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Small Mercies

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 We're going to die out here, Lars says. Although of course he doesn't, because he's not really there.

It's the height of the Arctic summer, but Faye is still cold, even in her parka. It's so silent, with nothing to hear but the rippling of water against the hull of the Arctic Fox, the occasional rifleshot of ice cracking in the distance. The sound of her own breath.

And me, Lars says.

"Leave me alone. I'm thinking." She's been trying to remember the first time she saw the Aurora Borealis. Testing herself. She can feel herself slipping, making mistakes. She's been alone too long. Maybe it's a good thing that Lars is back.

That's it, she thinks. That long weekend in Reykjavik with the dick who worked in the city. What was his fucking name? For the life of her she can't remember, but she can picture the way he stubbed out cigarettes as though he'd been mortally offended by the ashtray. The two of them on the balcony of their hotel room, staring up at the sky, their faces illuminated by the shimmering lights. Just for a little while the differences between them were swept away by something that was older than humanity and--

No. She's remembering it wrong. Because they hadn't seen a thing. The conditions hadn't been right, and he'd done nothing but bitch about it the whole of the flight back to London. Around about the time he started talking about suing the travel company was when she realised she couldn't bear to spend another minute in his company.

She always did have terrible taste in men.

So no. Not then. But when? It feels like the sort of thing she should remember. Like her first kiss. The first time she ever got drunk. The first time she ever fell in love.

"It doesn't matter," she tells herself. But it does. It matters because it feels like another part of her has slipped away. Like she's fragmenting, breaking up like melting ice. And soon there might not be anything left.

She stares up at the unnaturally bright sky, wondering if she'll ever see the lights again. Wishing the darkness would come back. She should go to bed; despite the daylight it's past midnight, but she can't bring herself to move.

Because they're back. It's not just Lars anymore.

The three of them, Deepak and Leanne and Keppler, crowding around the boat, floating in the water. Their broken fingers search for purchase on the curved metal hull. Trying to climb.

She'd tell herself that she's crazy, but in a world where the dead come back to life, that's not working any more. And in any case, it's not exactly reassuring to think she's going insane.

She hears the tread of a foot somewhere to her left. She tenses but Lars is content to stand for the moment. Content to watch.

It's always worse at night. Even under the midnight sun.

The lies come easier when she's busy. She can seek out the few research facilities and meagre pockets of humanity that lie along the shore. Mostly they're empty, at least of living humans. She's found one or two of the dead, but never many and they're seldom hard to deal with. Out here they're slow and sluggish from the cold.

She kills and she takes what she can, whatever she can use.

It's polar bears she fears more than the human dead. Because they're not slow and sluggish, even the dead ones. She hasn't seen a live one in six months. Not since the winter. Not since the cabin. She's safe on the boat as long as she doesn't let it get too close to drift ice and give them a chance to climb aboard.

Usually she can always find something to do. Even if it's only a stock-check of her supplies; fuel, in particular, is a worry that gnaws her to the bone. Or she can redraw the rationing plan, each time trying to eke it out a fraction longer, tacking on precious minutes onto her life.

But bit by bit it all seems so futile. What is she buying herself time for, really? She doesn't have enough fuel to escape the Arctic, and the thought of venturing into warmer climes fills her with dread. The bone-deep cold and the isolation, this she knows.

She just wishes she had the Aurora Borealis to keep her company, to remind her that how little her loneliness matters. How small she is. She's sick of sunlight.

The only time she really feels normal is when she's watching the birds. Perched aft, peering through her binoculars, she counts nesting sites on the shoreline or watches the gulls wheel and scream around the icecaps. Turns out that without so many human beings around, the birds are doing just fine. It's ironic, really.

How does it feel to have wasted your entire career, Keneally? You could have been studying something useful.

In a funny way it gives her hope. At least some living beings are doing well out of the apocalypse. It makes her think that when she walks into the cabin they'll all be there, playing Scrabble and swapping anecdotes about drunken nights out. Deepak and Keppler and Leanne.

Even Lars, watching her with his hooded eyes, a cigarette caught between his lips.

A rifle crack of ice sheering off shatters her daydream and a wave slaps against the boat. They're back. She can hear them whispering up to her. If she closes her eyes, she knows she'll see them, waxy faces beneath the glossy surface of the water. She can even picture the reflection of the sunlight dancing in their glassy eyes.

We're going to die out here. And Lars is back. Fucking great. Just what she needs.

"Leave me alone," she says.

You don't really want that.

"Yes, I do."

Then why do you keep bringing me back? You need me, Faye. You need me to do what you can't. How long would you have survived without me to look after you?

She closes her eyes, remembering. Lars's knife, heavy in her hand. The point digging into the skin at Deepak's temple. He'd coughed up blood, stared up at her with pleading eyes.

She couldn't do it. Not with him looking at her. And now Deepak is back; they're all back, to punish her for everything she did, everything she failed to do. The three of them, dead in the water. And Lars at her side.

They're climbing. She doesn't know how, but they're climbing, inching their way up the hull. She has the rifle, but there's three of them and she can't waste the cartridges. Maybe the knife, but she's left it in the cabin, but if that didn't work the first time around--

"Oh fuck, I'm losing my mind." She presses her hands against her face, forces herself to her feet. She stumbles to the side of the boat. It's a moment before she can make herself look, certain the last thing she will see is Deepak's frozen hand, reaching up for her.

There's nothing there. Of course there isn't. Lars finished him. He's dead. Really dead. And there's nothing there except the sunlight sparkling on the water.

We're going to die out here, Lars says again, and this time she can feel his breath against the back of her neck. She turns her head, knowing she will see him, or maybe just his white-eyed corpse, but of course there's nothing there.

"Speak for yourself," Faye mutters, and wraps her arms around herself, shivering. "You utter knob."

The trouble is he isn't wrong. Because she is dying, isn't she? With every day that passes, that's becoming clearer to her. She's been on her own too long.

So yeah, she's dying. There's no question of that. The only question is how fast or how slow? And the choice is up to her.

*

Inside the cabin, it's a little warmer. She scratches at her neck, then grimaces at the dirt packed beneath her fingernails. Maybe it's a good job she's alone. She can't remember the last shower she had. But she remembers the last bath all right, in that hotel room in Spitsbergen. She remembers sinking beneath the surface of the bubbles, the hot water rising like fingers to her scalp. Warm water. Shampoo. A proper bed, with a duvet crisp and white as freshly fallen snow. The breakfast buffet, pancakes made to order, stacked piles of pastries. Rye bread and smoked salmon and crispy strips of bacon lashed with maple syrup and freshly squeezed--

"Stop it, stop it, stop it."

She needs to be elsewhere. Needs to lose herself in something, just for a little while. Her gaze falls on her rifle first, and she wrenches it away towards the radio. She draws in a shaky breath, and all at once Lars is back. She can sense him behind her, can feel the weight of his watching gaze.

Don't touch it, he says. You know it won't help. It only makes you feel worse.

Even when he sounds calm, she can't ignore him. She cringes as she picks up the radio, hating herself for feeling so afraid of a man who isn't even there.

I'd leave it alone if I were you, he hisses, and although she hasn't heard him move his voice sounds in her ear.

She jerks her head around. He's not there. Hiding, she thinks, wildly, and then closes her eyes, ashamed at how delusional her thoughts have become. Of course he's not hiding. He's nothing more than a hallucination. Not even that.

Citizen Z on the other hand...

The first time she'd heard his voice had been shortly after Keppler's suicide. Leanne was starting to fall apart, constantly spinning the radio dial, searching for answers and finding only static, the background muzak of the apocalypse.

Only this time she twisted the dial and they weren't alone any more. She'd found something other than the death rattle of civilisation.

A man's voice. American. Young. Filled with something that might actually have been hope. That was something Faye hadn't heard in a while.

"--If anyone out there is listening, safe and warm and holed up against the Zs, or maybe not so safe, this isn't the end. People are out there. Fighting for survival. Fighting for the human race--"

And Lars, his eyes dark and burning, reached out and switched the radio off. When Leanne made a grab for it, he jerked it out of reach. She stood up, trembling, her face white with rage. Then she was gone, slamming the door behind her.

Leaving Faye with Lars. Alone.

Deepak's right below, she reminded herself. You're not afraid of Lars. You're safe.

Yeah, right.

"What the fuck, Lars?" she said, as soon as she could trust herself to speak.

And he smiled, his friendly, conversational self once more. "That guy's insane, he said, lighting a cigarette. Like always, he offered her one, and like always, she shook her head, although it was starting to seem pointless worrying about lung cancer in the middle of the zombie apocalypse. "Fucking nut-job. Calls himself Citizen Z."

"You've heard him before?"

He grunted. "He's based in some NSA facility on Ellesmere Island. I thought about raiding it for supplies, but it's too far inland. Besides they'll have shipped out, stripped it bare."

Faye sat up. "You mean, here in the Arctic? But if there's somewhere we can go, somewhere safe--"

"The boat is safe." His tone was final. Faye felt her resolve quail. You're not afraid of him. Not afraid of him. Not afraid of him. "Are you listening to me? They'll have shipped out. Long ago. There will be nothing there. Am I speaking English here, Faye? Sometimes I wonder."

"Yes," she whispered. "But Lars--"

"We are safe here, Faye. Trust me on this. That place is a fucking tomb."

And now she hesitates over the radio. Because dead or not, Lars has a point. Being so close to someone living, knowing that if she had the guts she might actually be able to reach out and communicate, possibly even more, that hurts. Because she knows she isn't brave enough. Not yet. She's been through too much, knows too well what the dangers are to a woman on her own. So she wavers, about to put the radio down again, bt then she hears it, the water slapping at the hull, and this time it sounds exactly like hands.

The dead things are closing in again.

"Fuck it," she says, and she's not sure whether she's talking to herself or to Lars or to the stranger on the other end of the radio. Possibly the only other living soul in the Arctic, impossibly close and impossibly far away all at once. And she switches on the radio, twists the dial like a junkie searching for one last rush.

At first there's nothing, and her eyes sting with tears, but suddenly there it is, not the voice she's been craving, but music – a song that she knows but cannot place. It fills her with a kind of fury that her memory is slipping so badly. Because she knows this band, can picture the lead singer strutting, hands on hips. In a flash it comes to her. It's the Rolling Stones, Gimme Shelter, and she sinks back with a laugh of relief and lets the sound of another world spill over her, washing away the pain and the fear just for a little while.

When the song finishes, there's a good half minute of dead air. Whoever Citizen Z is he's no professional disk jockey. She waits and pours herself a vodka, tops it up with a little more vodka, and soon enough he's there, the self-appointed narrator of the end of the world. No voices tonight other than his own: soft, melancholy and more than a little bit drunk.

Well, she intends to get more than a little bit drunk herself, so she toasts the radio, closing her eyes.

He might be a stranger, someone she will never meet, but other than her own his is the only real voice she's heard in close to three months now, and there's no more beautiful sound than that.