The Great Explorer

Entry by: Briergate

4th October 2016
Will sits with her back to the wall, letting the warmth through the bricks soak into her skin. As ever, the room is cold. She holds out her arms in the half-light as her brother comes close, and he sits down with her for a few moments.
"I'm bored, Will," Astra whispers, and she nods in the gloom, even though he can't see her. Across the room, both children tense as their mother starts to cry, and Will holds Astra more tightly, as if her arms can protect him from the sound.
"Should we see to her?" Astra asks, and Will nods, releasing him to stand, stretch and make her way over to the makeshift bed in the corner. As she approaches, she can see the outline of her mother's face, creased in pain. Picking up the beaker next to the bed, she holds it to her mother's cracked lips, keeping it steady to let her mother sip. In the corner, Astra curls up in a small heap, blocking his ears with his hands.
"It's OK, it's OK," Will whispers, desperate to reach out a hand and comfort her mother, but terrified of touching her, for fear of causing more pain. Her mother's face, once so smooth and pale, was now a fiery mass of blisters. She was unrecognisable, and Will has to steel herself to care for her.
"Not…long," her mother whispers, and Will nods, carefully putting the water down and leaning close to listen.
"I'm sorry."
Will stands immobile, helpless, trying not to cry as she watches her mother's scabbed eyes close. Astra comes closer now, reaching out his hand to grasp Will's own.
"Is it - is she dead?"
Carefully, Will pulls the blanket up from the bed, and covers her mother's face. Astra turns away, silent, as she gently lays a hand on her mother's body.
"It's because of me, isn’t it?" Astra asks, and Will has to pause before answering, because if she speaks too soon he may hear the rage in her voice.
"No, Astra. It's just the Flare. She shouldn’t have gone out, but we had no choice. We needed water, and food. It's not your fault. Blame the world, the sun, but not yourself."
Astra stares at her in the gloom, searching her face as she speaks, before nodding.
"How much water left?" he asks. Will tilts the beaker, weighing it in her hand, and then shrugs.
"Two days, maybe, if we're careful."
"And then what are we going to do?"
"Perhaps someone will come, by then. We have to stay strong, and think up a plan."
"But, what if no one comes? What if there isn’t anyone out there left at all?"
"Then we'll think up a plan. Come and sit down, now. Let's talk it through."
"I'm thirsty."
"Me, too."
They sit together, as far away from the bed as they can, curling up in the gloom and pulling blankets and cushions up to settle in to. Astra nestles his head on her shoulder, and even though he makes no sound, she can tell he's crying.
"Don't, Astra. You know it's not good to waste tears."
She takes her finger and traces the damp from his cheek, before popping it in to his mouth to lick the moisture. Despite himself, Astra giggles, and Will leans her head back against the warmth of the wall, and closes her eyes.
"Let's sleep now, and then see what happens afterwards," she says. Astra pushes himself up close to her and his breathing becomes more regular. Will holds him close, and considers her options. She hadn’t told the truth about the water. They had enough for one more day, at most. The rations were all but gone, and the only food left was dry, and would either need liquid adding, or make them feel more thirsty if they ate it as it was. They had nothing left in the house that they could use for protection, and she'd already drained the last of the water from the tank and cistern, when their mother became ill. They'd only managed to make one room of the house safe from the Flare before the heat became unbearable, and Will hadn’t had a single sign of life from beyond the door since they'd covered and sealed the windows.
It felt as if she and Astra were the only living things left in the universe. The two of them, alone, in a sealed dark space with nothing left to live on. Her stomach growled loudly, and she shifted away from Astra's sleeping form lest she caused him to wake up. Hunger is painful, she realised. As if her stomach was slowly consuming itself, through desperation. How long had it been since she last ate? She shook her head, suddenly feeling too weary to care, or do anything but lie in the gloom, staring ahead into nothing until she finally let her head droop, and she sleept.
Will woke up with a jolt, forgetting all that happened for a blissful moment, before the hunger, stiffness and thirst reminded her loudly. She reached a hand out to feel for Astra, relieved when she touched his soft spiky hair beside her.
Standing up, she swayed a little before forcing herself to stay balanced and think of a way to deal with their situation. Astra needed water, and food, or he would die. She, too, although her priority was him, because his tiny frame wouldn’t withstand the thirst for much longer. She paced the room, considering their options.
Nobody was going to come to their aid, because as far as she knew, few people could have withstood the initial surge of the Flare, and even if they had, they couldn’t risk going outside for more than a few seconds, as the bio-agents released from the surge caused infection, sickness and death within minutes. Their mother had only stepped out through desperation, and even though she'd been covered from top to toe, with scarves filtering air through her mouth and nose, she'd been infected straight away.
Will went to the corner of the room, and checked their provisions again. The only water left was the dregs in the beaker, and half a small bottle she'd filled from the cistern. For food, they had a couple of packets of instant pasta, but no way to make them edible without liquid.
Pacing again, Will felt a sense of resolve as she realised how dire their circumstances really were. She'd saved urine, for desperate measures, but they couldn’t recycle their waste indefinitely. With their mother dead, it was down to Will to find a way to care for Astra. She needed to act, now, before she waited for too long and had no strength left to do anything.
After leaning over Astra in the gloom to check he was still asleep, Will worked quickly. She removed the blanket covering her mother's body, and wrapped it around her head and shoulders, covering her arms. She tied a scarf tightly across her mouth and nose, and slipped on a pair of sunglasses, tucked her jeans into her boots to make sure no flesh showed, and then carefully moved the makeshift seal on the living room door. She paused for a second before opening the door, bracing herself for the heat and brightness beyond it.
Screwing her eyes up against the unaccustomed light, she slipped through the door and closed it quietly behind her, keeping Astra protected in the dark. She had to pause for a moment until her eyes adjusted, but used her hands to feel along the familiar wall of the hallway, to the front door. As her vision returned, she marvelled at the warmth soaking in to her chilled body, feeling more energised than she had since the Flare began. She ripped the seals from the front door quickly, unlocking and bolting it, before stepping outside for the first time since the surge.
Outside, the world looks as she remembers it, but so much brighter. Already, the results of the Flare are apparent on the flaking paintwork and damaged frames of the house, and the front garden is scorched beyond recognition. Where a luscious lawn covered the front, there is now just browned stubble. Will scans her surroundings quickly, assimilating the changes, before running to the car parked next to the house, and opening the boot. Inside, she knows, there should be an emergency pack with blankets, food, water and other items. Reaching in, she grabs the pack and runs back to the front door.
Slipping inside, Will catches her breath before sealing up the door again, and taking the pack back for Astra. He's sitting up in the gloom, and she runs to him and opens the water bottle, handing it over so he can drink. He stares wide-eyed at her as he drinks, and Will feels a sudden flash of terror that she’ll die soon, and leave him all alone. After drinking half the bottle, Astra hands it back to her, licking his lips.
"You went out, didn’t you?"
"So you're going to die now, too?"
"I hope not."
Will doesn’t look at him as she searches the bag, taking out each item with a smile. She lights two candles, and Astra draws close to the flames, clapping his hands. She finds crackers and chocolate in a side pocket, and silently thanks their mother for her organisational skills. They eat ravenously, in silence, only stopping when the food has hit their stomachs and they feel satisfied for the first time since the Flare began.
Astra takes the blanket Will has dropped, sniffing it.
"It smells different."

"Outside is different, now."
Will described what she has seen, and Astra watched her face, absorbing everything. As she talked, Will became aware of a strange feeling which started in her hands, and then slowly spread through her limbs. She could feel her skin tingling, as if every single pore was stirring and changing. She stopped talking, looking down at her hands, but nothing looked to be any different. Her hair seemed to crackle with static, and she stood up, stretching her arms and legs, and examining herself to identify the meaning of the new sensations.
"Is it starting, now, Will?" Astra asked, and she shrugged.
"I don’t know."
Will scratched her hands through her hair, feeling as if every follicle had suddenly become alive and aware. Confused, she glanced over at her mother's body, and then back down at her own. When their mother had come back from outside, her skin had started to blister almost immediately, with livid red welts coming up all over her arms and face. If Will was affected by the same bio-agent, then it was affecting her in a very different way. Her skin, rather than looking inflamed and angry, instead took on a healthy sheen in the glow of the candlelight. In fact, she mused, she'd never felt as healthy in her life. She reached out to Will, laughing as she picked him up in a tight hug. Surprised, he laughed too, letting her spin him around before they fell together on to the blanket.
"Are you dying now, Will?"
"I don’t think so. I feel good, not ill."
They stared at each other, then. The enormity of it made their eyes sparkle. From despair, there was now possibility. They were going to survive.