It's always been there, behind us, whispering through the shuddering ground. A background roar behind the wind. We'd been ahead for so long, moving slightly faster than its clockwork crawl. Until the mountains. Then, as we ground ourselves upward against these slopes, we heard it rumbling closer, a rising quake in the earth. But it's been a while since I turned around and actually saw it. Sitting here on the side of the mountain, in the frigid morning, it fills my vision and stings my eyes with the monstrous unreality of it.
It rises like an unbroken wall into the sky, obscured only by the limits of my sight, fading into the clear blue, and stretching away north and south, curving away with the earth. The sunlight doesn't seem to touch it. Nothing does. At the ground, where the churning wall of sickly blue lightning and black clouds grinds across the earth, I can see the Unmaking. The lower peaks, already shaking apart, burst and ablate away at the event horizon of the Storm. The land dips before the onslaught, as if shying away from the kiss of the boiling wall. I can feel the violence beneath my feet as millions of tons of ancient mountain falls away into its infinite maw.
It's going to be on me in a few hours. I wonder if I'll die when the peak caves away, crushed in a free-fall of slate and stone, or whether I'll be alive when the Storm touches me, shredded and atomized, erased and Unmade. I wonder, again, what it might feel like.
The joints in my legs wail as I stand myself up from the sharp rocks, and my left ankle cries in agony as the bruised bones click. I turn my back on the Storm, and look forward, at the last mile of road, curving up into the pass. I start to walk, moving east along the wind weathered pavement, feeling the rising vibrations of the Storm in each step.
As it rocks my grinding ankle, I think about the state fair, in summer, a decade ago, and a machine with a footplate that vibrated for a quarter. I think about the wonderful, almost unpleasant intensity of the sensation. I hold onto this memory, working it in my mind like a lump of sugar, until I have savored all I can from it. The wind is on my face, as even the air seems to be rushing away toward the wall. I'll be walking when it comes, still moving, just not quite fast enough in the end. But I can make it to the top.
Not for the first time, I reel to think it's only been a month since the lights first went out. Nearly a month ago I was riding a bus, a bus… on a Wednesday, back when such a thing mattered.
I remember the feel of it, as the end of the world passed over us, a quiet sigh rippling through the air. The engine stalled, and the lights flickered out, but there was no panic. My fellow dozen passengers remained quiet, and we waited silently for the inevitable restart of the engine. I stared out the windows, and after too long a moment, it dawned on me that every light across the street was out as well.
Then we heard the distant explosions. Popping in the distance, like far away fire works. Some of us began to panic then. We clawed our way out the back doors of the bus and poured out into a mercifully cool July evening.
The stars were shining with an intensity that scared me more than the explosions, bitter and cold. We all spent a moment intent on phones and handsets that didn't work, wouldn't turn back on, before sliding them away to be forgotten, forever. Something streaked overhead towards the West. Noiselessly, leaving a smoking trail thrown into sharp relief by its brilliance, a roaring fireball passed over us and disappeared beyond the horizon. A few moments later a tinny rumble rolled back across the valley. The bus driver stopped trying to restart the engine and joined the knot of riders, gathered close and struck mute by the quiet strange way that the world had just changed. Shooting stars streaked steadily above, like a meteor shower come too early in the year.
For ten minutes we stood quiet as the explosions began to lessen. When the only sound left was our nervous breath and the baying of dogs, someone made a joke I don't now recall, but we laughed like children passing a graveyard, nervous and harsh.
We walked home, strangers sharing names we hadn't bothered to on the bus, names I could not remember the next day. I turned away towards my apartment, and I never saw any of them again.
I imagine in suburbs across the small town, neighbors were standing on their porches and front lawns in robes and slippers with dim and dead flashlights in hand, trading theories and comforting each other; but the apartment complex I'd landed in when I'd moved out of Gayle's house was quiet and dark. Not even the emergency lights were on as I took a long slow time fumbling through the dark halls and into the cave of my studio.
I desperately wanted to talk to someone, to share information to try to make sense of what had happened. The complete loss of electrics seemed to point to a nuclear detonation, but the explosions seemed so distant and somehow too small to be the old bogeyman of my parents generation. This all seemed indescribably stranger.
In the light of the day, it got stranger still. There was an almost pleasant shift in the community, as walkers ferried information from neighborhood to neighborhood, certainly much of it distorted, but much of it unmistakably true. Batteries didn't have a charge, anywhere. Pacemakers had stopped, everything with an electric current had failed.
Fire had trouble starting. It wasn't colder, but nothing wanted to burn. Lighters worked only rarely, and their flames were weak and anemic. We made great bonfires to test this strange new truth, and with some effort they lit, flickering low and blue, but fundamentally wrong.
On the second day, from a man on a bicycle, we got the explanation for the first night's explosions. Airplanes gliding downward, dead and dark, impacting across the valley and beyond. The falling stars had been satellites, he said, the whole network simply dropping from the sky.
It was like some essential measure of energy had been withdrawn from the world, some internal engine of the universe was winding down, and that scared me far more than nukes.
None of us knew what to do. We ate the food we had before it spoiled, and stores were empty by the second day, most everything sold for cash only. In some last defiant show of togetherness, prices stayed flat in almost all the stores, and I traded what little currency I had for a several crates of bottled water.
We were planning on waiting it out. We didn't understand that this was not an interruption, but a terminus.
It was rumors at first, by the end of the first week. Ragged and tired people drifted through town, in search of water and food, and bearing wide-eyed, apocalyptic warnings. They told of mass exodus, a mad flood of people streaming away from the western coastline; conflicted, terrifying stories told in whisper of the Storm. None of the first refugees had seen it first hand, but what they had learned had scared them bad enough start heading inland.
In those first days of flight, the human tide followed the major highways, and our small town only got the odd stragglers, those fleeing not only the fabled Storm, but the rivers of atrocity the refugee march had become. We had no way of knowing if it was just amplification of nightmare rumors, or if the interstates heading east really had become a vast trampling ground, where urban populations surged inland without plan or recourse, shredding and churning against one another, fleeing away from the coast, and the Storm.
People in town started to disappear in the next few days, spooked enough by the mad tales, to start their own exodus and to avoid the main highways. My own feet felt light, but I waited. Held off, until the last wave.
They were wild and glassy eyed, the last refugees, the ones who had waited, like me, in small towns further west. They had seen the surging sea of refugees, seen the corpse trails they left, had heard of the Storm that had made landfall at last, but they had waited, holding out hope that this was only a temporary insanity.
But then they saw the Storm, with their own eyes, and it was a testament to the madness of it that the eyewitnesses stories were more fevered and impossible than the second hand rumors that preceded them.
I was packed, ready to go, the last of my water tucked in with a camp stove and a sleeping bag in a backpack when the last wave came, but I didn't leave yet. I waited, one more day, until I saw it for myself.
It came up over the western horizon with the dawn, as if rising to challenge the sun in the East, swallowing all light. Over the course of three hours, I watched it Unmake the foothills, swallowing earth, and forest, and river. The world rose up and away, seeking oblivion like a lover, vanishing forever into the churning wall of impossible madness, leaving only bursts of blue lightning arcing between the black clouds.
Lightning, clouds. Storm. These are imperfect metaphors. The Storm of the Unmaking isn't a storm, isn't made up of the things storms are made up of. There are no clouds, no lightning, only seething darkness and jagged energy. I'm not even sure now, even as it polishes the earth away behind me, if you even can see it. Maybe our brains fill in ghosts of some recognizable structures over the pure unreality of the Storm. Maybe it looks only like the nothing that it is, and we simply cannot accept this.
Tucker used to say to his followers, when the lines began to be drawn, that it was the mouth of god. That someday we could accept it, and we would see through the black veil of the Storm and see the divine feast for what it really was.
When there was only the open valley between me and the Storm, I fled my home, heels pounding on country roads, until I reached the refugees of the last wave, somewhere in the central valley, and it's with that small band of stubborn fools, the ones who had waited until they too had seen the Storm, that I travelled for the last three weeks.
Tucker was there, quiet at first, shaken by the loss of someone he loved on the charnel highways, but then, there were no leaders. We shared supplies, gathering canned goods at country gas stations and parcelling them out amongst us all. We outpaced the Storm in the day, spent short quiet nights laughing around the pitiful campfire, awakening always with the Storm on the horizon. Each day, we pulled ahead of it, following the un-trails of the refugees ahead us, turning always away from the spoor of abandoned belongings, and the fly choked corpses. This way, we found the untapped stores and caches, the things people left behind. We were frightfully inefficient in those early days, but we did more than just survive, and it gave us hope.
Then we washed into the foothills, and we slowed. We had built up a lead on the Storm, had had a few mornings now where we hadn't seen it on the horizon, only felt the low bass notes of its presence. That little hope and good cheer we had built up in our advance evaporated, like the earth before the Storm.
Two nights into the steady uphill climb, a dented can of soup made three of us ill. We lingered for too long in the morning as they emptied their guts, and the Storm crested the edge of the world. A quiet sort of panic gripped us all, and we took to the county backroads again, driven by the fresh reminder of the encroaching end.
Tucker drove us on, moving faster than before, and when the three sickened members of our troop lagged behind, Tucker called to them that we would go ahead, they should take their time, and we would make camp for them up ahead and wait before leaving. No one believed the lie, but we all played our part, even the dead men, with patient nods and glassy eyes. They never arrived that night, and we left even earlier than before.
Tucker kept us moving, and the group began turning toward him. We all wanted to leave the sick men behind, but Tucker had done it. In this passive act of consensual murder, most of us had turned our fate over to him willingly. By the end of another week, as we reached the base of the jagged mountains, Tucker began to carry less and less, and ate more and more.
But the mountains broke us. Our speed halved. The roads wound away from our direction, away from the rising sun, and no one had a map, or remembered which pass through the mountains was the most direct.
We were forced into the footsteps of the first great waves of refugees, and now the roadsides were choked with the sick and the dead. Rows and rows of naked blackened feet, picked clean of socks and shoes, stuck out from the roadside grass. I scavenged there, pulling a pair of boots from the feet of a prone man about my height, trying first to ignore his feeble dying groans, then whispering my apologies to him as he rasped for breath. It was impossible to tell how many of the original refugees had made it this far, or had gone on up the mountains, but there was no food to be had in their trail, little water to be plundered.
Tucker drove us on, and in the lower mountains, he began to preach, simple little sermons of necessity and absolution for what we'd done and would do, and it drove the jagged wedge at last between the group. From a loose band of strangers with a common goal, we became Tucker's people, and the others, and that divide grew cold and icy.
I suppose the line was the same as the night we left the three sick men behind; there were those that couldn't sleep that night, and those that could. It would be easy, and a filthy lie, to draw a moral line in that split. We were all good men, once. We all left them behind, no one objected. The divide between Tucker's people and the rest of us was a matter of who still had energy to feel guilt, and who had just enough to follow what they saw as their best and only hope.
It was Tucker who was in charge of the supplies, of the nightly division of food. Before I realized what had happened it was too late.
Tucker's people held stubbornly to their health, and the rest of us began to wane. A little less water, a few less crucial calories. As the cold and the altitude made the journey harder, Tucker tightened his control on our bodies, and we began to wither.
We were all so profoundly tired that we couldn't even communicate our nascent paranoia to one another, until we began to drop away, falling behind, while no one had the strength to look back. One by one, until, near the top of the pass, there was only Tucker's folk, and I.
They had already started sleeping apart from us, striking camp earlier, and quieter. Two nights ago, I awoke to find them a hundred meters down the road, none of them looking back. I caught up with them, and no words were exchanged, but Tucker caught my eye from the front, his body unladen, free, and frighteningly healthy.
Last night, near the top of the pass, I couldn't sleep, as the chill terror of what I had allowed to happen coursed through me, twirling with the bitter cold of the mountain night. Tucker was awake as well, and sometime in the dark, he walked over to where I sat, my ragged camping mattress pressed to a rock in a crude chair. He sat beside me, his cold eyes reflecting colder starlight, and we said nothing. We hadn't spoken in nearly a week, and in truth, I think only Tucker had spoken for the last few days. Above us the night was silent, a sky devoid of planes, unblemished by the lights of man. In the distance, the Storm must have been visible, but I had days ago stopped trying to see it.
After what felt like an hour, Tucker sighed, and slowly stood, staring down at me, a black silhouette against a cobalt sky. I think he may have smiled, it was hard to tell. He raised his foot, and brought the heel down hard, on my ankle. Once, and then again, before I had the chance to scream.
My cries woke no one, and Tucker walked back to his place in the warm center of the sleeping people. I wanted to stand, to go and bash his skull in, but as the sharp splinters of pain became a low throbbing ache, I found no strength to stand, no will or capacity for murder, only, at last, the surrender of sleep.
When I awoke this morning, they were gone, far over the pass. By my feet, someone had left one bottle of water, and one tin of meat. Nothing to live off of, but this token gesture of mute apology was all that allowed me to stand, all that got me to face the Storm with any sort of dignity.
And now, I am walking towards the top of the pass, to look down over the other side before I die. In one hand is the water, and the other, the tin of meat, my backpack left somewhere below. I carry them like little talismans, one last reminder that we are not all Tucker. That we are all ourselves. Even if none of that matters.
I reach the top of the pass, and start looking for a good place to die. I find something else, something that proves better than death: a trail of blood droplets on the pavement, leading to or from an alpine field of boulders. On either side of the blood droplets, I start to make out faint tire tracks in the stony gravel.
The trail leads me to a tableau of bodies and blood spattered under the clear sky. I have seen many scenes of murder along the road, more as the waves of refugees funneled up these paths, but it's not what happened here that fills me with black joy, but what was left behind.
Only the most foolhardy kept their carts and wagons with them when the road met the mountains, but here in the morning sunlight is an honest to god truck, an old yellow Datsun, more rust than metal. Three of the tires are flattened, mere shreds of greying rubber around bent and pitted rims. At the front, lashed to the bumper, is the remains of a harness, where a team of horses were once hitched, having dragged the truck up and across the mountains only to die here. Three of the horses are a few yards away, dragged from the truck to be butchered. Their carcasses are stripped clean, first by men and then by the vultures that dot the sky above every road I've travelled in the last month.
In the back of the truck are the remains of a once great cache of water and food. All that remains now are a few torn and cracked plastic bladders, what invaluable liquid they once held long ago abandoned to the arid air. A few tins of food rest in one corner, cracked open as if by hammer blows. The truck bears many small wounds as well, evidence of the gunfight that killed the two men at my feet.
In between the vulture's furrows, their death wounds read like scripture, declaring the changed nature of our dying world. Robbed of the full power of the focused force of combustion, bullets still are deadly. But instead of piercing, these shots pushed great, shallow craters into their flesh. Both these men took many shots before they succumbed to their wounds.
In the cab of the car, lies what I can only assume was the once-owner of this fortune. His chest flattened and shredded, his eyes staring and milky. His skin is not quite blackened like the others, and he bears only the one wound, grievous as it may be. In his hand, he still clutches the giant revolver that kept his killers at bay, as if still warding off attackers, even in death. Nearly dried pools of black blood lie sticky in the seat, evidence of a slow wounded death, here on top of the mountain. The other killers must have waited for him to die, gambling precious time for the wealth of the truck and the horses.
I take the gun from the driver, check to find two bullets remaining, and see in them two chances of taking back my destiny from the Storm. For a minute, I am drunk on the idea of spitting into the Unmaking as I send one slow bullet hammering into the thinnest part of my skull. I live this moment over, and over again, even as I feel the ground shudder with the Storm's approach.
That's when I hear the frightened exhale and dry breath of the fourth horse. He's moved out from behind wherever he was hidden, and he stands fifty yards away, across the road, shredded ropes dangling from his twisted harness and bridle. He flicks his head towards me, and then to the oncoming wall of the Storm, and stamps his feet with fear and frustration, eyes rolling back and showing white.
I ignore the screaming in my ankle, don't even hear it after a dozen paces as I lope and vault towards the speckled grey beast. My sudden lurching approach seems to baffle him as much as the absurd horror approaching in the sky, and he manages to take a few panicked steps back, whinnying in terror before I reach him. I grab at the rope, miss, and then lunge forward again. He tries to rear up and away, but my fingers close on the frayed nylon cord and I close tight with a death grip. I can feel the layers of flesh on my palm abrading away as the horse screams uncomfortably like a woman, and whips its head from side to side. I hold fast, and scream right back at it, my eyes just as wild. I roar at the beast, and it shrieks back, and I feel naked and alive in a way I can't ever recall.
Close now, I hear a shuddering crack, as the bones of the world fall away into the mouth of the Storm, and I hold fast at my only chance to live. The horse is wasted, his ribs showing through tattered piebald hide, but he was once a massive beast. I curse and scream at him, and his struggling stops as he surrenders.
Mounting the animal proves the hardest task of all, even as he begins to submit to my will, it takes a great and painful effort to lunge and throw my body up and over his unsaddled back. I manage to drape myself across his spine, the protruding vertebrae pressing into my empty stomach. With some effort, thanks only to the beast's state of exhaustion, fear and malnourishment, I throw my wounded leg up and over, and I rise into a hunched seated position, my bleeding hand still pulling tight on the bridle.
I can see now, from my perch on a dying horse, the world beginning to crumble at the edges, the event horizon of the Unmaking as it eats, shreds ancient mountains like transient summer weeds, marching inexorably towards the top of the pass. Less than a mile away is god's maw, the slow chewing end of the world, and I dig my heels into protruding ribs and turn away, to buy myself a little more time. Just a little more time.
The horse needs little encouragement. We descend together the downhill side of the pass away from the Storm. I stroke the tattered mane beneath my fingers, and am unsurprised to find myself crying as I whisper thanks to the animal. Soon, we're moving at a steady trot, putting the peak behind us, and once again advancing away from the Storm.
I allow the horse to stop a few times, as he sniffs out thin highland grasses and a few pools of melted snow my tribe and every other refugee missed on the way down, and I even dismount to drink greedily from the standing water. In my parched haste, I drop the nylon rope, leaving behind a layer of skin and setting the horse free, but it waits for me. I'd like to attribute this to some sort of mutual survivor loyalty, but I see only empty eyes, already filming over as the overtaxed body begins to shut down.
The horse carries me another twenty miles before it dies, but not before we pass my tribe. They look mutely up at me, the pistol tucked in my belt; some masks of fear, some lowering their eyes in guilt, but most simply look with flat faces, as if they expected me to return at any moment and are neither pleased nor surprised. I don't know what I in turn expected of them, but the reunion is as hollow as it is comforting. I bear them no ill will, and expect nothing from them beyond their essential human presence.
I reserve one small smile for Tucker, all gritted teeth and bloodless gums, as I pass, and he keeps his expression blank and cool, but I see the flaring nostrils and the tremor at the corner of his lips. And then I ride on, leaving them behind for a short while to collect my thoughts and to turn away from the business of today's survival, to think about tomorrow's.
A mile or so later, the horse falls to its knees, shudders slightly before toppling over. I am thrown to the road and tumble without grace, skidding and rolling and slightly grateful that my people aren't here to see me go down. The horse breaths four last ragged breaths, and I whisper my thanks to glassy and clouding eyes.
By the time my tribe catches up to me, near dark, I've started a weak fire from mountain brush, and am cutting away the stringy meat from the flanks of my horse. They come towards me, mouths watering at the spicy scent of concentrated blood splashing to the stones, and a few produce knives to take up the work of butchering.
Tucker stands away from the knot of silent people, people that are no longer his. Arms limp at his sides, his body is unladen with supplies or water, naked and alone. There is no expression on his face, nor on mine as I approach him. Few of our tribe even turn to look, most are too busy or too exhausted to care what is about to happen, and none of it will be a surprise, least of all to Tucker or myself.
He nods to me, dipping his head to the ground for a long and quiet moment, before turning slightly to look backwards. We've made good time on the downhill side, and only the churning clouds in the high atmosphere signal the presence of the Storm. The ground no longer shudders. Once again, we've outpaced the Storm by one more day. But you can still feel it, in the air, and in your bones. I know that's where Tucker is looking. It holds his attention for a long time.
He turns back, mouth parted as if to speak, and I fire the pistol. The weak popping sound of the shell seems to vanish instantly, but the fat, wide bullet cracks the center of Tucker's face like an iron fist. Everything caves inward towards the impact as the slow bullet dissipates its wan force across the delicate arches and filaments of his skull. He coughs as he falls, once from his ruined mouth, sending a fine mist of blood into the air. From the ground, he blinks his one remaining eye, looking straight up at nothing, and although I think about leaving him there, I kneel and press the barrel to his temple. His eye closes and he sighs, a strangely musical sound in the absolute quiet of the evening. Muffled, the second shot barely makes a sound beyond a wet thump.
I pile a few rocks onto Tucker, making his cairn where he fell, and again a few of my tribe come to assist me. There is no guilt in me, or the tribe. There is no malice in the murder, and no hatred in its aftermath. It is simply a correction, a balancing of the sums, another step along a very long path. I take Tucker's boots, the high ankle serving as the basis for a simple brace made of nylon rope from the horse's bridle.
When we are done, when the horse meat is dried and packed away, and we have slept through the silent night, we turn our backs to the burial, and to the Storm, and Tucker's name is never mentioned again. We move on. We keep walking.
As we cross the arid highlands between the great spines of the country, we learn. Small towns still have food, and we learn to carry supplies efficiently, distributing the weight. Nearly every home has gallon of fresh water in the back of each toilet, and plastic bottles in abundance. We learn to carry the perfect amounts of water from one stop to the next, maximizing our speed. Libraries have, among other things, books on edible plants, and we begin grazing, constantly pulling what meager calories we can. We carry less, we burn less energy, we walk farther. We become lean and long like gazelles, tanned brown by the sun.
The world is empty. We meet a few lone people who never saw the great waves of refugees, never knew what happened after the blackout, and we invite them with open arms, and tell them of the Storm. Not all come, not all believe the wild tales of these strange eyed nomads, and we don't blame them, we simply walk on.
It would seem many of the people of the heartland headed for the bigger cities when the lights went off, hoping for strength in numbers, or to bind their fate to organizations that had already crumbled. Every city is a perpetual pillar of smoke and a vast killing field. We give them a wide berth, ranging instead through the wide open fields, through the breadbasket of the country.
We don't know what happened to the first refugee waves that came before us. The signs of their passing become harder to see. As they diminished and ate each other alive, maybe all that washed across the plains ahead of us were ragged ghosts, gibbering about the impossible Storm.
They don't matter anymore. Only our tribe matters, and we have learned to survive where they did not, and we have a long way yet to go.
We have outpaced the Storm, so far ahead of it that it would take a full week for it to catch us, and this serves us well. We sleep better, we harden and we travel faster. We plan.
When we reach the ocean in the East, sometime in the world's last autumn, when we can walk no further, we will need time to search. We have torn pages from books, and we study them obsessively, learning everything we can about the ocean, about boats and sailing. We will find whatever tall masted vessels we can, and we will resume our eastward journey on the wind. We will go as far as we can, until we reach land again.
Failing that, we will wade into the waves, and swim, until the Storm takes us.