The wind outside was a constant howl, but the sun would be up in a few hours. Days were calmer, typically.
He'd have to climb out of the train tunnel and replace the antenna again if the weather got worse. Switching from a solid dish to mesh had been a good move. The mesh ones allowed some of the air to pass through and lasted almost twice as long. Still, he was up on the surface two or three times a week replacing motor mounts, cleaning receivers, or tack welding some piece of structure. You did what you had to.
If he could just connect with the orbital lab one more time, he'd be done. One more time. He'd say a proper goodbye and be done with the helmet once and for all.
Air moaned from the kilometers of empty tunnels below, rustling his hair.
The stale gusts flooding up from the lower levels were not saying his name. He knew that.
He pulled his parka hood up and rubbed his gloved hands together. Tonight was the night. He threw the knife switches connecting the solar batteries. The CRT brightened and he hunkered down, leaning in, but all he saw were the tiny red, green, and blue dots of the old vacuum tube display. At least the antique tech threw off some heat.
Britt and the other members of their party had headed south weeks ago, leaving him alone. The seasons were getting more severe and no one wanted to chance another Mid-Atlantic winter. How does a freaking gamma ray burst alter weather, anyway? The science was still out on that, even all these years later.
The haphazardly-connected speakers beside the CRT popped and cracked, and Paul tweaked the receiver. One last goodbye and he'd gather his few scrounged belongings and chase after Britt. She was the future, and that damned helmet was only a reminder of a past that the rest of the world had moved one from—a memory frozen three hundred kilometers high in the sky.
"Don't give up on us. We'll find a way home," his dad had said on the final transmission from the ISS.
Paul had been twelve when the deep space burst had illuminated the northern hemisphere, like a flashlight beam on a kid's rubber ball. The station had been shaded on the far side of the globe at the time. No one liked to think of the number killed, or the ones along the edges of the affected area who suffered for months because they'd been unlucky enough to only receive a partial dose.
Paul remembered his father's face on the screen surrounded by the other crew members—seven in all—all looking haggard, all forcing smiles.
Paul, the tunnel whispered again.
The signal from the orbital lab grew stronger as the ISS crested the western horizon. Paul twisted the antennae and the static slowly resolved. Paul turned up the gain and the static resolved slowly, replaced by a live video feed from inside the Kibo module. The rounded back of a pressure helmet blocked half of the screen, the tiny stars-and-stripes emblem at its edge. His father had been the only American on the last expedition.
"Dad," said Paul, wincing. His voice was harsh, having gone unused for days. This was the first solid connection since Britt's departure. She'd been disappointed when he told her he planned to stay behind, more so when he'd told her why.
"I understand," was all she'd said, but the emptiness in her eyes and the slump of her shoulders spoke a different truth. She'd felt abandoned, even though she was the one leaving. Nature just kept whittling down the human race. When nature took a break, people did it to themselves.
Air tugged at his hood, carrying a moldy scent that reminded him of tilled earth when he was a boy. Nothing in the northern hemisphere smelled that way anymore.
The helmet hadn't moved since the first connection Paul had established with the makeshift receiver. His father's body must be wedged in place or hooked by a Velcro strap. The field of view on the screen was too narrow to tell.
Paul cleared his throat. "I'm headed out tomorrow. Britt's going to wait in a little town near the border."
The word border had evolved, no longer meaning a national boundary, but the zone separating the living world from the dead one. "She grew up there. Said scavenger convoys pass through there every week or two. She wasn't sure how long she could wait."
The immediate effects of the burst had been horrifying. Over half the world dead in two hours. All the way down to the bacteria thirty meters deep in the soil, he'd heard. "I'm still here. Spring Street."
He and his mother had wished his dad a quick goodbye from this very spot as they'd rushed to Grandma's. A distraction to cover his dad's departure and his parent's failing marriage. "I could cobble together a better receiver. There's so much old stuff to scrounge through these days, but . . ."
The CRT flared and white noise hissed from the speakers, the image rolling and scrambling. A gust of air slapped at his back. If Britt and the others had stayed, he'd planned to find where the wind was getting in. Sandbag or plywood over it. But they hadn't, and he supposed it didn't much matter now.
Paul placed a gloved hand on the monitor. Electrical charges danced in tiny blue bursts around his fingers. "I love you, Dad. I know you tried."
A hand settled on Paul's shoulder and he spun. Britt?
No one and nothing—just the dark maw of the stairwell. He brushed the feeling from his shoulder with the back of his hand.
The CRT image snapped back into focus. The helmet was gone. After months of blocking half of the only window into his dad's world—his final resting place—it had disappeared.
His dad couldn't be alive, of course, but his body must have dislodged. Some sort of orbital turbulence. If Paul waited, maybe the body would drift through the camera's view. Maybe he'd get one last look at his father before leaving to find Britt. One last opportunity to say goodbye for real. Face-to-face.
His father had never known the man he would become: someone who did not abandon his post. Who didn't abandon his mission. Who did not give up.
Someone who would do anything to . . . be with the people they loved.
Paul slumped to the floor, a hint of green catching his eye. From a crack in the concrete, a lone leaf, a sprig of grass as gray as it was green, but alive, finding a way.
Paul swallowed the lump in his throat. For the first time he could remember in a very long time, his body relaxed. He reached across his chest, gently touching where he'd felt the hand touch his shoulder. With the other hand, he flipped the switches off.
The CRT display faded to a dot and he slumped against the wall. When the sun broke the horizon, he'd head south, toward the world of the living, toward Britt.
Pushing back the hood of his parka, Paul closed his eyes and let the breeze from the tunnel rustle his hair.