The city has been destroyed by a blast of deadly noise. Can Fen and Ginger survive?
I was sitting with my girlfriend, Ginger, in a trendy cafe on 101st Street called Ringers. It was the favorite trysting place for our carefully synchronized coffee breaks, the place where we could share a stolen ten minutes before rushing back to our separate cubicles in different buildings. We were sequestered in our usual booth, tucked away on the second level, off to the side and above the door and windows.
During our conversation, we had gradually become aware of a rhythmic noise superimposed on the restaurant chatter and muzak, a sort of triple drum beat, ba-da-boom, ba-da-boom, like distant thunder. It swelled to the point where the cafe conversation stilled.
"What is that, Fen?"
Ba-da-Boom. Ba-da-BOOM. The noise grew, the storm moving closer, the rumbling deepening, a tsunami of sound building to overwhelming proportions like a hundred thunderstorms pounding in a symphonic tumult.
Ba-da-BOOM! BA-DA-BOOM! The windows rattled, the floor shook. Our coffee mugs jittered across the table. My teeth vibrated and my bones shook within my flesh. At a sudden impulse, I threw myself at Ginger and covered her with my body. She pressed her face against my shoulder and we shuddered together on the bucking leatherette bench.
BA-DA-BOOM. At that final clap, my hearing shut down. Startled, I opened my eyes to see the cafe windows implode in a silent shower of crystal shards and pink mist as the people seated up front were shredded by flying glass. I hastily turned my head but still heard faint screams of pain and shrieks of terror. Tucked away in our back booth, Ginger and I had been protected from the worst of the shattered windows, but still spicules of glass and gobbets of red spattered against us.
"Wzzmph mpflt," Ginger murmured into my shoulder. I let her go and started to brush the slivers of glass and spatters of gore off my suit jacket, only to realize that I was slashing my hand. "What happened?" Ginger sputtered. "What was that?" She began to cry. She sounded fifty metres away.
Obviously my hearing was returning, yet I was puzzled by the quiet. I realized that the world had gone silent. It was not just my damaged ears. There was no musak playing. There was no traffic noise coming through the shattered windows. I could hear only my heavy panicked breathing and the thumping of my heart, the distant shrieks and cries of the wounded in the cafe, and Ginger's shuddering sobs.
We stood up and I used our napkins to brush away glass and crud from our clothes, and Ginger combed them out of our hair. She had some minor cuts on her bare legs but we were otherwise unhurt. Through some miracle or quirk of fate, we had been the only ones on the elevated section off to the side and the only ones not cut to ribbons.
We walked to the front of the restaurant, steeling ourselves as best we could. As we passed the kitchen door I popped my head in--empty; I guessed that the staff had left by a rear entrance. We edged past the people at the back of the cafe, bleeding out and crying to us for help. But both of us chucked our coffee before we'd gone ten feet, when we saw the writhing slabs of raw meat in what remained of the window seats. Retching and gagging on the smell of blood and bowels, we squeezed through what was left of the door into the street. Once there, we immediately turned away, our stomachs wrenching in dry heaves. Ginger came to me and again buried her face against my chest.
"Oh, my God! Oh, shit. Oh, Fen, all those poor people!" I buried my face in her hair. My thoughts echoed her words.
Pedestrians had been flattened to the sidewalks or mashed against buildings, and blood pooled and ran in the gutters. Everywhere we looked, the windows in the tall office buildings had been imploded as high as we could see and as far in every direction. Traffic lights were dark. Neon building signs were out. All the cars had crushed roofs as though they had been pounded with sledge hammers, and were piled up against buildings and onto each other like children's toys, their windows burst in, their occupants clearly dead. The cars that were unentangled seemed to have stalled on the spot, their passengers slashed by flying glass.
How strange, I thought. There was no sign of smoke, of fire, of explosives. How had that incredible burst of noise been able to do so much damage?
As I gazed around, dumbfounded, I notice another dazed survivors creeping out for a similar survey. She was shaking her head and poking at her headphones, clearly still deafened. She had that vacant air of disbelief that I felt in myself. I mean, what the fuck was that?
"Ginger, what are we going to do? We're late for work. What am I talking about, we probably don't even have jobs to go back to. Do you want to go see what's happened at Pettifor?"
"Fennec, I love you but sometimes you're an idiot." She pulled out her phone and glanced at it. "Dead. Nothing. This is bad. Mega bad. Do you think this happened only on our little block in our little city? Or do you think this might be bigger? Maybe world-wide?"
I checked my phone: dead. A chill ran down my spine like an ice cube.
"No way to tell. But, yes, we're in trouble. Look -- No cars running."
"No cell service."
"Probably no radio or TV."
"No water. No sewer system. No toilets."
My numbed mind took a few minutes to reach the obvious solution: no civilization.
"No fire department. No police service. No sewer service. Maybe no municipal water supply."
"No refrigeration. Food will spoil quickly. I wonder if the gas is still on to cook. Or to pool and explode when electric ignitors don't work."
We looked at each other in growing horror. "How long before the city is unliveable, Ginger? A few days for bodies to rot? How long before whoever's left starts to riot and raid? They won't even have to break in. The windows are gone."
"Lets go to your place. All our touring gear is there, and our bikes. If cars don't run, we can still ride out of the city."
"To where? It's only 34 miles to the next town. We could check to see if it's like this."
"But what if it is? What if it's all like this?"
"My grandpa's cabin. It's way out in the boonies, buried in the bush. A few days' ride. I haven't been there since before his funeral this spring, but it should still be okay."
"But still with no power or water?"
"Gramps was a survivalist. The cabin has a wood stove, there's a hand pump in the well, and he collected hand tools. Big garden, root cellar. Guns and traps for hunting. Kerosene lanterns."
"Maybe we could see if we can survive here, first."
Far away, easy to hear in the unusual silence of a normally busy city, came a triple drum beat, ba-da-boom, ba-da-boom, like distant thunder.
We walked holding hands, not for romance but for reassurance, a need to anchor each other in a forgotten reality while we dodged bodies and pools of blood. We scrambled around cars and in one intersection with a multi-car pileup we had to clamber over several, turning our eyes from the carnage inside. Cars. Carnage. You sicko, this is no time for puns, I chastised myself.
My apartment building was like all the rest: windows imploded but otherwise unharmed. Of course, the elevator didn't work, and I cursed myself for living on the 17th floor. But we encountered no damage in the stairwell, nor other people.
Ginger and I were fit from cycling, walking, and youth, but still we were winded when we left the stairwell on seventeen. I unlocked my apartment and we went in.
Wind whistled through the open windows, singing past the remaining shards of glass, a flute-like dirge celebrating the death of the city. Behind the flute was the tympanic ba-da-boom of destruction.
"You grab the panniers," suggested Ginger, "and I'll raid the kitchen for whatever you've got."
I hauled out our touring gear and laid it on the floor in the hall. I included sleeping mats and bags, but left our lightweight tent. "What about clothes, Ginge?"
"I can wear your stuff if I have to, especially shorts. And we can stop on the way out and buy some extra freeze-dried food and I'll need a warm jacket for fall. By the way, there's no water from the kitchen tap but you have bottled water we'll take. Was your grandpa your size?"
"A little bigger. Why?"
"He'll have clothes there that we can use. Depending on what happens, we might not be able to come back to the city to equip." That was my smart lady, already planning six months down the road.
We both used the toilet and the tank had enough for one last flush. The end of modern sanitation, I thought, going down the drain.
With the panniers and our arms loaded, we staggered back down the stairs. It was almost as exhausting as going up. Our bikes were in a basement lockup. And wouldn't you know it, a stalled Volkswagen Jetta was right up against the lockup door. The driver's door was open, the driver slumped and bleeding from the ears.
"Oh, jeez, Louse!" From Ginger, that was real swearing. We dumped our stuff in a heap and pulled the driver out. She hopped into the car and put it in neutral, then helped me push it out of the way.
Once I had the lock open, I pulled our bikes out. We attached the panniers, stowed gear in the handlebar bags and on the rear racks, and wheeled our bikes up the exit ramp to the door. Which, of course, wouldn't open because there was no power. And there was no man-door. So we unloaded the bikes, trucked everything back up to the foyer, went back down, hauled the bikes up, got everything outside and loaded up again.
"We haven't pedalled a stroke, and I'm exhausted!" Ginger leaned against her bike. "Okay, Fen, what's the plan?"
"We head out on Highway 39 west towards Grandpa's place."
"That takes us past a sporting goods store. We'll stop there to equip. Load up a backpack each of freeze dried food and bag up a bunch more. Plus strike-anywhere matches, flint and steel, anything else that might be useful."
"The hell of it is, we don't even know what it is we're running from. Is it an alien invasion? A natural event? A Russian attack?" We listened to the distant rumble, ba-da-boom! It seemed to be moving west, which was scary because that was the way we were heading.
"Whatever, we need to be out of here. Those bodies will start to rot, there's no water, toilets won't work and there'll be some serious public health issues."
The sports store was in a mini-mall, and we watched in astonishment as a steady line of laughing looters hauled out huge TVs, toaster ovens, stereos, all kinds of luxury consumer electronics, not one of which would work when they got it home. Others were toting multi-packs of toilet paper (for toilets that wouldn't flush) or diapers (sensible) or anything they could carry.
We locked our bikes and headed for Super Sports. People were looting there--taking knives, hunting bows, hatchets and the like from smashed cases--but we ignored each other. We snagged four good daypacks and stuffed them with freeze-dried food. Ginger added powdered milk, pancake pre-mix, hurricane matches, and a flint/steel fire starting kit. As she walked past a clothes rack she lifted a three-layer jacket. It fit, and she kept it on.
On the way out of the store, we almost collided with a guy whose arms were full of rolled up sleeping mats. One bounced out of his grip.
"Fuck off, assholes," he snarled, and pushed me out of his way to charge out the door ahead of us. Ginger and I looked at each other and shrugged. We had no idea what he wanted them for.
"Maybe he's setting up a homeless shelter?" I wondered.
"Maybe he's sleeping on a pea and needs more layers," Ginger laughed. Another reason why I love that woman.
Each burdened with a daypack on chest and back, we mounted our overloaded bikes and struggled to get moving. Gear down and grunt.
It was not an easy trip out of town. We stayed on walkways and bike paths, which allowed us to bypass most of the stalled and smashed vehicles on the roads, but we still had to work our way through intersection mazes. We stopped in a green space near the edge of town to relieve ourselves, which felt like a violation of some sort.
All the houses we passed had smashed windows, but we saw few people. Most had been at work during what we had taken to calling The Kill Noise.
We each drained a bottle of water and I popped the containers into a nearby trash can. Civilization is a habit, I guess, for some of us.
Once we hit the highway, the going was easier. There were stalled corpse-filled cars, but fewer crashes.
"Where did everyone go?" I asked. We had seen nobody walking back towards the city.
Ginger had no answer, but wondered in turn about what had happened. "The fact that we heard the noise in the distance after we were hit means an on-going event. Could be a wide-spread natural thing that moves, like a thunderstorm or tornado rolling over the country. Or maybe spaced attacks, not bombs but something like that where each one is aimed, boom, boom, boom like we heard moving away west."
"Speaking of which, look at those farm buildings. Shattered windows, even though we're miles from the city. And vehicles stalled on the highway. Whatever it was, it had a wide spread. Or, as you say, it moved west. I hope Grandpa's place is okay."
By the time we had trundled the 43 miles to Valemar, the first town on our route, we were beat. Usually we could do seventy or eighty miles a day, or a century if we pushed. Our late start and difficulty leaving the city, plus our overloaded bikes, made this look like a good time for a supper break.
"Let's check out the town, then push through or go around and make camp further west, in the country."
"Sounds good." I didn't mind Ginger taking command. I was almost too tired to think.
Valemar was almost like Culperton--imploded windows, smashed cars, dead bodies.
As we rode down the main street, we passed a mini-park where a half-dozen people were sitting at a picnic table, armed with rifles and a crossbow. A stocky middle-aged woman turned and called out to us.
"Hey you guys, did you come from the city? Is it bad there?"
Since they were keeping their distance, we stopped. "Yes to both questions," I called back. "Total shutdown. No power, no TV or radio, no water, lots of folks dead or hurt."
"Any idea what happened? Who did this to us?"
"No idea." Ginger took over as spokesman.
"We think it was the fuckin' Russians. We're ready to fight the fuckers. We're diggin' a mass grave in a field north of here, going to clear out the bodies, gonna barricade a few places, get in food and water, ready to make a fuckin' last stand. You wanna join us?"
"Thanks, but no. We're headed for the mountains," Ginger lied. "Build a cabin, live off the land."
"Smart idea if you can do it. Be a lotta work. Anyway, best of luck."
We waved goodbye and pedalled off.
"Good to know that some people are working to keep things together," I commented. "They can dig pit latrines, maybe live for a while on what's in people's homes and the stores."
"Dead end, though. They'll run out of supplies sooner than they think. So will we, Fen. That drugstore had a rack of seeds, and I stuffed my pockets with them. You said your grandpa had a garden, which is fine for this fall, but I'm ready for next spring."
We called a halt at 60 miles; just at dusk, we turned up a country lane and set up our sleeping bags beside a copse of poplars. I built a small fire to boil water for tea to wash down the last of our junk food. We were packing up for bed when we noticed a yellow glow to the east, and heard a staccato popping, like a string of fireworks going off.
"That's over the city," Ginger said. "What now?"
"Nothing good, I'm guessing. Probably the end of Culberton."
As night darkened, the popping grew steadily louder, and the glow deepened. We watched in fearful silence as the light shifted into a virulent orange, then blood-red, then a venomous purple, before fading into the black of night. The crackling sound also faded out. There was no residual glow, as we thought there might have been if the city were aflame.
"Forty-three miles to Valemar. Sixty miles to here. Should we pack up and press on?"
"We're really tired, Fen. We're here. Whatever happens tonight, I love you."
"Back at you. Okay, then. Bed."
I put out the fire in which I had burned the remnants of our meal and returned the sod I'd dug out for the firepit. So hard to overcome or unlearn a lifetime of no-trace camping.
We crawled into the bags and, to my great surprise, I fell asleep.
We were wakened by the crackle-pop of fireworks and a yellow glow in the sky. "Valemar," whispered Ginger. "Those poor people."
"Are we next?" Her only answer was to snuggle close to me. We shivered ourselves to sleep.
The morning dawned clear and bright. Although we had not smeared blood on the doorposts and lintel, the angel of death had passed over us.
We breakfasted on granola bars and cold water and headed west. We had little to say to each other, and neither of us looked back over our shoulder at the two cities we feared had been destroyed by sulfur and fire. Were they so wicked as to necessitate their destruction? Was God fulfilling his rainbow promise, not water but fire this time?
We pedalled on. There were fewer stalled cars, no houses, no people. I think we are in rats' alley where the dead men lost their bones.
We were not going so far as the foothills, but still our route climbed higher, and each mile travelled was paid with a toll of effort and sweat. We stopped, exhausted at the top of a long hill, to have lunch and rehydrate. At least we reduced our load by each bottle of water poured into our thirsty gullets and peed out on the roadside. Breaking free of convention at last, I hurled my empty bottle into the ditch.
"How much further, Fen?"
My eyes went to my bike computer in a foolish move; nothing electrical worked. In a flash of anger, I tore it off the handlebars, ripped loose the wires, and threw it after the bottle. There, thirty-two grams lighter.
"I think we've averaged about 15 miles per hour, so we're over half way. We won't make it by tonight, but probably by noon tomorrow."
"Let's rest a bit, then." Ginger laid down her bike and slipped off her backpacks. "Oh, that feels good. I'm so light I could float away!"
I followed her example and we lay side-by-side on the grassy verge, looking up at blue sky dotted with a gigantic connect-the-dots puzzle of fluffy summer cumulus.
"I wonder what it is. What are we running from, Fennec? Is it really chasing us, does it even notice two little creatures on wheels? Or is it going only for cities, for major population areas?"
"Remember the farm houses and acreage homes between Culberton and Valemar? They were hit, too."
"That might just be overflow from the cities. I wish there were some houses along the highway here so we could check them. And where are the people? Every car we've passed has been either run off the road into a tree with bodies inside, or stalled on the road, empty. Where did all those people go? Hiding in the woods? Beamed up into space? Eaten by alien pod people?"
"Whatever hit Culberton and Valemar wasn't good, Ginge. Let's go."
We made it to Gramp's place the middle of the next afternoon. I had forgotten the exact route and we had to backtrack a bit. When I finally found the road in, it was blocked by fallen trees, and was so overgrown with weeds that if I hadn't known where it was, we'd have ridden right past. Grandpa hadn't wanted visitors.
After hiding the bikes in the woods, we hauled our packs in to the cabin. Not wanting to leave an obvious trail through the weeds, we bushwacked through the trees parallel to the road. It was a long three miles to the cabin and we were so grateful to reach it that we dropped our packs on the covered porch floor and dropped our bodies right down beside them.
After we recovered, I got the key from its hiding place under the porch and we went in.
"Look, Fen. The windows are whole!" marvelled Ginger. Aside from dust, cobwebs, and a zillion dead flies, the place was in good shape. There was firewood for the stove, plates and pots and pans in the cupboards, a bookshelf full of survive-in-the-wilderness books, and a pantry full of mouse-proof tin containers of dry food.
"Coffee! Tea! Macaroni! Sugar! Flour! Pancake mix! Dried apricots! Dried peaches! Pinto beans! Green peas! Ministrone soup mix!" Ginger was ecstatic, reading the hand-printed labels. Grandpa had left the cabin well-stocked, evidently planning to return but unfortunately not living to do so.
"Good, that's all good." Even the roots of my hair felt tired. "Let's go get the bikes."
After we got our gear stowed and the place cleaned up, we enjoyed our first hot meal in days--a tasty freeze-dried chicken teriyaki with rice made with water from the well and cooked on the wood stove by the light of an oil lamp. Afterwards, we cuddled on the veranda steps and watched the stars. It was the first time I had felt truly relaxed since our coffee date in Ringers. Only four days ago, a lifetime.
Our skin was cooled by the evening air and our hearts were chilled by the distant rumble of ba-da-boom, ba-da-boom!
"Whatever it is, Fen, it's still out there. It's still doing whatever foul purpose it came to do. If we were to keep watching through the night, I bet we'd see that awful yellow glow over the horizon. Do you think we'll be safe here?"
"Hard to say. We've escaped it for now. Maybe in the future, it will start mopping up isolated single dwellings. Or maybe it will keep focused on high-population areas. Or maybe it will die of a common cold or coronavirus."
"I'm glad we're here together."
"Me, too. Whatever the future, we have this, this moment in now. Therefore, take no care for the morrow, for the morrow will take care of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereto. That's exactly how things are for us. Life doesn't come with a guaranteed future, only a reasonable hope. We're here, we're alive, we're together and for now, that's all that matters. That's all the promise we need."
I kissed her to seal the promise.