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This is the final chapter.
Trip rolled over in bed and saw Malcolm sitting by the window in the dark, staring out. Malcolm didn't seem to notice him awake, so he lay there, still, watching, imagining the view; the distant smoke still coming over tops of the buildings across the way, a constant reminder.
Then, without looking at Trip, Malcolm started speaking, his voice very quiet, his accent quite pronounced. "When the first bomb hit, it shook our building. Alarms went off, and we all began to leave, but a voice over the intercom asked us to stay. Said it would be safer." He paused and wrapped his arms around himself as he stared out at the night sky. "From the windows I could see black smoke coming out of the building next door and debris raining, tiny dots of white paper flowing out of the offices, floating down to the streets below.
"They evacuated us to a lower floor. I think I heard from you then." He paused. "I felt our building shake again, more powerfully this time. Before I could react, the crowd around me let out a sound, and I saw the first person fall past the window. Then another. We stood and watched, almost silent." Still not looking at Trip, he said, his voice flat, "I think people were jumping from windows above us." Then he gave a dry laugh. "And I just stood there. I just couldn't believe...at first I thought that it couldn't be, but then I realised."
Trip sat up in bed cross-legged, the duvet pooled around his legs. He hugged himself lightly as Malcolm spoke.
"Then it was as if we all woke up, and we fled the building. I raced down twelve flights of stairs and burst outside. The street was chaotic, people bleeding, debris falling, the authorities telling us to run. Nothing made sense. I was trying to make sense of it, but...Once outside, I looked straight up at the building. There was smoke coming from the top, billowing out in a plume against that beautiful blue sky. Then debris started falling in earnest, smoke tumbling towards the ground, and I could see only the top of the building, the rest obscured by the smoke cloud.
"I looked away and saw a cloud of dust coming towards me. I ran." His eyes red, clearly upset, Malcolm glanced briefly at Trip, then turned to stare out the window again.
"You couldn't have done anything," Trip finally said.
In a voice just above a whisper, Malcolm continued. "I heard an explosion behind me. I fell. Others fell around me. I got back up and kept running. I heard large pieces of the building hitting the street. I heard screams. The air was filthy, my eyes watered. Flashing lights, piles of rubble, then I was unable to see, unable to breathe anything but the black cloud; darkness filling my mouth, my nose. There was no light. I slammed into something; a building, then a vehicle. I kept going. I found a doorway - I'm not sure how - and ducked inside. I was covered in destruction. I'd lost my communicator, my translator.
"I waited until the worst of the cloud had passed, then started walking again, moving north, away. I saw people covered, like me, people made grey by the dust, grey snow on eyelashes, hair, cheeks, all rendered colourless. Dust covered all surfaces, and there was paper everywhere. Ash and paper.
"I got lost, turned around. I think I was in shock. I sat down in the street and read the papers that had drifted out of the buildings: memos, letters, reports, invoices, lists, brochures, notes -- some scorched, some perfect." Malcolm looked up at Trip. "They were in the local language, so I wasn't really reading them. I just thought I was." He looked away.
"I'm not sure what next...I'm not sure I'm remembering." He turned back to Trip again. "I saw my reflection in a window. I remember thinking that I looked like a ghost."
Trip nodded. "I saw one of the buildings collapse. One moment, it was there. Then it was gone. I made it back here, walking. It took a while." He grimaced. "I kept looking back. I remember one time I turned and ended up bumping into someone, hard, almost falling down. Instead of getting angry, he offered me a cigarette."
Seeing Malcolm's look of surprise, he shrugged. "It's common here." Then he gave a twisted smile, and reached below his bed into his bag, lifting out a pack and a lighter. Taking out a cigarette, he lit up, all the while watching Malcolm carefully. He took a deep inhalation, holding it for a second, then let the smoke out in a rush.
"What are you doing?"
Trip shrugged. "I find it calming." As Malcolm continued to stare, he tapped the pack slightly, allowing one cigarette to poke out of the top. Then he held the pack out wordlessly. Malcolm smiled slightly, then took the offering. Putting it to his lips, he leaned forward so that Trip could light it, inhaled, and burst into a fit of coughing.
Trip winced. "Sorry. It takes some getting used to."
Malcolm, still coughing, nodded. Gaining control, he lifted the cigarette and inhaled again, more shallowly this time, then nodded to Trip. "I realise that it's a bit late to ask, but is there anything in this I should worry about?"
Trip looked down at his own cigarette, his head tilted to the side. "I did scan it." He looked back to Malcolm. "It's not quite the same as tobacco, but still...nothing good for long-term use, but it won't kill you. Not right away, anyway."
Malcolm nodded. "I suppose that it can't be worse than what I've been breathing."
Trip nodded. "It's addictive if you use it for too long, but hopefully, we won't be here enough time for that to matter."
Malcolm took another drag, then smiled. "Quitting it can't be harder than opoidu."
Trip stared down at his cigarette.
He felt Malcolm's fingers brush his hand, and heard a quiet, "Sorry."
Trip nodded and looked up at his friend. "How you doing with that?"
"All right." Malcolm smiled at him wryly. "I was actually doing fairly well until..." he stopped speaking, instead waving around him.
"You want it now?" Trip said cautiously.
"No, not now. Earlier, though, absolutely." Malcolm took a drag from the cigarette in his hand. "Earlier...today? Yesterday?" He shook his head. "When I was walking here, I saw a missing person's flyer and I stood there, staring." He took another drag, then fiddled with the cigarette. "He was smiling, wearing smart dress as if he was on a date. He looked a kind bloke, decent." Malcolm shrugged. "I wanted to be able to tell his family that he was safe..." He smiled oddly.
Trip shook his head. "There was nothing that you could have done. You barely made it out of there yourself." He reached to the bedside table for his water glass, and dropped his cigarette in.
Malcolm nodded, stretching until his cigarette joined Trip's at the bottom of the glass. "I know that," he said, straightening and touching his forehead with the tips of his fingers. Then he touched his chest, over his heart. "But I don't know it yet."
He stood abruptly and made his way to their small food preparation area. His back to Trip, he busied himself opening their bottle of whiskey, then poured two glasses and turned, handing one to Trip mutely.
Trip raised his glass. "To better days," he said.
Malcolm nodded. "Cheers," he replied, then knocked back the entire contents of the glass in one quick swallow.
Trip stared at him, then followed with his own drink. Eyes watering, he held his glass out for a refill. They drank a second toast, then a third, each leaving them gasping and, by the third, laughing at everything and nothing.
About to swallow his fourth drink, Trip paused. He'd heard a chirp from nearby, and he watched as Malcolm's eyes mirrored his own shock. His communicator. He scrambled for the drawer and pulled the device out, opening it hurriedly. "Yeah," he barked before he could think.
"Commander?" came Hoshi's voice.
Trip felt a broad smile spread across his face, and he raised his eyes to meet Malcolm's. "Yes?" he said, drawing the word out as he spoke it. Malcolm's face split into a delighted grin, and Trip laughed.
"Sir? Is everything okay?"
"Sorry, Hoshi. We're just pleased to hear from you." The communicator crackled, and Hoshi said something that he didn't catch. "Could you say that again, please?"
"Is Lieutenant Reed with you?"
"I am overjoyed to say that he is, at present, with me."
Malcolm practically leapt from his seat near the window to the bed beside Trip. "Hoshi!" he said loudly and happily.
Trip bumped Malcolm's shoulder purposefully, then, trying to act serious and sober, asked, "Is the captain all right?"
"Yes, he's still in the capital city. We finally received a message from him yesterday. He's fine. Did you get my messages?"
Trip looked at Malcolm in puzzlement.
"I sent them via your local authorities. Were they delivered?"
"No, but I'm not surprised. They're kind of busy."
"The Caputians hope to reopen to transport tomorrow. Are you guys okay to wait?"
Trip looked at Malcolm hesitantly. "Sure, Hoshi," he said. "You know where to find us." Once Hoshi signed off, he looked to Malcolm. "It's our last night here. Anything in particular you want to do with it?"
Malcolm nodded, lifting the now-empty bottle. "I could use another drink."
Trip smiled. Then, in his best British accent, he said, "Let's get pissed, shall we?"
Malcolm smiled in return. "Rat-arsed." He stood, holding out a hand to Trip, hauling him up. "Bring the cigarettes."
Trip answered by raising his eyebrows, and Malcolm shrugged, his smile disappearing. "Life's short," he said solemnly. "Let's have what living buys."
Trip simply nodded.
"Days of Sunshine and Shock" is a quote from Richard Bowes. One of his stories also reminded me of the restaurant I went to just after 9/11, and it's his reference to the Blitz, so thanks to him for that.
"Let's have what living buys" is a quote from Hazel Hall