On the twentieth anniversary of the end of the world, Andrew lit a candle.
The flickering flame illuminated a small part of the control room. The walls were shrouded in shadows, creating an illusion of larger space. Andrew wasn’t fooled: after two decades he knew every corner of the bunker like it was an extension of his body.
When the bombs had fallen there’d been two of them, Andrew and Joe. From hundreds of feet underground, they’d watched the images beamed over by spy drones from around the world: cities burning, the sky darkening, heavy snow falling over the ruins.
The winter had lasted for years. The few surviving drones showed nothing but snow, relentless and never-ending.
They’d wondered many times if they were the last two people alive.
They’d talked, and eaten terrible powdered food, and played chess and cards. They’d fought frequently, and laughed on rare occasion. The bunker was stocked with enough water and food and fuel to keep them in relative comfort for the rest of their lives. Certainly long enough to fulfill their mission.
It was Joe who’d lit a candle on the first anniversary of the apocalypse. “We made it a year,” he said. “Nineteen more to go.”
Andrew said nothing, but he thought there was no point to any of it; the overzealous dead generals had achieved nothing except to ensure the two of them would survive long enough to stand honor guard over the mass grave of humanity.
After eight years the snow had stopped falling.
The drones showed the land thawing and then vegetation blooming again, nature reclaiming the planet with a vengeance. Strands of grass grew in the cracks of what once were asphalt roads. Enormous bright flowers bloomed everywhere.
“Don’t get too excited,” said Joe. “Those plants are mutated by deadly radiation. It’ll be years until it might be safe to step outside.”
In the spring of the thirteenth year they saw people. A handful of them emerged from whatever fallout shelter had protected them, haggard and sickly, squinting in sunlight.
Andrew checked the location of the drone relaying the images. It was fewer than a hundred miles from the enemy capital. Andrew was conflicted: humanity had survived, but why did it have to be the bastards who surely started this war while his family, his friends, everyone he ever knew were nothing but painful memories? He tried talking to Joe, but his friend was uncharacteristically quiet, his lips pursed tight as he focused on the screen.
The next morning Andrew woke up to find that Joe had hanged himself.
Unable to leave, Andrew stored Joe’s body in one of the bunker’s freezers. Afterward, Andrew was truly alone. He’d read every book in the bunker multiple times, and watched the films until he could recite each line from memory. None of the remaining drones were located within a thousand miles of his bunker. He had no way of knowing if anyone or anything was alive outside, and his mission, now relevant once again, required him to stay put. He knew his duty.
Only the silent images broadcast from half a world away kept him sane. He watched the small band of enemy survivors build hovels among the wildflowers, plant wheat, have children. The civilization was being born anew in front of his eyes.
Using the limited maneuverability of the drone, he watched the mundane drama of lives in the settlement: the weddings and too-frequent funerals, workers sweating as they tended the fields, and lovers’ tentative first kisses. He knew every one of the survivors by face and made up names for them. Gradually, he came to believe there was a vibrant, growing village just like theirs outside his bunker. He dreamed that, one day, he’d emerge and be welcomed there with open arms. But first, he had to complete his mission: to keep his countrymen safe.
On the twentieth anniversary of the end of the world, Andrew took one last look at the settlement, turned off the monitors, and lit a candle. He watched the wax melt and the wick burn until it was gone. Then he drank the scotch he’d been saving and unlocked the control panel.
He entered the codes and the silos opened, revealing the last of the intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles aimed at strategic points spread across the enemy’s homeland. Project “Third Strike” would ensure definitive victory.
He initiated the launch sequence.