Gale force winds rammed into Nick forcing him back into the train station. Rain slashed at him raking his skin like cold claws. Drenched in a second, half blind against the wind, he staggered into the building. The door slammed behind him, rattling under the assault of dangerous weather.
“Told ya.” Frank shook his head in exaggerated dismay. “Shoulda listened.” He stood far enough from the door to remain dry. The only note of untidiness about him was a stray curl of hair standing up from the wind Nick had let in. His blue National Train Authority uniform was spotless.
“Should have known you to be right,” Nick agreed. He dropped his pack and bedroll to wipe his face. “Looks like I’m stuck here for the night.”
Frank gave him a condescending nod. “The forecast was for category three winds ‘til past midnight. What’s got you in such a hurry to get back?”
Nick shrugged his uneasiness away. This trip had been different for a couple of reasons, but nothing he wanted to share with Frank. “Just want to sleep in my own bed,” he said honestly.
“Can’t blame you for that. Good trip?”
“Good to hear.” Frank’s response was professionally cheerful. He didn’t ask intrusive questions and was always satisfied with vague answers. “Got to check on the 8:27. I think it’s coming late.” He bobbed his head in a slight bow, turned on his heel and strode off to the control booth.
Nick grabbed his gear and headed for the shelter cubbies. High Meadow was one of the older style stations, built just as the world was coming to grips with climate change. It was barely far enough underground to remain in operation. Despite the thick walls and storm proofing, Nick could hear the howl of the wind and the pounding of the rain. But no thunder. He breathed a sigh of relief. Probably no tornados tonight. He considered using one of the ether booths to send a message to Angus, but was too tired to retrace his steps. Angus probably wouldn’t see the message until tomorrow anyway, and Nick would be there by then.
An older woman, thin as a rail, in an NTA uniform came up toward him on the stairs to the lower level. The tailored blue jacket and slacks hung on her bones, a size too big. Another symptom of the changed world. The downsizing of the population left a lot of resources behind, but not enough people to run the factories that would make new ones. So the people left had to make do with what was at hand. Nick didn’t recognize her. He knew most of the people that manned High Meadow. She moved with a slight hitch to her walk, climbing the stairs slowly, arthritis maybe.
“Evening,” he said politely.
She cast a measuring glance over him. Her eyes lingered a moment on the bedroll, then took in his two-day old scruff and wet clothes. It took a minute for her to complete her scrutiny. She startled at his green eyes, her gaze going directly to his neck to check for a tattoo.
“Evening.” She climbed past him a bit quicker.
He got that reaction sometimes. People wondering if he was human. Green eyes and dark brown hair wasn’t that odd of a combination. He’d stopped saying that his mother had had green eyes. Maybe if he’d had her red hair, it wouldn’t look out of place. The woman’s fear that he might be a biobot made him wonder if she’d seen any. It made him want to tell her that they could look normal, too. Before Zero Year, all the biobots he’d seen could have passed as human. That’s why they started tattooing them in the first place. But in all his travels over the past ten years, he’d never encountered one. They might have been wiped out by the virus after all.
The shelter level was well lit. A long corridor of shiny white walls and glossy black enamel doors with black and white tiled floors stretched out before him. Each cubby was self-contained, lights, potable water, toilet, sleeping space. Although originally designed to be used in a disaster, Nick had seen several stations that had permanent residents. Knowing the rooms by the stairs were the ones used most often, he went halfway down the long corridor and chose one with a picture of an acorn on the door. Pictures now, not numbers, marked the cubbies, which probably meant the illiteracy level was rising.
The cell-sized room was immaculate and smelled of antiseptic. The NTA people were very thorough. Proud to have jobs in a world that had no industries left. He tossed his bedroll on the shiny metal shelf that passed for a bed, hoping the waterproofing held. It was a relief to be still for a minute. He'd been travelling for six days and the ultra-fast trains took a toll. He peeled off his wet clothing and dried off with the towel he carried in his pack. The clothes probably wouldn’t dry tonight, but he draped them on the row of coat hooks that lined one wall anyway.
He sat on the shelf with a groan. He'd been gone longer than planned. There’d been some unexpected complications. Things that he wasn’t sure he wanted to talk to Angus about. Nick had been gathering information for Angus’s history book for the past three years. It gave him a purpose. A reason to go out into the world and talk to people. He was a man that needed those things—purpose, reason, order. Without them he was too easily lost in regrets and sorrow for all the people he’d lost. Whenever the ghosts and darkness came calling, he got out his pack and bedroll and went searching for new communities. The world had shattered, and Angus was trying to knit it back together with cobwebs and good intentions. It was a cause he could easily support.
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