Erin couldn't help it but smile when she entered the rooms of the kindergarten of the Mountain. One of the projects she was most proud of. As important as smaller quarters and the canteen. Even more important than the cinema and the library. She had always been the one who took care of it that the people felt as comfortable as it was possible in times like these, while Markus took care of the important things: the maintenance and expansion of the supply buildings, the water supply, and the electricity. The security of the whole complex and of everyone who was living in Thunder Mountain.
For Markus' plans it was helpful, that the former military laboratory was built into a mountain for the most part; self-supply in every kind of way had been as self-evident as maximum security. When the Big Death had killed most of the adults, the world had turned into chaos without rules, and places like the Mountain were like a last refuge.
At first, Erin hadn't been able to understand, that Markus tried to keep the place secret and not to let in everyone; the massive gates were closed day and night, he had even deployed guards to make sure that no one would find a secret path into the Mountain.
„Who gives you the right to do that,“ she had asked him almost angry.
„The Mountain has so many resources. We should share.“
Markus had looked at her, his gray eyes calm and serious as ever.
„The Mountain still has resources because I take care for that,“ he said.
„What do you think, what will happen, when I let everyone in? The skinheads from last week. They would take what they want, with brute force when it is necessary. They don't think about others, nor about tomorrow.
Have you ever thought about what will be in some years when we all act that thoughtlessly?“
Erin had kept quiet; since the Big Death time seemed to be a matter of most unimportance. It was all about surviving the next day; who did know what would be in five years, or ten. And it actually didn't matter at all. The old times, the good times were gone forever; the world would never be the same again.
„I think that we will still have a chance to survive when we are willing to work for it,“ Markus had continued.
„The Mountain can be the beginning when we use all the resources wisely. We can build up a new world, Erin. It will be a long way. A hard way. And maybe we will never see the outcome of all this. But our children will. I want believe that the world still has a future."
Suddenly he had looked sad.
„I've promised it,“ he murmured.
„I've promised my mother at the moment she died, never to give up.“
Later Erin couldn't even say, from where she had gotten the courage to ask him. Maybe his words had managed it to raise up hope in her again; the hope she had lost ages ago, the day when the world did break down around her.
„This is a big mission. Do you need some help?“
And he had smiled. She was in the Mountain for two months already, but she had never seen him smiling before. Her heart beat faster when he grabbed for her hands, hold them gently.
„I do,“ he answered.
„I need someone at my side I can trust. Someone who is willing to go this way together with me, no matter what will happen.“
This had been about ten years ago. Erin had never put her decision in question. The Mountain was her home; she knew almost everyone who was living here. About four hundred people in the meantime, men, woman and children; and even more on the farms and the small towns around.
All of them counted on the protection of the Mountain and believed in the future Markus had promised them. He was a great leader even in difficult times; smart, cautious, only willing to take a risk when it was necessary. She was his right hand, his confidant, maybe the only one who knew all about his thoughts and plans. The Mountain was just the beginning,
There had been a time where she had hoped it could be more between them. But beside of some fleetingly moments of intimacy nothing had happened. And she had finally accepted it that Markus' mission was to give all people a better future and not to love her alone.
She knew her heart would always only belong to him, but to mourn about something she would never get made no sense. Better to be thankful for what she had. Her life was not a lonely one. Markus used to say, that she was the soul of the Mountain.
„Without you, everything I do would be in vain,“ he had told her once.
Smiling Erin had protested, but she knew that maybe he was right. The people respected him. They followed his rules. They trusted him. They did believe in him. And yes, they loved him, but in a distant way.
They would never dare to bother him with their day-to-day problems, their secret wishes. The children would never ask him to tell them a story or play with them. Not even his closest confidants like Lee, Jeremiah or Kurdy had ever managed it to overstep the line between respect and friendship. Markus was a loner who only talked when it was necessary and who rarely smiled.
Erin, though, was one of them. She understood quickly that regular meals and fresh water, electricity, and safety were not all. The world they were living into was a dark and dangerous one and the better future Markus wanted for all of them had only a chance when people started to find hope again; when they learned to laugh and to enjoy the small things again. They needed a reason to live, not just to survive the day.
It had taken some time to convince Markus, that smaller quarters with only two or three beds were important to give people at least some privacy. That biscuits in the morning and jelly-o for dessert were not luxuries but things people had missed for much too long.
She had built up a library in one of the empty rooms of the Mountain, and she had re-opened the old cinema.
„That's such a waste of time and energy,“ Markus had protested at first.
„We can't effort that.“
Erin had smiled.
„It is what most people are longing for. Some destruction, a touch of normality.“
And he had given in; a wise decision. People loved the monthly movie events, and Erin had been surprised that even guys like Kurdy Malloy came into the library for a book and for some minutes of chatting with her now and then.
Sometime later Jeremiah and Kurdy had met Michelle. The young woman was the leader of a small group of people living on an old farm some miles away. She had made it her business to keep the old world alive; whenever she could, she collected art and books and every other kind of stuff which seemed worth to be saved from the ruin. A difficult task in the chaotic world they were living into now, where all that counted was to survive the next day.
Erin did understand, and she asked Markus to offer Michelle some rooms in the Mountain to store the things at a safe place. The two young woman became close friends soon.
“Tell me when you need my help,“ Michelle had said one day. And Erin had accepted this offer gladly. Together they had built up the kindergarten for the youngest children and the school for the older ones.
To see the abandoned children everywhere had always torn Erin apart. She had been fourteen when the virus had caused the Big Death, she had seen her parents die, her sister just vanished one night, and she didn't know what had happened to her. But she was strong, she had managed it to survive. Even if she didn't like to think about the year before Markus found her and took her to the Mountain; sometimes she still had nightmares.
Other children weren't as lucky as she had been. Too young, too helpless, too afraid. Alone in the world. Many of them would never get a fair chance. But some of them could be saved now. Markus had given out the order to his investigation crews to bring the children to the Mountain when they were too young or too weak to survive on their own. Often they just needed some time to rest, then he sent them to the farms nearby where they could do easy work for a safe place to recover; most of them decided to stay. The younger ones, though, found a new home in the Mountain.
Michelle spent as much time as possible together with the older children at school.
„They should know about the old times,“ she said.
„It's as important as to learn to write, to read or math. Once there was so much beauty in the world. Books and music and art. We can't let it happen that all this will be forgotten one day.“
Erin preferred to spend most of her free time in the kindergarten with the babies and the youngest. It was her refuge when her world around her seemed to broke down once again. When the nightmares grabbed for her again. When Markus' plans had failed, and she had spent the night together with him discussing the next steps. When a mission went wrong, when they hadn't only material losses but also a good guy or woman, a friend, didn't come back home again.
The people in the Mountain loved her, Markus needed her, but there was no one she could talk with when she felt at the end of her tether. The kindergarten always made her feel better.
To take care of the babies was very comforting; they were too young to understand what was going on around them. All they needed were a warm bed, something to eat and some love. It was more difficult when they were older, three or four years old; they often came to the Mountain with a deep trauma. They refused to talk, to eat, to sleep; they cried when someone tried to touch them.
But no matter how much time and patience was needed to gain their confidence, Erin was not willing to give them up only one of them. And the moment they smiled at her for the first time reminded her why she still was here and never would stop fighting.