Dr. Riley Poole hesitated before pushing her shoulder against the operating room door. She was about to perform emergency surgery on her seventh patient in twelve hours. Bone weary, she wouldn’t have dared operate under such conditions back when the world was sane. But working under challenging situations was the norm in her life since a global Coronal Mass Ejection struck Earth, killing millions and destroying all vestiges of modern technological life.
Riley was the only orthopedic surgeon qualified to perform such a challenging surgery within a hundred miles of Colorado Springs. The patient would lose his leg if she didn’t operate. That outcome would drastically reduce his chances of survival in their resource-starved world, and she couldn’t in good conscience resign him to that fate. She took a breath and made her way into the OR.
The man lying on the table was young. Twenty at most. He needed surgery to repair his left femur, where a round from an M-16 rifle had shattered the bone. It had probably been fired by an enemy soldier who was just as young, if not younger. The cause of the wound didn’t matter. Riley just wanted to know how much longer the violence would go on.
The United States had split into two countries that were fighting a bitter civil war. The US was ruled by Vice President turned dictator, Aileen Kearns. Like hundreds of despots before her, lust for power was her driving force. Any declared concern for the welfare of her citizens was nothing more than political posturing, which she’d repeatedly proved in her short tenure.
Riley and most of her family lived across the border in the newly formed Western States of America, led by President Lamonte Purnell. He was a wise and benevolent leader, determined to uphold a democratic system of government for the betterment of all his citizens. Everything he stood for directly opposed the power-hungry and self-absorbed Kearns.
The war had dragged on for more than a year, far longer than early predictions. Isn’t this always the way in wartime? Riley thought, then asked her equally exhausted anesthesiologist to read off the patient’s vitals. Satisfied with his report, she nodded to her surgical nurse and said, “Let’s get this started.”
As she pressed the scalpel blade into the young man’s flesh, the memory of another surgery two years earlier flashed unbidden into her mind. Her oldest daughter, Julia, had been shot in the thigh just weeks after the CME disaster. As Riley worked on her current patient, footage looped in her brain of kneeling over Julia in the dark woods, desperately fighting to save her leg and young life. She couldn’t have pulled it off without Coop, a world-renowned thoracic surgeon and the man who later became her husband. They’d only had access to the most rudimentary instruments and supplies and no anesthesia, but by no minor miracle, Julia and her leg had survived the ordeal.
The resident assisting Riley cleared his throat and said, “You’re quiet today, Dr. Poole. Is there a problem?”
Riley glanced at him, then smiled behind her surgical mask. She usually kept chatter going during her surgeries to cut the tension, but she didn’t have the energy that day.
“No problem, Sam, and I’ve told you to call me Riley,” she said, aiming to sound more upbeat than she felt. “I’m just keeping my mind focused. This is going to be a long, complicated repair.”
“Aren’t they all these days?” her nurse asked.
Sam nodded. “You’ve got that right, Jana. And where do all these boys come from? Barely enough humans exist to keep civilization functioning without sending these kids off to die in a war.”
Since the fighting began, Riley had pieced together more bodies than she dared count, but they kept coming. If the two sides didn’t stop killing each other, no one would be left alive to populate either country.
“The US has us outnumbered three-to-one, but we’re holding our own,” Riley said. “Maybe it will be enough to convince Kearns to admit defeat soon. With the world population so decimated, they can’t afford the losses any more than we can.”
Jana watched her for a moment before saying, “I still haven’t gotten used to us-versus-them. It just used to be us, then without warning, catastrophe. My grandparents live in Oklahoma, but I can’t even get a message from them. I’m not even sure if they survived the CME. It’s insane.”
“Jana,” Sam said sharply.
Riley glanced up and caught him rolling his eyes in her direction. She knew Sam was afraid Jana’s comment had offended her, but she understood. Julia had been missing somewhere on the US side of the border for nearly two years without Riley having a word from her. She blamed herself for that. Driven by the hope of learning the fate of her two younger children, she’d insisted on leaving Julia in Virginia while she and Coop made the treacherous trek to Colorado Springs. Even though she’d made the best decision under the circumstances, she couldn’t help second-guessing herself, which had caused countless sleepless nights.
For over a year, their friend, Conrad Elliot, a military intelligence specialist, had used covert assets at his disposal to locate Julia. He’d gleaned occasional bits of intel and learned she was being held in an internment camp with other members of Riley’s extended family, but Conrad had failed to nail down the location. Even though the trail had grown cold, Riley hadn’t given up hope that Julia was alive.
“It’s fine, Sam,” she said, finally. “Jana has a right to express her feelings. The CME and war are causing suffering across the board.”
“Thanks for saying that, Riley, but I am sorry,” Jana said, keeping her eyes lowered. “I’m sure they’ll bring Julia home to you soon.”
Before Riley could respond, a rush of blood flooded the surgical cavity. Distracted by their conversation and her thoughts of Julia, she’d nicked an artery.
“Pressure’s dropping, Doctor,” the anesthesiologist said.
Riley refocused all her attention on the patient. There would be time to berate herself over Julia later. She had to close off the bleeder or lose the young man.
“Suction,” she said, keeping her voice even.
Sam lowered the aspirator into the field and vacuumed the blood to give Riley an unobstructed view of the artery. She spotted the cut and clamped it.
After waiting for several seconds to verify that the bleeding had stopped, she said, “Pressure.”
“Rising,” the anesthesiologist said, without taking his eyes from the monitor.
Riley asked Jana for sutures to repair the cut. As she threaded the needle through the vessel, the room went dark. Riley froze while waiting for the backup generator to hum to life. She was relieved to hear the respirator and other machines still operating on their portable batteries.
“Damn, not again,” Sam said. “That’s the third time the power’s gone out today.”
Loss of power was a common occurrence in post-CME life, but knowing that didn’t make it easier to cope with during a delicate surgery. The hospital ran on solar power that was reasonably reliable but not a hundred percent. The hospital’s operating rooms and other vital areas had backup solar generators to prevent loss of life, but they hadn’t kicked in yet.
“Jana, please find Coop and ask him what’s happening,” Riley said.
“Yes, Doctor,” the nurse said as she hurried from the room.
Riley felt panic churn in her gut when the lights hadn’t come on after another five minutes, and Jana hadn’t returned. The power outage stirred other memories of the day the CME hit. Riley shook off her fear and snapped back into surgeon mode.
“Sam, get to Coop and tell him we need portable lights ASAP. Then, find out where Jana wandered off to.” As the words left her mouth, the lights blinked on, making her flinch. “Never mind. Back to work.”
Jana came in thirty seconds later and pulled on a fresh pair of gloves. “Sorry, Riley. I was looking for Dr. Cooper but couldn’t find him. A guy from maintenance told me the power would be on in a minute, so I headed back here.”
“Don’t apologize,” Riley said without looking up from her work. “You were following my orders. Did he tell you what happened?”
Jana shook her head and stepped into place at the table. Riley was disappointed at not knowing why the backup generator had failed to come on. But unfortunately, she’d have to wait until after surgery to get the detailed story. Coop was Chief Medical Officer and acting Chief Administrator. He’d worked wonders getting the hospital functioning as well as it did. She trusted he’d have the problem rectified by the time she tied off the final stitch.
Riley was running on her last drop of adrenaline when she left the surgical unit six hours later. She was confident her patient would make a complete recovery, even if his soldering days were over. Her hope was the war would end before he finished his post-surgical rehab, so returning to the fight wouldn’t be a temptation. Almost getting his leg shot off should have been enough to cure him of that, but Riley knew the drive of the fighting spirit in these boys. Either way, his would be one more young life saved from war. There were plenty of other dangers lurking in their post CME world, but with luck and common sense, he would live a long, productive life.
Riley made her way to the hospital quarters she and Coop shared on their four-day-on, three-day-off work stints. The twenty-mile trek from her parent’s farm where they lived to Colorado Springs took nine hours each way on horseback, so they bunked at the hospital for their shifts. Travel by motor vehicle of any kind had become a luxury of the past. Their access to cars had been limited in the early days after the CME. Later, travel by horse or bike became the norm. They spotted the rare electric car charged on solar power units, but those were the exception. Discovering more convenient, modern modes of travel was number one on the world’s priority list.
Riley’s life revolved around riding to and from the hospital, performing surgery, then repeating the process. The routine left little time to spend with her three youngest children, but she had no choice. Her skills were in high demand, and she couldn’t ignore that responsibility. Not that she wanted to. She was honored and humbled to be called Doctor and contribute to saving and bettering life. But that entailed sacrificing time with her family. She continued to hope the situation would be temporary and that they could all move to a house in town soon. Her fourteen-month-old son, Xav, was growing up fast but hardly knew his parents.
When Riley reached their quarters, she was disappointed that Coop wasn’t waiting for her in the bed. He was most likely still dealing with the power-loss problem. She took advantage of the alone time to take a long, hot shower. It was the one luxury she allowed herself. Using valuable and limited power to heat the water wasn’t the only extravagance. The other was getting the water that flowed from the showerhead.
Their proximity to the Rockies allowed for a sustainable water source. Engineers had figured out how to garner enough solar energy to distribute it throughout the city, but they were still struggling with the problem of ensuring the water was potable. The water pouring over her was clean enough for bathing but not drinking. All water for sanitary uses had to be boiled or treated with purifiers. Under Coop’s persistence and his position of authority on the city council, those same engineers had rigged a treatment apparatus solely for hospital use. Regional water treatment was likely years in the future.
The glorious, warm water reminded Riley of how much she’d taken for granted in her old life. Sure, the power had gone out during severe storms on occasion, but no one ever doubted that it would come back on in those situations. Water pipes would burst, or power lines could get knocked down by falling tree branches, but those instances were only inconveniences. Living for two years with cold, tainted water running from the bathroom and kitchen faucets was a different story. She just tried to be grateful they didn’t have to carry it from the well into the house.
She stepped out of her shower sanctuary and dried off before pulling her nightgown over her head. As she teased a brush through her curly red hair, she glanced through the mirror to the calendar hanging on the wall behind her. Emily had made it for her as a Christmas gift. Coop must have hung that morning after she left for her shift.
The sad face drawn with red marker on that day’s date caught her eye. Emily must have added the face before giving it to her. Riley set her brush on the counter and went to get a closer look. She hadn’t realized what day it was until she saw the drawing on the calendar. It was so simple, but the sight of it twisted Riley’s heart into a knot.
She heard the door as Coop came in. Without turning from the calendar, she said, “Do you know what day this is?”
“Seventh of January. Why?”
“It was two years ago today.”
Coop came up behind her and tenderly laid his hands on her shoulders. He was quiet for a moment before saying, “How’s that possible? It feels like only two months ago in some ways.”
When Riley turned to face him, he pulled her into his arms. Resting her head on his chest, she said, “Feels more like ten years to me. Think of all we’ve been through. Julia getting shot, me leaving her behind, and her getting locked up in one of Kearns’ monstrous camps. There was our time as hostages in Branson’s compound. Losing Dad last year. Hannah and Brooks before that. The thousands of others who died. If those things weren’t bad enough, there’s this damned civil war dragging on forever. So much death. So much loss.”
Coop stepped in front of her and said, “Look at me.” She raised her eyes to his, waiting for the lecture she knew was coming. “I won’t downplay the tragedy or loss, but you’re overlooking the miracles. You and I meeting at the medical conference in DC and falling in love, smack in the middle of the apocalypse. Getting married and bringing our Xav into the world. We survived that nightmare field trip across the country and arrived home to find Jared and Emily alive and thriving. I know being separated from Julia is a constant black cloud over our lives, but Conrad will find her. He gave his word. I trust him.”
“I’m not giving up hope, but seeing Emily’s drawing to mark the second anniversary of the CME blindsided me.” She stepped away and wrapped a throw around her shoulders. “Thanks for hanging the calendar. It was such a thoughtful Christmas gift from Emily. She worked so hard designing and printing it.”
Coop kissed Riley’s cheek before sinking onto the bed and kicking off his shoes. “That girl never ceases to amaze, much like her mother.”
Riley walked back to the bathroom and picked up her brush, once again grateful for Coop’s knack of keeping her from sinking into the darkness. “I can reconstruct a shattered leg,” she said over her shoulder, “but I never could have gotten the computer and printer working the way Emily did. Of course, the computer’s limited without the internet, but I’ll take what I can get. It’s a relief not having to write my patient notes out by hand anymore. My penmanship is so bad even I can’t decipher the records most of the time.”
Coop let out a laugh. “No argument from me. Just proves you were destined to be a doctor. How’d your last surgery go?”
Riley dropped onto the bed next to him. “Long, but successful, despite the lights going out at a crucial moment. Why didn’t the auxiliary generators kick in?”
Without turning to face her, he said, “Because someone came in and dismantled them.”
“What do you mean, dismantled?”
“After the morning maintenance check, someone broke into the generator room and stripped the units for parts. I hate to even think it, but it looks like an inside job, probably to trade the parts on the black market. Security is interviewing everyone on duty who has access to that area.”
Riley sat up and crossed her legs, shocked by Coop’s news. She’d assumed it was a mechanical failure. “That’s sickening. How could anyone who works here stoop so low? If my patient had died in the middle of that surgery because of the power loss, it would have been murder.”
Coop propped himself against the wall at the head of the bed and closed his eyes. “I’ve been thinking the same thing since we discovered the theft. We were lucky not to lose any patients. If we don’t catch the thief, I don’t know where we’ll procure replacement parts. It took superhuman effort to get those generators operational. With these incessant snowstorms lowering main power generation, we could be in serious trouble. Remind me again why I agreed to run this hospital.”
Riley moved closer and wrapped her arms around him. “Because you are the perfect man for the job.”
“I was the only man for the job.”
“That’s not true. They would have found someone if you’d said no, but you didn’t. Taking on this Herculean task makes you a hero in my eyes. You’ll get this problem resolved just like you always do.”
Coop brushed a lock of hair from her face and kissed her. “I couldn’t manage without you by my side. I hate to tell you this, but I can’t go back to the farm with you and Dashay tomorrow. I have to stay and fix this, no matter how long it takes. Will you two be all right on your own?”
“We’ve done this a hundred times. We’ll be fine as long as we don’t get stuck in a snowdrift. This may be the worst time for me to ask this, but I was hoping to take a week off. I’ve been pushing myself hard. I don’t want to get burned out, and I need time with the kids. We only took two days at Christmas, and we’ve hardly seen them since then.”
Riley held her breath when he hesitated to answer. She didn’t like adding to his burdens, but she knew her limits and that she’d reached them.
“My gut reaction was to say no, which may be coming from a selfish place. I keep it together much better when you’re here. But take your break. I’ll send for Cameron Andres to come down from Denver. He owes me after that week I filled in for him in November.”
Riley let out her breath. “Thanks, Babe. I wouldn’t have argued if you said no, but I’m glad you didn’t.” She reached up and pulled Coop down next to her. “If this is our last night together, we’d better make it count.”
“Don’t you want to eat first?”
She kissed him with a hunger that surprised her in her exhausted state. “What do you think?”
Riley found her friend Dashay Robinson stamping her feet to keep warm near the hospital’s makeshift stables the following morning. Riley first met Dashay when they were both hostages in a compound in Virginia. Dashay worked as a nurse in the infirmary and helped Riley treat Julia’s gunshot wound. They got separated for a time but stumbled upon each other months later outside Charleston, West Virginia.
Dashay had lost her entire family in the aftermath of the CME, and there was nothing to keep her in the East, so she traveled to Colorado with Riley and Coop. Riley was thrilled when Dashay made her home with them. She’d become like a sister to Riley and had been an enormous help when Xav was born. Coop considered her a vital asset at the hospital and had just promoted her to head of the nursing staff. Riley was happy for her friend but missed Dashay assisting in her surgeries.
Dashay waved Riley over when she saw her trudging towards her through the five feet of powdery snow covering the ground. The sky was cloudless, but the temperature was in the lower teens. The post-CME winters had been brutal, and without the aid of snowplows or blowers, keeping roads and walkways clear was a constant battle. Riley often wondered if the altered weather patterns were similar to what they’d been a hundred years earlier. She hoped rather than believed the changes were temporary. Their friend, Dr. Adrian Landry, a solar physicist, speculated that the industrial collapse had played a significant role in the drastic climate changes. It could take a decade or more for the surviving humans to know for sure.
Riley made her way to Dashay, who waited with their horses saddled and ready to go. Riley’s faithful horse, Biscuit, greeted her with a whinny of welcome. Riley reached up and patted his neck in return. She and that dapple-gray gelding had traveled across the bulk of the country through hellish conditions, and she couldn’t imagine life without him. After climbing into the saddle, she nudged him forward with a squeeze of her knees. As much as Riley loved Biscuit, she would have given anything to travel home in a cozy, heated car.
Dashay rode her horse, Xena, up beside Riley and got her into pace with Biscuit. Dashay wore a ski mask and was so bundled in her scarf and hood that all Riley could see of her face were her glittering dark brown eyes.
“You in there somewhere?” Riley called to her in the stillness.
Dashay jumped, then pulled the mask away from her mouth and flashed her brilliant smile. “Just trying to keep my lips from freezing off. I don’t know how you can tolerate this cold without something over your face.”
Riley grinned and said, “I’m used to it from growing up in Colorado.”
Dashay shook her head. “We got snow in northern Virginia, but not nonsense like this. Who in their right mind would have settled here?”
Riley laughed. “You did.”
“Momentary insanity. I should have kept heading west until I hit the California coast. I could be lounging on a glorious beach right now, getting a deeper glow on my already gorgeous brown skin.”
A cluster of snowflakes stuck to Riley’s goggles, so she brushed them away with her gloved hand. “I doubt it’s warm enough for tanning, even in southern California, but that does sound glorious. Let’s grab the kids when we get home and ditch this frozen madness.”
“Not sure Coop would appreciate you whisking the kids a thousand miles away, but otherwise, no argument from me. We could introduce Xav to the Pacific Ocean.”
“What about Conrad?”
Dashay avoided making eye contact as she answered. “I’d need to think before I answer that minefield of a question. He leaves me all the time, so what could he say? Feels like we hardly ever see each other lately.”
“He leaves you for his work. It’s not out of choice. You know he’d rather be with you.”
Dashay shrugged. “Would he?”
“Did something happen between the two of you?”
“No. Nothing. That’s the problem. It’s always good fun when we’re together, but our relationship has never progressed past the fun. To be honest, I don’t think about Conrad much when he’s gone these days.”
Dashay’s admission surprised Riley. No one who saw Dashay and Conrad together could doubt their physical spark, but Riley had always assumed their relationship went deeper. After more than a year together, it should have. She thought of Nico Mendez, the army medic held at the compound with them. He and Dashay had been together when they reunited with Coop and her. Tragically, after Nico was attacked by a bear, they had to leave him behind at a hospital in Charleston, West Virginia, to stay ahead of the war. It tore Dashay up to go on without him. He’d planned to catch up once he was recovered, but they never saw him again.
“Are you going to say anything to that?” Dashay asked, rousing Riley from her thoughts.
“Sorry, I was thinking about Nico. Was your relationship with him like it is with Conrad? It seemed like more than a fly-by-night fling.”
“Conrad’s more than a fling, but to answer you, no, it wasn’t the same with Nico. The trauma we endured in the compound and on the road afterward deepened the bond between us, but it started before that. I was still reeling from the CME and my fiancé’s death when I got to the compound. Nico got me through, and we became close. When my grief lessened, I realized I wanted more than friendship. When I met Conrad and hooked up with him, I thought I’d have my fun for a few days and never see him again. Imagine my surprise when he showed up at the farm to deliver Biscuit to you. This might sound shallow, but Conrad is…convenient.”
“Do you ever think about Nico?”
Dashay shook her head. “I don’t let myself. He’s gone, Riley. Why should I torture myself?”
Riley saw her point, but it saddened her to see her friend suffering. “Maybe you’ll find someone like Coop.”
Dashay gave a hearty laugh. “There is no one else like Coop.”
Riley smiled. “He is a rare gem, but you know what I mean. Someone right for you.”
“Not likely. All the good men are fighting the war, taken by someone else, or dead. Look, I’m not saying I don’t have feelings for Conrad. I just don’t see him as ‘the one.’ Is it wrong to stay with him, feeling the way I do?”
Riley had never been in Dashay’s position, so it was an impossible question to answer. She and her first husband, Zach, met in college, and there was instant attraction, but neither was looking for a long-term relationship. Their feelings strengthened over time until she couldn’t imagine loving anyone else. After his helicopter was shot down over Afghanistan, the thought of getting involved with another man never occurred to Riley until she met Coop. Her feelings for him came out of the blue like the CME and only grew stronger every day.
“Only you can answer that,” she finally said. “But if both of you agree on where your relationship is headed, I don’t see the harm. Companionship and affection are vital for survival in this world.”
“In any world,” Dashay said, then snapped Xena’s reins to quicken her pace.