Earth-Bound Angels volume 1 - The Destruction

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Story 02: Memories of Today – Metal Gods

24 June 2061

(The Day of the Destruction)

Luciano dripped nervous sweat as he clenched his hands over the displace case. A young lady with a ditzy smile approached him from the other side. “Anything you like, sir?”

“These are all beautiful, but… I was wondering if you had something a little cheaper.”

“Sure, what’s your price range?” She twirled a lock of blonde hair on her finger.

He clapped his pockets jangling with coins. “Uh, something like a hundred and twenty-two bucks and forty-eight cents maybe?” A hopeful smile wrapped up his request.

The young lady giggled. “I can give you a nice box?” she said apologetically. Luciano sighed deeply and hung his shoulders.

“No, never mind.” He put a hand through his thick black hair. “I’ll think of something,” he said and slouched out again.

“Have a nice day, sir!” she chirped. “We’re not the only jeweller’s here. Just the nicest and most expensive.”

“Damn, I knew I should have gotten a steady job.” Luciano was a young man in casual clothes; worn sneakers, shorts, a shirt and a light jacket. Little could get him down, however. He collapsed on a mall bench and took a notepad from his inner pocket. “If only I could draw Carmelita an engagement ring.”

His eyes observed the people streaming past him, and his pen reimagined their lives in simple doodles. On his canvas, the people came together in harmony. The black people looking at the nearby electronic store’s selection, the snickering white girls passing by and the Chinese family out for a stroll, all friends in one big city.

The sun peaked through the overhead skylight. Its warming beams soothed his face. His head drooped. Chatter and laughter became distant. His next drawing was just a squiggle as his hand slipped off the paper block.

The bench shook, and Luciano jerked awake. His pencil clattered along the floor. “Do you ever wonder what the perfect world looks like?” An excessively large man had sat down next to him.

“Pardon?” Luciano bent to pick up his pencil again. The man stopped it with his foot. “Oh, you mean these!” Luciano held up his notepad, and the meaty man nodded.

He wore an unusually thick woolly sweater for the season, with a rose set into a crimson patch around his heart. He had his eyes away, a self-satisfied smile on his face. “The name is Odium Nepman.”

“N-nice to meet you, Mr Nepman. I’m Luciano, a daydreamer. Sometimes metaphorically and at other times, well…”

“So let me ask you, if you had the chance to reform this world into a utopia – would you take it?” Mr Nepman let the question hang as he closed his eyes and sniffed the rose.

Luciano looked confused at the man. “Sure, I mean, who wouldn’t?” he replied and tapped the pencil against his chin. “But there’s hardly anything I can do alone, so I draw instead. Hopefully stronger people than me can get a little inspired by what they see.”

“So you’re certain that your vision is the correct one?” Mr Nepman asked with no seeming interest, despite what the depths of his questions would suggest.

A cloud passed before the sun. Luciano rubbed his arms. “It’s not just my vision. Doesn’t everybody wish for peace?” he asked, deciding to play along.

“Does it seem that way to you?” A condescending smile formed on Mr Nepman’s lips as he sniffed his flower again. “If everyone wanted peace, then surely we wouldn’t have war?”

The lights inside the mall flickered. “That’s a rather simple way to look at it.” Yet Luciano could not produce the answer. Instead he focused on the erratic light, his hands working on the notepad again. “I guess not everyone do, but that’s what wars are for. To fight for peace and get rid of those who don’t want it.”

“Fighting for peace? Doesn’t that sound paradoxical to you?” the heavyset man asked. Luciano flushed and looked away. “So would you? Would you fight?”

The doodles became more and more abstract. Luciano looked at his dream world and realised he could not recognise it anymore. “Sure, yeah. If I had a world worthy of it, I would definitely fight”

“That remains to be seen.” Having not looked even once at Luciano, Mr Nepman rose from the bench. His thin, oiled hair glistened in the sunshine as he shambled away. “Good day, Mr Plimmsbroke.”

“This mall attracts the weirdest people,” Luciano muttered and put the notepad back into his jacket. His hands stopped mid-movement and his eyes flung open. “Wait, I never told you my last name! How did you… know?”

Mr Nepman was gone. A black shape passed by the sun. Luciano stared up curiously. No, it was gone, but screams erupted from below him. Luciano craned his neck to see the ground floor. Fireworks went off somewhere in the mall, and people ran away from it. No, not ran. Stampeded. He and others on the first floor got worried frowns. The black kids finally stopped discussing technical details and pried themselves away from the store window.

Following the stampede was a detachment of awkward humanoids with real guns. An explosion rocked the ceiling. Dust spewed out and glass shattered.

He was floating through an empty void, his short form drifting on an unseen breeze. It carried him though there was no movement. It was only darkness all around him. A woman appeared before him and took his hand. She was much taller than he, and her skin and hair darker.

“Carmelita,” he whispered with a titter. Bright light pierced the darkness, and she vanished like dew from the sun.

Luciano floated into a world of wonders. He could feel the happiness of the people below him as he soared above their heads. They waved up at him, and he smiled serenely back. There were no worries, only an abundance of wealth and food enough for everyone. No disease or religion or poverty.

He followed a stream of silver bubbles as they floated in the darkness between metal islands, like a river flowing on, all headed for the white tower. That was the centre of the universe and where the benevolent king ruled with his advisors. He circled around the square structure reaching for the heavens.

A dark cloud swirled into existence. A pair of yellow eyes looked out at him. “Time to wake up,” a voice said. “It is too early for the void to claim you yet.”

The voice had broken the spell. The metal island with the tower sank through the darkness. The other islands burned as they followed into the abyss, and right after them were the silver bubbles. Someone had pulled the plug.

All was empty again. Then came the pain.

There was something heavy on his chest. That was first the thing Luciano felt. The next was the dust clogging up his face. He coughed and noticed thirdly that his throat was raw. He wiped his face so he could open his eyes. It took him a few moments to comprehend what he was seeing, lying on his back.

He was still in the mall, though it had become hard to tell. There was only rubble, broken glass and bloodied bodies as far as the eye could see.

The thing on his chest threatened to crush him. He grabbed it and it bit back, cutting into his hands. His body was already bruised and aching, so Luciano barely registered the added pain. It slipped off him, and he breathed deeply. His wounds became clearer to him as his mind unclouded.

“Sir, are you all right?”

A concerned face appeared above him, blond pigtails hanging down. “The girl from the store,” he said hoarsely. He put a hand to his face and wiped it the best he could.

Her concerned face brightened up in joy. “You remember me!” she said happily. “I was worried that pillar had knocked you out, like, for good.”

“What the hell happened here?” he groaned weakly, her chipper mood glancing off his weariness.

“Oh it was awful! Those nice robots the news had talked about? They just burst in here and started killing everyone. It was like one of those school shootings, but much worse, you know? There were so many of them and they wouldn’t stop either, not until everyone were dead.” She choked up and wiped her eyes with her sleeve.

Luciano remained spread-eagled on his back. “But that’s impossible, the IMs are supposed to protect us. Why would they do something like this?”

“I don’t know,” the woman sniffed. “But there’s something you should see.”

She put an arm under his and helped him up on his feet. Luciano winced from sudden pain shooting through his side. Clutching his ribs, he contented himself to sit down on a large flower pot. His bench, like most other furniture, was wrecked. He put his back against the palm tree and relaxed.

“So, this has been playing over and over again since this morning.” The girl took a green cylinder from her trouser pocket. She pulled it apart lengthwise like a scroll, revealing a sensitive film unlike paper. A press of her finger and the screen lit up, revealing only snow. “J-just, hold on, it’ll be back any second.”

The second overweight man of the day appeared. He was grotesquely obese with belly showing under his stained sleeveless shirt. His face was full of grease and his head completely bald.

“I am Thorne, and today, on the twenty-fourth of June 2061, I have accomplished the impossible. I have eradicated the American people with their own bombs, using their own robots. There is nothing that I want. There will be no negotiation, no treaty, no way out, and I will not stop until every last human is dead. War is eternal. Peace is unattainable. Hope is illusory. Struggling is futile.” The man was coldly calm. The screen blackened, a stylised face leering out for a moment and then it fuzzed over.

Luciano clutched his mouth. “Oh god.” The girl took the tablet away just as great chunks of lunch forced themselves out of his system.

“But don’t worry, I’m sure it’s just a hoax.” She folded the computer back to a cylinder and put it away. “Those robots, they were just malfunctioning after all! So don’t go away, there will be police here soon. And fire fighters and medics!”

“I… I have to get out here!”

“What? But where do you want to go?” She reached out a hand, but Luciano was already up and running. “It’s safe in here. For now, at least.”

Luciano’s eyes were blank, and he did not register where his feet took him. He just needed to be in motion. He crossed the skyway between the first floor platforms and tripped. Tears broke through. All of the pain hit him at once as he got up on his knees, fists pounding the floor.

Most of the mall’s west section was visible from his vantage point. The entrance had caved in along with the wall around it. Twisted limbs protruded from the rubble. He looked up despairingly at the broken skylight. Not just the sun, but also a fresh wind checked in on him. The only way was forward.

Ahead, a large pillar had taken the walkway with it on its way down. Luciano approached carefully, testing the broken stump for stability. It was a sturdy build, supporting people all day, but a long rod of stone would invariably be too much.

“So what do I do now?” he asked and spied over to the other side, where the escalator was. “Too far for me to jump.” Luciano swallowed a lump and backed away.

A large furniture store on his side reached from ground to first floor. Knowing from experience that it had its own escalator, Luciano doubled back.

It was devoid of life despite the many people inside. Aisles dedicated to the toilet and the kitchen had spilled most of their contents. Luciano walked like a zombie through the clutter, kicking a toilet scrub and an egg timer away. The clattering made him look up and eye the customer toilets on the left.

He sighed with relief when he saw no one dead inside. The water still ran as he flushed, and again when he washed his hands. How long would it take for that to cease? He relished it while he could, washing the dust and blood off his face. No long gashes hid behind the cover and prompted a weak smile from him. He had gotten away with just a sore side. He lifted up his shirt, revealing a large purple spot.

Luciano winced and felt a wave of fatigue wash over him. He just needed five minutes to recharge his batteries. He sat down by the wall and rested his head. Instantly consciousness drifted from him. Again his lover came to his mind’s eye. He would see her again. How much more than the mall could possibly have been hit?

A loud thud blew his dreams away. Luciano up on his feet. The smell of overdue cleaning hit his nostrils like a sledgehammer. The bathroom stank. The stalls were flooded. He put a hand over his mouth and exited when another thud reminded him of the first. Luciano lingered by the doorway, scanning the home department. “H-hello? Is that you, jewellery girl?”

No answer. Luciano carefully stalked out from his hiding. The escalator was right between the rows of shelves and the furniture display. Quickly he darted across the floor.

An office chair flew over his head. A shelf toppled over with a bang. Dust belched up from the floor. A tall, muscular man in chequered plaid appeared on the other side of the room. The previous thuds were from the furniture he had tipped. Spotting Luciano did not appease him in the slightest. The man heaved with the effort. “C-calm down!” Luciano yelled from the other side of the store. “I’m a human.”

The man upended a cabinet. Shards of glass and porcelain flew everywhere. “This can’t be happening!” the man raged. He trampled closer to Luciano, crunching tea pots and drinking glasses under his feet. “You… get out of here.”

The man screamed and grabbed a dining chair. Luciano saw his cue to flee. The projectile singed his hair tips and clattered along the floor. “Stop that!” Luciano yelled and ducked between shelves. “I’m unarmed, so please!”

“I’ll get you and tear you limb from limb!” the man roared and entered the aisle from the other end, but Luciano quickly scampered out again. “Get back here, you little pissant.” Cans rattled as the man lashed out at everything within reach.

Luciano hid behind shelves lined with pillows and casings. The man’s feet were visible on the other side. He had misinterpreted Luciano’s escape. The man stopped to grunt like a wild animal. He did not notice Luciano peeking through crates of rubber ducks. Several curses rolled from the man’s lips.

An idea popped into Luciano’s mind. He shot up on his legs. The other man noticed, but too late. Luciano pushed, and the shelves toppled over, pinning the man beneath them. The other shelves fell like dominos with dust flying up.

“I am so sorry, but I have to get out of here, no matter what,” Luciano said and leapt for the escalator. “I hope you’re all right, for what that is worth.” He took the distance in three great strides with the man’s foul words chasing him.

“I’ll kill you! You’re a dead man! I’ll fucking kill you!” The man wriggled under the twisted metal, flailing arms and legs, veins throbbing in his forehead.

Luciano bolted down the unmoving stairs. His hands cut lines in thick layers of filth and dust down the railing. His footprints stood out on the white tile floor. The bruise on his right side felt insignificant. He could run for days without stop. Only the furniture store’s downstairs door stopped him. He halted and pushed it open.

The world whitened. Luciano reeled back in dizziness. Nausea took him, and he retched but nothing came. Hunger and tiredness jumped into his body. Only his hand on the doorway stopped his encounter with the floor. The man’s curses were silent.

The mall outside was quiet. Only birds, up on rafters, chirped at him. They gave his mind an unnatural association with dinner and loathing. The loud creak of the glass door sent them aflutter. The mall smelled of rain. Puddles lay beneath holes in the ceiling. An urge came over him to crouch and lick them. Instead he pushed on. He was finally down on the ground again.

As he had seen from above, the west entrance was blocked completely, but there was something else. Among the broken limbs was a sap-like substance. He approached it, sniffing the air. It lacked any kind of resin smell. It just stank synthetically. Someone had made sure to close off the exit with some LHD grade glue. He scowled and turned around.

The ground floor was much easier to navigate. He gave the bloated corpses a wide berth and waved their flies away. The debris was also minimal. The robots had fired rockets at the ceiling, and most of it had come down on the first floor above him. Even pillars spread out vertically only took him a moment to climb, though he felt hungry and tired.

The central plaza unfolded before him. Numerous other hallways branched out, each with a colour designation and a cardinal or intercardinal direction. Booths and stalls and carts had dominated the opened space. Most were tipped over; contents spilled and crushed. Luciano salivated at the look of it. The fresh fruit was almost mulch, but there were jars of jam and bags of peanuts and popcorn. He fell to his knees on the grey marble to tear up everything he could get at and wolfed it all down. What was covered in grime or blood he pushed aside. He surprised himself by smashing a jar of chocolate sprinkles from an ice cream stand. The sugary flavour exploded with delight in his mouth.

With his most basic urge fulfilled, Luciano again turned towards an escape, but he still had seven other directions to visit. Gloomy shadows hung on all of his options. Luciano contemplated each until a loud crash made up his mind.

The need for social interaction outweighed the potentiality of another murderous maniac, so Blue North it was.

The only light was the holes in the roof, and birds of carrion cawed at him. He shooed them away with a wave of his hand. They just laughed at him. He fixed them an ill glare, and still laughing they vacated their perches. A vase broke at his feet and brought him back to the present. A shape rummaged around a store with fine wares, accompanied by clinking of metal and smashing of pottery.

“Who’s there?” Luciano asked and peeked inside. An ashtray barely missed him.

The shape flinched and dropped another vase. A woman in a simple yellow dress and with smooth brown hair down her back turned to face him. “Good golly, boy, you nearly scared the wits out of me!” She giggled and clapped her chest.

“What are you doing in here?” Luciano carefully moved inside, noting the broken inventory and paintings ripped from the walls.

The woman took an armful of exquisite plates with fine lines of blue on them. “Helping myself to a few things.” She held up one of the plates, twisted it to study it from all angles, and dropped everything to the ground. “I would give anything to get out of here, but none of this can help. None of it!”

“Well maybe I can help? I’m also looking for an exit.”

“You don’t get it, do you?” A table encountered her wrath and was turned over. Plates, cups and saucers all hit the floor with a loud bang. “All exits are sealed off, but maybe I can find something to get me out. Anything at all!” A glass tower with small figurines caught her interest.

“Then why are you looking here, and not in a hardware store? I doubt lampshades or tablecloths will do you much good.”

“Oh, they’re not for me, silly! I need something for the metal men when they return. They would not be interested in money, only fine art would do. I bet they would love some of these.”

She grabbed as many figurines as she could, spilling many more in the progress. “Why would robots care about trinkets?” Luciano asked her. Her desperate face turned to disappointment. “Just put those down and let’s see if we can find a shovel or something?”

“You can’t bribe robots with shovels!”

She clicked her tongue and laughed. The decorative animals went on a short flight into the nearest mirror. She toppled their tower next, leaving not a single survivor of her rampage.

White flashed before Luciano’s eyes. He stumbled out of the store. A loud screech rang through his ears, bringing him to his knees. He whimpered in pain, hands over his ears. He screamed to deafen the noise. “What’s happening to me?”

His own self whirled around inside him while the outside disappeared in light. He flew towards the death he had come so close to before, but again his lover barred the way. He could not complete the journey. He drifted back to the mall again.

Luciano had his hand was on a hairdresser’s window. Sweat covered him and the weather had grown only hotter. His body felt alien, starved and wounded. Slowly he made his way through dunes of sand that had blown inside. They covered the near skeletal, broken down bodies littering the floor. The robots had come for the kill and quickly left again. Even those who had survived did last long with bullets in their bodies. Limbs poked out at odd angles. Decayed faces still showed their owner’s fear in death.

“Why is it so hot?” he lamented, putting his arm up to his face, not sure whether to wipe his brow or hold it in front of his nose. The sun peeked down through the hole torn into the roof. The heat turned up the stink of death manyfold. Luciano gagged as he ventured deeper into the mall.

Years of experience had taught him that the food court waited at the other end. It had its own exit, if he could reach it. The hallway was buried in debris where the left side had come tumbling down. The goods inside the stores mingled with the wreckage. TV screens, jackets and animal toys all protruded along with more bodies. Their hollowed faces stared blankly at him.A single brick danced down the heap and nearly landed on his foot. He was about ready to turn back when his eyes fell upon a bookstore.

The tide of rubble had washed against the store front, but he could see the name. Renee’s Books was a corner store with an entrance on both sides. The door toward him was blocked, but the windows were only knee high and all blown in. He chanced the jagged edges with a swing of his legs.

The bookshop had already been crammed with shelves. The addition of debris made it nearly impassable. Most of the books were scattered everywhere. Having some respect for books still, Luciano tried to avoid stepping on them but ultimately failed. His next plan was to step only on self-help manuals and cookbooks.

His foot snagged on something. Luciano fell headfirst. He took a moment for his eyes to adjust and realised a pair of glasses stared back up at him. “I’m so sorry, miss.” He quickly scooted away. “I didn’t see you at all. Are you all right?”

“It’s okay. No one ever does.” She looked to be a highschooler with bushy brown hair. “And I’m all right.”

Luciano looked nonplussed at her. She was half buried in books, just lying on the floor, reading a thick novel. A smile crept over his face. “Hey, that’s David Eddings!”

“Sure is,” she said disinterested and flipped a page. “The world has ended and I haven’t lost my glasses yet. Might as well do some reading.”

“Oh, I see.” Luciano relaxed against the wall. Something pointy jabbed him in the back. “Do you want to help me find a way out?” he asked hopefully.

“What’s the point?” she asked. “Didn’t you just hear me? The world has ended. Now leave me alone.” She flipped another page.

“Now listen here! Don’t you have family or friends waiting for you?”

“I don’t have any friends, and my family is always busy. I like this place better.”

“You know, I used to think the same way. I drove a cab because that’s all a street urchin like me could do to earn money legally, and I learnt that everyone has problems. So when I lost the cab, I knew there were other things I could do. These days I tell stories to the neighbourhood kids and dream of becoming a writer. I want everyone to know that they can do what they want if they put their mind to.”

She just flipped another page. “Sounds a little rehearsed. I don’t know if I want to accept life advice from a man dressed like you.”

Luciano looked down at himself. When had he changed? His jacket was gone and his t-shirt had been replaced with a polo shirt. His shorts were longer, and investigating his face revealed a pair of high-end shades. Sweat stains adorned his clothes, as did rips and tears and food. He looked at his hands. They were dry and cracking and shaking.

Again bright light flashed out his world. The floor disappeared beneath him. He fell forward into nothingness, just aimlessly drifting for an eternity. Carmelita, his Latin lover, shook her head at him. There was a teasing smile on her lips. She waved her hand and the light became dark. Nothingness became pain.

He must have gone through Renee’s Books, as he stood hunched over on the other side. The collapsed wall still blocked off the proper way back. The skylights were all broken, but their sharp glass remained buried under the drifting sand. Luciano sank to his knees.

“Am I blacking out?” he asked hoarsely. He had had yet another change of clothes into dress pants and a hoodie. A rifle slipped from his hands. He touched his face and felt a beard growing thick and bushy. His hair was long and filthy. “It can’t be. How long would this have been going on?”

Luciano rose again and tottered down the hallway that he had made his goal.

The food court was an enormous place with a dozen food outlets and a large hypermarket next to it. Luciano stepped in through a wooden arc to the plaza on the left. It had an exotic theme to it with palm trees and cacti planted in concrete flower boxes. The middle had a large playground with slides and playhouses. Chairs and tables had been knocked over, some even broken as people had tried to flee. The corpses, the blood and the bullet holes told of individual success.

The stores lined the back wall and the left hand wall. Luciano shuffled into the first store. The floor overflowed with the blood from small bodies and with assorted sweets. Liquorice and gummy bears stuck to his moccasins as he trod through the semidarkness. Luciano laboriously climbed over the counter. He was weak from hunger but the words ‘Exit’, miraculously still flickering, enticed him.

He grabbed the knob while running and pulled with all his might. It did not open. He banged into the hard metal surface and fell on his back. Looking up, a greyish brown substance peeked out of crevices and the keyhole. It was the resin again. The IMs really had sealed off all the exits.

He was too tired to argue. He just lay and followed the bookstore girl’s example, ready to allow life to be done with him. The stench of death and gummy bears lingered in his nostrils for an untold time.

The candy shop’s door creaked open. A young man snuffled and snarfled with a chortle. The joyous sounds of childish enjoyment roused Luciano to stand up. A high school kid with short black hair and toned muscles stared back, mouth full of sweets.

“Uh… hey, dude. Sorry. I didn’t know this was your turf.”

“It’s all right, I was just trying to find a way out,” Luciano whispered. His throat was like sandpaper. “But it looks like the robots got to them all.”

The kid swallowed the candies he had stuffed himself with and more politely picked up the next handful. “Why would you want to get out? Everything you could ever need is right here.” The kid unwrapped the chocolates he had found. They were melted and dry but went inside his mouth regardless.

“I have a girlfriend in a travelling rodeo. They would be visiting New York City by now, and I have to make sure she’s safe.” Luciano attempted to climb the counter again but he had no power left and slumped across it instead. “But then, I don’t know what by now is anymore. I keep losing time.”

The kid picked a few more chocolates from his grasp. “Sorry to say it, man, but New York was reduced to a smoking hole. I don’t think she survived,” he said with his mouth full.

A loud sigh escaped Luciano. “That’s right, isn’t it?” he said and wormed himself across the counter, feet kicking the air. “But I wouldn’t feel right not trying. It’s the least I can do, or my promise to her would be in her vain.”

“Shucks, mister P, what’s the point?” The young man threw a lemon drop into the air. It landed on his nose bridge instead of the waiting hole. “This mall has food and clothes and everything else you need. What’s the point in struggling?” His next lemon drop was placed more thoughtfully into his mouth.

Luciano stared up at the kid halfway across the counter. “Going back is not a step backwards. If I don’t find her, I can always return here and plan my next time.”

The young man looked disappointed. Luciano fell off the counter, but he did not hit the ground. Nor was he soaring back to the afterlife. He simply blinked and was gone.

It seemed but a moment but again his clothes had changed to a New Jersey Devils cap and some cheap clothes from a store sale. He needed only a second to realise where he was.

“Right back where I started.” He moaned in exasperation and sat down on the pot. The palm tree was withered and refused to support his back. His eyes caught something half buried in the sand. He brushed it off and found his old notepad. The broken, upturned bench had protected it from the rays of the sun for all the time. It was crispy to the touch and the pages were yellowed, but the first couple of drawings were intact. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”

Luciano looked up and saw the jewellery girl in the doorway of her shop. He put the sketches under his arm to follow her inside. He looked around for the jewellery girl.

The interior had suffered lighter than other places. A quick spray of lead had smashed a few display cases and raked the walls. Pervading sand had covered the floor, but that was it. The priceless jewels remained on their velvet cushions. The mall had no vain looters. Gold and silver was worthless against cheap cans of food.

Having made a full sweep with his eyes, Luciano relaxed again. It had just been his eyes playing tricks on him. “You just couldn’t leave well enough alone. We kept drowning you, but you resisted every time. When we first met, you should have stayed. You would have been happy in ignorance. But you just kept prodding and prodding, and questioning over and over again.” Luciano whipped around. She was right behind him, her young face glistening with tears.

He backed away from her. A million questions competed for his lips, but none could break through his stupor. At last he met the counter where he had met her. He edged along the surface, to get away from her, though she was not moving. She just stared at him with tearful eyes.

The end of the counter came unsuspected. Luciano fell back, but this time he finally met the floor. There he found the girl, dressed in her fancy cashier uniform. She was practically a mummy with a mop of blonde hair. Her shirt was drenched in blood a long time dried.

Horror paled his face. He turned from the ghastly sight to look back the girl. She was not there anymore. The man that had replaced her was eerily familiar, for it was himself. The other Luciano opened his eyes in shock. Comprehension filled his face, like a hermit sealed away in a cave to ponder a problem. The Luciano on the floor vanished. He was the standing one, and the standing one was him.

Everything was clear again, but his mind was awhirl with consequences and conclusions. Theories built up one after the other, too many for him to comprehend, the answer lost in questions. He fell to his knees. The notepad was on the ground. By some coincidence, the pages had flipped to reveal the last picture he was working on.

There they were, hidden among black kids and snickering school girls and Chinese families; all one big family of young high schoolers and rednecks and hysterical ladies. They were real but not. They were people he had met in the mall and imagined the lives of.

“Lolita Nack, throat torn open when the display case shattered.”

Luciano looked behind him. He had not heard the footfalls until the man was just outside. “You?” Luciano cried out. He could not move as an obese man in a heavy sweater squeezed in through the door.

Mr Nepman’s gaze was far away to the side. “Logan Chambers, beaten to death by other survivors when trying to muscle his way out.”

“What are you doing here?” Luciano asked. “Stop this.” He sobbed, clenching his eyes shut.

Mr Nepman leant in to smell his flower. “Brittany Gerstrom Paffonilous Damsel, shot in the back while looting.”

“Please…” Luciano put his hands over his head.

“Lavena Hettie Merle Pru, trampled to death in a stampede,” the obese man continued.

“No more, I beg of you!” Luciano pleaded. “Just tell me what’s going on here.”

Mr Nepman hovered above Luciano. “Johnathon Reynold, blown up as he waited for his sweetheart to get off work.” His wide frame left Luciano in shadow.

“Why are you doing this?” Luciano said desperately. He fell against the counter. It was as far back as he could come.

The man simply followed him. “And finally, Luciano Plimmsbroke.” Luciano shivered at the mention of his name. With not a hint of emotion and completely absorbed in himself, the man allowed a pause for effect before going on. “Luciano, only survivor of the mall, lived for several years out of his mind and died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head when he finally snapped out of it.”

There was a handgun in Luciano’s hand. Luciano felt his hands lift it up to his temple. His finger clenched around the trigger. He sat, back against the wall, holding a standard issue civilian firearm to his temple. Mr Nepman smiled airily in another direction. Luciano screamed.

A single loud bang escaped the muzzle, then another one and one more until four shots in all had been fired.

His face distorted by anger, Luciano looked up at the overweight man. His hands were no longer shaking but tightly wrapped around the gun.

“What incredible willpower,” the overweight man said, sniffing the flower again.

Luciano’s voice was calm but shivering with rage. “There is always a choice. No matter how bad the alternatives are, you will always have a choice. We are judged by what we choose, not the consequences of our actions. Kill myself? Don’t fuck with me. Death might be an option in some scenarios, but I still haven’t found the way out yet of this damnable mall.”

Mr Nepman’s shoulders shook with stifled laughter. Angry blue sparks jumped between the bullet holes.

Luciano dropped the gun out of surprise. What had surely been fatal wounds did not faze the heavyset man. “I did not introduce myself properly last we met. I am Odium Nepman, Lord Strife of Hell, and despair is my game. You played well, Luciano, but even your win is a loss. You must now stay in this sealed mausoleum alone until you die. Not even the hopeless ghosts of the dead will be there to keep you company.”


The sparks jumped from the holes with blinding light. They were alive and crawled across Mr Nepman’s skin until he was covered in coils of hissing, spitting electricity. “I hope you won’t come to regret your decision.” The flashes pulsed with every crackle, becoming more powerful with each one. “You will have to live with it for a long, long time.”

Left was just a blackened spot on the ground, as if lightning had struck. Not for the last time, Luciano lost his consciousness involuntarily.

13 May 2062

10 months and 11 days since the Destruction

The area was densely civilised but devoid of life. People had tried to escape on foot or in their cars. The result was the same either way, and scavengers had eaten most of their flesh. Animals seeking shelter from the sweltering sun occupied the empty homes and shops, their eyes peeking out of darkened hallways. The noise of engines frightened them back.

A white muscle car careered out from a back alley and swerved back on to the road. A highway cruiser followed just behind it in a more controlled fashion. Maxwell waved a hand in front of him. “Sure has gotten hot,” he lamented. “I don’t even remember having a winter this year.”

John tried his best to avoid the vehicles left haphazardly on the road and sidewalks, or parked inside walls. “Something troubling you?”

“Nah, just a little worried about Adlai.” Maxwell easily swerved between the obstacles. “He says he’s satisfied with living in the basement. He even refused the weapons test,” he said and looked up at the clear sky.

“Well if he doesn’t want to go outside, then that is his choice,” John replied. “Plenty of chores to do around the basement.” He had a harder time navigating the ruined city zone, gently scraping past a big block in the road, careful not to dent his own car.

Maxwell paused to wait when he noticed John lagging behind. “Chores? Yes, for women! He is a man,” he said dramatically. “Every young lad of his age should help out fighting. Why, I was half his age when I picked up my first sword. It was a fine length of iron, approximately–”

“Regardless,” John interjected. “There is a mall up ahead if I recall correctly. We might get lucky.” He just barely clipped a large tank truck.

They drove together again. “I’m just saying, maybe we could strand him out in the wild for a week with nothing but a gun. It would be a healthy learning experience.” The expression on John’s face slowly turning to look at him made Maxwell raise his hands in defence. “Or not, just throwing it out there. So what makes this mall different from the dozen others we’ve plundered?”

“It is in New Jersey, far enough away from the basement that we have not tried there yet.” John put his attention back to the road.

The buildings thinned again. Sand blew in freely and erased any markings. John turned down a hill regardless, towards an enormous beige building. A sign proclaimed it to be the Functional Finance Shopping Mall.

Sand kicked up under John’s wheels, revealing he had found the side road. “Looks like the IMs blitzed this place. People did not even have a chance to notice they were attacked.” The expansive parking lot divided into letters of the alphabet unfolded below them. Cars still sat in their booths. Very few corpses had made it outside.

“Damn, it’s the end of the world, and I still can’t get a decent spot.” Maxwell chuckled at his own wit. He coughed as they passed a silvery Buick with a hole in the windscreen. A skeleton sat behind the wheel. “Yeah, I figure everyone out here was also out here when the attack happened.”

John flashed a wry smile. “No one to give us a ticket, so let’s just park by the doors,” he replied. Maxwell grinned broadly.

A pair of soft hands grasped unseen around Maxwell’s chest. “I’ve scanned the area,” Lohengrinn whispered into his ear. “No one alive outside.

“Great. Looks like the IMs sealed the entrances before they left.”

“And we used our last antifoam on the last mall.” The two passed around the mall, every entrance looking the same: caved in and filled with a brown substance like resin. Maxwell scratched his chin. “But you know, we might not need it.”

Maxwell stopped his bike by the west entrance and hopped off. He flung the guitar off his shoulder and it became a sword before the tip could tap the blocking. John shook his head.

“Knock it off, Maxwell. You know as well as me, that stuff is unbreakable.”

But Maxwell was unheeding. He took a deep breath of air and made some practise swings. The blade sang as it sliced up the air. John raised an eyebrow. Maxwell gave him the thumbs up with his left hand, holding the enormous sword with the right. Before John could make another comment, Maxwell was already in the air, scaling the wall. Crevices and jutting parts lifted him up to the top. Maxwell thrust the sword into the stone. The blade sank in like a hot knife through butter.

Maxwell forced the sword down with all of his weight. The white blade cleft the blocking in twine. It had taken seconds when Maxwell again touched ground. Dust spewed out. John waved it away from his face, and the rubble was all on either side of the entrance. Maxwell had the guitar back on his back and gestured for John to go first. “Shall we enter?”

John careful trod inside, tracing a hand over the edge. “You never cease to surprise me,” he said with a tinge of amusement and whistled.

“You have yet to see everything I can do.” Maxwell put his arms on his sides and laughed boisterously. His mirth rang through the hall beyond and accompanied him as came up behind John.

The sun smiled in from holes in the ceiling and illuminated everything it could reach, casting the rest into dark shadows. Wooden benches were thrown about or splintered, plant pots were overturned and cracked, and glass from windows and fences glistened in the light.

A face of white leered at them. Corpses littered the entrance hallway; big and bloated, shrunken and eaten, or skeletal with scorpions crawling over their bones.

“I don’t think there are any survivors here. Anyone living here would have cleaned up.” Maxwell scratched his neck and looked with worry at the dead.

“Does not matter. If there are no survivors, at least we can still get supplies.” John stopped to inspect a woman clutching a paper bag with rotten groceries.

“Well, this also means no looters.” Maxwell instead studied the store fronts. Most were smashed and their inventory ruffled. “Are there any survivors in here?” he asked to himself.

A wispy breeze blew past him. “Already on it.

Maxwell sat down on a broken pillar in the middle of the floor. He reached into his backpack and procured a beer, stuffing it in his eye to unbutton it. His gaze wandered as he savoured the foamy taste. A single bird flew below the ceiling and exited through a gaping hole. The only other life was John shuffling around, investigating.

“Odd. I see some signs of living.”

Maxwell threw the empty bottle behind him. It splintered hitting a trash can. “Probably an animal. They seem to have found their way inside, if no one else.”

John stopped to look around. “Foot prints, Maxwell. Human ones.” He rubbed his chin as he turned around, looking for something specific. “Where is the map? All malls have maps.”

The wind returned, playing with a piece of paper advertising overdue sales on slippers. It settled on the other part of Maxwell’s seat. He looked down between his feet. The broken pillar had etchings on it. Maxwell wrapped his hands around it and lifted it up into the nearest sunbeam. By then used to Maxwell’s feats of strength, John simply concentrated on their bounty.

“Oh there is the map.”

Maxwell groaned from the effort. “Find somewhere with food. And I think we can use some more clothes,” he replied. John’s finger danced across the mall outline. “And don’t forget entertainment. Some of the boys broke a few pool cues. I swear, they don’t know how to play billiard, but they love play fights.”

John nodded satisfied. “All right, put it down again. I know where to go,” he said, and Maxwell followed orders. He released it, and the pillar broke into a thousand pieces. John jumped a step back.

A voice called out.

“Don’t go.”

They looked up at the catwalk above their heads. A well-tanned man pointed a snub-nosed revolver down at them. He had wild black hair and a moustache; his eyes were skittish and fearful.

“Ahoy there!” Maxwell waved his arm up at the stranger. “Some coincidence; we were just discussing survivors. Looks like I lose.”

The man kept the gun trained at them. Maxwell relaxed his shoulders, but John’s hand was on his own gun. “You guys are real… right?” the man asked with trembling hands. “Like you’re actually here?”

John raised his arms to taunt. “Keep pointing your peashooter at me and I will show you just how real we are,” he countered.

The man nodded. “S-stay there. I’ll be right down.” He disappeared into a furniture store on the first floor and exited from its ground floor entrance. “I don’t even know how long it’s been since I’ve seen real, live people.”

Maxwell rose to his highest and towered over the small man. “I can tell. Friends don’t normally point those things at each other,” he said and nodded at the man’s gun. “Why don’t you put that away before you hurt someone?”

Cautiously, the man approached Maxwell and prodded him in the abdomen. “Oh good,” he said relieved, immediately putting the gun into his belt. “I was out of my mind for a while, it would seem. How long since… since the world ended?”

“It has been almost a year by now.”

He sank to his hands and knees at John’s words. “A whole year? I had hoped it was less, with how hot it still is,” he moaned.

“It’s always hot these days,” Maxwell replied. “Winter came and it was nothing but sand and baking sun. Spring didn’t change anything either.” He grabbed the grubby man by the scruff of his neck and lifted him back up on his feet.

“Please, I need to know.” He looked from Maxwell to the ground. “New York City, is it true? Is it really… a hole in the ground?” He whispered the last sentence, afraid it might make it real.

Maxwell nodded. “I’m afraid so, yeah. We’ve sailed around the crater of Manhattan looking for more survivors, but there’s very little left.” Maxwell released the man again, and he could just barely stand.

“Can I come with you guys, then? I’ve been alone here for so long. I don’t want to go mad again.”

Maxwell grinned. “Of course you may, everyone is welcome at our basement. I’m Maxwell and this is John Kilburne.”

The man livened up a bit, a smile even creasing his lips. “Luciano.”

The box of clothes plumped into the back seat and Maxwell wiped his forehead. The car was filled to the brim with rations, clothes, magazines and entertainment in many variations. A soft wind embraced his cheek and played with locks of errant hair.

“Find any more survivors?”

No, just a lot of corpses,” Lohengrinn replied. “But that’s not what worries me. This place is thick with infernal energy. It’s like that of the Lord we met nearly a year ago.” The voice was worried, distracted. Maxwell acknowledged the deviation from Lohengrinn’s usual calm with a grunt.

“Another lord? Man, guys like that don’t come out for nothing.” He crossed his arms and looked out over the mall. “What about androids then? Any of those stuck around?” It seemed peaceful, quiet. Very little stirred within the expansive shopping centre. Maxwell wiped his brow with the length of his arm.

No, no androids, no more Lords either, not even any other survivors.” The voice fell into contemplative silence. “Luciano surviving on pure chance seems improbable. The IMs were thorough as always in cleaning the place. They would not have missed him.

The skies were clear blue with not a sign of clouds anywhere. The sun seemed all the larger and more threatening for it. “Adlai was also spared his life in an improbable situation. But what would anyone want with them?” Maxwell scratched his head in frustration. “Argh, I don’t get it. What’s your take on Luciano?”

The voice chuckled superiorly, enjoying its position. “Hm-hm, well,” Lohengrinn played. “He’s a bit traumatised, but who wouldn’t be in this situation? He’s definitely above-board; I doubt he himself knows who ultimately did this to him and why.

Maxwell sighed in content and cracked his back. “Well, I’m sure we can put him to good use. I mean, he didn’t know his gun wasn’t chambered, but practise makes perfect. A few weeks on the range and we’ll have him on a hunting party.”

He pushed himself away from John’s car and made for the entrance. A low humming made him pause mid-stride. Maxwell looked around for a machine, but the parking lot was dead. His head directed itself towards the sky. He put a hand across his eyes. A small dot passed by the sun.

“What is that?” Maxwell asked to no one. “Is that… is that an airplane?”

More specifically, a troop transporter,” Lohengrinn informed him.

Maxwell rubbed his chin. “A troop transporter? But I didn’t request…” Realisation pinged into his face. Colour drained from his cheeks. “Oh no.”

The plane became a menacing shadow before he could utter the last syllable. Silver bubbles dropped like eggs from a bird. The earth trembled from their impact. Maxwell waved his arms as he fell back against the car. Fireballs spewed up from the other vehicles as they were struck. Alarms blared to join the cacophony.

Fire and smoke and dust enveloped him. Something lodged in the ground next to him. He saw the metallic sheen of a fragment as he passed it by.

The hiss of bubbles opening directed him. Guns cocked in all directions. Heavy feet marched towards him. The cover thinned, pierced by the gleam of rifle barrels. “I’d better get them away from the car,” Maxwell mumbled, pausing to dart in the other direction. The bullets ripped through the last smoke where he had just been.

A single IM materialised out of the dust. The guitar was in Maxwell’s hand, a blade, and then through the robot. He had lingered for a moment too long. The rifles roared at him. He withdrew the sword and shielded himself, pushing forward. Another appeared. He split it from the crotch to shoulder. The two halves sputtered as they fell into the sand.

Maxwell jumped up on a car, his height and weight breaking the window and making the alarm go off. He was on to the next in the row before the guns could find him. “What’s the total?”

Five out here,” Lohengrinn replied, “and another six inside.

Two more came towards him. Maxwell dropped to the ground, thrusting his sword into the concrete. He picked up a blue Sedan, lifted it up above his head and hurled it. The first IM fell beneath it. Maxwell reclaimed his sword and charged. Bullets whistled, grazing him. A trickle of blood ran down his arm. His knee impacted the robot in the chest. The armour cracked. Delicate machinery spewed out like guts. The IM staggered back and fell unmoving to the ground.

The first robot slapped the car away. It aimed a black powder gun at Maxwell. He only realised as he swung his sword sideways. It was not a clean cut, but oil and sparks still flew from the grievous wound. The robot fell against a large minivan, decommissioned.

Maxwell kicked at the eighteenth century gun. “Looks like we’re not the only ones conserving our resources. Now I just shudder for the museum they must have plundered.”

He looked around for more challengers but the parking lot had fallen quiet again. Satisfied with the results, he turned back to the mall. The heel of a metallic boot disappeared inside. Maxwell clenched his sword and ran for it.

Ara, slow down,” Lohengrinn said. As Maxwell didn’t, the blonde-haired giant instead ran into an invisible wall. “I want to know how it found us.

“Sod how it found us, that thing is going to kill John and Luciano.” Maxwell banged against the wall. His arms got heavy and drooped to the ground. “Dammit, Lohengrinn, release me this instant!” he shouted.

Listen to me, you big ape, this is actually important! The machines coming here is not a coincidence so I want to probe that one to find out how it came upon us. If our shielding device is broken, or if they have found a way to outsmart it, then that could spell disaster for us.” Lohengrinn was calm, coolly calculating, unlike the heaving, seething Maxwell.

The invisible wall melted and the blonde giant stumbled forward. He breathed deeply and took controlled steps after the IM. Lohengrinn disappeared from his mind. He had gone off scouting again.

Maxwell’s leather shoes were silent. The IM did not notice him as he went inside. It was off down the hallway to the left, its boots ringing through the empty place. A rocket launcher was slung across its shoulder. It noticed something and peered over its shoulder but saw nothing. Maxwell was pressed up against a doorway. The IM grunted, sounding like banging a pot, and continued.

They had not gone that way as it was blocked. Otherwise it would have been a shortcut to the food court. The IM stopped by the wreckage. Not a single emotion or thought went through its head. It simply pulled up its tube, took aim, and fired. A large jet of flames streamed out one end, a heavy rocket out the other. The mall shook in its foundation. Maxwell had not even unglued himself from the record store yet. He held on for dear life as cracks ran up the walls.

The path was cleared and the robot marched on. Maxwell picked himself up from the ground, stifling his urge to whistle in appreciation.

“Any updates?” he whispered instead and ducked behind an upturned table outside a flower shop, a little further ahead. “Did you find out anything?” Maxwell looked up from his cover. The hypermarket was just in sight, a branch of the Deriction chain, covering everything from food to electronics.

The robot took another three steps. Yellow light filled the hall. A beam of energy singed Maxwell’s hair. The robot fell to the ground, missing head and chest. Three other IMs lay on the ground with similar holes adorning their bodies. Maxwell grinned as John appeared in front of the massacre.

“That makes eight of them!”

“They were outside too?” John asked, putting his gun away. “Yes, that would make sense.”

Maxwell got up, brushing the flower soil from his kneecaps. “Is the pip-squeak all right?”

“Luciano is just… behind me.” John looked around midsentence to find his statement disproved.

“We’re done here anyway. Cover the entrance, then I’ll go find him so we can be away.”

Maxwell patted John on the shoulder and hurried through the flaps guarding the entrance. The first area was empty apart from corpses and tipped newsstands. Items still stood on the packing tables waiting to be gift-wrapped. Holes in the ceiling allowed for afternoon light to stream in in cones. Dust hung thick in the air as he moved past the registers. Cashiers sat behind the belts, having had no time to flee.

Rows upon rows of shelves divided the interior into large squares with long paths crisscrossing. Content was mostly spilled all over the floor. The store had been tightly packed on that day, yet the corpses were quite bloodless. A gas canister rattled away as Maxwell pushed through the hypermarket.

“Man, it’s so dark in here with no overhead light.”

To prove his point, Maxwell stumbled into something heavy. Numerous objects clattered all around him. The headstock of his guitar became the pommel of his sword. The orb at the end lit up like a flashlight.

Just ask and I deliver,” Lohengrinn whispered proudly. “And I have the results. It gets strange.

“Oh yeah?” Maxwell asked eagerly. A mechanic click crushed his playfulness and sent him into bright alert. “Maybe it would be better without the light?”

They can see you just fine whether it’s dark or not, darling.

Still Maxwell’s hand lingered around his sword/guitar. “I’ll admit to that. So what interesting thing have you discovered?”

They were ordered here before we arrived, before we even left the basement. They were coming here for Luciano.” The disembodied voice spoke rapidly in excitement, but Maxwell followed every word.

He was silent for a while as he moved through the mall, his eyes darting left and right to the edges of his light source. “Why would someone go to great lengths to save someone’s life, only to snuff it out a year later? Unless the Lords are not–”


Maxwell paused. “Ducks?” he asked in puzzlement. A pillar of fire blew past him. The metal shelf melted. Its wares went up in flames. Angry blisters popped up all over Maxwell’s face. His eyebrows caught fire as he threw himself to the ground. “Yes, I see it now.”

It was like an oversized blowtorch clearing a path for itself as it went from one side to the other. Maxwell jumped up once the flame moved away again. He grabbed his guitar and held the now sword in front of him. The fire licked up against the white blade. He smiled as he walked against the hot spout. The shelves uprooted and unbolted to comply with his demands.

The IM on the other side increased pressure. Maxwell slid back for the briefest of moments. Power filled his arms to hold the blade, and his legs to keep him going. One by one, the steel racks stacked up in front of him. Cans of food and bags of candy crunched under his feet. Jars of fruit and vegetables shattered against the ground. Maxwell gave his sword one last, big tug. Everything rumbled down.

The flame limned a perfect arch as it shot towards the ceiling. Maxwell climbed the heap of twisted and scorched metal. The IM never had a chance to react. Maxwell pounded his sword straight down. The fire went out again, and the IM fell silent. The light in its eyes blew out. In the darkness, Maxwell could just make out a green-garbed figure dancing and clapping. It disappeared as Luciano stepped through it. He had his gun ready but lowered it when he saw who had won.

Maxwell jumped from his triumphant mountain. “There you are! Been looking for you.”

Luciano ran up to touch Maxwell, investigating his tightly packed abdomen. “What you did was unreal. I’ve never seen anyone do something like that.”

“Oh, I’m quite real, my friend, and so are the last two IMs lurking around here somewhere. Get rid of the gun and follow me.”

Luciano dropped his eyes to the metal in his hands. He couldn’t remember ever picking it up, yet his fingers clutched around it lovingly. “Why?” he asked a little quickly. It felt like the revolver had saved him before, but the memories of his stay in the mall were clouded for the last year or so. “I-I just mean, you know, a gun could come in handy.”

Maxwell grabbed his arm and started dragging him. “Regular ammunition won’t do you any good against the armour of the standard IM. Your piece will just slow you down, and we got guns and bullets back at the basement.”

“Sure.” It felt like betraying an old friend. The gun slipped from his hand. A relieved smile surprised him. After all, it was his only link to his maddened time in the mall. He could finally let it go. The sweet clatter as it struck the ground rang out, singing in his heart. He didn’t need Maxwell tugging at him. Despite being tired and hungry and weak and much shorter, Luciano ran almost as quick as Maxwell.

The blonde giant directed them through the darkness carefully. The guitar was back around his shoulder and the headstock pommel shining again. Luciano barely saw the corpses or the wares within the small circle of light. They had already taken the best things.

“Hold.” They were back by the registers when Maxwell held out his arm. “There’s the other one.” His finger pointed to a large, hulking shape patrolling the packing area.

Luciano nodded. “Yeah, that’s definitely not John. Too big,” he whispered, then looked up at Maxwell. “How did it get there? Isn’t John outside?”

“It must have slipped in here with the other one. Probably when John was distracted killing its kin. Seems they were out to get at you.”

Luciano was quiet for a moment. “Me? Why would they want kill me?”

Maxwell shook his head. “Don’t think about it too much. They are just bloodthirsty killers out to kill all humans.” There was no point in telling Luciano about Lohengrinn’s discovery, not when the short man would just ask questions that Maxwell could not answer. “Go find a place to hide. I’ll take care of this.”

A shot rang out before either of them could move. Maxwell touched his forehead. It was warm, and blood ran into his eyes. He put a hand to the register to stop himself from falling over.

The light from Maxwell’s sword lit up the warrior. Luciano could only see the blood. “Are you all right?” he whispered. The second IM noticed them. A flashlight on its gun searched them out. Its cone went through a hole in the back of Maxwell’s head, out through a smaller one between his eyes and down on Luciano. “I must still be dreaming.”

Luciano fell to the floor with a thud. The wound squelched and creaked as flesh and bone mended itself. Maxwell walked around dazedly, like a man under the influence. He bumped into a shelf with cheaply stored food. His arms lashed out and knocked over corpses sitting peacefully in their chairs.

A second shot roared through the mall. Light banished the darkness for but a moment. The second IM fell to the ground, but the beam of energy continued, curved up. A glass box, an office on the first floor, exploded. The corpse of a third IM toppled out, sniper rifle still in its hand.

John made his way through the registers, almost tripping over the line of dead costumers. “Maxwell… Maxwell!” he called out. The blonde giant tottered towards the voice, wound almost entirely closed. “God, what happened to you?”

Maxwell lifted a finger to demand silence. He screwed his face up in pain. The wound was gone. “Goddammit that smarts. Thankfully that was a through and through.” He bent over to clutch his knees, exhaling and inhaling deeply.

John put his gun away. “There are several philosophical questions that could be answered by studying you. Where is Luciano?” he asked.

Maxwell smacked his lips. “I’m afraid he saw more than he could handle,” he replied sombrely. Already crouched, he stood up with the skinny shape over his other shoulder. “Physically he’s just dandy. Surviving this mall for a year should have toughened him up mentally as well.”

“Be more careful of snipers,” John admonished and took the lead. “You could die somewhere inconvenient, with the bullet or some other foreign object preventing you from healing.” He cast a glance over his shoulder. He had seen Maxwell regenerate before. He knew about the man’s powers and weaknesses, but seeing him recover from death unnerved him. Maxwell didn’t notice. He forced a hand to his head like someone suffering from a strong headache.

“You don’t need to tell me twice.” Maxwell wiped the blood from his face with the same hand. “Dying really hurts.”

John turned his attention back to walking. “I would not know.”

14 May 2062

10 months and 12 days since the Destruction

An IM lumbered around the parking lot, its disproportionately large hands investigating the wrecks of its kin. Though painted blue with red stripes down the arms, like the others, it had a faded etching on its chest. The raised letters had once displayed in proud gold, ‘P-I-M.’ What really set it apart, however, was its smokestack head painted blue. A shade was added to give it the appearance of a cap.

A voice scratched in its ears. “Are you there yet? What happened?” the man asked.

Though heavily distorted, the voice was unmistakably that of Thorne’s. Not of distinction, but from its flat, detached tone. P-I-M responded, giving a metallic sound like shaking a metal buckets full of nails. The other line went quiet for a moment. “Imposible. Our orbital satellite photos have not revealed any groups of survivors in the area. Unless they have a jammer of some kind. Si. This does smell like an LHD operation.”

P-I-M moved on, coming to an IM almost split in two from its waist. The robot stooped to examine the gun in its hand. The earpiece hooked around P-I-M’s ornamental ear scratched again.

“Hm. I told them to not loot museums… these relics were outdated even when I lived, and their fists are reliable enough.”

P-I-M stood up and looked back at the black airship overshadowing the mall. Propellers ran down the length of its smooth body. The monitor on the side was turned off. IMs streamed in and out like ants to recover the bubbles and the broken robots. P-I-M rattled in its strange speech. “Yes, you’re right, only way anyone could have gotten here with such perfect time is because He is looking after the survivors. I wonder what His plan is.”

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