The Gas Station
An (ecotopian) short story and far-future vision of life after the climate catastrophe.
The following short story is my contribution to‘s ecotopia writing prompt. It’s a vision of earth in the far future; life after warming and beyond industrial civilization.
People have survived and managed to build anew. They live in harmony with their surroundings, taking care not to repeat the failings of their ancestors. The planet is a feeble thing, they know. Yet there remain remnants and ruins from times past. Our main protagonists examine one of those, and what they find is… disturbing.
Welcome to Cuba.
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“Come on,” said Rosa. Her long black hair blew in the warm breeze, glittering in the rising sun. She handled the bicycle with practiced ease; an off-road model, Ernesto saw.
Ernesto hesitated, an uncertain grin on his face. “Uh… where are we going?”
“It’s a surprise,” said Rosa. “Don’t you like surprises?”
“Well, uh… I guess.” He sighed and thought of his resolution to get out of his shell more often. It would be good for his anxiety; he’d talked about it with Dr. Vargas. “Alright, why not?” he said.
“That’s the spirit!”
Ernesto pressed his watch against the screen, and the dispenser unlocked a bicycle for him. “It’s… just been a while since I —”
“It will be alright.” She smiled and looked at him. “Don’t worry.”
He followed Rosa, and they rode down the side street, and onto the broad main avenue that stretched and wound through New Havana like a great snake. People were walking to and fro, going about their daily business or just relaxing by the fountains; children were screaming with laughter, playing games with rules that were incomprehensible to the adult mind.
Ernesto glanced at the passing palm trees and overgrown buildings, wondering what it was that Rosa had to show him. He’d met her just a couple of weeks ago at the community meeting, and she’d struck him as a strong, mysterious type of person. He’d fallen for her right then.
Rosa turned and shot him a sly smile — butterflies stirred in Ernesto’s belly — and then she pedaled harder, picking up the speed. Ernesto followed suit, and they shot down the bike lane together, overtaking others, Ernesto occasionally muttering his apologies.
They biked through the city, following the broad avenue, until, an hour later, they arrived at the city border and its outer walls. ‘La Habana Wildlife Protection Area,’ it said in great warning letters. ‘Access Only With Permit!’
“What now?” asked Ernesto, getting down from his bike. He was drenched in sweat and felt awkward.
Rosa’s smile broadened. “I’m a woman of many talents, dear Ernesto. Don’t you forget that.” She held her watch against the scanner and Ernesto looked at her doubtfully. A few seconds passed.
“What are you —”
The scanner lights blinked green, and the great gate opened in a swift and smooth motion. A few passers-by turned to them with curiosity. It wasn’t often that people were allowed entry to the protection area that made up almost the entire island, except New Havana.
Ernesto stared at her. “You have a permit? But… how? I thought only scientists could visit the PA and they are very strict about it. I had a friend once who climbed the wall and —”
She came close, and Ernesto shuffled around uncomfortably. Her large brown eyes stared into his, her hair smelled like coconut, and she lifted a finger to put it on his lips.
She smiled, and then her lips pressed upon his. A long and eager kiss, her hands on his shoulder, his on her hips, and Ernesto wished it could last forever, but then she drew away, biting her lip.
“Not so fast, Ernesto. I wanted to show you something, remember?” She gestured to his pack. “You got enough water?”
“Uh…” He shook himself; blood flew elsewhere. “Yeah, uh, sure! Two large bottles, like you told me.”
“Good. Come on, then.”
They rode across wild plains, through overgrown forests, the Gulf of Mexico shimmering in the distance to their left. It was a stiflingly humid day, and the sweet smells of wildflowers mingled with the salty fragrance of the ocean, almost overwhelming Ernesto. The last time he’d been out here, he remembered, was on a school trip many years ago.
“Not much longer,” she said, riding up a hill with Ernesto close behind. The inexhaustible supply of the sun, channeled through solar panels that could last forever, propelled them forward, the tires biting into the ground, friction and resistance overcome by sheer force.
When they reached the top, Rosa halted and turned to him.
“You see it, Ernesto?”
He strained against the glaring light, focusing on the plain below them. Nothing special there, he thought, his eyes wandering from the lake to the forests on its banks, and the many glades and clearings in the wild, and —
There it was! An old ruin of metal and concrete, partly overgrown but still discernible. A remnant from the past, possibly from before the heat.
“Wow! How old is that?!” he asked, bewildered.
“Oh, I don’t know. But it’s from before the heat, that’s for sure. I discovered it a couple of weeks ago when I came to study the ecosystems around the lake. As far as I know, no one else has been here in many years.”
He looked at her. “So, you are a scientist?”
“I didn’t know that.”
“You don’t know much about me, Ernesto.”
He thought about this. It was true.
“What was it?” he asked, pointing to the ruin. “Before, I mean.”
“A gas station, Ernesto.”
“Yeah.” She came close to him, smelling his neck, resting her head on his shoulder. “Let’s check it out, shall we?”
“Uh… sure. But isn’t it dangerous?”
“Oh, Ernesto, don’t worry.” That sly smile again. “I’ll take care of you.” And with that, she got on her bike and rode down the sharp incline, raising dry dust behind her. Ernesto quickly scrambled after her, scared of losing the trail.
Not long after, they arrived at the gas station. Its once vibrant red and white colors had faded, and the metal roof bore the scars of rust and time. Vines and creepers had claimed parts of the structure, intertwining with the cracked concrete walls. The old fuel pumps stood like silent sentinels, their nozzles long devoid of any gasoline. There was no discernible smell, just the sweet aroma of the surrounding wildlife. Birds sang in the distance.
Ernesto dismounted from his bike, feeling a mix of excitement and trepidation. He surveyed the surroundings, noting the eerily calm atmosphere that enveloped the place. It was as if time were suspended here, and the world had moved on without it.
Rosa joined him, her eyes filled with a spark of wonder, her face red and lively. “Isn't it fascinating?” she asked, her voice tinged with reverence. “This place used to be bustling with activity, people coming and going, filling up their vehicles, buying stuff.”
“It’s remarkable,” he said, examining one of the nozzles. It was rusty and cold. “But why did you bring me here?”
She walked up to him and took his hands. “Ernesto… you’re good with computers, right?”
“Uh, yeah. I guess. Why do you ask?”
There was a quiver in her voice. “You got to help me with something, Ernesto. I don’t know what to do.”
“Of course, Rosa. What is it?”
She looked uncertain. “Come on, I’ll show you.”
Rosa led the way into the structure, where they found an old, barely readable sign that said "Office." The door creaked as she pushed it open, revealing a small room with dusty shelves, a desk with papers scattered about, and a computer terminal, its screen flickering with life.
Ernesto's eyes widened with surprise. “An old computer! How is this thing still working?”
“I have no idea, but look.” She pressed a button on the keyboard and there was a click, coming from somewhere below. Ernesto watched in astonishment as Rosa bent down, put her fingers into an indentation, and lifted a cover that had lain hidden in the ground.
“What the —”
Rosa was already on the ladder. “Come on, Ernesto. Please. You have to see. You’re the only one I trust with this.”
He swallowed and then nodded, following Rosa down the ladder. The tunnel was brightly illuminated, small fluorescent lights glaring from all sides — for God knows how long now — while the air was stale and reeked of warm metal, plastic, and electronics. Ernesto breathed hard as he imagined the confined space pressing down, burying and suffocating him. He thought of the open landscape above, and the fresh air of his island home.
After a few minutes, the ladder came to an abrupt stop. Ernesto walked up to Rosa, his mouth open. They found themselves in a vast underground hall of concrete and metal. Bright screens and red neon illuminated the space, and there was a constant hum of what Ernesto recognized as ancient server farms.
Ernesto made a few uncertain steps. At the center of the hall, he saw, stood two rows of cylindrical pods, each one with a transparent front panel, revealing a figure inside.
His breath caught in his throat as he realized what he saw. People, blank faces, frozen in time, preserved as if awaiting some distant future. Each pod had a small display panel showing vital signs, and he could see that these individuals were indeed alive, just in a state of suspended animation, constantly hovering on the margin to death.
“Rosa?” he whispered, unable to tear his gaze away from the sight before him. “W-What is this?”
“It's a cryogenic preservation facility," she said. "These are billionaires, Ernesto. People who chose to freeze and conserve themselves before the heat laid waste to civilization. They hoped for a time when the world would recover, and they could return to it.”
“How do you know this?”
Rosa pointed to a computer terminal. “It’s all explained there, Ernesto. But I can’t access the command screen. That’s why I need your help.”
“Command screen? What are you talking about?”
“See for yourself.”
Ernesto stepped up to the computer terminal and examined the interface. It was unlike anything he’d ever seen, ancient but strangely advanced at the same time. He tried to recall his knowledge of old computer systems and began typing on the keyboard, accessing long-forgotten commands.
“I can't believe it,” he said after a while, his voice trembling with a mixture of excitement and fear. “Twenty people, all from the year 2031.”
Rosa nodded. “Yes, and there are protocols to wake them up when certain conditions are met. Conditions like the world being habitable again.”
Ernesto typed away, flicking from screen to screen, his mind struggling to take it all in. He halted. “But the protocols have failed,” he said, his hands shaking. “They’ve lost connection to the satellite network decades ago. These people will remain frozen here forever… or until the power supply breaks.”
“Yes, I figured so myself,” said Rosa. “But, look, there’s a command screen to wake them up manually. It’s protected, though. Maybe you can hack it?”
“Hmm.” Ernesto examined the screen and immediately thought of a roundabout. It wasn’t protected, just glitching; anyone who came so far was deemed authorized, anyway. The real failure had been the screen in the gas station above. More time had passed than the frozen people had anticipated. Far more time.
“Rosa,” he said. “I can access it.”
“Great!” she said. “I knew I could count on you. Do it!”
He looked at the screen. There were options to begin wake-up procedures, but there was also one that said ‘Initiate termination’ and below that: ‘Use only in case of critical failure!’
“Rosa… what do you want to do?”
She looked at him. A piercing gaze that went straight to his soul. He’d never seen her like that before. “I think you know that, Ernesto.”
He wiped the sweat from his brow. “Y-You can’t just kill them, Rosa.”
Her voice rose and cracked with anger. “They should have died ages ago!” she screamed. “They’ve killed everyone else, Ernesto! It took centuries for the earth to recover; billions died! Not to speak of all the animals and plants we’ll never see again!”
She calmed herself, looking at the frozen people with obvious distaste. “We don’t even know how much of it all is gone, Ernesto, but we know that we almost didn’t make it.”
“I realize all that, Rosa.”
“Then what are you waiting for?”
“Just unlock the screen and walk away. I’ll do the rest. No one will ever know.”
He hesitated, breathing hard. A wave of panic made its way up his spine.
Rosa put her arms around him, whispering gently, “Look at them, Ernesto.”
He gazed at the expressionless faces, the paper-white, feeble skins. They looked peaceful. Like those pharaohs of ancient Egypt, preserved to last the eons. The last acts in their long reigns of terror.
“They are already dead.”
I’m author, writer, and activist Antonio Melonio, the creator of Beneath the Pavement. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider becoming a paid subscriber here on Substack or over on Patreon. It’s the best way to support Beneath the Pavement and help me put out more and higher-quality content.
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