It was cold out past the north ridge. We used to go up there sometimes, late at night, and watch the lights. Fragments of satellites falling from orbit, burning up in the atmosphere, sparking orange and red and gold. You’d pull out your battered old hip flask and we’d share whatever you’d managed to steal from your folks’ drinks cabinet. We still had folks and we still had cabinets. It seemed quaint when there was an ever revolving war being waged above our heads but I think we both kinda liked quaint. Like how you insisted on still rolling your own cigarettes and we’d sit exhaling into the darkness, the smoke punctuated by those descending flares of colour. Was that one of ours or one of theirs ?
“Did you think it’d end like this ?”
It’s a variation on a conversation we’ve been having for the past few weeks. When we’d first come up here it was to pick out the stars, far enough beyond the light of the city for the sky’s darkness to give up its secrets. As the war had gathered momentum the slashes of iridescence marking another weapon falling from above had increased in frequency until they became an unrelenting firework display.
“Who says it’s the end ?” I take a deep swig from the flask and let the alcohol warm my throat, feel it burn in my chest. “I think the end’ll be a lot warmer than this.”
You take the hint and shuffle in closer, wrapping your arm across my shoulders, pulling me in tight. I offer you the drink but you decline with a shake of the head before turning your face away to puff out a long stream of smoke. We both follow its line as it stretches out over the ridge, over the desert, up into the still, fragile night.
“It can’t stay in balance for ever,” you declare. “Maybe we tip the scales, maybe they tip the scales. Sooner or later someone’s going to win this thing and then…”
“…and then it’ll be a lot warmer, just like I said,” I interrupt.
“Only if we lose,” you whisper.
“I think that’s inevitable now,” I whisper back. “Even if we win.”
You squeeze my shoulder and we twist our heads to look at each other. It’s a fleeting moment, even then I knew you couldn’t just look at me, couldn’t just sit and stare, nothing but us. It was too intimate and too exposed. Don’t misunderstand, I know that you love me but I know that there was a part of you that you wanted to keep hidden. I guess it was the part that was as scared as I was and I could understand that. You furrow your brow and screw up your eyes and I lean in to rest my head against your chest. It’s a way to be closer but, breaking eye contact, somehow further away. I let you retreat to your fears and I retreat to mine.
It’s only been three months but we know that it’s close now. One side’s network will fail, the intricate defensive web of satellites will be breached and then hell will rain down from the heavens. Nobody thinks we’re winning. Tonight the city sleeps behind us, sprawling across the valley, its own spread of lights enough to mute the noisy colours from the sky. I think they prefer it that way. Better to pretend none of it was happening than contemplate the possible outcome. I break the silence.
“I’d sooner it ends like this, if that’s what you were asking.”
“How so ?”
“Up here, facing out across the empty stretches of desert, a flask of the ‘Mart’s finest own label scotch, the smell of tobacco…”
“You make it sound so romantic.”
“There’s a war on, haven’t you heard ? This is no time for hearts and flowers.”
“Just ‘cos there’s a little trouble overhead ? We’ve gotta maintain some standards.” You flick away the last of your cigarette and stand up. “Bear with me a second. I’m sure I saw one on the way up.”
I watch as you scramble a little way back down the trail we picked our way up earlier. The glow from the city throws up the rocks on either side as dark silhouettes and you’re soon lost to sight. From the top of the ridge the desert unwinds to the horizon. It seems flat now that the sun’s gone down but I remember us hiking it earlier that summer, remember its jagged undulations, all toothy outcrops and sudden, hidden holes that might snare a foot. We’d escaped unscathed save for sunburned faces; the sky in the desert hadn’t been kind to us even then. That was all before it started. Before the escalation and the threats and the test firings. Before we’d launched that strike, the one that their defence grid knocked out of the sky before it found its mark. Had we really struck first ?
“For you.” You’re back and holding out a tiny, delicate flower, a milk white star with five petals. “I don’t know what it is,” you offer apologetically.
“It’s a miniature wool star,” I reply taking it from you. I clasp your hand in thanks whilst holding the flower up in front of me and it’s then that we both notice; both realise. One star in the foreground against a canopy of thousands in the night sky.
“It’s stopped,” you say and I nod my understanding. You sit in next to me again and we embrace. It felt like hours but maybe it was three, four, five minutes, neither of us speaking, neither of us moving, just sitting and letting the rhythm of our breathing fall quietly into line with each other. In. Out. In. Out. In…
Neither of us heard anything as the city in the valley behind us vanished. Neither of us looked at the cloud of dust mushrooming above our homes. We just saw the desert light up in a palette of oranges and pinks and bronze, like sitting on the edge of a volcano as it erupts. If there’d been anyone left in the city to look up they’d have seen us, two figures, arm in arm, silhouetted for an instant on the ridge. Like the flash of one of our folks’ old polaroids and then we were gone.
This is story 33 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome: http://www.justgiving.com/42shorts
I wrote this whilst listening to some long ambient music that Moby gave away for free on his website recently. The jump off point was literally the mood that it invoked in me. That was the looking-out-over-the-desert-at-night stuff. The subsequent nuclear apocalypse was my fault. So don’t blame Moby.