I’ve been alone for the past four days. All of my fellow astronauts have made the journey home already, leaving me, their youngest astronaut, with orders to stay and man the ISS. My best friend and mentor, Spencer, begged me to go and he stay.
“I can’t ask you to do this, Zack.” He pled, his eyes filling with tears. “They say that this space virus thing will self-destruct before it can even get to Earth. You can come with us.” I wanted to take his outstretched hand and ride the ship that could take us all back to Earth, but I couldn’t.
“You know I can’t,” I replied, refusing to allow my voice to break. “NASA needs a scientist like me to stay behind and deal with this thing the best I can.”
“You’re only 18. They can’t ask you to stay here alone!”
“There’s nothing down there for me, anyway.”
The memory replays itself in my mind as I toss my bag into the tiny capsule that will carry me between worlds, and I gaze out the window. My view of the beautiful desolation of space sucks me in, just as it has done every time. I try to absorb everything I’ve missed in my five months shift in the space station, hoping to never forget it. Glittering stars speckle the void, like an artist took a paintbrush and haphazardly flung specks of white paint against an inky black canvas. I climb into my seat and prepare to leave the place I’ve learned to call home. My face reflects back to me, dark hair, a strong, thin face and eyes my mother says are made up of the sea itself. I release the pod and sink away towards the Blue Planet.
After what seems like an eternity of falling, tumbling, and passing out, I land. My touchdown was smooth, thanks to NASA’s new mega shock absorbent tech. I open the hatch to find myself in the middle of some sort of barren dessert and I hoist myself out the capsule’s narrow mouth to get a better view.
There’s not a tree, bush, or blade of grass in sight. I tilt my face upward and lift my hand to my eyes to shield them. The sky is a pale blue, with a pale sun to match. Not a bird, lizard, or insect in sight. The only sound was my breath, escaping from my lungs and then being drawn back in. The soil is dry and cracked, crying out for water. The heat is scorching and the atmosphere humid and I can feel myself already sweating.
“Where am I?” I muse to myself.
I plop down on the large foam ridge on the nose of the ship and peel off my suit, taking in my surroundings. I see a town over in the distance, maybe a day’s walk to the north, and decide to head that way as soon as possible. Two pools of what look like water dot the route to the town, the nearest one sits stagnant halfway from my current position and the town, both giving me hope and remind me of how thirsty I am. First, I inspect my capsule for anything useful to take for the trip. There’s a survival backpack and I shake the contents onto the dry, cracked ground to take inventory. An empty water bottle, a foil space blanket, and first aid kit clatter to the ground. But after examining all the zippered pockets, I discover a good-sized knife, flint, and six protein bars and add them to the pile. I take an extra shirt and pair of pants from my duffle bag and add them to the pack. The sun is beginning to set, and with no wood to start a fire, I climb back into the capsule to spend the night.
I’m beginning my journey the next morning before the sun has a chance to peek over the horizon. I munch on one of the protein bars as I go, and begin to realize how thirsty I am. Whatever lingering cold that had been my company throughout the night has long since dissolved, and the sun beats down on my head. Sweat soaks my gray t-shirt and drips down the back of my neck and traces the valleys and ridges on my sunburned face. I’ve lived on earth for all but five months of my life, and I can never recall a time when the sun has been this hot. At a quarter to noon, I collapse at the edge of the first pool. My throat is parched and my lips dry as I drag myself to my knees and reach down to scoop some of the clear water into my hands. But instead of the refreshing cool that I expect, hot flashes of pain spike up from my submerged hands all the way to my shoulder, and I fall back away from the water with a sharp cry.
My ears are ringing as I lift my smarting hands to my face. Angry red welts are already sprouting, and they cover every surface of skin that came into contact with the toxic fluid. I fight back the scream rising up in my throat as I unzip the top of my pack and pull out the first aid kit. I pull out a bottle of some sort of antibacterial ointment and some cloth bandages then return the white plastic box to the bag. I squeeze a generous portion of cream into my hand and rub them together, smearing the white goo to as many burned surfaces as possible. I become dizzy from pain as I wrap my hands with the strips of cloth and lean my back against my pack to rest for a while.
But I know that if I want to survive to the night I needed to get to that town. I push on, favoring my hands as I trek. The afternoon was even hotter than the morning. When I come to the second pool, I do not even hesitate as I skirt around its irregularly shaped edge, keeping my eyes glued to the horizon. I stop a few more times to reapply ointment to my burns and adjust the bandages, but other than that, rest is foreign to me. My feet are cinder blocks stuck to the ends of legs so weak, they might as well be fluid. My tongue feels like sandpaper in the desert of my mouth. My hands throb, a never-ending pulse that keeps track of time in this timeless day.
The sun is well below the horizon when I pass through the large iron archway proclaiming: “Welc_me to P_pon_, C__orado, the Eden of the _outhwe_t.” I was pretty sure that “P_pon_” was built during the Old West, all the buildings were made from either rotting wood or crumbling bricks. But I see a couple of modern cars along the side of the street, and decide that those will be my next source of transportation. Decaying shops hug the main street where I walk. An old saloon with its swinging doors, a sheriff’s office, even a beauty parlor. A chill shoots up my spine and I shiver. I’ve heard stories of ghost towns inhabited by the deceased, and the hairs on the back of my neck tingle. I whirl around but find the road as dark and abandoned as it had been seconds ago. But I can’t shake the feeling that I am being watched.
“Get it together, Zack,” I whisper. “You’re alone and the only one here.” I try to ease my mind and chuckle at my childish superstition. But as walk down the streets, I can’t help but see the shadows follow me, watching my every move. Soon the weight of the eyes become too much, and I break out into a sprint, my exhaustion forgotten and my body fueled by adrenaline as I force my aching legs to carry me to the nearest standing building and flee to the back corner. I collapse onto something soft and take a few second to catch my breath. There was no noise, not a rush of wind, or the call of an owl, just my rasping throat to break the eerie silence. Now that my body is no longer moving, I realize how fatigued I really am. At that point, I begin to wonder if my need for water is as desperate as my need for rest, but my body makes the decision for me and I nod off into a deep, fitful sleep, teeming with dreams of poisonous water and armies of ghosts in cowboy hats.
Streams of light leak through my eyelids, saving me from an ax-wielding sheriff, poised to take my head. I sit up and rub the sleep from my eyes. Because I had been in such a hurry to escape my imagination, I didn’t really take in the full scenery of where I had spent the night. It looked like the remains of an old dress shop, and the soft thing I had fallen into was fabric, faded and tattered. I slowly rose to my feet, my muscles groaning from the overexertion of the previous day. I poked my head outside and the town looked lightyears less ominous in daylight. The air is still and the sky as cloudless as before. Once again, I notice the absence of life. No birds circle overhead, no rats scuttle amongst the debris, not even the buzzing of a fly breaks the silence.
I went back inside and retrieved my pack, counting and recounting the amount of supplies I had left. I still had half a bottle of ointment amongst the other things in the first aid kit, three protein bars, an empty water flask, my extra clothes, flint, and the pocket knife. Seeing the clothes made me realize how sweaty and disgusting I was, and I decided that now was as good a time as ever to refresh. I stripped off my t-shirt and cargo pants and pulled on the fresh garments, slipping one protein bar, flint, and the knife into the thigh pockets of the army green cargo pants. Once again, I remember that I need to find fresh water. I discard my old clothes and use the knife to cut strips of the cloth in the shop for bandages and stuff them into my bag. After reapplying the cream to my hands and wrapping them in new bandages, I’m ready to set off. I stroll down the main street once more, remembering the modern cars. I’m hoping to find a grocery store with bottled water, or an inn of some sort that might have people.
After about five minutes of walking, I see what I’m after. A grocery store lies squatting on the right side of the road, its windows completely busted out. I don’t even try the door and leap through the empty window frame, landing in a roll and coming up on my feet. The room before me isn’t very large, about the size of a gas station interior, and about the same layout too. The lights everywhere are out, glass and junk food litter the ground, and the back wall is completely lined with freezers, and I head there first. Bags of chips, candy bars, and shards of glass crunch under my feet, reverberating around the stone walls and making the place sound like a giant popcorn maker. When I yank the door to the freezer that contains the water, I become so absorbed in guzzling the warm liquid that I don’t notice the shadows lurking against the wall to my left.
Then, suddenly, there is a knife to my throat and the plastic bottle slips from my fingers and my eyes dart around in my skull, but my attacker is behind me, out of my sight.
“Get to your knees. Slowly,” commands a muffled voice, and since I have no desire to examine my pharynx out of my body, I drop down to the ground.
“If you’re going to kill me, just do it. But I would like to at least see your face.” I feel as though my request is valid, and soon, someone is in front of me, knife at the ready. A black scarf is around the head, but a pair of eyes as dark as midnight peek through. I’m sure that this figure isn’t just a floating head, but I can’t tear my gaze from those eyes.
“Who are you?” I ask, my voice barely a whisper.
“That’s none of your concern.” The figure answers, cool and collected.
“I thought I was the last one left. I’ve seen nobody since I’ve been back!” I exclaim, and the black covered head cocks to one side, eyes narrowing. But this gesture of curiosity costs it, and the scarf slips off and falls to reveal long, silky black hair and olive skin. Full lips and still those beautiful eyes.
“You’re - you’re a woman,” I say, now taking in the black fleece and blue jeans that hug her curvy figure.
“Is that surprising to you?” she asks, her hand perched atop her hip, tone annoyed. Slowly, I come up from my knees and stand to face her.
“Maybe we can work together,” I said, hoping change the subject. “If we’ve both survived, and no one else is really around, maybe we can help each other.” I hold out my hand and smile. “My name is Zack.”
She looks at me, trying to decide whether or not I’m lying and if she should just knife me. After few agonizing seconds of her scrutiny, she takes my hand and shakes.
“Lorelei? What kind of a name is that?” My face screws up in a goofy laugh, hoping to be rewarded with a like smile from her, but ‘Lorelei’ is not amused.
“What kind of a name is ‘Zack’?” she retorts.
“Well, do you have a nickname?” I say defensively.
“Lira.” This time, I see the smile. It not very big, just barely peeking out, but gorgeous non the less.
“How long has this thing been going on?” I ask, gesturing to the barren wasteland outside.
“What do you mean? The virus attacked only a few days ago, killing everything: people, plants, animals, even poisoning all the natural sources of water.”
That would’ve been nice to know. I think. “But then if it killed everyone, how did you survive?” I say.
“I could ask the same thing about you.” She answers, tilting her chin defiantly.
“I’m an astronaut. I landed just a few days ago.” I point to the direction of the town gate. “My landing capsule is just a day’s walk that direction.” Then, a light bulb appears in my head. “Hey, if you made it, how do we know that others didn’t survive?”
Lira shook her head sadly. “I was one of the doctors tasked to study it, there was no way to survive without going underground during the attack.”
“Well, how do you know that people didn’t take refuge?” I was becoming desperate, almost pleading.
“We didn’t figure it out in time.” Lira wasn’t meeting my gaze and a tear slid down her cheek. she sniffled and cleared her throat, hastily brushing her face with a delicate hand.
“Come on, we need to get out of here. Do you by any chance know how to steal a car?
Fifteen minutes later I’m at the wheel of a black mustang we claimed from the front of an old casino. The tank had been empty, but a visit to the gas station had fixed that. Lira is riding shotgun and I glance behind me to see the heaps of provisions we gathered from the grocery store.
“So, where are we headed?” I ask, keeping my eyes on the road ahead.
“North. I have a place there where I waited out the attack.” She props up one of her black hiking boots on the dashboard and closes her eyes. “Drive for about forty miles and then wake me.”
The remainder of the day and half of the night was pretty much that, forty-mile shifts of sleeping and driving. One of the brief minutes we were both awake, conversation was as scarce as people on this godforsaken desert.
But when I awoke for my shift, I found that the car had stopped, and Lira was not in the driver’s seat. For a moment I panicked, but then I spotted her, sitting on the car’s hood, staring into the sky. I slowly eased the door open and then crept out and shut it as quietly as possible, not wanting to disturb her.
“Everything’s so quiet,” she says, sensing my presence but not turning to face me. I abandoned all prospects of subtlety and slid up onto the hood next to her. She shivered and I put my arm around her.
“Yeah, it feels a lot like being in space.” She doesn’t answer, so then I add, “but at least I’m not alone.” Then Lira turns her body into mine and begins to sob.
“Oh, Zack. I was so afraid that I was the only one, and after watching everyone else die,” she trails off into more tears and we remain that way for some time, Lira sobbing in my arms, and my head resting against her hair.
“Wait, Lira, what’s that?” I see lights in the distance, and when she lifts her head, I tug her to her feet and I scramble to the top of the car. She comes up next to me and we both look as the lights multiply.
“There’s more who survived!” I shout joyously. Now, it’s my turn to cry, and tears of joy stream down my face. I take Lira’s hand and lead her into the car where, together, we drive out of the darkness and into the light, and join those who found each other.