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A woman leans against the thick cement siding on the roof of an empty apartment building, watching the sunlight ooze over the horizon like molten gold. The wind is still cold, catching the stray bits of hair that have escaped the woman's ponytail and batting them about her face. She has a cellphone pressed to her ear, and after speaking a few brief words into it, she ends the call and slips it back into the pocket of her orange jacket. She shivers and pulls up her hood, then slips on a pair of rubber boots that have been resting near her feet.
All around her, the tops of skyscrapers barely rise above the water, the rest of the city completely swallowed up by the soft, inky deep. Water comes within a yard of the roof of the apartment building, impatiently lapping at the sides and cozying in through the cracked windows. Far beneath the water, the woman can barely make out the deeper black of empty asphalt streets, the lonely, shattered traffic lights blinking through their signals with no one around to pay them any heed. This isn't her city, for hers was flooded a long time ago; it is only one of the many she has seen, holding the broken, leftover pieces of people's lives in its watery depths.
Pulling herself up to sit on the edge, the woman tugs on a rope tied securely to a metal ring embedded in the side of the wall. A small motorboat floats closer, and the woman catches onto the side to steady it before stepping in. She starts the motor and unties the rope from the metal ring, then tilts the rudder in her chosen direction, leaning to peer over the edge as the motorboat chugs along at a slow, steady pace.
Eventually, the woman shakes herself out of her reverie and begins her real job, scanning the horizon for the sign of any other human beings. She does not hope to find anyone, but she still searches, the soft buzz of the boat's engine the only sound to be heard in the water-soaked city.
Hours pass. The woman removes a protein bar from her pocket and eats it. Its stale taste only adds to her state of loneliness. The sun is climbing quickly towards the top of the sky, and soon the woman has searched all of her assigned area. It is time to go back. She stops the boat, cuts the motor, and takes one last look out at the horizon, the skeletons of buildings stretching farther than she can see. She sits motionless for a moment, feeling the weight of the empty world upon her shoulders. This city, once packed full of unceasing noise, is now a deserted shell, filled instead with the dense silence of water.
The mournful trill of a bird jerks her back to the moment, and she restarts the motor to turn the boat around and head back to where she started. Suddenly, she catches sight of something out of the corner of her eye: a large, cloth-covered bundle, bobbing gently against the wall of a nearby skyscraper.
Her heart beating frantically, the woman swings the boat around to face the possibility. Is it alive? Could it be… is it… a person? Mentally urging the boat the go faster, she leans forward, trying to make out the shape of the bundle. It seems to be about five feet tall, with an outline that could be that of a person if it weren't so ambiguously wrapped in cloth. As she gets close enough to pull her boat up next to the shape, she reaches out and grabs a handful of the fabric. It's a thick, sturdy cloth, soaked through with icy cold water. She tries not to think of how long it's been out here, how even if it were a person inside, they probably didn't stand a chance….
Shaking herself back to the present, the woman takes a firmer hold on the cloth, pulling the bundle towards her. She finds the edge and begins to unwrap it in order to see what's inside, her pulse jumping in her cold, trembling fingers. She can't stop her brain from running through the possibilities. What if they're already dead? What if they're unconscious, and I can't get them back in the helicopter before it's too late? Every so often, a nagging voice at the back of her mind wonders why the object is wrapped in cloth, if it really is a person. It just doesn't seem to fit. But she pushes the thought away.
Finally, her fingers reach the last layer of fabric, and just as she is about to pull it away, her hand brushes against the surface of the object inside. She freezes. The texture is hard, unmoving, and nothing like a person. Frantic now, she scrabbles at the last layer of cloth, tearing it away to reveal...
...a solid, vaguely human-shaped piece of wood.
The woman lets out a small sob, and then, quite suddenly, a scream of frustration. The object is clearly some sort of statue, made of honey-colored wood coated in a glossy varnish. It must have been expensive, she thinks bitterly. No wonder it was wrapped in cloth to protect it. If only that protection could have been used for something more valuable. Shoving the statue away from her, the woman turns the boat around for the second time.
Going straight back the way she came takes only a fraction of the time it took to search the area, and she finds the very same apartment building she started from in less than an hour. The woman pulls the boat up near the wall and catches onto the metal ring, then ties the rope to it. Grabbing onto the edge, she hoists herself out of the boat and onto the wall, where she stands and stares numbly out at the empty world.
Eventually, she turns and steps back onto the roof, reaching into her pocket for her cell phone, and dials a number off the top of her head, biting her lip as she holds the phone to her ear and waits for an answer. The phone on the other end is picked up, and a man's voice answers.
"There's no one here," Emilia replies, offering nothing by way of greeting. "You can come pick me up now. I'm on the same building where you dropped me off, so just drop the rope ladder out of the helicopter." Her voice is restrained and emotionless, as if she is holding something back.
"Are you alright?" The man asks, concerned. There is a long silence, and then a deep, shaky sigh.
"I found something," Emelia whispers. "And—I guess I let myself get my hopes up. It was stupid, really." She laughs bitterly, her voice rising a notch. "Why would there be a person wrapped up in sailcloth? But I just… I don't know. I guess when you start mistaking wooden statues for people, then you know it's been too long." Her voice cracks. "I'm not sure if I can live like this anymore."
"Shhhh, Emilia," comes the man's voice again. "It's not your fault. Heck, this type of life would do that to anyone. And I promise, what you're doing is important. I know it's hard, but in a time like this, everything is. That's the way of life."
A muffled sob, and then Emilia's voice again. "But there's no one here. And I'm so lonely. When I volunteered for this job, I thought I would be rescuing people. But there's no one to rescue. They all just—disappeared when the water showed up. The only people left were the ones who managed to stay above the water. I don't know how that's possible, and I don't want to, but it makes this job pretty well near pointless. So far, I haven't saved anyone but you."
"And that makes a world of difference, Emilia." The man replies, his voice softer. "If not to you, then to me. I was stranded on the roof of a deserted building, exhausted and dying of thirst, just about to lose hope. And then I saw this tiny motorboat chugging towards me through the freezing water." He smiles; Emilia can almost hear it over the phone. "You might only be able to save one in a million, Emilia, but one in a million is so much better than nothing."
There is silence for a while, and then a sigh, as Emilia scrubs the tears off her face and takes a long, deep breath. "Thank you," she whispers.
The man knows the conversation is over, and leaves it at that. "I'll see you in five minutes."
Emilia hears a beep, and then quiet. Slipping her phone back in her pocket, she closes her eyes against the sun's light and recalls a moment so much like this, no more than a couple months ago. A different roof, a different apartment building, a different city. Her city. It was the morning after a party, and lucky for her, she'd been asleep in the penthouse of one of the few buildings tall enough to stand above the water. When she'd woken up, the rest of the city was gone, all the people transported away to wherever the water had come from. As far as she knew, they weren't dead, but the silent emptiness had been just as terrible. Now, that moment felt like it had occurred in another lifetime.
The whir of the helicopter jolts her out of her reverie, and she opens her eyes to see a rope ladder dropping down in front of her. She steadies herself, grabbing onto the first rung, and begins to climb. Her life will never be normal again, and she knows it. But as she climbs into the helicopter and sees the man there, smiling, she remembers why she chose this above doing nothing. And she smiles back.