The cursed sun tore at Colton's skin. From his wrist, a monitor beeped, a cold electronic voice scolding him.
"Exposure level critical. Recommend moving to shelter."
Colton wiped the dirt and sweat from his wrinkled brow and slapped the device.
"Damn stupid computer. Leave me alone."
The red screen still flashed. Well over a hundred degrees now. No time to waste on it. He pulled a socket wrench, handle covered in cool white plastic from his toolbox, a deep, climate controlled cube on wheels. Leaning over the metal access port in front of him, he dug around through the wires and gears, looking for the source of his current issue.
"There you are."
He reached in, slipping the socket onto a nut at the end of a gear and heaved, pulling with all of his might. Didn't amount to as much as it used to, but it still got the job done. A few heavy tugs and the bolt popped loose, allowing him to spin it off. He reached for the gear, pulling back his hand at the touch of it.
"God--- Ah, jeez."
His pained expression gave way as he reached back into the toolbox, pulling out an old rag. A deep breath, and he dove back in, gripping the gear with both hands, one on either side of the rag and pulled. A couple strong tugs and it came off with a jolt, nearly enough to send him tumbling down on his back.
Steadying himself, he looked over the piece, noting several sheared off teeth on one side of it. He tossed onto the hard, cracked earth below him with disdain. A stiff breeze, like a rolling flame ripped across the nape of his neck, adding to the fainting sensation he was already battling. His watch beeped again.
"Exposure level critical. Seek shelter immediately."
He slapped his wrist again, cursing under his breath.
"I'll seek shelter when the job's done."
Reaching into his toolbox he pulled out a handful of old, rusty gears, looking them over for the right size and shape. Selecting one, he held it just above the broken gear, comparing them.
"Hafta do," he muttered to himself, dropping the rejected gears back in the box.
He leaned in, peering down into the dark depths beyond the access panel. The gear didn't fall right into place, so he fidgeted with it trying to get it just right. After a few moments of wrestling with it, he lifted up his head to look beyond the great form of the machine, a bright boxy cooling device. It cast a long shadow across him, little good in this heat. The sun sat on the edge of the horizon, just making its way up. It'd only get hotter from here.
Back in the box, Colton wrestled with the gear some more, finally getting it to drop somewhat into place. Good enough. He picked up the nut from the ledge where he'd set it, grimacing at the heat of it as he plopped it onto the bolt. The socket set made easy work of tightening and soon he was standing, kicking the heavy metal lid of the access panel closed. It snapped into place with a loud clap.
"Alright, now, work," he commanded the massive device as he turned a giant switch on its side.
The machine clinked and stuttered, growing hazy in the heat. Could have been heat stroke for all Colton knew. He didn't care. Machine had to be up. Get the job done. The whole thing shuddered, as if it were going to tear itself apart, then roared to life. Colton wiped the sweat off his brow, wincing at the way his hand stung when it rubbed across it, then smiled.
"'That's my girl."
A blast of relatively cool air rushed across Colton's face as he swung open the door to the main building. Eighty-seven degrees. Felt like heaven. He dragged his body over to a small wooden chair, throwing himself into it to catch his breath.
"And where have you been?"
Colton recognized the deep, throaty voice and charming British accent right off the bat. Martin.
"Buses comin' in any minute," Martin continued
Colton wiped his brow with a sigh. "Third cooling unit broke. Somebody's gotta keep this place running."
"We coulda done it."
And there was Colton's other employee, Laine, short and wiry, with a higher pitch, but that same distinctive dialect. He and Martin had grown up in the same neighborhood, but claimed to never have met. Now, they were inseparable.
Colton scoffed. "I can do it."
"Ain't that what you pay us for?" Martin asked.
Laine approached with a glass of water. "Honestly, you looked parched. Here."
"Just set it there," Colton said, motioning to the counter next to him.
"You need to drink."
Colton groaned, taking the water from Laine.
"Don't see why you didn't send us," Martin said.
Colton took a long, slow draw from the water. Not too much. "Wanted to do it myself."
"You're a stubborn old man," Laine answered with a shake of his head, "Gonna give yourself a heat stroke."
Their conversation was interrupted by the squeal of bus brakes from outside the large windows behind Colton. He turned to them, the outline of a bus against the heavy shades.
"Y'all want something to do? Let's get 'em checked in and down below. Real scorcher today and you know how coasters are."
"Can't handle nothin'," Martin said with a laugh.
"We've got it," Laine chirped, "Why don't you go on and lie down in your office."
"I don't need to lie down," Colton scoffed, rising to his feet, "Don't really feel like dealing with travelers today, though."
"Do you ever?" Laine asked.
The rust covered bus, a rickety bucket of bolts, rolled along, chugging as if at the end of its life. Thus was the grim reality of the wasteland. Anybody that could afford nicer transport, could avoid the roads, or what was left of them, altogether.
Meryl's face pressed hard against the blazing heat of the darkened window pane. Through the heavy tint, she watched death roll by. Barren, dusty hills gave way to a cloudless sky. Her eyelids drooped. She'd been up all night. First time in her adult life. The fat salesman in the seat next to her snored, splayed out in his cheap suit, pouring out foul breath. At least she wouldn't have to worry about a second leg with him.
The young attendant who'd greeted them upon entry, stepped out from the cab of the vehicle, smiling broad and fake. She couldn't have been over twenty-five, but her face looked tired, worn by years of ferrying travellers across the vast wasteland the heartland of America had become.
"We will soon be approaching Landingham Waypoint. Current temperature, 117 degrees and rising." She dropped the ungodly figure as if it were nothing. "We're a bit behind schedule, so I'd ask that everyone make a quick and orderly departure upon arrival. We'll need to get below ground as quick as we can to avoid exposure."
"Was that one-seventeen or one-seventy?" came a voice from the back, with a long lower class drawl.
"One-one-seven, one-seventeen," she reiterated, "A hundred and seventy and we'd all be in trouble."
The man nodded, trying to hide how stupid he felt, and Meryl turned back to the window, watching the hills roll past her reflection, weary and wrinkled, tussled hair, blond, but slowly edging towards white. In the distance a figure formed, a nondescript box with a ramshackle awning jutting out. This was a waypoint, one of the few shelters for travellers making the gruelling trek across the country. They'd spend the day sleeping and leave again after sunset, once it was cool enough. They, not her.
The bus bumped and jolted as it approached, the building now getting larger. Meryl's heart raced. She hadn't really thought this out too well. She studied its now hulking form barely able to make out the rough, wood siding and rickety shutters. Not much to look at.
Moments later the bus squealed to a stop, the engine coughing out loudly as it shuddered off. Every eye in the bus turned to the thick double doors in the front. They swung open with a screech, sending a burst of blazing air the length of the cabin. Muffled moaning spread around the space as people scrambled up, grabbing bags from underneath seats.
Meryl waited, her skin burning against the heavy air, as the incoming dust clung to her sweaty skin. She'd just as soon wait for the rest to clear, and her erstwhile companion hadn't woken yet anyway. After a moment, watching the disorganized flood of bodies cram through the front door, she dug her bony elbow into his fat, pushing hard until he roused with a jolt.
"Huh, what? Here already?"
"Yeah. It's hot," Meryl deadpanned.
The man guffawed loudly, staring at the end of the bus where the last few souls were pressing their way into the open air. The man hoisted himself up with some trouble, looking down at his seat in dismay as he stood.
He motioned underneath it. "Could ya…"
"Sure," Meryl sighed, reaching under his seat and pulling on the sticky, dust-caked handle of his suitcase.
A couple of tugs and it was loose. She handed to him and he nodded, before waddling off to the front of the bus. She then stood, reaching under her own seat with a long nervous sigh, and pulling out a worn green duffel bag. She slung it over her shoulder and, between the weight of it and the effect of the overwhelming heat, felt as if she might pass out.
By the time she got to the front of the bus, the fat man was just squeezing himself through the door. The young attendant smiled stiffly from the door of the cab.
"Head to the main building to check in. We'll let you know when we're ready to leave."
Colton smacked the side of the old CRT computer monitor on his desk. Thing barely worked anymore, but as long as he could keep it running he would. Another couple bangs and it came back to life, showing him a display of blinking green shapes all connected by green and yellow lines. This was the command center, everything he needed to make sure that the critical systems kept running.
He wiped his forehead, dripping with a sweat, even as the cooling systems ran at full force. The smell of wood and dust made the room seem ancient, just like him. He pushed the old plastic mouse, warm to the touch, across the splintering wooden desk, opening another window on the screen, pulling up a financial ledger, his least favorite part of his job.
The voice was soft, yet gruff, but clearly female. Colton looked up to see a short blonde woman standing in the door and let out an impulsive sigh.
"No customers back here. Go back out and to the left. That's the main desk."
"I'm sorry. Are you Colton Fryxell?" she said, stepping into the room.
Colton glared at the intruder, sizing her up.
"Got a problem with the service, you can talk to my staff."
The woman stood there nervously for a moment. Colton shifted uneasily. Suddenly she took another step into the room, words bursting out of her mouth like a cannon.
"I don't have a problem with the service. I came here to see you."
"Me? Why the hell would you do that?"
She took in a deep breath, before replying.
"I'm your daughter."