Story 04: Memories of Keeping - Under Blood-Red Skies
4 April 2080
18 years, 9 months and 12 days since the Destruction
Finley, or Finn as it was known locally, was a small town built in the peace years by settlers insisting on their rights to arm themselves. The buildings had been made from scratch with the sentiment that any peace must be temporary so many houses were reinforced with metal or concrete.
Alas, even Finley could not protect itself from the horror of the Destruction. The town was still standing, but it was empty. The bones of the residents protruded from the sand, picked clean by scavengers and bleached by the sun.
A beetle-looking car was the first to disturb the peace of the necropolis for nearly twenty years. A woman sat behind the wheel inside the green carapace. Anyone observing her determined grimace would not doubt the seriousness behind her actions. Her name was Julia and she wore a black tank top and a pair of skin-tight jeans cut off at the knees with a leather belt to hold it up. Her hair was sheared short by the shoulders and was a shade of blue that made it obvious it had been dyed.
“Damn that lousy blond giant and all his motivational speeches. You want lambchop? Well then… make it yourself! There aren’t any damn lambs left in this world anyway,” she grumbled and drummed her fingers impatiently on the steering wheel. “I’m done being cook and housemaid while you all go off hunting and having fun. Now it’s my time.”
She checked the computer unhinged on the dashboard. The thin film had a map of Finley, and she was getting closer to a flashing dot by the west end of town. A cloud of dust trailed behind her as she floored the gas.
“Find yourself a good husband and you’ll be set for life. Quit your dumb job as a school bus driver and go at home. Rotten bastard couldn’t even give me a child until the world ended. And then they both leave me.” The blip on her map blinked faster, catching her attention again. She patted a red and black sports bag on the seat next to her. “I thought things would be different in the basement, but don’t worry. You won’t need those arrogant pricks. I’ve practised with their guns and listened to every survivor tip for the last eighteen years. I’ll show them that I can take care of a simple distress signal. In fact, I’ll probably be back before that sunglasses guy even notices I took one of his cars.”
A shadow danced around just outside her view. Her eyes quickly darted from alley to alley and from window to window. No, it existed only in her nervous mind. Finley was deserted after all. Dust and sand had reclaimed the human habitat and choked almost all life out of it. Only the sturdiest shrubs still grew. A single scorpion peeked from its burrow.
Julia passed an old wooden church and swung into the main street. It was a small town with a butcher, a barber and a grocer, and then a few gun shops and clothing stores. The tallest building was the bank, an almost obsolete commodity of pre-Destruction life. Still, virtual money had to be handled somewhere, and there had to be a place where people could direct questions and complaints.
A lone IM crouched behind the balustrades of the roof. In its hands it clutched a weapon like a sniper rifle but with coiling red lights down its barrel and blue light bulbs on its stock. The IM began rolling the crank on the side when a voice scratched into its ear. “I want her alive.” The IM paused, and the lights glowed dully on its weapon. The robot instead aimed at the car. Its massive fingers squeezed the trigger.
A large chunk of road melted away, like someone reached down and took a bite. Julia screamed as her car suddenly lost traction. On two wheels, she blew through the store window of ‘Zephyr’s Top Hat Emporium’. The car turned and screeched along the floor on its roof. Racks toppled and moth-eaten hats flew everywhere.
Her consciousness slipped away. She managed to hear the driver’s side door being ripped off, and then feel a pair of cold hands scoop her up. Her sports bag dangled off a broad metal shoulder.
“War is eternal. Peace is unattainable.” With the recorded message of Thorne playing from the IM, she finally lapsed into darkness. “Hope is illusory. Struggle is futile.”
She awoke on the carpeted floor of a long room. A chandelier glowed above her. With half of its bulbs intact, it was insufficient to banish the darkness completely. Julia squinted and tried to focus her swimming vision. There was a leather chair in front of her. Someone sat atop it, eating pills from a jar and swallowing them with a bottle of vodka.
As the fog on Julia’s mind lifted, she could see it was a woman in a white dress with sleeves to her elbows. “I was actually starting to worry about when my trap would bear fruit.” The woman’s voice was like ice. Her eyes were piercingly blue and peeking through locks of hair as white as driven snow. Even in the faint light she glimmered brilliantly. “Get up.”
The woman looked menacingly cold. A chill went through Julia’s body that had nothing to do with her thin shirt and the weakening day. She complied faster than she could process the command.
“That’s better. Now tell me, child, where are the rest of your group?”
Julia stood rigid before the woman. “Group? I’m not in any group.” Her nervous statement could be a lie, or simple awe. Julia tried not to look into the woman’s eyes and instead took in her surroundings. She was in an office that had been stripped of its decorations. Dents in the carpet suggested a desk had belonged to the chair, and white spots on the wall indicated paintings. “I’m just here all alone.”
“Alone, you say?” The woman furrowed her brow almost imperceptibly, but her face changed from callousness to murder. She shot up from her chair and slapped Julia straight across the cheek. “Lesson number one: you cannot deceive me, and I do not give empty promises. Now, I know that there is a shelter in the vicinity. Tell me where it is or I will force it out of you.”
Julia crouched from the force of the blow. A fine gash across her face sent droplets of blood down on her shoulder. “I told you, I’m alone.” Julia had wakened from stupor. She looked at the woman with baleful eyes, the fear not gone but turned to motivation. “And why should I tell you anything unless you tell me something in return?”
The woman downed the last sloshes of vodka and threw the bottle into a corner. “Stalling for time will not help you, child, but I suppose you will need to call me something.” She licked her full, red lips clean. “I am CG-62.”
“Then you’re a cyborg?”
“Observant, aren’t we? Yes, Thorne sent me to this wretched corner of the world to find the shelter that has annoyed him for so long. I quite thought I would be bored to death long before I would succeed.”
“So what will you do when he’s done?” Julia asked and retreated towards the wall. “Like, when he has killed all humans. What will stop him from killing you as well?” The door was still quite a ways away. The room had probably been the office of a mayor. Besides, she still needed her bag in the middle of the floor.
CG-62 kept a sharp eye on Julia. The cyborg did not look tense, or armed for that matter, but Julia felt an instinctive urge to stay put. “We are Thorne’s chosen people. Only machines will be allowed to survive in the new world, where the mistakes of humans are eradicated.”
“And you actually believe that?” Julia asked, frantically churning some battle plan or escape route through her head. “Aren’t the machines making just as big mistakes? I’m not sure if you’ve seen, but the entire States has been turned into a desert.” The light flickered over the window behind the chair. The outside was still light with the last, bleeding rays of the sun across the sky.
“I think you’ve stalled long enough. Tell me where the rest of your group is, or I shall make life very short for you.” CG-62 grabbed Julia by her chin and pressed her head against the wall.
She smelled like a cold winter morning, with hands like icicles. “I already told you, I am on my own,” Julia replied. CG-62 studied her for a long moment, then released her and went to the sports bag.
“I couldn’t help but notice all of this gear you’re lugging around. Serious equipment. You would almost have to have a base somewhere.”
“No, just a few things I’ve picked up during my travels. The car was all the base I needed,” Julia explained.
CG-62 did not turn to face her, but her eyes observed her obliquely. “A car would require an awful lot of gas. Hard to come by these days.” Julia shrugged. CG-62 crouched down and rifled through the bag. “So you just went to a completely unknown location without any backup? Just because you picked up a distress signal. You must take me for a fool.”
“You were fool enough not to pat me down.” Julia reached inside her tank top as CG-62 leisurely got up again. The cyborg did not even flinch as Julia pulled out a derringer. Though the design had been modernised, the function remained identical. “I might have come here alone, but I did not forget backup.” Julia pointed the gun at CG-62, trying to remember all the tips that she had learnt.
“My, my, aren’t we just full of surprises? Don’t make threats that you can’t follow up on.”
“I’m not making empty threats, if that’s what you think.” Julia gulped and put both hands on the gun to steady herself. Part of her training told her to fire a warning shot, but the gun had only the one bullet. “I’ve shot things before,” she said instead, mostly to reassure herself, neglecting to tell that her previous targets were bags of sand and wooden cut-outs.
The smile that flashed across CG-62 was more deadly than her scowl. Goose flesh erupted up and down Serena’s arms. “Then you must know what a pleasurable experience it is to take someone’s life. How you can feel something change inside yourself that never goes back again. Some don’t like it, but I find it quite thrilling.” The cyborg licked her lips, laughing cruelly as Julia began to shake.
CG-62 disappeared in a flash. She had leapt, faster than the human eye could follow, landing right in front of Julia. The cyborg took her arm before she could fire a shot and aimed it at her own temple. “There. Now you can’t possible miss me!” Her eyes were insane with killing lust. Julia shrank back against the wall, trying to wrest her hands free, but cyborg had her in a vice grip. “What’s the matter, pumpkin? Lost your nerve?” she shrieked. The chill ran from CG-62’s fingers and down Julia’s arm.
The murderous glee slowly turned to revulsion as Julia said nothing. She could not breathe, not even blink, with CG-62 in her face. “Pitiful,” the cyborg said and released her arm again. “I was once like you, a frightened baby chick just trying to survive. I had found myself a shelter where I could fear for my life with all the other sheep. You can’t imagine what it was like. Every cough felt like a signal for the robots.
Living together like that, all huddled in a small room with barely any space and no toiletries, really began to get on my nerves. No one respected how quiet we had to be. Almost as if they wanted to be found and killed. So I did something about it.”
Julia massaged her arm. Bruises shaped like a hand welled up in her pink flesh. “What do you mean?” she asked with a shaking voice, unsure whether she actually wanted to hear the answer. CG-62 shrugged and smirked over her shoulder.
“I slipped a little poison into dinner one day. You should have seen the panic! But that’s when they really got noise, so I had to dirty my hands with the task. I was quite a mess when the robots finally found me. And then Thorne was so impressed with my fighting spirit that he restored me and made me better than before.” She danced around in her snowy dress like a schoolgirl talking about her prom date. “That’s why I was so eager to do a good job and please him. I will torture you and rape your flesh until you tell me where the shelter is.”
Julia clutched her derringer assuredly and took a deep breath. “You’re right. I wouldn’t be able to kill another human being.” CG-62 spun around. Julia fired the gun. The cyborg’s right eye popped like an overripe fruit. She fell to the ground, and stayed down. Black tears trailed a line down her cheek. Julia kept the gun trained on the cyborg, though it would be useless should she stir again. Slowly Julia inched towards her sports bag. “I’ll just go home, wash my hair and pretend this thing never happened.”
She dropped the derringer, grabbed the bag and ran as fast as her legs could carry her. It had been a cyborg, not a human. Yet tears came to Julia’s eyes regardless. She plunged headfirst down the threadbare carpets.
The corridor was filled with defaced paintings of stately men. Stink lines and moustaches had been added with childish abandon. The offices were broken into and empty. Only scattered bones told that humans had once lived there. Sand was blown in from smashed windows. Birds made nests in the corners.
Julia looked over her shoulder to see if she was being pursued. There were no one behind her, and she could see no IMs either. Her inattentiveness made her miss a bulge in the carpet. Julia got two seconds of airtime before sliding along the floor, knocking into a table with a vase. She rolled over and exhaled deeply. The noise attracted no one. She was truly and utterly alone in the building. It made her calm down and she took the rest of the walk with a more dignified calm.
The ground floor had a reception desk and the words ‘Finley Town Hall’ spelt out in large gilded letters above. The carpet ran across the overhanging balcony, down stairs on either side to pool in front of the oaken front doors. One of them was even still hanging on its hinges. She descended the steps carefully, her ears alert to the quietest sound.
The dying sunlight spilled in through holes in the cloudy windows, gleaming off a curious canister. She kicked it to turn it over. It fizzed. Ice sank into the pit of her stomach. Though the size of a cookie jar, she knew from her fellow survivors what it was. Luckily she had come prepared. She ripped open the sports bag and fished out a gasmask. Quietly, she thanked the blond giant for showing how to put one on in seconds. It smelled minty fresh inside, but the rubber clung to her face like a zealous octopus.
The clanking of heavy boots followed fast. She looked outside to see IMs amassing. She was alone in the building, but not in town. Survival instinct mostly taught by movies kicked in and Julia leapt over the receptionist’s desk. Her foot caught the edge and she once again fell headfirst to the floor. Stars danced in front of her eyes as the robots opened fire.
Only in Finley would you find desks specifically designed for Julia’s situation, with a core of concrete and steel. The bullets riddled the walls and pulverised what little was left of the windows, but the desk lost only its outer layer of wood.
Julia huddled together with the bag clenched like a stuffed animal. She whimpered, thinking back to how orderly things had been at the shooting range down in the basement. Fear kicked in and adrenaline with it. Her heart would not stop hammering. All the while, bitter tears of frustration misted her view ports. She ripped the gasmask off and rifled through her bag.
The firefight died down. The IMs grew suspicious and a small group went inside to investigate. The clumsy robots marched inside in an orderly fashion with their automatic rifles. The sound of their feet pounded in her head. Her mind went blank and she grabbed the first thing her hands could find. Instinctively, like she had practised dozens of times every night, her hands undid the safety and took aim. The first android exploded in a sea of shrapnel.
The other two IMs staggered from the blast. She aimed the weapon again and fired twice. Mechanical limbs disintegrated and hulking shapes fell to the ground. Alerted, another wave entered. She ducked down again and examined what she held in her hands. Though resembling a shotgun, she knew that it had been modified by the bespectacled basement owner. Which probably held true for all of the weapons in her bag.
More IMs streamed in. Clothes were still painted on their metal bodies, though age had flaked most of it off to reveal the metal plating underneath. Their long legs carried them at about average running speed, while their disproportionate hands could grab a versatile array of weapons. Their minds thought only in logical terms with little room for real world application. In their complicated yet infantile minds, they could not think up a proper strategy outside of what they had been programmed with.
The next unit, with light carbines and shotguns, arrived side by side. They fired as one as soon as they entered. Julia hunkered down behind the desk. It was over again in under a minute, though to a woman fearing for her life, it seemed like hours. The gunfire ceased so the robots could reload. She breathed deeply and forced herself up and fired her own gun. The IMs blew up with loud bangs, and Julia hid again.
Another couple of waves hit her with similar results. The robots could not take the exposed desk into account. She flinched as the concrete chipped, rocking back and forth until it was silent again, and then repeated her strategy.
It seemed quiet again. Julia peeked over the edge. The IMs were putting on some kind of backpack with nozzles. Flamethrowers. Julia disappeared again. A jet of fire licked against the desk.
She could hear the IMs move above her, going up the stairs. Only one of the machines actively aimed at her. The rest were torching the place. The rugs and wooden floor caught quickly. Julia closed her eyes, frozen. Her hands fidgeted with the last shells of the gun, but she could not make them obey.
A large portrait fell to the floor. The frame splintered with a loud crash. Julia jolted and the last shell clicked in place. The tapestry peeled off the walls. Smoke filled the room. She coughed.
Julia popped up from behind the desk and fired the shotgun into the chest of the nearest IM. It convulsed, its expressionless eyes staring at her. The flamethrower died out without a hand to hold down the trigger. The robot fell like a ragdoll to the floor. The other two were too immersed in their act of arson. Julia jumped up on the desk and took aim. The left IM exploded in a fireball. It tumbled down the stairs, doing a much better job of lighting the place up.
The third IM turned its attention, and nozzle, towards her. Fire already crackled around its ears. It took one step forward and sunk through the stairs. Julia jumped off the desk as the entire balcony collapsed. She kept the gun trained at the robot, but it did not get up again. It sputtered in almost human agony as flames consumed it. Julia hiked the sports bag further up her shoulder and ran for the door.
A shot rang out.
Julia fell against the doorframe. Her eyes glided down over left shoulder. A red patch soaked into the fabric of her shirt. Her arm numbed. She clutched it with her other hand as sank slowly to the floor.
CG-62 stood at the top of the remaining stairs, pounding at her head. “Damn… glitchy…” she muttered. Her right eyeball rotated wildly in its socket. In her hand she carried a police-issued nine millimetre pistol. “Stand still for a moment while I calibrate this thing.”
“How are you still alive?” Julia said, eyes widening in shock. She clutched her wound tightly to try and stop the bleeding. The numbing was almost worse than the pain.
“It takes a lot more to kill a cyborg than a human. An eyeball is easily replaced though it’s hard to adjust.” CG-62 reached the end of the balcony that still stood and fired another shot. She only managed to nick Julia’s ear. The balcony crumbling threw off her shot. CG-62 disappeared in a plume of flames. A hot wind spewed out embers. Julia turned away and dragged herself down the masonry steps to the cobbled plaza below.
CG-62 emerged from the fire untouched. Her skin, even her hair, had been replaced long ago with fire-retardant materials. “Don’t run away, little girl. I am not done with you yet,” the cyborg hissed and raised her gun. That’s when she noticed that her dress was less fireproof. She hastily patted out the fires belching smoke from all over her. “Damn those robots. Now look at my beautiful dress.”
Julia frantically went through her sports bag. She had packed it hurriedly with guns and ammunition and medicine, and it was difficult to see anything in the waning light. Her panicking mind could not focus on the one thing she was looking for. Not until his words came to her mind.
“I made this gun to bring down any robot or machine, but be careful. The recoil kicks like a mule.” The memory came with an image of the gun. Almost immediately she found it. It was of the same make as his personal firearm, but the Colt Python she pulled out was cold and heavy. Julia extended it as far from her body as she could; frantically trying to remember her second-hand training.
“That’s quite a piece you got there, little girl, but don’t you know? We cyborgs are indestructible.” CG-62 had gotten her fires under control and walked down the steps with a smirk on her lips. “Well, there is a long training period where we are quite vulnerable. I still take suppressive pills, but don’t mistake that for a weakness.” Her skin was not so much fair as it was pristine. Inhuman. She looked like a doll through the holes in her dress.
Julia fired the gun. The blast was unlike anything she had ever snuck away to practise with. It really did feel like being kicked by a mule. Yelping in surprise, Julia soon found the cold stones of the plaza.
CG-62 grunted from somewhere in front of her, but came into view only moments later. A large chunk was missing from the left side of her abdomen. Blood and oil stained the remains of her white dress. Plastic tubes dangled out of the wound. “I must admit I felt that, just a little bit. But what’s the matter with you? You’re looking so pale down there. Your shoulder giving you trouble?”
“This is nothing. You try having a miscarriage on judgement day, and then we’ll talk.” Blood pooled under her from her shoulder. Getting horizontal, however, helped to lighten up her head. “What does it take to kill you?” Julia groaned.
CG-62 crouched down over Julia and nearly sat on her chest. She stuck out a tongue and licked Julia’s cheek. Her hand wandered down her breasts and to her hips. “Let’s not dwell on that subject, however. I have a much more interesting proposition. This might just be the wound talking, but I have not known such thrill since I lived. It is only fair that I give some back.”
Julia whimpered out of revulsion and fear. The metal dermis was showing around CG-62’s right eye. Fluids leaked from her wounds, some of them waste by the stench. Julia gagged and changed from white to green. CG-62 put her gun to Julia’s temple.
“So what will it be? I will be having fun regardless, question is, will you be alive to enjoy it?” The cyborg’s hand entered Julia’s shorts and caressed her thighs. Julia arched her back. CG-62 took it as a sign to go on. Her tongue found Julia’s neck while her left hand wandered up again, underneath the shirt sticky with sweat and blood.
Julia’s own hand did some wandering as well, into the rear of her shorts. Her fingers closed around a wooden handle. She smiled as well and the cyborg leaned back to enjoy it. Julia’s hand shot out. A kitchen knife sat in CG-62’s left eyeball. More juices sprayed Julia’s face. She twisted the knife as far into the cyborg’s skull as she could get it. “Survive that.”
She had not accounted on CG-62 ceasing moving, right on top of her. The smell was excruciating. Blood trickled from the cyborg into her face and her cleavage. Julia’s arms jittered CG-62 off her so she could vomit.
Cold sweat made her brow damp and her hair sticky. She felt ill, and she shivered. Yet she couldn’t help but mentally thank the other one for demonstrating how to conceal a weapon. Just thinking about the other one and him gave her renewed strength. She had beaten the cyborg lady. She had survived. “I just want to go home and take a shower and then straight to bed.”
Julia staggered to her feet, not knowing which wound to clutch first. She decided against any clutching when she looked at her hands. Liquids both black and red stained them. Some of the numbness wore off but her left arm was still like lead. She looked up at the town hall where the flames steadily consumed all there was to consume, scorching everything else.
The sky above her had turned a more brightly crimson red than she could ever remember seeing. She admired it, transfixed, until her arm prickled uncomfortably. A shower would not be bad. She went towards a fountain in the middle of the round plaza. It must have been a magnificent sight once. Now only green and grimy water sat stagnant in the bottom. Algae had long since clogged the drain.
The plaza was flanked by buildings on all sides. A town made of memories of small town life that might never have existed; it looked like something built in nineteenth century and not the twenty-first. The only thing to disturb the illusion was the car wrecks. The plaza was built as a roundabout. A large convoy of trucks from some rodeo blocked off all exits. There had to have been another way into the town hall, but that was too late. She could not even see that building for flames anymore. The heat repelled her, and she went for the only open building in the plaza. A bar.
She staggered into the grimy, dingy place with the sports bag trailing along the ground, too weary and hurt to put it over her shoulder.
Skeletons hunched over the tables where they died. A gas canister, still lying in the middle of the floor, had quickly snuffed out their lives. A thick blanket of cobwebs and dust covered the bones. A scorpion peeked out from a skull, watching the intruder with care. Julia brushed against the counter, and the slouched barkeeper fell into a heap. A glass dropped from his hand and shattered next to him.
Even after the world had ended, Julia could not bring herself to enter the men’s room. She went next door and threw her bag down on the floor. A middle-aged housewife with hair dyed blue stared back at her from a cracked mirror. Both of them sighed.
“When I am done with that bitch, even Lord Shadow won’t be able to resurrect her,” CG-62 said through gritted teeth. She grabbed the kitchen knife and pulled without hesitation. The useless ocular organ popped out along with it. The right eye focused on its former neighbour gored on the blade. CG-62 sat up and observed her last piece of her humanity with contempt before sinking her teeth into it. She slowly chewed it around her mouth with a deadpan expressing when a shadow fell on her. “Speaking of.”
CG-62 swallowed and got up on her feet. All of her wounds squirted red and black liquids. She almost fell back down again. “I am not done here yet. As long as there is breath in my body, I will not fail Thorne.”
Surely there must have been a gap in the train of trucks, lest the man walking towards her should have materialised out of nowhere. Or perhaps he had simply stepped out of time, wearing a British military uniform from the early World War. The tin hat cast his face in darkness. A service gun was clenched in his gloved hand. “You think I care for Thorne?” There was a distinct whistling to the man’s British accent. He raised the old revolver and aimed calmly at CG-62. “I failed to assess the woman all those years ago. She slipped out of my grasp, but here she is now. I will not waste a second chance.”
“Wait… you mean I was just bait for your plan this whole time?”
The first shot ricocheted off her affronted face.
“What can I say, my master is a lot scarier than yours,” Lord Shadow replied with the hint of a grin. The second missed CG-62 close enough to make her hair blow.
“Then you’re nothing more than a traitor to our cause,” CG-62 reproached. The third hit her right shoulder. She winced and paused. “How did you know this would draw her in?” The fourth punched a hole in the sidewalk behind her.
“It was simply a matter of time. Even had she brought the whole cavalry, I’m sure I could have figured something out.” The fifth rang hollowly against her cheek. She grimaced and fell to her knees. “I had a feeling I could play her, but this went better than I had hoped. And now your role is at an end. You performed well, my little cyborg, but this was your last act.” Lord Shadow put the gun into her empty eye socket and fired. CG-62 fell on her back. Real blood trickled out. Lord Shadow holstered the gun.
The dying sun sent its powerful last rays down over Finley. Light reflected from the exposed metal on CG-62’s forehead and dispelled the darkness from his face. A skull looked down at her from under the tin hat. His uniform was full of dirt and holes and crimson splotches.
Lord Shadow scratched his chin but found only the exposed bone. “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” he consoled the corpse. Heart functions continued for a while longer in cyborgs, and liquid kept oozing from her wounds. “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks/Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge/Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs/And towards our distant rest began to trudge. Move out, boys. We’re having ourselves a little manhunt.”
The dust and sand covering Finley rustled. Prickles vines shot out from the ground, wrapping themselves around the tired bones of the city. They crept inside rusted cars and into houses. Hisses and whistles filled the air. Stabbed with thorns containing the poison of life, the skeletons rose from where they had lain for so long. Doors swung open. Defleshed residents and tourists shuffled out. Unlife stirred in Finley. Their voices were the creaking of time; the wind whispering ageless secrets.
Julia finished dressing her wounds and threw the empty gauze roll on the floor. Instantly she felt the soothing medicine coated on the strips go to work. A bullet lay at her feet. Next to it was a small knife and a plastic stick with her tooth marks on it. She was too tired to put her shirt back on. Her chest was wrapped up anyway, perhaps more excessively than needed. The sweet aroma from the bandages filled her nose. Serenity washed over her and she could easily have fallen asleep on the toilet.
That’s when she heard the first gunshot. She jolted up. Hastily she put her shirt back on and packed her back. When the last bang echoed across the empty plaza, Julia was up on her feet and out of the stall. She was almost by the door when she heard movement from the bar. Impossible. There was no one alive out there. Yet the men’s room next door slammed open. Instinctively, she locked the door.
The stalls creaked open inside the ladies’ room as well. Two skeletons stood behind her. Vines slithered back down the toilet bowl. Julia was unarmed. She had left the sports bag out by the sinks since it was too large to get inside the stall. There could be no preparation for the sight, anyway. Julia’s mind went blank as she backed into the door out. She could go neither back nor forth. The skeletons tilted their skulls and hissed.
How could it be happening? Skeletons didn’t just up and walk around. Julia’s heart pounded. The metal door was cold against her arms. She could not raise them in defence. Fear froze her to the spot.
The clothes looked comical on the first skeleton, being much too baggy for its fleshless state. Its bony hand wrapped around her throat. It hissed with cackling malice. Little spots crackled and popped in her vision.
“Ragout again? What’s wrong with a big, juicy steak? Buttered with garlic and served with those little potato thingies.”
Julia gasped breath into her lungs as Maxwell’s face materialised on the skeleton. Like she had wanted to back then, but hadn’t had the courage to do, her leg sprang out. The boot caught the skeleton square in the chest. The ribcage dislodged and the skeleton crumbled. The other one quickly stepped over its comrade’s remains to get at Julia. She took a shinbone from the pile as the other skeleton reached for her.
“Go make your own damn dinner if you’re not satisfied! Do you have idea how hard it is to make good ragout?” She swung the bone as hard as she could. The skull flew off the other skeleton and smashed the window in the other end. The second skeleton also crumbled. She looked vexed at the bones and threw the tibia down into the heap.
The bar was silent. Julia only noticed as the skeletons again clacked across the wooden floor. Towards her. The first of them were already outside the room. They had noticed the noise, but not where it had come from.
Julia ripped open her bag. She needed something to defend herself with, but none of the guns felt like they could do much against skeletons. Her mind raced with battle plans and escape routes. Hands thundered against her door. The skeletons were catching on as Julia’s hand closed around a black box.
Why had she brought it along? Carefully, she opened the lid and tried to remember. A small mine. No, it must have been in the bag when she had taken it. The toilet door bulged from the constant hammering. A mine could come in handy, but how would she survive the explosion? She bit her lip as she looked up to the farthest stall. No, the distance was too small.
Fingers scratched at the door. The skeletons howled in their whistling, hissing voices. A shard of glass broke on the floor. The window, of course! It was placed high up on the wall, but she could probably get herself through. She nodded. It was better than being strangled by skeletons at any rate.
Julia put the landmine down by the deformed door. It was unusually sturdy, but the hinges were nothing to write home about. One had already given up. Just two others and the door would come crashing in. Right on top of the mine.
She grabbed her bag and tossed it at the window. The weak wood frame ripped out of the wall. A heavy thud proclaimed that the bag found the ground. The pounding on the door increased. At least it was sturdier than the window.
She tipped over a trashcan, and its content of musty tampons and dirty tissues spilled out into the furthest corner. She climbed on top and latched on to the sill. The second hinge gave with an explosive sound. Julia almost rocketed through the window. For a moment Julia wriggled and writhed, halfway in and out. The third hinge sang its swan song. Her legs kicked the air and finally she plopped into the alley behind. It was a fluid motion fuelled by panic from she landed to grabbing her bag to bolting.
The explosion came silently. The toilet wall blew out in a hail of white-painted bricks. Not until she was flying did the deafening roar reach her. It was like an infernal beast picked her up in its tight jaws and scampered off with her. She tried remembering fall techniques. Something about rolling on impact. The ground came too quickly, right on her bad arm. Julia had no time to scream. Blackness washed over her.
Julia groaned as she opened her eyes again. It had worked, whatever it was she had tried to accomplish. Almost the entire bar had crumbled, and no glass for miles had survived. A layer of dust and splinters and concrete coated her in white. She groaned again as she rolled on her back. The stabbing pain in all of her body had woken her. The comforting bandages could only mask the agony, not remove it. Slowly, she clutched the dumpster behind her and heaved herself up. Filthy water gurgled from rusty pipes and seeped out of the ruins, making the alley stink only more.
She found her sports bag again and started looking for a weapon. They were sturdy, and so was the bag. The only problem was how much she had already used. All she had left was an ordinary looking handgun. It would be perfect with its dampened recoil. Julia stuffed the last box of ammunition into her shirt and left the bag. They could throw a fit as much as they liked back at the basement, but it would only drag her down with nothing useful in it. On unsteady feet and with the face of someone who got up on the wrong side of the bed, Julia set out.
The street stretched out perpendicularly from the alley. Down at the very end she could just make out the old church. It was peaceful. Not even the wind moved. Sand covered the asphalt and lay in dunes up against private homes and businesses. An eerie quiet hung over the place, bathed in blood red from the dying sun. It was not natural. Something should have stirred. Cautiously, Julia moved from the mouth of the alley. The store she had crashed should be up ahead.
Something whistled past her, and a large hole punched into the dumpster. Instantly, Julia retreated back into the alley, her eyes scanning the area for a shooter. It was not the skeleton that drew her gasp; it was seeing it operate a sniper rifle. Though more intelligent than initially anticipated, death did not transform them into marksmen. The skeleton quickly reloaded its rifle. Bang! A small crater formed right next to Julia.
She aimed the gun up at the hotel roof and pulled the trigger. The gun was quiet. Perplexed, she lowered it to examine it. A gun from John couldn’t possible jam already. She pounded on it with her other hand.
The skeleton vanished into a momentary ball of fire. Debris rained down and crushed a car below. Julia winced.
“I should’ve known better than to just take a gun from the armoury. You never know with that man.” Twisting and turning the gun, she eventually found a button on the bottom of the clip. Realisation dawned on her. The gun fired remotely detonated miniature bombs.
Again Julia went out of the alley, but met no more snipers. The low sun would give their rifles a telltale glimmer anyway.
The deserted houses creaked. First near her, and then all around her. Doors opened from the push of bony hands. People sat up with sand spilling out of their eye holes and the sleeves of their shirts. Behind her and in front, a small army gathered. Grinning skulls either cackled or hissed.
“Oh, leave me alone! I just want to go home,” she pleaded.
Hers was not the voice that they heeded. They threw themselves at her in large hordes. She fired the gun at the group in front of her and hit the butt of her gun. The ground vanished in a plume of dust and fire. Disconnected bones rained down over Finley. She pushed through the hole in the formation but more simply rose out of the sand. They were unprepared and unarmed. One swung a steering wheel back and forth; another one an umbrella.
She fired a shot behind her and thinned out the ranks. Again they just reformed.
A new problem dawned on Julia. She could not see the crater or the shop she had entered, yet the church still lay far at the end of the road. The backside of the church. She paused. Finley was no small town. Of course it would have more roads dividing it, and she was simply on the wrong one.
A wave of skeletons pressed in on her in the merest of moments she had given herself to think. The clicking, grinning mass of malice and bones came at her from all sides. Julia backed up towards a hair salon. The door was on the ground and she almost fell inside. She ran past the chairs, cold hands gripping for her. She raised her gun but thought better of it. The skeletons broke in through the large store front window to get at her. She leapt across an upturned cart and pushed aside a curtain of pearls on strings.
The personnel break room was part kitchen as well, and had a table for employees to enjoy their meals. She flipped it towards the door opening. The skeletons simply crawled over. She ran for the backdoor which was a little sturdier. She slammed it shut. The skeletons threw themselves at it and burst through. Their hissing laughter followed her all the way down the stairs and into the back alley.
Another back alley and more dumpsters. Julia did not even think anymore. Her body operated on its own. Her hand raised the gun and fired. Her other hand clicked the button. Bricks and sand and dust whirled out at her. Bones rattled loose and sprayed everywhere. Cracks spread with a groan from the hair salon to the other buildings. Julia was back on the street again before they could collapse. She waved a hand over her mouth and coughed, but she was out.
Out on the main street. Looking up, she saw the church as she remembered it. And there, just a little further up on the opposite side, was the crater in front of the top hat emporium. Relief washed over her. She was almost home. Of course, it would not be that easy.
This street also had skeletons, and something had also breathed life into them. They crept closer, grinning and hissing and whistling. Julia sprinted across the two lanes before they could come close.
Hats of all sizes were strewn across the street. Glass crunched under her boots. The beetle car had vaulted through the façade, providing her with an opening. She had finally made it, but she halted just short of her goal. The car was on its roof. No way in her condition would she be able to right it. She turned back to the enclosing wall of the dead.
Laughing, groaning, clacking. She felt a sour taste in her mouth. Her feet met the lower edge of the store front. If this was it, she would make it her last stand. She swung the gun around, not sure whether to hit the skeleton in baseball cap and sneakers, or the one in a tattered dress, or the small one with the brand t-shirt or…
A shot rang out. Her hand relinquished the weapon. She was done. Blood darkened her shirt from a hole in her abdomen. Her body had finally given up, even as her mind still fought. She turned her head and saw the glimmer of a rifle from one of the rooftops.
The skeletons were not wild beasts. Even with their prey downed, they continued their slow shamble. The first ring crouched. Their fingers prickled on her skin. She closed her eyes. She did not have a weapon anymore, or strength to wield it. Come what may.
Several long moments passed. Julia opened her eyes again. The skeletons had withdrawn, and she could see only a few of them. A pair of black boots and brown trousers instead made their way towards her. The right foot turned her over, and she stared up into a fleshless face.
The man raised his service pistol and aimed it at her. It clicked a few times. “I am dreadfully sorry about that, lass, but I appear to be out of ammunition. I believe you would have served your purpose better as part of my army, but perhaps that can still be arranged. You look a little worn.”
Lord Shadow strode past her, dissolving into rose petals. The skeletons retreated. The last of her vision focused on the first of the stars. From somewhere far away, she could hear the noise of engines.
“Did you know that there was originally supposed to be two world wars, and not just the one?” Maxwell put a strip of beef jerky into his maw. “It was supposed to have been facilitated in 1914 with the assassination of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary,” he explained, spraying spit everywhere.
“No kidding?” John asked from inside the comfort of his car. “Listen, Maxwell, I’m not in the mood for your stories right now.”
Maxwell shook his head. His motorcycle sprayed up sand and he became temporarily unseen. “I saw it with my own eyes, in my dreams,” he explained as they raced down the highway. “I thought I could prevent it by disabling the assassin, and for a while it did seem to work. But the war just came even stronger in 1922 when Hitler seized power in Germany, and didn’t end again until 1953.”
“Maxwell, one of our cooks defected with a bag full of guns. Do you think you could focus on that?” John asked with an edge to his tone that Maxwell felt. He nodded.
“I sure hope Julia isn’t a traitor. She might not make steaks as often as I’d like, but her ragout isn’t too bad.” He stared ahead, into the endless expanse of sand under a darkening sky. “Are we getting any closer to the signal?”
John tilted his head slightly to the unfurled computer on the passenger seat. “I can only tell you that we are getting closer to the car she stole,” he replied. “Whether she is anywhere near it remains to be seen.”
Their headlights fell on a large sign. Finley, the last slice of homemade pie in big corporation America. Just past it was a wooden church. Only the steeple was left.
The subjugation of the town had been short and decisive with a blitz attack. No building had gone undamaged. If walls had not been blown away, then holes riddled their structure. Abandoned cars littered the streets.
“Lonesome, this place,” Maxwell remarked and scratched his chin. “Really gives me the creeps.” Eyes of coyotes or wolves flashed out of to the side. They yelped as the noise disturbed their hunt.
John’s car bumped into something, and it fragmented. Bones clanked against the windshield. John stuck his head out and looked back. “Was that a skeleton?”
“Something’s always waiting for us,” Maxwell sighed. “Well, guess it would be too easy otherwise.”
He had not even grabbed for his sword before skeletons rose all around them. It was still light enough to see them, but night was coming fast. They approached warily, a few armed with an odd assortment of improvised melee weapons. John simply mowed them down, more interested in the blip on his computer.
“At this point, it would seem that our fearless cook has simply gotten herself in way over her head,” John remarked.
“Found a distress signal while snooping around the communications room and decided to try something bigger than housewife for a hundred people,” Maxwell added, rubbing his chin. “Johnnie, my boy, it’s a better story than spy for Thorne. Still not sure which makes more sense, though.” A skeleton latched on to him. Its arms were ripped off as he passed by. Maxwell brushed off the bones.
“We can just ask her. Looks like she never moved far from the blip.” A woman lay in front of a bombed out hat store, completely ignored by the skeletons. All of the bony undead waddled awkwardly towards the engine noise. “We had better get into action if we want to save her.”
A single skeleton crawled on the hood of John’s car. It pounded its fists on the window. John stopped short of the hole in the road, and the skeleton flew off.
The skeletons quickly ganged up on John and Maxwell as soon as they left their vehicle. The blonde giant drew his sword and calmly started chopping. They jumped on to his back, biting or banging with their fists or impromptu cudgels. John shot the skeletons Maxwell could not reach, but had to duck as a chair leg whizzed over his head. Maxwell swung his sword with one hand and reached behind him with the other.
John instead fired around, trying to keep them the undead horde at bay. Maxwell took care of the ones who slipped in anyway. A few minutes later and Finley was quiet again. Maxwell, however, kept his sword out.
“Pardon the pun, but that seemed like a skeleton crew. A town this size should have been able to produce a much larger force.”
Maybe some thirty skeletons surrounded them, all in a disorderly heap. John prodded the bones with his boots. “Let us just get our cook into the car and be off before we find out what is really going on here.”
“Oh! Looks like she has seen some action.” Maxwell scooped the still breathing Julia up into his arms and held her out to John. “Whoever shot her had no idea what they were doing, though. The human body has no organs here,” he remarked and tapped her abdomen with a free finger.
John adjusted his shades and leant forward. “Perhaps not, but she is still bleeding. We should do something about that before we leave,” he said. Maxwell put into her backseat of the car, and wrapped a towel from the trunk around her wound. John nodded in satisfaction.
A roar shook the ground. Both of them turned towards the sound, though they couldn’t agree on the direction.
“What was that?” John blurted out, his gun back in hand. As his head scanned the surroundings, he noticed something else. “And where did all the bones go?” A cold wind blew. Night fell suddenly and harshly on Finley. Again the roar echoed across the sanded buildings.
“You had a very good idea earlier. I think we should just leave now.” Maxwell put one leg across his motorcycle. John was halfway back into his car, halfway still searching the area with gun held up. “Come on, already, that thing sounds huge and we have a man down.”
A pair of bony hands appeared over the buildings. A skull followed, eyes burning with ghostly, green flames. It wasn’t even standing and it was already taller than the lowest of the buildings. “Jesus…” John cried out, but the skeleton roared and he fell to his knees. His body slumped like a great weight had been placed on his shoulders. “What… what is going on? It feels like I am going insane.”
Maxwell stood, though his brow was sticky with sweat. Every muscle and tendon in his body was pulled taut. Laboriously, he pulled himself forward. “If you can’t stand it this oppressive air of greed, John, then just stay there. I’ll take care of this thing.”
“Wait!” John called out, but rather than walking forward as he commanded his body to, he instead collapsed on the ground. “It is no good. I just feel like… like…”
A figure sprang to life from the pommel of Maxwell’s sword. The blonde giant did not notice, but John was surprised enough to momentarily forget the avarice thickening the air. “Like what? There’s not much to be had in this world. Honestly, John Kilburne, this will not do. Are your soul really so filled with wants that you cannot move?” it asked.
The wind blew right through him, no sand landed on him, and his serene face was undaunted by the hostile air. His jacket was long and made of the very colour green itself. His silky, golden hair remained stationary. Not even the feather in his red hairband moved.
John panted, trying to stifle a rising laughter bubbling from his throat. “Who are you?” John downright growled, his voice deepening and red lights flashing behind his shades. “No, it does not matter. Get out of here before I lose control.”
“But that is why I’m here, silly. A soul as tormented as yours by unfulfillable desires could never hope to endure. Now don’t say anything. Just let me do my job.” The figure crossed the sand without leaving prints and took John’s hands. The strange man vanished and the burden was lifted from John’s shoulders.
Maxwell flew over his head and rammed into a dusty car. Sand spewed out in all directions.
“I’m okay. I can do this.”
John did not reply. The giant skeleton had cut a path through the buildings. Its feet kicked the remaining walls. It roared, and John felt the cupidity like only a background noise. He raised his gun and fired.
The pellets bounced off the skeleton’s ribcage and exploded around it. “No, no, no. When I’ve already given this beast my all, then you can’t expect to hurt it with attacks like those,” Maxwell admonished and leapt back into the fray.
The skeleton took its first steps into the street. Maxwell hacked away at its feet, yelling and hooting. “But the only other attack I have is…” John stared down at his gun, sighed, and put it away. “I will regret this tomorrow.”
For a second time, Maxwell flew over John’s head, crashing into the opposite building. John put his gun away and closed his fist. The foot of the skeleton easily lifted up above John. Maxwell flung himself out of the ruins and raised his arms. The skeletal foot bore down on him, but he was taller, and John remained unharmed. The fair-haired giant sunk into the sand under the weight. “What are you doing now? This isn’t the time for contemplative silence!”
“Could you distract him for a moment?” John asked. “I need some time to charge this thing.”
Maxwell’s knees buckled. His own bones creaked and groaned. “Oh you can’t be serious! This thing is crushing me,” he yelled. The skeleton’s flame-enshrouded skull grew an expression of determination. It pushed harder against Maxwell. He howled in agony amidst popping and snapping. Down on one knee, still taller than John. “Just hurry it up, please.”
Coils of glowing, yellow light snaked up John’s arm. His palm, raised towards the skeleton, disappeared in the pulsating flash. The giant skeleton growled, and its fire crackled. It saw the light surrounding John and its expression turned to confusion. It could also have been a play of shadows. “Does not look like I have more time to charge. Here goes.”
The pulse of light beat faster. Its blinding rays bathed the world. The skeleton finally understood. It lifted its foot from Maxwell, high up, and then slammed it down. The world disappeared into John’s light.
Everything vanished, even time. It could have been seconds or hours or years, but then came the noise; the sound of the very fabric of space being ripped. Somewhere deep inside, the skeleton roared and fell silent.
The light faded and the afterglow of John’s attack could be seen like a streak across the sky. The road was completely wiped of sand and bricks and cars. Anything that wasn’t bolted to the floor had been pushed far away.
Maxwell blinked rapidly to get the sand out of his eyes. He was still crouching on the same spot. Not a single hair had been disturbed on his head. As his body mended itself, Maxwell stood up again. A femur struck him from above. He looked up.
The skeleton was gone, but bones of an expected size rained down over Finley. Maxwell put his arms over his head as the heavenly barrage began. He sought the shelter of the ruins but almost stumbled over John in his haste. The bespectacled bounty hunter lay motionless on his back. Maxwell quickly grabbed him and hurried into the top hat emporium through the hole in the store front.
With John’s limp body under his arm, Maxwell stood in safety and admired the bone shower. “It’s almost pretty,” he said. It was also short, not lasting even a minute. Maxwell stepped outside again and held his other hand out to check for more rain. “Are you still alive? I need someone to drive the car with Julia.”
“How is she?” he replied weakly. Maxwell carried him to his car. As John made no movements, Maxwell held him up so he could see into the backseat. “Oh, good. Still breathing. Would you mind putting me into my seat as well?” Maxwell nodded and did as asked. John secured his seatbelt with trembling hands.
The blonde giant scratched as his neck as John almost melted into his seat. “Are you fit to drive? You looked like a strand of cooked spaghetti,” he remarked. John reached into his coat and took a small, plastic vial with a yellow liquid.
“I will be, if you give me a moment. She isn’t dying back there, is she?” he asked and upended the vial. The contents oozed slowly down the side.
Maxwell shook his head. “She’ll be fine. It’s mostly just shock.” He went back to his motorcycle only to find it gone. Only he himself and John’s car had avoided being blown away. By the time he returned with his vehicle across his shoulders, John had turned on the car and some colour had returned to his cheeks. Maxwell grinned. “Let’s go home. I think we’ll be in time for breakfast.”
Thorne sat on his throne in the warehouse, the trash around his feet out of the camera’s view. A button went from green to red, and Thorne leant forward. “Humans of Earth, this is Thorne speaking with another update report. Within the last week alone, my forces have stamped out survival groups in Colombia, Guyana, Brazil, and Senegal. There is nowhere to hide; it’s just a matter of time before I will have every last one of you eradicated.” His tone indicated some measure of involvement, though his eyes were bored as he combed a hand through his mess of filthy hair.
The camera went off again, and the robot controlling it went back into the darkness. Thorne sighed as he relaxed in his seat.
“How much longer must he keep me here?” he mumbled. The heavens were visible through a broken skylight, and the stars twinkled brightly through. There was no smog or any pollution of any kind to hinder them. Thorne closed his eyes when P-I-M entered the illuminated circle from a spotlight.
“What is it?” Thorne asked and opened one eye. The awkward-looking robot scratched off a few sentences like a broken record. “Who? In Finley? Ah, right, that cyborg. Yes, how sad indeed, but did she manage to lure in any survivors?”
P-I-M replied in its rusty voice.
“Just one? But how did she die, then?” A faint trace of curiosity lingered in the question, gone as quickly as the words.
P-I-M made a few more agitated sounds, but Thorne closed his eyes. “The lords again… so the survivor was one of the chosen ones. Well, no matter, we’ll find those survivors yet, I have other cyborgs and other traps. It will be a good day when I can report about more than just a South American raid and an African happenstance. And? Any word about the weapon?”
P-I-M nodded, and Thorne listened to his whistling, whining language. “Good. It should make the elimination go a little faster. Now we just have to see if we can’t produce anymore.” He fell quiet, seemingly asleep, and P-I-M returned to the darkness, but not before lowering the intensity of the lamp.