World Without End (1): What’s in the Heart

Chapter 1: What’s in the Heart
We finally did it. The last war tipped the balance, and the chemicals that saturated and stuck in what was left of the atmosphere wreaked havoc on the weather. The pissing contests of the powerful had finally screwed us all, and the world as we knew it came to an abrupt and lethal end when the seasons, finally tipped out of balance, lasted for random intervals that were now impossible to forecast.
People had been swept away by cresting water, cooked by blistering sunlight, and hot winds took the leaves before their change. Curled and blackened, they crumbled before they hit the ground. There was shelter, but no safety. Cities were built underground, but there was no food. Towns had been built in the hills, but there were mudslides and floods. Now that it was snowing, if there was anything left of the world below, it was covered. The snow fell for weeks at a stretch, and people had long ago indulged their last panicked impulses to scavenge what remained of ‘normal’ life, even as they lost everything.
On the way up, we saw others who’d tried to brave the mountains: some bloated, some skeletal, some too weak to climb further. They were pickings for the eagles and carrion birds, if any of those were left. The temperature was beyond brutal, and even our rugged equipment was beginning to let in the cold. Movement at the level we needed became difficult.
The mountains were the last refuge, and on the way there, Kylie and I spoke to no one, helped no one.
We’d been in these ranges, hiked and explored them. There’d be shelter if we could beat the storms. But in this new world we found out the storms could no longer be anticipated; they formed quickly, anywhere, like lightning strikes.
I was separated from Kylie in one of those mountain storms that came suddenly; if she fell, she never screamed, or at least, from the wind howling, I never heard her. I dared not turn, since the whiteout all but blinded us anyway. I grieved, but kept moving, since there was no sense of time here, and darkness could be as sudden as the storms. The cowardliness of not trying to save her hit me hard, though it was short lived; for all I knew, she’d made a choice of her own.
Not knowing how long I’d been searching, my hands and legs were beginning to fatigue. The ledge I walked wasn’t too narrow, but the wind still made it unsafe, so I used up the day moving carefully. I needed to find a cave that could hold me. I was at the point of despair when my fingers gripped around a corner. I didn’t want to move in front of it unless it was a cave, so I risked reaching my left arm around, and it disappeared up to my elbow. Gripping what was there, and inching forward, I found it.
Taking a couple of breaths, I reined in my excited hope this was a possibility. Even if it was just a recess, it was still a wind shear, and I could shelter there for a while, if not for the night.
Focusing all my energy on controlling my body, I made my way around; it was indeed a cave, one I had to get on hands and knees to negotiate, which was fortunate, if it didn’t narrow to where I had to crawl.
I said a mental prayer of thanks to whoever could hear me above the wind, and went inside.
It didn’t narrow, and I would’ve wept tears of gratitude if they weren’t frozen behind my eyes.
It was dank, and there was some guano, but not an abundance; my guess was that the sudden weather fluctuations killed off the bats. I had room to stand, but I could explore later. Exhausted and thirsty, I went back to the entrance and quickly grabbed handfuls of snow, bringing it back into the relative warmth and eating it until it melted; it was still cold, but it wasn’t frozen.
My throat ached, but what little water my organs got made them expand like sponges. I needed more, but sleep had me by the ankles, and won the tug of war.

***************
The entrance to the cave was dark. No wind, no snow, just still, cold air for which I had no way to make fire.
Hoping nothing nocturnal still lived here, and recalling that there were no pools of water I might fall into, I stood up to stretch my body.
As my senses woke, a ravenous hunger gripped me, and the thirst returned worse than before.
There was nothing to be done for it. I needed to move.
I walked in ever widening circles, taking small steps with outstretched hands.
My right foot struck something. It moved, as if something lodged was now loosened.
Checking my eagerness that it might be food or water, or (gods grant me) both, I knelt, feeling around until I touched it, running my fingers slowly over it so I wouldn’t get cut. It had cold, metal handles.
Take it out. You’re just delaying the inevitable. Death would be a mercy now. I didn’t really believe the voice in my head, but that didn’t make it wrong. My hands were numb but moveable; I’d shoved them into my sleeves to keep from getting frostbite, and slept with my arms folded.
Hoping it wasn’t sealing something beneath it, I pulled. It came out easily enough, and it was small enough to fit in one hand. It felt like a small chest of some kind. There was a small lock on the front.
In a mix of dread excitement, I reached back into the hole to see if there was a key, and was rewarded with another tiny flash of cold on my fingertips. Rolling through a list of possibilities from ways to make fire to weapons, hunger and thirst were forgotten.
Through blind trial and error, I finally opened it. Lying on
white velvet tucked down the sides, a red gem began to glow with a dull light. It wasn’t enough to light the cave. It was barely enough to see, but definitely there.
Figures I’d become a rich man at the end of time. This could be priceless, but with no one to sell it to, it’s also worthless.
I set the chest down, and picked up the gem, admiring it for a few moments.
When I went to put it back, my hands were no longer cold, and the light seemed brighter.
I chalked it up to loneliness, fear, and exhaustion, though in truth I felt none of those things now.
Walking back to the entrance of the cave, I didn’t have to get back on my hands and knees to crawl out. The rock was high enough to just bend over a bit. Too grateful to question it, my mind told me the cave entrance was the same; I only imagined crawling inside.
Now at the mouth of the cave, I couldn’t get over the beauty the night sky; the stars were pristine, and though the air was still cool it felt clean and good. I wasn’t shivering. Glancing toward the box where I’d replaced the jewel on its velvet, I thought I could see the light glowing through the wood, though the wood wasn’t burning.
“Just tired. You’re hallucinating, or dreaming.”
Or dead.

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