Lost in Ashes

by A. Taylor

 

Four hundred and twenty-three days after satellite Restart was activated, it inputted its latest assessment on the status of the face of the earth: Radiation – zero, Population – one. This commenced the final stages of Restart. And the thermal heating system on Cryotube1, which held my frozen body in near death sleep, initiated. Almost three days later a persistent sharp hiss of steam from the release of the cryotube hatch-lock awakened my thawed body, and I opened my eyes.

Sleepy disorientation entwined me, making it hard to remember where I was and how I had arrived there. Ribbons of light brushed my skin as I lifted my hands to rub the confusion of a long deep sleep from my eyes. Then reaching for the light, my hands touched the back of a glass ceiling—the inside of a cryotube. The light filtered through cracks of a thick layer, masking the outside glass of the tube’s hatch.

And then I remembered that the last time I had looked out of this cryotube, I had stared into Quin’s eyes, my intense, genius-of-a-physics-lab partner, as he’d said in ragged words, “It… will open…when safe.” Then the medicinal air of the cryotube had taken over, and Quin, with seeping, purpling eyes and swelling black lips, had held a gun to his head, and with an ear-rupturing BANG! turned into nightmare, while a world of ice and blackness pulled me under.

Not even an hour before the sound of Quin’s gun and the effects of the cryotube had overcome me, I had been in my dorm room at Austin, Texas University in between the stages of sleep and waking, when a Bam! Bam! Bam! had startled me awake.

My groggy eyes had tried to focus on something distinct nearby, while my ears searched for the source which had pulled me from sleep. But all I could see was a sea of gray from the pillow over my head.

Bam! Bam! Bam! The forceful knocks had come again, and I flipped over onto my side brushing some tangled dark pieces of hair out of my face, to peer at my door, as if I could peek through the old whitewashed wood to see who was on the other side.

“Alina! Are you in there?” Quin’s voice, with an edge of excitement to it, as though he had something very important to tell me, had woken me even further.

“Hold on!” I had yelled, throwing the covers off, searching for something decent to change into from the pile of mixed clean and dirty clothes on the floor. “I’m coming.” I had stalled, embarrassed at the thought of Quin seeing me in my holey pajamas.

But the knocks had come a second time, even more insistent.

“It doesn’t matter what you look like.” Quin’s tone had become frantic. “Please just open up.”

Abandoning my vanity, I had run to the door and said in a tired, raspy voice, “What’s wrong?” when I’d pried the locks open and thrown open the door to reveal a disheveled Quin wearing his lab coat over the same button-up plaid shirt and denim jeans he’d worn the day before.

“I don’t have time to explain.” And Quin had grabbed my arm, pulling from my room, dragging me down the hall and outside, not even giving me time to close my door behind us or wait for me to get some shoes on.

“What’s going on?” I had asked again, trying to loosen his clinging grip from my forearm, as I stumbled beside him with my bare feet slapping down the dorm’s front stairs and across the green lawn of south campus.

But the most I could get out of Quin was, “I should have known sooner. It’s spreading too quickly. We might not have time.”

Quin’s response hadn’t been too abnormal as he was prone to talk to himself, which I’d witnessed countless of times as we’d worked together on different physics projects. But just when I had been about to grill him for getting lost in his thoughts, I had noticed we weren’t the only ones hurrying in a hectic run across campus at 6:30 in the morning. Different groups of students and professors scurried past us in all kinds of feverish directions, muttering to themselves and looking with wide frightened eyes, to their left and right and over their shoulders. And my questions had stilled on my tongue as I breathed the fear in the air surrounding us, which permeated my body with a kind of panicked anxiety.

So, without any explanation, I had allowed Quin to guide me to the AUT Physics Department, down five flights of stairs, past the computer department, and to the far back north-east section, where he and I worked in the government funded cryogenics lab.

But as Quin had flipped on the lights and checked the side rooms, confirming we were alone, in an out-of-breath rush, I had heaved, “What are we are doing here?”

But Quin had continued to ignore me, distracted by the intricate process of switching on the cryotubes, which I had wondered at his reasoning for doing so. Then he’d checked and rechecked different manual switches and levers, all the while mumbling similar phrases as before, “I should have known…spreading too quickly…not enough time.”

“Quin!” I had finally yelled, grabbing his shoulders from behind and turning him towards me, demanding his attention. “What’s going on?”

“A virus,” Quin had said with urgency, scrunching the front of his deep red hair into his fists, “spreading faster than I’ve ever seen.” He had looked so worried, but I just didn’t understand.

“What’s so bad about a virus?” I had lifted my shoulders in a shrug, an attempt at nonchalance to dispense Quin’s alarm.

Releasing his hair, and taking in three deep breaths, he’d placed one of his hands in mine and led me to sit on a stool next to Cryotube1. Then he’d said, in his composed I’m-going-to-divulge-a-lot-of-information voice, “Alina, do you remember the chronic wasting disease I told you about that was discovered last year in white tailed deer in Canada and parts of the U.S.?”

I had nodded, recalling the online pictures Quin had shown me last March of hundreds of deer lying on their sides, motionless, with froth covered mouths and blood-rimmed eyes, the image for which had caused a number of nightmares over that last year.

“Within the last six months,” Quin had continued, unaware of my thoughts, “the virus has shown up in other animals, even household pets, killing them off one by one. And in the last two weeks it’s appeared in humans. But instead of dying the humans are changing into…I don’t know. But whatever they’re becoming, and especially if they can’t be stopped, I believe there won’t be anyone left. It’s time for Restart.”

I had sat in stunned silence seriously questioning Quin’s sanity. I had felt terror at his words and the thought of whatever those animals were infected with, spreading so quickly. And, at the time, I had thought, did he really believe this virus he spoke about warranted us initiating a secret government cryogenics project we’d been working on for the last year, which was supposed to safeguard the extinction of the human race from disease or some other catastrophic event, even a nuclear attack?

“But, Quin, we don’t even know if it will work.” I had tried to reason with him, feeling a spike in my heart’s rhythms considering the possibility of being frozen to near death.

“It worked on the rabbits. It will work on us,” Quin had responded with a straight face, in a matter-of-fact manner, as if the virus was any other physics problem we’d encountered in the past year that had a logical scientific solution only the two of us could solve.

“But you can’t be serious,” I had whispered with a half-hearted smile, hoping Quin would laugh at any moment, saying something like, “Classic Alina. You should see your face! You fall for everything.”

But Quin had knelt in front of me, taking my face in his hands, which he’d never done before, and had said in a calm voice I had to lean in to hear clearly, “Alina, I’m more serious than I’ve ever been in my life.” Then, staring at my brown eyes, as though he realized he might never have another chance, he had brushed a thumb over the chicken-pox scar on my right cheek, tucked a bed-head strand of hair behind my left ear, and then brought his eyes back to mine before leaning in and pressing his lips against my surprised mouth, holding me in place within his soft touch.

Astonished by Quin’s gentle affection, which he’d never hinted at before, not even during all our late-night sessions working on Restart, even though I’d wished a hundred times, and would have traded a thousand perfect physics’ quiz scores, for some kind of encouragement that he might be interested in me, I had held still, barely comprehending the significance of what was happening until he’d pulled away.

And before I could pull him closer, or even shout a silent yay! that Quin had finally kissed me, making me more breathless than the run across campus had done, he’d stood back up and had begun moving around the room again in efficient preparatory motions, saying, “At midnight Canada began attacking certain provinces and defending others while trying to kill…the virus. It’s only a matter of time before America follows suit, probably nuking us all. There will be nothing left if we don’t do something.”

These words had made me finally embrace the gravity of the situation. But since I really didn’t want to freeze my body, to be thawed in the future as some half of an Adam and Eve couple, to repopulate the earth after the rest of humanity’s destruction, I opened my mouth, hoping words and ideas would come out that would present a more reasonable plan.

But no words came out, and in the middle of the absence of ideas, with a terrific CRASH! the lab door had swung open, shattering the door’s glass, against the lab wall behind the door, causing the glass to fall to the floor in fractured and splintered shards and pieces.

I had screamed, grabbing the edges of the stool beneath me with both hands, so that I wouldn’t fall off. But the horror that met my eyes throttled my yell into a muffled shriek, and the stool teetered.

Three human-shaped figures, with bleeding eyes, swollen black lips, and bloated bruised skin, leaving a black slimy substance wherever their swollen hands and fingers touched, had leaned against and in the door frame.

Feeling my world tilt, I had stumbled back off the stool, knocking it over with a clank. The three black heads had slowly swiveled in my direction. And as I instinctively began to inch backwards, deep guttural gurgles had emitted from their swollen lips as they began to move towards me.

A sense of total helplessness had overcome me at not knowing how to comprehend what the things before me were. And I felt as though my body had been glued in place, forced to watch in slow motion the creatures creep toward me.

But before the grotesque beings could drag their disfigured bodies more than a few steps, Quin had pulled a gun from his lab coat, stepped in front of me, and shot each creature in the head, spraying black liquid and grey chunks across the walls in splattered rainbow patterns. The three things had dropped to the floor with a thud, thud, thud, landing at unnaturally odd angles, and the same black liquid splayed across the walls gathered in three separate pools around their heads.

At this point my legs had given out, and I fell upon the floor in a messy heap, sucking in sobbing breaths as I stared at the unmoving things before me, who moments before had shown some semblance of life.

But before I could even process any signs of grief at what Quin had done, or disgust at myself for feeling relieved the things were dead, Quin had yanked me off the ground, pushing me toward one of the open tubes.

“Quickly! Into Cryotube1!”

Feeling overwhelmed and exhausted at just witnessing something’s brains blown out, and at everything else that had happened since Quin had pulled me from my dorm, my muddled and confused body had obeyed unquestioningly.

But as I lay back on the sloped cryotube pad, slowly regaining a sense of security, watching Quin through the glass of the hatch as he sealed it shut, I had asked, “Now what are you doing?”

            “Protecting you,” Quin had answered, pointing with the gun at the floor, “from whatever these things are spreading.”

            “Where did you even get that thing?” I had asked, motioning to the gun. Then shaking my head, I’d said, “Never mind. It doesn’t matter. It’s just…if the virus is spreading as fast as you say it is, then not even hiding in a cryotube will keep me safe.”

            “You may be right. But from what I can tell the virus can only be caught from a bite or a touch, or from breathing the same air as an infected person for more than five minutes. And since you’re breathing in cryogenic sterilized and supportive air, and the virus is out here,” Quin had smiled smugly, motioning with both raised arms to the air around him, “you’re safe.”

“What? No!” I had pushed against the glass of the cryotube, realizing Quin must have initiated Restart when he’d sealed me inside, which would begin the sustaining and freezing process. I began slapping and pressing my palms against the glass, trying to force the locked hatch open. But as I breathed in the medicinal cold air I began to shiver—the first stage of the freezing process, which my body was trying to fight off. Then, as drowsiness had begun to creep over me, I had lost the will to stop what was about to happen, conceding to Restart’s failsafe ignition process, almost impossible to reverse. “Quin, you’re overreacting.” My words had been feeble, as though even they had accepted there was nothing more I could do.

But when Quin’s face had begun to change colors, bruising under and around his eyes, accentuating his lips, which were tuning gray and beginning to swell, I had realized Quin’s plan had just barely preserved me.

Then, as I witnessed the virus slowly change him, deteriorating his face in front of me, I had again pressed my palms against the glass, but this time in a gentle surrender, as though I could reach through and comfort him with a touch. And I realized, as a smattering of salty tears leaked out of the corners of my eyes, just how deeply I wanted and needed Quin to be with me on the other side of wherever I ended up after Restart released me.

But the most I could do was say, “Quin, I wish we had more time. I’m sorry.” Then I had trailed off, holding back a sob, hoping, that in some way, Quin would understand just how deeply my unspoken words meant.

“Don’t worry,” Quin had said, “at least I’ll die before the nukes arrive.” And with a pained smile, he’d placed his free hand over one of mine, still pressed against the glass, making our hands look like a mirror image, with nothing but the end of the world separating us.

Then Quin’s body had slumped against the case, bringing his face even closer for me to hear his next ragged words, “The cryotube…it will open…when safe,” right before the whip of the gunshot had sounded and the cryogenic medicine had undone me.

Now, as I peeked at the light seeping through the cracks of whatever layered the outside of the cryotube, I couldn’t help but feeling grateful that Quin’s end had been quick. Imagining him fully becoming whatever that virus had turned those other humans into was like seeing the gunshot go off over and over again.

I brushed some stray tears from my face and took some deep breaths. Though I was still not feeling even remotely prepared to face whatever world was waiting for me on the other side of the cryotube hatch, I pressed myself up onto my elbows, reaching up with one hand to shove against the glass of the cryotube.

Immediately I brought one arm up to shield my half-closed eyes from the full strength of the sun. Its warmth kissed my lukewarm skin, reminding me just how good it was to be outside in the real world.

As my eyes continued to adjust to the bright light—my eyelids demanding I keep my eyes shut as long as possible—I blindly swung the bottom half of my body over the lip of the hatch. Then sliding down the side of the hatch onto the ground my unsteady barefoot feet sank into something soft, which compressed under my weight, making impressions of my feet and toes as they explored the softness. Black powder crept up and in between each of my toes revealing a thick inch of ash all around me.

Then drawing my face up to finally accept what the world had left behind, my eyes took in the sheer amount of thick black ash covering every empty surface surrounding me for miles and miles, as far as I could see, confirming what I had feared the moment Quin had last fired his gun.

There was nothing left. No buildings, no trees, no signs of any life anywhere. Only the dark black ash extending in every direction, mapping out all that had been lost. And except for the wind, which mimicked a semblance of a being as it swirled around me, picking some of my hair up into its embrace, as though invisible fingers touched and teased me, I was alone. Alone, with no promise of anyone ever finding me or ever being able to return life to the deserted world around me.