This story was written for the Reedsy contest "Earth to Writers".
More specifically in the context of the prompt: "Two people who thought they were the last people left on Earth end up meeting by chance."
“When am I?” was the first thing I said when I got out of the pod.
I knew where I was. I was in the same room where I had been on June 10, 2020, the day I would travel to the future. If all went well, a team of scientists would be awaiting my arrival on June 10, 2050, thirty years in the future.
“Something must have gone wrong,” I told myself; there was no one else to talk to.
Water was dripping from the ceiling and there was a funky smell in the room. I tried a switch, but the light didn’t turn on. Apparently, there was no electricity. Fortunately, my pod had its own power supply in the form of a battery with an extremely long life.
The only light in the room was coming from the large window in the East wall of the Kunos Tower, named after Mel Kunos, the founder and CEO of Kunos Industries. I walked to that window and looked down from the tenth floor. I shuddered at what I saw outside. As far as the eye could see, all buildings were in ruins. Streets and facades were overgrown by lush vegetation. I didn't see a living soul on the broad lane that divided the city in an East side and a West side, only a bunch of rusty car wrecks that looked as if they were thrown there in a random order.
“I have to get out of here,” I said.
Walking towards the door, I stumbled over something. To my horror I discovered that I was stepping on human remains. I recognized the silver necklace of Dr. Fey who had been at the buttons, operating my pod. On the other side of her desk, I found the dead body of a second person.
“This must have been Dr. Blake,” I mumbled. He was the inventor of time-traveling.
There had been a third person in the room on June 10, 2020. Dr. Thompson was Dr. Blake's assistant. I looked at where he had been monitoring my journey through the fourth dimension, and there he was —or rather: there was what was left of him.
“It’s as if my voyage to the future wiped out the whole city, maybe even the whole world!” I uttered in despair. “Am I the only person left alive?”
I remembered how Dr. Thompson jokingly informed me of a lunatic who had broken into the lab, claiming this would happen. The stranger had somehow managed to bypass security and intended to sabotage the experiment. He had been arrested and taken into custody before he could do any harm. We laughed about it. We had done the Math; nothing could go wrong.
The door jammed, but I managed to enter the hallway. The elevators didn’t work —obviously. I had to take the stairs down. That was quite a challenge. When I reached the seventh floor, my way was blocked by debris.
“There must have been a fire in this part of the building.” Talking to myself was my way to keep my nerves under control.
I went up one level and found another staircase that brought me to the third floor, where I met another obstruction. Eventually, I got on the ground level by lowering myself to the terrace of the company restaurant on the second floor and taking the outside stairs on the back of the building.
“A drink!” I said. “I need a drink!”
I went back to the restaurant, hoping to find a bottle of booze that was still intact. Much to my surprise, I came upon an improvised habitat that was built half inside, half outside the main room of the restaurant. There was a water supply, probably consisting of rainwater; herbs were growing out of flowerpots; there was a small bed on the inside; one spot on the outside looked like it had been used for a campfire for many years. Someone was living here. I was not alone!
The kitchen of the restaurant was ransacked. The cellar was too dark to explore, but given the large number of empty bottles piled up in the kitchen, I don’t think there was any alcohol left. I quenched my thirst with water and decided to wait for the person living who lived here.
I must have fallen asleep. When I woke up, I smelled food.
“Who are you?” I asked the woman who was preparing a meal.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “You told me to wait for you in case something went wrong, but I lost track of time. I wasn’t aware that today was the day thirty years had passed.”
“Anna?” I asked.
Anna was a woman I had been dating in 2020. She worked on the ninth floor. Back then, we were about the same age. The strange woman in front of me looked like an older version of the Anna I knew. If Anna had been waiting for me for thirty years, she must be sixty-something now.
“It was so lonely waiting for you,” she answered.
“You came to me the day before you were scheduled to travel to this time,” she explained. “You said you had already made the trip to the future, and that you had come back to warn us for the disaster that was about to happen. You asked me to trust you and to help you in case you didn't succeed to stop the experiment.”
I realized that the stranger Dr. Thompson had told me about wasn’t a stranger at all. It was me —a me from the future— who had come back in an attempt to prevent the catastrophe we were about to cause. I had failed.
“You sounded crazy that day, but I was in love with you. I did what you asked. An hour before the experiment would take place, I used your credentials to get access to the backup pod in the basement. I waited there for half a day.”
“You survived the cataclysmic event in the shelter of the time-traveling pod?”
“I survived, but when I got out of the pod, it was still 2020. Since you are here today, I’m assuming we’re 2050. I’ve been the only person in the world for thirty years. I’m so happy to see you, but I already know what you’re going to ask me next.”
“What am I going to ask you?”
“You’re going to ask me to send you back to June 9, 2020, to prevent the catastrophe. That’s what you told me that exact same night. If you failed, I needed to wait for you so that you could try again. You needed someone in 2050 to operate the pod from the outside to travel back.”
“Yes, that makes sense! If only I could undo this disaster.”
“No, it doesn’t make sense. What is done cannot be undone. We’re trapped in a time paradox.”
“What do you mean?”
“If someone is needed to operate the pod from outside, who sent you back the first time you returned?”
“I … I have no idea.”
“It’s a paradox. You came back from the future before you ever went there, and now we’re trapped in a loop. The current me will never see you again if you go back. The past me will have to wait for thirty years once more. Everything that happened will happen all over again. Who knows how many times it has happened already?”
“Maybe this time will be different!”
“I don’t think so, and anyway: it doesn’t matter anymore.”
“I dismantled the backup pod many years ago, trying in vain to go back in time myself.”
“And my pod?”
“I destroyed your pod while you were asleep.”
“But that means that…”
“… we’re the only two people left on this world, my love.”
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