A/n: When you're on vacation with your friends but the apocalypse strikes, what do you do? Do you follow your ideals or do whatever it takes to survive?
Written for the wonderful "Twelve Shots of Summer" challenge for the prompts, "Spelunking" and "Restoration," with a nice side of "Far and Wide." Enjoy!
Edited to change a few lines at the ending :)
Thirteen truths about the end of the world
Summary: When a devastating global pandemic strikes, a group of friends on vacation accidentally start a cult.
1. You're usually doing something mundane when it happens.
The underground caves are beautiful and vast, yet strangely unsettling. Riya feels as if she has wandered into a place that entirely removes the four of them from the outside world, a surreal and silent land carved only with stone and water. At first she had come along eagerly, but now her feet are beginning to tire. After all, there are only so many pictures she can take of rock formations, silhouettes, and cave walls.
"Lots of sharp objects everywhere," says Dax beside her cheerily, looking up at the large stalactites hanging overhead. While he's wiry and thin, he spends most of his time indoors and Riya is willing to bet he's more than ready to head back too.
"Everywhere," Riya agrees.
"I wanted to find a few more samples," Annelie says briskly from where she squats, inspecting some moldy rock formation that looks like all the rest. Her red hair is pulled back in its usual no-nonsense braid, and a bulky utility belt filled with tools and equipment hangs at her hip.
"Sorry to have dragged you along like this," Minho says apologetically from further ahead. He's easily the strongest of their group, and could probably wander these caves for hours on end if he wanted. It probably hadn't even crossed his mind to feel tired. "We'll turn back in two minutes?"
"Sounds good!" Dax calls back.
It takes a little longer than an hour to find the entrance again. Riya is certain they would all have been lost if not for Minho. He tells them he went spelunking with his dad when he was little, but that's not a good enough excuse to explain how he finds his way through these near-identical passageways.
"Guys, guys," Riya says, looking at her phone, as they approach the cave entrance. "This is not good."
"We forgot something?" Annelie begins, but Riya holds up a hand.
"They're temporarily closing the borders of a few countries because of that disease," Riya says, trying to remember what it was called. "Ah, the superbug. Yup. And you won't believe our luck, since we happened to travel to one of the three nations that are restricting flights into and out of the country."
"We were leaving in a few days!" Dax says indignantly, readjusting his helmet. "I will contact the airline and have a word with them about this."
"I didn't know it was that bad," Minho tells her, looking troubled. "From what I understood, it was a limited epidemic comparable with a bad strain of flu. And there weren't any cases in this region, at least as of a week ago. I specifically chose here because it was listed as a low-risk place for travel-"
"I don't know," Riya responds, thumbing through the rest of the news article. "It's all very sudden."
"Back to the hotel!" Dax exclaims, looking more energized than ever. "I have a few calls to make."
As it turns out none of his calls are of much use, as the entire airport has been closed. The staff assures him it's a very temporary matter, that they're just waiting for the word to reopen flights again. While Minho is video-chatting his distraught family and Annelie is writing periodic updates to her mom, Ria scours the internet for everything she can find on this superbug but comes up depressingly short. No one knows too much about what it is, or where it had come from: only that it's a bacteria that seems to handily beat even last-resort antibiotics.
They stay at the hotel for a few weeks longer. Annelie is able to gather plenty of plant samples from the cave, and Dax makes dozens of phone calls to the embassy, various airports, the Center for Disease Control, their university, the National Guard, and probably whatever else came to his mind. It's quite comical, really.
"We must be back in time before school starts," Dax says, while he's on the phone with his senator. "Please, if there's anything you can do to help us-"
Riya notes with consternation that the number of cases in the area are increasing. And perhaps closing borders hadn't been for nothing; the superbug continues spreading from country to country, and the death toll rises. By now it's cropped up in twelve countries, no doubt borne by the invisible routes created by globalization. She doesn't want to worry the other three too much, but feels plenty anxious herself that perhaps it might be a while before they're able to go home.
Meanwhile Annelie is carefully labelling all of her biological samples of mosses and fungi that no one else seems to find interesting. Minho assures his coach he'll be back in time to join practice before rugby season starts. Riya peers out the window at the dingy streets, hoping fervently that they'll find a cure out there and this all will be over.
2. Things like school and work go out the window.
That's when they're kicked out of the hotel. Small businesses and shops have started to shut down, fearing the unrest on the streets, but mostly the larger chains have stayed open until now. Dax is not amused.
"This reflects very poorly on your brand name," he says to the hotel manager, who has just informed the four they have one night to vacate the premises. "We are more than happy to continue paying for our stay."
"It's started to become dangerous," the hotel manager replies. "We can't take that responsibility anymore. Do you see the people out there? Already they've been breaking and entering, looking for anything of use. We can't stay open in these circumstances. I hope you understand."
"We have to figure out where we're going to go," Annelie sighs after he leaves, prodding her phone as it charges. "Staying out there in the open would not be wise. It's a wonder no one has gotten sick already."
"We could just go exploring," Minho suggests. "Maybe some other hotels are open? Let's give it a chance."
"We have to stay near the airport!" Dax commands. "Most important, so we'll make a beeline out the minute we can."
"Let's see if there are any ships?" Riya suggests hesitantly. "I mean, I know it's a ways to travel, but maybe we could hitch a ride on a boat or something-"
"All right!" Annelie raises a hand. "Let's make a plan. All those sound like good ideas, but we have to prioritize." And so, after a night of what Annelie calls "reasoned discussion," they decide to stay in the area for a bit longer and sleep near the street corners if they can, waiting for their ticket out to arrive. Each of them packs their bags, charges their electronics. But Annelie's hands are trembling as she tucks away her multitudes of vials, and Minho sounds even less sure as he reassures his mom he'll return. Dax sits in the corner, rereading his book on winning friends and influencing people as if that will be any help in this situation. None of them get much sleep that night.
When they step into the empty streets, Riya realizes just how shielded they had been from the outside world. A distinct, eerie aura of paranoia and suspicion hangs over the place, the few people they see avoiding others' gazes and scurrying away. They set up camp near the corner of an abandoned dry cleaner's, along with the pillows they had pilfered from the hotel at Dax's insistence that his family would certainly pay them back. Desperate times call for desperate measures, he had said, and so anything potentially useful has been bundled into their luggage and dragged along. This included the scores of bananas and apples Riya has snuck from the breakfast cart, and the junk food they have emptied, dollar by dollar, from all available vending machines.
At night, the atmosphere changes. Shadowy figures began to skulk around, and Riya guesses they must be scavenging for money, for food, for anything.
"Everyone lost their jobs," Dax whispers in a moment when the streets look clear, and that does nothing to help the chill growing in the air between them. "Economy's gone broke. People dropping like flies. We'll have to try not to attract too much attention."
"I'll keep watch," Minho offers, drawing his arms around his knees. "You guys can sleep."
At first this is met with halfhearted resistance, but Minho stands firm. "I'll alert you guys right away," he says. "One of you can take watch next night, if you want?" And eventually he wins. In Riya's dreams she is chased through a maze of streets by faceless ghosts, trying to find her way to the harbor before they catch her and make her one of them. Finally she stands before the port, staring out at the sea, but all the boats have been burned to ashes and she is swallowed by the mob, screaming.
"Bad dreams, huh?" Minho's face comes into view and Riya sits up so fast her head nearly knocks into his.
She looks around at the streets, panicked that she has somehow attracted attention to them.
"You didn't wake anybody up," he says easily, leaning back to look out at the golden sky. And indeed, Annelie and Dax are still asleep in the blooming light of day. "I'd say everybody's a bit on edge recently."
"I know," Riya is a odd sorrow between them, the bitter understanding that they have both lost their former lives.
3. Law and order stop protecting you.
The next few weeks are among the most difficult. Niceties like showers, toilet paper, and proper nutrition have long since been abandoned. The last headline Riya reads on her phone before it dies is about how there are three countries left on Earth untouched by the superbug, all travel has been indefinitely halted, scientists are rushing madly to find a cure, and the global economy is collapsing. Riya can't really bring herself to care about the economy, not when she feels as if she is gradually falling apart, as if she can no longer remember who she was.
She sends a last text to her mom. I love you. Stay safe.
It doesn't deliver.
"We have to scavenge for food," Annelie says and Riya looks up, trying to hide the pain in her face. "We're running out," Annelie adds.
"It's dangerous," Riya points out.
"I'll go," Dax says, his face pale and devoid of its usual cheer. "Someone has to do something."
He comes back with nothing the first night, and he sits down as if shaken. "Guys, people are throwing corpses onto the streets," he says finally. "And I think some of the people walking about... are sick."
He's right. People have started to roam during the day as well, and they've clustered in groups. Riya no longer feels any semblance of safety on the streets. Back then the four of them could keep each other safe, but now groups skulk in gangs, dozens at a time. At their repeated requests, Minho manages to break open the abandoned dry cleaners' after kicking at the lock. They relocate into the shop, retreating from plain sight, and from then they only come and go from the back door for supply runs. But food is scarce to be found - once, in their good luck, Riya and Annelie found a looted supermarket store nearby, and returned with as much bread and canned asparagus as they could carry.
"Not much left," Riya comments to Annelie, surveying their stash. "Should be good for a few more runs, though."
Minho and Annelie go on the next supply run a few days later. For safety, they only leave in pairs now.
"It's havoc out there," Dax says quietly, once Minho and Annelie are gone. He looks exhausted as Riya feels. "You know government has pretty much broken down here, right? Any work force is getting decimated by disease. Last I checked, there was a sizable chance entire countries could descend into anarchy."
"Do you still think we're getting saved now?" Riya says, before she can stop herself. His face is grim in the dingy light.
"I can't let myself lose that hope," he says finally. "I don't know what would happen if I did."
Without warning the barricaded door is banged on, loudly, as if with a hammer. Riya and Dax freeze, looking at each other in panic. In the next few seconds Riya is already looping her arm into her knapsack, turning towards the back door.
But before she can stand, the door bursts off its hinges and a hunched-over man in grey stands mere feet away. They're as good as cornered.
"I knew it," the man says under his breath, and then he levels a gun at them. Riya doubts it's loaded, but her heart speeds in her chest.
Too fast for Riya to fully comprehend, someone flies through the doorway and barrels into the man, tackling him and sending them both to the ground. Riya manages to get to the gun, which spun across the floor, and tries to aim. But her hands are shaking, and the fight is a blur.
Minho is covered in bruises and cuts when he rises, and he does not look like himself. Still on the ground, the intruder begins to laugh.
"I have the plague," he says. "You're dead, boy."
Riya nearly drops the gun.
"Let's go, everyone," Annelie says coolly, standing some distance away at the back door.
"You're all dead," the man laughs, spitting up blood on the ground. "Didn't even have to use the gun to kill ya!"
And then his eyes take on a malicious glint. "All the better. Make you suffer like me."
4. You'll fight with the people you're supposed to be relying on.
They walk in silence. Minho is limping, but none of them have volunteered to slip their shoulder under his arm to help him walk. Riya thinks of the gun in her knapsack and tries to suppress the dread welling in her chest. She didn't want to leave it there - not when it could all have been some elaborate bluff - but if what the man said is true...
That's how plagues spread, a tinny voice says in her head, one she would rather not listen to. One person to the next. You didn't think you'd survive this, did you?
"You should just leave me behind," Minho says a few days later. Dusk has fallen, and he sounds more tired than anything else. "I can take care of myself. It'll be all right."
"You don't have the plague," Annelie snaps. "Classic intimidation tactic. Got it?"
"He could have been telling the truth," Minho continues from behind them. "I feel a bit dizzy. It could be the plague-"
"We're not leaving you behind," Dax declares stubbornly, and Riya doubts he means what he says. She tries to ward off the selfishness she feels curling around her heart and keeps quiet, plodding along forward. She hasn't opened her knapsack again, but fear has made it difficult to sleep.
Through that night, Riya keeps watch.
In the moonless night Minho stirs, and then comes awake.
"Yes?" Riya says, unsuccessfully trying to hide the tenseness in her voice.
"Fever," Minho says, bleary gaze finding hers. "And chills." He looks as if he's about to break down. "It's the plague, Riya. I should have left, I shouldn't have stayed here-"
"Well you are here," Riya says, before she can force herself to be quiet. She looks down, hating herself for being so callous and self-interested.
"I understand," Minho whispers, and Riya feels hot tears starting in her eyes. "I understand."
"If that's the case," Riya says numbly, "I have the plague too."
"No," Minho says, "no, you don't-"
"I touched his gun." The words drop like stones from her mouth. "During the fight, I picked up his gun. I have it with me now."
"No, it's not the same." Minho draws in a deep breath and tries to rise, but his face tells her it's too painful. He collapses again, the sheen of sweat on his forehead visible in the darkness. "You would have been sick too, Riya. In the morning, you'll persuade them all to leave without me. Won't you?"
"I know you will," he says, and it dawns on her that he had seen right through her, that he had read how she thought of leaving him behind from the start. "You must. Be a survivor, all right?"
"They're not going to leave you," she musters, because even she has to cling to some shred of humanity. "Go back to sleep."
"I can't," he says, staring up at the night sky.
So they stay in silence until the dawn.
But Annelie and Dax do not say anything when they find out. They merely look at each other, and it is as if this was inevitable. That one of them would fall ill eventually, that this would be the end.
"The caves aren't too far from here," Dax says finally. "And those had lots of water, which we are running out of. Minho, can you walk?"
"I probably can," Minho says. Riya remembers how the man in grey had hunched over, how his movements had been slow and lurching. Minho might be able to walk, but they wouldn't get far. "But really... you guys should leave me behind."
"Nonsense," Annelie returns briskly. "We'll make a makeshift cart, or something."
Minho looks at Riya, who refuses to say anything. Instead she rises and empties the largest rolling bag they have, carefully placing all the food items into Annelie and Dax's backpacks and bags. Some of the sheets and pillows, though, must be left behind.
"Making us carry everything, Riya?" Annelie jokes, an edge in her words.
"I'll drag the cart with Minho in it," Riya says evenly. "There's more than enough space for you in there," she adds, with a pointed look at Minho. "Let's go."
"I'm not going to be a literal burden to you," Minho says, beginning to look angry. "Stop it."
"I'm sure some people survive the plague," Riya hears herself saying. "Come on. We're not leaving you." Is it because she doesn't want to be abandoned herself? Because she fears that, come three days time, she'll fall ill and Annelie and Dax will pityingly leave her where she lies?
"I'm going to walk," Minho says, even though he looks worse than ever. "Put the stuff back into the bag, Riya."
She takes a look at him, swaying on his feet, and nods. At least he's coming along, she tells herself.
They make their way towards the caves. Riya doesn't know how Minho keeps up, but he does. He keeps a good space behind them, but still walks, one step after another. Dax makes a few attempts at small talk about the shambles left of the economy, but the atmosphere is too tense for any of them to really reply. They reach the caves maybe a few hours after sundown.
"Water!" Dax rushes into the cave first, armed with his water bottles.
"Who knows what's in that water," Annelie says, folding her arms and striding in after him. "I mean, we'll take it but I think we should be wary."
"Ebola was known as the caregiver's disease," Minho says suddenly, three paces behind Riya.
"What?" She turns around.
"Learned about it in class," he says. "Kills not only the sick, but those who care for the sick." His expression becomes solemn.
Riya hesitates. What is she supposed to say? It's too late already, she wants to tell him, but can't.
"I don't want to die," she says finally, as if that's a justification for anything. Her head spins, and she places a hand to her temple. It's crazy how her life has come to this, how easily society has collapsed.
"Me neither," he says, and it feels like a punch to the gut.
5. You'll cross paths with real pain.
Annelie counts up all their food stores, and remarks that if they could figure out how to hunt the squirrels she's seen in the bushes it might be a remarkably good source of protein. Dax tries to offer Riya some of the cloudy water he found in the cave puddles, which Riya is very suspicious about. Minho walks a little further into the cave, taking only one pillow with him, and lies down there in the darkness.
None of them know what to say anymore. An overwhelming sense of doom threatens to suffocate Riya, and she struggles to draw breath.
"What's this, Riya?"
Riya gives a start. Annelie is holding the gun, the one that the stranger had held in the dry cleaners-
"Put that down," Riya says, voice shaking. "Put it down."
Annelie's eyes widen, and she shoves it back into Riya's knapsack. "You mean to say you took that gun-"
"I did," Riya says.
Annelie stares at her own hand as if wishing she could cut it off. For a moment Riya thinks she might explode in sheer fury.
But her voice is quiet, with mechanical precision. "Because of you," Annelie says, her face blank as if reciting a textbook fact, "both of us are going to die."
"Hey!" Dax interjects. "It's all right. It's probably not infected. Riya hasn't come down with symptoms-"
"I have," Riya says, rising to her feet. "Dizziness, right? I started to feel dizzy a few hours ago. I should have told you. I know it means nothing now, but I'm sorry."
"It must be all the walking," Dax says. "Riya, don't be rash-"
But she isn't listening. She walks further, where the rocky cave branches left and right. Minho had taken the left path, so she walks further along the right and manages to sit down. She has begun to lose her sense of balance, her sense of place, and there is a horrible burning in her throat.
"I'm sick," she manages. How had Minho walked like this? Why had they forced him to walk like this? "Don't come near."
"Riya-" Annelie's voice rings out. "Riya!"
The shadows swim about her, threatening and knowing, and the stalactites hang above her like daggers poised to fall. You would have them abandon you, wouldn't you Riya? She closes her eyes and tries to shut out the rattling of her own breath, the sudden aching in her chest. How had these symptoms come on so suddenly, had she been denying them all along? She doesn't have anything soft to lie down on, but that doesn't stop her from falling into a strange, dreamlike state of confusion.
"We're all dead," she hears Annelie whisper. "It's an epidemic after all."
Riya slips in and out of consciousness on the cold rock. She had always taken her health for granted, but this... this is torture. She is always shivering, her surroundings hazy when she opens her eyes, and her breaths are shallow. Even tolerating the pain is difficult, her chest feeling heavier than normal.
She must be days away from death if that, she thinks, and wonders what it is like to die.
The darkness is welcome to her - her eyes hurt from looking at the cave entrance. She sees blurs of movement there, sometimes, but they never seem to make sense. The passage of time ceases to exist; there is only her ceaseless pain and the rock, the sound of her erratic heartbeat and the blackness.
So she tumbles into a deep sleep, accepting the likely possibility that she will never fully wake again.
She wanders through labyrinths in her dreams, except there is no pretense of looking for the harbor anymore. There is only an endless wandering, the realization that there is nowhere left for her to escape.
6. Your ideas of safety and happiness adjust accordingly.
When she next comes to, people are saying things, although her head is ringing and she can't understand them. She's never been in this much pain before. It hurts to breathe, it hurts to exist. She feels as if she's drowning slowly, bit by bit, as if she can't get enough oxygen no matter what. Her forehead is slick with sweat, her dreams filled with terrors. Is that her name, echoing in the darkness? She's vaguely aware of someone stroking her hair, and somehow it clears the worst of her dreams.
Her eyes flicker open. It's difficult to piece together any coherent thoughts, but there is a water bottle at her lips and she realizes she's thirsty.
"It's all right, Riya-"
That person must be very dumb, Riya manages to think, before she downs the water and falls asleep again.
Perhaps it's because she has accepted death, but the pain subsides. Her nightmares settle as well, and she feels strangely at peace. There is only a calm nothingness, as if she stares into a void from which she will never return.
"Are you feeling better?"
Minho's voice. Riya sits up with a strength she hadn't known she possessed.
"You're alive," she says, her voice cracking from disuse. Minho nods.
"You and I are the only ones who got sick," he says finally. "Luckily for us, there's something in the water. Annelie thinks it's one of those fungi she's so enamored with. All of us took it just in case." He hands her another bottle of water. "Here."
She feels dizzy still, and his image isn't completely clear before her. "I was on the brink of death and drank from one of those puddles," he tells her. "Whatever the reason, my head was clear again by nightfall. Took a while for me to regain my strength, though. I recovered in the next few days."
Riya blinks, and begins to drink from the water bottle again.
"You were pretty sick," he says with a sigh. "The plague's just as terrible as they say. I'm glad you woke again."
Riya is silent, recapping the bottle. Does he not remember how selfish she was? But then her gaze focuses on the bottle itself, and her eyes widen.
"Does this mean... does this mean we have a cure?"
Minho shrugs, but he seems hopeful. "I think it would be a little hasty to call it a cure right now. All I would say is that you and I have gotten another chance at life."
"I'm sorry," Riya says suddenly, her gaze level with his. "Minho, I didn't-"
"You have no obligation to value my life over your own," Minho says gently, but the words still sting. "Anyone would have done the same."
"She's awake!" Dax nearly trips when he enters the cave. "It is true," he begins grandly, his gestures wide, "we have an enormous discovery on our hands. It is our responsibility to share it with the world. Maybe we can even stop this plague, bring order to the world at last!"
"Okay." Riya says slowly, rubbing her temple. "Let's figure out what it is first."
"That's what I'm trying to do," Annelie's voice comes from further in the cave. There she is with her headlight and toolkit, scraping away at the rock. "I think it's a fungus that can kill the superbug? There's a precedent for that. Penicillin was discovered as mold, you know, and now it's a mainstay antibiotic. Honestly, this is incredibly exciting."
"These two have not been ill," Minho says flatly, "and so they have a lot more energy than I do."
"I'm alive," Riya says, feeling as if she could cry. "I'm alive."
And she's sobbing, suddenly, the tears hot and wet against her cheeks. She tries to stop, really she does, but it's futile.
"Tears are to be expected after near-death experiences," Annelie says matter-of-factly. "Let's gather as much of the fungus as we can, and let's get out of here."
"Spreading knowledge and salvation to the world!" Dax finishes, sounding like he has seen his life's purpose. "Truly amazing."
They stay there for a few days longer, but Dax is insistent it's their duty to save the sick, one by one, as soon as possible.
"I feel a little sick still myself-" Riya begins to protest, but Dax seems to fully believe they must get out there now and start saving lives. And while it's true, Riya still feels a bit woozy. Still she can't really argue with that kind of rationale, so she pushes herself onwards nonetheless. They begin to head back towards the suburbs, across the hilly path of shrubbery they had come from.
"Let's make camp for the night," Minho says when twilight blue sets over the rocks.
"I could keep walking-" Dax begins, but Minho silences him with a quick look. You weren't sick, it seems to say.
"Guys," Annelie says, entirely missing the tension, "I think you can make candles from this stuff!"
The night is clear, no clouds. There are only stars, brilliant in the darkness. Annelie is taking watch that night, and Riya stares up at the inky sky, her gaze unfocused. For the first time, she feels a sense of deep peace. The world is besieged with plague, but they carry a cure. Perhaps order can be restored, after all...
Annelie is right, a good paper could definitely come from this. Probably a whole journal's worth of papers.
She falls asleep, and it is the best sleep she has had in months.
7. You're never safe.
"We surrender!" Someone yells.
That's Dax's voice. Suddenly she's awake, and three horrifying truths become immediately clear. First, they're surrounded and far outnumbered by a group of warriors holding scary-looking weapons - not guns, but long spears with sharp, pointed stone tips. Secondly, Dax is kneeling in front of the three of them, hands up, as if attempting to show he means no harm. Thirdly, a haggard, muscled man who looks to be the leader stands in front of Dax, looking as if he will order Dax to be killed in the next three seconds.
Riya's gaze darts to the knapsack as she thinks of the gun, and she realizes she could draw it on the leader and demand they stand down. But what then? She would perhaps create some chaos, but she's a single target and would almost certainly be skewered. She grits her teeth.
"Please listen," Annelie bursts out from beside Riya, "if you have anyone who's afflicted we can save them-"
"Not another word or you'll be killed," the man says with contempt. "You have chosen to surrender. Slaves cannot speak here."
Annelie falls silent. Terror pounds through Riya. They should have never left the cave, she knew it, they should never have set foot outside of the only safe haven they had found. They could only save themselves if even that, the world was a lost cause already-
Their things are looted by the spear-wielders. They make noises of surprise and excitement when they find the gun, but the most vital resource of everything the four carry - the cure - is probably going to be neglected. No one but Annelie cares about a bunch of spores, not unless they're proven the only known antidote to a deadly superbug.
Good, Riya thinks bitterly. I hope you all fall ill and never wake again.
Riya, along with the others, is roughly hauled to her feet and made to march along a rocky trail she doesn't recognize. It leads past the caves, past the rocks. Her feet begin to bleed, her knees weakening, but she doesn't dare make so much as a sound. She catches panicked looks from the other three, but all of them are mute. Slaves, to this group of barbarians? Riya won't stand for that. She swears to herself she'll escape as soon as she sees a decent opening.
They come to an enclosed encampment guarded by more spear-wielders. It's actually quite a large camp, Riya realizes, and there are far too many guards for her to escape easily. She and Annelie are taken to a tiny, crowded tent with perhaps twenty other women, where it seems they're expected to obediently do all the menial tasks required of them from morning to night. Riya tries to suppress the annoyance and frustration threatening to show on her face. She instead quietly takes the mop handed to her and tries not to imagine planning a grand escape that involves bashing everyone over the head with her water pail.
On the inside of her wrist they burn a tattoo that looks like a flame. Very unhygienic, very painful, and very unnecessary. Riya burns with hatred every time she looks at it.
Those weeks stretch into months. Life falls into a strangely comfortable rhythm: rise at dawn, clean, gut whatever animals had been killed that day and make some horrendous bone marrow soup, bring said soup to everyone else, eat leftovers, make spears, bows, and arrows out of reeds and stones until her hands are raw and sore, make more food for dinner, do more cleaning, always say nothing, and then sleep. Sometimes they build huts, make fires to cook food, make more weapons, and so on and so forth. Riya now has a collection of burns on her arms: whenever any of her "managers" feel she's lazy, or disobedient, or needs motivation, they merely put the end of a burned stick against her skin. Any cries of pain are greeted with more burns and the threat of death.
She almost can't remember when she had done nothing all day but look at a computer, or check her phone, or eat food that had been conveniently pre-packaged for her. It's almost inconceivable, now.
No matter what, it's clear that they're low-lives, not even worthy of a glance from the perhaps fifty that live off the fruits of their efforts. She catches glimpse of the boys every once in a while - sometimes Minho and Dax are stationed to stand guard outside the camp, a job that must be torturous as it is boring. Other times she's not sure where they went.
After months of being treated like nothing, Riya is starting to feel strangely invisible herself. It's dusk, she's sitting and staring at the sunset through the branches that make up the fence around the encampment. They're at least ten feet tall, but she briefly entertains the thought of trying to climb up and hoist herself over. But she's seen what they do to runaways; they're cut down by archers stationed around the camp. How has it come to this, she thinks, how?
Her very name is alien to her. Does she imagine a note of longing in his voice?
At first she doesn't say anything. She rises and reaches out across the fence to make sure he is real. Their hands meet, and she's afraid to let go.
"Are you all right?" Minho whispers, looking at the burns up and down her arms.
"Catching the plague was worse," she says quietly. It's meant to be a joke, but it doesn't come out that way.
He sighs. She notices new scars on his face, feels calluses on his hands, sees a haunted look in his eyes she doesn't recognize.
"I could ask the same of you," she says.
He shakes his head as if that's not important. "The leader's little sister is sick with the plague, and he's distraught. I don't know if you or Annelie still have the cure. But if you can somehow save her, you should."
"Thank you," Riya says slowly, wondering where she can find the fungus now.
He lets her hands go, and suddenly he is back to the Minho she had known, the one doesn't look at her as if she's made of glass. Or had he always looked at her that way, and she merely hadn't realized?
"We'll get out," Riya promises. "We will."
8. The end of the world doesn't have to mean the end of you.
Annelie has inexplicably managed to to hide vials of the fungus, an entire tray, buried beneath her flimsy cot. And, lo and behold, she has candles as well.
"You genius, you," Riya whispers, momentarily emboldened. Annelie's eyes widen in surprise, but she flashes a rare smile.
Riya gathers the vials. At noontime that day, she slips towards the leader's thatched hut with a tray of food in her hands. They must have separated the sister from the rest, fearing that she would be contagious. And, just as Riya had expected after she invisibly slips inside, she sees a girl about her own age, lying on a cot.
Riya kneels and places the tray beside the girl, who is unconscious and feverish. She glances around briefly, then places the girl's head on her lap and begins to spoon the water, which has had the fungus dissolved inside it, into the girl's mouth. Almost immediately the girl becomes more peaceful, her movements slowing and stilling. Riya can't help but remember her own plight, how desperately she had fought for her life. She hopes fervently that she's not too late, that the girl will recover. Who knows what she could do with that life, the life almost stolen from her by disease?
"Blessings upon you," she murmurs, before she can stop herself, and presses a kiss to the girl's flushed forehead. She gathers the tray, rises, and makes her way towards the entrance-
-and the leader stands there. Riya casts her gaze downwards, but his spear is already aimed at her throat.
"You presume to enter my house," he says, voice low. "You were not commanded to come here, slave."
Riya would feel like strangling him if she weren't so terrified.
But his spear is at his side again, as if she is not even worth threatening. "You'll lose a leg at dawn," he says nonchalantly. "For daring to tread where you should not. Begone, scum."
Her jaw sets. Could she overpower an enormous warrior with a spear? Probably not. She stalks out of the hut, fear and anger burning through her in equal measure.
But still, despite herself, suddenly she turns around and faces him. "Your little sister has been saved," she says, her voice clear. "You may take my life if I lie."
"Slaves cannot speak-" he begins, and then he pauses. Riya sees she has struck a nerve, but decides mystery is her best bet. She turns on her heel and leaves. Somehow she has become reckless with her own life; perhaps it is because she has nothing left to lose.
He does not call after her.
That night, Riya cannot sleep. Yet they do not cut off her leg next dawn, or the next. Upon the third dawn the leader himself confronts her.
"My sister was saved," he says, eyes wide. "You worked some magic, of which i know not. My little sister says you blessed her, and lifted her disease."
Riya says nothing, sensing she is in a position of power.
"I am afraid..." He looks down as if fearing her. Perhaps he remembers how he had called her a slave, imprisoned her, forbid her from speaking for months. "...that I am ill too. If there's any way you can save me..." And then he kneels before her, this hulking mass of a man prostrate at her feet. Riya nearly takes a step back, her heart pounding.
"You will have my loyalty and that of those I command," he says quietly. "I will pledge myself to you."
Riya realizes what he wants her to be. A mythical seer, one who works magic and miracles upon command. So she takes a deep breath and places a hand on his cheek, as if offering him forgiveness and redemption.
"You shall be saved," she says, and when he looks up, she knows she will not be a slave again. People will do anything to save their lives, she thinks. She does not dare dissociate herself from the cure, not yet. "But you must follow my words."
By dusk the leader has released Dax, Annelie, and Minho from servitude, lifted the slaves' vow of silence, and abolished that bone marrow soup that Riya particularly hates. He and his warriors have also sworn to never harm the four of them, and to grant each of them freedom. She sees Annelie's scandalized looks, Dax's shrugs of confusion, and that strange look in Minho's eyes, but none of them challenge her.
And so, Riya offers the leader water, and confers her blessings upon him.
9. Whatever ideology you have, it will be tested.
Once the leader is well again, Riya asks that they leave unscathed. The entire encampment is stunned at the miracle. People part where the four of them walk, trying to hide their curiosity. An astonished silence follows them wherever the four go, as if they possessed some divine visage that had granted them the power to cure this plague at will.
The leader nods, haltingly, but kneels again at her feet.
"If you could stay here-" he begins, as if begging. "If you could stay here and heal those who fall sick. If you could stay and bless us with your protection, all of us will pledge ourselves to protect and serve you."
"I shall have to confer with the others," Riya says, recognizing that regardless of her preferences the other three will undoubtedly have things to say about this. "You will have our answer at sundown."
As the encampment watches, the leader soundlessly offers her what had been his hut. Riya nods courteously, walks in with the other three, and closes the door.
"This is probably the silliest thing I've ever heard of," Annelie bursts out, the moment the door is closed.
"Hush!" Dax says, looking annoyed.
"We'll have to be quiet," Riya agrees. "In any case, we have the option to stay here and have their protection."
"I, for one, think it's a good idea," Dax offers. "It's only getting more dangerous out there. If we leave, we might be able to heal people but it won't count against anything if we come up against another gang. This makes the most sense. Let's stay here, gather more water from the caves when we get the chance."
"That's what I was thinking," Riya nods. She motions for the rest to lean in. "They'll kill you or force you into a life of servitude if you're not useful to them," she says, voice nearly inaudible. "They believe I have the power to heal, so that's how we were granted our freedom. That's all I wanted, really. But now I'm worried about keeping up the act."
"Are you kidding?" Dax interrupts, barely keeping a whisper. "You were so convincing. Just keep doing that and it'll all be great. We won't have to worry about being shot or speared while we sleep, and everything will be fine."
"I personally think it's an insult to the powers of the fungus," Annelie huffs, "and it could prevent information about the cure from getting out. What about the people who actually need the cure?"
"Saving the world is more difficult than you think," Riya says, folding her arms. "All you can do is save yourself, and even that is usually in doubt."
"Is that so?" Minho says, and it's a direct challenge.
"Yes," Riya says.
"Look," Minho sighs, "I don't deny, it's brilliant. We could have died in slavery, but instead you bargained for our freedom and won. We can leave on the best of terms if we please, not to mention two people's lives are saved. But staying here, with a bunch of people who might think we're divinely blessed? I think it crosses a line."
Perhaps a year ago, Riya would have let him leave. But now, she cannot.
"Okay," Riya says, ready to deliver a solid dose of realism. "Let's say you go out there, determined to bring the cure to the world. Maybe you cure two or three people, if you're lucky ten to fifteen. I guarantee you'll be more efficient in curing people if you're protected yourself. But the moment you step out into the real world, your chances of survival diminish. If you want to save people, you must be strong yourself."
Everyone goes silent.
"I will make it my mission to cure as many people as possible," Riya continues. She knows she's right. "And you can do the same. By all means, leave the encampment to find and heal the sick! But do not pass up protection when you find it. If you do, you'll fall and your mission will too."
Minho looks like he's about to say something, but holds his tongue.
"I will stay here," he says finally, "not because it's the right thing to do, and not because I believe in what you're doing. But because, if the truth comes to light, you'll be in grave danger." His face is made of stone. "And you'll be the last person to see the anvil hanging over your head...Riya."
10. People will believe anything to save their lives, now more than ever.
It is easier than Riya had expected. Overnight, the four of them become the new patrons of the enclosure and the people that live there. Dax leaves to gather more water from the caves just in case, although Annelie had carried plenty of supplies along with her. Riya cures anyone who comes down with the disease - usually the spear-wielding warriors who leave to gather food and supplies - and finds that Annelie's makeshift candles are also a highly potent remedy. By lighting candles next to the sick, she can offer lifesaving doses of the fungus overnight. Even though Annelie stoutly believes in the efficacy and purity of science, she's also a rationalist; she agrees with Riya that this is quite a nice compromise between keeping themselves safe and curing as many people as they possibly can.
Minho takes trays full of fungus with him and leaves on foot, carrying a spear he has come to wield with such ease.
"It is our duty to spread the cure however we can," he tells Riya, a heavy hand on her shoulder. She watches him leave, a knot in her throat and a protest dying on her lips, and tries to brush away the thought that perhaps he will never return.
Still the encampment thrives. All threats of the plague are gone in their vicinity. Morale is at new heights, and the three that remain at the camp are treated with profound respect and perhaps even reverence.
Riya also gets to know the leader's little sister she had saved - her name is Cecilia, and she's an energetic girl who beams with joy when she talks.
"The people call you Priestess," she says, elbowing Riya one day. "They say you brought the divine light, and now we are shielded by powers above."
Riya shifts uncomfortably. She has heard the whispers too. But if she hadn't done this, she reasons, she would no longer be useful to them; they would have picked up the cure and cast her aside. The Leader would certainly not have allowed her to walk free if he hadn't thought her blessed. She has no choice but to keep up the charade now. She tries not to be overtly spiritual when she heals the sick, but doubtless they think it some miracle when they awaken and the plague has lifted from their limbs.
"I merely cure when I can," she says finally.
"And so humble," Cecilia chuckles, as the guilt Riya carries builds still.
A woman carrying her sick child arrives at the gates. She asks for an audience with the blessed of this place, and Riya's heart plummets as all eyes turn to her. She sits on a small wooden stool, with Annelie and Dax beside her, across from the woman at the central clearing.
"I had heard that here, you worked miracles," the woman says, not trying to hide the desperation in her voice. "That the disease doesn't exist here."
"That is true," Riya says.
"Please..." tears stream down the woman's face. "Cure my child. I will give anything-"
"We require nothing from you," Cecilia's voice rings out, clear and strong as she strides forth from the crowd, "besides your faith."
11. Starting a cult is very dangerous but also has its perks.
And so more and more people begin to arrive at the gates, begging for salvation, having heard from word of mouth of a miraculous place where the plague no longer existed. The size of the encampment swells, until they are forced to build adjacent dwellings for the steady influx of those who have come to live there.
Riya abolishes slavery, and institutes a system in which work is shared equally amongst those who dwell there. Annelie takes up the logistics of maintaining a larger population, overseeing the daily tasks within the community, while Dax manages the protection of the outer walls. Riya continues to heal those who seek sanctuary in special sickhouses filled with curing water and candles, and is gratified as she sees the community grow and expand. She has seen so many people revive from the brink of death that by now, she knows she wouldn't rather be doing anything else.
"Nice job, Riya," Dax tells her with a high-five on one of her routine visits to the walls. "I think things are well in order now. We have hundreds of people volunteering to join the defenses, can you imagine?"
"Couldn't have done it without your help," Riya says.
It is a small price to pay, she thinks, deceiving everyone in exchange for being able to better the world like this. She thinks of Minho, how vehemently he had opposed what she had planned to do. But could she have saved so many people without deceiving them?
She catches Cecilia one day delivering something that sounds suspiciously like a sermon to the new arrivals. She does not interfere, but upon further inquiry realizes that Cecilia has taken it upon herself to demand faith and obedience from those that arrive at their door. The tenets of this belief system are still unclear, but it requires absolute allegiance to the leaders of the place - to herself, Riya realizes with a shock.
Minho arrives at the gates. It has been many months, and she nearly does not recognize him. He walks with new wariness, as if anything might attack him at any minute. His stores of fungus are empty, and he seems to have traveled far and wide. Riya sits across from him in the new, grand tent she has had built for herself, and struggles for words to say.
"You're a good leader," he says, but there is an edge in his words. "I wouldn't have expected anything less."
"I imagine you've cured many people," Riya says. "Haven't you?" He nods.
There is silence between them. What place does love have in the apocalypse, between two people who do not understand how the other views the world? In another world, one where the plague had not driven a wrench between them, perhaps they could have been happy together. But now he will always see her desperate drive for survival at all costs, and she will always see his self-defeating idealism, before they see anything else.
"I'm not going to travel anymore," he says finally. "I'm staying here."
"Because you think there's an anvil hanging over my head."
"Maybe there is," she says. "Maybe you're right. But isn't it worth it, to create a civilization like this at the end of the world?"
"Riya," he says again, slowly. "You haven't created a civilization. You've created a cult."
"Everyone here is healthy, aren't they?"
"Yes, but your minion Cecilia has been forcing everyone to worship you in exchange for saving them-"
"Don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about. You've chosen to create a world like this, because it is easy for you. You had the chance to walk away long ago."
"And you somehow think you're the noble one here," Riya snaps. "Going galavanting about with the cure, thinking us degenerates while you're the only one who's pure-hearted. I have the same goal as you do, but not everyone has the luxury of surrendering safety and practicality to achieve their goals."
"This isn't safety," he returns, "it's madness."
"I am sorry, Minho," Riya says quietly. "This has all gotten out of hand."
"Leave, then," he urges, rising as if ready to usher her out the door. "Tell everyone that you're not divinely blessed, but instead have access to a cure. Hand the village back to the leader. It's all so easy, Riya, why don't you just do that?"
"They'd kill me!"
"Then just leave in the middle of the night. I'll help you!"
"And leave this place without a leader? I couldn't! They've come so far, it would all be for nothing. I'd have to live my life on the run."
Minho pauses, looking defeated. "It's so hard to watch this happen," he says, sitting again. His head falls into his hands. "I don't know what I'm going to do."
"Stay," Riya tells him. She takes a deep breath. "You know I care for you. Together, we'll better the world one fungus at a time."
He laughs, but the sound is hollow.
12. You can't predict what you'll choose to save during the apocalypse.
Riya would say that, on the whole, they've created a nice makeshift system of government. Annelie is more than a capable administrator, Dax an inspiring commander, and Riya herself keeps it all running, somehow. They draw more and more migrants who have traveled long distances to seek the cure. Each of them calls the place by a different name, and so Riya smiles and welcomes them into a refuge free from the plague.
"I seek the Holy Place-"
"I am grievously ill, seeking the famed Hall of the Blessed-"
"Is this the salvation I wandered for so long to find?"
It is also quite peaceful; its rules include no violence, a largely egalitarian division of labor, and, most importantly, talking allowed for everybody. Riya works to foster a sense of community, of belonging among her people - for she considers herself responsible for their well-being now. Cecilia is still spreading her ideas about faith, which are not so bad the more Riya thinks about it: Cecilia advocates for peace, tolerance, kindness, goodwill, and people do not mistreat each other. Sure, she occasionally comes to Riya with suspicions of nonbelievers lurking about, but Riya is usually able to calm her.
Somehow Riya has managed to shake the lawlessness that comes with the end of the world, the cutthroat drive for survival that accompanies the apocalypse. Maybe that includes all-consuming loyalty to her, but it is the only way, Riya tells herself, she can ensure peace and order. Meanwhile, the charade goes better than expected. She has set up a way of life where miraculous healing is commonplace, it is expected, it is what distinguishes their land from the rest.
Here, life does not seem so bad.
So the place expands, day by day, until perhaps it might be considered a town. Riya knows there must be thousands of people who have sought refuge here, and they all submit to her leadership, her protection, her way of life.
Cecilia tells her of a plot to institute slavery again, asking for permission to deal with the nonbelievers, and Riya allows it. Some force must be used in proper governance, after all. It also becomes apparent Cecilia is quite the gifted orator - she is, perhaps singlehandedly, what keeps the "faith" strong among the community. Riya watches her carefully, but decides Cecilia is generally prudent in these maters.
Minho is at her side, his spear always nearby. He seems to have accepted the realities of life here, and offers Riya counsel she trusts above all others. The only way she can survive, she decides, is if she takes to heart his advice. And even though she has grown closer with him - they understand each other's faults and foibles so well, and she has spent many restless nights in his arms - there is always that distance between them.
They sit outside one evening as dusk falls, watching the stars appear.
"If I cannot stop you," he says, his gaze dark with the shadows of the night sky, "I should at least keep you safe."
"Is that what you have chosen?" Riya asks quietly.
"Traveling changed me." He sounds melancholy. "I brought the cure with me, and I thought I could save the world if I tried hard enough. But people were more receptive to miracles and magic than to science. I saved fewer than I thought I could." He pauses. "I didn't want to admit it to you then... but you know, Riya, you were right."
"Saving the world is more difficult than you think," Minho says.
"You can only save yourself, hm?" Riya replies, raising an eyebrow.
"No." He leans back. "I propose a modification. You can only save what is most important to you, and even that is often in doubt."
"I've begun to feel responsible for this... community," Riya says, and pretends she doesn't see the word cult written in Minho's face when he looks at her. "But you, on the other hand..."
"I am sure you know I have given up on saving the world," Minho says, staring out at the darkening night. "There is only one reason I stay here."
Riya wishes she didn't understand exactly what he meant.
13. Power is even more dangerous when law and order have gone out the window.
Over the years Riya begins to forget what her life had been like, before.
Strangely enough, the end of the world has not treated Riya too badly. She oversees the rebirth of a new era, free of the plague, and begins to find herself swayed to believe (perhaps secretly) that she is worthy of all the praise she receives, the countless who fall at her feet and beg her to save them.
The place is now known as the Holy City: complete with streets and houses, a marketplace, an army, a hierarchical chain of command. Riya is gratified at the thought that the plagues haven't eradicated all the cities in the world. Here, at least, people can live without fear of contracting disease.
Cecilia asks for permission to gather armed forces to sweep through the entire land to spread the faith, to kill those who do not agree. Riya politely declines, and redirects her efforts to rebuilding the city infrastructure instead.
"That's alarming," says Minho flatly, and Riya nods. But there are people to see, new arrivals to heal, a government to run, an army to manage.
How could she have found herself a more beloved life, a better existence?
"Riya." Cecilia's face, grave in the early morning light.
"Yes," Riya says, inclining her head and stepping outside her tent. Almost unconsciously she has adopted a weightier, regal air.
"I am sorry," Cecilia says, taking a deep breath. "But I am of the true faith, and you... have wavered as of late."
"Have I?" Riya says, a warning tone in her words.
"Yes," Cecilia says, almost regretfully. "But I have spoken with the higher power who grants us such mercy, and I know this is the only way we can continue." A cadre of armed spearmen approach.
"Minho," Riya says, growing panicked when she doesn't see him. "Minho!"
"Certain people still defend your misguided rule," Cecilia says, sighing. Riya knows that most of the city's defenses are loyal to her, that they have all sworn themselves to defend and protect her. Cecilia must have waged an all-out war to seize power. Is it possible that she-
"So we took care of Minho and anyone who we thought might resist," Cecilia continues, and Riya's breath leaves her chest. "But he didn't go easily, I'll tell you that."
Riya staggers backwards, the world spinning about her. "And Annelie, and Dax-"
"All disposed of before dawn," Cecilia shrugs. "Surely you understand?"
"Listen," Riya says, and it is as if she has shed the mantle of priestess, of healer, all the mystical titles she had acquired over the years for nothing, as if she is only Riya, the naive girl who had wandered through caves with her friends and wanted nothing more than to return to school again. "There is a particular white fungus that is the cure. I've been using that to cure people. You can find it in the caves two days northwest of here-"
"You're trying to buy time," Cecilia says, sounding angry. "I won't stand for that."
"You're going to kill people if you don't listen to me-" Riya says, no longer caring about her own life. She knows it's forfeit. "It's not the faith that's been curing people, Cecilia-"
"You truly are a heretic," Cecilia snaps. "A no-good nonbeliever who conned your way into power. I shall be a much better ruler. For the true faith!"
"But the cure-"
Riya's words die in her throat as the spearmen advance. There are seconds left before she takes a spear through the chest. Riya knows, now, that she has lost. She has tied her survival to this city; when it falls to violence, to darkness, to suspicion and betrayal, so shall she.
And staring at her imminent death written in the weapons aiming at her heart, Riya wonders what she could have chosen differently. Has it been worth it, what she has done? She has created a place people flock to, a civilization where people work in harmony, and she generally kept order for years even amidst the end of the world. She has stopped the institution of slavery in its tracks, promoted kindness and tolerance when she could, created a society as close to ideal as she knew how.
She sees the world she has created ready to shatter beneath Cecilia's feet, a merciless reign during which all nonbelievers will be slaughtered. But could this ever have ended well, a realm she had built on such dark lies and deceit?
To keep her sway she sacrificed the truth, to grasp at power she spared no expense. So, too, has she fallen prey to the whispers that praised her as divine, the elusive promise of being universally loved. She wanted survival at any cost, but she also wanted to save the world; and to have both she lied, every step of the way.
"What have I done," she whispers, terror seizing her heart, and the air becomes deathly still.