Meredith Rodney McKay dropped his coffee on the ground, walking through the puddle entirely uncaring of the mess he'd made. The world seemed to be spinning as his heart beat with a furious staccato that seemed to be in danger of soon ripping out of his chest. He walked through a knee high display of magazines to get closer to the television, scattering copies of people and time out in a soggy mess as he tripped over his feet. The man running the kiosk, an Eastern European of possibly Slavic descent, didn't seem to notice. He was fixated on the same thing Rodney was - a glowing mushroom cloud filmed on a live feed from Siberia.
Rodney was a child of the Cold War. He'd grown up, like most children, with the general assumption that a conflagration between America and Russia would - if ever executed - end the world. Not metaphorically, not theoretically - someone ever dropping another nuclear bomb for anything other than a planned test was flirting with the Apocalypse. He supposed it had been a decent portion of why he'd been as devoted to his studies of nuclear physics and astrophysics as he'd been. By understanding the thing he'd been afraid of he'd hoped that he might control his fear of it.
But there was no reasonable man who understood the actual metrics of nuclear warfare and felt anything but pure terror for its actuality. 1991 had been a good year for Rodney. Good for the world, to be sure, but Rodney felt particularly unique in his singular perspective into just how close to the brink the world had really been. He'd run the models. He'd planned the math. He understood the systems involved in nuclear warfare so well that he'd considered himself the absolute and uncontested world expert on why it should panic any reasonable person.
Knowledge was a prescription for pessimism, but Rodney had allowed himself to be suckered into the narrative that the Cold War had ended. And with it, the fear of atomic warfare was an artefact of a more savage time. Nine years felt like a lifetime ago. His naive presumption that all was well felt like the thoughts of someone else substantially less clever and informed than he.
Today's Rodney couldn't think of anything other than the worst case possible scenarios as he reconciled himself with the inevitable, horrifying truth.
Someone had nuked Russia.
Rodney's eye twitched as he tried to decide what the first thing he needed to do would be. What did he even have time to do? If there were missiles inbound there was no possible way that he wasn't currently in the target radius of at least one of them. Why hadn't he just taken an earlier damn flight? Had sleeping in really been worth being stuck in Heathrow Airport, contemplating his own mortality.
He had to call someone, do something. But what was there to do?
The payphones were a madhouse, he could see that from here. People were practically climbing over each other for the chance to use one of the remaining telephones. Only half of them had been properly in service to begin with. Unless he wanted to get trampled, there was no way he was getting anywhere near those phones.
He eyed the space behind the news agent's desk, spying a decorative Mickey Mouse telephone behind it. An old thing, well worn enough that the mouse was missing an ear and most of his nose, it seemed functional enough. "Sir, uh - Sir!"
The man gave Dr McKay a sidelong glance, not saying a word as his lips narrowed to a barely visible line between the man's thick bush of whiskers. He wiped the front of his tracksuit dismissively, displaying the thick mess of gold chains wrapped along his neck-line as he adjusted the garment.
"Sir, can I use your phone?" Rodney inquired eagerly.
"Amenities for customers only." The man grunted.
"Excuse me?" Rodney replied in a voice that he assured himself wasn't a girlish cry of disgust.
"You are not customer. You are lookey-loo." The man ephasized the "oo" sounds with a guttural "u" that felt like it belonged in a Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon.
"The word is ending and you're getting shitty over fifty cents worth of gum?" Rodney growled.
"Pence, not cents" The newsagent replied idly. "In Uk is five pence."
"For the - take it." Rondey grabbed a candy bar at random, reaching for his wallet before squinting at the wrapper. It was a foreign candy, with pictures of fruit on the side. "Uh… is there citrus in this?"
"Is what?" The new's agent looked away from the TV, actually giving Rodney his full attention for the first time.
"Uh… Lemon? Lime? Orange? You know… citrus?" Rodney mimed a lime with his thumb and forefinger. "I'm allergic to citrus."
"You want nutrition thesis or you want phone?" The man rolled his eyes.
"Righ... " Rodney deflated, he hated spending money on a candy bar that he was pretty sure would kill him if he ever took it out of the wrapper. He handed over the five coins, pointing to the phone. "Can I use the phone now?"
"Local call only." Replied the man as he plopped the plastic mouse on the counter.
"Oh come on! It's the end of the world man. Let me call my sister." Rodney groaned.
"Phone will only make local call. Plan does not cover long distance." Replied the newsagent.
"For the love of - give me back my money!" Rondey protested, thrusting brandishing the candy bar back at the Eastern European man. "I only bought the damn thing so that I could call Canada."
"You want to make international call? You buy telephone card." Replied the newsagent.
"And how much will that cost me?" Rondey sighed, pulling money from his wallet.
"Five hundred pound sterling." The man grinned wolfishly.
"That's robbery!" Rondey snarled.
"Supply and demand." The man crossed his arms. "I have supply. You have demand. Pay up or piss off."
Rondey was actually considering the man when someone handed him a little, plastic card. He looked down at the item in his hands in confusion before looking over at the man next to him. He hadn't even noticed that the asian tourist had been there, let alone that he'd been patiently listening to his argument with the newsagent.
He grinned widely, speaking with a thick Japanese accent. He was a little imp of a man, with a shock of white hair and laughing eyes. He was leaning heavily on an antique cane that seemed entirely incongruous with the floral pattern hawaiian shirt jeans he was wearing "Please, use this.."
"Thanks." Rodney smiled back, looking guiltily at the telephone card. "Don't you have someone you need to call?"
"I told my family that they are loved this morning, and every morning that I can remember. They will forgive me for waiting till tomorrow to say the words again." The little man chuckled, apparently greatly amused at some private joke.
Not wanting to give himself time to reconsider the man's offer he picked up the red phone out of Mickey's hand, dialing his sister's phone number from memory. Several tries were required before he managed to connect to an outbound line, given how the entire world seemed to be trying to call someone at once. It rang, echoing with the delay inevitable in an international call. He hoped against hope that the call didn't drop, his breath caught in his throat as he waited moment by moment.
One ring. God, please let her have remembered.
Two rings. He'd left her specific instructions in the bag. If anything like this were to ever happen she was supposed to follow the instructions. She'd laughed it off when he'd handed it to her, but she hadn't turned down the bag.
Three rings. Rodney prayed to a god he didn't believe in, trying to calculate the time difference in his head. It would be mid-day. There was no reason why she wouldn't have been at home with the new baby. She didn't watch a lot of TV but she liked to leave it on in the background while she did chores.
Four rings. The baby - Christ the baby! Rodney couldn't bare to think of anything happening to his niece. He wasn't a great uncle. Feelings and family had never been his strong suit, but he'd die before he let anything happen to the little sprogget.
On the fifth ring the machine picked up, the tape deck automatically playing the message of his sister's voice. It was not the message he'd grown accustomed to hearing when he called his sister, but a new one. He sighed deeply with relief - she had listened. Thank God.
"Mer - if you're listening to this, you don't have to worry. I'm going to the cabin, I promise to pick up some fresh vegetables and seeds on the way like you asked me to do. Now, stop worrying and get your butt up to Fort Resolution so that I can stop worrying about you, ya big goof." There was a sad little edge of laughter to her voice, his sister was one of the few people on earth clever enough to actually understand how grim the situation actually was. Their joint plan for what to do if there ever was a global nuclear war had been more of a thought exercise for them up till today - a game that had amused her and comforted Rodney. "Please Mer - come home."
"I'm coming Sis." Rodney spoke after the beep, not ever truly expecting his sister to have cause to return to her home and hear it but hoping that it might be heard. "I'm coming home."
He hung up the phone, wiping tears from his eyes as the Japanese man patted him on the shoulder. The man spoke in his thickly accented English, though it would have been a lie to call the man's diction anything but fluent - his mannerisms were inescapably Japanese. "Feeling better?"
"Yes," Rodney smiled at the slight man, sincerely grateful. "Thank you."
When Rodney tried to hand the man back his calling card, he shook his head and said. "There is another who needs it more than I."
"Who?" Rodney blinked.
The Japanese man turned to the newsagent, taking the card from Rodney and holding it out to him. "You should call home as well."
"Blyat! Do I look like I need your charity?" The newsagent's eye twitched as he thumbed over his shoulder at the display of calling cards. "I'm drowning in calling cards."
"You will be drowning in debt as well, if you charge yourself what you threatened to charge this man to call home." The Japanese man waved to a group of people rushing towards the news stand, apparently having realized that there was a telephone not currently in use.
"Who do you think you are?" The man growled contemptuously.
"The man offering you a chance to tell your family that you love them." The Japanese man smiled kindly, sincerity in his every move as he offered the card again. "Finances should never be a barrier to human dignity."
"I … Blyat " The man took the card, deflating under the insistent kindless of the Japanese tourist looking at it, seemingly unsure what to do with now that he had it. "I - I do not have anyone to call."
"Nonsense." The man took a little book out of his pocket and scrawled on a page, ripping it from the book and handing it to the other man. "You can call my friend Sanya. He would appreciate knowing that someone wanted to make sure he is ok."
"But… he's your friend, not mine." The man looked at the paper in utter bafflement.
"And I know he is well already." The man tapped his nose conspiratorially. "But he could use more friends who know how to listen, and I'm sure you miss talking in Russian."
"You are a remarkably strange little man." The newsagent replied. Shaking his head in annoyance as the first of the newcomers asked to use the phone. Rodney's eyes bugged as the man just started handing out calling cards to anyone who asked to use the telephone.
"I could use a coffee." The Japanese man said to Rodney, pointing at the spilled mess on the ground. "Would you care to join me?"
"I really should get another flight." Rodney politely declined.
"You and everyone else in England." The man barked in amusement. "But it appears that there are greater plans at work than yours or mine."
Rodney groaned, grinding his teeth as he looked up at the bank of monitors on the wall. Every single flight had a huge, red "canceled" written next to it. Of course it did, Rodney realized, the UK wouldn't want civilians flights cluttering their airspace while they were worrying about a potential nuclear defense. He was trapped in the UK.
He said a word that earned him a sharp smack to the arm from the old man. "Language!" The man cheerfully chided, mixing his "L" and "R" sounds. "There are children here."
"We're in an airport after a nuclear attack. I'm sure they're learning plenty of new words today, even without my help." Rodney replied sardonically.
"A man needs to maintain serenity in hard times." He waved to the chaotic mess of worried people wandering the terminal. Clusters of men and women huddled together, in various stages of fear, confusion, horror, and despair. A Russian couple sat at the window, cradling each other in their arms and openly weeping as a bearded man in Saudi Arabian clothing did his able best to comfort them without being able to speak their language. His rhythmic sing-song prayer seemed to be at least conveying his intent, even if they were separated by vocabulary. "We can only do what we are able, but if we are lost to passion we miss the chance to do good."
"You'll pardon me for being a bit overwhelmed by a damn nuke." Rodney hissed. "I mean, can you comprehend how horrific those things truly are?"
The man's eyes flashed in brief anger, but his warm patience wavered only slightly as he replied, "I was a teenager in 1945. I assure you, I comprehend."
Rondey blanched, utterly mortified. He sputtered, trying to find the appropriate apology for his arrogance as he internally berated himself for having so pigheadedly arrogant as to actually tell someone old enough to have lived through WWII "how bad" an atomic bomb really was. Words failed him, and he just managed to make a couple of embarassed "gah!" noises.
The old man's expression softened and he gave Rodney a pat on the shoulder. "It is ok. I understand. I said many foolish things as a young man, especially after I found out exactly what I presume that you know already."
"What I know?" Rodney replied, at a loss for words for the first time in recent memory.
"Life is cruel. Men do cruelty to each other beyond reason or the capacity for good men to even survive, let alone fix. It pass." The man sighed sadly. "This will pass."
"I hope you're right." Rodney swallowed, looking back at CNN as text scrawled across the bottom of the screen. Apparently the NATO nations had issued a statement denying responsibility for the attack and decrying the unwarranted use of atomic weapons upon a populated part of the Russian Federation. "This feels like it could go up in flames at any second."
"I didn't say I would go well for us." The man let out a loud bark of laughter. "But even pain passes with time."
"The early estimates from the Russian Embassy stated that thousands of people died in the attack. Russian Soldiers mostly, but a couple of civilians too." Rodney snorted. "They're calling it "minimal" damage for an atomic bomb blast. They're right too. Thousands of people dead in an instant and it's "less damage" than could have happened."
"We can only pray for them." The man intoned soberly, putting his hand over his heart. "Move on. Dead are dead. We are living, no point if you're going to spend that time living scared."
"You - you are an infuriatingly persistent old man." Rodney griped, deflating under the man's pleasantly insistent smile. "Why are you so determined to talk to me?"
"Got the sense that you needed the pep-talk." The man spun his cane with a flourish that seemed entirely incongruous with the seemingly timeless quality to him. "Now - are we going to get that coffee, or are you going to force an old man to keep standing up while he waits for his junior to come along with him."
"I'm not getting out of this Airport without us drinking coffee, am I?" Rodney actually laughed in spite of himself.
"Perhaps tea, that seems to be the local custom." The man pointed his cane to the TV. "And discussing the small mercies of life."
Rodney felt tears of joy rolling down his face as he read the new text bar, reading it out loud. "Russia confirms domestic terrorist attack - calls for greater international action as part of their war on the Chechen Separatists."
"I'm feeling like scones as well. I saw a shop that seems like they do scones well." The man lead Rodney by the arm, frog-marching him away from the Newsagent's store. "Come on, we'll celebrate world not ending."
"You're going to celebrate narrowly avoiding the apocalypse with a scone?" Rodney snorted. "Seems a bit mundane."
"Apocalypse is an overrated threat." The man waved off Rodney's concern. "We are very small and last only briefly. The world is very large and infinite. We all survive so many disasters before we pass without even knowing it. Asteroids, earthquakes, lightning, fire - few things are in our control. Better to find what joy there is in the little things."
"I - yeah, you're right." Rodney laughed. "It occurs to me that I don't even know who you are. Do you have a name to go with all this fortune cookie wisdom?"
"Shiro. I am Shiro Yoshimo." He replied.
"I'm Rodney." McKay laughed."What brings you to England Shiro?"
"Elton John." The man replied proudly.
Rodney snorted. "You're here for an Elton John concert?"
"And to take photographs of old Castles." The man affirmed. "I like old Castles. New ones too. Eurodisney was fun."
Rodney couldn't help himself, he burst into laughter at the idea of the tiny old man on a roller coaster.
"Oh - I see, laugh at the old man." Shiro replied idly. "Think you're clever do you?"
"I am an Astrophysicist." Rodney shrugged.
"Observational or Theoretical?" The man asked, sounding oddly comfortable with the subject matter.
"Both… are, are you a scientist?" Rodney inquired.
"I'm a very confident subscriber to Popular Science magazine." Joked the old man.
Rodney laughed, "Tea. Tea and a scone."
"Good, I would very much like for you to tell me about stars. An acquaintance of mine has recently renewed my interest in space." Shiro grinned. "Tell me, Rodney. Do you believe in Aliens?"