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Death, interrupted

(Abridged)

By Claire GuérinPublished 2 months ago Updated 2 months ago 14 min read
20
Claire x DALL-E

Kirn's death is rudely interrupted by a droning sound outside the house.

Screwing her eyes shut tighter, she draws a labored breath. It doesn't matter, she reminds herself, there's nothing out there: as the last human on Earth, she's certain of this much. This sound must be an illusion, some auditory hallucination from dehydration. It means she's nearly there, finally one foot in the grave! Appeased, she pushes her hand over the bed sheets to squeeze Ashami's cold arm. She only manages a caress, but that's enough to draw them closer together: they were linked in life, and soon they shall be in death too.

BEEP — BEEP — BEEP — BEE…

Kirn gasps awake at the strident noise. It clinks inside her head like coins in a tin can, but covering her ears with the pillow barely drowns the unbearable beeping. What the hell is this? She jerks upright, immediately triggering a gush of bile up her parched throat. Dizzy, she brings her feet to the floor and lets her head drop onto her lap. Sparks prickle her cornea, even as she burrows her lidded eyes more firmly into her kneecaps. Deep ragged breaths, one, two, three. Better. The beeping had receded into the background while she dealt with nausea, but now it's blasting at full volume into her ears again. A sound to wake the dead. She glances under her elbow at Ashami, still frozen in her last stance, then pushes herself up from the bed with weak arms.

How long did I take to cross the main room? Kirn's mind is so blurry, even her memory of the walk to the front door wavers like a bad dream. The sound blaring on the other side of the thick door is the only thing that tethers her to reality. She remembers tripping over something — a wrench maybe, or was it Ashi's bean bag, the one she used to snuggle in to read? — upon which she started crawling. She's fairly certain she fainted a few times on the way.

Now there's the matter of the door. Palms flat against the steel, Kirn hauls herself up, and grabs onto the knob like a drowning sailor onto a buoy. This door used to keep pestilence and apocalypse burglars out, she never thought its sturdiness would work against her. Drowsily typing the security code on the pad, she unlocks the heavy door then braces herself against it, letting all her dried out weight fall against the frame, until she remembers she has to pull, not push. Kirn starts laughing at herself, but her throat's too dry and the strident beeping on the other side of the steel door makes her wince instead.

That's when thirst finally hits through the fog of her mind. Her tongue's so swollen the word "water" turns into a moan in her mouth.

As the sound recedes into the background, she stumbles back toward the kitchen, crashes into the sink, fumbles the tap open. Liquid rust pours out of the hole straight into Kirn's gaping mouth and wrinkled face, almost chocking her. She keeps drinking, though at first the water struggles to get past the distended block that used to be her tongue. When water pour into her trachea, making her cough then retch, she keeps drinking. Even as the dizziness fades and her vision is restored, she keeps drinking. Only when her stomach is so bloated she feels sick does Kirn let herself slide to the floor.

Light pounds against her eyes, drums into her temples, screeches into her eardrums.

No, that's the beeping. Outside the door. The one that kept her from dying. "Bloody hell!" she croaks, pounding fists on the floor. So she hurls herself up and dashes across the room, not caring about the headache, not caring about the dizziness rushing back nor the darkness creeping back into her vision: Kirn will find the culprit, tear it apart, and grind it to mush until it cannot scream its horrid song, if she has to!

On the way to the door, she picks a wrench up from the floor and shoves it into the corner slit between the door and the floor, lets her full body weight fall on the handle and listens with incomparable satisfaction as the block of steel whines open. Biceps taut, she arches her back as she pulls on the side of the door, both hands gripping the edge. The wind has risen, it gushes inside and pushes Kirn aside and with it, carries the unnatural beeping sound that dared wake the last person on Earth.

It comes from a drone sitting on the doormat, blinking red in cadence with its beeps. A QZ-3001, just like Kirn's old drone, forgotten somewhere under the living room's pile of junk. The off button is right there on the side, and when Kirn pushes it, silence pierces her eardrums like mic feedback.

Suddenly, the absence of sound has become unbearable and it's all the drone's fault. Seized by irrational rage, she snatches the offending object, hurls it over her head and crashes it into the dirt outside the porch, then strides over and tramples on, letting all her frustration and pain out, screaming on top of her lungs despite her coarse throat. When plastic cracks under her heel and the insides of the drone are revealed, Kirn stops abruptly and stares at the QZ-3001's hardware. "Well, that was mad," she says to the wind playing with her hair. She catches the gray strand stuck into her mouth and tucks it behind her ear, then frowns at the broken parts of the drone. "Where the hell did you come from?"

After a last kick to the drone's carcass, she drags herself back toward the house, reminded of her purpose by the bleakness of the outside. A package awaits Kirn on the doormat. The box is tiny, perhaps 4x2x2". Turning it over, Kirn notices the stretches of duct tape keeping the plastic sheets together, as though someone made the box by hand. Someone? "That's impossible!"

Yet there it is: a package, made by someone's hands, delivered by someone's drone, a QZ-3001 at that! A lapse in rationality had Kirn think she somehow got sent a package by a sentient alien form, but she has to face the truth: there's another human out there, alive, and reaching out!

The duct tape peels off easily, and when the sides of the box fall apart on Kirn's lap, they reveal a blue plastic rectangle the size of a business card, with numbers engraved in it, irregular figures carved by knife point.

"Well, that's quite anti-climactic," then "What am I to do with a series of numbers? They could mean anything!" and "Are they coordinates? Surely not, too many numbers…"

Perhaps they're code for something. When they were still young, Ashi and Kirn had designed a cipher of their own to send each other sweet or sexy messages at their respective jobs. Ashi… She'd always liked games and the excitement of secrets. She glances over her shoulder at the bed corner peeking through the wide-open door to the bedroom. "If only you were there, noodle, I'm sure you'd know what to make of this nonsense." Then she looks down at the poodle hanging by her neck, and adds as though the plastic creature might be listening:

"But as it is, I might as well be reading an alien language indeed."

So there is that. Someone, another human, sent Kirn a message. And Kirn can't do anything with it. What sort of dimwit would send a cipher to a stranger? How did they expect Kirn to decipher it without the key? Why is the message coded in the first place? It's not like there's a huge risk of the content falling into the wrong hands, what with humanity being extinct… Well, almost extinct. So, turns out Ashi was right to keep faith after all, but so what? The message might've come from the other side of the globe, for all Kirn knows.

"Actually puppy, not quite. The range of a QZ-3001 is what, 20 km at best? That's not that bad now, is it? When I worked at the radio station, we used to broadcast way farther than that."

Taken by an idea, Kirn pushes herself up, but immediately a cramp seizes her stomach. Soon enough she's whipped an instant noodle soup up, and juggling the steaming bowl filled to the brim on one hand, and the cipher card together with the handrail in the other, Kirn carefully climbs up the ladder to the attic. She places the bowl on her desk and the cipher next to it.

Power up the computer, turn on the transceiver. Last time Kirn used it, right before Ashami fell sick, she'd been trying to increase the machine's range. She'd scanned every square meter possible around the house, pointlessly: there was no life there. Now Kirn knows there must be something out there. After a quick scan of the area, her homemade software tells her the radius reached 11.2 km. "Well that won't do, eh puppy?" she asks the pink poodle. The transceiver can go farther, but the cloudy past weeks mean the power station is probably low on energy.

Kirn glances up at the roof and the solar panels beyond them. Swiping her thumb over the screen, she finds the SolarDrive icon and opens the app. It takes a long time to load, the last upgrade must've been some twenty-eight years ago. "I hate proprietary software, puppy." She caresses the plastic dog with her thumb.

"Do you know what proprietary means? Means I can't do jackshit to improve the bloody app!"

After two minutes, the app has gone from a blank window to a clunky design of analytics tables and parametrization tabs. It looks like solar power has been steadily increasing back over the past few days. More or less since Ashami's death, then. A lump forms inside Kirn's throat, and she fights back against the sudden wetness in her eyes. "Right," she clears her throat and looks sternly at the pink poodle, "Now's not the time to get emotional, puppy, we've got work to do.

"See this orange line over there," she points to the power reserve graph on the screen, "That's when the power station's storage is full. By the end of tomorrow, if the clouds keep away just a bit longer, we'll have full power. Then we'll see how far we can push this transceiver. Wouldn't it be something if we caught sign of our mysterious package sender?"

Kirn slurps on her now cold noodles and looks at the bleak sunset outside the tinted windows. "But for now, there isn't much we can do. Let's go back downstairs."

Back in the living room, Kirn cannot keep her gaze away from the gaping door to the bedroom, where Ashami's limp legs show under the blanket. Nodding, she drags her suddenly heavy body across the main room, crosses the cursed door and enters the cold, cold room. The smell gets stronger as she approaches the figure lying in bed.

"Ash…", words catch in her throat. The pain in her chest moves, transforms into bubbling sobs. Without warning, they burst out of her, through her mouth, her nose and her eyes. "Ashi…" her voice cracks when she tries to whisper into the woman's ear. "I can't do this without you."

Kirn spends the night by Ashami's side, brushing her hair, washing her body, rubbing heated clay into her parchment skin to cover the smell of loss with that of earth after a storm. All while she prepares the beautiful woman for the afterlife, she tells her of her discovery. "You were right, noodle, oh how you were right! There are other survivors out there, there's hope for humanity yet. I just have to find them, just have to reach them.

"I thought about sending our own drone — you know, the one in which you carved a dove on the back — with a message — a proper one, not a coded one like them of course — but I don't have their coordinates, so it's pointless. We'll have more luck with the transceiver.

"I took your pink poodle, the one you kept by your bedside. Wearing it as a necklace now. Can you imagine, me, wearing a pink plastic poodle as a necklace?

When warm sun rays tickle the side of her eye, she glances up and says, with a pinch of regret, "I should check on the status of the power station, I'll be right back."

Up in the attic, Kirn taps her nails on the desk while SolarDrive loads, until the analytics show up and make her jump. "Puppy!" she squeezes the necklace into her palm, her knuckles turning white, "The power level of the house has reached the orange line! We're at full power!"

With frantic taps on the screen, she opens her own transceiver app and launches a perimeter scan. It takes more time than the previous day, "That's actually a good sign," she tries to comfort the pink puddle.

Finally, the software notifies her that the scan is complete, with a coverage radius of 15.1 km. "Bollocks!" Kirn spits on the screen, but wipes it away quickly with the inside of her wrist. She brings SolarDrive to the foreground, and checks the power storage and usage analytics again. Although still swearing, she's regained enough countenance not to spit on her screen. It's not the computer's fault that she used all the power allocated to the transceiver in a single scan, and that even this wasn't enough to break the distance barrier. Oh, how she wished she had the same powerhouse as she used to at work, back in the day. Back then, 20 km for a radio wave would have been nothing at all. But with only her old solar panels to power a fully functional house with two people living in it… Well, only one now, Kirn's throat closes up with a now familiar feeling as she mentally corrects herself.

Wait. She stares at the poodle, as though he's given her an idea. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

"Of course not, you're a pink plastic poodle.

"Here's the thing puppy: we need to power this transceiver up with more energy than it has access to right now. Like, probably all the energy available for the whole house. That means no more heating, no more cooking, no more air cleaning… But that's not the worst of it. If all goes well, we find the other survivors and wait a little until the sun fills up the power station.

"But, there's a high chance that instead, we'll just end up frying up the power system for good. And we might not even get a signal from the other humans…"

Puppy returns a blank look. "Just as I thought: nothing to lose, right? Lemme redirect all the power to the transceiver… Keeping just enough for the computer to stay on… Ready. But first, I need to do one last thing."

Back in the bedroom, the air is stuffy but Ashami rests peacefully. Kirn finds her ozone jumpsuit and her air cleaning mask in the wardrobe, and puts them on. "This time I'll be out for a little more than just an excursion to beat the crap out of a drone. Also, I'm not trying to die anymore," she explains to puppy. Kirn may be weak still, but Ashami's so small that she manages to carry her in her arms to the front door. She sits her down carefully on the floor just to open the door, then takes both of them outside.

She found a shovel among the junk of the living room. Although the dirt is not particularly packed here, it's an effort to dig a decent sized hole, and Kirn is very soon out of breath. It doesn't stop her. "This is no farewell, my love, just a mere goodbye. I'm doing this for you, you know. I hope I find them, and when I do, I hope you'll be watching." She bends over the hole to kiss Ashami on the forehead, then covers it carefully, packing down so that the wind won't blow the dirt loose.

As she squeezes puppy compulsively, something pops inside. Gaze drawn away from Ashami's burial ground, she opens her palm to find the dog's head has popped off. Hidden inside it is a small controller. Confused, Kirn turns the black pad around, she's seen it somewhere. On the back is engraved the controller's model: QZ-3001. The delayed trigger button is on.

Kirn's head is turning, not from hunger this time. She rushes toward the house, stops where the pieces of the drone lay covered in dirt. Pushing the central piece with the tip of her shoe, she clears the back of the drone to reveal the small dove carved into it.

Still gripping the controller and the puppy in her hand, she stumbles into the house, up the ladder, at the desk where she left the cipher. Numbers. Let's see, what was their code again? Ah yes. Kirn doesn't have paper, but she uses the notepad on her computer to translate the message. It takes a bit of time, she's rusty, but finally there it is:

"I've always loved you, and always will. Don't lose hope."

It takes Kirn a long, long time to get up from the floor and drag herself into the desk chair. She stares at the SolarDrive graph, at the power storage rising to meet the orange line again as the sun runs its course anew, at the power reallocated to a single appliance... This could be easily reset into a power distribution adequate to survival. Next to it, another window with the radius of the transceiver and its launching button.

Weary, she wipes her face, then launches the scan.

LoveMysterySci FiShort Story
20

About the Creator

Claire Guérin

I write speculative fiction. Always looking to improve, I welcome your comments and thoughts on my stories. If you like them, consider subscribing and learn all about me here!

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Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Eye opening

    Niche topic & fresh perspectives

  2. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

  3. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

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    Zero grammar & spelling mistakes

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Comments (10)

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  • Mamsys Consulting Services Ltd2 months ago

    Great one.

  • Archie2 months ago

    Good language I like it

  • Georgenes Medeiros2 months ago

    Nice work !!!

  • 👏👏

  • Nathanial Jacob 2 months ago

    Love

  • Fred Looney2 months ago

    I usually dislike "end of the world" stories but you have left the ending open with "Hope". You story is immersive and compelling, as a geek myself who loves electronics (raspberry pi, arduino, etc), computers (a life time of programming and system design) and cyphers (the dime store variety of type printed in the Sunday newspaper) you have included many of my cravings. Thank you for a great read!

  • Melissa Ingoldsby2 months ago

    You’re quite astonishing mate keep it up 👍

  • Diara Alvarado 2 months ago

    Beautiful, beautiful.

  • Kenny Penn2 months ago

    This is such a great story of loss, loneliness, and hope. Thank you for sharing and please do keep publishing!

  • Lorelle R.2 months ago

    That has got to be one of the best opening lines I've read in a while.

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