For July, I’m posting a serial story. You can come back and read a segment each week or scroll to the end of the post to download an epub or mobi file to take with you.
Soshi Patel believes herself the last inhabitant on earth, trapped in an abandoned prepper’s shelter, living by candlelight and on canned peaches. Out of desperation, she uses the last of her good candles to build a ham radio from a kit. When she connects with a voice on the other side, it’s more than she could’ve hoped for.
But this voice, this Jatar, knows things he shouldn’t. As he comforts Soshi through the last days on a dying earth, it becomes clear that he carries his own burden, the weight of which can only be measured in time.
I use the last of the good candles to build the radio. I still have light. The fire burns, and there is a never-ending supply of the cheap, waxy candles in the storeroom. I will—eventually—burn through all of those. My fire will die. The cold will invade this space.
But today I have a radio. Today I will speak to the world—or what’s left of it. I compare my radio to the picture in the instructions. It looks the same, but not all the steps had illustrations. This troubles me. My radio may not work.
I crank the handle to charge the battery. This feels good. This warms my arms, and I must take deep breaths to keep going. I shake out my hand and crank some more. When buzz and static fill my ears, I nearly jump. That, too, sounds warm. I am so used to the cold. The creak and groan of ice, the howl of the wind. These cold sounds are their own kind of silence. They hold nothing warm or wet or alive.
I decide on a frequency for no other reason than I like the number. I press the button on the mouthpiece. This, according to the instructions, will let the world hear me.
“Hello?” My voice warbles and I leap back, as if something might spring from the speakers.
Nothing does, of course. In fact, nothing happens at all. It takes more than one try to reach the world.
“Hello? Hello? Is anyone there? Can you hear me? I would like to talk to you.”
Perhaps I should try another frequency—or try a little patience. If someone is out there with a radio, might they right now be cranking a handle to charge a battery, or sleeping, or adding wood to their fire? This last is something I must do and soon. The embers grow a bright orange, but the chill has invaded the edges of the room.
That means venturing outside. Of all the chores, I like this one the least. The trek to the shed is short, but nothing lights my way. The dark is just that: dark. While the cold is fierce, I know nothing can lurk outside my shelter, waiting to pounce. And yet, every time I collect wood, it’s as if a predator stalks me. I anticipate claws digging into my shoulder, sharp teeth at my neck, my spine cracked in half.
But the only thing outside my shelter is the cold. But it is the cold that will take me in the end. So in a sense, I am its prey and it is stalking me.
With my parka buttoned tight, I clip myself to the rope between my shelter and the shed. Wind tears at me, and I plod to the shed. I pat the pile of wood, reassured that yes, it is substantial. For now. With my arms full, I push against the wind and spill into the shelter.
It’s then I hear something. At first, I don’t recognize it because it’s been so long since I’ve heard that sound. Then the notion of it lights my mind. I fly across the room, wood spilling from my arms, the wind banging the door behind me.
It’s a voice.
I grab the mouthpiece, my thumb clumsy through wool mittens.
“Hello! Hello! Are you there? Can you hear me? Hello?”
The wind screams at my back. The door slams against the wall, the noise like a death knell.
“Please. Talk to me.”
My small space is chaos. Whirling snow, slamming door, biting wind, and scattered wood. It is too loud and too cold for anyone to hear me over the radio, and I have foolishly let the heat escape. It will take hours to warm the air to the point where I can sit without my body convulsing with shivers.
I have been so very foolish.
I fight the wind to shut the door. With it latched, I turn to inspect the mess. Stoke the fire first. Perhaps by the time I stack the wood and sweep the debris, the flames will throw enough heat that I can sit, crank the radio, and try again.
After I clean, after I heat my insides with broth, I crank the handle and try the radio again. I send my voice into the endless night, into the world, maybe even the universe. My voice could go on forever, long after I am gone. But that doesn’t seem to matter.
No one answers.
* * *
When I wake, my nose is chilled, but only slightly. The air holds enough warmth that I can move and think. The fire is hungry, I can tell, but content to give me heat for the moment. Last night’s folly has not ruined anything. My gaze lands on the radio, and I wonder. Is it more of a curse than a possible blessing?
I will try again today. It will not hurt to try. It will keep me warm and keep me busy. As long as I don’t hope too much, it cannot hurt me, either.
After I eat a can of peaches for breakfast, I set to the task of cranking the handle and giving the battery a full charge. I debate switching frequencies. I wonder if that voice I heard was merely wishful thinking. These thoughts do not stop my thumb from pressing the button.
“Hello? Are you there? I think I heard you last night. Well, it’s always night here. I mean, before. I heard you before.”
Even now, without the sun, I still think in night and day, breakfast and dinner. I could have broth for breakfast, but I never do. I could reconstitute eggs and eat them for dinner, but again, I never do. I am a creature of habits. Now, these habits are all I have left.
“Is there anyone there?” I speak slowly, in case these words must fight the static to reach whoever is on the other side. “Should I change frequencies?”
This seems to be a silly question. If no one has answered my other calls, I’m not certain why this would compel them to. My fingers touch the dial. I’m about to spin it when something crackles over the speaker.
I stare at the space in front of the radio as if it’s possible to see the owner of this voice.
“No?” My reply is a tiny thing.
“Don’t … don’t change the frequency … there’s a good girl. Hold tight, I’m having some technical difficulties, but I’m here.”
“I don’t understand. You can hear me?”
“I can hear you.”
“You have a radio too?”
“In a manner of speaking. I have a way to talk to your radio, at least.”
Again, I stare at the space in front of the radio. I even wave a hand in the air. The voice is so rich and deep and clear. Yes, there is no static on my frequency. I wonder if that is something this other voice has done.
“Are you a man?” I ask.
“In a manner of speaking.”
I laugh. The button on the mouthpiece is still depressed, so this voice, this man, hears my laughter. His own in response is as rich as his voice.
“I don’t know what that means,” I say.
“I don’t either, except that I was a man, once—or male, at least. If that makes sense,” he says, his reply filled with both humor and sadness. “Now I am, perhaps, less than that.”
I still don’t understand, but I’m not certain it matters. Not when there’s a voice on the other side of this endless night, not when that voice wants to talk to me.
“I’m Soshi,” I say, a strange, unaccountable shyness invading my voice and heating my cheeks.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Soshi. I am Jatar.”
I like the way his name feels in my mouth, and I say it out loud. “Jatar.” Yes, it is delicious. Speaking is delicious. I touch my cheeks. The skin burns hot, but my fingers are like ice. The fire. Too late, I realize I’ve let it die down far too much.
“Oh, no,” I murmur. “I forgot about the fire.”
“Go, go. Tend to your fire. Then fix yourself something to eat, and come back and charge your battery. I will be here, on this frequency.”
“Always? When I call, you will be there?”
“In these times, Soshi, there aren’t many things I can promise. But I will promise you this. I will always be on this frequency, and I will always hear your call.”
In a Manner of Speaking was first published in Selfies from the End of the World: Historical Accounts of the Apocalypse and in audio at Escape Pod.
Want the story to go? Download it over at BookFunnel.