with swirling purple clouds.
Someone screams from inside the transport. “Drake!” Caleb yells. “Sera’s in labor!”
I run back inside to find Sera on her hands and knees, Caleb beside her, rubbing her back while whispering reassurances. I look over my shoulder, the children are quiet now, thrust back to desolation from the fringes of hope. What cruel world is this baby about to enter where children leave their childhood too early?
The silent transport was only invaded by Sera’s rhythmic panting broken up by grunts of pain when a contraction hit her.
Zoe pushed past me, sliding to her knees on Sera’s other side.
“How bad are they Sera, on a scale of one to ten?”
“Twenty,” she answered through gritted teeth.
“Drake, time the contractions,” Zoe ordered. “Sera, I’m a doula. I can help you.”
I glanced at my watch. 5:48.
“A do-what?” Caleb wrapped a protective arm around Sera’s hunched shoulders.
“A birth coach, midwife. I’ve birthed many babies and can help you do this.”
Another scream pinged around the inside of the transport.
“Drake,” Zoe’s voice sung in my ears. The baby was coming. My baby was coming? Suddenly, I wanted the child to be mine. I wanted to see a crown of dark hair snuggled into Sera’s arms, craved looking into my own brown eyes. “Drake! Time!”
I snapped back and looked at my watch. 5:44
“Four minutes,” my voice was husky as I thought about that night with Sera. The unspoken passion as we tumbled to the floor, clothes mingling, legs entwined, bodies one. Shit. That was nine months ago.
Zoe pushed herself off the floor and walked past me, grabbing my arm, leading me to the open door of the transport.
“We’ve got maybe two hours before serious labor starts,” Zoe didn’t meet my eyes. Instead she stared out over the ocean at the gleaming silver launch tower. The purple clouds seemed frozen, not advancing, but not retreating. The eye of the hurricane. “But I don’t know how we move her across ten miles of ocean. It’s too risky …”
I looked down at the inky black water. Most of the world’s ocean life died off when the temperatures first started rising. Most. Not all of it. Rumors of mutant sharks and even larger giant squid scared children to sleep at night.
Without a word, I turned back to the control center of the transport. A compartment to my left proclaimed “Emergency” and I broke open the door. Inside was a small oxygen tank with a respirator and goggles.
Zoe was back at Sera’s side when I emerged. Our eyes locked and she met me at the door, staring at the bounty in my hands.
“You can’t be serious,” she said.
“I had a feeling they must have had some way to breathe in case of a bio-hazard.”
“That tank can’t have enough oxygen to swim ten miles,” her hushed voice was hurried, anger and fear danced together as her words picked up speed. “What about us? What about the storm?”
“I’ll swim on the surface while it’s clear and dive down when a storm comes. They have boats patrolling five miles out from the launch site. I’ll flag one down and come get you.” My hand cupped her cheek. “I’ll make it. I promise.”
“No you won’t.”
We both jumped, not hearing Caleb join us.
“There’s no other choice.” My fist clinched preparing to fight them both.
Caleb nodded as he reached for the tank and mask. “There is. I’ll go. You stay here, protect Sera, the kids and Zoe. Protect our baby.”
His eyes burned into mine. Protect our baby. It was as if he meant that the baby belonged to the three of us. Did she confess our indiscretion to him? A question pursed my lips, but he was gone before the words could push past the lump in my throat. Ripples rocked the water below and Caleb emerged ten feet from the door.
“Just tell her I went for help,” he shouted before swimming towards our future.
Zoe and I laced our fingers together and watched him swim away until another of Sera’s contractions drew us inside.
“Why does it hurt so goddammed much?” she cried.
Zoe helped Sera lay on her back, positioning her for privacy from the kids and me. Lucis and Amara huddled together, his arm around her shoulder and both sets of eyes wide with fear.
“Drake, give me your jacket. I need something to drape over her legs. Lucis and Amara, can you try to find me some cloth or blankets, anything that is clean and we can wrap a baby in?”
The kids sprung to life, a scavenger hunt reawakening their childhood. Sera groaned on the floor, her pale face green and covered in sweat. Once Zoe had my jacket in place, she spread Sera’s legs and ducked out of sight. I looked back at my watch. 5:29. Caleb better swim fast. My eyes squinted in the distance, looking for some sign of Caleb on the watery horizon, but the gray air hid him. Perhaps he already dove under. Perhaps he already perished. I turned back to the women, forbidding myself to think about letting a father sacrifice himself with barely a fight.
Zoe straightened and looked up at the ceiling of the transport before closing her eyes and tucking her chin in to her chest. I watched as her lips moved in a silent prayer. When she opened her eyes, I realized the color was drained from her olive complexion.
“The baby is breech,” her voice trembled. “I can’t turn it around, I tried. We could lose one of them. Or, both.”
“Wait, so the feet are where the head should be?” She nods solemnly. Frustration grows, but most of its weight is directed at Zoe. In an age where we can launch hundreds of thousands of civilians into space in a frozen stasis to travel thousands of light years and colonize a new planet, I find it more than a little hard to swallow that she can’t turn a baby. “Have you tried it from outside?”
“Externally? It’s possible, but there are complications.”
“It’s a lot of stress to put on the mother. Not to mention exceedingly painful. Just the attempt could put her into shock, send her blood pressure through the roof. If we had some sort of anesthetic…”
A quick survey of the area reveals the two little ones are still scavenging for a blanket. I smile at the thought of them, two undeniably young people set on trying to save the world. Or at least the little one they exist in. They’ll do well adapting in their new home, of that I have no doubt.
Satisfied that they are well away from eye and earshot, I turn to Sera and lean in close. “Sera? Sweetheart? Do you see the top of that grain tower over there?” I gesture with my head and her face, strained and sweating, slowly turns to follow my hand. Faster than her peripheral could follow, I bring the butt of the pistol fiercely across her temple, making a sickening cracking sound a bit louder than I had intended. But as I had intended, her head falls to the ground and body goes slack. My fingers slide along her neckline and maneuver until they find her pulse, then check her breathing.
“What the hell was that?” Zoe shrieks.
“The local. Vitals are normal, body calm and feeling no pain. Now you can turn the baby.” She glares at me and I return gesture. “Anything else you’re leaving out? Did you somehow stumble across a boat that didn’t appear up to safety standards?”
“Nothing like that. Well, a couple of kayaks, but no motor.” I sigh, wondering how everybody could have forgotten that they’re traveling with a pair of rocket scientists. Though only one now. I shake my head in dismay at Caleb and his heroic bravado. Sure it was the first option that had crossed my mind, but swimming five to ten miles would take hours. Hours that we don’t have. And certainly hours that he isn’t trained for. As the leader, and now the only sensible adult, I have to be the rational mind. I have to get us out of this mess. “Get that baby turned, I’m going to get to work.”
Lucis and Amara come racing from a barn, carrying a faded blue horse-blanket between them. “Hey Mr. Drake! Look what we found!”
I return their smile. “You kids are truly amazing! Amara, go ahead and run that back to Miss Zoe. Lucis, I’ve got another assignment for you should you choose to accept it.” His eyes widen at mine, soaking in the praise and further opportunity to prove himself. Taking a knee, I meet him at eye-level and place my hands on his shoulders. “I’m going to build us a boat to get across the water. What I need from you is to find me as many screws, nails, bolts, or any kind of metal fastener you can manage. That, and we’re going to need some sealing wax. There should be a ton stored somewhere around here. Can you do that for me?”
He nods his agreement, but a sad expression crosses his face. “But what about Mr. Caleb? Isn’t he supposed to be bringing back a boat.”
“He is, but we have to have another plan in action in case-” I watch his face drop further. This poor kid has probably suffered enough loss already. Cynical as I may be, I have no desire to crush his faith any further. “Just in case there are no boats out on the water. If that happens, we’ll pick him up on our way.”
“Do you think we’ll be able to find him?
Not a chance in hell. “Of course we will,” I smile widely, giving his shoulder a fond squeeze. “Now you go run along.” I lower my head and give him a stern expression, signifying the importance of my statement. “I’m counting on you, Lucis. We all are.”
Small and pink, his tongue darts excitedly across his lips. “Yes, sir!” In his excitement, his voice is barely audible over the sounds of a storm rolling in. We turn together to watch the horizon where a large cloud cell bursts open, spilling lightning that doesn’t flash, but runs across the ground in a spastic dance, resembling a tesla coil.
“Yes, Mr. Drake?”
“Better hurry.” He shoots off like his own bolt of lightning, disappearing into the nearest darkened doorway. I take up my own scavenger hunt, pulling the canoes over to the bikes, then scouring the area for any loose planks that haven’t rotted through and any tools I can find. My watch shows we’ve got just shy of five hours to make it across then miles of unpredictable water and safely inside the craft. Time to work.
“Drake!” Zoe’s voice cuts through the wind and draws me back from my focus. A quick glance at my watch shows one more of our precious hours has already passed. “Drake! Hurry! It’s time!” Dropping my tools, I step back and look at our salvation, nearing completion. Lucis came through like a champ, snagging everything that wasn’t bolted down and running off for the next bounty with energy to spare. I wipe my greasy hands off on an old rag and run the numbness out of my legs to where the rest of the group are surrounding Sera.
She’s awake now, eyes glazed with pain and sporting a nice purple bruise from where I’d clocked her earlier. Guilt wells inside of me, perhaps not my finest moment, but it seemed necessary at the time. “How is she?”
“Aside from painful contractions of trying to pass a baby and suffering from a minor concussion, I’d say she’s coming along nicely.” There’s a bite to her tone, but she manages it with a smile.
“I’m sorry about earlier. That’s no way for a gentleman to behave and-”
“Save it,” she cuts me short. “We have more pressing matters right now.” There’s a twinkle to her eyes, “But try again later.”
I kneel down next to Sera, retrieving the damp cloth from Zoe and wiping it across her sweat-soaked forehead. “What do you need from me?”
“Take her hand.”
I do as instructed and offer a gentle squeeze to let Sera know I’m here. It’s immediately countered with a much tighter grip, more power than I’d imagined from such a little thing. I’m about to warn her that I’d be needing my hands soon, but bite my tongue.
“It’s time Sera. When I say, I need you to push.” Sera nods her understanding, but scrunches her face, grinding her teeth with enough force that I can see the muscle structure prominent across her jaw. “Okay, Sera. Push!”
The next few minutes are a blur of screaming, grunting, and anxiety. I remember worrying about the children, but they only watch the scene with wide eyes and intense fascination. So much for sheltering them with stork stories. But it pays off. It ends with Zoe wrapping and cradling a ragged little bundle, cleaning her off and slapping her back to begin the breathing process.
I’m still in stunned silence when she asks me to cut the cord. A part of me doesn’t want to. Doesn’t want any harm to ever come to this delicate beauty. All of her features so small, but so human. I snip the cord and clamp it shut with a plastic paper holder, then watch as she’s passed to her mother.
Sera pulls her close and coos to her, even through her exhaustion and pains. “I’ll be taking that apology now,” says Zoe, wiping her hands across her pants before folding them across her chest.
“Of course,” I laugh, mostly from relief than humor. “Zoe, I’m sorry for-” She cuts me off again, this time with by covering my mouth forcefully with her own.
“Apology accepted,” she says softly, long fingers pressing through my mess of hair before pushing me away from her. “Now go save the world, I’ll look after everybody here.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I smile, still dizzy from the kiss. “Lucis, ready to learn about internal combustion engines?” Together, we race to the raft and get to work, rigging up a couple of motors with the blades of some old rotary fans Lucis came across.
Zoe and Amara join us soon afterwords. “Looks awful. You sure this thing will hold together?”
“For a few miles at least,” I reply, no humor in my voice. “Lucis here’s got quite a knack for this type of work. Think we’ll have to look into an internship on the new world.” We step back and admire our handiwork. It really does look like crap. “Give me a hand and we’ll push it down to the water and load Sera and the baby in the side-car we rigged up.” It was Lucis’s idea and he took the time to load it up with every bit of spare padding he could find.
“What about Caleb?”
“We’ll just have to meet him there. I don’t know how fast this will run, but I’m betting it will be close.” I don’t add the part about if we make it at all. “Does the baby have a name yet?”
Amara giggles at the question, Zoe rolls her eyes as if privy to some inside joke. “I’m not recording anything officially, crediting the name she chose to post-surgery delirium.”
In response to my questioning stare, Amara blurts out, “Stormy!” then erupts into laughter, clutching her sides.
“Cute. I like it.” We take our positions behind the make-shift boat and push it across the sand to where Sera is still laid out with baby Stormy. I smile at the pair. The name is already growing on me.
Loaded up, I push the raft the rest of the way into the water and Lucis and I fire up the engines, panicking for only a moment while they sputter before upping the throttle and kicking in. The boat doesn’t race across the water, but it does it’s job cutting through the chop. Off in the distance, we see the lights of civilization and our last hope to leave this dying world once and for all.