After the Apocalypse

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After the Apocalypse

Samuel Marshall

The engine growled to life and Justin threw the big Ford into gear. Gravel scattered from beneath the SUV’s tires as it jerked forward across the dusty parking lot.

‘Where are we headed?’ Matt asked from the passenger seat.

‘Wait and see.’ He had to wait, too, just briefly for a couple of cars to pass before making the left onto 13th Street. ‘An old office complex, like I said. Labs maybe. I’ve not been there before either.’

‘Crazy habit you got, man.’ Matt cracked a wide-open smile, afternoon sun through the windshield bathing his boyish features in an angelic glow.

‘You’re the one asked to come along.’

‘Yeah, I’m just kidding.’ They swept through the Deer Avenue intersection on green, and Matt glanced aside at the signage. ‘You’re heading west, right? Why not take the freeway?’

‘Cops on the freeway. Sometimes they flag you down, ask what you’re doing.’

‘But you’ve got a story, right?’

‘Sure I’ve got a story. Still best if I don’t need to tell it.’

‘I guess.’

One more intersection; they’d left the centre now, cruising at forty through the old town that shrank around the new like vast folds of loosely-fitting skin, shrivelled and dessicated. No more traffic here; the street was empty and desolate. A boarded-up pharmacy, a garage, a sandwich bar with its smashed neon sign. An old office block, towering into the sky, its lower windows smothered with decaying posters. He’d already been in that one, years back. Taken some good photos.

Potholes marred the road occasionally and he slowed to avoid them, edging from side to side. There were whole blocks like this, four or five of them, with not a sign of life save stray cats and one single hobo, slouched against a doorway. He didn’t even look up to see them pass.

A faded sign ahead had once pronounced the city limits, back when the city had really extended this far and before years of weathering had stripped it almost bare of paint. 13th Street continued as the old highway, striking directly west between industrial complexes set wide of the road. Now and then signs of activity issued from a plant they passed, smoke rising from a chimney or the off-key clangor of some warning bell.

‘Crazy to think this whole strip used to be working.’ Matt waved his arm in an encompassing gesture. ‘Must’ve been hella busy.’

‘Lose nine in ten people and that’s nine in ten factories you don’t need either.’

‘Yeah, I know. Still... shit.’

Justin shrugged uneasily at that, the swearword jarring sharply in his ears.

‘Worried about a little cursing?’ Matt laughed. ‘We’re out of the city, man. Out of sight. Nobody’s watching here. That’s why you like it, you said.’

‘Yeah, I guess.’ Hard to shake off a lifetime’s inhibitions, that was all.

He’d gone on trips like this every Saturday for years, but always alone. There was something a little frightening about bringing a friend. His little secret, revealed to another. It was about opening up, he supposed. Always hard to do that, even though Matt was a good friend at work. Even though he was a really nice guy.

The car bumped over a crack and Justin grasped the wheel more tightly, watched the surface ahead. They didn’t repair this road often – why bother, when it led only to a small handful of remaining businesses. Those who wanted to travel further took the freeway, which ran for hundreds of miles through barren wasteland until you reached the next city proper. There were exits before that, to be sure: some of them collapsed and closed off, many still open. But nobody wanted to take them. Nothing of interest remained in the vast, desolate middleground. Nothing of interest, except to him.

Industrial ruin gave way to farmland. Occasionally they saw tractors working the fields, large metal monsters in peeling paint. A truck passed them on the road, the first vehicle they’d seen since the city, stacked high with bales of autumn hay. Christian rock blared from the open cab window; leaning through it, the driver offered a friendly nod. Neither vehicle was moving particularly fast, so Justin had time to politely return the gesture. The sight of people made him nervous but there was nothing particularly suspicious about his dirty, battered SUV, which could easily belong to a farm-worker further out.

It took another hour to reach their destination. The pair of them said little, sat in comparative silence as the car rumbled along and warm, orange sunlight washed over them. It was a comfort to have someone else there, Justin thought now. He stole a glance at his friend’s honest face, relaxed against the seatrest with eyes closed. Not asleep, but with something of the same innocence. He should try to capture that, later, on film. Get Matt to pose in some of the shots, or catch him unaware.

And there it was, a smooth asphalt drive snaking off to the left into woods. He swung the Ford into the turn, road noise shifting subtly in timbre. Now a sense of excitement stirred within him. This was new territory; he’d never been this way. On an earlier trip he’d spotted the junction, stopped to examine it. A large metal sign had been removed from the ground, sawn off so that metal stumps protruded from a concrete base, with no other information... It had been getting late at the time so he’d let it lie. After checking against old maps, though, he knew where it should lead. It sounded like his kind of place.

‘Are we there yet?’ Matt joked, imitating a child’s voice as he sat up and watched dense trees pass by the passenger window. The car bumped and swayed on a surface rarely-used but made uneven by roots that felt their way beneath its surface.

‘Nearly.’ The road rose through the woods, twisting back on itself a few times until it finally crested a small hill. Land beyond the top sloped gradually down in a cleared area, beginning with an expansive parking lot now marred by undergrowth. A tall chain-link fence beyond, festooned with vines and creepers, formed the border of a large compound. Within it stood a rectangular two-storey building. Faced in plain, utilitarian concrete, it seemed pristine and new, its white walls glowing faintly orange in the late afternoon sun.

‘This is it? Doesn’t look that special.’

‘No,’ Justin agreed, his excitement undiminished. ‘But I’ve never been here before. Nor has anyone else, maybe for twenty years. You never know what we might find inside.’

‘You’re weird, man. You know that?’ Matt laughed.

The SUV bumped slowly over weeds and uneven paving, crossing the old parking lot to the fence. Justin killed the engine, applied the handbrake, and they sat for a moment in the unaccustomed quiet, silent but for cooling clicks within the engine, a whisper of wind outside.

‘Let’s go.’ Justin opened the driver-side door and climbed down onto aging asphalt, reaching beneath his seat to pick up a battered camera bag. He closed the door but didn’t bother to lock it; who’d come out here to steal a car?

The passenger door slammed shut and Matt walked around to join him as he pulled the Nikon from his bag.

‘Nice camera. Black market import?’

‘On our salary? You’ve got to be kidding.’ He settled the strap around his neck, checked film was loaded. ‘Dunno if they even make cameras any more in... where was it, Japan? Anyhow, this was my dad’s. Only thing of his I’ve got.’

‘He died in the flu?’ Matt moved a fraction closer, sympathetic. ‘Sorry, man.’

‘I was like three. Don’t even remember him.’ Justin shrugged. ‘Good camera, though. Lenses are much better than those Kodak pieces of–’ He paused, having been about to say ‘junk’. What the heck, Matt was right, nobody was listening. ‘Of shit.’

Matt laughed. ‘You go, man. What now? How do we get in?’

He turned his attention to the fence where a wide metal gate had once provided access to the compound. A heavy padlock sealed its bolt, and weeds grew among the bars.

‘Over this.’ Justin gripped two of the vertical bars, hauling himself up and jamming one foot into the gap above the bolt. With a surge of exertion he shoved himself higher, wriggling around so that he sat atop the gate and looked down at Matt. ‘Come on.’

‘You’re a damn monkey. I can’t do that!’

In answer, Justin reached down with one arm. Bracing himself on his bottom, he took firm hold of Matt’s hand and helped haul him to the foothold. In a moment the other man sat beside him. ‘See? Easy.’

‘Yeah, right,’ Matt muttered, but he grinned. Justin released his hand, though the warmth seemed to cling for a moment. Maybe it was the heat of sunlight that shone from their left, casting dappled shadows over the vegetation that trailed from the fence.

‘Let’s go.’ Justin twisted around on the gate, shoving himself off to drop into a crouch on the paving within. Matt followed without complaint that time, and the two of them approached the building together.

The area within the fence had surely once been a tidy lawn. Now a sea of waist-high grass, specked by the occasional dot of colour from a wild flower, surrounded the metalled path. A single bee buzzed lazily around them; distant, twittering birdsong issued from the surrounding woods. The lightest warm breeze tickled Justin’s cheeks.

‘Nice afternoon,’ Matt said.

‘Yeah. Getting on, though. We’ll try the west end of the building, should be better light there – hold on, I want to get a picture of the door.’

He framed it carefully: the glass-and-metal door providing entrance to a gloomy atrium, along with the sign beside. Schmidt Wilson Biotech. Click. ‘Okay.’

‘Biotech, huh? What’s that?’

Justin thought back to a vaguely-remembered high school lesson. ‘An example of the sin of pride? Trying to rival our Creator? Something like that.’ His voice twisted sarcastically. ‘They didn’t actually say what it did. But it’s one of the industries they shut down in the Troubles. That’s how I knew for sure it’d be empty.’

It was empty, wasn’t it? He paused on that thought, listened cautiously. Nothing but the gentle sounds of nature. And there’d been no other cars. Definitely empty.

It would be locked, of course. Somebody would have cleared the building decades back, taken out everything worth selling and just left it. In his experience, even though this meant there was nothing worth stealing either, such people inevitably locked the door.

Stepping up to it, he pressed his hand against the glass and pushed. It resisted solidly. And no handle... he looked down, saw the track it ran on, and tried shoving the door sideways. Miracle of miracles, it shifted; only half an inch, but now he could get his finger in the crack. He put his weight into it and forced it the rest of the way open.

‘Not even locked? Is that usual?’

‘No.’ Justin glanced around, pointed at an unobtrusive black box set in the wall. Some kind of entry security. ‘It probably opened electrically. A couple decades without power put paid to that. You ready to go in?’


He took half a step inside, then paused; some half-heard sound made him look up. Caw! – a crow’s harsh call, startlingly close. The large bird launched itself away from the roof directly above, its ragged black wings flapping against the sky. Instinctively he raised his camera, far too late.

A pressure on his side: his companion, twitching in shock, had ended up close against him. ‘Sorry, man.’ Matt moved away a pace, blushing in embarrassment. ‘Shit. Got me scared.’

‘Only a bird.’ Justin shrugged. ‘I’ve seen worse. Rats, say. Lots of rats.’

‘Thanks for that. Now I really want to go inside.’

‘Stay out here if you like.’

‘Nah, man, I’m only kidding. Ready to face anything, me.’ He threw a quick grin, then grabbed Justin’s shoulder and shoved him forward. ‘After you, though.’

Laughing, Justin stumbled into the gloomy lobby. Large pots on the floor held dry soil and dead plants, grey in dim ambient light from the door. He paused, took a picture; reached out gingerly to touch a leaf. It crumbled to dust beneath his fingers.

‘Damn,’ Matt muttered, close behind. ‘This is some creepy shit.’

‘Least the plants didn’t grow all over everything.’ Justin took a deep breath; the air smelt musty but dry. Good. Shouldn’t be much in the way of fungus.

‘Wanna go upstairs?’ Matt pointed at a wide flight of stairs that rose along the back of the lobby, around one side of the unoccupied reception desk.

‘Let’s do the ground floor first.’ He pushed tentatively at a door on the right; it swung open easily enough, though dry hinges creaked in complaint.

Light filtered faintly into the corridor from the right, where glass panels in office doors shone faintly. There were doors on the left, too, but those led into pitch-black inner rooms; offices too, a quick flick of his flashlight revealed. Rooms on both sides had been stripped, large unwieldy desks the only furniture that had escaped salvage.

Justin poked around in a few of the windowed offices, photographing whatever piece of detritus caught his eye: a computer mouse, a stack of discs, a heap of scientific textbooks slumped untidily on one remaining shelf. The light wasn’t great here, but he liked to be thorough. He finished a film, stood in a shadowy corner to load another roll. ‘Sorry, Matt. Guess you’re pretty bored. Go on ahead if you like.’

Matt shook his head. ‘It’s okay. Call me a coward, but I don’t wanna be on my own in here. Gives me the creeps. Like a graveyard or something.’

‘Yeah. At least, like a memorial to something gone.’

‘All the people who died?’

‘Maybe. I was thinking of, like... science. Or this sort anyway.’ He pointed at the textbooks. ‘You know. All this jun– shit. Stopped. Just like that. Kind of a pity for the guys who worked here.’

Matt shrugged. ‘They say that’s what angered God, right? Scientists. Along with, you know, moral decay and crap. That’s why he sent the bird flu.’

‘My aunt said that was bullshit,’ Justin said morosely, staring at his own dusty footprints. ‘Just an excuse to grab power.’

‘She brought you up after you lost your parents? I never knew that.’

‘Yeah. She’s in prison now –’ he broke off suddenly, remembering to control himself. ‘Shit, actually, forget I even said that back there. She’s nice and all but I don’t really want to join her.’

Matt laughed. ‘It’s okay, man. We’re in the middle of nowhere. You can say what you like out here, do what you like. Nobody’s gonna see. Isn’t that why you do these trips?’

He hadn’t really thought of it that way. ‘Yeah, maybe you’re right. Come on, let’s get a move on.’

The corridor made a left at the western end of the building; far more photogenic, here, sunbeams streaming through windows to construct glowing three-dimensional shapes of dust and light. He took a few pictures, set up his tripod for another.

Matt placed a hand on his shoulder. ‘Want me in this one? I could stand in the light...’

‘Sure. Please,’ Justin agreed. He’d been thinking the same, but embarrassment had kept him from asking. ‘There... back a bit... turn your head... okay.’

The shot looked great, framed in his viewfinder. Like a classical painting, an angel standing in cathedral cloisters. Warm light made Matt’s smoothly-shaven face glow, highlighted folds in the cloth of his half-buttoned shirt, his denim jeans. He really did look gorgeous. Like he could be a model or something.

Finished with the picture, Justin picked up his gear and checked out the rooms. More offices; nothing much there. A few places where light and shadow made an interesting composition anyhow. He got Matt to pose a couple more times, finished off his second film, and reached into his camera bag for another while it was rewinding. The plastic container felt a little sticky; he realised suddenly that he was sweating. All the windows were closed and it had been a warm day, the sun still strong.

‘Let’s try the second floor.’


The corridor led back around to the reception area, completing a rectangular circuit. Cautiously Justin tested the wide stairs, but they seemed firm, unrotted, metal supports free from rust. He led the way to the top, where doors opened from a spacious landing. Over a steel railing you could see down to the lobby, daylight filtering through the door they’d forced open to dimly illuminate the plastic seats, heavy ceramic pots, dessicated plants. He took another photo before turning his attention to the western exit.

The heavy fire door didn’t open easily. He had to push with all his strength until it opened, in a harsh squeal of complaint that cut across the calm silence. Beyond – the treasure-trove he’d been seeking.

Or at least, a wide open area comprising the entire western end of the building. Angled beams of light shone from ample windows across a dusty floor scattered with debris. Hollowed-out carcasses of machinery too large to move stood around the edges, empty drums and casings giving the impression they’d been eaten away from inside. White printed legends labelled plastic buttons, lifeless LEDs: ‘Power’, ‘Standby’, ‘Intensity’, ‘Data A’.

He photographed the scene quickly, accurately; moved his tripod from place to place, crunching over the shattered remains of beakers and glass tubes. Losing his earlier inhibitions, he asked Matt to pose: by a window, sitting on a large relic of metal, crouching beside a starburst of glass fragments that caught the light. When the warm radiance caught his friend’s skin it almost seemed to glow, smooth and beautiful through the viewfinder.

The lab retained an entire day’s heat, almost tropical in its intensity. Justin undid a few shirt buttons. By the time he’d finished another film, sweat clung to his fingers, patched the shirt with damp.

‘There’s a roof-ladder,’ Matt called, hidden behind an alcove.

Justin followed him there, to the western end of the room where a pair of now-bare offices would once have overseen the proceedings. A short L-shaped corridor ran between them, its rightward twist ending abruptly at metal rungs that led upward. The trapdoor at its top was secured with a heavy padlock. A faded sign by the ladder advised that nobody should ascend to the roof without authorisation from the Health and Safety office.

Well, they were outside office hours – by about twenty years – and he had no intention of taking that advice. Setting his bag on the ground, he pulled out a foot-long crowbar and climbed a few rungs until he could reach the trapdoor. That padlock wasn’t going anywhere, not unless he went back to the car for a bolt-cutter. But the hinges were unlikely to be so strong.

Balancing unsteadily on the ladder, he angled the crowbar with some difficulty, sweat-slick hands slipping across its surface. Eventually, with a few good brute-force thumps, he managed to jam it into a crack. He strained at the lever... and strained, and strained... but nothing gave.

‘Want a hand, man?’

He made room, just barely, for Matt to climb the rungs beside him. It was a tight squeeze as Matt reached out to assist him, adding two more hands to the crowbar. They swayed unsteadily in the new position.

‘Three... two... one...’ Justin counted. ‘Now.’

Their combined effort caused a perceptible shift. Wood creaked against metal and finally, with a muffled pop, something gave way –

– and the crowbar clattered to the ground, leaving them off-balance. Justin grabbed frantically for a rung, but he was already falling backwards... he twisted in the air, crashing painfully onto his side, as the pair landed atop each other in an untidy heap.

Oof.’ It felt impossibly hot, all of a sudden; he found himself intensely aware of Matt’s body, pressing against him in all sorts of uncomfortable places. His heart pounded with the exertion and shock and, in that closeness, he could feel Matt’s heartbeat beside.

Shaking his head, he roused himself from confusion; experimentally stretched out the leg he’d mostly landed on. It wasn’t broken, didn’t particularly hurt. They hadn’t fallen far. There’d probably be a bruise, though.

‘You okay?’

‘Yeah. Shit, man,’ Matt moaned. ‘We gotta be more careful.’

They separated themselves from the tangle and Justin climbed the ladder once more, holding on carefully this time. He gave the trapdoor an experimental shove; torn wood split noisily apart as it twisted over, leaving a clear hole into pitch darkness.

Climbing the last rungs, he flicked on the little flashlight just in time to keep from bashing his head on the low ceiling. Still on the ladder, he stood half-in a claustrophobic, waist-high rooftop shelter. A solid metal door provided the only access, brown rust coating its surface. The thin beam of electric light picked out a handle, but no lock; a stroke of luck there.

He wriggled off the ladder, into the narrow access before the door. The handle shrieked in metallic torture, but turned; the door itself seemed jammed solid until he twisted around and gave it a firm kick. It shuddered open, just a crack, sunlight streaming through so that he blinked.

Justin crawled back to the ladder, looking down. ‘Pass up my camera bag, would you? Looks like we’re clear to get out.’

Matt did so. Looking down on that upturned face, brushing against his friend’s hands as he took the strap, Justin felt a strange excitement. His heartbeat quickened...

But, having got the bag, he only backed away and shoved the door fully open. There was a clear view, now, across a near-flat expanse of dry white roof toward the dense eastern woods. The sky above had darkened into an intense blue. Clambering to his feet outside the diminutive half-door, Justin felt a warm breeze brush past as he turned –

– and the sun’s rays washed over him, direct from the huge orange half-disc that had almost descended below the hilltops. Around it the sky was streaked with yellow and light blue; a thin layer of high, feathery clouds shone in a delicate pink. Looking out above the forested slopes, Justin almost gasped at the beauty of the sight.

And when he felt Matt approach, when his friend’s hand brushed lightly against his cheek, when he wrapped his arms around the other in close embrace, squeezing tightly to share heartbeats once again, mouths reaching hungrily to join a deep kiss, hands reaching to loosen remaining buttons... it was the perfect moment.

He awoke hours later, still suffused in the glow of it even though Matt’s warm body was absent from the blanket they had shared. Stars glittered above and a gentle breeze tickled his skin –

– a flash of harsh light dazzled him, and when sight returned from the wash of white and red he saw that it was his flash, on his camera; that the Nikon lens looked down at him with Matt’s pale face behind. That Matt was not alone.

‘Good job, agent,’ somebody said; then came into his view, a large man in police uniform. ‘Get up! And get some clothes on, for the love of God.’

Dazed, shivering in sudden panic, he did as he was told. Matt stood fully dressed, handing over something – a small cassette recorder – to the officer. ‘It’s all on tape. Plenty of evidence there.’

‘But–’ Justin stammered, lamely.

Matt turned to him. ‘No worries, man. We’ll get the films developed. I’ll have them send you a copy in prison.’


His friend held up a laminated card, photo ID. ‘I’m an agent, see? Licensed. To find people like you.’

‘But,’ Justin said for a third time, bitterness finally welling up within him. ‘You enjoyed it.’

Matt laughed. ‘It’s my work.’ He paused, corrected himself. ‘The Lord’s work.’

He gave a last, jaunty wave and walked away, as the handcuffs clicked shut around Justin’s wrist.