Story 01: Memories of Tomorrow – Electric Funeral
13 March 2098 (13.D 4.M 11.Y ATG)
There was no Prima City, not yet.
Grassland stretched out forever in all directions. A dirt path sprang out of the horizon. A car headed for the only stop before the oil refinery at the end, a hill crowned by a tall wall. The stones were white as the car but lacked the latter’s blue stripes down the front. The only occupant was a solemn man in a black trench coat. His dark hair was smoothed back into a ponytail, and on his nose was a pair of shades that disallowed any sunlight to his eyes.
The man tilted his head to look up at the slope. Only thing he could see inside the walls was the square spire reaching for the heavens. Its very last floor was round and blood-red.
“Business?” A metallic voice boomed out from the only gate. The massive man looked almost human, if its clothes had not been painted directly on to its metal-plated exterior. It repeated in the same scratchy tune: “Business?”
“I am John Kilburne, and I was summoned by the Government of Prima City itself. Or so the message said. This does not look much like a city yet.”
The hill was too small to hold a sustainable population, and the oil refinery, despite numerous flat buildings, looked nothing like a city.
“Confirmation, please.” The android put out its hand palm up, and a small hole opened.
“I request a face scan.”
The android stood silent for a moment, likely processing the appeal. “Service not available at current time. The following confirmation methods accepted: blood, spit, urine and semen. Please deposit personal sample in hole.” It made an eerily human beckoning motion with its fingers.
“I am afraid I can supply none of those. Perhaps we can strike some kind of deal?” John asked hopefully.
“Confirm your identity or step away from the wall.” The android put a hand on its only actual garment, a belt with a submachine gun. “All hostiles and intruders will be eliminated.”
John backed away towards his car again. “Forget it then, I did not come here for Government anyway. I just came to see my brother. Do you have a Lawrence Summers somewhere?”
“Information only available for confirmed personnel. All others must give personal sample or step away from the wall,” the android said.
John raised and lowered his arms in frustration. “Fantastic, this is why I love IMs.” He turned back towards his car with long strides of his brown boots. “Maybe I will go check out that refinery instead. I think I saw some human faces there.”
A short man in shiny pauldrons and a long red robe appeared on the other side of the iron bars. “Uh, did you say John Kilburne?” he asked. John nodded. “Hold on just a moment, I was told to expect you.”
The gate rolled into the wall and a pair of heavy metal doors swung out. The android stepped aside. “Right this way, sir, if you would please.” The guard beckoned John inside with a wave of his hand. He was young with greasy blonde hair.
Large tiles of stone slabs led up the hill to the tower, and branched off to numerous villas spread out in a four by six pattern. Children ran around on the plains, supervised by a parent or one of the many robots on patrol.
The only entrance to the tower was a large, wooden door. The guard put his hand on a panel next to it, and the door disappeared. It was just a force field with pretentions. “It’s an honour having you here, sir, we’ve heard so much about you. No wonder the bigwigs allowed special permission for you to avoid the usual registration.”
The interior lived up to the outside’s promise of ostentation. Grey stone polished to a shine made up the floor, while the walls remained white. In the middle of the floor was a large fountain. Two men and three women formed a circle facing outwards. In the middle stood a marble effigy of John himself. Water squirted out of a gun in his upheld left hand. John winced at the sight of it and ducked his head.
A curly-haired woman sat behind a low wall at the end. “Oh, is this the man we’ve heard so much about?” She looked from John to the fountain and back again. “I tell you, we’ve been expecting you for days. Starting to get really nervous, this one.”
“It’s true, I’ve been hoping so badly you would come during my shift.” The guard flashed a quick smile before putting a hand under his chin. “Uh, GSF Luther with John Kilburne, requesting access to Floor X.”
The woman giggled at him. “All right, big boy, the way is clear,” she teased.
A pair of doors with a bronze sheen melted away before them and revealed a see-through plastic cylinder. They stepped inside, and the ground moved up. Other floors in the tower flashed past them, and white stone walls slowly greyed. “You seem to be doing pretty well here,” John remarked, catching glimpses of people talking, drawing or sitting. “So what is this GSF thing?”
The guard proudly adjusted his red robe. Underneath it metal glimmered. “The Government’s Special Force!” he announced with chest out and shoulders back. “Only the most elite of guards are allowed anywhere past the ground floor of the Tower. In fact, you have to go through our barracks to get to the Government’s room at all.”
“Ah. Bodyguards, in other words.” The elevator tube extended up long into the tower, but the speed made the journey a trifle.
Some of the air deflated from the man. “Well, I suppose in a sense,” he said with a low voice. He shook his head. “No, no! We’re bodyguards of all Prima City. Any threats that other guards cannot, we deal with it.”
John gave the man a mock admiring glance. He asked no further questions, and the GSF didn’t start any conversations. Still the guard seemed overly pleased with himself, radiating enough mirth for them both.
The elevator clicked into place. The doors came apart with a ding.
The GSF took him down a narrow hallway. Doors on either side had labels such as ‘Dormitory,’ ‘Canteen’ and ‘Training room.’ At the end was just a wooden door. It was very much real and swung inside. The GSF stood at attention up against the wall, gently nudging his head towards the doorway.
The room beyond was elegantly decorated with thick, red carpets covering the floor. Heavy burgundy drapes coated the windows. Large candles served as the only light source, spilling out great clouds of black fumes. The room was eternally clad in semidarkness.
Regardless, John strode untroubled towards a heavy, wooden desk at the other end. The only other piece of furniture was a large freestanding mirror on the right hand. It too was all covered up and blended in with the walls. Only its gilded feet protruded from underneath the cloth.
“Please have a seat, Mr Kilburne.” A voice came out of the darkness behind the desk. A hand waved towards a spindly, wooden chair.
John eyed the chair suspiciously and remained standing. “Surely we are on first name, Adlai? After all that we have been through.”
“We have made great progress with our city, as I am sure you’ve noticed,” the voice continued unabated. It was calm and unthreatening, but was all the more callous for it. “However, we still need one last piece of the puzzle.”
A woman stepped forth, her features cloaked by the shadows. “Oh for the love of…” She reached her metal right arm out of the darkness. It shone in the candlelight. “He’s saying we need your pendant, so you better cough it up.”
Adlai’s arm gently pushed back the woman’s. A hint of a smile passed over John’s face. “Serena, as impatient as ever. Good to see some things never change.”
“It’s been twelve years since we brought the war to an end, and twenty-five more since the Great Destruction.” Adlai’s hands folded on the desk. “All of that is behind us now. We are recovering and steadily moving back to civilisation.”
Serena again stirred from the shadows. “God, how slow can you be? He already knows all that! Just get to the pendant already.”
Adlai had to possess inhuman patience. His voice came unperturbed. “May I see the pendant?”
Two things dangled around John’s neck, a silver crucifix and a red rectangle. The latter was charred, and its edges melted. Adlai’s voice grunted as he took the pendant from John.
“You should be more careful with this,” he said. “A third of the previous world’s accumulated knowledge is saved on this flash drive.”
“I know. I came because you told me my brother needs it, so what am I doing here?” He took the pendant back and placed around its proper place.
“W-we have an offer for you.” Another shape stepped out from Adlai’s other side. The voice was deep like a black woman with some weight on her frame. “You see, well, we could always need more guards in Prima City.”
John lifted an eyebrow. “Are you offering me a red robe too?” he asked.
“N-no, of course not, we don’t need ordinary guards! Well, we do, but you’d be wasted on a job like that, a powerful man like you… no, we need someone we can trust with absolute clearance. Someone to take on high profile jobs. A man to do one-man jobs for the security of the city.” The woman flustered herself. Her cheeks burnt brightly even through the darkness. A fourth shape put his hand on her shoulder.
“What Marte is trying to say is that our fine city attracts survivors from all over the world. Of course, some shady characters come along as well, so I’m afraid we have a trifle trouble with corruption and internal strives. Our guards can’t really handle such matters, not if they’re being paid off. We want you to join a new order of guards called the Shadow Hunters.”
John shifted his weight. “And how many do you have, Luciano?” John’s head twitched to the sides, as if expecting a great party to burst out.
“Of course, you will be the first!” Luciano admitted happily, oblivious to the sceptical frown forming on John’s face.
“Is there seriously no one else you can trust in this whole city?” The shape shook its head. “Look, I just came here to deliver the pendant to my brother. If there was nothing else then–”
A fifth shadow made itself be seen, her hands clasped in front her. John focused on the last member of the Government. “Hello, Julia, I almost thought you would not speak to me. Did you have something to say?” He got a little closer to the desk again so he could hear the anticipated low voice.
“Yes. If I may, how is everyone at the basement?” she asked emotionlessly. She lacked Adlai’s cynicism, making it downright robotic.
The candles flickered and danced on John’s shades. Nothing was revealed about what hid behind them. “We are not many by now. Many left when they heard the war was over, and the rest have more or less come here over the years.”
“Yes, we’ve received most of them,” Adlai interjected, and Julia melted back into the shadows. “Sadly not everyone made the journey. It’s a long trip, and the wasteland is unforgiving.”
A pair of hands slammed into the desk. “All right, John, what is your answer then?” Serena barked. “Are you with us or not?”
“Not right now, not while there are still people in my basement. But I will come as soon as they are all gone. The war is over and there is no longer any need for my basement. It is not a shelter, just a layover,” he replied. Serena retracted herself again, a disapproving snort escaping her.
Adlai lifted his hand to silence her before she could burst out with another tirade. “It is thanks to your basement we survived and that we met at all. None of this could have happened without your help. I hope you will make good on your promise someday, and until then, we will continue to develop a city you can be proud of us for.” The words sounded rehearsed and flat, but ultimately sincere, so John nodded his head.
“That is fine then, but please keep your statues of me to a minimum. I would much rather you immortalised Maxwell. He was the one who actually did most of the work.” John turned to leave when he noticed the heavy silence that had fallen on the Government.
“My apologies, mister Kilburne, but…” Julia said. “Who is Maxwell?”PART ONE: A COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES ABOUT THE PEOPLE WHO WOULD FOUND PRIMA CITY
11 June 2061, thirteen days left
A lone woman was out jogging on the streets of Firefly, the latest of New York City’s insect-inspired suburbs. Her terrier panted along with her during the early hours of morning. She paused to catch her breath and took a water bottle from her belt. A motor sound rumbled up behind her. She turned, and the bottle slipped from her hand.
The motorcycle was a highway cruising model, and the man occupying it was a blonde giant. His clothes were mere rags of animal skins sewn together, incapable of fitting around his torso or reaching him any further than knees and elbows.
“Hello there!” The boyishly handsome grin came easy and quick to the man. The young woman was stupefied and the dog leash too glided out of her hand. Even the dog was nailed to the spot. “I’m looking for lot number six, and I appear to be a bit lost.”
Her mouth was agape, but no words escaped her. Her hand rose to point him in the right direction instead.
“Ah, thank you ever so much. If I wasn’t in such a hurry, I’d offer to follow you home.”
A hand the size of the dog itself descended to stroke it. That broke the charm and the terrier yelped happily up at him. It followed him for a while with the leash dangling behind it, but the motorbike was too fast for it. It sat down on the ground and cocked its head in wonderment.
Despite instructions, the man missed his destination. Lot number six appeared empty compared to the grounds around it. There was no fence, no wall, not even a garden. All that the narrow dirt path led up to was a modest single storey house at the very end. The uneven ground almost swallowed it up, making it hard to see from the street.
The mysterious figure circled back and stopped by a small wooden post. Placed on top of it was a mailbox, beneath it an intercom with a speaker and a screen, and below that a small plaque with necessary information.
“Property of John Kilburne. We’re here.” The giant took a magazine from a black knapsack on his back. A guitar hung from his left shoulder. He rifled through the pictures of naked women until he found an announcement on the very last page. Hidden between ads for dildos and erection enhancers was a picture of a sombre-looking character, the text reading something in Portuguese about the end of the world and a shelter outside of New York City.
He put it away again and pressed a button on the intercom. The monitor scratched but no image appeared. Only a voice answered the call.
“This the bloke with the shelter?”
It took a moment for the voice to answer. “Come to the front door,” it finally said.
Silence once more. The giant gunned the engine on his motorcycle again and made his way. A light breeze blew and rustled his long blond hair. The first rays of the sun warmed his rugged features.
“So you really think the world will end before winter?” he asked, scratching his cheek while a yawn cracked his face.
“Ara, I already told you yes!” a voice answered, not belonging to anyone around him that could be seen.
“I don’t know. We’ve heard a lot of doomsday prophecies before, why is this in any way different?”
“Because it’s true.”
The man shivered at the incorporeal words and came to a stop in front of the house. Big panes of glass dominated the blue front. No doubt a rich man lived in it from the visible interior, though it seemed more like an inner city penthouse suite than a suburb mansion.
Just outside the front door stood a tall pale man, his dark hair tied into a long ponytail. His black trench coat was left open to show a white shirt underneath. The blond giant climbed off his bike and extended a hand towards the man.
“You must be John Kilburne!” the giant said. John nodded and shook the hand. Of average height, John was almost dwarfed by the man.
“Well, that is what my name plate says,” John replied sarcastically, craning his neck to find the visitor’s eyes. “And who are you?”
“I am Maxwell, but a humble traveller.” The giant bowed low with right hand on his chest. “I saw your advert and decided to give this a chance.”
“Oh, right, that thing,” John said almost surprised and looked away. “Yes, the world might be ending soon.”
“So who else turned up?” Maxwell asked. John merely looked up at him. “What, no one else? It’s probably true this time, you know.”
“And there is the problem. They always say it is true this time and then nothing happens. Anyway, take your bike and follow me.” John walked off to the left and waved his arm. “Do not mistake my basement for a homeless shelter, though. I am booting you the instant we cross the expiration date, Mr Maxwell.”
“Just Maxwell. It’s what everyone calls me.” The giant hoisted the bike up under his arm and followed.
The garage was almost the size of the small house, painted in the same blue-grey colour. John tapped a panel on the side. The middle part of the door disappeared up under the ceiling. He turned backed to Maxwell, but stopped with mouth open when he saw how easily the giant carried his large motorcycle.
“By the way, you look familiar. Are you famous or something?” Maxwell went past the stupefied John.
“I would not discount such a claim.” The lights flickered on automatically, revealing the garage to be empty. “I invented a much more efficient non-lethal weapon a few years ago. It made me a bit rich.”
“No, now I know! You’re a bounty hunter, right?” Maxwell put his hands on his side with a grin. “You brought down a cartel in Suriname a few years ago, if memory serves me well.”
“Yes. Yes, I did do that too, and the Dutch were very grateful.” John’s fingers worked another panel inside. The garage floor came to life with a rumble and descended. “Got a first name I can call you by?”
“A first name?” Maxwell looked around surprised at the sudden movement. “Nah, just Maxwell will suffice.”
The garage continued going down, Maxwell eventually getting used to the sensation. He was smiling again when the floor stopped.
A large pair of reinforced steel doors retracted into the walls. A concrete car park stretched out before them. Maxwell whistled in admiration as he exited.
“No wonder your pad is so small if you blew all your money on the garage.”
It was not a big area, but it was filled with cars of little value, mostly old beaters. Furthest to the end was a tank, near the middle a bus and by the elevator doors an old-looking, blue Chevrolet with white stripes.
“The house on top is just a model home I had installed as an afterthought. Down here is where I live.” John came up next to Maxwell.
“I had heard you were something of a hermit.” Maxwell went back inside for his bike. “So where can I put her?”
Maxwell admired the car park some more, noticing additional doors. Likely leading to a repair room. Quickly he chose a bare area on the right so he could investigate the old junkers.
“So tell me a little about yourself. You have prominent Germanic features, but your accent is hard to place. Where are you from?”
Maxwell forced himself to look away from a monster truck with wheels only slightly higher than himself. “Oh you know… the back roads of old England,” he said with a grin. “I just drift from place to place and help out where I can. It’s the journey that counts.”
“I had almost forgotten Lawrence had made those advertisements,” John said in a low voice. “Thankfully, I can now enjoy the company of drifters and vagrants.”
“Man, where do you even get all these things?” Maxwell’s excited shouts echoed further and further into the underground facility.
“Maxwell, come back here, this isn’t a museum. Most of these cars are in a bad enough state without you groping all over them.”
“I like groping!” Regardless, Maxwell trudged back with long strides.
“Moving on.” John corrected his shades, stealing a glance to ensure Maxwell’s presence. “This is the fourth floor, the lowest one. Third floor has my own generators that can run on basically anything. Second floor is something of a mix, with everything from larger leisure facilities to walk-in freezers.”
Maxwell rummaged through his ear with a pinkie finger. “Boy, sounds like you’ve had this basement planned for a while.” He flicked away the gold he found. “But that doomsday prophecy is only a few months old. How in the world did you manage to get all of this up and running that fast?”
“I have always known mankind would obliterate itself. It was simply only a question of time.” John fiddled with yet another panel, and a second elevator was revealed. Muzak spilled from unseen speakers. “Would it be optimistic of me to suppose you brought any luggage?”
Maxwell clapped John on the back, giving a boisterous laugh in the process. John frantically adjusted the shades back up on his nose and scampered in behind Maxwell.
“Right you are. All I own is in this backpack. And my motorcycle of course,” Maxwell replied.
He hummed along with the short melody, gently swaying to the rhythm. John erected himself, feeling the pressure of Maxwell’s height. “At least you seem to be a cheerful fellow,” John remarked.
“You have to enjoy all the smaller thing here in life, John! The bigger ones are so rare and few in-between.” Maxwell grinned. “You know, the only reason you aren’t getting anymore applicants is because of this era of peace that was ushered in half a century ago. I’m surprised a shelter like this even exists on the North American continent.”
“I have seen some things that made it hard for me to believe this peace would be lasting.”
Maxwell crossed his arms and nodded. “Too true. You only need to take a look at history to see how fragile peace can be. But we’re not going to accomplish anything unless we give ourselves wholly to the illusion. If just one country starts arming up again, the seeds of chaos and fear will spread.”
The elevator came to a stop, and warm air slithered in. Hairs standing on Maxwell’s arms relaxed again. “Let us find you a room then.” The corridor was lined with a thin, snuggly carpet in purest red. The walls were white on the upper part with a wooden frame below. A host of blue doors ran down the length of every wall. “First floor, living quarters. We also got plenty of bathrooms and toilets, not to mention kitchens and everything else needed close at hand.”
Still humming the elevator melody, Maxwell followed John to the common room in the middle. It was filled with couches and tables, and had also foosball, billiard and a stage on the left hand. Eight corridors ran in all the cardinal and intercardinal directions.
Maxwell scratched his belly and took it all in, stretching to look down corridors to see what lay at the end. “Not too shabby,” he finally said, crouching to feel the soft carpet. “What about the grub then? Do we have enough food?”
John nodded. “Of course. I made sure to stock them as soon as I heard.”
“So now we just have to wait. When was the time limit again?” he asked casually, plodding along John taking him further inside the complex.
They were headed for the corridor directly opposite the elevator. “Around January, but it could come already tomorrow.” The rooms were all empty except for the one at the end. A name plate on the door read John’s name in a fine hand. John pointed to the room on the left. “So, since you are first, why do you not take this room?”
Maxwell blinked for a moment, trying to decipher the lack of contraction. “Oh! Sure. Right next to the big cheese!” He grinned again as he pushed the door open.
It was small, but had the same pleasant feeling as the rest of the place. There was a bed, a table with a chair and a metallic wardrobe, with a mirror in the door and enough space to hold a few sets of change.
“I apologise for the cramped quarters. The neighbours would not allow me to expand into their property.”
Maxwell cleared the room in two steps. “No, no, I like it! Better than any tent, that’s for sure.” He put his knapsack and guitar down on the white linens, feeling the walls for composition and ability to apply them with posters. “Tell me, do you really plan to just sleep next to everyone else?”
“Sure, is there a problem with that?” John leant up against the doorframe.
“No, of course not, it’s just...” Maxwell turned around, scratching his chin. “You should try to be more authoritative, uh, perhaps wear something distinctive?”
“Do you think I am not distinctive enough?” John waved his arms at his clothes.
“Let me put it this way, then. People like a man in uniform, because they know they can trust people like that. If leaders wore the same clothes as everyone else, they would look no different and people would start to suspect their leaders’ claim to power.”
“I can see that. But then, I am not exactly a leader of anything.”
Maxwell wagged a finger. “People will come, and they will need a leader. In a similar vein, I also need to see your room.” He was already squeezing past John.
“S-sure.” John shrank against the door to allow the giant to push through.
“It’s important that the leader stands out, not just with a uniform, but also in his living arrangements. At least tell me your room is bigger.”
The room was, if possible, even smaller. A bookcase was crammed into the end and stocked with an assortment of old books and manuals. A chipped wooden table was wedged in front of it. There was just enough space between them for a battered old armchair. The only adornment was a life-size painting of a woman in a flowery, yellow dress. Maxwell squinted his eyes as there was no light, but could only make out her name from a bronze plaque at the bottom. ‘Minette Parson.’
“Is this it?” Maxwell retracted his neck again, nearly bumping his head into a hook on the other wall.
“It is all I need,” John replied from behind him.
“But you would also need a bed.” Maxwell scratched his neck and looked worriedly at John. Then, a flash of inspiration surged his features. “Oh, I get it! This is just your workplace, or some kind of storage, right?”
“Yes,” John simply said.
“Smart thinking! Why waste precious space with trivialities when you have two hundred beds to choose from.”
John nodded and grabbed Maxwell’s arm. “All right, that was the first and fourth floor. I still need to show you the rest.”
“It will have to wait.” Maxwell adjusted his crotch. “I just spent six hours on my motorcycle so I’m feeling a little sore. How about you just show me to the kitchen?”
24 June 2061
The Day of the Destruction
“My name is Lawrence Summers and I’m a scientist at Mattlock Industries. On the first of June a team of researchers, myself included, was testing the possibilities of time travel. To experiment, we sent a robot two months into the future. What you are about to see has not in any way been altered. If you would like to know how you can prepare for the end of the world, contact Mattlock Industries on the number at the bottom of the screen.”
The tall scientist nodded and white lettering appeared across his abdomen. He put a hand through his short black hair and stroked his powerful chin, waiting like a model on a TV show for the camera to cut.
“Hey smelly. You there?”
The person watching the video nearly fell off his chair. Adlai had left the chat client open after a night of online gaming. His best friend had presently logged on.
“H-hey, Bloom!” he stammered. The person on the other end was a quiet for a moment, trying to decipher the meaning of that tone.
“You’re watching that video again, aren’t you?”
“Of course not!” Adlai replied a little too fast.
“Bro, I can see you, so cut the shit. Seriously, do you have to watch that creepy thing every day?”
“Come on, even you have to admit it’s too elaborate to be a promotion for Mattlock Industries?” Adlai adjusted himself in his seat and concentrated on the video more intently now that he knew his gig was up.
“No, I think it’s an elaborate hoax to destabilise the American economy by plunging it into panic. Who gives a rat’s arse what it’s supposed to be! Only a science fiction nerd like could take it seriously.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say I take it seriously per se. I just can’t help looking at it now and then.” The video had gone black. The view scratched and turned to a bleak wasteland. Only a gust of wind about four minutes in would break the monotony. “Imagine. Mattlock Industries sent a robot half a year into the future to record the results of Super Bowl, and instead they caught this.”
“I wish I had been there at the unveiling. Must have been the shit to see the stunned faces on all the delegates,” Bloom replied with a wicked laugh.
“But this is what the world could be looking like... and maybe soon!” Although his chat client wasn’t visible, he could still see Bloom before him, shaking her head.
“Time travel isn’t possible, bro! How many times must tell you this?”
He smiled and was just about to reply when the floor trembled. The light overhead flickered. Adlai yelped and sought shelter under his table. He sat there for a minute with Bloom yelling at him. Then came the noise of engines from outside.
“Good Lord, I really thought that was it.” Adlai clutched his chest as he relaxed.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with you, but I’m sure it’s hard to spell. What the Hell was that about?”
Carefully standing up again, Adlai lifted the blinds and peered out of the window behind his laptop. A large truck rumbled around the neighbourhood, its size and weight making the houses rattle in their foundation. “Ugh, just the LHD.” He grunted at the rude surprise and plumped back in his seat.
“Dude, are you tripping?”
“The Local Home Defence, Bloom, not LSD. They have a base nearby, and they like to parade around from time to time to flaunt their merchandise.”
“Your country’s insane, you know that? What other place would invent a military-like organisation when all the militaries have been disbanded.”
“It’s not a military, just a private peace corps sanctioned by the UN.”
“That just makes it sound infinitely worse. So how’s your old lady? Still a couch slouch?”
Adlai pushed his glasses up again. The video had finished playing, but his hand sought the replay button. “My mom? Oh, no, she’s the same.”
“Still? Jesus, dude, you’re sixteen! Just emancipate yourself already.”
“Well...” Adlai scratched his head with a sheepish grin. “She’s my mother, you know? And she has her moments of lucidity.”
The scientist came on again to explain the contents of the video, and Adlai got up again to observe the outside. It was the only part that bored him.
“What even happened to her? It isn’t normal for anyone to sit all day and watch love dramas.”
Adlai glided a hand through his curly, dark-brown hair, taking a moment before answering. The truck had stopped right in front of their driveway, the engine idling like a beast humming in its sleep. “We lost my dad when I was young. Some nationalist group or other bombed the EU office he was working in. My mother fled to America, and she’s been like this ever since. The doctor says she’s crawled into a world of her own.”
“All the more reason to dump her catatonic ass on a home. Your neighbours and the authorities gave up on her years ago.”
“It would only do more harm than good.” His answer came off curt but it was a subject that was sensitive to him. The sides of the truck opened and twelve soldiers stepped out, six on each side. None of them were human, however. It was androids with no artificial skin, but the metal plating was painted so they looked to be in uniform: a blue boiler suit with red stripes down the arms and the letters LHD in a circle on their back. “Holy shit, Bloomster, it’s IMs!”
“IMs, not M&Ms… Intelligent Machines. I didn’t think the LHD would already be using them. Hmm. And they’re uglier than I had thought too. All big and awkward. Their limbs are all out of proportion too.”
“Can’t have everything you want.”
“You should see them! Their heads are so small compared to their bodies, and their arms hang down past their knees. Oh great, they’re putting on a fake gun show.” The robots gathered around a weapons cache at the back of the truck. One of them took a long tube from a rack on the side and grabbed a grenade from the crate. Most of the others simply took rifles and handguns.
Rose snickered on the other end. “Seriously dude, forget about your mom and come over here already. She’s already forgotten about you and I promise you, the LHD are not allowed to put on any parades here.”
Adlai smiled and was about to reply when the IM pointed the tube towards the opposite house. Almost silently, the tube emitted a bright flash. The grenade burst through an upper-storey window. The house exploded in a loud bang.
The force knocked Adlai to the floor. Shards of glass rained over him. He instinctively covered his face with his arms. His brown jacket prevented most of the glass from touching him.
“The Hell is going on? Are they blowing shit up for real?”
“Sure looks like it.” Adlai remained on the floor for a moment longer, trying to catch his wind again. “The house must have been empty, but this is still too dangerous. Someone could have gotten hurt!” He brushed the glass off him and got up again. The blinds had been torn from their socket, and the sun streamed to warm his face. He could see the streets below. His neighbours emerged from their homes to berate the machines for their reckless behaviour. The IMs responded by opening fire on them.
“Oh God... I – I have to go, Bloom.”
“Wait, what’s going on?”
But he had no time to answer. He rushed out in the hall and downstairs to the living room. His mother sat as always in front of the TV, dressed in a yellow robe and with her battered cardboard box of old DVDs. The power was out and the screen black, but still she stared transfixed. Adlai sat down on the couch next to her, tears of fear running down his cheek. She turned her head. Seeing her son crying, she lifted a hand to stroke his cheek.
The IM out on the street turned towards them. Embracing his mother for one last time, they met with the hot fiery explosion.
“You think it will happen today?” Maxwell leant across the table. With all of their preparations complete, they could only wait for the apocalypse to come. Maxwell had been quite content loafing around the shelter, working out or prodding John for bounty hunting tales. Not ten minutes ago, however, John had hurriedly relocated them to his small private room. Maxwell looked up at the creepy portrait. It wasn’t that she was ugly, quite the opposite, but she was so life-like that it was haunting.
“Perhaps,” John said mysteriously. His eyes were fixed in the direction of New York City far, far away. He had been kind enough to offer Maxwell a stool. Only problem was the giant’s massive size and the stool’s small sitting surface.
“You’re sensing something!” Maxwell proclaimed. John momentarily looked away from the wall to give him a short stare. “Oh, don’t hide it from me! A bounty hunter such as you can sense death miles away. Like a vulture!”
“I will admit a tinge of anxiety.” John drummed his fingers against the back of his armchair.
“Now I’m getting the feeling too.” Maxwell subconsciously rubbed his arms. “But it hasn’t even been a month. Are you sure it’s already here?”
“If the video was not falsified, then it was recorded in February. So by that time, the world would have ended. It could be as early as today.” John’s head turned back to the wall.
“Is it now?” Maxwell grabbed the table hard.
“Not much longer.”
Silence. Maxwell shook the desk, staring at the same corner of the room as well. “How about now?”
“So what do you want to do when the world has ended?” Maxwell asked in an attempt to make small talk.
“There is nothing we can do to prevent it, and I do not know how it will come about. Though I do have an inkling. When it happens, you and I must find survivors. They would not come to us before the end, now we must drag them here,” John replied calmly.
Maxwell rocked back and forth on the stool. “Man, how do you even end the whole world? The world’s a big place, you know. I doubt you could do it on an afternoon. Or with just one action for that matter. Even the most destructive weapons would only affect a small area,” he continued.
“Those are trivialities for the after. What I am interested in is the why. Surely destroying the world would be as bad for the perpetrator as…” John’s words trailed off. He made the sign of the cross against his chest. “Dang it, I should have put the living quarters at the bottom. Who puts people closer to the ground and then his cars below them?”
“It’s here!” Maxwell let off a wild cry. The room plunged into darkness. A stool scurried and was followed by a loud crash.
“Our power grid must have been disturbed, but do not worry. My generators should kick in any second now. Try not to move around in the meantime,” John said. Instantly, another thud came from Maxwell.
The lights flickered back on. The desk was overturned, and Maxwell lay on his stomach with the stool wrapped around his left foot.
“Is this it then? Is this the end?” Maxwell asked to John’s impenetrable shades. John was quiet for a moment.
“No, this is just beginning.” He strode past his desk with determined steps. Maxwell shook his foot to free himself.
“So what happened? Atomic bomb? Volcanic eruption? Meteor strikes?”
“I do not think so,” John said in a puzzling, detached voice. He was in such haste he did not even check on his gigantic companion. “I doubt a single natural event could end the earth. Unless Yellowstone Park finally erupted. And atomic weapons were all disarmed ages ago.”
“You’re right, but what else is there?” Maxwell rubbed his face in deep thought. He overtook John in seconds.
“I can think of one thing, but… I hope it is not that.”
They reached the elevator. Maxwell waited for John to see his plan. His pale hand hit the button for the lowest floor.
“That what?” Maxwell asked eagerly, but John shot him down.
“We shall speak of it no more.”
“No more!” John lifted his finger and Maxwell raised his arms in defence.
Maxwell took his motorcycle from the parking lot, and John his white Chevy ‘68. It came to life with the roar of an old muscle car. The garage elevator took them topside.
Nothing looked to be changed. John stepped out of his car, his face turning in all directions. Only minutes had passed since the power outage.
“So did the world end, or did the power grid just hiccup?” Maxwell leant deflated over his handlebars.
John frowned as he faced the south. “We will see once we get to New York City. Let us take the country road. The highway is bound to be clogged.”
He hopped back into the car and took off with all haste. Maxwell jerked back to life and followed him.
The so-called country road was nothing but bumpy dirt paths. It slithered into the scenic landscape of golf course, old farm houses and vast fields with various crops. The sky took on a white hue the longer they drove. John’s face became all the more worried.
The last stretch finally overlapped with a properly paved road. Trees lined both sides, their majestic crowns swinging lush and green in a summer wind. The backside of another suburb passed them by. Sounds of honking and traffic drifted towards them along with the smell of gasoline.
The road emptied, or perhaps began, on the motorway. Large trucks were parked across the lines, blocking for flow. Five people with carbine rifles redirected disappointed cars back the way they had come. They wore the same colours as the robots Adlai had observed outside his window, only the people had real clothes. Sewn into the boiler suit uniforms were both ceramics and plates of steel. Officers of LHD were protected by both armour and arms.
Their names were displayed on their chest, and their rank above that. All of them were of little import and nothing more than grunts. The highest of them was a lieutenant, a neatly man with trimmed hair and hard eyes. He spotted John and Maxwell at once and blew his whistle.
“Halt!” he commanded with a raised hand. “All further access to New York City has been prohibited until further notice. You are advised to turn around immediately and not to resist this decision.”
“May I ask for a reason?” John asked, poking his head out.
“You certainly may not. Now move along, citizen.” The lieutenant waved them off, but instead John got out of his car. A wide grin formed on Maxwell’s face.
“So let me see if I have got this straight. You uphold this blockade with only five people, yourself included.” The four other soldiers, as if on cue, shuffled about nervously. “Judging by how motley your team is, you probably could not contact any other. Furthermore,” John said as the lieutenant was about to argue, “this road block is in itself suspicious. Something must have happened to New York City. You fear contamination.”
“Who are you?” The lieutenant let slip a second of fear, but his mask was on again before most would notice.
“My name is John Kilburne, and you should know who I am. With me is my friend, Maxwell.” Maxwell gave a single wave in the direction of the lieutenant.
“I would have thought you’d look older. But I am not allowed to let anyone pass, least of all a bounty hunter like you.” The lieutenant remained firm, but John’s unchanging facial expression made his mouth tic.
John crossed his arms. “I am a fugitive recovery agent, thank you very much, lieutenant.” The title was spoken with sarcasm, producing a throbbing vein in the forehead of the officer. “And I also do private investigation on the side. Whatever problem there is, surely I can help.”
The lieutenant was two seconds away from exploding when one of his subordinates called out. The man was nearly as tall as Maxwell. It was downright surprising that he had a fitting uniform. His head was covered completely in black hair, and only a gentle pair of hazel eyes protruded from the mess.
“Sir, looks like reinforcements are here.” The shaggy giant pointed to the other side of the road. Down another small byroad came the distinctive metallic sheen of an IM.
“Ah, about time. This is a case for the military, not bounty hunters.” The lieutenant glared at John before turning around.
“Fugitive recovery agent?” Maxwell inched his bike closer, paddling with his feet along the ground.
“It is all right, Maxwell, you speak it with no malice. Only a bit of simplistic fascination.” John rested against his car, observing carefully.
“So is this really the end?” Maxwell asked curiously. “There sure are a lot of survivors. Look at all those commuters.”
“Like you said, ending the world in one stroke is impossible, but something has begun. I fear it all the more because I do not know what it is.” John bit into his thumb.
The IM was alone, causing no end of worried whispers among the security folk. The lieutenant’s smug smile faded. He barked at his people to continue their jobs. While the grunts resumed overseeing the car redirection, the lieutenant walked towards the IM. It raised its own weapon, an automatic rifle, and opened fire.
The lieutenant immediately fell to the ground. Blood trickled from his forehead. The soldiers no longer had trouble getting people to turn around. Bullets sprayed over the cars. People gunned their engines. A few made it off. Most just banged into the railing or the one in front. A confused mass screamed as they vacated their vehicles and ran like the Devil were on their tail.
The LHD soldiers were frozen in place. A young cadet screamed and answered fire with a carbine rifle of his own. The shaggy giant grabbed him and threw him behind the safety of their trucks. He waved, and the other soldiers followed his example.
At the same time, Maxwell reached for the guitar on his back, the only thing he had brought. John stayed him with a wave of his hand and pulled a long-barrelled revolver from a left pocket on his coat.
“Are you insane?” Maxwell asked heatedly. “You can’t shoot it from this distance.”
John put the barrel of the revolver on his right arm and took aim. The sound of a firecracker followed. A small, glowing orb jetted through the air and splashed into the robot. The chest exploded, leaving a gaping hole. The IM convulsed, dropped its rifle and collapsed.
First agape, the laughing loudly, Maxwell slapped his knee in triumph. “I see why you were so successful!”
John put the gun away and sat back down into his car. The LHD took a moment to realise the threat had passed. John rolled down his window.
“You are soldiers of LHD, behave like ones. Wrangle up all the survivors you can.” The only sound remaining was the honking of car horns from those unlucky few. Most others were spread to the winds, crawling on all fours if they had too. “I have a shelter at Firefly lot six. Bring as many as you can. Do not worry about family or friends just yet. Focus on sorting yourselves out first.”
The shaggy man rested his heavy arms on the other LHD soldiers, his eyes speaking of his attempt to keep from panicking. He could only nod in thanks as John and Maxwell passed by. The others shook and whimpered. The young cadet wept openly.
“To commandeer an IM requires some serious technical knowhow. We must be talking about some genius hacker.” Maxwell wrinkled his nose at the dead lieutenant, making sure not to hit him.
“What makes you think he will stop with one?”
“You’re right! Surely the world would prostrate itself at your feet if you had an IM army. Dammit, you the LHD ought to have been more careful. Who knows how many more rogue-bots lurk out there?” Maxwell hooked a lock of his blonde hair behind his ear. “So will you tell me now what to New York City? You sounded pretty sure when you spoke to the officer.”
“A bomb, of a kind.”
“A bomb?” Maxwell repeated incredulous. “Of a kind? You make it sound so casual. The American government would do more than just annoy their fellow countries if they made a bomb to level a large metropolis. They would be breaching the very fundamentals of the 2004 Copenhagen peace treaty.”
John was quiet as they went down the avenue. Maxwell’s attention was brought away from him and to the cars lining the road. The occupants were all dead. Those who had tried to escape lay on the asphalt instead. Maxwell’s face hardened.
“Well, it is not a particularly powerful bomb, mind you. Just a single megaton,” John finally replied, staring straight ahead. Maxwell chuckled in disbelief.
“I doubt that would be enough to destroy Manhattan.”
“Not by itself, no.” The sun peeked through a cover of clouds and illuminated an innocent expression on John’s pale face. “But that would just be for starters. The bomb is an incendiary device, creating this sort of fiery wind that burns everything in a radius of sixty miles.”
“You seem to know a lot about this.” Maxwell pried his eyes away from the road carnage to look at John. “And why do you look like a cat that’s been taken with its whiskers in the cream?”
A sign on the right welcomed them to Dragonfly. A teenage girl had smeared most of her blood over the bottom letters, making it impossible to discern what the community was famous for. The bodies steadily increased beyond it.
A soft presence, unseen, wrapped itself around Maxwell. “He’s saying that he made it, hun.”
“You! You made that bomb!” Maxwell nearly slammed his brakes. The road was jammed with a pileup of cars.
“I might have helped a little in designing the thing,” John admitted and slowed down. Where Maxwell could weave between the wrecks, John had to go up on to the grass. “All in utmost secrecy of course. Even if the bomb was below the UN minimum, it might have raised some red flags.”
“But... hang on, back up for a second.” Maxwell scratched his head, taking in everything he had been told. “How come I’ve never heard of this before? Surely the bombs must’ve been tested out at some point.”
“Nope, testing the bombs would be too risk. They were mass-produced in the hopes they would work as planned, and then buried for a time when America could play superhero again. But that was a long time ago. Even I had pushed it to the back of my mind.”
“I can’t believe this! So are you sure those bombs were used on New York City?”
“Do you know of any other weapons of mass destruction?” John asked back. Maxwell simply groaned. “And not just NYC. If you had a handful of Cries of Help, as they were nicknamed, you could totally cripple America in an afternoon. The whole country would be ripe for the picking if you also controlled an army of robots. In a week, USA. Next month, the world.”
“This is exactly why bombs of this magnitude were banned, goddammit!” Maxwell smashed his fist into the handlebars and nearly sent himself careening into a burning family van. “We have to find whoever did this and put a stop to them. I have trouble believing just one man could pull this off. We must be looking for a team of anarchists.”
John sighed and pulled over. “We cannot go against an army of robots on our lonesome, Maxwell. For now we must hope that there is enough LHD left to do something, and if that fails, that the world will notice before it’s too late.”
A massive tree cast a long shadow over a fork in the road. Both ways led further into Dragonfly. The first houses cropped up, or rather, what was left of them. Maxwell stopped next to John under the majestic crown.
“Well, here’s hoping they run out of bombs and robots.” Maxwell shielded his eyes from the sun with his hand as he scouted the suburb ahead. John took in the whole grisly scene with a calm face.
“For now we concentrate on rescuing. You go that way and I will go the other, then we meet back up by this tree. Be careful of more IMs.” John turned his car southwards and was quickly off again.
Maxwell nodded, and then added to himself: “Looks like we’re going north then.”
No house had escaped a treatment. Those not blown up were broken into or perforated with tiny holes. Some had tried to escape. They had not gone far, and decorated the roads and sidewalk. No robot casualties could be seen. The people of Dragonfly had had no weapons to defend themselves with. The odd baseball or gun sometimes remained in the hands of the corpses, but it had done them no good.
“I don’t get it. Why kill all these people? What exactly is this guy, or guys, trying to accomplish?” Maxwell passed one empty street after the other, the same sight meeting him wherever he went. Though a warm summer day, a chill wind blew. A newspaper tumbled past him. “Man, I don’t know how John can be expecting anyone to be alive here.”
“Aya, don’t be so hasty! I’m still scanning,” a voice cooed in his ears.
“I’m just telling you already now; it would take a hundred men a hundred days to properly clean up this mess. I’ve seen earthquake zones with less wanton destruction.” Still Maxwell continued to throw his gaze every which way, always hoping that someone might yet be alive. A bike underneath a car, and a boy not far ahead of it. Driver and boy both shot at close range.
The motorcycle gave a violent lurch. Maxwell’s attention snapped back to the road. He stopped the bike with a screech of tires and looked behind him. A balding man got up awkwardly, tire tracks across the back of his blue polo shirt.
“By the gods, I am so sorry.” Maxwell got off to support the man. His clothes were ragged and red from a host of holes in his skin. “Are you all right?”
The man moaned slightly. He jerked his head suddenly. His teeth sunk into Maxwell’s bare arm. The blonde giant reacted instinctively by bobbing the man in the nose.
“You know, that’s not very polite. I get that you’re angry at me for hitting you, but you were the one walking around in the middle of the road,” Maxwell admonished.
The man flailed around on the ground like an overturned turtle. Maxwell looked down at the man with pitying eyes.
“Oh, I can’t stay mad at you. I bet you’re just disoriented from losing both family and home, right?
“Wait a minute.” Maxwell scratched his chin with his free hand and looked the bloodied man up and down. “Those soulless eyes. That strange taste for human flesh. You’re a tax collector, aren’t you?”
“Yes, Lohengrinn, what?”
People rose from underneath the ruins like opening the lids on coffins or fell out cars or just got up from where they had been felled. They hobbled and crawled on broken bones if they had to, all covered in blood, all making deep, moaning sounds. Even the smallest of children and oldest of people came out of the woodwork. Maxwell turned around only to find that he was completely surrounded.
“Hold on, what’s going on around here?” Maxwell asked confused. “Are these all survivors?”
“No, sweetie, they’re zombies.”
“Zom-what-now?” The people closed a circle around him, shoulder to shoulder.
“Revenants!” Lohengrinn shouted.
“Oh!” Maxwell slapped his forehead in realisation. “Of course. Boy, we’d better get out of here then.”
The man he had hit clawed his way up Maxwell’s leg. The blonde giant kicked him down and swung his leg across his motorcycle. The undead came closer and closer, slobbering blood from their mouths. Maxwell blasted through them and met little resistance. An old man tumbled along the ground.
“Bombs and robots I can understand, more or more anyway, but who could have raised the dead? That’s some seriously bad mojo.”
The bevy of walking corpses followed him, but could not match his speed. They were soon lost around a corner. More just rose to take their place.
“All is not lost. I still sense someone alive.”
“I can’t even see a stray dog, and you expect me to believe someone lived through this?” Maxwell peered over his shoulder to check the situation. A growing group of shambling corpses doggedly followed him.
“It isn’t far, but you must hurry. This life is in great danger.”
“Don’t need to tell me twice.” Maxwell floored the pedal and cleared the twisty roads to the best of his skills. Cars and obstacles constantly sought to get in his way.
The dead also came from the front, waiting out on the street. Their sickly hands clutched at him. They latched on to his bike with inhuman regard for personal safety. Maxwell wrestled off one only to have another latch on to him from the other side. A prompt kick put the mother down, her blue dress billowing in the wake.
He came to the most northern part of Dragonfly. The houses were demolished up and down the road. There was no signal or command, but Maxwell knew exactly where to stop. The walls were blown out and the roof rested on top of the debris. Maxwell kicked broken tiles and loose cement as he walked up the driveway. A cold hand touched his shoulder. He punched the undead without even looking back.
That’s when they came.
Bursting through fences, stampeding through backyards, breaking out of their entombment, more than fifty of them appeared all at once. All were residents that had been killed not even an hour ago. Blood still spilled from their wounds. They were charred by flamethrowers or raked by machineguns or limbless from grenades.
Maxwell took the guitar off his shoulder and it became a sword in his hand. The headstock became the hilt, orange and shaped like an hourglass with three spindly fingers holding the pommel, a milky white orb. The body was the blade, purest white and refusing to reflect sunlight, and the neck a yellow band running down both sides. All in all, the sword was as long as Maxwell and almost as wide.
“We don’t have time for this,” Lohengrinn reprimanded.
“My hands are kind of tied on this,” Maxwell replied
The first undead broke from the ranks. They were the liveliest and with least broken bones. Maxwell swung his sword and the half dozen undead split open. Torsos, heads and limbs flew away, wrinkling into dust. The corpses themselves turned into soil, leaving only dark brown clumps on the ground.
The next wave came more sluggishly, but no less ferocious. Maxwell hacked and slashed but a ring was closing on him. He killed off a handful and double that was already on him. They bit him in the neck from the back. They scratched his arms and face from the front. Maxwell shoved them back, and the undead tripped the ones behind them. Finally he stabbed the one closest to him. His sword limned a full circle as he swung around.
“There’s no end to them! Ignore them for now and allow me to heal you as we go along.”
He had a moment of respite as the immediate circle was dispelled. A hundred had replaced the original fifty. From all over the suburb they came, panting and moaning like savage dogs. Maxwell heaved with the effort. “Dammit, Lohengrinn, can’t you see that I don’t even have the elbow room?” The next ring closed on him and he set to work again. His body was covered in dirt. His arms sagged from fatigue. Fingernails and teeth opened wounds on his skin, only to have them close again, slower and slower. The blade remained white as newly fallen snow. “You can heal me, but you can’t take the pain, so shut up and take my weariness!”
A sigh whispered in his ears. New strength surged into his muscles. He could barely move for the dead anymore. He whacked them down, and others replaced them. His blood dripped down his arms, and his sword gladly drank. The vermilion liquid touched the orange hilt and faded.
Maxwell had enough. He charged through the ranks like a string trimmer, waving his sword in front of him, and broke out of the wall of dead flesh. Instantly the undead regrouped around him. Maxwell bowled through them once more. He held up his sword for a third barrage when the ground shook. Fearing another bomb, Maxwell looked desperately around him. A bright flash flared up far to the south of the suburb. There was no explosion, only the sound of lightning strike.
What remained of the undead army fell to the ground, becoming soil before their eyes.
“Finally.” Maxwell wiped his sweaty brow and dusted off a few teeth sitting in his arm. “But I wonder what that light was about.”
“Never mind that, dear. The survivor.”
“Right.” He slung the sword, once again an ordinary guitar, over his shoulder and walked back to the house where his bike was parked.
Somewhere beneath the red tile roof was the object of his rescue mission. Maxwell squatted down and worked his fingers to get a proper hold. Every muscle in his body bulged as he rose, the roof coming with him. His face was completely red. Sweat broke from every pore of his body.
First up to his knees, his chin and his head. A large section broke off, still held in place by crossbeams and insulation. Maxwell pushed into the roof, peeling it off and raising it in front of him. Dust and mortar rained over him, greying his hair and eyebrows. He shook with the strain of the weight on him. His knees buckled. The roof was pushing back, crushing him. He roared with the effort. One last mighty thrust and the roof flipped over. It came to a rest in the backyard with a loud thud, crushing swings and fences in its way.
Maxwell heaved with the effort, massaging his swollen biceps for but a moment. There was still much debris to go through. His hands knew where to dig. Glass and wires dug into his flesh. Wounds closed as soon as they would open. Sweat mixed with the building dust and turned to paste on his cheeks.
Large chunks of wall and floor blocked his path. He pounded his fists and broke them into smaller bits, easier for chucking away. A yellow bathrobe appeared out of the wreckage. Maxwell gently swept away the last rubble. He gently lifted the woman out and put her down next to the hole he had dug. He brushed some of the dust off her cheek. The back of her head was bloody.
“I hope you didn’t put me out on a wild goose chase.” Maxwell caressed her neck but found no pulse.
“No, not this one, go deeper.”
By some miracle, a hollow had formed around the woman. Huddled under her was a brown jacket. Maxwell reached down his ham-like hands and felt the erratic breathing of a chest. It was a boy of probably sixteen with short, brown hair and the Star of David around his neck. Maxwell smiled until he got him out. His left leg was missing from just below the knee.
Maxwell put him down next to the woman. The boy had lost a lot of blood, and his face was pale. Not wasting a second, Maxwell hurried back to his bike, flipped open the seat and retrieved a roll of gauze.
“You’re going to be okay,” Maxwell consoled. The boy did not react. He was shivering and sweating, and his face was contorted in pain. The fair-haired giant tightly wound the gauze around the boy’s wound. He then tied the boy’s hands together like a wreath and threw him around his neck.
“You’d best hurry back. I can’t sense anyone else here.” Lohengrinn’s soft voice chimed in his ears like a soothing bell. “You also spent a lot of energy fighting and rescuing, so no more antics until you can get me some other blood than your own. I like recycling as much as the next guy, but remember who makes your blood in the first place.”
John drove along the roads of Dragonfly at a slow pace. If it bothered him that the dead had arisen, he did not show it. They banged and howled and scratched at his car. John simply rolled up the windows.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me,” he muttered as he rubbed the silver crucifix around his neck.
The dead latched on to the hood and roof, slobbering all over the paint with bloodied drool. They banged fists and palms against the reinforced glass but could not enter. Eventually they slid off. A few tried hanging on to the trunk or door handle. Most ended up under his wheels.
A large cul-de-sac caught his interest and John made the left turn. Five yellow homes still stood, but their facades were riddled with bullet holes and all the windows were shattered. The front lawns and driveways were soaked in blood like a veritable orgy, but no bodies remained to be seen. Only smattered trails and crimson footprints.
The last of the dead slipped off his vehicle. They scampered off before they could get inside the circular area. The ones that had been chasing him stopped up, swaying confused, blowing bubbles in their red drool.
In the middle of the dead end stood a man by an overturned car. A red cloth was draped over the undercarriage, though snippets were still white. A fresh corpse lay on top like a body on an impromptu altar bed. The old man was busy filleting pieces off the elderly lady’s exposed calves. He stopped only to sample them.
John remained in his car. His silence and reluctance spoke more about his thoughts than did his featureless face. It took him another moment to step outside.
“What brings you to the land of the dead?” Through the man’s voice raspy like sandpaper, an unmistakable French accent could be distinguished. He was old and withered with liver spots on his balding, white head. Fingers were missing from both hands. His holed skin was stretched across the bones with little in the way of muscles. His only garment was a blood-stained butcher’s apron.
“I had hoped to learn more about the Destruction of New York City, but I find myself with a whole new line of questions.” John stopped halfway to the makeshift table.
“You wish to know the secret of the dead, oui?” The man croaked his words with great effort but made no gesture of stopping his work. He put the knife away and took a cleaver from inside his apron.
John silently observed the old man. What could you possibly ask or say in such a situation? “Who… who are you?”
“I’m Lord Carrion, but just call me Boucher, s’il vous plaît. I’m nothing but a simple meat merchant.” The old man used wide swings of the rusted cleaver to dismember the corpse into smaller pieces, starting with the legs.
“All right, Butcher, tell me. How did you reanimate the dead? You seem to be one of them yourself,” John asked, curiosity getting the better of him, drawing him closer.
“You are curious. Very well, I shall answer un question, if you can survive a minute.”
The Butcher raised a finger to signify the number one, still bent over his work.
The dead broke the invisible barrier and shuffled into the cul-de-sac, still giving the Butcher a wide berth. They were wary, seeing if it was all right, testing the ground to see if they would burst into flames. Regaining their confidence, however, they almost stumbled over each to get at John.
He raised his gun and fired. Each shot was a hit, always in the head. The skulls popped like overripe fruit. He soon had the pavement covered in red, but the undead numbered too many. They breached into his safe zone, gnawing on his leather coat. He let them and kept shooting at those further away. Clammy hands soon pulled him down on the ground. The undead piled on top, clawing and snapping at him. John disappeared completely.
A bright light escaped the cracks in the crowd. It grew to a blinding flash. A crack reminiscent of a whip, and the dead flew in all directions. John was again exposed, his white shirt ripped and drenched in blood. He rolled up on his feet and fired again, at those closest, not allowing the corpses to rise again. His shades somehow remained centred on his face.
At last the Butcher had enough and raised a bony hand into the air, useless skin dangling from his arm. “Most impressive, monsieur. Your skill with the gun is most uncanny, but now your opponent will be me.”
The Butcher slammed the cleaver into the car, and it stuck. He raised his hand again and in it appeared a long, slender sword. The blade was corroded by rust and the guard caked in blood. It looked as dilapidated as its wielder.
“Now where did you get a katana?” John asked and pointed his gun.
“Always with the questions!” The Butcher spat angrily. “Maybe it was a gift? A souvenir? I don’t give one fuck!”
A breeze caught the Butcher’s apron and it became apparent for just a moment that he was wearing nothing else underneath. John pulled his head away and the Butcher leapt into the fray. John still saw and fired his gun. The Butcher sliced them through with his sword. John stopped the slow swing of the blade with his free right hand.
“I am warning you only once; I do this sort of thing for a living. Just give yourself in now and avoid humiliation and pain,” John said.
The Butcher laughed; an inhuman, infernal sound. Even years of training could not prevent John from shuddering involuntarily. The old man fixed him with a lidless stare, eyeballs ready to pop out of their sockets. “You? Warning me? I am a devil, a Lord of Hell and you... you should be more careful of the fights you pick.”
A fine red line trailed down John’s pale arm. He gasped in surprise and jumped back. He concealed it by clutching his fist, blood seeping through his fingers and dripping to the pavement.
“Had you expected it to be dull, hmm? Or have you just never seen your own blood?” The Butcher raised the katana again.
John fired his gun. The yellow orb hit the Butcher like a wet towel, the energy dissipating across his chest. The Butcher had the sword above his head. John fired more shots, none of them getting what he wanted, so he rolled the drum of his revolver. The sword was centimetres away from his nose. He fired again. The low rumble of distant thunder roared out of the gun. A beam of brilliant yellow repelled the Butcher.
“I shall cut you into pieces and make panisses with your flesh!” The Butcher charged again, sword absorbing the shots John fired at him.
John threw up his gun to cover himself. The katana slashed through it! John stepped back, throwing the useless pieces aside. His left sleeve parted. A strip of blood dripped from his lower left arm. The Butcher advanced with the sword poised like a rapier. Desperate worry flashed over John’s face. The blade thrust out at him. John raised his hand in defence. The katana went right through his palm and stabbed him in the chest.
“It ends here, monsieur. If you’re going to blame someone, blame your parents for never teaching you about ichor.” The Butcher put his entire lean frame into the hilt but John held back with the pierced hand. Yellow light flowed from his fingers into the blade.
The Butcher tried wrenching himself free again but John grabbed his wrist with his other hand. “Tell me what you know of this ichor.”
The blade shone with the radiance of the sun. “Who says I know more than you?” The Butcher made a rasping sound that echoed in his hollow throat, a gesture of chilling mockery. “I just know that you are not a human, John. I’ve pierced your heart.”
The light popped in a blinding flash. The sound was next, like a thunderclap.
The undead tipped over, too mindless to secure their own footing. The Butcher crashed into his operating table with a cracking sound of bones snapping. John panted as he removed the sword and threw it to the ground. Blood dripped a little harder from his arm and hands.
“This has been most entertaining, monsieur, but it’s time for me to leave the stage.” The Butcher got up again, swaying. He twisted his head back to its proper position and darted off.
“Wait. You promised to answer me one question.” John moved forward a little less secure on his legs.
“You want to know what’s going on, oui? Then just go home, if you still have one. Thorne’s speech should be playing soon.” The old man clutched the door of the nearest house.
“Thorne… is that your employer?” John asked.
“Ha! As if I would stoop to work for a lowly demon. I only carry out the master plan.” The Butcher passed through the doorway of the house and disappeared. Soft tunes of mellow jazz drifted out for the shortest moment.
The dead collapsed. Their flesh bubbled, and they became nothing more than dirt. John took a moment digesting everything that had happened. A black zeppelin hovered past far up into the blue sky. Its many rotors made no sound audible on the ground. A monitor on its side displayed a stylised face of coldest neutrality.
John was the first to get back to the tree. He had concluded that he would not find anyone alive, so he had zipped straight back. His wounds no longer bled but they still showed.
Minutes later, Maxwell arrived with a young man slung over his shoulder. “Look, John! A survivor,” he said triumphantly and crouched down to deposit Adlai on the ground.
“Are you sure about that?” John grabbed the young man’s jaw and turned the head.
“We should get him back to the basement quickly, but I think it be best if he rides in your car.”
John raised the chin as well, checking both pulse and forehead. “I am sorry, Maxwell, but this one is practically dead already. There is no way we can get him back in time.”
“But he’s the only survivor for miles. We have to do something!” Maxwell protested, like a little boy having found an injured bird in his backyard.
John released Adlai’s face again. “What do you want to me do, Maxwell? This boy does not need our goodwill; he would require a miracle to survive.”
“But he could tell us what happened here!”
“And what would he know? That robots blew up his home? Look at him, Maxwell, his leg is gone and his forehead is burning up. What you can do is get it over with. Be merciful,” John said.
Maxwell lifted and lowered his arms in frustration, pacing back and forth. “Why don’t you take a look at him?” he finally exploded. “Haven’t the Jews suffered enough? Can’t you see how young he is? The shelter isn’t far away, we might make it.”
John put a hand over his mouth, bowing his head in deep contemplation. “Fine. I will save this young man’s life, but you must do exactly as I say.” Maxwell nodded eagerly. “Good, then remove his bandages.”
“What? But that’s the only thing keeping him from bleeding out! If we do that–” Maxwell stopped when John’s black shades focused on him. Instead he set to work and carefully removed the strips of gauze. They clung to the jagged stump, and blood seeped out again.
From his trench coat’s left inner pocket John procured a vial. A yellow semi-liquid sluggishly swirled around. John forced the young man’s jaws apart and poured the substance down his throat. Adlai gave a small wince. His troubled expression turned to one of peace.
“So what now?” Maxwell asked curiously.
“We wait.” John put the empty vial back. “He will sleep a little heavier, but do not worry. Tomorrow bright and early, he will wake up as good as new. Just put him into the car and let us be away.”
Maxwell looked stupefied down at the boy. The bleeding had completely stopped. And did a freckle on the boy’s face just disappear? Maxwell blinked and it was gone. “Unbelievable,” he muttered. Maxwell gently put the completely limp Adlai into John’s backseat. “What in the world did you give him?”