A short story set in a near future – Internet and our societies have fallen and the law of the jungle prevails…
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2063. After the Event, communities have reformed — while the majority of the population has regrouped in a handful of megacities under lockdown, the rest are scattered across the globe and fighting for their survival. This is the story of seven survivors stuck in a bunker, in the Middle East…
Chapter 4— Aiko
Sun rises on the horizon. An everlasting bulb, an eternal energy ball that lashes out on us whenever it can. Ichirō wriggles next to me before burying his head in my hair.
- It burns my eyes. Can we go inside?
- Just a minute longer.
He hides his head in his knees to protect himself from the light. Yes, we should go back. When I focus on the sounds of the desert, I hear a violent storm coming our way. My voice is a whisper that is meant as much for Ichirō as it is for me.
- Seven minutes and three seconds.
I intend to enjoy this perfect scene while it lasts. I bring Ichirō close to me and hold him tight as I watch the dust covering up the sun rays. Very soon, this clear star will be dead for the day. The desert will cover it up with dense clouds. He snuggles in my arms gently and waits for me to fill up my batteries. I am convinced that I am, deep down, a machine built to operate on solar power.
- How long has it been, Ichirō?
- Fourteen seconds. I want to go inside.
- We still have time.
He sinks deeper in my arms without another word. Time. It is always fascinating to realize how such an ungraspable thing controls our lives. Even now, as laws and morals have disappeared along with civilization, time is still at the center of everything. Our only goal is to go through another day; we define our existence as simply letting time flow.
- Aiko? Something is not right. Do you hear it?
I let go of Ichirō and stand up suddenly. He is right, there is a new noise in the landscape. Something mechanical as far as I can tell. I crouch at the edge of the roof, calm my heartbeats and slowly look upon the orange oil on canvas before me. In the distance, there are the pale yellow eroded peaks of the mountains, then closer the rusty soil, then at our feet this red sand that winds carry everywhere. Ichirō is pressed against me. I cannot see anything out of the ordinary around the bunker, yet for some reason a shiver goes down both our spines. He pulls my shirt to force me to look down. Two minutes and twenty-three seconds. He throws away the stick and quickly erases the numbers in the ground with his feet. Ichirō does not leave marks. I take a few steps back with my eyes still fixed on the horizon. A flash of light pierces the opaque dust screen to blind me for a while. Was it an engine? My mind has already tricked me many times and it has been a long time since I have not heard any other vehicle than the jeep. Half of my brain is fighting the other to prevent it from losing itself in strange scenarios. I close my eyes to readjust the gears. There are large metal plates with too many teeth to count that run around in silence, there are big fangs on small disks that clack and drum, there are long wires in-between to connect all the parts. Here it is. Some invisible hands plug the line back and my ears instantly open wider. No, there is no engine. The only noise is the sizzling antenna on the roof.
- How long, Ichirō?
- Sixty-three seconds. Let’s go.
I take his hand and breathe in some lumpy air. Somewhere in my brain, a clock ticks. One minute. Each second that passes, each time blood is pumped into my body, I get this vague sensation I am getting closer to the truth. Ichirō heard a glimpse of what is coming. I must understand. Wires are twisting like a pack of hungry snakes. The clock starts ticking faster as my heart races. I clench at Ichirō’s shoulder. Brain is turning off. Sun overdose.
- Were you on the roof again? I’m getting tired of telling you… damn!
Adam runs to us and helps Ichirō carry me to the couch. Fresh leather gives me the chills. I stay huddled up on myself to hush the squeaking clocks.
- I told you to stop that! Ichirō, you said you’d keep her inside.
- It wasn’t his fault, Adam.
There is not enough saliva in my mouth to talk properly. My tongue is heavy, as if tons of salt have been dumped on it. The man turns to me and puts his warm hand on my neck. He heaves a deep sigh.
- How many times do I have to tell you, sweetheart? It’s not safe out there. Sun’s changed since… well, lots have changed. You can’t just go running around, alright? Aiko, look at me.
My eyes focus more or less on his face. There is sand in his hair, shadows under his eyes and no beer in his hand. That is a bizarre vision. Somewhere in the background, Piano Girl is playing softer than yesterday. Adam throws me a kind look.
- I know, you say you need it, sun is your fuel, but for Christ’s sake, just look at yourself!
I meekly look down at my patched shirt, the few bruises on my arms and the lock of hair I burnt three days ago with the soldering iron. He does not understand. This is no danger, this is research.
- Electronics are messy, I guess.
- Honey, we have enough mess as it is. Listen to your brother, don’t go on the roof tomorrow morning. Your crises are getting on my nerves.
I point a furious finger at the alcove where the recently arrived woman is laid down.
- What, and she’s allowed to do what she wants?
I regret saying it the moment it comes out, even more after Ichirō called my name so gently, yet I mean every word. This newcomer, this unknown stranger that Rick collected two days ago, how come she gets to lie in bed, sleep and rest with no one shouting at her? Some fuse bends in my brain, it nears the rupture point. I take a deep breath. Someone is putting something in my hand. I grasp the alarm clock and stare at the frozen hands. Before I can talk, Ichirō gives me a screwdriver and crouches near me, nodding at the device with a little smile.
Cogs and wheels roll under my fingers. It is a complex network, overlayed layers of circuit boards all intertwined in a well-thought ensemble. Crazy heartbeats are but a distant memory. I cannot look away from the alarm clock. Disassemble, correct, reconstruct, verify, disassemble… Click and turn, tiny gears. Click and turn, my friends.
Ding, it rings.