F3: Watching the Valves
Here’s this week’s Friday Flash Fiction, a short story set in the same loose post-apocalyptic world as Sun and Interdiction Zone. This piece was inspired by a particularly chilling chapter in Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us.
It could probably use some more research, but I don’t have the time before that Friday Flash postin’ time, so please excuse any daft errors (but by all means point them out).
WATCHING THE VALVES
It takes four years, but eventually the raiders come. And when they come, they are organised.
My radio squawks into life and I turn, ready to receive the call, but Chad is there before me. He’s built like a high school football hero, back in the days when there were still football leagues. And high schools, come to think of it.
‘Central,’ he says, all clipped paramilitary precision. He’s never had any training, despite what the buzzcut and tattoos might make you think, but like the rest of us he saw a lot of movies back in the day. We still have a few that we trot out on special occasions – birthdays, anniversaries – but it feels like there are less causes to celebrate every year. It’s a hard life, here in one of the few Texas oil refineries that are still standing.
I watch in silence as Chad murmurs into the mike, nodding to himself. His face is neutral and guarded. I feel a hand come to rest softly on my shoulder; it’s Melanie, standing beside me, watching Chad. I put my hand on hers.
Chad puts down the radio and turns to us, holding up his hands and clearing his throat. There’s no need; every other engineer and volunteer in the room is already watching and waiting.
‘Raiders,’ he says. There are several sharp intakes of breath. ‘About thirty or forty of them,’ he continues. ‘Tif isn’t going to risk taking any shots until they’re all past her, so it looks like we’re on our own for now.’
‘We can’t fight forty men,’ someone says; Aaron, the geologist.
‘We can try,’ another voice pipes up.
‘It’d be suicide,’ says Melanie. Her voice is low and gentle, but the authority in her voice is clear. I squeeze her hand.
‘Melanie’s right,’ Aaron says. ‘We should run. We’ve still got the minibus. It can take eleven.’
‘What about Tif?’ says Chad. He’s always had a soft spot for the distant survivalist, but the question was on more pairs of lips than his.
‘She can take care of herself-’
‘It’d be suicide to do anything but fight,’ says Melanie. Her voice is louder now. Aaron shuts up and looks at her. His face is pale. I don’t blame the poor bastard. My heart is racing too. We’ve all thought about this every day for the past four years: that one day someone would come to claim this refinery, and that we wouldn’t be able to scare them off.
‘You know how bad this place has gotten,’ says Melanie. ‘And you know how little fuel we have in the van. We wouldn’t get more than a dozen miles, and then we’d have to walk it.’
She takes a deep breath. Everyone is silent, watching her. Distantly, I hear a faint hiss. A pipe somewhere. Not a major leak.
‘Even if we evade the raiders,’ Melanie continues, ‘even if we could reach the nearest settlement, even if there is a nearest settlement… you know that any valve and flare in this place could go, and without us watching over them, a fire could break out. And if a fire breaks out it’ll spread through the whole network like… like wildfire. The whole place will go up, and so will every reservoir and tank. You’ve all seen the worst case scenarios.’
We have: a disaster comparable only to nuclear winter, caused by dirty chemicals being poured into the atmosphere by week- or month-long fires. Dioxins and furans from burning plastics, heavy metals from the soot. It could affect the entire continent.
I’m proud of Mel, although I’ve not really any right to be. She was a chief engineer here before the collapse, returning several years later with the rest of us to safeguard the refinery. She knows better than any of the rest of us what’s at stake here. We’ve always been fighting a losing battle; that it’s come to actual battle just typifies our daily struggle.
I sigh, stand up, and speak for the first time.
‘Let’s get the guns,’ I say. And I hope that against all odds we’ll make it through, so that we can stave off that potential disaster for as long as we can.