in the city that we loved
They lost track of time after the first week. The lights in the shelter never went out and the sirens outside never stopped, so there was no judging from those. The radio had stopped working and it was better not to waste any spare batteries, so everyone mostly accepted that time was passing and left it at that.
There were jigsaw puzzles and playing cards, and a couple of board games, and some books stashed around the shelter, in case anyone wanted something to do. He'd been worried that they would start fighting due to stress and close proximity, but everyone seemed like they were getting along.
There was an unspoken agreement that no one would discuss what had happened.
The real shock was when the sirens stopped. He had been playing cards with Danny, and Bronwen was asleep, and Emma was reading. The sudden quiet made everyone jump.
"What happened?" Bronwen said.
He said, "I don't know. Everything just stopped."
Danny put down his cards and pushed them all into a stack. "Does this mean we can go out?"
"We're not going out," Emma said. "We're just not."
"The report said when the sirens stopped that it was all right to come out," he said. "What else are we going to do?"
"We don't know why it stopped though," Emma said. "How do we know it won't start up again?"
"We haven't got a choice, do we? It's either we go out and figure out what to do, or we stay inside until the supplies run out. Which one do you want?" He was already going for the iodine the way he'd been told, opening the bottle and smearing it over his face. It stung.
Emma didn't say anything. Bronwen said, "We can't stay here, Em."
Emma stared resolutely at the wall. He said, "I'll go out first."
Danny said, "I'll come with you," and Bronwen nodded. Already Danny was looking towards the shelter door.
He said, wildly, in a voice that didn't seem to belong to him, "No, one at a time!" He probably had more to say but he was too embarrassed, so he just stared at the concrete floor for a while.
Finally Bronwen said, "We'll be behind you."
He was committed to going out now, so he just nodded and went to the door. As far as he knew, the sirens were still silent.
He wasn't sure if there was any sort of debris on the other side of the door, so his first turn of the knob was tentative. He felt the hinges swinging open.
He automatically shut his eyes as he walked up the steps to above ground. The touch of air on his face made him flinch. It smelled of wet clay and chemicals. He stepped out of the doorway before he could talk himself out of it and waited.
Nothing happened. He waited a minute and nothing happened and nothing happened. Eventually he reckoned that if there was anything dangerous hanging around, it was slow-moving.
He called to the closed door, "I'm not dead!"
The door opened a crack and Danny peered out at him. "Guess we should all go out then, he's not dead."
He could only bring himself to look around when everyone was outside with him. He heard Emma take a breath in. He opened his eyes.
His first thought was that the landscape was just blank, ground stretching endlessly around them, but then he saw the skeletons of the buildings, gutted steel and concrete framing the dull yellow sky. The pavement had cracked and buckled, and dirt showed through the broken places. Everything that had once been there was gone.
He turned around and walked back into the shelter. He sat on the floor and stared at it.
The door opened and shut. For a minute he just heard breathing.
"What now?" Danny finally said. "What the fuck do we do now?"
found yourself a path upon the ground
There was a military fortress some miles away. Beyond that was the sea and some scattered outposts along the shoreline. The reports had said that any survivors should gather at the fortress after the immediate danger had passed. They should only head towards the sea if there was no room at the fortress. They had to make a decision where they should go.
"We'll go to the fortress," he said to everyone. "It's closer."
"Do we know if anyone's there?" Danny asked. "Or is everyone…" He left the statement unfinished. "We can't just sit in here until the supplies run out. We have to leave."
Emma planned the route out on the map while the rest of them tried to gather supplies together. He had to shake Bronwen's shoulder when he found her staring at the wall with a box of cereal in her hand. Danny was looking for the unopened KI tablets and didn't even notice.
Emma finally looked up and said, "It's a few days walk from here. That's if we don't run into something nasty along the way. And if I've read the map right. But I think I have."
"How much do we need to carry?" Danny asked.
"I'd take as much as we can," Emma said. "I don't know what sort of supplies they have there. We just need to start heading northeast – "
"Which way is northeast?" he interrupted.
Emma stared at him. It was Danny who finally said, rather tactfully, "We take a right once we get out of the door and carry on from there."
"It's all going right from here," Emma said. "We'll just split up the rucksacks and they won't be too heavy, maybe. Where's the iodine? Bron?"
Bronwen didn't say anything. Emma said her name again, but she was staring at the shelter door and didn't turn her head.
Danny leaned over and shook Bronwen's shoulder. Finally he pulled her aside and said something quietly, back turned. Bronwen met his eyes and looked away.
"Going outside did something to her," Emma said softly. "I don't know what to do."
He didn't know what to do either. He didn't know Bronwen as well as Danny and Emma did. Danny was still talking to Bronwen.
"Can you get the rucksacks out?" Emma finally said. "I'll help."
For the moment that was all they could do.
shrugging off the dust and memory
The next time they all stepped outside it was with the rucksacks on their backs, iodine smeared across their bodies. He'd been afraid that they would wind up getting lost in the endless spread of ground and sky, but now that everything had been flattened, all they had to do was walk towards the horizon. They didn't seem to be getting anywhere, because everything looked the same now, but at least they were moving forward.
"They built the fortress out of steel and rock," Danny said. "It must still be there. I think."
After days of walking, they could see the top of the fortress creeping over the top of the horizon. He said, "Does it look like it's still standing?"
"Well, something's there, at least," Emma said.
They lost Bronwen before they even reached the fortress. They'd stopped to have water and Bronwen just sank to her knees, staring blankly ahead of her, silent. Emma tried to talk to her but she didn't even seem to notice.
They stayed there for hours. Danny pressed bottles of water, light sticks, KI tablets into her hands but they just fell to the ground as soon as he took his hands away. Her eyes were blank and flat.
It was after it had gotten dark and then light again that it started to sink in that they'd lost her. He or Danny or Emma sat and tried to break through to Bronwen while the others held whispered conversations off to the side, trying to figure out what to do.
It got to the point where it was clear Bronwen wasn't coming back. Danny gave her some water and food and light stick, and Emma sat on the ground holding her hands, giving her directions to the fortress in case she needed it, and he had no fucking idea what was the right thing to do, so he just touched her head and said, "We'll see you, Bron," and then went to join Danny and Emma. Emma walked towards the horizon with tears running down her face.
They barely spoke for the rest of the walk. When the fortress was finally coming into view, so close he could have kicked a football to it, their pace quickened, without anyone speaking about it.
The fortress was a vast expanse of rock and steel. There were twisted girders jutting from the ground that were probably the remains of the checkpoint.
"Do we just…walk in?" Danny asked.
He said, "I don't know what else we can do."
The building was dark and silent once they walked through the gate. He'd thought that there would be someone there to greet them, or at least some markers telling them where to go. There were shadows burned into the stone wall that he didn't want to look at too closely.
"Where is everybody?" Emma said. She pushed the hair out of her face wildly. "Where is everybody?"
He said, "We'll look."
They searched the entire fortress. If there was a room they looked in it. If there was a door they opened it. When they had circled the building twice Danny said "No," and then kept repeating the word, seemingly unconsciously, until it was more sound than language.
They were the only ones. No one was waiting.
They sat in the middle of the floor. They waited.
"We need to get to the sea," he said when everyone had calmed down.
"Fuck off," Danny said.
"We spent days getting here for nothing," Emma said. "You want us to pick up and start over?"
"We can't stop moving," he said. "I just want to know. I want to know that there's nothing we can do. I can't just let it go. I just want to know that we've done everything possible."
Emma said nothing for a minute. Finally she asked, "Do you think we should go back for Bron?"
He thought about it. He thought about it for a long time. Danny said, "Can we at least leave her a sign telling her where to go?"
It seemed like the only thing to do. Emma carved the sign into the fortress wall, with primitive directions.
It was just dark when they left the fortress, heading towards the sea.
the last people standing at the end of the night
They walked. Sometimes it was light and sometimes it was dark and sometimes they were awake and sometimes they weren't. The ground was rocky and stretching endlessly forward.
He was asleep when he felt the light fall across his face. He started up, waving his arms. Danny was already on his feet and Emma was scrambling for some sort of protection.
"What is that?" Danny said. "What is that?"
It came around again, a wide streak of light in the dark, circling around. They stood and watched it. He had no idea where it was coming from.
"The lighthouse," Emma said. "It's the lighthouse."
"It works," Danny said. "It still works. Something's still there."
No one answered. They followed the light, tripping over rocks, trying to get over the horizon. By the time it was light, they could see the top of the lighthouse.
The sea was frothing, and the air smelled of salt and rot. They moved up the hill to the lighthouse, opened the gate and knocked on the door.
The door stayed closed for several minutes, but there were footsteps behind it. Finally the door opened and a woman was looking at them. She looked as surprised to see them as they probably did.
"Hello," he said, and Danny and Emma nodded. "We've come a long way."
"Yes," she said, "yes, you have." She moved out of the doorway, her hand outstretched, welcoming them in.