Short Stories, Writing

Short Story: Atmosfire

August 17th, 2009 by Jeff | Dump Core

I thought we’d take a little departure this week from the Recycle Bin to dip into one of my old short stories. I’ve written a lot of short stories over the years, some of which were actually intended to be first or second chapters of novels that never materialized. This one, however, was always meant to be short and is mostly self-contained.

I should preface this with a few disclaimers. First, despite the overall tone of this piece, I do not consider myself to be an environmentalist. A conservationist, perhaps, but certainly not an environmentalist. I believe that God put mankind in charge of the Earth just as described in the book of Genesis, and that we are to be good stewards of the world that He placed under our care. He should be frugal and thrifty with these resources and not abuse them; however, that’s not to say we can’t use anything God created for our own means. If we log a forest, we should plant new trees to take their place and allow them to mature. Obviously, renewable energy sources are a requirement for our future as non-renewable sources won’t last forever; that said, it is unrealistic to expect entire nations to convert to wind and solar power overnight.

Secondly, I am not anti-business. I won’t expand upon that here for fear of spoiling the story, but the point will be raised obviously enough once we get to that part. I mention these two facts because several friends who have read this story in the past have made assumptions about my beliefs based on the subject matter and presentation. In response to this, I’ll rely on the same disclaimer I’ve used for years in GPF: just because the characters in one of my stories have one set of beliefs doesn’t mean that I, the author, share or endorse them. I think a good writer can look beyond his or her own beliefs and prejudices to adapt their writing to characters with completely opposing viewpoints, and a good writer is something I’ve always striven to become. I’ll let you decide if I actually succeed on that point.

The source file from which this story was taken is dated December 1992, which would place it in my freshman year of college. I honestly can’t remember if the story predates that or not; the story could have easily been written earlier and this was just a later version of the file. It has been edited only to correct spelling and formatting errors, and to convert it into HTML for the blog. I otherwise present it as close to its original form as possible. There are a few things that, looking back at it over 16 years later, I would probably tweak and refine were I to rewrite it today. (A few futuristic predictions ended up being way off; who really uses faxes these days anyway?) That said, I’m rather proud of this little story as it accomplishes exactly what I wanted, and there’s not a lot I would really change if I set my mind to it. I hope you enjoy it as well.


“At least ninety people are now believed to be dead following an atmosfire breakout in Japan….”

Cramer pulled his oxpump from his pocket and inserted the nozzle into his nose.

“… While government officials continue to investigate as to the origin of the spark that ignited the toxicloud, …”

PSHHT. The oxygen flooded his nostril. The expansion of the compressed gas chilled the inner lining of his nose and lungs.

“… many speculate that it was started by a cigafire; others even suspect a small static-electricity discharge….”

The comment from the newsbox caught Cramer’s attention. Instantly, he caught sight of a smoker outside the cafe. The man puffed hard on the paper tube. The tip glowed dully from the little oxygen available to burn it.

One of these days, he thought, somebody’s gonna blow this whole blasted planet to bits because of one of those things.

He used the oxpump in his other nostril. PSHHT.

“Can ah help ya?”

Cramer looked away from the smoker and turned to the voice. The man behind the counter, older and grayer than most folks, with soft yet empty eyes, repeated his statement, and the words sounded dulled by the Permapump plugged into his nasal cavity. “Can ah help ya?”

“Yes,” Cramer replied. “One caffeine, please.”

The soft, old eyes smiled with the mouth hidden by wrinkles and the bottom of the Permapump. The man turned and began to drawl out the caffeine.

The newsbox-woman, sporting a newer, more compact and “fashionable” model of the Permapump—Permapump 7000, if he was right—herself, had already turned from the Japanese atmosfire and began something new. “All residents of the tri-city area should be advised that an O-hole has been tracked by the National Weather Service to be heading our way….”

National Weather Service! They did little with actual weather anymore. Of course, there wasn’t much weather anyway. All they did was give warnings every other day of an advancing O-hole or a possible toxicloud.

“… are advised to remain indoors for the majority of evening, beginning at 1700 hours, to avoid any possible

U-strike. Cramer saw a man U-struck before. Too much U-waves. Intense enough to blacken the worst areas of exposed skin. He helped take the man to the ‘pital, and heard nothing from him since. If he had known the man’s name, he would have probably taped the obituary off the newsbox.

Funny how the sun can fry a man. If he’s not careful.

The old man tenderly placed the caffeine on the counter as his Permapump hissed. He smiled, and the deep ravines of his face grew deeper and his eyes shone duller. “If ya needs anything….”

“Thank you,” Cramer said. “This will be all.” He handed the old man his credit card and waited for the transaction to go through the modem. He returned his gaze to the newsbox.

“One final note: levels of toxigas have begun to rise in the areas just south of the tri-city area. The National Weather Service does not predict that a toxicloud will form, and if one does, it should not be of sufficient concentration to pose any threat. Still, residents should listen closely to this newsserv for further updates.” The ‘box then broke off into a fifteen-minute commercial cycle.

The hiss of the old man’s Permapump pulled Cramer back. The thin plastic card shivered lightly between the gnawed fingers. “Here ya go.”

Cramer took the card and stuffed it down into his inner jacket pocket.

“Would ya like a cover fer yer caffeine? Keep th’ soot out?”

“No, thank you. I’ll pass.” Cramer lifted the cup and headed for the airlock.

His wristfone chirped.

He turned back to the old man. “Do you have anywhere I can take this in private?”

The old man nodded to the kitchen door. “Jest go on back thar. Th’ droids don’t make no noise.”

Cramer nodded his thanks and pushed through the swinging doors. No one used swinging doors anymore, especially if they led outside; all buildings had to be equipped with airlocks to keep outside air out and inside in.

The kitchen was grimy and cluttered. Three droids buzzed lightly around, occasionally dripping a drop of lube in a supposedly clean salad bowl. One, from obvious age, let out a puff of gray smoke, which was sucked quickly into the filtervent.

Cramer tapped the worn buttons on the wristunit. Time to get a new wristunit, he thought; it took more than five tries to get it into fone mode. The little display cleared briefly, then relit. The apartment computer was
calling via modem.


Cramer spoke to the voice-activated unit over the line. “Good morning, LINX. What’s so important that you have
to fone me?”


“Right. What’s up?”


Smart-aleck computers. The sarcasm seemed only to be programmed in the newer models.

“The news, LINX.”


“I meant, what is it you need to tell me?”


Cramer froze in silence. The LINX repeated the message when he did not reply immediately.

“A letter?”


“As in letter written on paper, processed wood pulp?”


“Since when did the mail service start carrying written mail again?”


“Forget it.”


“Can you fax it to me?”


“Have you opened it yet?”


Cramer snorted. “All right. I’ll be by to pick up the letter before I drive down to the center.”


“Thanks, LINX. I’ll be there in a little bit.”


Cramer tapped the button to hang up, then repeated a few more times until successful. He left the kitchen, said farewell to the old man, picked up his cup of caffeine and left.

It was a dirty old envelope, yellowed over the majority of its face and turned a deep tan at the edges. One corner was almost torn. The gumming on the back—which professed its age, still using gummed flaps instead of magentoseals—was so worn that it had been sealed with cleartape. It smelled musty, felt musty, looked musty, and left a musty taste in one’s mouth if the scent was breathed too deeply. The front was plastered with postage—what were they called?—stamps totaling about seventeen dollars and thirty-five cents, about what it took to mail an honest-to-God letter.

And scrawled in messy script resembling abstract sculpture was his name and address. Nothing was abbreviated as to avoid confusion (although it probably caused more than avoided, since most postal workers—workers and computers—knew places only by abbreviations) and he was addressed formally as Professor L. K. Cramer.

He had been afraid to pick up the envelope when he first saw it, afraid that it would disintegrate with his touch. But the paper held, and it sat there in the passenger seat of his tri-wheel as he headed for the Second City.

Why would someone send me, of all people, a letter? he thought. Everything was done electronically now; no one sent letters, or carried paper or coin currency, or gave receipts. Everything was measured in units of electrical current and magnetic impulses.

Letters were rare. Why should he get one?

He was a fair number of kilometers from the Third City now, in that strip of dead, barren wasteland between the
metropolises. He passed great farms of dead plants and trees, skeletons of forests, the stalks and husks still standing as tombstones since most of the decomposing bacteria that would have eliminated them were dead themselves. A once-rotten split-rail fence ran part of the way beside the pavement; perhaps this area was a farmland that supplied the agricultural needs of the tri-cities before…

… Before the toxiclouds and atmosfires.

A light on the dash caught his eye. The fuel supply was getting low, almost on empty; the ox-tank was low too, and the exhaust-tank nearly full. He would have to find a service station soon. There should be one just a little

The station sat quietly by the strip of pavement, sleeping intently from lack of customers. Cramer hoped that it was still open.

As he pulled off the road, he then noticed the small, crooked old man sitting outside the office. This was odd; not that the old man himself was odd, but that he sat outside. Few people could tolerate being outside in the unprocessed air for long, and no one would sit out in it for leisure—at least, no one in their right mind.

The old man shuffled toward him as he stopped the tri-wheeler and stepped out. He was bent similarly to the cane he leaned heavily on, his head stooped until the bridge of his nose lay within the same plane as his broad, bony shoulders. A broad-rimmed hat crouched upon his brow, and its shadow obscured all but his twinkling sharp blue eyes and his bulky, older model Permapump.

The sight of the Permapump reminded Cramer of the twinge within his lungs. He drew the oxpump and refilled his lungs. PSHHT.

The old man’s thin, onion-skin voice was backed by a sort of alien liveliness that channeled from some source kilometers away through his weary frame. “Never could adjust ta those things,” he said, motioning to the oxpump. “Th’ cold numbs yer nose ta much. Now these—” he tapped the Permapump obscuring his face “—not much ta look at, not fer vanity, but releases th’ Oh-two steadaly. Don’t hafta replace it every day, eeddur.”

Cramer noted the Oh-two level. His oxpump was almost empty. “That reminds me. Do you have any extras? I’m almost out.”

“Nah. New shipment ain’t in yet.”

“Can I get some gas and ox? Need to dump some exhaust, too.”

“‘Xhaust tank’s almost full, but ah think it’ll hold ya. Help yerself ta th’ rest.”

Cramer inserted the three nozzles into their proper spots. Atmospheric oxygen was getting so rare that automobiles required their own supply to burn fuel. Oh-two suppliers were making it big selling to oxpump companies like Permapumps, Inc., and to the automotive and other industries. Oxygen was just too rare, and too valuable.

Sweat trickled down the old man’s face as the cloudless sky baked the weary air. He wiped at his forehead aimlessly. “So, tell me, yungun, where’s ya headed?”

“Second City.”


“Third City.”

“Harumph.” He half-heartedly stuffed the handkerchief back into its pocket. “Ahs remember back when dem Second and Third and First Cities all had real names.”

“Been around that long, huh?” Cramer asked, grinning at him. The lack of oxygen was starting to creep up on him.

“Yeah, and you can bet ah’ll be ’round lot longer, too!” The Permapump hissed in agreement. His eyes flashed from brief anger to remembrance. “Back den, we named our cities. Ah remember goin’ ta Chicago once. And Wash’n’ton, D.C.”


“Yeah, dat was da nation’s capitol back den. Back bahfore we hadda ration gas or oxeegen. Back bahfore—”

“I know, the atmosfires and toxiclouds.”

The old man sadly nodded agreement. “What ya do fer a livin’, boy?”

“Top secret. Government work.”

“Ah,” he breathed knowledgeably. “Yer not ‘llowed to tell no one.”


“Bet yer thinkin’ ah’m jest some nosy old man, eh?”

Cramer smiled.

“Ah don’t sees vary many people out har. And doze ah do, ah’s rarely sees ’em again. Sos ahs tries ta learn all ah can ’bout ’em, ’cause—who knows?—dey jest may come back and remember Ole Jake and may pop rite in fer a visit.”

“Anybody done that yet?”

“Nope. Not yet.”

Cramer surveyed the man carefully. “I promise,” he began, then paused. “I promise that I’ll come back as soon as I’m finished in Second City.”

“How long ya gonna be dar?”

“Not sure, really. It depends.”

“By dat time, dat new fangled road—ah-five-dirty-foe—it’ll be clear and it’ll be lot quicker ta go dat way.”

“I promise,” he repeated, “that I’ll come back.”

Old Jake nodded. “Ya do dat.”

The gas finished pumping, but the oh-two had not. It hissed lightly; a leak probably let some escape. Probably shouldn’t hurt his tank, but would lose the old man some money. He removed the gas nozzle and placed it back on the rack before he noticed Old Jake’s silent stare back down the road from where he came. At first, Cramer thought
the old man was taking in the silhouetted view of Third City, but when he turned to see, the subject loomed due south.

“Yep,” Old Jake muttered. “Dey said one wuz comin’.”

Cramer said nothing, but stared, slightly horror-stricken, at the crimson toxicloud creeping over the horizon.

“Be har in ’bout, hmmm, six ‘ours,” Jake commented.

“Less if the winds pick up, like they’re supposed to.”

“Ah hates ’em. Ev’rythin’ shuts down when dey come. People hide in deir houses, bus’nesses close, no won’s ‘llowed on da streets.” He sighed, his entire frame shaking as with a chill. His eyes glared guiltily. “And ta think it’s all our fault.”

Cramer had become rigid upon finding the cloud. “We’ll find a way to get rid of them.”

“Ain’t no way to git rid of ’em, ‘cept lite a match an’ blow da whole blasted planet up.”

Cramer’s eyes grew sharply darker. “We’ll find a way,” he repeated.

BLING! The pump had finished. The sound startled them both.

Cramer dug for his card. “Here,” he said. “Take out sixty.”

Old Jake squinted at the readout dial. “Da tab’s only fifty.”

“I know,” he said, holding out the card. “Keep the other ten.”

The old man took the card and hobbled over to the building. Cramer followed. “Ya keep sayin’ dat we’ll find a way to stop dem dings. What makes ya so sure ya will?”

“That’s my job.”

CAJUNK. The machine ate the card and Old Jake tapped some buttons. “Ah thought yer job wuz top

“It is, but that’s what I do.”

He handed back the card. “Den, fer da sake of da whole human race, ah pray ya find da cure fer dis plauge.”

Cramer took the card. “So do I.”

He walked back to the tri-wheel and opened the door. He read the card. The old man had only removed twenty-five. He looked back at the building to find him, but the metal shades had already been pulled and the contents of the shack hidden from the advancing toxicloud.

Cramer arrived in Second City just minutes before the toxicloud began to obscure the sun. The air had already dropped considerably in temperature and the streets were completely deserted. The police units were making one final round to make sure that all residents were safe indoors; one pulled him over and he had to explain. The officer escorted him to the center.

Cramer had trouble getting into the lot. The attendant refused to open the armature gate to let him in and threatened to close the pressure door on his car if he didn’t move. Cramer proved his identification and managed to convince him to keep his job by letting him in.

The pressure door from the lot to the main building was already sealed. It took several minutes before someone came to the intercom and several more before the door was opened. The cloud had by then already reached the city; he had only a few minutes.

Things keep getting worse, he thought as he read the handwritten sign on the elevator door, with bold black letters shouting, “OUT OF ORDER”. He prepared himself for the murderous climb up the stairs.

By the time he had reached the seventh floor, he had entirely exhausted his oxpump. The exercise still left him gasping for air. He leaned against the banister railing and hoped he would not pass out and fall back down.

The door opened several flights up. A series of footsteps, then nothing. Silence roared for a moment, while his
breathing echoed everywhere. A voice. “Professor Cramer?”

Cramer looked up. “Stew?”

Doctor Stuart Phillips looked down through the railing. “Prof, am I glad to see you! Better get up here quick.”

Cramer shook his head. “I can’t make it. Not all the way up.”

“You don’t have to. Just up here to the tenth floor. The lift works from here up.”

Cramer grumbled, the trudged upward.

“Gimme your oxpump.” Cramer barely whispered the words.

“Come again?”

“Oxpump!” Cramer grew lightheaded.

Phillips fumbled through his jacket and removed the pump. Cramer grabbed it desperately. PSHHT.

“You’re out, huh?”

“Yeah.” Cramer breathed heavily. “Used the last down there on the stairs. Place I stopped to get gas didn’t have any.”

“We outta get Permapumps. Easier to deal with.”

His laughter echoed in the closed lift. “You won’t catch me with one on.”

Phillips wasn’t amused. “I thought about it.” He scratched his head and changed the subject. “Her Majesty is up their trying to run the show herself. Chuck and I are glad you finally showed up.”

“Well, Kathy will just have to hold her horses. No one does anything ’til I tell them to.”

The elevator chirped as they reached the top floor. Phillips and Cramer crossed the empty hall into the command center.

The cluttered room, littered with computer equipment and bounded on three walls by floor-to-ceiling windows, was barren of all life except two forms crouched over a keyboard and monitor. Katherine Monarch looked up, her eyes peering over the frames of her glasses and flashing an accusatory look at Cramer. She turned back to the screen. “So, you finally decided to join us, Professor Cramer.”

“I-534 was blocked up, or that’s what LINX told me. Had to come the long way.” He threw his coat on top of an unused computer. “Set up, Chuck?”

Charles Lance nodded absently. “Be ready in a few minutes. Would have been ready sooner if someone hadn’t shut off the generator cable.” He threw an accusatory glance at Monarch.

Monarch snorted.

Phillips grinned, making him look about twelve or thirteen. “Yeah. Good thing they hadn’t shut off our power yet or we’d have lost all of our data.”

Monarch left Lance and the computer and walked past Phillips hastily. “Go shove a Permapump up your rear, Phillips.”

Phillips’ face fell. Cramer walked over to where Monarch rustled data tables. “I see you’re as warm and sociable as ever,” he said.

“Don’t push it, Luke.” She turned and shoved a stack of papers into his chest. “These, I believe, will be of interest to you.”

Cramer examined them. “Just old data files. What’s so impor—”

Monarch snatched them from his hand, slammed them on the table, and stabbed them with her index finger. “These were the ones you faxed me, remember? The ones that you reviewed for anomalies?”

Comprehension dawned on him. “Oh, the ones I laid in bed for two nights and slaved over.”

“That’s about the only thing you slave over in bed,” she whispered at him.

Cramer smiled evilly at her and whispered back. “I happen to do my best when I do things in bed.”

“Yeah, right. Prove it.”

“If you want me to.”

“You’re sick.”

“You want it.”

“You’re still sick. You may be right, buy you’re still sick.” She reached up—being half-a-head shorter than he—and bit at his ear before heading back over to the open terminal.

A quiet alarm sounded. The power company was shutting down to prevent possible electrical discharge which could ignite the toxicloud. Phillips threw a switch to activate the building’s internal generator.

“All right, class,” Cramer began as they all surrounded Lance and the monitor. “We’re here to study whether or not these things are what we thought they were. The roof equipment ready?”

“Set,” affirmed Lance.


“Last us about twelve hours,” Phillips replied.

“Are you ready, Miss Monarch?”

“Ready, willing, and able, Mister Cramer.”


“Sure,” grinned Phillips, “but not with you.”

Monarch retaliated. “Go gag on some toxigas.”

Lance turned to Cramer. “They’re ready, sir.”

By this time, the toxicloud had so completely obscured the sun that it was as if nightfall had swallowed the
city. Buildings stood like mammoth headstones and obelisks, empty of electricity. The windows grew darker; the only light came from the monitor screen. Cramer reached over Lance’s shoulder and tapped a single key.

The rest was waiting.

No use wasting time, Cramer thought. He turned on a small light and pulled the ancient envelope from his coat pocket. The cleartape broke easily. He extracted a wad of hastily folded paper and opened it carefully. The ink was recent but dull, and the words wavered in and out of the weary, crumpled woodpulp.

“What’s this?” Monarch was standing over him as he sat at a desk, craning her neck over his shoulder. “A letter?”

“I think,” he replied. The musty odor wafted from it.

“It stinks.”

“Just musty. The paper’s old, but the handwriting is fresh.” He flipped it over. “What in the world—”

No wonder the paper was so old! Printed in even text were old calculus integrals, listed down the page in two columns. The number 586 lay alone in the yellowed sea of the bottom right corner, and the left side bore the jagged edge tearing.

“Looks like a page from an old textbook,” Monarch noted.

“Textbooks haven’t been used in schools for years,” he added in confirmation. “But why—”

She pulled it from his hands and flipped it over. “That’s why you’ve got to read it, dummy.”

He nodded his head ashamedly and began to scan the first line.

“Oh, heck!”

By the time Cramer had looked up, Lance had already leapt to his feet and his chair was skidding across the floor. His face erupted with anger and frustration, underscored with a deep, elevating fear. Phillips had jumped forward and was staring intently at the screen. Monarch’s hand tightened on Cramer’s shoulder.

Lance’s words struck like lead weights on concrete. “We’re losing power in the main electrodes!”

Power drain! Under any other circumstance, it may have been an inconvenience or nuisance. Here, it was
life-threatening. It might be a broken cable between the lab and the roof, but it might be an open ground, an unshielded line on the roof—exposed to the air and the toxicloud—sparking and spitting discharges.

“Diagnostic!” Cramer accidentally shoved Monarch into the desk behind them; she said nothing, her own fear numbing everything else. Four heads orbited the monitor as Lance’s fingers flew.

“Ground at sector thirty-eight!” That was above the roof.


“No way to be certain.”

All eyes fell on Cramer. The professor perspired.

“Stew, to the roof with me. Chuck, you’re glued to that thing. Kathy, call First City. Inform them of the situation.”

Cramer and Phillips were out of the door. Cramer shot oxygen into his wanting lungs. PSHHT.

The clumsy masks and oxtanks were not designed expressly for this situation, but they were effective enough that they became standard equipment in studies such as these. The airlock was small, and the bulky tanks made comfort impossible, but the two men squeezed into the tiny lift. Cramer threw the toggle for the commlink.

“Chuck? You got me?”

TSHHT. “Yeah, got ya.” TSHHT.

“We’re in and secure. Pump and lift.”

TSHHT. “Roger.” TSHHT.

A small pump began to let in the outside air. The lift rose slowly. Phillips pulled at the suit. TSHHT. “Not very sturdy.” TSHHT.

Cramer looked at the shiny metallic fabric. “Not made to be.”

The door opened.

The scarlet nightfall smothered the hibernating city. The shear, mirror-like facades of sleeping towers reflected the desolate skies as the oppressive toxicloud shrouded the tops of some. Two shimmering figures blundered hastily across the top of one, stumbling toward an elevated platform of instruments.

Cramer climbed the ladder first, then reached down and took the toolkit from Phillips. He opened the latch carefully and withdrew an old conventional screwdriver. Portable electric screwdrivers were too risky; even the friction with this one could be dangerous. Cramer began to loosen the screws.

Phillips panted behind him. TSHHT. “Guess its not discharging, since we’re still up here.” TSHHT.

“Don’t get your hopes up. The seal may be keeping out the toxigas for now.”

One screw fell to the platform. CLINK.

TSHHT. “Careful, Luke. It’s a steady drain; must be a loose wire grounded to something.” TSHHT.

“Right, Chuck.” Another screw. CLINK.

TSHHT. “Wind’s starting to gust.” TSHHT. Phillips’ face screwed up behind the mask.

CLINK. “One more.”

Cramer suddenly felt a violent uprooting, then the weightlessness of free-fall. Phillips watched in horror as a blast of wind threw Cramer off the platform.

“Luke!” Phillips screamed. He stumbled to the edge. Nothing in sight.

A voice buzzed in his ear. TSHHT. “I’m all right. Get inside that thing. I’ll be up in a minute.” TSHHT.

Phillips nodded unconsciously and picked up the fallen screwdriver.

Cramer picked himself up. His head throbbed and he felt the bruise growing under the skin along his ribs. Undoubtedly, he had caught a support pole as he passed, instinctively, and this had broken part of the fall. He made his way back to the platform.

Monarch nervously chewed her thumb. She didn’t know where she picked up the habit; it wasn’t one she particularly cared for. Perhaps it stemmed from middle school, when she read Romeo and Juliet for the first time. It was all she remembered about it. Biting thumbs.

She began to pace behind Lance as he threw command upon command upon the keys. The commbox beside the computer was silent.

“Cramer, if you get yourself killed….”

“They’ll be all right,” Lance said, hoping to convince himself. He failed miserably.

The commbox was silent.

“We should be able getting something.”

“They may not be in yet. The scan still shows—”

“No, no! I mean on the ‘box.”

Lance hadn’t thought about it. The commbox was silent; it shouldn’t be. They should be picking up everything, even their breathing. It just squatted by the computer, deathly silent.

He tapped the ‘board and brought up a second window menu. Diagnostic, Commsys, Suitsys. The answer jumped up defiantly.

The chair rolled violently into a desk a couple of meters away as Lance grabbed the flashlight.

“What?!” Monarch’s face turned pale with anticipation and fear.

“Another break. Commsystem. Stay here. I’ll be back in a sec.” Lance vanished into the silent hall.

Her thumb ached slightly; her teeth gnawed at it automatically. The cloud clambered across the sky.

The commbox was silent.

CLINK. Phillips pulled on the small handle (the gloves were too bulky, despite their tightness, to fit into the grove) and the panel was free. The airshield was still intact, as Cramer predicted, and the guts of the instrument lay exposed before him.



“Where are you?”

TSHHT. “Coming. Be there in a minute.” TSHHT.

“You need to see this.”

TSHHT. “Tell me. Got a little ways to go.” TSHHT.

“It exploded.”

Silence spoke for Cramer.

The wire was there, as were the small score marks from an exploding cap. The mini-blast split the wire, and now it lay in direct contact with the outer shielding. The ground.

Something else caught his eye. A small plastic fragment perched below, just behind the airshield. The liquid-crystal display lay cracked, with two small buttons with words over them, one charred to obscurity, the other bearing the word “SET”.

“A timer.”


“A timer. The darn thing had a timer.”

TSHHT. “Stew. What did you say?” TSHHT.

“A little bomb. Meant to break the current.” He pursed his lips.

“Hey, Chuck! You catch that?”


“Phillips to Lance. Chuck, hear me?”



TSHHT. “Heard. Don’t do anything ’til I’m there.” TSHHT.

“A bloody cap did it,” he muttered. “Somebody sabotaged it.” He put his hand against the wall of the unit.

The wind gusted. Phillips staggered. He reached for the pole for support.


Somewhere, somehow, a part of the outer shielding, under Phillips’ weight, pressed against the outside panel. The current flowed through the metallic fibers of the suit. The distance between the tips of his fingers and the pole was just close enough to allow the spark.

The gust blew Cramer off of the ladder and into the lift. Liquid fire enveloped the rooftop. Phillips screamed,
although no one heard him.

The heat struck Cramer harder than the metal from his fall. He felt as if his entire body was baking, as if he had just been thrown into a giant’s oven. He kicked the door shut.


The temperature inside the lift rose sharply. Desperately, he reached above him and found the down button. The lift slid downward; the temperature slackened. The pump replaced fresh air for that from outside. Cramer lay pinned to the wall by exhaustion.


The word reverberated through his skull over and over, infinitely echoing, endlessly sounding. Three horrible syllables.


The sudden transition from night to daylight brilliance startled Monarch. Then the percussion of the blast rocked the building. She stumbled, lost her footing. Her hands and knees stung from the impact.

“What are you idiots doing up there?” she screamed.

The room exploded. Every window shattered in unison, bathing the room in glistening shards. She ducked, the desk before her taking the brunt of the blow. The fragments tinkled as they cascaded over the desktop and buried her.

The pain was there, but not nearly as great as she thought it would be. The desk slowed the glass’s velocity, and her blouse and skirt let them bounce off without much chance of laceration. The primary pain lay within her ears.

She brought herself up to her hands and knees, glass crunching with every move. Some bit into her palms while more lodged within her hosiery and began to scrape at her knees. She stood, with difficulty, and quickly removed the hosiery, slicing thin layers of epidermis as it left her legs.

Her ears screamed painfully. Now her lungs twinged as well; toxigas mingled with the inside atmosphere and made its way into her lungs. She fumbled her way to an emergency oxmask panel near the door and rejoiced when the cool fluid poured into her mouth and nose. Skin irritation would follow with extended exposure, but at least now she was safe from poisoning.

She collapsed against the wall, sliding down it wearily, as she watched the dancing fingers of flame diminish. The ignited cloud must have been separated from the primary cloud by the wind gusts; not an uncommon occurrence, but one that rarely mattered in an atmosfire. The ignited cloud must have drifted just far enough below the principle cloud to prevent ignition.

The door swung open beside her and Cramer’s familiar face, blurred by the charred face plate of the suit, surveyed the room in horror. She shifted her weight slightly, crunching glass beneath her, and captured his attention.

“Kathy!” His voice was muffled by the suit, but it could not stifle the combined relief and horror that gripped him. He bent down and pulled Monarch carefully and slowly from the floor, slowly steering her from the room into the less-contaminated hallway. There, they stopped.

“Are you all right?” he asked, raising his voice to be heard through the suit.

Monarch nodded; the oxmask didn’t allow for much communication. Only a limited amount of oh-two was provided, and her near hyperventilation was depleting it quicker than expected.

“How long did you breathe that stuff?”

She shook her head. Not long.

He looked her over, noting the lacerations. “We’re gonna take care of those cuts.” He pulled at her shoulders to help her to the suit locker. There, they would clean the wounds and get her her own suit.

Monarch stood firm, shaking her head.

“Come on! We don’t have a lot of—”

She shook her head frantically. She mouthed a single word, which he read through the clear mouthpiece.


“Where is he?”

She pointed down the hall, where he had to have gone.

“Go to the suit locker. Clean those cuts and get a suit on. Then gather as many extra tanks as you can find. Put them in a carrying pack. I’ll be back to get you.” Then he left her, making his way toward the main computer core.

One word struck his mind full force. Stinging, violent force. Sabotage. It bounced around his skull eerie, haunting ghosts mockingly chanting it. Sabotage! Sabotage! Phillips saw a timer; it was timed to go like that. Someone wanted to destroy their data collection. Someone knew the chances were high that the timer could have ignited the entire toxicloud.

Someone wanted to blow up the whole freaking tricity!

Dizzying swirls of thought raced through his skull with microsecond residence. He thought of everything and nothing at once, running, panting, thinking. Sabotage! Atomsfire! Murder! Where does it end?

Suddenly, he stumbled, then fell. He had tripped. He turned to see what it was he tripped over, and met the
staring, lifeless eyes peering out of Lance’s bloodied skull.

The next moments were blurs, slurred together without true, significant connections. Jump back in horror. Pool of blood. Hole in his back. Noise in computer room. Flash of movement. Man in pressure suit. Gun in hand. KRAPOW! Faceplate strikes floor, bullet strikes wall. RUN!

Every impulse in his body screamed in horrific, resounding unison. RUN! Lack of ox floated his brain in a choppy sea. RUN! Never had he outright ran before; never had his life depended so heavily. RUN!

Monarch was in the suit and struggling with a satchel of ox tanks when he rounded the corner. No breath for words. He shoved her forward, toward the stairwell.

TSHHT. “What is it? What’s wrong?” TSHHT.

He did not answer. He threw open the sealed doors, threw the tanks down two flights and shoved her down. “GO!” he screamed.

TSHHT. “What about you?” TSHHT.

“I’ll be there in a minute! Just run and don’t turn back!”

She limped down in pursuit of the satchel.

Suddenly, one singular thought struck his mind. He could not leave without it; no, not without it. He became obsessed with the thought of it, as if his continued existence depended upon it. He flew back to the lab room, the crunching of shattered glass yielding to his weight with every step. In a murderous frenzy, he shoved shards in every direction. It had to be on this desk!

Suddenly, a gust of wind surged through the room, and a flicker of movement caught him. A corner of a yellowed page hopped up and down under a pile of glass; through them, he could read the words, “… with swiftest urgency I
write these words to you…”

With great force, he tore the paper from under the debris and bolted for the door. Adrenaline had been surging through his veins; now, its release had subsided, and exhaustion dug deeper within him. He had no time to rest. Must get out.

An explosion shattered the empty silence. He caught the muzzle-flash just as he entered the stairwell. Shattered glass screamed down the hall.

Cramer stumbled, fell. He rolled down the flights of stairs, falling, pounding on step after step, his mind swirling. No time to stop the fall and return to his feet. This was quicker. More painful, but quicker. He struck a landing, shoved with his feet, hands, whatever was nearest to the wall, and threw himself down another
flight. Swirling insanity, spinning madly, raving voices within his head screaming in utter blaring unison:


He struck the landing just as Monarch turned to investigate the noise. He twisted an agonized face, bloodied nose and lip oozing life from a sallow pallet of agony, eyes sharply cutting through a cracked faceplate, voice
screaming in hoarse terror over the communit:


She did not stop. Seconds later she was out of sight, and a few moments after that the door at the bottom could be heard opening and closing.

Cramer drug himself up upon the railing, staggering, limping, then diving down the flight as another bullet launched, striking the landing directly below him. He stumbled to his feet again, then hobbled down the last flights and entered the lobby as the clomping of boots drew closer and louder from above.

He was across the lobby in seconds, despite injuries and breathlessness. He opened the pressure doors with difficulty—they were already unlocked, so Monarch had gotten through—and staggered into the parking area just as she drove his tri-wheel around. They blasted out of the parking bay and onto the streets, just as their pursuant exited the building.

They continued in silence, driving through the red haze, barely able to see where they were going, until Cramer coughed, “Don’t take I-534.”

“But the entrance is just—”

“Don’t take the interstate! Take the other route.” He cringed. A slight hissing had been in his ears since he left the stairwell; there was a leak in the suit. He wasn’t sure how long he had, no way to tell how fast the oh-two was leaving and the toxigas was coming in.

Monarch gripped the wheel tightly, terror riding her features. “Should we be doing this?” she asked, close to panic. “Driving in a toxicloud, I mean.”

When she saw his eyes, they punctuated his sentence with undisputable finality. “Do we have a choice?”

The darkness seemed impenetrable. Several times, they actually left the road, and it was by pure chance that they found it again. The dead tree trunks and husks of the old farms were invisible, shrouded by haze. But Cramer new they were there, jeering him onward.

The tri-wheel’s self-contained combustion unit prohibited the combustion of fuel in the actual air itself; therefore, it should be entirely safe to drive, even during a toxicloud attack. But it was unwise to take such chances. Leaks were common, toxicloud ignition possible. They drove on.

After several kilometers, Monarch broke the silence, nearly on the edge of tears. “Why?”

Cramer was groggy; he must have been bleeding internally. He slipped out of his near-unconsciousness. “What—?”

“Why did they do that?” A tear streamed down one cheek. “Why did they kill them? Stuart and Charles. They didn’t do anything. None of us did. Why did they do it?”

“Don-don’t know.”

“That little stunt on the top of the building… could have killed everybody, the whole city.”

“No. Bigger.”

She dared not take her eyes from the road, but she wanted to look into his eyes desperately. “What do you mean?”

“Cloud… covered whole tri-city… area. Would’ve blown whole bloomin’ area up. Did it on purpose.”

“But why?” Her eyes watered painfully, nearly obscuring her vision. “Why? Why?”

“Maybe… we were gettin’ too close.”

“Too close? Too close to what?”

He squinted, trying to keep his mind from going fuzzy. “Big companies. They’re responsible, I think. They… polluted, gov’nment tried to regulate, couldn’t. Analysis could’ve proved it.”

“Our analysis of the cloud’s content could have proved their guilt?”

“Keep th’… people in th’ dark, best way. Don’t lettem know. Get off… scott free. Meanwhile, they keep… pollutin’, more clouds keep comin’, people keep dyin’.”

She turned quickly to glance at him. “You need medical help.”

“No time. Drive.” He squinted again, trying to pierce the darkness with little success. “Where—”

The tri-wheel came to an abrupt stop. The tiny building buckled, and Cramer hit the dash from the impact. “We hit something,” she said.

“Really?” he said, his sarcasm drawing some life back into him.

“Well, we’re not going anywhere, anyway,” she said, sniffing to clear up earlier tears. “We’re out of oh-two.”

They clambered out, surveying the vehicle and building. “I guess we could hide here for a while,” she said, “at least ’til the cloud dissipates.”

“I’ve been here,” Cramer realized. “It’s the old man’s gas station.”

It took several tries to get the door to open, and when it gave way, they entered cautiously. The toxigas had penetrated the outer seals and contaminated the air within. Littered with odd curious and strange little objects, the small building was everything the old man ever had, for things were arranged as if it were lived in. Set in one corner, beneath a wall plastered with travel brochures of places neither of them had heard of, was a tiny bed, sheetless and covered with a single blanket, which covered the lifeless form Old Jake.

Monarch looked at him momentarily. “He died in his sleep,” she said. “He didn’t feel a thing.”

Cramer stood over the body, swaying slightly. “I told you… I’d come back.”

Monarch set him into a chair. “You shouldn’t be standing. You’ve lost a lot of blood, and I can’t stop it without removing your suit.”

“Doesn’t matter,” he slurred. “Suit’s leakin’. Won’t be long anyway.” He drew the letter from his pocket and picked up a small flashlight from the counter. “I’ve gotta read this. Waited too… long. Burnin’ up ’til I… read.” He flipped on the switch.

Dear Professor Cramer,

It is with swiftest urgency I write these words to you. Your governmental studies, I am sure, are closing vitally near to solving the riddle that has plagued our world since the first declaration that these horrid toxiclouds exist. However, I write to you to an effort to aid your research. I fear that, perhaps, the Businesses will interfere, as they have in every such study for the last fifteen years, and if such interference occurs, you will never come close in achieving the goal you’ve so earnestly sought.

Therefore, I must admit that I have, indeed, solved this ghastly riddle. I know the components of the gas, as well as a potential solution. I have included them within this letter—

At that moment, the flashlight died.

Cramer screamed in horror. “The answer!” He leapt to his feet, throwing the dead light through the one unshielded window, shattering the glass. “The answer! I can’t read the answer!”

Monarch, who had been watching the empty darkness outside, was at first startled, then shocked when the glass
broke. “What do you mean?”

“The answer!” he cried. “It’s here, in our hands, and the dark cloud forbids us to read it!” He threw things wildly about in chaos. “We must find another light! We need another light!”

“We don’t have one!” she screamed back. “Luke, please sit down!”

In sudden mania, obsession gripped him. The answer was within his grasp. He shoved Monarch away from him, her head striking the wall, knocking her unconscious. “The answer! The answer!” He shattered countless ceramic statues, picture frames with ragged, worn photos of long-dead family and friends. He tore a drawer from beneath the counter, spilling its contents upon the floor. He ran his hands through the clutter, panting with course throat, scratched by building toxigas in his suit, “It must be here. It must be here. I must find something. I MUST find—”

He hands found a small, cardboard package. Frantically, he tore it open, ripped out one of its contents, and lifted the letter. “Now, the answer!”

He lit the match.

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