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Hope Grows Eternal

by Lisa VanGalen 10 months ago in Short Story
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It's the little things that count

Hope Grows Eternal
Photo by Tati y Adri on Unsplash

Grant stared across the flat, open platform. The wind generated tiny dust devils, spinning out away from the station to disappear in the grey clouds lying heavy in the distance. Little remained to break the line of sight out to the horizon, save the butte jutting high into the looming sky. The large black mass gave him a point to orient on as he turned counter-clockwise, the hatch beneath his feet an anchor, the rock formation a marker as he counted his rotations. Click.

Moving at the pace of one step every second, his rotation took twenty seconds to traverse the cleared surface of the bunker. Returning to face the butte, he counted his round, experience telling him he would be making two rounds per minute with his routine pause to scan the horizon. The hours passed slowly. Painfully slowly. Three hundred and fifty-one. Nothing new. Click.

The wind pulled at his scarf, the tight weave keeping the dirt from filling his mouth and lungs while hampering the ability to breathe. By the end of his four-hour shift, the cloth would be clogged with mud, his goggles scratched and his legs shaking from the pressure of pushing against the atmosphere. For the four thousandth time, Grant questioned his job choice. There weren't many options in this day and age, but this must be the worst occupation. In fact, he once offered to exchange with his buddy, Stan, and been laughed at. And Stan worked in the waste recycling center. Click.

Life in Underground was hard; the quarters were cramped, the food artificially grown. The high price of a glass of brackish water kept most inhabitants from drinking it. Grant hadn't tasted a sip in six years, preferring the sludge Jack served at his bar. Funny how the world came crashing down and there was still a market for a good pint. Or not so good, as it was now. Time slipped away as he marked his circuit, his memory pulling him back to the Days Before. Click.

He shook his head, his heart aching over all that had been lost. The Earth wasn't ever coming back. Humans had killed the only planet we had. Utterly destroyed it. Just look at what was left. Or try to. His goggles were nearly obliterated. Rubbing at them didn't help, the grit grinding deeper with the effort, his gloves thinning as he scrubbed. Grant didn't remember sand being so destructive. Happy memories of days at the beach, travelling for miles to reach the ocean. Sad thoughts of people lost as the world boiled. At times like these, he wondered why he was still here, why he continued to fight so hard to live. Click.

After the epidemic of 2037, the remaining populace began the task of protecting itself. Too little, too late, as they say. Doomtalkers cast about the words of Revelations and the predictions of Nostradamus, tales of the Apocalypse, and told stories of the impending demise of the planet. They were right, in the end, though their words were hollow. When the start of 2040 showed drastic declines in the fresh water levels, and higher than anticipated temperatures, he began the torturous journey north. He risked being flooded out, but it seemed like a nicer option than baking to death in his own skin. Click.

The following decade found him here, in an outpost near the Arctic. He arrived in the empty town, finding only a meagre supply of food cached by the last occupants. The thin soil in the area remained usable for a few years, until the drought crept its way north, pushing survivors ahead of it. It was helpful to have more hands to clean out the bunkers and prepare for the end of days. In the beginning, solar panels brought power into the subterranean spaces, to the pumps that provided fresh air and moved the water through the pipes to cool the machinery. Until there was no visible sun. Click.

Without plant life to hold the soil in place, and only small pockets of water to moderate the air, the wind became the dominant force. Small ground-level mills powered by the frequent gales added to their ability to sustain life beneath the surface. And then the experts arrived. Grant's tiny oasis blossomed into a hub of activity as military and government agents moved in with their plans and ideas. Almost overnight, his one-man show erupted into a disorganized colony of 'rats' and 'cats', the outpost nickname for the bosses. Click.

And Grant found himself outcast and ignored. The colony grew as more survivors followed the beacon planted on the other end of the bunker. He shrouded his eyes and peered into the dust storm to look for the tiny red light. There it was. Blink blink, blink blink. He sighed. If he had destroyed that years ago, they wouldn't be so crowded now. But he wouldn't have met Jack and Stan. Or Fatima. He also wouldn't be standing out here in a sandstorm, staring at a light in the distance, looking for god knows what. Nothing moved out there unless the wind picked it up. The trickle of survivors dried up with the last of the grass. Click.

The military hadn't been a bad addition. They arrived with machinery and tools designed to create a new base in hours. And for several years, the huts stood against the elements, giving them a topside space to visit, to breathe new air even if it was dust-laden. Until the repair supplies ran out and they were forced to abandon the buildings, leaving them to blow away with the rest of the debris that remained of humanity's existence. In the meantime, below the earth, the camp expanded like an ant colony, the tunnels reinforced and lit as they went. And then they found the cavern and the whole thing changed. Click.

Three hundred and sixty. Only another hour to go.

He remembered how crisp and clear the water was to begin with, the way it must have been in the time of the dinosaurs. Humans have such a way about them, screwing up the best of things. First, the military claimed it under the finders/keepers' law of survival. Then the power 'cats' got involved. If there is a way to make money, they'll figure it out. Grant knew the massive subterranean lake held enough water for everyone. Trust a scientist to calculate the contents and create the fear of scarcity. Click.

Now, water was a commodity, not a right. There were children here who had never enjoyed the sensation of a cool drink of icy water sliding down their throats. He shook off the memory, craving one himself. The thought of beads of sweat forming on a frosted glass tickled his mind, his lips drying further as he licked them in anticipation. Reaching into his pocket, he fingered the coin bits, counting the last of his reserve. Just enough for a pint at Jack's, if he was willing to go without a meal. His stomach protested. It would be an internal battle. Would he give up his ration for a swallow of crystalline water? This line of thinking set his brain to boiling, the crazies making his skin itch. He struggled to hold off the hallucinations so many succumbed to after living beneath the earth for months at a time. Click.

It was why he chose to stand on the steel plate above the colony, to walk for hours and stare out into oblivion. His vision of survival constantly changed, from simply existing to providing shelter to those lost in the storms. The beacon blinked into the clouds, lighting the way for any still wandering the wilds of the planet. His eyes were tired, the final hour the hardest. Peering through the goggles, Grant strained to see something, anything. As he focused on the butte, the wind abated. The dust settled. His body relaxed for the first time in hours. Click.

Dusk approached, the gloom deepening. With no visible representation of the sun, only the light levels gave a clue to the time of day. The clouds rolled overhead, a singular shade of grey, never heavy enough to rain. The cycle was broken. Maybe, somewhere else, life-giving water fell on the parched earth. But without a clear destination, looking for it would be suicide. And after all this time, he was not heading down that path.

Gently, the wind began its evening moan, the speed increasing as it moved past him, not to return to its daytime force, but powerful enough to lift his scarf and dislodge the dust. Grant coughed as he inhaled the particles, tears filling his eyes as he cleared his throat. Bending over with his back to the wind, he dragged in a ragged breath, clawing at the cloth to make more room. The interruption had taken him off track and messed up his timing. His body rocked with tremors as he struggled to breathe. Grant dropped to his knees, shrouding his face while he loosened the scarf. He needed to risk exposure to the blowing sand in order to inhale. For the first time, the claws of claustrophobia clung to his mind. He was beginning to crack. First, the dreams about drinking a tall glass of ice-cold water and now his memory displayed images of open skies over fields of grass, meadows full of fresh flowers. What he wouldn't give to smell just a single rose, anything other than dirt, dust, and people.

The episode passed. He hoped the cracks were tiny ones, easily repaired if he stopped wishing for the impossible. Grant adjusted his scarf, his face concealed once more. No one needed to know about his lapse. He laughed. Until his replacement opened the hatch, he was the only living thing for miles. He spun about, making sure of his assessment. One delusion could lead to another. Back to the path, turn left, walk, turn, walk, turn. Click.

A gust pulled at his sleeve as he stared at the butte, barely discernible in the failing light. Briefly, Grant thought he saw a lightening of the clouds overhead before they reformed into their customary thick layer of batting. Delusions. Around again. Click.

Only the constant movement of the guards kept the surface from disappearing into the desert. Even brief pauses gave the earth time to settle and build. Shuffling his feet kicked up the residue collected during his tour. Grant pushed the sand aside as he went, encouraging the piles to leave with the wind. From behind his dirt-encrusted goggles, he spotted an anomaly. It wasn't dirt. He crouched to grab the tiny fragment, afraid to crush it. If this was an illusion, he was headed for the sickbay. If not, his world was about to change. Again.

Grant stood, his hands cupped together, wonder filling him. At the edge of the sky, a faint ring of red appeared before plunging the world into night. In the near dark, the beacon shone brighter, visible in between the swatches of dust. A herald for the lost.

Standing beneath the vastness of the Universe, Grant allowed himself to dream. To dream of a world returning to life. Of a planet with fresh water and green grass. And flowers. He pulled his scarf aside and bent his head to inhale the delicate fragrance of the drying blossom. He couldn't see in the dim light, but he knew in his heart it would be the brightest of yellows. It had to be real. It had to be living to be so fresh. Even wilted, the marigold held its scent, the fragile petals hanging on despite the wicked wind. Looking west, Grant smiled, the sand buffeting his skin. It did not matter. He had survived this long, one minute of exposure wouldn't kill him. It couldn't. He had a field of flowers to find.

Short Story

About the author

Lisa VanGalen

I am a panster by nature, discovering my characters as they reveal themselves. To date, my novel writing has involved the paranormal or magick within a more familiar setting, blending it with mysteries, police procedurals, or thrillers.

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