was warm for February, as the spring came earlier and earlier every
year. Overhead the sky was filled with ash from a windstorm that blew
down from the highlands to the north. A wide, arching steam cloud
could be seen above the ash, dissipating in the high level winds. I
knew it was from a TK -- a “thrill kill” patrol that had just
descended from low orbit and wind-braked on the surging mountain air.
These guys were notorious for dropping out of the sky to vaporize
unsuspecting motorists traveling the Turnpike. You could hunt and
forage on foot by day, but in a car? Forget it. You were rat meat.
Unless you had speed.
I stood in the open, scanning the sky with a pair of digi-spec binoculars. I was what was known in those parts as a runner, and was probably the best in the whole damn state that year. Seeing the vapor trail overhead and noting the time of day, I knew what it meant. A relief patrol was coming through next. It was bonanza time.
“Tyler, you copy?” said a voice from my radio. It was Rogers back at the New Brunswick bunker. I brought the walkie up to my lips.
“I’m here.” I replied. “A TK just came by.”
“The drop is on, there's another vehicle approaching from the north-northwest. Should be on you any minute.”
I saw it before he finished his sentence. Hovering at a thousand feet was a slow-moving Greenie relief ship. A long, flat metallic disk that reflected the sunshine off its air-blasted hull. Looks like he’d just finished reentry. The back cargo door was open, which was a sign that a drop was about to happen. Time to get the car.
I sprinted over an ash pile, slid down the backside, and hit a button on my key ring. The automatic theft-deterrent shut down on my ride with an old-fashioned ‘chirp’ from under hood. The Bugatti from ‘21 was one of the last off the line that year. She had a dark, midnight blue shell with chrome-alloy rims. Blunt-nose, a wide wheelbase and darkened windows. It was the fastest production model ever made off any assembly line. Designed by Italians, built by the Germans, and I made sure she was well protected.
The engine cranked over smoothly, so I dropped it in gear and paced myself behind the relief ship on a stretch of road just off the New Jersey Turnpike. It was an industrial strip of land with a lot of rusty water towers and deteriorating warehouse distribution centers. There must be a new pit in there, I thought. Otherwise, the Greenies wouldn't drop here. It was a no-man’s land with fallout readings off the chart. But then I saw them. A trio of bunker heads waving from a low-slung, corrugated metal shack at the edge of a clearing. It was a pit entrance with a ramp leading downward. Probably small time, with maybe two or three dozen survivors inside. Easy pickings.
The relief workers dropped two metal cylinders from the back end of the ship. The twin capsules fell from the sky, parachutes billowing as they descended. I looked at my watch and clicked the timer. I had about ninety seconds to do this. I gunned the engine and gripped the wheel tight, picking up speed as I slid around the corner of a warehouse heading straight for the falling capsules.
Shots ricocheted past me as the bunker heads figured out what was happening. But the bullets made little impact on the car, as I had installed bullet proof glass and body armor two years ago. It was a bit heavier than the factory version, but the engine modifications I had done made up for it with power. In the rearview mirror I saw one of the freaks jump on a muscled-up ATV to chase me.
That’s when I saw him for the first time. He was a man, about my height and build, dressed in a tan canvas survival suit almost identical to mine. He jumped out from behind an ash pile, picked up a two-by-four and clotheslined the bunker head on the ATV. The freak fell off, rolling along the ground. I looked back through the rear window, trying to see if I recognized the guy. He was definitely dressed like a runner, and there was something oddly familiar about the guy. But I couldn’t tell who he was from that distance. The stranger waved to me, then disappeared into the swirling dust that the Bugatti was kicking up.
As the twin capsules hit the earth, I spun the Bugatti around, opened the door and pulled both of them inside the cramped vehicle.
“Later, jackass,” I said as I dropped the car into gear and sped off for home at New Brunswick.
Later that morning, I was checking for damage on the Bugatti in the pit garage when I was approached by one of the new arrivals in the bunker. I didn’t know the man’s name, but had been told by another runner that the guy’d come from Pennsylvania. Which didn’t make much sense, since most people didn’t venture east if they didn’t have to. East was where all the damage was.
“How fast is it?” asked the stranger.
I pulled at one of the cables on the fuel cell panel. It was clean. No grease.
“On the fuel cells, about 180 in a straight-away.”
“That’s not fast enough. The TK’s have been clocked at 200, maybe even 250 on a warm day.”
I continued wiping the engine, not giving this guy much thought.
“Tyler Gauge, right? I was told you were the fastest in the pit.”
“Who told you that?”
“Rogers was his name, I think. “
Okay, now it clicked. Rogers had met some drifter from Scranton who showed up about three days ago in one of the pit cantinas. Who let him in, I don’t know, but he must have had pull with somebody. I noticed he still wore army fatigues and worn boots. A week’s growth covered his round face. He was middle aged and a drinker. You could tell by the broken capillaries at the edge of his nose.
“Off the cells I can do 283 in a straight, 155 in the turns if it’s an interstate. I have a three gallon convertible tank. Ethanol or gasoline.”
“Gasoline?” the man laughed. “Where do you get the gas?”
“It’s out there if you know where to find it.”
“You know where to find it on the way to St. Louis?”
I stopped cleaning the fuel cell chamber and slammed the rear trunk shut.
“You’re crazy. You can’t leave the state, I don’t care how fast a car you’ve got.”
“Then how’d I get here?”
I looked the man up and down, then motioned toward his boots.
“You’re the best runner on the east coast. I came here because I’ve heard the stories. A lot of people have been talking about you the past 18 months. I want to hire you.”
“The job doesn’t interest me.”
“I have to get to St. Louis. A lot of people’s lives depend on it. I have 72 hours to get there. There’s no other way but driving. I’ll pay you.”
“With what? Money? Can’t spend what I got. Food? Where am I supposed to put it? I got a six by six cube with a bed and a lamp and that’s about it. In case you haven’t heard the news, we got our asses kicked, man. World’s over. End of story.”
“There’s always freedom. That’s worth running for, isn’t it? They don’t have any bunkers out west.”
That got my attention. For about a second.
“What’s your name?” I asked him.
“Whales. Gene Whales,” he answered, extending his hand. I grabbed a rag instead and wiped the grime from my fingers.
“Catch you later, Whales,” I replied as I turned around.
Whales only wanted the car, and at this point, he’d do anything to get it. He needed the speed. There was no other car like it still rolling east of the Mississippi. He was about to place his hands on the hood when I clicked the alarm on my key chain.
“I wouldn’t,” I said over my shoulder, still walking away.
Whales undoubtedly felt the static surge in his arms, because his hands froze over the hood about three inches from the surface. Nearly six-thousand volts from the fuel cells now surged through the metal skin of the car. I then heard my recorded voice coming from a speaker hidden under the hood:
“Please, step away from the vehicle. If you do not, you will be eliminated. Thank you.”
Northern New Jersey had thousands of survivors hidden in pits all over, but the finest and wealthiest bunker by far was under New Brunswick. That was because of runners like myself who settled there. I’d lived there three years, along with five hundred other survivors, after the great Greenie invasion wiped out all of the largest cities on the planet. New York was first on the list. Half of the tri-state area was reduced to ash a few minutes after midnight on December 20th, 2028.
Epsilon Eridani is a star system about 10.5 light years from Earth, and that, since it was so close, was the suspected home of the invading force. A “Greenie” is just slang for an invader, with the technical name being Eridanian Explorus, but no one ever used that. I myself had never seen an Eridanian up close, but from military accounts that filtered down to the bunker through HAM radio broadcasts, the aliens looked similar to enormous cockroaches and had a greenish hue. Hence the name stuck.
What anyone did before the war didn’t matter. At the time of the invasion, the only question was about survival. That was the only question. Within a few months we were spotted by an alien ‘red cross’ patrol and placed on the list of care facilities with all the other bunkers. Every two weeks a relief ship would pass overhead and drop a food shipment to ensure our survival, and at that point, it seemed as though we had truly been saved.
But that wasn’t good enough for the people at New Brunswick. Call us callous, or greedy, but we didn’t see it that way. We wanted more. What no one realized was the interesting mix of survivors we had in the pit. Professors from Rutgers and Princeton. First responders. Laborers and construction workers. Even a few mechanics, like myself, who knew how to engineer the brawn for the elders’ ambitious strategy. Soon enough, raiding parties were organized. But within a few bloody weeks it became clear that a lot of good people were losing their lives fighting over scraps on the shelf at the local Pic’N’Save. We needed a shift in strategy.
Rogers was one of the junior pit elders on the council, a slim guy with a high forehead who knew a lot about radios and communication systems. I approached him one night in his cube and told him what I thought we needed to be doing. At first, he scoffed at the plan.
“What about gas?” he asked.
“Screw the gas, this pit needs a ramp big enough for cars to come in and out. Can you build it?” I asked.
“I know where to get the materials, but I think you’re crazy” he replied. “TK patrols will hunt you down within minutes out there.”
“We need to be mobile. And we need speed. I know where to get both. With hybrids and fuel cells we won’t need that much gas.”
Rogers thought about how he was going to take it up the chain to the other elders. But after a long pause, he smiled. Then nodded. He was like me. Ready for action.
“Now I know you’re certifiable,” he quipped.
“Trust me,” I said. “What else we got to live for?”
Evading alien patrols on a cool March evening, I made my way to an estate near Morristown where I had labored some months before. It was a large house, maybe seven or eight bedrooms in an understated Tudor-style. Trees stripped of their leaves but still undeniably comfortable. There, under a tarp, I found the blue Bugatti hiding in the private collector’s six-car garage. Unlike the owner, the car had survived the war in perfect condition. While I refurbished and customized the vehicle, others followed my lead by jacking cars from garages across the region. That was the moment the runners were born.
After those early failures I’d realized I had a service to provide my fellow bunker heads. Namely stealing packages from relief convoys meant for neighboring bunkers. Food, radios, electronic gear, luxury items, you name it. You want cocktail olives for the pit cantina? We’ll get ‘em for you. There was science behind us, and it was called eavesdropping. By that time good ol’ Rogers had figured a way to crack the alien codes and knew what and when they were dropping to the other bunkers. It was just a matter of time before we got a system going. A very rewarding one for myself and the survivors at New Brunswick.
The Bugatti was cramped inside with two passengers. Whales studied the gauges on the dash like a wide-eyed child. It had been years since he’d ridden in a vehicle, and everything in front of him glowed a hypnotic, digital hue. The fuel cell gauges, the speedometer, the security system, oil gauges, everything was electronic. He turned to me, smiling.
“You want to see something?” asked Whales.
I didn't answer, as it was night, and I was concentrating on the interstate outside the windscreen.
He pulled out a small, elongated crystal with notches cut on the outside. It was definitely Greenie technology.
“A lot of valuable information is on this,” he said.
“What is it, the Death Star plans or something?”
Whales remembered what that meant and laughed.
“Yeah. Something like that.”
“And they need that in St. Louis?” I asked.
“I've been ordered to take it there. This is for the shield, you know.”
He said that the reason the west was still open was because the Army had developed a defense shield in California about seven months ago and covered most of the coast with it. Alien ships couldn’t fly overhead or use their weapons inside the bubble. But lately there had been some penetrations by a new wave of Greenie fighters. They could fly through the shield and attack at will. Apparently, Whales had the schematics for the new fighter on that crystal. If they cracked the code, they could strengthen the shield to ward off the new wave of attacks.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but that could turn the tide of this whole thing,” I said.
“We’re already turning it,” said Whales. “It’s only a matter of time before we take it back. From the coast all the way to the Mississippi.”
“So the rumors are true?” I asked.
“Yes, it's open,” replied Whales, “but only if you can get there.”
I looked ahead as the interchange from the Turnpike fed into Interstate 95 at the border. We needed to hop over to the 76, and then it was straight shot all the way through Pennsylvania into the midwest. The road was clear as it stretched onward. Flat and surprisingly manageable as we crossed a bridge over the Delaware River. We were entering Trenton doing about 160 miles per hour.
“In about 10 minutes we’re going to be hitting Philly.”
“Is that dangerous?” asked Whales.
“Yep. Lotta freaks down there.”
Whales looked up. A sign overhead flew by, showing a Philadelphia exit coming up. This made him nervous.
“My kid went missing somewhere near Philadelphia. My daughter, Ariel. She’s probably about 15 or 16 now. Her mother left Scranton 12 years ago and took the kid with her.”
“I get it now,” I said, nodding. “I knew there was something up with you.”
“Why you came this far east. Nobody comes east anymore.”
Whales didn’t answer at first.
“Thought I might be able to find her if I checked enough bunkers,” he said.
“There’s hundreds of bunkers in Jersey alone, man,” I replied.
“So then what? How’d you get that Greenie crystal?”
“One of the new TK patrol ships crashed in an electrical storm outside a bunker in Piscataway. I guess I was in the right place at the right time.”
“Call it fate, Whales,” I said.
“Can I ask you something? What made you change your mind?” he asked.
“Your little freedom speech. I can make a new life for myself, I figure,” I said.
“Glad you changed your mind.”
I don’t like Philadelphia. Of all the cities on the coast, Philly missed the brunt of the main assault by the Greenies, so there were many sectors of the city still intact with populations living above ground. That made it difficult to raid the relief ships when they made drops. It seemed that every time I came through town the car took a hard hit from some band of survivors who were armed to the teeth with rifles, shotguns, and high-caliber assault weapons. It was a dangerous place.
As we came over a rise in the 76 on the outskirts of a residential neighborhood, I saw the Turnpike stranger from earlier pop up from behind the railing on the side of the highway. He was dressed in the same brown canvas survival suit, wearing goggles and a mask, identical to my own. He had both hands up in the air, warning us to slow down.
“You see that guy?” I asked Whales. But he was looking out the passenger side window as we passed him.
“There,” I answered, craning my neck back. “In the gear. He’s in a suit just like mine. A runner.”
“No, I didn’t. Oh, crap. What the hell is that?” said Whales.
I could now see the barrier about 400 yards ahead. This was something new. It hadn’t been there the week before. We were now crossing a bridge and there was nowhere to escape off road. I downshifted, slammed on the brakes and tried to ease the car down from the cruising speed of 250. Whales grabbed the dashboard and shot me a concerned look.
“Are we stopping?” he asked.
“Hang on. I think they got us.”
As we slowed a net sprang up from the debris in the road and covered the car. We came to a quick stop about a dozen yards from the junk pile built across the four lanes of concrete. The car didn’t like to be stopped so quick. Smoke poured from the hood as coolant exploded from hoses underneath. It was then, through the haze, that I saw our captors for the first time.
They were just children. Dozen of them. In survival gear and helmets, some too big for their small frames. They ranged in age from four to sixteen and were all male as far as I could tell. They were feral, diseased, filthy and lawless. They didn’t know right from wrong, or what a law ever was. They just knew how to survive.
They surrounded the car, weapons drawn, and motioned for Whales and I to come out. When we did, I noticed I was a head taller than just about all of them. A rifle with a makeshift bayonet was jammed in my ribs and I was pushed forward with the crowd. Whales, arms raised, tried reasoning with some of them, but got nowhere. He was quickly slammed across the mouth by the butt end of a shotgun.
As we moved off, I clicked the button on the remote key chain and the doors on the Bugatti slammed shut. When the kids moved on the vehicle to strip it, they heard the buzz from the electric current flow through the side panels and knew something was up. When the car talked to them, reminding them to please step away from the vehicle or they would be eliminated, they took the warning to heart and backed off quickly. Whales was getting nervous now. He placed his hands on top of his head and tried to get my attention.
“Tyler? What do they want?”
“Just shut up, man. Do what they say. They just want the car.”
“They’re gonna kill us aren’t they?” he asked.
“Not if we stay cool, Whales. You get me?” I said.
Whales nodded as the march continued around the back end of the barricade. We left the interstate on a curled ramp that ended on the city street below. The intersection looked familiar to me.
This particular gang of thugs I had seen before, but didn’t realize it until we reached the entrance to one of the few intact pits in the region. This place was the Philiadelphia-Bustleton bunker, and I'd hit it plenty over the past two years, mostly stealing staples like sugar and cornmeal. As we moved inside, I saw that the tunnel was narrow and filled with skinny children staring up at us with intense curiosity. I kept my mouth shut because there was no reasoning with them if they turned on us. Whales and I were separated at a fork in the hallway as we reached the base of the ramp.
It was the flip side of New Brunswick. I looked into the bunker and saw nothing but darkness. The place smelled rank and diseased. Overhead, the roof leaked badly. Of course, I knew the main contributing factor to all this misery was me. Had they received their regular relief packages they might have had a fighting chance. But the way things looked now, they were on their last legs and would have to come out and live in the open. With the radiation. The fallout. Nobody wanted to do that.
I was thrown into a cell with another prisoner, a kid of about fifteen with red hair and a pimply, adolescent face. He was dressed in navy blue rags and played an old handheld video game with a crack in the flat-panel screen. He nodded to me, then leaned back in his bunk as the cell door slammed shut.
“What’s your name, kid?”
“Jordan,” he said flatly.
He didn’t smile. I asked him what this place was and why they were holding us. Jordan was a smart kid, you could tell, but he was scared. The story he told me, about the Bustleton Bunker, was one of the sadder and more disturbing postwar tales I had heard in some time.
Bustleton was where all the children in northeast Philly were sent when the Greenies began leveling the larger cities to the north. There were only six elders who survived the mayhem that December night, and they were all men. First responders mostly, put in charge of the evacuation and who separated the kids from their parents to make sure they had a future. Those first few weeks were a nightmare, said Jordan, but they made it, no doubt because the elders knew about the bunker and how they could use it to full advantage.
The closest thing to woman in the gang of two hundred-plus kids was a teenaged girl they all called The Babysitter. It was her job to wrangle the surviving children into groups and supervise them while the elders foraged for food and fuel to make the bunker usable.
In their absence, she became the queen of the bunker. According to Jordan, she was immature, dangerous and manipulative, and ruled with an iron fist over the terrified children of the pit. However, as time went by, some of the older children uncovered the cruel reality behind her violent mood swings and seemingly erratic behavior. Jordan stopped here, finding the words difficult to come by.
“Go on,” I said. “It’s okay. Tell me. What was wrong with the Babysitter?”
“They abused her. All of them,” he said.
“The elders? You mean -- ?”
“Yeah. Every night when we were all sleeping in our cubes,” he continued.
Since they’d first arrived. She couldn’t complain, she couldn’t rebel, and all she could do was accept it. Which didn’t sit well with her. At all.
But all of that changed about six months before. One night she’d tricked the elders into going on a night hunt in one of the nearby sectors of Bustleton. As soon as they left, she bolted the bunker doors shut and left them stranded in the street until the sun rose. It was inevitable that a Greenie patrol would come by, and within hours all six of the elders were reduced to ash by a curious TK squadron. On that day, the Babysitter became the de-facto dictator of Bustleton.
Once in charge, she decreed that any males who reached the age of 16 would have to leave the bunker and find someplace else to live. The median age of the kids in the bunker was climbing higher every day. A good deal of the kids looked like they were either rapidly approaching or fully in puberty.
“I’m here,” he said, “for trying to do it with one of the girls.”
He came closer and whispered.
“They say she wants to cut it off.”
He motioned between his legs as if holding a pair of scissors..
“Scary business,” I said.
Jordan nodded. Then went back to playing his damaged game. I leaned back, took off my boots, and shut my eyes to get some sleep.
The next morning I awoke to a commotion in the hallway outside the cell. I crawled over to the door and looked through the half-inch space at the base. The grimy, dusty face of the roadside stranger greeted me. Wearing goggles and an air mask, I could not identify him, nor could I figure out how he had gotten inside the bunker.
“Here. You’re gonna need this!” he said as he slid something across the hall floor. It skated through the crack under the door and into my hands. It was Whale’s Greenie crystal that he’d picked up in Piscataway.
“Hey, wait! What happened? Who are you?!” I said to him.
But the man took off down the hall. I then noticed another disturbance coming closer from the other end of the corridor. Four teenaged guards dragged a body from inside one of the adjacent cells. Coming closer, I realized the body was that of Gene Whales. He was clearly dead. Face swollen. Blood coming from his mouth, nose and eye sockets. You could barely recognize him. Jordan joined me at the door crack and looked into the hall.
“He must have tried to escape,” he said.
I rose up, very upset, and slammed my fist into the wall. I could feel the pain shoot through my fingers and wrist. There’s no way this could be happening.
“What the hell is going on in this place?!” I screamed.
Then I heard a key enter the lock on the cell door. A second later it swung open. There were four more guards there. Waiting for me.
“She wants to see you,” one of them said.
I slid the crystal into one of my back pockets and raised my hands. Another guard came forward and attached a collar around my neck. I was led into the hallway and taken away. As the door slammed shut, I craned my neck back and saw Jordan watching us through the crack under the door.
“Don’t look at her tits!” he screamed out to me.
Her chamber was decorated much different than the rest of the bunker. There were couches, upholstered chairs, and even a chandelier with lit candles hanging from the ceiling. She didn’t have electricity, but at least she tried to give it the feminine touch.
I was forced down on my knees while she paced before me. I don’t think she had been in contact with any adults since she’d locked out the elders, and my presence made her visibly tense. She was slim, very slim, with dark hair piled up on her head and wrapped in a sort of bandana. Her legs were long and athletic, and she wore tattered cargo shorts and sandals. She looked like a teenager. Couldn’t be more than 15 or 16 years old. But something inside made her anything but. There was a raging fire burning in in her eyes.
In this moment of crisis, there was one idea that kept badgering me. Something she wouldn’t be expecting. If I was right, she’d be thrown off balance and I might be able to convince her to let me out of there. It was the last thing Whales had said on the ride down. He said he had a daughter. Who was about this girl’s age.
“Your name's Ariel, isn't it?”
She did not respond.
“That other man who was brought in with me. I think he was your father.”
“I know exactly who that man was,” she flatly said. “I knew he was coming. When the scouts brought him in, I'd been thinking about it for days.”
She turned back to me and stared into my eyes.
“He didn't deserve to live any longer,” she added.
There was something very feral and sexual about her. The way she moved, and how her clothes fit her. I remembered what Jordan screamed as I was being escorted away and it was impossible for my eyes not to be drawn to her body.
As soon as she saw me looking, she motioned to one of the guards. He came over and swiftly planted a forearm to the back of my neck. The stinging pain surged through my head as my eyesight went dark for a moment. I was about to speak when she cut me off.
“I can have your head any minute,” she said.
“You take your father's life without mercy, but keep me alive. Why?” I replied.
“Questions are not allowed here!” she exclaimed.
Another shot to the back of my neck. I reeled from the blow but regained my bearings and looked right back at her. I stood up, which forced her to retreat a couple feet. But she did not back down. Something about me had her curious.
“Why do you do it?” she asked.
“Do what?” I replied.
“Steal our care packages and fuel,” she answered. “You’re the one, aren’t you?”
“I’m just a thief, Ariel,” I replied.
“Does it make you feel supreme? Everyone in your bunker grows fat and weak, while you run around stealing for them. How does that make you feel?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer this. So I told her the truth.
“Alive. Free. Not like some rat in a cage. Which is what they are. Pets for the Greenies that they feed and look after. I think it’s sick.”
“Look at my people!” she said. “We’re starving. We have to hunt for what we eat. There’s nothing out there anymore. You’ve given us a death sentence!”
“The Greenies did that,” I answered.
“You’re lying!” she screamed.
“Listen, I know what happened here,” I said. “For that, I’m sorry. The elders should never have done it. From what I see, you need some help. Had I known what I know now? I might not have done what I did. Do you understand?”
That did it. I’d hit a soft spot, and right then I knew the reason why she hadn't had me killed yet. The Babysitter looked at me with a crushing sadness. She turned away, hiding her face. Her strategy was clear. She didn’t want to be in charge of the pit anymore.
“If I let you live, will you work for us? As a runner?”
“Just a runner?”
“We need someone like you. Someone who knows how to run a bunker,” she said.
“Can’t do it,” I answered.
“Why not?” she asked.
“I don’t know what your dad told you, but I have a job to complete. For the Army. Right now, I’m the only one who can make it.”
“The Army doesn’t exist anymore,” she said.
“It does. Your father was in it.”
She came over me, her face very close to mine, inspecting me, trying to figure out if I could be persuaded. But my compassion gene went missing long ago.
“It's your job, Ariel. Not mine,” I said.
She snapped her fingers at the guards. The last thing I remember was an intense, throbbing pain in the back of my head.
I woke up back in the cell, but Jordan wasn’t there. Instead, there was another presence. It was a man. He was wearing the canvas survival suit, a mask and goggles.
“Who the hell are you?” I said, moving to the other side of the cell.
The man stood up and walked into the center of the room. He took off the goggles and mask and... it was me. Same dark blond hair, same green eyes. He had my skin tone, my build. It was like I was looking at myself in a mirror, except that he had no bruises on his face and his clothes were new and clean.
“I’m you. Sort of,” he said.
“Get the hell outta here!” My mind was playing tricks on me, I thought. This had to be a dream, a hallucination. Who was this guy?
“You’ve been following me for two days, haven’t you?” I asked.
“You know what nano-builders are, Ty?” he said. He was very casual in his delivery. I felt like he was almost toying with me.
“I don’t know. They’re like little mini-robots or something like that. The size of a single molecule.”
“Oh, they can be even smaller than that, Ty. I am your body double, nano-engineered by you about fifteen years in the future, and transmitted by a particle beam on a subatomic level back in time. Are you following me?”
“I don’t understand a word of what you just said.”
“That’s okay, you have plenty of time to study up. Remember the library?”
“You’re going to be spending a lot of time in libraries over the next few years, hate to tell you. Your running days will soon be coming to an end.”
“An end? Why the hell are you here?”
“To save you. I'm taking your place when you're executed tomorrow. Don’t worry, I’m not really organic matter, I just look that way. I’m merely a sequence of molecules temporarily assembled by a series of nano builders to look like you. You need to ask the bigger questions now. Like how these little bunker heads knew you and Whales would be on that particular highway at that particular time of day?”
“They were waiting for anyone to come along.”
“They weren’t. Someone told them to be out there. The Greenies sent the information back through time to stop you and Whales. Probably through a courier similar to me. They knew if either of you got through with that crystal, it would be over for them on this planet.”
“In the future, you figured out what they were up to and sent me back to help. You have little time. And remember, that spy is still out there. Now, take my survival gear and get out of here. The clock’s ticking, Ty.”
“You’re freaking me out, man. You even sound like me.”
“That’s the point.”
I took the canvas gear from him and climbed inside the pressurized suit. I checked the seals and zipped it up. A perfect fit.
“Is this suit? I mean, is it real? Will I be safe?”
“Perfectly. The nano builders work even better on inanimate material. It’s a real suit, all right.”
I took the crystal and slid it in a back pocket. Her handed me his goggles.
“When you die, will it hurt? I mean, will it hurt me? Will I feel anything?”
“No, and neither will I. I’ve been thinking of saying something real heroic at the execution. Going out in a blaze of glory kind of thing. You got any ideas?”
I was really freaking out at this point. I could barely breathe.
“I’m... no, I don’t. I just drive cars, man.”
“That’s okay, I’ll come up with something. Look, when they string me up I’m just going to come apart like dust cloud. No blood, no organs exploding. Not that thrilling. They won’t know what happened.”
“You need bruises. On your face -- you don’t have any.”
“Oh,” he said. He reached up to his face with his hand and, like he was shaping clay, maneuvered the molecules on the skin of his face to replicate the bruises on mine. It looked pretty good. Almost identical. I nodded.
“How do I get out of here?”
“Just wait. They’ll all be in the main hall to see this. You’ll have a clear shot at the outer door to the bunker. I made sure of that.”
There was a knock on the door.
The double bent over and I climbed on his back. I then wedged myself in the narrow space above the doorjamb, right near the curved ceiling of the cell. Underneath me, the door swung open and a guard entered.
“It’s time,” he said to the double. I watched myself as I walked out the door and into the hall. The door was left ajar. I waited a full thirty seconds before descending to the ground. I stuck my head out the door and looked into the hallway.
It was clear.
I came over the rise of the junk pile that stretched across Interstate 76 and found the car still sitting there under the capture net, fully intact. I couldn’t believe no one had tried to force the doors open or steal the tires. But there it was, ready to go. I’d have to backtrack, I thought, probably through Trenton or maybe even across the Delaware to Camden and find another way around the city. But that was the least of my worries now. I just wanted to make sure my baby started up. I remembered that the cooling hoses had blown when they’d stopped us at the barricade. That might take a while to fix, especially if a dust storm blew through.
I reached the car and clicked off the alarm. It chirped. That meant the power was still flowing from the fuel cells uninterrupted.
“Thank you,” I said aloud.
I was reaching for the silver door handle when they got to me.
A gang of three toothless vagabonds with crossbows jumped out of the debris surrounding the car and attacked with full force. One arrow got me in the leg, sending me to the pavement. Before I could counter, the other two had my arm in a tight grip, ripping the keys from my hand. As I fell over on my back, I looked up in the sky and noticed a wide, arching steam cloud visible above the swirling ash, dissipating in the high level winds. It was from a TK patrol that had just descended from low orbit. It didn’t matter what happened to me at this point. If those guys took off in the car? They were rat meat.
The Bugatti sped away. Sitting on a cinder pile, I watched them vanish into the swirling dust. I then pulled out the crystal that Whales entrusted to me just before he was executed. How the hell was I supposed to do get it halfway across the country? I was two hundred miles from New Brunswick, and there was no going back. There had to be another way. Somehow. West of Philly, maybe? I couldn’t tell.
From over the hill came the percussion from an explosion. A fireball climbed into the sky as the Bugatti was vaporized by the alien patrol. I stood up, pocketed the schematic crystal and walked off into the swirling, radioactive windstorm to look for a new ride. I wondered if my future self, fifteen years from now, was smart enough to send a new ‘21 Bugatti Veyron back in time for me. Would it be right here, over the small rise in this bridge? Keys in the ignition?
I climbed over the rise and looked. No chance. There was nothing there. Okay, fine, I thought. I’m gonna be hoofing it for a while.
THE END 6980 words
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