John got up, as tired and wobbly as when Amber had first found him, and went back to his family. Amber smiled at him.
“It was really quite simple. You see, it would take too long and be too complicated to rewrite P-I-M’s code. I don’t think we could have captured him anyway,” Amber explained.
“So instead we made a vaccine and broadcast it to all IMs and everything else he could feasibly enter.” Lawrence put the computer down on the sand and relaxed against the stumps of a wall. “Anything that’s turned on will become immune to him. He can only enter his own shell, and from what you told me, that thing has been shut off. Just to be safe, we will keep running the broadcast.”
John nodded and collapsed in the ruins.
The other survivors were next. Adlai absentmindedly dug little groves into his left trouser leg. There was a refined air about him, like a businessman with the Star of David instead of a tie. His voice was serious, downright demure. “It would seem we got here just in time.”
Maxwell entered the ruins from the other side, the last parts of his vest joining across his backside. The smile on his face told of great victory. “Couldn’t have done it without you guys!”
“So where were you? Did Serena not tell you to go back to the shelter?”
Julia, Luciano, Marte and Serena all lined up behind Adlai with hands clasped in front of them.
“N-no, we never got such a message,” Marte said, fiddling with her hands. “Serena just gave us the car to escape in.”
As everyone looked at Maxwell, the blonde giant dismissed it with a chuckle. “I’m pretty sure I remembered. I gave Serena the car keys, and then I… uh… hmm.” The grin wilted, replaced with sudden realisation.
“We couldn’t really have gone back either,” Luciano said with a voice that sounded a mile away. His eyes certainly were. “The scrambler was destroyed in the fight.”
“Impossible. The scrambler is underneath my car, so unless you ran over a mine.”
“Ugh, I told you guys that it couldn’t be right.”
Serena punched Luciano in the arm, like it was his fault. It woke him up enough to take a step away from her. She raised her fists at him when John held up his hand.
“Then where did you five go instead?”
“Just, you know, driving around,” Marte said in a quiet voice, inching away from Serena. “We discussed starting another shelter and finding more survivors, but we knew you would come here. Eventually we decided to have a look at this place ourselves.”
“Yes, it was your brilliant decoy that even allowed us to escape!” Luciano added dreamily.
Maxwell shook his head. “Well, all of that is behind us now. What matters is that we’re here and we’re all free again. The clockwork plague is ended.” Maxwell laughed boisterously with fists on his ribs. Adlai acknowledged with a nod.
“Yes, we are free indeed and the slate has been wiped clean. This is mankind’s chance for a fresh start. We should not squander it by making the same mistakes as we did before the Destruction. Our new city will be built to please the environment and accommodate everyone. It will be the greatest city of all time. That is why we will call it Prima City. I’m hoping the two greatest scientists of Mattlock Industries can be of service.” Adlai spread his arms out to embrace the great new world filling his vision.
Lawrence looked up from the computer. “Uh, sure.” Amber pulled him up by his ear. He hastily closed the computer back to a cylinder again and took John’s flash drive. “I’m guessing you must be some of John’s survivors. Or rather, the survivors of the survivors.”
“P-pleased to meet you,” Marte said shyly. She introduced herself, and the others in turn did as well.
At last Adlai ended with a bow. “We’ve had some ideas about what to do now, as you can tell. Of course, I hope this doesn’t clash with any ideas you might have.”
“Of course not! Lawrence and I have been so busy ending the war that we completely forgot there would come a time after. We would love to help.” Amber attempted to curtsey, only to realise she no longer had her skirt on.
Marte attempted a nervous little smile. “Then it’s settled. We will build Prima City together.”
John got back up on his feet with the help of the wall. “It seems that I can leave the rebuilding to you.” He slowly made his way past the survivors, walking less surely than usual. “I will be going back to the shelter again.”
Lawrence put a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, hey, you’re not just going to leave already? You still need to tell me what happened in that warehouse and with Pim and everything. Please, won’t you stay for a bit?” he pleaded.
John shook his head. “Sorry, I need to inform about a hundred and fifty people that their loved ones will not be coming back.” He shuffled towards his car, but Lawrence insistently followed. “I am happy to see you again, Lawrence, but there are things I must do.”
“I know, I know, probably me as well, but at least take this.” He handed John the pendant back with a smile. “Keep it safe for me until then, all right? You’re not off the hook. I will contact you at the very latest when I need it back.”
Julia shuffled towards them, not sure where to put her eyes.
“Um, if it isn’t too much trouble, do you think you could tell the other survivors to come here? We might be able to arrange for some transport.”
“Sure. I could probably spare a few cars from my collection as well.”
Lawrence took the survivors for a tour of the bombed, crater-filled air force base. No buildings were left standing, though a few had the honour of retaining a wall or two. Amber pecked John on the cheek, and hurried after them. Left was just Maxwell with guitar over his shoulder. “It was fun knowing you. Of all the time I’ve lived, my years with you in the shelter I will treasure highest.” He patted the roof of the car. It was surprisingly clean. There could be no more dust on it than from the hill to the base.
John nodded and sat down in his seat. “I have not lived as long you, so my words carry less weight, but I will not forget you either.”
“I really wish you wouldn’t, but it can’t be helped. Did Adlai and the others seem a little off to you? If I didn’t know better, I’d almost say they looked… younger. I could swear Luciano used to have a moustache.” Maxwell scratched his cheek as his eyes followed the survivors.
“They did what they felt was right. I just hope the price was not too high,” John replied.
For a time they stood, simply enjoying the free air. They knew that when they had to move, it was apart. John idled his car and noticed even the fuel metre was at max. His brow furrowed in a distinct gesture of worry.
“Maxwell, perhaps you would like to come back with me?”
The blonde giant shook his head. “You said it yourself, Johnny-boy, there are things to be done. For example, did you know that there’s a continent south of Asia called Australia?”
“Yes, Maxwell, I was vaguely aware. But then, I did not spend the last four and half hundred years on the fringe of the world,” John remarked.
Maxwell grinned impishly. “Yes, I fell a little out of touch with two whole American continents to explore. Even with overseas wars, I made sure to come right back.”
John drummed the steering wheel, looking for another way to stall their break. “So what is it like? Living for as long as you have?”
“Eh, it has its ups and downs. I can’t remember what my father looked like, or how my first lover felt. You either learn to appreciate what’s in front of you, to live in the here and now, or you go insane.”
“I would have thought for sure you would have gotten tired of it all by now.”
The survivors studied the ruins. From the look of Lawrence’s wild arm gestures, he was explaining the first legs of the battle. “It was good knowing you, John, but we both know this is goodbye. I had fun,” he said and pulled away from the car.
John grabbed his arm. “Please,” he said. “Tell me.”
Maxwell took pity on the pale bounty hunter with an understanding smile, and put a hand on John’s.
“Find something new to do when you get bored, and make sure to get plenty of rest. Life is full of wonders. Even I have not experienced them all yet.”
I had the pleasure of observing this story first hand, from the moment John and Maxwell met till the day that they departed, and the fateful events of the five survivors. In truth, this story has been about both groups in equal measures: the survivors of the most horrible disaster in the history of mankind and the people who helped them. I only regret my inability to follow Adlai, Luciano, Serena, Julia and Marte far into the Sanctuary.
The humans of North America soon discovered their war was over and crawled out of their hiding places. John spread the word far and wide, postponing his return for as long as he could. Therefore, it took him many years to get back to his shelter. The people already knew the sad news and many had already left. John stayed in his shelter to clean up the nearby area and took care of many people opting to remain.
Maxwell went the opposite way and eventually stumbled upon the west coast. Looking for a boat or any kind of sea-faring vessel, he travelled further and further south until he hit Mexico. The human race had been left shattered and weakened. Enmity that had existed before the Destruction remained, but Maxwell helped quell the unrest arising from lawlessness. At last he built a proud galleon that was as seaworthy as it was ugly. He manned it with volunteers and set tablecloth for Australia.
Lawrence and Amber made their headquarters in the old air force base for a while, but there was little left that was still usable. Least of all buildings. They uprooted with the survivors and travelled north to the American-Canadian border where they found an old oil refinery. It wasn’t perfect, but beggars can’t be choosers. They struggled to realise the outrageous demands that the five survivors made of Prima City, but astoundingly quick progress was achieved with the enormous manpower of volunteers and reformed IMs.
The survivors Adlai, Luciano, Serena, Julia and Marte returned from the Sanctuary to lead mankind into a new future. Though forced to leave the air force base, they left directions at every way station for those wishing to join them. Coupled with radio broadcasts, a small caravan formed along the way, comprised of other survivors and a workforce of IMs. Even the unruly wasteland dared not touch them more than once or twice.
The mall in New Jersey was quickly stripped of goods, and fell into disrepair. A wing collapsed and killed three hapless scroungers. Ill rumours spread of hauntings and monsters, all baseless but serving to scare people away from the unsafe building. Similar stories are known from all over the American wasteland.
Eden stayed untouched in its little oasis. It saw an influx of applicants when the war was over, from people wanting nothing to do with technology any more. It also saw its share of bandits and troublemakers, but all were dealt with in stride, and a beacon of hope and abundance spread like a wildfire.
Finley was already abandoned when Serena visited it. The bones of its former residents rested along with the rusted carcasses of IMs. The sands of time eventually ate the entire town and covered it in a fine blanket.
Juneau was completely devoid of people. Hostile conditions, worsening weather and immigration of wild and ferocious beasts made the former capital of Alaska unliveable. The entire state was avoided and renamed Thorne’s Backyard, comparing the living conditions there with those under Thorne’s tyranny.
Thus ends a dark chapter in mankind’s history and a new one begins in its wake. There is no end that is not also a beginning of something else.