Who Are the Witnesses?
"You're gonna need this."
"No." She pushed the weathered rifle back to his chest. "I'm not."
Ethan winced as his leg rubbed the ground wrong. "Dammit, Mal, you knew this could happen." His voice came weak and thin, nothing near its usual warmth.
They'd been headed back from a dawn drop beneath gray winter clouds when his foot found a hole hidden beneath the snow. His shin snapped and splinters of bone poked through denim like some old dog's busted teeth. She'd dry heaved from the sound, heard it echo in her brain how it had across the winter-crisped field.
They struggled to continue another glacial half mile with his arm heavy on her narrow shoulders until finding a bombed-out storm drain. He'd offered his rifle, told her to go on without him as if his end already reached out of the ground and pulled him under.
"I can go back to that old drug store," she said.
"That's in the Wild." Despair and pain shone in his eyes and she ignored them.
"We're not in a place much different, still outside the RZ." She thumbed the edge of the ceramic knife he'd given her a few years before and clicked it back into its plastic sheath.
"It is different. Nothing out there strays too far," he said.
"Just a walk in the field, Ethan. We been by it before."
"Walk in the park."
"Whatever. Like I ever seen one anyways."
“You saw one once. That place with the swings.”
“That place was a shithole.” She felt angry with him, defensive even, that he'd give up so easily after everything.
"I'm not asking, Mallory." He sounded harder, gave her his look that showed he meant business and she had no use arguing.
"I know." She set her wet eyes on his. "But it don't look like you're getting up to stop me."
He laughed, the rough, shallow kind meant to conceal fear, and his lips contracted in a grimace. "You're such a pain in my ass."
"Yeah, yeah, ever since you found me hustling for scraps. And look how good I turned out." Tears brewed and she sniffed them away since they wouldn't do any good. Maybe later if she found time.
"Child of the Wild," he said.
She forced an uneasy smile. "Runt of the litter."
A silent consent born of desperation settled between them. "At least take my pistol." He gestured to the boot where he kept it, but her hand already slid it free. "We're gonna need a few things."
Wind whistled through a town of shattered windows. Snow flurries danced between her boots. The drug store stared at her from half a block away.
"Any-cillin-thing I can find. Sutures. Gauze," she repeated Ethan’s list crouched beside a wall of brick and rusted sheet metal.
Post war remnants of a life and time meaningless to her existed all around, built up and broken down and forgotten in the country's rush to save its people. Some places survived by their walls of concrete and razor-wire, reflections of the people within them.
Mallory always preferred the Wild, even after Ethan took her from it. The Wild felt dark and rotten and forbidden with skeletons of the old world, but never dead, more alive and forever changing. Weird plants, sweet smells, and buildings that reeked of shit and burned oil littered its landscape.
Ethan told her once all those plants and dead bodies would someday be oil and the notion freaked her out. She still thought about it late at night in the quiet hours. Being oil. Liquid. A slurry to one day burn in some smelly machine. She shivered in the alley and pretended it was the cold.
Some people said when the Witnesses came the war never touched the Wild and that was how it stayed the way it was. Witnesses swept across the lands and took what they wanted, but couldn't ever survive out in the Wild--trashed motor gears and fried electronics--so they never fought what few people fled to deep wilderness. Some people said crazies who stole broken Witnesses' parts lived in the Wild and turned themselves into some kind of savage crossbreeds. Some people said monsters lived under bridges and kidnapped little girls.
Some people just liked to talk.
Mallory blew in her hands, tried to focus, tried to keep from thinking about being out there without Ethan. Smuggling. Running. Making drops. Ready meals or forged ration vouchers. Every now and then rolled tobacco from someplace out West where she heard people still hoped, where the Witnesses gained and lost ground in perpetual stalemate with the last of the Open Cities.
"Whatever it takes," she mimicked Ethan's voice, and cracked a smile though her nerves hummed and fear nagged at the base of her skull to mock how the world decomposed.Even though she didn't know a time before the Witnesses arrived or the start of the war, the world still screamed out and thrashed on the floor with a bag over its head. Someday it would all be oil.
The drug store waited between empty lots with every one of its windows suspiciously intact. Glassy eyes which glistened in anticipation of her.
She and Ethan really had passed it a few times before, but it always crept up on her from nothing to emerge pristine within the surrounding rubble. In summer, ivy covered everything nearby but its old white walls. In winter, that ivy spread from it like dry brown veins.
She stood between the bones of shelled buildings and sketched an imaginary line of action to follow down the alley, across the street, and into the drug store as easy as possible.
"Gonna be damn loud," she said to the split brick in her hand. She glared at the squat store, a haunt of the world before the Witnesses, and ran. Fast.
Winter burned her cheeks and eyes and she arched her arm behind her head and--
Stopped. Faint daylight glistened on the tiny glass teeth of a shattered window on the side of the pharmacy. A dumpster rested beneath it. That made life a hell of a lot easier.
A bleached spotlight swung over the alley. Mallory dove behind a folded billboard and buried herself in the snow.
She faded into the dirty snow as best she could, eyes vault-tight, and waited for the light and eerie electronic whir to vanish. She'd never seen them and didn't know what they could really do, but she heard stories, as many as there were scars on the survivors who told them.
"It's their brains," some old man told her one time. "That buzzing means they're thinking. Searching. Hunting." She pictured his stained teeth and fingertips and how death already stalked him. "Best freeze when you hear it. And pray."
"Pray?" she had asked.
"To ask for something from God."
"Quick death." Something the old man hadn't been given.
Spotlights glided over her and their heat melted snow and ice. The whirring grew louder. Closer. Surrounded her. Buzzsaws beneath a star gone supernova. Vibrations loosened bricks and jingled busted windows. She couldn't stay. Couldn't pray either, not while they inched closer.
Two deep breaths. Eyes open. A dozen lights swept over walls and into blasted husks of the old world. Her lips stung, but she licked them anyway, wiped them with the sleeve of her over-sized jacket. She studied the lights as they pivoted in and out of the flurry, searched for a pattern.
"Make a scene over there," Ethan once told her, "And no one notices when you're doing what you need to do over here."
"A diversion," she whispered, and took her chance.
She jumped to her feet and ran, her new path only slightly altered. The brick left her fingertips and the swirling snow swallowed it. Glass shattered down the street.
The spotlight array swiveled to hunt the sound and Mallory slipped between crumbling concrete blockades and burned out cars, banged on the dumpster, and shimmied through the jagged window.
Her pants caught a chunk of glass and she twisted, slammed against the wall, and crashed onto a table covered with small glass bottles.
Outside, the lights vanished. The whirring stopped. Silence settled with raw cold. She hacked all over herself as she gulped for air. Pain cut through her ribs where they'd met the table and a crescent of blood worked down her calf because of the window.
"Dammit." She clenched her fists and slowly stood, tried not to pant as fast as her lungs demanded. The pistol dug into her hip and she thanked Ethan for always hounding her about triple-checking the safety. A misfire could make them both oil.
The drug store looked a maze of pilfered shelves, crumpled food wrappers, and aisles littered with smashed boxes. Bits of window crunched underfoot. She'd never been in a drug store before, had no clue where she should search for the things on her list.
"Lotsa crap," she said, ran her fingers over tattered magazines. Blurred photos of swirling lights and sleek shapes repeated across different covers. Above them, Who Are the Witnesses? was printed in yellow block letters.
U.N. Holds 'Disclosure' Conference.
War Rages through MAS-FLA Corridor.
Witnesses Cannot Be Stopped.
Smashed blue boxes slid under her boots. She picked one up, rotated it, sounded out the word she'd never seen: "Gahouzzzze. Gouzz. Gauze? Gauze! Holy crap." She lifted her feet and scanned the aisle floor. "It's all over the place."
She stashed a few of the flat boxes in her jacket pockets and buttoned them, smothered a smile about her luck because she was still in the Wild and things were almost never how they looked. Next she needed Any-cillin-thing and sutures. Or needles and thread. "Bourbon and a saw if you can't find anything," Ethan had joked, but she knew in his face he meant it.
Then she found it: a long blue counter with thick windows. Something familiar. Those were like the booths in the Reconstruction Zones where you got your rations and pills if you had enough credit.
She licked her lips. "Bingo."
Chairs laid tangled together before it, abandoned after being thrown at the old partition. Even in the dim light she saw rows of shelves stacked high with bottles of dizzying colors.
"Someone's keeping the supply up." She patted the spot where the pistol sagged her jeans.
"We have a winner." The words echoed around her. An uncomfortable, inhuman shift in their tones sounded how a corpse felt to the touch, stiff and almost.
Mallory yanked the pistol free, double-fisted and gut-level, elbows to her ribs--how Ethan taught her when up close--and flicked the safety off.
"Who said that?" Her heart hammered in her ears. Dry mouth. Tongue scratched between dry lips.
"Was me." Two green lights blinked alive behind the counter. They were some kind of lenses, luminescent and hovering discs which belonged to a figure draped in shadows. Next, the quiet hum of motors crackled over the speaker system and the green discs got bigger.
"The hell are you?"
"I'm the Pharmacist," it said, voice pitch different. More casual somehow.
"Sure..." She stepped back and icicles of fear stabbed her chest.
Three clicks came through the speakers and the Pharmacist's green lenses switched to red. Changed the visual frequency? She'd heard of stuff like that but didn't think any still existed. People said the Witnesses destroyed it all, wanted survivors to be low tech, Stone Age--Ethan had to explain to her what that meant.
"What you need, little baby?" The voice echoed over dusty speakers out of sight, but she looked for them, glanced left-to-right, side stepped closer to the counter and kept the pistol close to her chest.
"Just a couple things."
"Uppers? Downers? Healers?" Its lenses flickered through the colored bottle rainbow. "Just tell and I get. We can make a deal."
Spotlights flashed through the building. Mallory dropped to the floor, expected to hear the deafening whir of Witnesses returning. Instead laughter burst through the speakers around her, flat echoes like face slaps.
"Don't worry about that. Ain't been a Witness around here for a long while. Just a little toy of mine. Keeps people out unless they really needy, but you know that because you here. Came in the alley way."
Her boots squeaked as she stood. The spotlight swept by again, crossed her dirty freckles and black hair, and kept going. She turned her hand in the stark beam and wiggled her fingers. "Like camma-flage."
Mallory turned back to the counter, her eyes narrowed on the hovering discs and rows of illuminated colors. "Lots a people come by here?"
"You help them?"
"I do what I can." The Pharmacist's lenses tinked against the window between them. "Say, how old are you?"
Lenses tilted, changed colors, moved up and down along the hidden face. "You're a Poster? From after the war."
She ignored the question, double checked the gun muzzle, made sure it lined up with the Pharmacist's shape, and curled her right index finger over the trigger. "So I need a couple things," she continued.
"Oh, that's right, you still in a hurry. What you need?"
"Any-cillin-thing, some kind of healer."
The Pharmacist kept still, lenses clicked through the spectrum. "You mean anything with 'cillin in it?" More digital laughter.
Mallory tightened her grip on the pistol. "Was what I said."
"Sure. I got tons. But it'll cost you."
Merch was never a good answer. Merch could mean anything. She stepped closer to the counter, noticed how the chair legs gleamed clean. No scratches buffed the windows. "What kinda Merch? Vouchers? Ammo? Swill? We got some amber swill, ain't been around here for a long while."
Lenses turned yellow. "You heard of derm?"
"I can get it," she said, eyes leveled on the figure.
"You don't know."
"Does it matter? Me and my buddy can get anything you want."
Laughter crackled again. "You got it now."
"But you in a hurry," the Pharmacist said, moved along the glowing rows of bottles and returned with a sample of every color. Complex words she didn't understand rattled through the speakers.
"Okay, stop," she said, trigger finger just off metal. "I just need some that's good for wet green."
Three yellow bottles rattled down a tube on her side of the window. "Don't I know it," the Pharmacist chirped.
"So, what's derm? How much you need?" She took a step forward, wary of cables or hinges, anything that signaled booby-traps, but it wasn't enough.
A bay of lights stunned her from above and an electronic screech rattled her brain. The pain between her ears dropped her on her knees. She managed three shots at the thick window. Bullets plugged into the space where the Pharmacist hovered, left small ripples and nothing else. A net exploded out from under the counter. Auto-ratcheting motors cinched the net around her body and pressed the gun against her chest until she had to let go to keep her wrists from snapping.
A yellow light beeped on a door at the side of the counter and the Pharmacist emerged. A mess of black fabric and metal and tubes limped toward her. Half an arm, an entire leg, cybernetics, she'd heard it called.
"You're one of them," she said, struggled against the net that crisscrossed her face.
"A Witness?" The Pharmacist knelt to her, lenses clicked white, and scanned her. "I'm no Witness, little baby. I'm of Earth. And they Witnesses out West to flatten Open Cities," it said, voice still not right. Chunks of mismatched skin stretched over a hand, a thigh, grew on the metal.
"Just take what you want and let me go." She wriggled around on the floor.
"That's the rub, little baby. I need all of you."
The Pharmacist put a half-flesh-half-machine hand on her head. Something from it hummed in her brain. Warmth filled her ears and dripped off her earlobes. Stars exploded in her eyes. Darkness became a long tunnel and she thought of Ethan alone, bleeding from his busted leg, and wondered if he was oil already.
She wished they could be oil together.
The vibration in her head worsened. It spread to her stomach, her feet, and fingertips. Decades-empty cans rumbled across the floor. She'd found a particularly shitty end.
Then the net loosened.
Three clicks sounded from the Pharmacists head. "What?" The Pharmacist removed its hand but the vibrations continued. Rainbow hues flashed across Mallory's face as the lenses flickered through modes. "Not possible." The first words that sounded human were laced with fear. "They can't be back. Not in the Wild."
Lights blasted every crevice in the drug store and froze the Pharmacist in blistered detail. As Mallory's eyes refocused, the Pharmacist froze. A pale liquid sprayed from its thick body tubes loosened by the massive vibrations. A series of red dots converged on its chest.
Lenses clicked violet. The Pharmacist darkened. Clothes smoked. Mismatched skin blistered. Flames burst over the body and there came a thin electronic scream which faded as rivulets of plastic mixed with tissue.
Mallory bit her lip to bottle her own scream, tasted the blood, felt it pool in the hollow of her neck. The mess of Pharmacist spread beneath her. The red dots vanished and spotlights rotated across the store. The whir roared to life. The real Witnesses hunted.
Vibrations rattled the auto-ratcheting motors off their feed and they lost tension. The net loosened even more. Mallory fingered her ceramic knife from its sheath and slipped it sideways through the net. Each thread cut easily over the blade, popped like a shirt snap. She crawled through the tangled opening and rolled away just as a spotlight swept overhead. Her pistol lay caught under the lip of a metal shelf, but there wouldn't be any time for shooting. Only running.
But first Ethan's pills. They flashed at her in vivid color from the tube.
She ducked along the front of the blue counter and held her body tight against it while spotlights passed across the shelves behind her, illuminated the dust spiraling away from her movements. Her teeth rattled in their sockets from the vibration. Cracks split walls around her. The Witnesses meant to destroy the building with her inside.
Another spotlight skimmed by and she shoved her fingers into the delivery tube, yanked on the container which held all the bottles. It cracked open and the they bounced onto the floor, shined like gems she and Ethan had used once for merch.
Every spotlight snapped to her.
She stood, trapped in the focus of a dozen lights, and faced the unseen terror of her life still. Red circles aligned on her chest. She tugged a greasy lock of hair behind her ear and eyed the pill bottles three feet from her. Licked her lips.
Ethan's voice pounded in her head. "Whatever it takes."
Her heart vibrated. Her stomach. Bones. Her blood might boil. Mallory dove for the pill bottles and held them tight to her chest. A streak of fire blasted beside her and its force tossed her across the drug store. She smashed into the side of an old wire bin. The impact popped lids off bottles and scattered pills across dirty linoleum. A vision of Ethan dead from his stupid leg flashed through her mind.
Scrambling, she scooped as many as she could, stuffed her pockets with what didn't bounce away over the shaking floor. Ten, fifteen lights spun inside the building and the whir roared overhead. Her only chance was the window and back outside. Use the Pharmacist's trick lights to her advantage and bolt back through the alley to the Wild. That was her place, not the old world of concrete and metal and RZ ration lines.
Heat and trash burned as an explosion brought the front of the store down. Concrete dust washed over her. A flash of silver waited in the street, a shape like on those magazine covers.
Mallory clenched her teeth against the whir racing toward her and threw her tiny body into an old shelf unit. If it fell, she could use it as a ladder to the window. Pain zigzagged through her busted ribs, but the shelves didn't budge.
Part of the ceiling collapsed onto the Pharmacist's booth and half the building opened into the winter morning. She slammed against the shelves again. Nothing. Red lights swarmed on her. Their heat convected in her chest, heavy and burning.
She ran to the window and vaulted up the wall with a miles worn boot. Slivers of glass buried into her palms as she grabbed the window frame and pulled herself through. The dumpster banged hollow as she tumbled over it and her arm cracked on the hard alley floor.
She did't get sutures, but didn't have time to care. Gauze and pills filled her pockets and she wasn't oil. Whirring echoed all around and lights hunted through the building for her, but she was outdoors now. In her Wild. Smuggling. Running. With Ethan if she could run fast enough.
Mallory licked her lips. And when the Pharmacist's light array
clicked on, she ran. Fast.