The warm, acidic sea teased the arctic coastline, just a few feet from the entrance of the seed bank. It was a gentle lapping sound, a perfect rhythm like the sighs of sleep.
Private Evan Reynolds was on watch that morning. He had enjoyed the sunrise for once, not as a duty but as a personal pleasure. He crouched on the grit of the slope and absorbed the radiant pinkish light as it spread upward and across, an infection of life. Behind him the monolithic concrete entrance to The Svalbard Global Seed Bank was like the unearthed gateway to a temple buried in the mountain. With its sacred stores it had become almost religious in status. He allowed himself a rare pause, to smell the air, to feel the earth under his boots, to truly fixate on the horizon without interruption. No one admired the raw beauty of the world anymore. He would attempt to, if only for a moment.
The remote, Norwegian island of Spitsbergen had become alarmingly smaller with the sea rise. The seed bank’s three cavernous vaults would be submerged in the coming decades, so they would need to plan and soon, for a contingency. The rest of the island was mapped out in grids of greenhouses and genetics laboratories, row after row, with the occasional outposts of shelter for the Northern Army to resist the sun’s glare. It was bleak, but not as hot as the rest of the world and at least there was food. Too many people had died, far too many, and if they had learned anything, there would be more.
Evan’s faded, grey army T shirt was full of tiny holes from wear and tear but until someone died, replacement clothes were scarce. He would have to be careful with it in the coming years. Pulling his eyes away from the sky he inspected his machine gun for dirt and rust and was quietly satisfied it seemed in order.
There was a small pinprick of white light, a flash on the horizon, he caught it in his peripheral vision. He instinctively knew what it meant.
They were coming.
Almost imperceptible at first, there was the unmistakable whine of drone blades, like a swarm of insects. They were flying in formation, coming to count the guards, analyse the layout and security.
“This is Private Evans at the bank entrance. Prepare for battle, a raid has begun, repeat, a raid has begun. Drones incoming from the South West.” His voice was calm and loud, the same for every situation he faced.
He stood straight, pulling out binoculars from his rucksack. The drones were in two dotted lines, low in the sky. He adjusted the focus of depth of field on the binoculars to spot three small naval ships. He could just about make out the flag and insignia on the side of a ship. It was the remains of the Scottish navy.
The gunships began shelling the island but Evan did not flinch, he knew he was safe, they would not dare risk damaging the seed bank. The long projectiles whistled overhead, landing with explosive terror upon the clusters of troop tents. The drones’ laser guidance targeting gave the AI shells pin-point accuracy. He could hear the screams and rumbles through his comms. A small distance away, they were being ripped to pieces.
‘Protocol,’ he thought, his training kicking in. He checked his rucksack’s contents over, before jogging to the entrance of the tunnel in the mountain. There were two motion detecting traps just before the entrance. They would trigger low and local detonations designed to blow limbs apart but not much more. A mere deterrent, to a determined invading force. He dusted off the control panel, which was hidden with a layer of dirt, switched it to delayed live activation and double timed it into the seedbank, locking the thick steel doors behind him. Remote comms were off-line instantly under the mountain. He could hear the straining generators rattling around somewhere in the facility, keeping the seeds as cold as feasible, preserved for a little longer. There was a landline fed to the HQ from the pokey underground office in the installation, so in theory, he could still receive updates on the battle.
It was an uneasy feeling in the long tunnel leading to the vaults. There were pipes and wires and old defunct machinery left to rust. It could have been a villain’s lair in the grey, cold confines, a place to plot for the demise of humanity, rather than to preserve it. His initial sensation in the seedbank’s sanctuary, was physical relief. His body told him he was safe, hiding and protected, and the lack of heat would become a welcome change from the exposure to the roasting day temperatures.
Evan quickly found the tripod-mounted heavy machine gun left in the tunnel and set it up with a motion tracker, pointing it at the locked door, the only way in. Bar him, that was the last line of defence. He had very little else to do, he just had to wait it out, to see what happened next. By the time he found the office and dialled into HQ, it appeared to be all over. There was nothing but silence greeting him on the phoneline.
The HQ, for all its camouflage and strategic positioning, was likely the first target. He had been in battles back in Norway three times, and each time, the HQ was rooted out and destroyed in the first minute of contact, simple ‘cut the head of the snake’ tactics as old as warfare itself. For a second, in the dim quiet of that makeshift office, he remembered living on the mainland and how civilization had disintegrated so rapidly with the first waves of starvation. People could not believe there was no food. It was hard to fathom, and fear leads to violence when resources are low, like it’s the only path left. He had been a single father at the time, the only thing he valued in the old life. He lost that treasured status somewhere, sometime ago, amongst those torrid years of house-to-house violence.
He sat back in the well cushioned office chair and stretched his legs out. It occurred to him all his friends were dead. A sudden cull. There was an unwritten rule in the army not to get too close to others, as the deathrate was high, but in the real world, that was impossible. Suffering together is what bonds people the most, they all found that out the hard way. A small act of kindness in hell was magnified and significant. It meant more; the fruit shared, the pat on the back, the joke at the Captain’s expense, little things became preserved and frozen in time, snapshots of life, which were much more than just living.
The minutes dragged out into hours and then to his surprise, a whole 24 hours had passed without incident. He decided to check on the seed vaults, to take a peek, for a change of view and some exercise. The vaults were massive spaces, high and wide with shelf after shelf of sealed containers, each full with seeds of plant life from around the world, all now extinct in their original locations of origin. The records told him there were 5 million varieties of seeds in there, and that’s after using a million for those genetically enhanced crop yields on the island, some that worked and some that didn’t.
He wondered if the current crops had survived the battle out in the hills. If not, it was truly a dire situation. Evan counted the rations left in the vaults for emergencies. Bar eating the seeds raw, he could survive on the supplies for about three weeks. Three weeks, and then what? He guessed the assault strategy might include starving him out, that was likely. He would have to wait, to follow the protocol. A reason Evan was given the seed bank’s door duty was because of his psychometric profile, he was ruthlessly task oriented by nature. Despite any personal feelings, he would always get a job done, by the book, as ordered. He was a reliable soldier.
The CCTV feed to the outside had been shut down years ago but Evan found it near impossible not to stare at the dead monitor, as if it might glitch back to life if he paid it some attention. By day three, he began to feel the first real signs of depression and hopelessness. It was not the first time in his life he had experienced such dark sensations, in fact it was almost mandatory for anyone still alive in the world but being a fighter, he could always cope – this time it felt different, because it was different. Being alone for days, in the dark underground, with the last food supplies on Earth was something no one had truly experienced before.
By the end of the second week, Evan contemplated stepping infront of the motion sensitive gun he had left near the door. It would be painful, but it would be quick, in theory. Those rounds were large calibre, they’d take off his flesh clean in clumps. They’d be no turning back, no patching up if he changed his mind, it would be final. But he could not. Some small, glowing spark deep inside him refused to turn to smoke, refused to stop burning.
The time finally came. It was two days short of his rations running out but he guessed it didn’t matter. He poured a tall glass of desalinated water. He was grateful the water supply had not been cut off, without water he would have been screwed in days from the lock-in. He brushed his newly formed beard with a comb tool on his pocket-knife and he washed his face clean. There was a mirror in the bathroom of the seed bank, a small rectangle of reflection over the sink, to stare into his own eyes, to check if he was still really there. He wasn’t convinced at times.
With utmost care, he disarmed and dismantled the tripod mounted gun and left it where he found it. He walked with purpose to the front door, and after a moment of thought and fear, opened it to the intense burning daylight. The brightness invaded the tunnel, smashed into his senses, along with the flood of warm air. He had to squint so tight he was blind to whatever would confront him. To his surprise, there was no rush of men, no grappling him to the ground or gunshot and point of agony. There was only the sound of lapping tide, gentle, reassuring, just as he had left it all those days ago, on watch.
As the scene and the light took on forms, his gloved hand now shading his brow, he could see and smell that the explosive traps had detonated. Dried pulp was congealed in splatter patterns all over the concrete walls surrounding the entrance. To his shock, two men had lost their lives at the door, he could tell from the amount of limbs strewn before him. He had heard nothing in the previous weeks, no explosion or yells. He had been in a cold womb in the rock. Stepping over them, his machine gun grasped with one hand but not aimed, he made out vague, thin human figures in the dirt and some further out in the sea.
They had not starved him out, he had starved them out.
They must have arrived on the shore emaciated, barely functioning, to crudely execute a desperate attack. If they had destroyed the remaining food somehow, that was it, they would be out of all options and without energy to think or fight on.
Evan scanned the coastline and they were everywhere, skeletal body after body, mostly clad in Scottish navy attire. Some were dead sitting upright, as if taking in the sea and many were tangled up or holding hands in the dirt. He felt neither victory nor horror, instead, his usual response to the world’s revelations, equal pangs of sadness and surprise.
A groan nearby. He brought his gun up, trying to find the direction of the noise, and as quickly, let the gun drop again. It was a woman, an officer, she was still alive. She had black tangled hair and so slight an outline of crumpled arms and legs, it was like an abandoned toy puppet had been dropped from a height. Evan walked over to her and examined her blistered face, her purple swollen lips and red, bulging eyes. Without thought, he hurriedly unscrewed the top to his flask and dripped a few drops of water into her mouth as she tried to push herself up from the ground. The water must have stung, because she moaned in pain each time he decanted liquid into her throat, like he was pouring acid on a burn.
“Thank you….” She rasped, in a quiet Scottish lilt.
“I guess there were no winners…” said Evan, making a point.
She nodded in despair.
“We haven’t had news of the rest of the world for some time. Are you the last?”
Again, with slightly less vigour, she nodded to confirm.
He screwed the cap back onto the flask and glanced at the sea, his most treasured vision.
“I guess we better start again then…”
Evan left the gun on the scree, and lifted her off the ground easily, as she was so light, a loosely networked ball of bones and skin and hair. Her uniform felt heavier and more robust than her boney frame. Carrying her into the foodbank was like carrying a sleepy child to their bedroom after a long, energetic day.
He realised logically, he had options to survive the next weeks. She was edible, there was just enough remaining meat on her bones to feed off for a while, especially with the freeze of the vaults. In a few seconds of contemplation, he shook the notion off, physically, like it was a dirty muddy layer over his shoulders. It was folly. What worth was there to living alone? He had already been through that despair and it was an emptiness no one should face. No. He’d pick a seed from the vault store that was easily palatable and they’d make it into paste until they could restore their strength and fix a greenhouse. He’d scout the remaining people on the coastline, maybe others were still clinging to life too? Maybe some had just passed, in which case, they would not be rotten in the heat and could render some sustenance. After emerging from a hole, feeling relief might be a given, but the relief Evan felt was more permanent. There would be no more war, there was no one left to fight, not for a while at least. It was time to rebuild. It was time to learn how to live again, from the very beginning.
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