The Red Button

Mike hated his job. The pay was great. Hell for being a glorified button pusher, the pay was outstanding. He had health benefits, dental included, a comfy chair and all the softdrinks the vendor in the hall could provide. It was the retirement plan that sucked. Lately, the hours were shit as well. He didn’t even want to think about his social life, or lack thereof. Yes, work was all-consuming. He groaned inwardly at his private joke.

The overlords stood in a huddle behind him. Most days they strutted around commandcentral like overstuffed roosters, crowing orders inflated with their self importance. They were not really overlords, and this was not really commandcentral, but Mike liked to think of it as such. So did the overlords. Until recently, they really were the leaders of the most powerful nation on Earth. But nature had trumped their sense of control. They had gotten less arrogant as the plague swept through the nation. The more information that came in about infections per capita, the more they closed ranks, exchanging fierce whispering sessions with each other, like jilted girlfriends not wanting to create a scene at the bar.

Mike, knowing he was an “acceptable loss” kept his mouth shut and kept pressing buttons. Even when he saw Kansas City consumed in a wash of red “infection rate” coloring, he had kept his cool. It was only later, in the privy that he slammed his fists into the stall and sobbed silently for his mom, left on her own. Lucy was a tough bird, but that solid red told him she didn’t stand a chance. Then he used the indulgent hot and cold running water to clean himself up and went back to his comfy chair to push more buttons. That was two weeks ago.

Today, he had rolled out of his bunk when the wake-up alarm sounded. Unlike your typical clock radio, this was a real alarm. Some new level of bad had happened, and that meant all hands on deck. Knowing he had 5 minutes to be on the floor ready to act as the good little soldier, he turned the faucet knob for a quick wash. Nothing came out. This was the first sign that the outside world, awash in red was infiltrating the compound. Somewhere in the last month he knew this day would happen, but the fear that came over him was unexpected. He twisted the knob of sharply and dressed in uniform. Deodorant, hair gel and cologne would have to do for the day. Or the week. Hell, why be that optimistic?

In the hallways people rushed past, most headed to the upper levels. Around him he saw hollow eyes and clenched jaws, while he pushed past to head to the 12th floor… down. He looked at the elevator. It had been up and running last night when he left for his mandatory 4 hours of shut eye at 0100 hours, but the sink experience meant he didn’t want to risk it. Guards were stationed at every level of the stairwell in preparation for this eventuality, so Mike took out his ID. When he got to the doors, no one was there.

He finally shook out of his reverie to look around him. In the base there were usually a few people in the halls, moving with purpose to their destinations. Now, there were sporadic pockets of soldiers, grunts mostly, rushing up to the top levels and then dead silence in between. Something was up. There were only a few options left of what that something could be, and Mike had never been an optimist.

He headed to the 12 floor.

When he entered the war room all eyes turned to stare at him. The tension hit him as hard as a punch in the gut. He paused with the weight of it, then moved to his comfy chair. Swiveling he turned to face the overlords and await their command.

“Do it.” one of them said calmly, a statement of fact.

“Sir- the living… I- it won’t… I can’t!” stuttered Stephen. Sweat had soaked through his clothes like he had just finished a marathon. He looked panicky and his eyes scanned the room for an ally. In a room full of officers, men and women sworn to stay steadfast, the best of the best, not one could meet his eye. The exception being the general who had issued the order, and Mike who still had no clue what was happening.

Almost casually the general removed his sidearm, released the safety and aimed the barrel at Stephen.

“Solder, I told you to execute sequence Kilo-Oscar-one-nine-four-five. Are you refusing an order?”

“Sir, please… I don’t-”

The shot sounded, and Stephen slumped over. Not another human had screamed or raised their voice in protest or remorse. The silence hung in the air, stretching time to a painful standstill. The faint sound of crashing from the floor above ended the pause.

The general… General Livolin maybe, turned to Mike. “Execute the sequence.”

Mike swiveled in his comfy chair to face his screen. His fingers flew over the keyboard to type in the series of code. Now all the eyes that had avoided his less than five minutes ago bore into the back of his head. He said over his shoulder, “Authorization?”

General… Lovlett? Livingston? walked over to the terminal, leaned in and typed his password. Then he stepped back leaving Mike to press the final “enter” button. Bastard.

Mike looked at him. Stared into his hollow face with hate and despair. “You are not saving us. You are ending the human race,” he hissed. Then he pressed the button. On the map, the target cities where all the nuclear missiles had been programmed to hit showed their detonation. The room had stopped looking at Mike, they barely noticed him get out of his comfy chair and head for the door. They watched each city light up on the map like a game of Risk. When Mike opened the door wide open to let the bitten in they were too engrossed in watching the remote destruction of the world to see it up close and personal until it was too late.

Art by Kieran Russell https://twitter.com/Art_Kieran

Art by Kieran Russell
https://twitter.com/Art_Kieran

The Universe Speaks to Michelle

She waited for a sign. Knowing her life, it wasn’t going to be a neon monstrosity. Hell, it didn’t even have to be the polite, discreet plaque next to a teller asking you to have your paperwork ready.  All she wanted was a sigh, a whisper of what to do. She stood in the dark, dragging on a cigarette and listening for a nudge in the right direction.

Nothing came.

As she finished the last inhalation of nicotine, her security blanket, she sighed. Clearly the universe was not going to reach out and hug her, so it was time to go with her best instinct. She hated that idea right now. Normally her gut was the only thing she relied on, but it had already proven wrong once that evening and she was wary of going for broke.

As she reached for the door there was a crack in the woods behind her. Something had snapped- a branch most likely, but there wasn’t even a sigh of a breeze. She paused to listen, waiting for the shuffle of a raccoon or the sound of some neighborhood kid snickering in her backyard.

Again, nothing came.

Finally, she shrugged and entered the house. It would not be hers much longer. The divorce had come through and with it the ‘For Sale’ sign. Seeing as she had wanted to take a match to the place by the end, it should not be that depressing. However, as with all endings, it had its sense of maudlin sentimentality. Perhaps that’s why her instincts were on the fritz.  She debated whether to fix a drink or keep packing what was left of her life. With a shrug she decided that this was a choice that need not be made. She pulled a highball glass out of one of the boxes and went to the stainless steel refrigerator. After loading it up with ice, she filled it almost to the top with vodka and then a splash of tonic. No fruit necessary. Then settled in to wrap dishes while she sipped.

As she wrapped each plate and bowl in newspaper (who bought papers anymore?) and placed them in a box, she thought about the fight she’d had with her sister earlier that day.

“Would you like some feedback?” Karen had asked.

Feedback was a signal for disapproval. Michelle knew this and usually was willing to listen. But the shock of being so quickly judged by her only sister sent a shock of cold rage rattling down her spine.

“No I would not.” she stiffly replied.

Usually this ended the discussion. Karen was in sales and generally knew when to cut her losses. This time was different. Cocktails had been involved, and perhaps she felt the stakes were too high.

“You stupid girl,” she half whispered, with a smile. As if a pleasant demeanor would soften the white hot slap of her words.

Michelle stared in shock. Not only was she older, but neither of them were girls anymore, by any stretch of the imagination.

“Don’t you want to let the dust settle?” Karen followed up.

“No,” Michele managed to choke out.

“Why?” her sister pressed.

“I just don’t.”

That had ended both the conversation and the evening. Michelle had awkwardly paid for her drinks and left while her sister carried on a conversation with acquaintances at the bar. Now, at home, she still wondered what had happened.

In the back a crash of branches awoke her out of her reverie. This was both louder and closer than when she had been outside. She went to the kitchen window and flipped on the outside lights. The illuminated backyard showed the shrubs and treeline of her bordering rural home. It was still a neighborhood, but on the outskirts of civilization. Sometimes Michele wished she lived closer to the city. Recently she had thought about it more and more. Especially now that she was on her own. The remote location had once seemed ideal for dogs and maybe, one day, a family. Now it seemed like the end of the earth.

She strained her eyes against the edges of the darkness, but only moths entered her line of sight. The darkness gave away nothing.

Reluctantly she headed for the porch door again. She really didn’t want to go outside, but then, she also didn’t want to be a cliche. Woman on her own, afraid of any little noise in her yard…

A quiet voice in her head whispered that maybe there were other cliches. The ones you see in horror movies that tell the hero to never go out in the dark alone. To go back inside and close the door. She started to brush the silly thought aside, and then realized.

That was her sign, the quiet nudge she had been waiting for.

Slowly she backed away from the porch door and started looking around the disheveled room for a weapon. She spied the butcher block, and as she reached for a knife, there was a thud at the back door.

Slowly she turned and looked through the screen. There, in the doorway, stood her sister. This was not the polished, self-possessed, sanctimonious woman from earlier though. She leaned against the frame, her blouse ripped with blood dripping from the shoulder.

“Oh my God Karen, what happened to you?” Michelle started towards the door with a cry.

Then the body that had once been her sister snapped it’s chin up. Eyes glazed over in a death stare, the face slack and mouth open pressed itself against the screen.

“Karen?” Michelle whispered.

The corpse that had once been her sister lunged through the door, reaching for Michelle as she backpedaled, uselessly waving her knife.

Yes there had been a sign. The sign said, “Time’s up.”

Michellesign

Art by Kieran Russell, https://twitter.com/Art_Kieran