Alan awakens to a cold wind. The sweat beads that cover him bring him chills. Fading images left over from his night terrors dance behind his eyes. He squeezes his eyes shut tight in an attempt to blink them away. His head is killing him. It’s becoming a regular thing now. Every day a hammer slams repeatedly on his temple. He thinks it’s going to drive him crazy.
Sitting up, he spots David sitting in front of a crudely constructed fire. Alan watches the man. He doesn’t seem to even know that any eyes are on him. His back is to Alan. He rubs his hands together over the fire he threw together. Alan shakes his head, watching him. He can’t figure out how David has survived this long.
Shaking off a chill, Alan stands up. Stepping over the stones, rubble, and remnants of what once was, Alan makes his way to David and the warmth of the fire. “You’re awake,” David says, glancing up at him.
Alan just nods. “I’m going out again tonight,” he says taking a seat in the dirt, across from the other man.
“Where this time?” David asks. His tone used to be just uninterested. Now it bares inflections of annoyance.
“There’s a cave west of here, past the dump site. I have to see where it leads.”
David buries his face in his hands. He massages the growing tension from his eyes. He doesn’t need another headache. He’s been getting them every day lately. “Unless you think there might be food in this cave, I don’t see the point.”
Alan puts his fist to his mouth. He stares off at the landscape. It wouldn’t be as bad, he thinks, if there was nothing left, but that’s not the case. He is never allowed to forget. Everywhere he looks, in every direction, there are scattered pieces of civilization. The carnage is a daily reminder of all that he’s lost. How can he just start over, and worry about surviving? How can he worry about what he’s going to eat, surrounded by this devastation? He can’t. He doesn’t know how David does it. If he didn’t think that he’d go crazy with no one to talk to, he would have left on one of his explorations and never come back to this campsite they’ve set up. The conversations are becoming less fulfilling with each new day. He’s beginning to not care about the luxury of having company any more. All he cares about, is getting far enough to see what else is out there, to see if anyone else has survived. It’s been so long since he’s seen anyone other than David. His flame of hope has almost been extinguished.
“I know it’s been a long time, too long, since we’ve had anything real to eat,” Alan says, making eye contact with David. “Maybe there will be food there. I am hungry too. Don’t think I’m not. I just… I know there’s others out there somewhere. If we can find more people in this… this… twisted landscape of memories, maybe we really can start over.”
David stands up quickly, too quickly. The blood rushes to his head. He wobbles a bit, light headed. When he regains composure, he gestures around him with both arms. “Are you still asleep? This is it. It’s all gone Alan. Everything, and everyone we knew is gone. It’s been thirty years since the death of our world. Now unless you plan to lie down and die, we need to make the best out of this new world. We need to find where we can go to get food, and shelter when it rains. We can’t spend our days searching for people that aren’t there. If we do, we will join them in the afterlife Alan. I personally, am not willing to do that.”
Alan jumps to his feet. He storms past David, and marches over to his stuff. He keeps a blanket and some things he’s gathered in his searches. “What’s the point?” he says back to the other man. “Giving up hope, to live like this is pointless. This is not living. I’m going to that cave. If you want to come, then follow me. If you don’t, then… well… don’t.”
Alan digs out the map that he has worked hard on for years. He adds to it every day when he gets back, jotting down what he has found. He has a record of miles in every direction. He stands up and points to a spot on the map. “Here,” he says. “The cave is here.”
With a sigh, David approaches him. He’s not going to argue. He doesn’t want to fight with the only other person alive. “Let’s go,” he says.
With a nod, Alan grabs a rusted section of pipe he uses as a walking stick and sets off. The whole area is littered with pieces of buildings and cars, homes, and those that didn’t make it. It’s a giant obstacle course. David is younger than Alan. He was only a kid when the world was destroyed. He is in much better shape, and doesn’t need a walking stick to cross the rough terrain.
Alan stops in his tracks after what feels like hours. He’s not sure. He hasn’t seen a clock in decades. “What is it?” David asks from behind him.
“It’s just always hard when we get to this point.” Alan frowns. He chokes down a sob, but he can’t keep the tears from escaping his eyes. He won’t turn around. He doesn’t want David to see his tears. He sighs, and begins to make his way forward, one step at a time. They are at the dump site. When They came, and destroyed the world Alan loved, They picked certain areas to dispose of the dead. This place is the largest unorthodox cemetery that Alan has seen. The bodies are piled high in every direction. There are so many. So much death. They are not much more than skeletons now, but if he strains hard he can see them all as he saw them when the devastation first occurred. With a deep breath, he picks up his speed. Now he’s gotten over his moment of grief, and the creepiness of the area has set in. He just wants to get through it and out, and fast.
“You alright?” David asks him.
“Fine. I’m fine.”
That is the end of the conversation. There is not another word said. The sun comes up, and both men are still crossing the cursed valley of death. At least the sun takes away the sting of the night breeze. Alan’s body aches, and begs him to stop, but he won’t, not this time.
“Is that it?” David breaks the silence, and reaches his arm past Alan pointing forward.
“Yes. That’s it.”
What used to be an ancient and beautiful forest of trees, is now as much a cemetery as the land they just crossed through. The vegetation didn’t fare any better than the humans. Neither did the animals. Both men have feared starvation for some time now, but Alan doesn’t like to discuss it as often as David would like to.
Just past the threshold of the one-time forest, lies an opening in the ground. The first time Alan found it, when he was by himself, he initially thought it was caused by an explosion, but further inspection told him that it was dug by men. During the death of the world, there must have been someone that thought they could tunnel underground to stay safe. Being as all Alan found inside was a shattered skull he can imagine whoever dug the hole did not fair as well as they had hoped.
“We walked all night for this. Let’s go in,” David says.
Alan doubles over, resting his hands on his thighs. He pants heavily. “Not yet,” he says. “I need to rest.”
“There could be food in there,” David tells him. “I’m going in.”
“So go,” Alan says. “I’ll catch up to you.” He doesn’t tell the other man that he knows exactly what is down there already. He has a plan. He’s going to succeed in finding others and restarting civilization, with David’s help.
With a nod, David drops down into the hole. Alan waits a couple of minutes. Then he follows behind him. Just as he was at the fire last night, David pays no attention to what’s behind him. Alan approaches as quietly as he can, and raises his pipe. He brings it down swiftly on the back of David’s head. The man doesn’t even cry out. He just crumples to the floor, like his batteries ran out. Alan slams the pipe down a few more times to make sure the job is done. “Now I’ve got food and shelter from the rain,” he says to David.
He feels bad that he had to take a life, but there was no other option. He is willing to deal with the guilt. His cause is noble. David was hopeless anyway. If Alan didn’t do it, they would have both died soon enough. Alan has his map as proof that there is no food for miles in any direction. Starvation was inevitable. The thought of eating a human being disgusts him, but he’ll have to find a way to deal with it.
After his first meal in what feels like forever, his stomach twists and turns, angry with him. He grimaces as he struggles to keep the food from rising back up. He can’t afford to get sick. His food is limited. He will camp out here for now and venture further in every direction, updating his map with his discoveries. He is excited about exploring new areas. He is confident that the source of hope he’s dreamt about for thirty years is out there. He will find it. Unable to calm the anger of his stomach, he rests on the cave bottom. The ground is cold and uncomfortable, but he is in no place to complain. He survived the death of the world.
It doesn’t take long for Alan to fall into a deep sleep and drift back to his nightmare memories of the day They arrived. He sees in his mind’s eye the destruction of his world, like it happened yesterday. As he has everyday, for the past three decades, he wakes up shivering, laced with cold sweat, as the visions still dance a maudlin ballet in his head.
He does his best to shake them off, and gets to his feet. He contemplates trying to eat some more, but decides it best to save the little bit of food he now has for when he’s really hungry. He will live longer that way, even if his stomach never forgives him. He grabs his walking stick that served it’s purpose as a messenger of death, and tosses it up out of the man-made cave. The he finds secure handholds and hoists himself out. Retrieving the pipe, he heads out into unknown territory.
It all starts to look the same to him after awhile, nothing but broken memories everywhere. This depresses him. He can’t think like that. He just hasn’t gone far enough yet. He pushes onward, his muscles straining, and aching with the effort. Eventually, he comes to an area scattered with fallen buildings. One by one, he explores each, and every time, he comes up empty handed. The only thing he finds is more death and destruction.
He starts to feel beaten. He plops himself down on the ground. Maybe David was right all along. Maybe they were the only ones left, and if that’s true, than he is now alone. With no one to hide it from anymore, he lets the sobs come. He screams, and shakes, and cries his heart out. He releases years worth of pain that he had been bottling up inside. Then he sees it. He forces his tears to halt their passage, and wipes his nose with his left arm. He wipes his eyes dry with his right, to assure that he can see clearly. There it is again. Up ahead, in the distance, a light shines. Light means life.
In an instant, he is up on his feet and running. He leaves his pipe behind, and takes off, hurdling obstacles, like he is young again. He is rejuvenated by hope. He did it. He found others. After all these years, all these lonely years, he finally found them.
The source of the light seems an impossible distance away. His legs burn and threaten to give out but he refuses to let them. He pumps his arms, his breathing labored. His foot catches on the rib of one of those that didn’t make it and he tumbles forward to the ground. He hits hard sending a shock of pain through his own bones, but he is immediately up and running again.
There it is. He’s made it. He comes skidding to a halt in front of a huge glistening structure. It shines like metal, but looks like flesh, veins coursing through it. On the top of the living metal structure, there is a blinking beacon, the source of the light he saw. His legs finally give out on him. He falls to his knees, and struggles painfully to catch his breath. It seems an impossible task.
He looks up at the source of the light, and tears make their way back into his eyes. His eyes burn with their arrival. He knows this place, or at least others like it. He’s seen it before, a long time ago. That was when he saw it in person, but he has seen it every night in his tortured dreams. This can’t be. They all left after they killed his world. They swept through, destroying everything in their path, and were gone again, just like that. Yet, right here in front of him stands one of their vessels. No.
A door opens in the giant pulsing metal structure. Out of the passage come three men, if they are men. They stand as tall as the trees that once inhabited this world. Their flesh is as black as ink, and shines like chrome. Aside from the glowing amber of their eyes, they are void of color. They look to Alan like shadows with the features of men.
“The beacon lured another one,” one of them says. They learned the languages of this planet as quickly as children learn playground rhymes. They needed to express the hopelessness of the situation to the planet’s inhabitants so they would understand. They are merciless, wicked creatures, and Alan is spent. His body doesn’t have the strength to get up and run again. This is the end of the line for him. It was all for nothing. Thirty years. Thirty years he survived, and for what? He starts to wish he had died with the world.
“We still can not leave,” another of the shadow men says. “We can not move on until every last one of them has been disposed of. There are still others lurking about.”
Alan’s eyes grow wide. His mouth drops open. What did that thing just say? There are others. He was right all along. They weren’t the only ones. There are people alive out there somewhere. He starts to laugh. His laughter becomes hysterical. The shadow men glide to him, and he doesn’t even see them move. It doesn’t matter. He can’t stop laughing. Their long dark arms reach out for him, but he just laughs. Their hands clutch him, their fingers digging in deep, and he laughs, and laughs, and laughs, as they steal his life. With one last burst of hysterical laughter, Alan joins his world.