Short Story The Caldera

New Short: The Caldera

As promised on my Facebook page, here is a short story.  I needed a little break from my programming and stuff and an escape into fiction was a good one.  As an added bonus this story takes place in the world I’ve imagined for my first major game release.  That game is a long way off but the story is right here.

If you want a PDF copy with the added benefit of supporting the author (me) copies are available over in the Store along with other shorts and my books.

The Caldera

Awake. The alarm still goes off, at the same time as always.  Life still marches onward.  She hauls herself out of bed, a process that is getting harder and harder every day it seems.

They say that there are no risks in going outside, not from the air at least.  She doesn’t believe that, not based on how she feels every day.  Although the rationing could be part of that.  She remembers feeling healthy and alive, even if that was more than a decade ago.

Breakfast is a meager energy bar from the issued ration packs. Fresh food is a distant memory, she must have been a teenager the last time she had a bite of something that was naturally grown.  Now it’s just a mix of different bars and pastes.

Based on her size, metabolism, job and level of activity the government has issued a set number of calories for her.  That number gets smaller and smaller every day it seems.  The same can be said for the effect the government has.  Every day the local protection force takes more and more.  Skirmishes with the army happen on the edge of the city constantly.

Things are falling apart, but they’ve been falling apart since the eruption.  She just wants to make it through the day and keep moving toward the plan.

Every day is like that.  Make it though, survive, and try to reach the promise.

It was a rumor at first, then a reality, before sinking back to rumor.  A place not affected by the eruption.  A place where the sky is still blue, a place where food is plentiful and the people are free.

When you talked to people about it they said it was just wishful thinking, just people trying to escape reality.  People believed it at one time, but that was a long time ago, in the chaos known as the aftermath.  The time before things got back under control.

She thought that way too, until a year ago.  A year ago, when she met the man at the bar, Paul he said is name was although it was probably a lie.  He told her that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, which was also probably a lie.

The bars were technically illegal, drinking was a waste of resources that could no longer be abided by, but they were overlooked for the most part.  There were more important things to worry about.  She used to hang out at the bars a lot back then, meeting new people, new guys, every night.  Trying to escape this world through drunken pleasure.

Then Paul came along.  He was like all the others at first.  He didn’t leave after though, and she didn’t want him to.

She called in sick to work the next day.  That day was the best she had in her life, at least since the eruption.

It wasn’t that he was particularly attractive, he was actually closer to the side of ugly.  He wasn’t even that good in bed.  There was something about him though, something that had her falling for him before she even knew what was happening.

She didn’t try to fight it, despite the promise she had made to herself after loosing Jeremy.  It felt good to finally feel somewhat normal.  To finally feel what being human was supposed to feel like.

She never knew what he did for a living, or why he had to leave, why he never came back.  Before he left he told her something though, something that stuck.

The paradise was real.  A place tucked into the mountains in Nepal, impossible to access on foot.  There was one way there though, a way known only by a select few.  It was where the rich had disappeared to, where those in positions of power had vanished to and he knew about it.

She would have thought he was crazy if it weren’t for the pictures and the guide on how to get there.  He told her he had to leave for work and that she needed to try and reach this place.  That he would do the same.  There was no guarantee they would ever meet again but if they did it would be in this paradise.

The best part about it was that they would let people in if they managed to get there.  Only those in the know could find this place and it relied on a steady trickle of newcomers to keep existing.  He knew they would take her in if she managed to get there.

Since that day it had been her one goal, the only thing that mattered.  Before she had worked to earn money in order to spend more time out of her mind on drugs, booze and sex.  Now she had a purpose, a reason to go to work and keep earning.

It would take a lot to get there but a distant goal was better than no goal.  So she kept getting up, kept risking leaving her building and kept pushing toward that goal.

There was a nagging part of her that told her it was just another rumor, that Paul had just been crazy, that she was going crazy for believing her, but things had been going a lot better since she had started toward this goal.  Even if it was crazy at least it was something. It was better than spending every day toiling away just to party it all away.

Leaving her apartment into the graffiti filled hallway was a risk.  She would check the peephole then slowly open the door, looking up and down the hall for any signs of movement.  Most of the lights had burnt out and this made for a lot of dark corners to hide in.

Getting killed during a mugging was now one of the leading causes of death in the city.  Most police had been pressed into service for the state army in controlling the riots and uprisings, the ones who hadn’t were too busy to focus on the day to day crime.

She carried a snub nosed .38 revolver with her everywhere.  A chrome piece that Jeremy had managed to steal in the early days of the chaos.  It had already saved her life once.  It was rare to survive without having killed someone.  She didn’t regret it.

The hall was clear, the elevators didn’t run though.  She took the stairs, holding the gun in one hand as she slowly moved down the dark stairwell.

The building was mostly abandoned but she insisted on living higher up despite the risk and added time it took her to get to her apartment.  The height made her feel safe, there wasn’t much of a view any more though.  The ash filled sky sat low.

A lot of people died in the first year.  The ash strangling the weak, the lack of food and government planning killing more.  The plague that followed that winter took out the rest.  The eruption would have caused the extinction of the human species had it happened even twenty years earlier.  Luckily, thanks to advances in lab grown food there was the ability to sustain the few that remained.

People congregated in the empty skeletons that had once been cities and life struggled on, trying to remain normal under the darkened sky.  Trying to act like things would get better if only people could keep working and earning money.

That was one of the benefits for survivors, she was now making more than she had ever made.  Not that it meant much.  Rent was free, most people were technically squatting but with most of the city sitting empty it was hard to enforce mandatory rent.

The only purpose of money now was to keep up the façade of normalcy.  It was also easier than bartering.  With enough money one could buy extra rations.  People survived on the bare minimum and sold the rest.

That was what she was doing, she needed to keep saving the extra.

Getting over to Nepal would not be cheap.  Ocean travel was still possible, boats still ran for the limited trade that occurred.  Goods were still manufactured, people still bought electronics and clothing made in other countries.  She would have to take the long way though.

The Pacific coast was gone, uninhabitable, buried under ash and sulfur.  The air poison.  She had seen the footage from the drones they had sent in to survey the damage.  The loss of life on that side of the continent, everything West of Manitoba, was beyond counting.  She sometimes imagined the bodies, skeletons now, buried over there.  Buried by the eruption that had killed them.

Walking to work she put the gun in her pocket but still held it.  Her jacket had pockets large enough for this.  It was August and the temperature outside was closer to that of mid January.  It was always cold now, the only difference between Winter and Summer was how cold.  Feeling the heat from the sun was something else she missed, almost more than real food.

Work was the same as it had been since she had started.  Money still moved through the economy, sluggishly but it still moved, and that was what she worked at doing.  Financial Services was the old title for the industry, now it was more akin to financial fakery.  So many jobs seemed to exist solely to keep up an appearance of normalcy, an appearance that the government had it all under control.

She couldn’t complain though; this job was her ticket out of here.  So she kept at it, kept grinding.  It was easier now that she had a reason, a real reason.

After the blast so many people lost all meaning, that was why there had been so much chaos.  That was why things had fallen apart.  It was hard to keep moving when half the country disappeared over night, but it was that or give up.

By the time the government was able to regain some kind of control people were actually relieved.  Martial law was better than the chaos that had been before.  The transition had been painful, but it tended toward peace and that was what people were craving then.

It was amazing how fast people had grouped up, how fast gangs of revolutionaries had formed and started to fight one another in the power vacuum.  That was what the main focus was on now, regaining the power that the chaos had removed.

Her way to work involved two checkpoints.  Hard to believe that these were a welcome addition to life, amazing how something that was a hallmark of dictatorships before the eruption was now a sign of progress.  They were just checking for bombs and known Subversives, people were allowed to carry their own firearms though, an admission by the government that personal protection was still beyond its scope.

Keeping people fed was one of the most difficult things.  Food had become what gold and oil once were.  Convoys of food moved under heavy guard and the militias tried to raid them regularly. To control the food was to control the population.

She wondered what the end game was, the labs that made the food were government run, hidden and guarded, even if one of the warring militias gained control the act of making food would still be beyond them.

These were questions she tried not to think about though, questions that would no longer matter.

The day in the office was as long and depressing as any other day.  Her company had once been a large one, employing over three thousand people.  Now it was reduced to a single floor in one of the few office buildings that were still in use.  The other building sitting as ruins soon to be.

Everyone was silent in the office.  There was not a lot of socialization any more, people too shell shocked to spend time chatting.  There was nothing to talk about anymore, nothing that didn’t raise painful memories.

She sometimes liked to imagine how her co-workers had survived, how many people they had had to kill in the chaos.  The dumpy looking guy down the hall, the secretary who looked like she couldn’t climb a flight of stairs.  The fact they were still here was a mystery to her, the outcasts and out of shape had been the first to fall in the chaos.

It’s after the second checkpoint on her way home that it happens.  With the blackened sky the dark hits a lot sooner than it used to, even in the summer.  Walking home was always a risk and today it didn’t work out her way.

The barrel of the gun in her back and the iron grip grabbing her arm, the one she had holding the revolver in her pocket.

“Keep walking and you might survive this,” the hoarse voice in her ear.

It was not the first time she had been robbed.  Once during the chaos, he had taken the food, an apple and can of soup.  Where he had gone wrong was when he tried to take more, when he had ripped her pants off, smacked her and gone for his own pants.

While tangled in his jeans, the gun pointing away from her, she had shot him.  Then she shot him again and again, taking the food back and spitting on his corpse.

This time would be different, she could feel it.  This guy was not an amateur, the way he held her arm, the steadiness of his voice.  Some people worked for a living and some stole, it was her bad luck to run into the latter.

“Walk home, I’ll know you’re lying when I see the place so make sure to pick the right one or it’s over for you,” he said.

The gun was in her spine, a shot there would leave her paralyzed, something worse than being dead.  There were not a lot of concessions for the disabled, not anymore.

She made her way home, knowing that the other shadows they encountered wouldn’t move to help.  It was still an everyone for themselves world.  She thought of trying to fight back, but it wasn’t the right time, not yet.  She was still at too much of a disadvantage.

By the time they reached her apartment, after the flights of stairs she had climbed every day, he was a little winded.  It would be her chance soon, she just needed to get the gun off her back.

“Open the door,” he demanded.

She unlocked it, wishing she had a dog, some animal that would help.  Instead it was the same empty, slightly dank apartment that she had come home to every day since the chaos had ended.

“All the money, all the food, now,” he shouted.  He knew they were alone up here, not that it mattered.

As she stumbled around the apartment gathering her hard-earned money, handing it over, he kept the gun on her.  It was becoming a choice now.  Take a chance and go to shoot him or just let him take everything.

She kept waiting for an opportunity.  Not feeling defeated, not yet.  She actually surprised herself with how calm she felt at all this.  Watching so much money, so much work, be taken.

With the last handful of cash, she waited for him to make a move.  Waited for him to make the same mistake as that first mugger had made back in the chaos.

Instead he turned and ran, leaving her stunned and confused.  It took her a second to pull the gun out but in that second he was gone, sprinting down the stairs she gave chase.  He was fast though, and she hadn’t been eating that much, selling rations for cash that was now getting away.

By the time she was back outside he was out of sight and earshot.  Down one of the many side streets or alleys.  There was no catching him.

Years of work, years of sacrifice.  A dream.  All gone.

Her coat was back in the apartment.  All she had on was her work shirt and pants.  A gun in her hands and an empty apartment.

There was nothing now.  By the time she managed to even recover from this she would be too late.  As much as they wanted to tell her otherwise she knew that living in the ash was killing her.  Soon there would be bloody coughing, then trouble breathing then one day she wouldn’t get out of bed and that would be the end.

That was not how this was going to end, not for her.  With the gun in her hand she started walking into the bitter dark.

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