Ashes of the Arctic

by

RabbleRouser

Chapter 1 - Can't Shake the Feeling

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Envy had a bad feeling, but flushed the toilet anyway.  Moments later the tell-tale gurgling of shitwater overflowing into her bathtub made its presence known, signaling yet another sewage back-up in her crappy, nineteen-sixties log cabin that some Alaskan settler had built with a hand saw and a couple of chisels.

“Fuck!” her roommate, Rusty, shouted from the downstairs bathroom, followed by a long string of colorful USMC curses, followed by, “For the love of God, get back down the hole you mama-banging piece of shit!”  Envy immediately heard the tell-tale signs of plunging under her feet.

Sure, the pamphlets and quaint photographs on the real estate website had made log cabins look really cool, but after living in one over a winter, that’s exactly what Envy had figured out the hard way.  With no insulation in the walls, they were cool, regardless of how much wood she packed into the rickety little stove.  And they had foundation issues.  And the septic ‘system’ was really just a rotting bunch of logs stacked in the shape of a box and buried in the ground.  That, Envy had realized after spending a hundred and fifteen grand for the warped, cold, foundationless, bug-eaten piece of shit, was what a ‘Crib’ meant when it was entered under the ‘Septic System’ section on the House Details summary.  They might as well have written in huge, neon red letters, ‘WARNING:  THIS SEPTIC ‘SYSTEM’ WILL TRY TO KILL YOU.  IMMUNIZATIONS AGAINST CHOLERA AND DYSENTERY STRONGLY RECOMMENDED.’

Envy stood there, placidly staring at the brown scum of sewage lapping gently in her shower, listening to the desperate sucking sounds from the downstairs bathroom, then picked up her coffee of the exact same hue and, sipping it, went downstairs, troubled.  Despite yet another shitbath, the bad feeling hadn’t gone away. 

Rusty met her at the base of the stairs, plunger in his big hand, sweat on his face.  “Septic’s backed up again!” the six-foot-eight gorilla panted, waving his wet tool at the bathroom with a meaty arm.  “I’m gonna fuckin’ ass rape that broke-dick twig of a plumber until his eyes bug out of his acne-infested face!”

Envy nodded and walked past him to the living area.  She found her favorite recliner and slumped into it, thinking.  She’d never had a bad feeling like this.  Literally from the moment she’d woken up, it had been gnawing at her, stronger and more intense than anything she’d ever felt.  So strong, in fact, that she had felt compelled to pack a bag of camping and survival gear that morning, which was even then waiting for her by the door.

Rusty followed her and came around to her field of view, still worked up into a frenzy.  “First I’m gonna get that weaselly little broketoothed cocksucker’s home address, then I’m gonna drive down to his trailer park and put my size-twelve so far up his lily white ass I’ll be wearin’ him around like a flip-flop…”

Ignoring his tirade, Envy went down the list of possibilities that could be causing such a bad feeling.  She’d been experiencing them for twenty years, ever since a rockslide had sent her to the hospital in her teens and she’d died twice on the table before coming back, her eyes opened to a whole new world she’d never known existed.

Of all her new ‘gifts,’ she would have had to say that, contrary to popular belief, ghosts were the most fun.  Generally, as far as she could see, they just had interesting stories to tell.  Murders, robberies gone bad, betrayals, general misfortunes, natural disasters… 

The thought of ‘natural disasters’ made her guts suddenly twist in dread.  Envy had to put down her coffee to keep from spilling it on herself as the wave of goosebumps left her hands shaking.

“…then pound his skinny ass with a thirty-aught-six with the safety off while I fill my left hand with lube and—”

“Rusty,” Envy said.

“Huh?” the former Marine said, blinking at her.

“You know those feelings I get?”  She was actually so freaked out she was having trouble talking.  “The bad ones?”

The old combat vet went solemn.  A few years ago, on a hunting trip, she’d saved him from a hundred-percent fatality plane crash headed to Fairbanks, and he’d treated her as if she were the Messiah ever since.  “You got one about the septic?” he asked.  With wide, nervous eyes, he glanced over his shoulder at the pool of sewage seeping out from the bathroom.  Then, lowering his voice, he said, “Does it kill us this time?”

Envy, almost speechless at the intensity of the dread, just shook her head.

Of all the strange new perceptions she had come back from the brink of death with twenty years before, it was the bad feelings that had, time and again, saved her life.  Each time she had one, it was like she was reaching out to her future self, feeling how her future self was going to feel.  She had just as many happy nudges as bad ones, but in the high-paced life it was the doom-and-gloom that always got her attention.

Usually when she had one, she was about to get mugged or receive a threatening letter from the IRS.  This was different.  This was like her whole world had soured, and it had nothing to do with yet another sewage nightmare.

“Don’t think it’s the septic,” Envy whispered.

Rusty lowered the plunger to the table beside her coffee mug and knelt beside her on one knee, looking totally solemn.  “So what we lookin at?  Home invasion?  Earthquake?”

‘Earthquake’ had a bit of an anxiety tinge to it, but when Envy felt it out, it didn’t feel quite right.  “I don’t know,” she said.  Her eyes were fixed to the brown water dribbling down the rubber cup and pooling against the side of her mug.  “Rusty, that’s really gross.”

He glanced at it, then seemed to shake himself.  “Oh, sorry.”  Grabbing the plunger, he wiped it off with a nearby throw, then set it back on the table.

Now her eyes were fixed to the brown smudge on her favorite velvet blanket.  “I think I’m gonna throw up.”

“Wash it later,” he said. 

You wash it later,” she retorted.  Then she realized what happened the last time she’d let her roommate wash her clothes, and immediately grimaced.

“Fine,” he conceded.  “I’ll grab a rag and scrub it down a bit.  What about the nudge?  Same thing as last time?  People die?”

“Oh Jesus,” she said, thinking of him giving the raw sewage on her favorite blanket a couple of wipes with a dirty rag from out in his shop before folding it perfectly in nice, crisp USMC folds and leaving it for her to find on her favorite chair a few days from now.  “Never mind,” she muttered, “I’ll wash the damn blanket.”  She stood to grab it.

Rusty gently blocked her path with his approximately six hundred pound body, all steel-pumping muscle.  Slowly, Envy lifted her range of vision from his left nipple up to the bottom of his chin.  He was peering down at her, his face twisted with concern.  “Let’s figure out what’s going on before we both die in a plane crash, okay?”  The way he spoke the words had the same anxious note of someone in a foxhole receiving intel on where and when the next mortar would strike.  “Who’s involved?  You?  Me?”

Envy, who had been planning on ignoring the nudge until something came more strongly into focus, realized she had actually frightened the guy and sighed.  For better or worse, ever since the ill-fated Flight 233 to Fairbanks, whenever she let him know about her ‘nudges’, she had his full and complete attention until he had doggedly picked through all the possibilities and ruled out their deaths.  And, while he was utterly tenacious and definitely a good guy to have along for a camping expedition or on her pool team at the local bar, Envy had long ago come to the realization that Rusty Torrinson was not PhD material.  In anything.

Well, maybe in doomsday prepping, government conspiracy theories, and weapons-maintenance, but aside from that, she really had to spell things out for him sometimes.  And he really would pick at it like a dog with a bone until he figured out what about his future could potentially kill him.

Both of us?” he continued, totally focused on the problem at hand.

Envy felt it out, then nodded.  She picked up the blanket and the plunger and walked around him, gingerly depositing the plunger beside the bathroom and continuing to the laundry room.

Rusty followed her and stood in the doorway like a spare water heater as she stuffed the blanket in the washer and added detergent.  She would have to wait to start it until the septic fell back into line, but at least it wouldn’t be wiping itself across her living room in the meantime.

“What about the neighbors?” the big man insisted, gesturing out the window to the wooded hillside and the house they could just barely see through the snow-covered trees.

When Envy allowed herself to expand to cover them, too, the dread was just as bad.  She nodded again.

Rusty frowned.  “You think someone’s finally gonna feed that sleazy bottom-feeder a pipe bomb?”

That didn’t feel right, either.  Envy shook her head.

Rusty considered that a moment, then shrugged and picked up the plunger and went into the bathroom, to more sucking sounds.  A few minutes later, there was the distinct sound of a flush.  Then Rusty came back out into the living room, plunger dripping again, a thoughtful expression on his face.  “Got the little bitch.  Ran out of towels, though—you got more upstairs?”

The thought of her good bath towels soaking in shitwater made Envy cringe.  “I thought we agreed we’d use the mop.”

“Mop head just came out of the washer, figured you wanted to keep it clean.  Hey, you up for eggs?”

Envy stared at him so long she forgot about the feeling of dread that had been plaguing her all morning.

“What?” Rusty asked, looking perplexed.  Like he honestly didn’t know why she felt like strangling him.

There must have been something in her face that the former Marine could respect, because he swallowed.  “I’ll use the mop.”  Then he turned and hurried back into the disaster zone, to the sounds of wet towels being slopped into her bathtub.

“Jesus someone kill me already,” Envy said, sighing up at the ceiling.  The septic had been an ongoing problem, something about a dip in the main line from the house, and preliminary examination by a plumber had suggested it would be at least a fifteen-hundred-dollar fix.  And, with student loans, car payments, and a mortgage on her overpriced ‘quaint’ little two-story cabin, fifteen hundred wasn’t something that Envy could afford anytime in the next century.  As it was, Rusty’s dependable monthly commitment of five hundred bucks to her ‘Staying Afloat Without Daddy’ fund was about the only thing keeping her from defaulting on all three.  Of anything in the last six years after breaking up with her father’s premeditated marriage prospect and going rogue up in Alaska instead of attending Yale as was ‘family tradition’, her crude, foul-mouthed roommate had been the saving grace of her arctic experience.

She’d been very careful to keep him and anyone else from knowing she was a rich brat, though, hiding her shame in dirt, cuts, bruises, and war stories.  In fact, the first year in Alaska, she had hired a helicopter to drop her at the headwaters of the Yentna river and had hiked her way back to civilization using a compass, a survival kit, and a pack full of Mountainhouse.  She’d come out of it a month later with three broken bones that had to be re-set and a nasty, infected cut on her arm from a fall down a riverbank after getting chased by a moose, but that had only added to the patina of outdoorsy street cred she had wanted to use as a smokescreen to the fact she had been born one of the richest kids in New Hampshire.

And, since the first trip had been so successful and dissuading people of her privileged heritage, she had done the same thing five more times, every year since.

It had worked, too.  Not even Rusty, who lived with her, had ever suspected the truth.  In fact, he called her a ‘hardcore Alaskan woman’ and she’d caught him bragging about her to his workout buddies at gym at how quickly she could skin a bear.  He’d actually had to show her how to do it—a hunting coincidence where they’d staked out the same tuft of trees in the middle of a swamp three years back that had ended with two brown bears and Rusty deciding to move in with her—but she’d only needed instruction once.  Afterwards, she was always the first person to pull out a knife, often finishing out the hunting trip with blood and guts to her elbows.

And Rusty, originally coming from Tennessee, liked to hunt.  Every summer after their first chance meetup, they’d gone for moose, caribou, brown and black bear, bison—it was on a farm, but hey—and had even each won a lottery for sheep and goat on separate years.  And, not only did he take one look at the log cabin she called home and immediately fall in love, but he’d spent a good portion of the last three years fixing it up for her out of his own pocket.

Which was good, because the money she made as a part-time climate change intern alternating between studying permafrost for the University of Fairbanks and putting together extinction models for the ADF&G barely kept food on the table, let alone the loans paid and the electric on.  Several times, she’d even had to swallow her pride and ask Rusty for a loan until payday.  One of the many things she’d had to sacrifice for her independence from a New Hampshire dynasty that would have had her married to a real estate magnate and making babies six years ago.

As Envy listened to the slopping sounds of the mop sliding through raw sewage on her bathroom floor, however, she did find herself appreciating the convenience—and hygiene—of dependable toilets just a little.

Before Rusty took it upon himself to smear sewage sludge around inside her kitchen, she dropped a bottle of bleach beside the bathroom and went to grab some eggs from the fridge to pre-empt Rusty, should he decide to take it upon himself to try and feed them after moonlighting in sanitation.  She had just cracked the first egg when the lights went out.

“Fuck me in the eye with an Ebola-caked blade file!” Rusty shouted from the bathroom.  “You got a flashlight?!”

Normally, it would have been a simple thing for Envy to grab the flashlight they kept on the counter and switch it on, but the sudden surge of dread that hit her from the sudden lights-out had left her unable to even see.

It’s coming, she thought, cold chills wracking her body in waves.  Oh god, it’s coming.

Whatever it was, it was big.  Lots of people were going to die.  She could feel it like a massive, sickening puddle of rot lying pooling in her immediate future, waiting for her to stumble into it.

“Oh fuck me with a chainsaw, I just knocked over the bleach!” Rusty shouted.  “You got that flashlight on the counter?”

“Rusty,” Envy croaked, crippled by the intensity of the dread she was suddenly feeling permeating from all around her. 

“Hurry up and get the flashlight, I think I got it on your towels!” Rusty insisted, his voice coming closer as he stumbled from the bathroom.

Panting, barely able to fight the waves of dread enough to stay upright, Envy managed, “We need to get out of the house.”

In the darkness, Rusty hesitated.  “Why?  We can use the rest of the towels to mop up the bleach and I can pay you back tomorrow.”

“It’s bad,” Envy said.  “Something bad is coming.”

There was a moment of hesitation, then she heard Rusty approach the kitchen counter and the flashlight snapped on, illuminating the house in the hazy light of morning.  His face was filled with concern.  “That feeling you were having this morning?”

Envy nodded, already stumbling towards the door.  “We’ve gotta go.  Now.”  She didn’t know how much time they had, but she knew they had to get away from whatever was coming, and they had to do it now.

Rusty sounded crestfallen.  “Was it…the bleach?”

Envy shook her head, seeing double through the headache that was hammering her.  “You know those bugout bags you’re always packing?  Get them in the truck.  Hurry.”

Instead of moving, Rusty shone the light in her eyes.  “You don’t look so good.”

Now, you dumbfuck Marine, or we’re both gonna die!” she howled, jerking her hand at his bedroom.

Envy didn’t curse very often—one of the last vestiges of her elite upbringing—but when she did, she meant it.  Both of Rusty’s eyebrows went up and he spun and started collecting gear with the haste of a raw recruit facing the wrath of his DI.  It was one of the things she really appreciated about Rusty:  The dude knew when to dig his heels in and ask the hard questions and when to just shut up and take orders

…And she might be wrong, but he really seemed to get off on taking orders.  From her, specifically.  Envy wasn’t into that kind of thing, but she was pretty sure Rusty would have been thrilled if she’d showed up one afternoon in a leather one-piece carrying a riding crop and a padlocked collar.  She’d even joked about it once, just a little, and he’d gotten way too serious, way too fast, and she’d quickly turned red and found something else to do, carefully avoiding him for an embarrassing couple weeks afterwards as she tried to return their relationship to normalcy.

Now she was honestly grateful he was so eager to please.

Because she could barely see through the intensity of whatever bad mojo was about to happen, Envy found it was all she could do to grab her truck keys off the counter and throw her wallet into her coat, which she tucked under her arm.  She grabbed the duffel of camping gear she’d thrown by the door in her other hand and was just opening the front door when Rusty came rushing past her loaded to the gills with more guns and supplies than God should have had if he was an OCD Apocalyptic prepper.  He threw them into the cab of her truck, then, without another word, ran back inside to get more.

“Hurry!” Envy shouted at him through the open door.  She climbed into the driver’s seat of her big purple Ford crew cab—her one concession to the money from whence she’d come—and started warming the glow plugs.

Rusty was back and climbing into the passenger side by the time she twisted the key and put it in gear.

“Didn’t have time to grab more than a few MREs,” Rusty said, stinking of bleach and sewage, but totally sober as he watched the driveway slide under the hood of the truck as she spun it around in the driveway.  “Hopefully it’s not the Russians.”  Rusty was terrified of a Russian nuclear attack, as he claimed the Russians still had a grudge from when Seward bought Alaska for a pittance in 1867 and they secretly wanted it back.  Her friend pulled a gun from one of the chest holsters he now wore and chambered a round as he glanced at her.  “You think it’s the Russians?”

“Pretty sure it’s not the Russians,” Envy said.  The dread was easing now that they were getting away from the cabin, and when she reached the main road and briefly considered the two possibilities—drive north on the Glenn or head south to Anchorage—south sent a clawing rake of anxiety through her that made her nauseous.

Rusty grunted and replaced the gun in its holster, then got out his phone.  He frowned.  “Phone’s dead.”

“Try mine,” Envy said, offering it to him.

“No, I mean, it’s dead.  I charged it this morning.”

“That sucks.  Try mine.”  She gestured again with her phone.

Frowning Rusty took her phone with a big hand, then frowned.  “Your phone’s dead too.”

Envy knew that wasn’t possible.  “It was at eighty percent ten minutes ago.”  She swung the truck onto the on-ramp to the highway and hit the accelerator heading them north.

“You got fuel?” Rusty said, glancing at her dash.

“Almost a full tank,” Envy said.

“I got a bag of propane bottles and a thing of kerosene,” Rusty said.  “After that, we’ll have to scavenge.”

Envy laughed, despite herself.  “Scavenge?”  She grinned at him.  “What you think this is, the apocalypse?”

Rusty gestured to the little blue Honda that was dead on the road ahead of them, the guy inside only then getting out of their cars in what looked like dazed confusion.  He was holding up his phone and using his other hand to shield the screen from the daylight.  “What’s that if not an apocalypse?”

Envy frowned.  “Some guy’s car died before he could pull it off the road.”

“EMP,” Rusty said.

Envy laughed again, but it was uneasy this time.  The guy with the phone was shaking his head got back into his car and, as she slowed down and drove around him, started his vehicle.

“See?” she demanded, watching the Honda’s lights come on in her rearview.  “It’s not EMP, he got it started again.”

“EMP doesn’t work like in the movies,” Rusty said.

“And you know this how?” Envy demanded.

Rusty gave a vague shrug.  “Government stuff.”

Envy frowned at him.  “What kind of stuff?”

“There’s another one.”  He pointed at another downed car across the freeway meridian, the woman in bright pink and heels getting out and examining the undercarriage of her sedan.  “Only like ten percent of the cars won’t start again.  Depends on the kind of electronics the manufacturer put in them.  Hey, look at that one.”  He gestured to another person parked on the side of the road, door open as he climbed out.

“You’re starting to freak me out, Rusty,” Envy said.

“Yeah, well, wait ‘til the fighting starts.”  He checked the tension of one of the ammo straps on his waist.  He grinned over at her, a 9-milimeter in his hand.  “You’ll be happy you had me along.”

Seeing the beefy jarhead grinning like a kid at an early Christmas party, Envy didn’t doubt it.  “Let’s just hope there’s no fighting and it’s just a solar flare or something, okay?”

Rusty actually looked disappointed at that idea. 

Men, Envy thought.  As much as she made herself comfortable in the predominantly male world of hunting and the outdoors, she would never understand them, and wasn’t sure she wanted to.  It was like every single one of them thought they could take on thousands of trained men with guns and come out unscathed because they were the good guy.  “You play too much Call of Duty,” she said.

“Good stuff,” Rusty agreed.  “So where are you taking us?”  He gave her a curious look.  “I’ve got a stash up in Hatcher’s Pass if you think you’ve got time to get us there before the bomb hits.”

“If it was a bomb, don’t you think we would be dead by now?” Envy demanded.  “Has to be a solar flare.”  She was definitely getting more uneasy, however, because they were inching past two more cars that had pulled off the road.

“Could’ve been targeted to take out our grids,” Rusty said.  “I’m not seeing any lights on in those houses up on the hill.”  He pointed. 

Envy lowered her head to look out his window, then grimaced, because it was true.  “Hatcher’s Pass feels okay,” she admitted as she felt out the mountains to the north.  “We’ll head there.”  Whatever it was, it felt like higher was safer than lower.  Which was weird.  Why would a solar flare have any change in feeling based on elevation?  That just didn’t make sense…

“Oh fuck my Willie with a barracuda,” Rusty blurted, his eyes catching on something in the sky.  He rolled the window down and leaned out to look up at something above them.  Over the roar of cold March wind, he shouted, “Hey, uh, Envy?”

“Yeah?” Envy asked.

“How’s ‘alien attack’ register on that mojo radar of yours?”

 

 

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MaryMo25 @MaryMo25 ago

O.M.G. the laughs and utter anxiety in chapter one alone is amazing! Freaking awesome! Holy crap! I. Want. More!! I can NOT wait for the rest and hope the author needs NO sleep! Honestly a great work of literary fiction and he'll maybe possible futuristic non fiction. Only time will tell.!