This city is already ruined.
The buildings are cracked and the sidewalks have disappeared under piles of garbage and debris. The streets are ripped up pieces of black pavement; not even the weeds grow in between them. There’s no noise, no dogs barking or kids screaming or people shouting, no traffic, not even the sound of wind passing through the tops of its half eaten skyscrapers.
And yet it still feels overcrowded, hot with the bodies of a couple hundred people, curled up and hidden away from the outside world. They all live off of rats and old expired vitamins, licking the water that drips down the walls of their underground prison. They’re all jammed up and pressed together; melting in their sweat and their own decay. They wait on bated breath for someone to come and give them some sort of hope that died out a long time ago.
I don’t waste anymore time looking around. As much as I’d like to take a trip down to the crowded subway station and clear it out myself, I’ve got a more pressing matter on my hands: there’s an army of Martian soldiers coming to destroy these people for harboring disease, and my son is hiding somewhere among these rotten buildings.
I’m not an irresponsible parent by any means, I didn’t lose him or force him to run away. Unfortunately as a Warlord, I can’t always take him with me when dealing with enemy clans. Today I’ve learned that no person on this god forsaken earth can be trusted, not even those I believe to be my family. I’ve been betrayed, my own homeland failed to protect the one thing I ever loved while I was out trying to protect their well-being, and now I’m here trying to fix the mess they’ve made.
Someone kidnapped my son, and now someone has to pay.
I’ve been traveling for three days straight with no food and little water. I’m hot and I’m completely exhausted, my legs are killing me and I’ve got the hangover of the year. Two of my ribs are still broken from a month ago and they jab into my lungs every time I try to breathe the dry desert air. My hair is ripped out on one side, I’ve got blood caked on my forehead and a black eye that I can’t even open up all the way. I’m in bad fucking shape and I’ve got less than an hour until all hell breaks loose.
I take a crumpled piece of paper out of my pocket and stare at it. It has strangely written directions and a crudely drawn map that’s outdated and completely inaccurate. On my left shoulder I have a big metal pipe that I picked up on my way into the city, just in case things get really nasty.
“Two blocks down, take a left, old brick building with a neon sign,” I say out loud and continue to walk down the empty street. I step over a big puddle of water that pours out of a broken fire hydrant, sticky with oil and green sludge that smells like sewage.
I make my way over pipes, wires, crates, boxes...trashed appliances that would’ve been such a privilege to own in another time. I can smell the rotten meat of an old grocery two miles down from here. The stench wafts through the still air and suddenly the thought of eating rats in an old metro station doesn’t seem so bad anymore. I start thinking about food and before I know it, I’ve finally reached my destination.
On the outside the brick building looks fairly decent, even the neon “open” sign is still intact. In a concrete grave of a decomposing city the bar is nothing more than an eyesore. I take a quick glance around and I realize that I’m not alone. About twenty rugged-looking men stand in the windows of the ruined skyscraper next door, all just as busted up and pathetic looking as me. They all stare me down and watch my every move, but I’m not worried. I’m not the one they’re looking for. I unstick my hair from the sweat in my eyes and make my way through the door.
Inside lie the ruins of an old restaurant. The floor is covered in glass and sludgy water, broken chairs and dusty tables rest upside down on the sides of the crumbling brick walls. There are no lights, and there is no ceiling; everything is illuminated by the dim sunlight that pours down through charred and broken rafters. A large man sits behind a cracked and dirty bar, his figure shrouded in cigarette smoke and illuminated by the glow of an ancient CRT television. I make my way over to the bar and take a seat on one of the sad looking wobbly stools.
“What took you so long?” Z asks as he stands. He’s my oldest friend, a vagabond of sorts whom I was lucky to cross paths with many years ago. He lives in this faded no-man’s city to escape the burden of living under Clandestine rule and Legion brutality, but all that ends today.
He’s at least 6 feet tall, well built with sharp clear eyes. His clothes are worn but they’re clean, a plain white shirt half way tucked into ripped cargo pants. His frame is much fuller than the last time, the skin on his face is soft and hides the sharp cheekbones that were once too visible. It’s the healthiest I’d ever seen him. He turns around to face the wall of empty liquor bottles and broken mirrors behind him, grabs a glass and a bottle of cheap whiskey, then sets them both down in front of me.
“Saint wrote out the directions she gave me,” I say as I neglect the glass to drink straight out of the bottle. It tastes like spider webs and battery acid.
“What’s wrong with that?” he asks.
“I can’t read, so I got lost,” I reply, and we both have a good laugh. He goes back to smoking his cigarette, and I go back to slamming my drink.
“Are you alone?” he asks. He crosses his legs and rests one arm on the bar table, then leans back farther into his chair. The smoke fills the space between us; it dances up in spirals to greet the sunlight on the rafters.
“No,” I say. “It started out that way, but I know the Syndicate has been following me. They probably caught up when I passed through the Western Region. They’ll be here soon, waiting for the moment I fuck something up.”
“Hm,” he grunts and throws away the butt of his cigarette. “Well if anyone can draw a crowd to a place like this its you, King.”
I smile “Yeah, feels like it lately. I’m quite popular these days,” I take another sip of my drink and swallow it down. It’s so awful I can hardly stand it, but I’m just so desperate for a buzz. I don’t want to feel my broken body anymore.
“I agree,” he says as he leans forward to switch off the TV. His features become less visible in the dim sunlight, but I can tell that he looks tired.
“So,” I say. “Saint mentioned that you were hiding the residents underground. How many are there in the subways?” I ask.
“Well, half of them made a break for it about a week ago, they took off towards the mountains. The Beasts have probably picked them off by now. The other half makes up about 700 or so, probably less depending on how far it’s spread,” he says as he rubs his eye with a bandaged hand.
“But you said that they weren’t infected. Are they actually sick? Or did someone falsely report them?” I ask concerned.
“There’s definitely something going around, but I don’t think it’s dangerous. I think it’s unrelated. No yellow spots, no mutations--” he stops rubbing his eye and squints at me.
“Makes sense. Those bastards are gonna clear it out anyways, I guarantee it. I saw it happen myself a few miles back, same thing. No infections, no crazy rabid shit, just a common cold and they took everybody out.”
He raises his eyebrows. “They killed everyone?”
“They said that they transported them to a testing and treatment facility. But we both know that’s not true.”
“I see. You got right in the middle of it, didn’t you,” he says as he sizes up my injuries.
“Hell no, I don’t give a shit about them. I got this from Camp on my way over. Cana decided to challenge me this time,” I say as I point to my black eye. A fowl man and a greedy leader, Cana and his friends in the West have been after my kingdom for years, but I finally put a stop to it.
“Is that so. Did you win?” I don’t bother to answer. He knows I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t.
He smiles, leans back and puts his hands behind his head. “His allies will be coming after you next.”
I smile too. “Thief said the same damn thing. I’m not too worried about it.”
Z grabs a glass of his own and raises it. “Cheers. I don’t care if people call him a hero for what he did during the Legion seige; he seemed like scum to me. Good riddance.” And we drink. We sit in silence for a few moments, just breathing in the hot dry air, trying to mentally prepare for the inevitable.
“As much as I enjoy catching up with you Z,” I say, reluctantly breaking the silence. “I don’t have time to waste...”
“I know I know,” he says. “This is what happens when you disappear for three years.”
“Maybe so. I keep Saint updated though, you could always come visit me instead of making me drag my ass all the way to this shithole,” I finish my bottle and smash it on the floor. I want them to know that I’m here.
“Alright, deal. If we both make it out alive today, I’ll pay you a visit. Hell, I’ll even make you a drink.”
“Better be something better than this shit,” I say as I stare down at the broken shards that litter the floor.
He laughs and puts another cigarette between his teeth, takes a long drag, then breathes it right into my face. “You’ve got about twenty minutes before they get here,” he says as he coughs a little. “I picked up a radio signal before you came in and I was able to locate their position. Your guy is in the next building, the yellow apartment door at the top of those stairs,” he gestures to an opening in the left wall of the restaurant.
“Wait, did you say they’re flying in?” I ask. “You really think they’re going to bomb the city?”
“You said it yourself, they’ll take any reason to get rid of us, infection or not.”
I nod. That part’s got me a bit worried; I was hoping to have more time to escape.
I reach into my pocket and pull out my transporter, my prized possession. I hand it over to Z and he slips it into a leather bag draped across the back of his chair. “It only has enough charge for one more trip, so use it wisely.” I say sternly. “Do NOT activate it in the tunnels, it will collapse the entire underground. And don’t break it, you have no idea what I had to go through to get my hands on one of those.”
“This is extremely unusual for you, King. Risking your life for a district you don’t even know.”
“These are unusual circumstances. Besides, you know that’s not the real reason why I’m here. If they escape, good for them. But if they get in my way, I’m leaving them to fend for themselves.” I pause to fix the saturated bandage on my left arm. “Meet me where the old train station used to be. If I’m not there before they show up, activate the transporter and evacuate the residents without me.” He nods.
I stand up, grab my shit and shuffle towards the staircase over to the left. My heart pounds in my ears. I’ve been waiting for this and the whole damn world knows it.
I walk through the door and make my way up the broken stairs. “Get lost Z,” I yell. “I better not see you here again--” but I know its hopeless; he’s already gone.