Dust is a post-apocalyptic story where a great storm of dust has covered the entire planet. The chapters are told from different perspectives, with stories that interconnect, even though they take place all around the United States and Mars (where a lonely colonist serves as a narrator of sorts, delivering monologues as the story on Earth continues).
Each chapter starts with a quote, often in medias res. The location and dating (relative to the arrival of the dust) is also mentioned at the beginning. The story features some undertones of religion: people making sense of a world gone by, and showing that people are capable of good and evil regardless of their religious beliefs.
I tend to adjust the English I use to the setting: Dust uses American English, while other stories use British English by default.
Chapter 1 – Genesis
104 days in
“Genesis, do you receive?” Herbert Whitman spoke into the microphone, “Are you there, Genesis?”
The response was static, as it had been before. It had been more than three months ago that the Genesis crew told the colonists about the disaster that had occurred back on Earth, the unstoppable cloud of dust that was heading their way which would soon cover the whole continent, and by now surely the entire world. Most of the crew had fled with their families, but a couple of them stayed behind and locked themselves inside Genesis to help the colonists.
The last they had heard of Genesis, the NASA base in New Mexico specifically built for the Mars colonization project, was that supplies were running low and that they couldn’t go outside to restock on food and water. That was two weeks ago.
“I’m not sure if you can hear me. I’m not sure if there’s anyone on the other side listening to me. Maybe some wire snapped down there, and you are unable to respond, but I might as well say everything now. At least that way it’s all on record, and it’s not like there’s anyone else to tell it to. Everyone’s… gone. I’m the last one. The last of the Mars colonists.”
Whitman momentarily released the button that enabled the microphone to hear if anything changed, if someone was trying to respond, but once again heard nothing.
“The things I’ve done to survive… all the fucked up shit that’s happened here… I don’t deserve to be the last one left. Or maybe that’s exactly what I deserve. These last few weeks have been horrid. Once Thompson, the lead resource manager, announced that we were running out of… well, everything, all hell broke loose. There were fights, murders, people were being robbed, the children – dear God, the things I’ve seen, the things I’ve done… I’m not sure our race deserves to survive for all those terrible things we are capable of… Up until a week ago it seemed like life in the colony was no longer a community, but a free-for-all. And then everyone died. Everyone except me.”
Whitman pondered off in reminiscence, and returned to focus after a short pause.
“I killed Schliemann. In the end it was just him and me. He shot that young fellow, I’m not sure about his name – just in his twenties, one of our youngest – shot in the head right in front of me. Beats me why we were even given guns in the first place. Richards. Or Ripley, or Riley or something, I think that was his name. He was supposed to have an entire life in front of him, but instead his brains now decorate the warehouse wall. Mine would have been right next to it if he hadn’t run out of bullets. So I beat him to death. Fucking Schliemann. Seems like these Germans never learn. Maybe I’m being prejudiced.”
Whitman paused for about half a minute.
“There should be enough oxygen to last me a lifetime. I mean, the oxygen supply system works. But… the food isn’t growing fast enough. The water filter has broken beyond repair. I’ve got Dupont to thank for that one. Crazy bastard. He nearly managed to kill Schliemann too, before all this started. If only he did. Things could have turned out so differently. If only he had aimed a little bit more to the right, he would have hit some vital organs. Hell, if I had known what Schliemann was going to do, I would have hugged Dupont instead of shooting him.”
Whitman took a small sip of water from one of the last water bottles that were left on the entire station. There was only enough water to last him a week at most, and from then on he would just have to wait for his death – but death was already a given.
“I guess it’s easy to tell my side of the story and complain about others. But I didn’t get here by coincidence either. I did my fair share of horrific things to survive, what-ever it took, and I suppose this is my punishment. It only goes to show how easily people can become monsters if it comes to their own survival. We are all just… instinctively selfish, I suppose. Millions of years of evolution and the development of technologies have brought us here, still helpless and alone, still so easily destroyed. Humanity stood tall, conquering every challenge before it, but in the end all it took was a good storm to wipe us out.”
He looked at the computer screen before him, which still just comprised of white noise and the words ‘GENCAM.01 – SIGNAL UNRESPONSIVE’. He felt mad for even trying to talk to anyone, but it wasn’t like he had anything better to do anyway.
“It’s sad that it had to take the end of the world to teach us some humility. Well, I suppose that there is still a good percentage of survivors that believe mankind will come out on top of this. We’ll always be ignorant like that.”
Whitman stared at the word ‘unresponsive’ for a while and decided to turn off the microphone. He stood up from the desk and turned around to the small kitchen in the computer room and started making coffee.
“If I’m going to die,” he thought out loud, “I’m going to die with caffeine in my blood.”
Chapter 2 – Home
New York City, New York
356 days in
“Here we are then.” Oscar mumbled to himself as he trod over the dust that covered the outskirts of what was once New York City. He could just make out the ruins of what had been huge skyscrapers in what seemed like a century ago through the thick black fog of dust, and wondered how he would ever find the place he was looking for in the maze of dust and streets that made up the former city. Another issue was whether he would find a decontaminated area where he could take off his HAZMAT suit and eat before he starved to death.
There wasn’t much of a chance that there were still stores to be looted – they probably had all been robbed empty months ago. Oscar wouldn’t exactly classify it as robbing, since the owners and personnel of all those supermarkets and convenience stores had either perished a long time ago or had taken as much from them as they could once the oncoming spread of the dust was announced and moved away as far as they could, before probably suffocating in dust anyway, not too long after.
Of all the ways the world could have ended, Oscar never thought it would end like this. Covered in dust, nearly blocking all sunlight, killing most plant life and rendering millions of species extinct, even endangering humanity, that once dominated the globe and counted more than 7 billion – now probably about 7 million at best. He had expected the end of the world at the hands of global warming, a nuclear war, an enormous meteor impacting the earth, the eruption of a super-volcano or the sun going supernova, but never dust.
Oscar had been on a business trip to Argentina when the dust arrived, and was thus separated from his wife in New York City. It had taken him nearly a year to reach the city, and somehow he hoped his wife wouldn’t be there and that she had gotten to safety. Their old apartment would be the first step in finding out where she might have gone, if there even was any trace as to where she had gone in the first place.
Oscar walked down the pile of rubble that had once been a building or a bridge, and made his way onto the dusty streets of the Big Apple. He didn’t quite recognize his current location, because the dust had significantly altered the way the city looked, and of course it had been quite a while since Oscar had been there. He walked straight on, recognizing a few buildings here and there, when he suddenly found himself in the middle of the desolate Times Square. The square was filled with broken down cars with a couple of shattered windows and a few decomposed corpses in the seats.
The dust spared no one. Man, woman or child, white, brown or yellow, rich or poor, governor or laborer: they were all equals to the dust. Oscar looked around Times Square, reminisced about days gone by, and decided to walk on home, as he knew the way there from the square.
Home. He had lost track of exactly how long it had been, but he knew it had been about a year since everything went down. Oscar no longer had a home, only a destination. He was well aware that the chances of him finding his apartment still intact and dustless were minimal to say the least, but he was merely hoping that it could lead him to clues as to where his wife was, and whether she was still alive in the first place.
Oscar saw in the streets of New York City the same thing he had seen in all the other big cities: the streets were littered with skeletons and rusty cars, shop windows were broken by looters and some buildings had even collapsed. Rarely, Oscar spotted a corpse inside a hazmat suit, sometimes makeshift isolation suits. Most of the time, this kind of casualties were stripped from their ever-so-handy suits by looters, though some managed to say hidden just well enough to be allowed to remain in their yellow fabric coffins.
Oscar finally reached his apartment building, after all those years, and he could see through the thick black cloud that there was little hope of finding anyone alive inside. He stepped through the front doorway, the door hanging loosely from one of its hinges, and stepped inside the dusty entrance hall. He walked up the stairwell, only guided by the small amount of sunlight that managed to slip through the dust and shone through the dusty windows, until he made his way to apartment 402.
The door was still closed, and he wasn’t sure whether that was a good or a bad thing: maybe the dust never got in, maybe she never got out. Oscar’s heart was pounding in his chest as he stared at the blue door, anxious to find out what was on the other side. His hand slowly approached the door knob and find out what he had been waiting years for. Oscar closed his eyes, sighed – slightly fogging up the screen of his gas mask – and turned the knob.
The door clicked open – it was unlocked, which could have meant a whole lot of things – and immediately a wave of dust poured out of the room and joined the dust in the hallway. The apartment had been contaminated, though Oscar had only expected as much. He stepped through the doorway and into the apartment as memories of days gone by surged through his mind with the sight of every piece of furniture, ever framed photo or piece of decoration. They were souvenirs of the life Oscar had built up over the course of 27 years, only to be abruptly swept away in a giant wave of dust. He immediately noticed that one of the windows in the living room had been shattered. Maybe someone had tried to break out, or perhaps someone had tried to break in.
Oscar took a flashlight out of his tool belt and shone the light through the rooms in search of anything helpful; a note, or any trace of his wife’s last movements through the apartment. The bedroom door was the only door in the apartment that was closed – Oscar hoped it would bring him some kind of answers to his many questions, or at least give him closure of some kind. The bedroom door creaked open and unveiled a dark room, into which Oscar shone the light of his flashlight. Countless pieces of clothing were scattered across the floor, as if somebody had been leaving in a rush.
Oscar’s heart stopped for a second as his flashlight found the human-sized figure concealed beneath the covers of the bed. Oscar froze up for a moment, fearing the worst as he drew close to the figure and started pulling away the bed sheets. He stumbled backwards, falling to the ground in shock as he saw the skeleton beneath the covers. Panic grew inside him as his worst nightmare seemed to be coming true – it couldn’t be true, could it? It couldn’t be her. This couldn’t be where his long journey would end.
He quickly picked himself up from the ground to further examine the corpse, hoping that he could identify as not being his wife’s. As he pulled away the sheets a bit further Oscar could see that the corpse was wearing a dark green dress, a dress he’d recognize anywhere. As Oscar’s heart sank to, his body sank from the bed to the floor, his mind crushed along with all his remaining hopes. He leaned back against the wall and started sobbing at the end of his long, futile journey. It was true. It was her. This was where his journey ended. His wife was dead, and there was nothing he could do about it.