Paige drew the copper cable along behind her as she stepped off the banks of the Yakima River. The earth beneath her feet was pale brown and dry. She stopped short to untangle the cable from the leafless shrubs that filled the landscape. As she struggled with the branches of the shrubs, her messy brown hair slipped into her eyes. She stood a moment, pulled her hair back, wrapped it into a bun and secured it with a screwdriver from the front pocket of her faded blue-grey boilersuit. In the distance she could see the hills and mountains that once were covered with lush forests, now only forests of rot. The sky was drab, dirty clouds hanging low and spanning from one horizon to another. The comet had changed everything.
It wasn’t one of those events commonly seen in movies where a giant ball of rock strikes the Earth and causes massive ocean waves to crash over cities. This comet had a more subtle method of destruction. Paige had seen it wreak all the havoc one might imagine, without ever touching the planet. As it passed by with a calm disinterest, its wake left humanity in ruin.
Paige looked up toward the foot of the hill a few meters ahead. Her green eyes scanned the base of it for her indolent partner. The hill was covered in brush, much of it brown and lifeless, but some of it showed a hint of green. The hill inclined at a sharp angle and peaked two hundred feet above the river level. From a distance, it looked like any other dry, empty husk of the once green landscape of the valley. However, upon closer inspection, one might notice a pile of litter – empty boxes, broken appliances and other useless junk – about fifty feet from a small entrance to an abandoned mine in the hillside.
“Liam!” Paige called and waited a moment. Nothing stirred. “Hey Liam! Are you gonna sit on your ass all day or what?”
A light blue milk crate slid a foot to the side to reveal the sideways Liam, supine and bathing in what sunlight there was filtering through the clouds, “Eh?” Liam shouted.
“I swear… get over here and help me you turd.”
Liam stood. A light brown tweed jacket smudged with oil and torn at one elbow stretched across his lanky frame. The edges were frayed at the bottom, but blended into the grey jeans he wore beneath. He dusted himself off, pulled a dark, wool Ivy cap over his head and started toward Paige.
“This isn’t a job interview,” Paige remarked smirking.
“There’s no reason not to look nice. It’s a personal prerogative,” Liam opined.
“I wasn’t aware we could still afford those.” Paige yanked on the cable once more and it broke loose of the shrubs. As she turned to pull it along, Liam arrived beside her and wrapped his arm around the cable.
“This thing’s thick. It must be solid copper inside,” Liam said.
“I found it up by the electrical towers. Must have been knocked down in the last wind storm,” Paige said.
“That’s really dangerous, you know. A live current from one of these would cook you in an instant.”
Looking at him sideways, her brow lowered and jaw tightened, “I’m not an idiot. It wasn’t sputtering or anything, and nothing caught fire.”
“Still,” Liam continued.
“Just pull,” Paige interrupted. “Half of the power lines around here are falling over just from a lack of maintenance. And anyway, if we can run this between the river and the battery series, we’ll be able to run enough power for the electric fence.”
“If we improve the paddle wheel, with a cable like this, we could run a village,” Liam thought out loud.
“Let’s focus on keeping the crazies outside before we consider letting anyone in, Liam.”
As the two reached their junk pile, a weak whistle grew more audible. Liam dropped the cable and headed toward the hillside. Paige pulled up the last bit of slack and crouched beside a capped PVC pipe sticking a few inches out of the ground. She pulled it up about a foot, the dirt around it moving slightly as a hidden tether rose up from below. After a moment, a hole appeared in the side of the pipe above the ground level. Several strands of wires hung out of it, running back underground in the direction of the river.
“Will it fit?” Liam asked as he returned, handing Paige a hot mug.
“It’ll be snug, but I think so.” Paige looked into the mug. Steam trails wafted from the translucent red liquid into her nostrils, filling them with the starchy, rich aroma of Assam tea. It was one of the only flavored beverages they had been able to find with any regularity. Looters had largely left stores of it alone. “I’ll need you underground to grab the line as I feed it in,” she said as she set the mug down.
“Take a break, geez. Let’s just enjoy some tea while it’s hot.”
With reluctance, Paige nodded and sat in the dirt. Liam pulled up a cardboard box for a table and alighted on his milk crate. Paige took a sip, then hastily wiped the dirt from her grimaced lips. Liam chuckled.
After a long silence, Paige leaned forward and rested her chin on the box, observing Liam. He sat high over the box atop the milk crate, his bony knees shooting out at a wide angle. His elbows rested on his thighs and held his mug just high enough to rest his chin on it. She was glad they were together, even if he sometimes valued style over survival. His dreaming and optimism kept her going – kept her motivated.
“You know, my mom called it the Star of Bethlehem,” Paige said.
Liam looked up from the liquid in his mug. He studied Paige a moment then moved his gaze to the box, but his focus was beyond it.
“Maybe it was,” he said finally.
“She only thought that because of all the instant prophets that were born the day the comet was discovered,” Paige said, her gaze shifting to Liam.
“It rose out of the east. Who’s to say it wasn’t?”
“The Muslim leaders called it a star and crescent. Proof that Allah had come to end the rule of western evil.” Paige recalled the programs that filled every channel leading up to the day the comet passed by. Every religious leader claimed the event for themselves and their respective religion.
“It could have been both,” Liam said with a shrug.
This answer frustrated Paige. Splitting the difference wasn’t good enough. “It’s more likely neither,” she said, rejecting Liam’s mitigation, “and if you thought it’d been either or both, you wouldn’t have come up here with me. You’d have stood out there like those idiots as the asteroid approached.”
Liam set his mug on the table. “They were demonstrating their faith,” his voice was louder.
“They were screaming in agony as their flesh burned away.”
“They ignored all the warnings.”
“They went to a better place.” Liam’s voice was firm.
Paige shouted, “They’re still here! They’re in the clouds, blocking out the sunlight.”
Paige pulled her knees up to her chin and buried her face in them. She felt like crying, but over the last two years since the comet came, she’d forgotten how.
Paige was dressed and prepared to leave for their morning classes at the university. The school never canceled classes – not if there was a foot of snow on the ground, and certainly never for major astronomical events. Liam arrived ahead of time to pick Paige up, so he could sit with her on the couch of her parents’ living room, sip coffee, and watch the event unfold live from Times Square.
Camera crews had eagerly awaited the passing of the massive comet just over a year ago. It was midday in Europe, but just before sunrise in New York when the comet arrived. The faithful that listened to the sermons of religious leaders across the world gathered on the surface to watch the rising of the celestial bodies, even as scientists warned that such a massive object passing so near the Earth would likely disturb the tides and cause flooding in coastal areas.
All that was known of the comet before it arrived was that it had passed through the rings of Saturn and much of the it was a mixture of iron and nickel, much like Earth’s core. It was the passing through Saturn’s rings that resulted in its discovery. Before that, the object was unknown. In the passage, it gathered large amounts of ice and water, and upon emerging on the other side of Saturn, formed an iridescent tail as the solar winds stripped the ice away.
Massive crowds filled the camera frame as Paige and Liam watched from her parents’ living room across the country. The camera shifted focus slowly between the crowds and a podium where religious leaders were seated to guide the crowds through the spiritual experience. All of them were older men: a cardinal from the Catholic Church dressed in scarlet robes and skullcap, an imam with a long white beard and black robes and turban covering his scalp, a rabbi dressed in a dark suit under a wide brimmed hat. It was an odd sight to see three representatives of three major religions working cooperatively to control the crowds.
When the comet appeared on the horizon, the brilliance of the tail lit the surface of the Earth hundreds of times as brightly as the Moon had ever done and swept away the shadows of the night with a wave of light. Not long after, the morning sun followed the comet’s ascension. Countless faces were raised to the sky, hands and voices rose above them. As the comet approached, the religious leaders gave prayers and shouted blessings. Chants lifted in response from the lips of millions and filled the air.
Paige was filled with a mixture anxiety and excitement. Regardless of what religious leaders said, even without a god, this spectacle was once in a lifetime – perhaps once in a millennium. Liam was silent and still at the spectacle. The rising sun behind the comment drew a cry of surprise and delight that rippled through the crowds. The comet’s tail nearly outshined the sun. Awe overcame the crowds and silence fell where millions of voices had just chanted in unison. The silence lasted only a moment.
The religious leaders, elevated above the crowds, were bathed in light before most. They stood with their arms upraised to morning sun. It was quiet at first, but soon their screams reached the crowds. Looks of sublime adoration changed instantly to visages of sheer terror and horror as the skin of the men on the podium blistered and their clothing caught fire. The cardinal raced off the stage, burning like a torch. The imam and the rabbi fell to the ground, kneeling briefly before falling prone, flames tearing at their remains. As the sun rose higher over the crowds, the camera’s frame filled with fire, and was blotted out by a billowing black cloud of human ash.
Paige and Liam looked on in horror as a holocaust took place before their eyes. After just a few seconds, the footage cut and dead air filled their screen. Liam stood to call his parents who lived across the state. Paige ran for the deck where her parents stood.
Her parents were sitting on the east side of the house, lounging in Adirondack chairs.
“Mom, Dad, we need to go!” Paige shouted with urgency. Her parents turned to the commotion. Her father wore a smart dark grey suit with a yellow tie, her mother wore a conservative white dress with floral patterns. They were dressed in their Sunday best.
Her Mom smiled calmly, “You don’t need to shout, sweetheart. What is it?”
Their demeanor caught Paige off-guard, “The news of the comet. They all burned to death.” A moment of surprise passed over their faces. Paige’s father set his hand down on a book sitting on the flat armrest of his chair. It was black and leather-bound, but the morning sky was still too dark to see clearly.
“We’ve known this day would come,” her father said. “We’re prepared to accept God’s judgment.”
“Judgment… you believe that bullshit?” Paige felt panic setting in.
Her father stood and brought the dark book with him, “Pastor Govern said in the service last weekend that God will fill the sky.”
Paige stepped back as her mother rose to join Paige’s father. “So what, you’re just going to die? You’re just going to sit here and wait for the comet?”
Liam stepped out onto the deck and stood behind Paige, “The phone lines are busy. I can’t get a hold of my folks.”
“Stay with us Paige,” her father continued, holding the book in front of him like a shield. “We should meet God as a family.”
“You can’t be serious,” Paige begged.
“Just sit down and let the Star of Bethlehem find us. We’re ready.” Her mother said this with a placid smile that cut through Paige. She looked to Liam for support. His eyebrows were pushed together with deep concern. He looked at Paige and shook his head.
“This is bullshit,” Paige shouted.
“Paige!” Her father was becoming angry.
“We can’t know what is bullshit and what isn’t, Paige,” Liam said.
Paige couldn’t believe she was having this conversation, “I know we don’t need to die.” She was losing patience and took hold of Liam’s scrawny arm, “We need to go.”
Liam didn’t budge. His arm held Paige in place. “What’s the point?”
Paige was incredulous, “We’re all going to die and you’re asking that?”
“That’s what I mean,” he said. “If your parents are dying, I can’t reach my parents, everyone’s dying… what’s the point? Maybe they’re right. Maybe this is God’s judgment. Maybe this is the Rapture.”
Paige exploded, “You’re fucking kidding me. This is a disaster, not the Hand of God.” Her mother set a hand on Paige’s shoulder.
“Please stay Paige, we want to be a family,” her mother said.
Paige pulled away from her mother and walked past Liam, “I’m going to the old mine.”
She entered the house and began packing a duffel bag. Only a little over an hour remained before the sun would rise over central Washington and it would take her half that time to get to the mine. Her room was a total mess. Clothing was laid across the floor; soda cans were stacked beside her desk. Posters of comic book and video game characters covered the walls. Paige rummaged about the floor, packing the hardiest clothes she could find – some jeans and hiking shorts, boots and tennis shoes, shirts and sweatshirts. She pulled a winter jacket and a windbreaker off of hangers in her closet and stuffed them in the bag.
Paige turned to find Liam standing in the frame separating her bedroom from the hallway. Behind him, her senior picture from high school hung on the walls beside family photos. A wall of smiling faces. The hallway light made Liam appear as a tall and dark silhouette. Paige moved to the side to better see his face and found it frowning.
Liam asked, “You’re just going to leave?”
“Well I’m not going to die. Not here,” Paige said.
“You shouldn’t go alone,” he said, stepping into her bedroom.
Paige’s brow furrowed, “I figured I’d have to.”
“I’ll go,” Liam said quietly.
“You sure you don’t want to meet your fate with the rest of them?”
“Don’t be an ass. They have beliefs. You can’t begrudge them that,” he said.
“What about your parents?”
Liam put a hand in his pocket, pulled out his cell phone and stared at it with frustration hanging from his brow, “I want to see them. So I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Paige zipped the duffel bag up halfway and pulled the strap over her shoulder. She stood and walked past Liam into the hall. At the end of the hallway, she turned into the garage. Liam followed.
As she stood beside an incomplete car in the dark garage, she looked over the walls of neatly arranged tools and began pulling them down one at a time and stuffed them into her bag – an adjustable wrench, pliers, a set of screwdrivers and socket wrenches, a hammer, a box of screws and nails.
“Don’t forget some food, it might be a few days before we can come out,” Liam said.
Paige nodded. As she moved to the door back into the house, she passed the cabinet bolted to the wall. She stopped a moment, swung open the door. Hanging there was her father’s boilersuit, still stained with grease from last week when she had helped him drop the engine onto the frame of the Mustang behind her. Paige pulled the suit off the hangar and pushed it at Liam.
“What am I going to do with this?” Liam asked.
“Wear it over your clothes so they don’t get ruined.”
“But it’s so… drab.”
Paige rolled her eyes, then pulled her own suit out from behind it, stuffed it into the duffel, and walked toward the kitchen.
Paige took a sip of her tea and breathed deeply, “You’re right, I’m sorry.”
Liam picked his tea up, finished it off, and stood, “Let’s get this cable hooked up.”
Paige nodded and stood as Liam ran toward the mine entrance and disappeared into the dark. A minute later, the plastic tube buried at her feet shook and then knocked three times. Paige fed the cable down the tube and then felt it jolt as Liam gave it a strong tug and began to pull it toward the battery series and regulator they used to generate power in this hell after “Rapture”. The cable stopped moving and a moment later the tube knocked again then sunk into the ground.
Paige began pushing dirt aside with her hands to reveal the wire channel she and Liam had dug to connect to the paddlewheel generator in the river. Liam returned with a pair of shovels.
“We’ve got a few hours until sunset,” he said. “I started the stew down below. It’ll be ready by then.”
Paige sighed, “Dandelions again?”
“We’re not exactly in the land of milk and honey here,” Liam smiled.
Paige drove the shovel into the ground, “I just hope there’s enough salt.”
As the sky darkened, Paige and Liam managed erect the flimsy fence around the mine entrance in the side of the hill, securing it with screws to the wooden supports and a metal fence post driven into the ground at the center. Paige pulled a cable cutter out of her toolbox on the ground and clipped a small entrance at the side, then hinged it on one side with metal cable ties.
“We can finally sleep soundly,” Paige said, zipping the last tie into place, then slipping a padlock over the free-swinging side to secure the small gate. Finally, she tied a small copper cable the fence post. It had a green stripe in the black rubber insulation and ran along the ground into the mine.
Liam leaned against the wall of the mine, his arms crossed, “Being secure is nice, but I still think we should offer this energy to people. There are people dying out there while we sip tea in safety.”
“They’d kill us if they had the chance. You’ve seen what raiders do. That’s why we’ve been hiding up here. We’re just lucky they haven’t found us yet.”
“I wish you’d have more faith in people,” Liam said, turning to go downstairs and finish preparations on the stew.
Paige began to collect her tools, but it was too dark to find them all. She stood and looked through the fence, looking for any movement. It was hard to see, but it looked like they were alone for the moment. Paige pulled a flashlight out of her back pocket, pointed it at the ground and flipped the switch. The ground was illuminated immediately and Paige began to pick up the remaining tools.
Liam’s head popped up over the ledge leading down to the next level of the mine, “The stew’s ready!” His head disappeared below the ledge again.
“I’ll be down in a second,” Paige replied. She shut off the flashlight, picked up her toolbox and walked deeper into the mine toward the ladder Liam had been standing on. As she set down the toolbox to climb down, Paige heard an odd metallic sound. She dismissed it as the tools sloshing around in the box, but as she mounted the ladder she heard it again.
Paige called with an urgent whisper, “Liam!”
Silhouetted by soft light from their ‘living room’, Liam stepped out of the hole cut into the side of the mine shaft and looked up at her. Paige waved him up and then put a finger to her mouth, signaling necessary silence. She pushed herself against the wall behind one of the large wooden support beams holding the earth at bay.
As he reached the ledge and move beside Paige, Liam whispered, “What’s going on?”
Paige looked around the edge of the beam. Liam knelt and looked as well.
They could see a shadowy figure investigating the fence. Without light, it was difficult to see, but the figure appeared to be looking for a way in. The figure was quiet, but the fence still shook with a metallic sound when he pulled on it.
A whisper reached Paige’s ears, “Any luck, Bill?”
Paige turned to Liam and whispered, “I’m going to turn on the electricity.”
“Wait, stop,” Liam grabbed her arm. “We don’t know who they are.”
“They’re trying to break in!”
Liam took a deep breath, “Let me talk to them. We can’t just go killing people because we’re afraid.”
“They might have a gun, Liam. What are you going to do then?”
“I’ve got to try,” he said as he stepped out from behind the pillar. Paige looked on in terror as Liam approached the fence.
“Who’s there?” Liam called out. The kneeling dark figure froze. “We can hear you messing with our fence. We don’t want trouble.”
The figure stood slowly and faced the voice coming from inside. “You have power?”
“We’ve managed to collect some batteries,” Liam responded. Paige gathered some courage and rounded the corner, standing beside Liam. She took out her flashlight and shined it at the intruders. Just beside the fence, the older man shielded his eyes from the sudden light. He had a long white beard and wore a black overcoat that hung down to his knees where jeans extended to a tattered edge near the ground.
“Get that damned light out of my eyes,” he demanded.
Paige directed the beam at his feet, “Who else is with you?”
Four more dark-clad figures shuffled into the light and stood behind the older man – two women and two men, clothing in similar states. They all looked half-starved to death.
“My name’s Bill. We’re just looking for food. We saw a light,” the man said.
Paige looked down at her flashlight. Liam took a step forward, “I’m Liam. This is Paige. We don’t have much, but we can offer some.”
Paige was shocked, “Liam!”
He looked back to her, “Let me handle this.”
Bill put his hands on the fence and leaned closer, “Please just let us in. We’re good Christians – good since the Rapture anyway. We’ve been dodging raiders for weeks and have hardly had anything to eat.”
“I can’t do that, not yet,” Liam said. “You know how hard it is to trust people these days. Let me get you some food and we can talk more in the morning.”
Paige pulled Liam around by the shoulder and whispered, “We can’t give them food! We hardly have any for ourselves.”
“They said they’re Christians. I don’t think they want any trouble.”
“They could be lying. And in any case, there are five of them and two of us. They could just sit outside the fence and starve us out!”
Liam put his hand on Paige’s shoulder, “Drop your cynicism for a minute. Not everyone in this world wants to kill us. We’ll never get anywhere if we don’t trust anyone.”
Paige looked at her best friend. He had always been trusting, but he was also rarely wrong. Liam had always had a skill with people that Paige knew she lacked. It had taken her a long time to warm up to him since they first met in class at the university, but he had grown on her. Still, there were now five people standing outside their home. It was a threat she couldn’t just ignore, but she also wanted to trust Liam.
“Be careful, please,” she sighed, unsure this was the right choice. “We don’t know them.”
Liam turned to take another step toward the fence, but before he could say a word, Bill leapt from the top of Liam’s blue milk crate and got a solid start climbing over the fence. The four others in his group started climbing right behind him.
“Stop! Please you don’t have to do this!” Liam shouted as he stepped backward.
Paige ran down the corridor toward the ladder.
Liam tried to stop her, “Paige, don’t!”
She stopped at the ledge and reconsidered for a moment, then decided ignored his plea. She slid down the ladder, landing at the next ledge, and ran past the lighted room where the smell of the dandelion stew filled the air. She reached the series of batteries they’d collected over the last year. Pulling the green-striped cable up to the battery regulator, Paige pushed the cable’s plug into a socket.
Screams filled the mine shaft and then were silent. Paige could hear the fence crackling with electricity and rattling with bodies shaking against it. She climbed up the ladder and ran toward the fence. She could smell burning flesh as she approached the entrance, and when she shined her light, she saw four of the people clinging to the fence, paralyzed by the electricity. They shook slightly as it coursed through their bodies. Muffled impacts reached Paige’s ears as she realized there were people missing. She shined her flashlight down the corridor and searched for Liam.
Liam lay on the ground with Bill straddling him, pummeling him with punches. Liam had his arms raised in front of his face, attempting to block the strikes. Paige ran at the man and tackled him with full force, knocking him off Liam, then tumbled to the ground with the man. He gained his feet just before Paige and lunged at her, but Liam pushed him away. He hit the wall and fell to the ground once more, face in the dirt.
Paige took advantage of the opening, knelt on top of the man, pulled the screwdriver from her hair and drove it into his back. He screamed in agony as she pulled the screwdriver out and brought it back down, piercing his body again and again.
Liam grabbed her arm to stop the strikes and pulled bodily off the man.
“You bastards,” Bill shouted, rolling over to face them. “You killed them all!”
“You were going to kill us!” Paige shouted back, lunging toward him again.
Liam held her back, “Stop, Paige. Isn’t killing four people enough?”
While Liam restrained her, Bill kicked out Liam’s legs and lunged for Paige with a desperate cry. Rotting teeth lined the gaping mouth in the center of his beard and his eyes were wild with rage. Paige took a step backward and defended with her arms, bracing herself. He knocked her to the ground and landed on top of her, then lay still. A warm liquid trickled over Paige.
Liam gained his feet and pulled the man off Paige. Her long hair was caked in dirt and blood and stuck in places to her face. As she stood, Liam turned Bill over. The screwdriver protruded from his chest.
Liam took a step backward, “My God.”
Liam ignored Paige, picked up her flashlight and shined it at the fence. Paige stood beside him. The faces of the intruders were frozen in terror and agony, mouths open, flesh charred. Their fingers grasped the fence in a death grip, electricity still crackling along the fence as the wind shook their corpses.
Liam rounded on Paige, “What did you do?” Paige stood silent. He continued, “I thought we saw enough charred bodies after the comet!”
“We’d be dead otherwise,” Paige said. “I’ll turn off the power and we can bury them in the morning.”
Liam looked at her aghast, then sagged and nodded, “They deserve that.”
Paige shut off the power and returned to the entrance of the mine with a wooden rod. As she pushed the bodies off the fence, they fell to the ground and threw up a dust cloud of ash, their limbs cracking with the impact. Liam knelt just inside the entrance.
“What are you doing?” Paige asked.
Liam was silent, his eyes closed and head bowed. After a moment, he answered, “Praying.”
“Since when do you pray?”
“They were religious.”
Paige dragged Bill’s body to the fence, carefully avoiding the puddles of blood on the ground. As she laid him on the ground, she noticed something weighing down his side pocket. Reaching inside his pocket, Paige pulled out a dark leather-bound book. She shined her flashlight at it and turned it over. Gold letters lit up the front, reading ‘The Bible’. She stood a moment staring at the object and remembered her father shaking the same book at her before the disaster. Paige slid the book into her back pocket, then walked back down the corridor, kicking dirt over the trail of blood.