Station A3 Is Still Operational

He took another bite of oatmeal and turned the page. He was reading one of those trashy romance novels you see at the supermarket — one of only 3 remaining books in the station he hadn’t already read. The station was completely silent aside from the ever-present low hum of electricity and the generators chugging along outside. It had been windy all day — the frozen Antarctic air occasionally slapping the vinyl flaps over the windows against each other.

Just as he was about to begin a new chapter, he heard a loud banging on the door. All of his senses kicked into high alert and he spun to look at it. Maybe a tool had been blown against the door? There were three more knocks. And a muffled voice outside. “Anyone in there? Hello!?” He got up and rushed across the room, grabbing his rifle. He tiptoed to the door and peeked through the narrow slit into the blinding white show outside. Suddenly a man’s face filled the slit. “Hello? Is someone in there?”

He gripped the rifle tightly. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”

“My name’s Antonio! I’m from Station A1! I got your transmission a week ago!”

He pointed the rifle directly at the slit. “My radio’s been down for over a month. Who are you?”

He could make out Antonio’s eyes through his goggles as they squinted through the slit. “Then there must’ve been a power surge or something! I promise I’m telling the truth. You said you were the last survivor of Station A3. ‘Anyone out there who can still hear me can find sanctuary here. Station A3 is still operational.’ Those were your words, right? That was your message?”

He paused briefly with his hand over the door handle for a few seconds before opening it. “Come in slowly,” he said, pointing the rifle at Antonio’s chest. “Where are you from, Antonio?”

“Like I said, Station A1. Before that Arlington, Virginia.”

“How long were you at A1?”

“I came in the first wave two years ago. I’ve been there the whole time.”

He studied Antonio’s face, red from its brief exposure to subzero temperature. He looked outside at Antonio’s tractor.

“You drove that piece of junk all the way here?”

“Yeah, a hundred and fifty miles. It gave out on a me a couple times but… I was desperate. And lonely.”

“You promise you’re who you say you are? You give me your word?”

“I promise. You have my word.”

He lowered the rifle and set it on the floor and extended his hand to Antonio. “Ok, Antonio. I’m Luke. Welcome to Station A3. I hope you like oatmeal and dried fruit.” They shook hands.

When Antonio returned to the station with all of his belongings from the truck, Luke went about setting him up in his own quarters with a cot. “World’s shortest scary story,” Luke muttered under his breath.

“Come again?” Antonio asked.

“I heard that somewhere a long time ago. World’s shortest scary story: The last person on earth hears a knock at the door.”

“Well,” Antonio sighed while unpacking his luggage. “I guess it’s a good thing for both of us you’re not the last person on earth.”

On their fifth night Luke and Antonio treated themselves to a dinner of rice with black beans and garlic — a modest award for spending most of the day fixing the air ventilation system on the roof.

“I don’t mean to pry,” Luke asked. “But I noticed a photo of a girl on your door earlier. Daughter?”

“Niece,” Antonio replied curtly.

“Wanna talk about it?”

“Not particularly,” Antonio brought his plate to the sink and rinsed it off. He looked through the window through the howling wind and into the night sky, blanketed with stars so much brighter than he had ever seen in Arlington.

The greatest discovery in the history of mankind had not been a life form on another far-off planet as he’d always assumed it’d be, but, in fact, just the opposite: Definitive proof of an afterlife here on earth. The discovery had been made two years earlier by a team of scientists working out of a lab in Sendai, Japan — then confirmed and substantiated by a half dozen other labs in other countries. Their findings were presented to the public with infrared images of countless tiny heat signatures occupying an endless plane filled with enormous rock and sand formations under a bright sun and two moons. The photos were haunting. This existed, the scientists explained, in a realm overlapping with ours — like another dimension occurring in real time, but not quite. Think of it, one scientist tried to explain, as though our world is a thin layer of paint covering this other world just behind it.

When the scientists began devising ways to scrape the paint off, things took a turn. The brains and electrochemical makeup of the terminally ill were mapped and then identified one by one after they had died. A Silicon Valley tech company created a virtual reality program that would allow users to search for, find, and interact with the recently deceased. But the trials were disastrous. Nearly everyone who used the VR program would exit it disoriented, confused, and in time, increasingly detached from reality. And everyone that those people then went on to interact with, would begin to experience the same.

When the VR program leaked onto the internet and became readily available to anyone who wanted to roll the dice and give it a shot, a full blown global catastrophe was unleashed. The fabric of time and reality became more and more strained, ripping wide open at various parts of the planet. Whole neighborhoods and populations began to vanish into thin air. Mass hysteria took hold. In a last ditch effort to save the species from whatever was being inflicted upon it, governments sent select teams of scientists to the most secluded and least populated reaches of the planet — places didn’t seem to be as affected by the cataclysm. Ostensibly they were sent there to research the event from a safe distance beyond its reach but Antonio knew they were simply meant to try to ride out the storm. If it ever actually ended, that is. And so it was that Antonio found himself all the way at the bottom of the planet as the rest of the world tore itself to pieces and plunged into madness. The five other members of Station A1 had succumbed to despair, or the grip of the cataclysm that had somehow found them all the way in Antarctica, opting to wander off one by one in the middle night, into the tundra, never to return. Antonio wondered for months if he was the last person on earth. And then he received Luke’s transmission.

On the 13th night, Luke and Antonio shared the station’s last bottle of whisky.

“Why are we doing this?” Luke asked. “Like I know neither of us wants to say it, but it’s just the two of us left, right?”

“Before New Zealand went to hell I had a sort of pen pal — but with radios instead of letters obviously — at NZ4. He was a sweet guy, big talker. We talked about this a lot.”

“So? What did you decide? I mean I’m sure I’m great company and all but what makes you want to wake up every morning in this tiny shack in Antarctica and eat more rice and beans and oatmeal and go to bed and do it all again the next day? I mean, what’s the point?”

Antonio took a sip of whisky and thought for a minute. He took another sip. “The girl in the photo you asked about, my niece. Cynthia. She passed away a couple years ago, pretty much right after everything — whatever we’re even calling this thing — before the world started to unravel. I don’t have any kids and her dad split the scene early, so she was kind of like a daughter to me I guess. She and her mom lived a couple hours away in West Virginia but I pitched in as much as I could. Anyway, a little bit before she died, it was really sad, her boyfriend was killed in a car accident. Great kid. Just awful. Cynthia was all broken up over it and I didn’t blame her. My sister and I didn’t find out until sometime afterwards, but apparently she’d used that virtual reality app thing to try to find him or talk to him or something. I don’t know if she ever did. But whatever was there got in her head, like the others. Her mom called me one day. She said it was like Cynthia was off in her own world or something, acting super strange. I drove up, tried to talk with her. It was the weirdest thing. It was like Cynthia couldn’t see us trying to help her or even interact with her. She kept begging ‘please talk to me, please say something to me,’ and we’d tell her we are! We’re right here. What’s going on with you?’ She thought we were ignoring her. We weren’t. We couldn’t get her to snap out of it. It was the most awful goddamn thing. We tried to get her help. She threw herself off a bridge before we could.”

Antonio took another drink of whisky and closed his eyes.

“I felt like I failed her. Maybe if I had tried harder. I don’t know. I wake up in the morning because I feel like I owe her a debt. I wake up in the morning and I put my hands on her shoulders and look her in the eyes and say ‘I’m right here. Right in front of you. I’m not going anywhere.’ I’ll do it again and again, every day, until she understands. I know that doesn’t totally make sense.”

“Things haven’t made sense for a long time,” Luke assured him. They finished the bottle.

On the 22nd day, Antonio shuffled through the station’s lone bookshelf, trying to pick a new book to read. As he pulled one from the shelf to examine closer, a folder fell to the ground. Luke picked it up and opened it. A few pages and graphs and other printouts. And a photo of the crew of Station A3.

“You know,” Luke’s voice piped up behind him. “I had a nagging feeling that was around here somewhere. But I just couldn’t find it.”

Antonio closed the folder, his back to Luke. “You could just lie. Honestly you could. You could just say that you’re the one who took the photo and that’s why you’re not in it. I’d play along. I wouldn’t mind.”

“I think it’s fairly obvious the people in that photo are gathered around a laptop’s camera lens. In either case, I don’t really see the point in dragging this out any longer, do you?”

Antonio turned to face him. “So, what, the transmission was a trap? To lure me here?”

“Well, not you specifically. Just whoever was still left down here. Believe it or not, I think you’re the last of them.”

Antonio set the folder on the table next to him. “Are you the devil?” his voice quivered.

Luke sighed. “No, Antonio. I’m not the devil. The devil doesn’t really exist as you think it does but honestly if I tried to explain any more of it to you, your brain would turn to liquid and spill right out of your ears. The best way to describe it is, I’m just bleach. And even all the way down here, in the whitest place in the galaxy, there’s one tiny speck I need to clean up.”

“Right,” Antonio said. “The world’s shortest scary story.”

“You’re the one who knocked. And you’re not the last person on earth, just the last living one. Jesus, even after all you’ve seen, with your own eyes, you people still don’t get it. This entire place is an accident. A tiny, inconsequential glitch that never should’ve happened. You think the world is ending, but the real world is simply restoring its dominance. That’s where I’m from. And that’s where you’re about to go, Antonio.”

Antonio walked to the door and looked outside.

“Time to wrap this up, Antonio. It looks like a beautiful day for a walk. Wouldn’t you agree it’s a beautiful day for a walk?”

Antonio swallowed hard and began to retrieve his coat and gear.

“No,” Luke said. “You won’t be needing that.”

Antonio walked to the door in his t-shirt and shorts and opened it, the frigid arctic air hitting him like a brick wall.

“We’ll be seeing each other again, Antonio. Real soon. Believe that.”

Antonio stepped out into the snow and began walking away from Station A3. Within seconds his body was numb — and then in pain — and then numb again. He kept walking until the station was out of view. The wind blew sheets of snow in every direction until he was lost in a cold white cloud. His senses deteriorated until he could no longer differentiate the sky from the ground. It all blurred together into whiteness without form or context. He couldn’t remember why he was in the snow. He couldn’t remember where he was or how he got there. His mind began to transform into something else. He collapsed and ran his hands into the snow, until it was sand.