Bad, unfinished and imperfect version of Feeding Time


I thought I would never return to Feeding Time, but after a long time I did. Not only did I return to the novel, but I found out how bad is and how needed the revision is. I also found that the whole plot needs to be changed 🙁 So I threw myself into new edits and the final, improved version may soon be released under Fantom Print.

No writer would publish a work if he knew it is not perfect or if he knew it contain errors.

But…

I was naive few years ago and I thought that the work is good. So I paid for translation into English language (from my own pocket). I am sorry now to just throw it away. That’s why I put it here, free to read. Maybe you’ll find it entertaining.

 

Description:
Imagine planet Earth ravaged by a Great War, parched from lack of water, plagued by an extreme and erratic climate… and yes, of course, populated by gruesome creatures from outer space, constantly thirsting for fresh blood. Is it possible to live normally in such a world? Is it possible to ever survive in such a world? Can one do something else besides exist day to day, waiting to die?

Of course not. There is no light at the end of the tunnel.

But one of us has a different opinion…

 

Feeding Time (The wrong version)

Tomáš Sekerka

Either I get an answer to my questions, or I end up dead. I’m truly just scared of the first thing.

–Mark Badluck

 

She pushed the container into the last tube and removed the garbage bag from it. She carefully tied it, so that the putrid stench wouldn’t escape, and squeezed it inside. That was the last one. She nodded to Kein, who was leaning against the elevator door frame and pressed the button. The small eyes beneath the greasy hair focused, a welcoming distraction. His uniform, embroidered with the words “Order Patrol,” was grubby with grease stains.

“I don’t get you, girl,” he said, “you’re dealing with this mess here, and yet you could earn decent money.” He leaned toward her and she smelled his breath, competing with the garbage. He was shorter than her, but the confidence but the uniform lent him confidence.

“Shut up, Kein, and back away,” she gently pushed against his chest. She would perhaps be flattered by being addressed as a girl, but not by him.

But Kein did not budge. He openly stared at the swell of her undershirt. He placed his baton, dangling from his finger until now, between her breasts. “I’d lavish a lot of credit on this stuff.”

“But this stuff,” she promptly grabbed his crotch and squeezed it hard, “is worth nothing. Actually, I bet it doesn’t even get hard at all. So stop waving it around and make sure the kids don’t play with the elevator.” Kein flushed, opened his mouth in a silent cry and ducked his head. She let him go only when the elevator arrived with a clink. She could see anger in his ruddy cheeks, but something else as well. Helplessness, fear maybe. Partly fear of her, partly of his superior. And so, clutching his crotch with one hand, he snorted and let go of her.

She pushed the cart into the elevator and pressed the lowest floor button. She deliberately avoided looking into the cracked mirror on the wall. She didn’t dare check the reflection of her emaciated face, with dark circles under the eyes. She had long since given up on her appearance. Besides, as it was proven to her a moment ago, looking good wasn’t worth it. She grabbed the zipper of her worn-out hoodie and pulled it up to her neck.

 

She got off at the underground garage. The only floor not illuminated at all times. The switches were just around the corner. Anna pressed one after another. The diode bars on the ceiling and walls gradually lit up. With every passing second, the concrete room grew by another section, first lengthwise, and then widthwise as well. Finally, she stood in front of a large area with the ceiling supported by yellow-black columns at regular intervals.

Despite the fact that the putrid stench was almost visible, she loved it down here. It was quiet and the open space gave her a sense of freedom. With a few exceptions, she was the only one who came down here. She pushed the cart out and continued along the arrows drawn on the ground. The sound of the squeaky wheels, inaudible up there, echoed here with strange theatricality. On the way she passed a series of rusty cars, the forever standing reminders of the past, pushed aside by the walls and columns.

She wasn’t rushing. In fact, she even stopped and enjoyed the heavy silence, through which the sound of roaring ventilation was barely audible. The silence was suddenly shattered by a distant howl. It came from outside. She froze, every muscle in her body tensing. Her hand automatically shot out for the sheath with the knife hanging at her waist. But she didn’t finish the movement. She was safe here after all. Slowly she calmed down. This wasn’t the first time she had heard the terrifying sound resembling the cries of a child, but it always gave her goose bumps. She felt something harden and become heavy in her chest, her thoughts shifting uncontrollably to places she had managed to avoid until now. For a moment her head was full of blood and bodies, cries and despair. Then she managed to gain control and pull herself together before erupting in tears.

She came to a heap of blue bags, piled up to the ceiling at their highest point. From the truck she pulled out a smaller bag, which she tucked behind the elastic band of her trousers and covered it with a sweatshirt. She dumped the rest on the ground or threw it on a pile. That was it for today. She was about to turn around when she noticed two flies chasing each other in front of her. She didn’t understand how they could change direction so fast and frenetically. Oddly, there were only two of them. She remembered that when she was very young, she once forgot to throw away leftovers and the plate was then swarmed over by insects. There were hundreds of bags of waste and she only saw two flies here. Then she laughed. Odd? No, it was not odd at all.

An approximately five-feet tall mound was stuck to the slopes of the pyramidal mountain. If examined, one would have notice that it consisted essentially of untorn sacks stuffed with lightweight material. She walked over to it and started throwing the sacks down until a familiar shape appeared. In a few moments there was a polished, cared for, fully functional and complete electric yellow Peugeot before her. She called it Bumblebee. The only flaw was the dent on the passenger door. Well, everybody makes mistakes.

She wiped her hands on her pants and touched the door handle. There was a faint click and the interior of the car lit blue. This was Roderick’s – he re-chipped the car to recognize the fingerprints of their family, aside from Frank, who refused the offer. No one else could start the car. Inside it was quiet; the buzz of the electric motor could only be heard by somebody outside. A delicate aroma of leather inhabited the inside, although the interior was of a different material. She fastened her seat belt and put her hands on the steering wheel. Excitement sent chills down her back. Enjoying the opportunity, she adjusted the seat temperature and ventilation.

Overall, the car was worthless. Going with it to the surface would mean certain death. Still, if Paco found out that they were keeping something from him, he would punish her and her family. In spite of this, she hoped and secretly plotted that once she accumulated enough supplies and information, she would take her family and just leave, go somewhere nice where they could live without fear. She dreamed of those places, imagined them, with lots of nice people, living in prosperity and happiness…

With this beautiful, though not entirely realistic idea, she floored the accelerator and the car shot forward. The right-side screen warned her with a red numeral that she had barely missed a concrete pillar by about four inches. Braking, swerving, offsetting the wheel and stepping on the gas again. If only she could teach Roderick and Jolie how to drive, but they almost never got to go down here. She always had to control herself not to enthusiastically tell them how it had been.

After ten minutes of driving, which seemed like a second, she was forced to return. She hid the car again. Because she didn’t want to risk anything, she scrubbed away the treadmarks which appeared in some places, using a prepared mop. Her heart pounded so much with excitement she couldn’t even remember how she got back. She was brought back to reality by the mocking voice of the OP:

“Where have you been so long? I thought you drowned there.”

“You’re right,” she sighed falsely, “I almost have to swim through that rotting shit. I have it almost everywhere. “

Kein looked disgusted and stepped away. Anna returned the cart and ran up the stairs to the upper floor. First, no one went this way and secondly, she never missed an opportunity to stretch. The stench of disinfection in the washrooms suddenly drowned out the reek of excrement from the toilets freshly torn out of the wall. She washed her hands and rinsed her face.

When she approached the double doors with the inscription Services Organization, they opened. Jack hunched behind a transparent screen between two pillars. One of the few who liked Anne and her family. Or rather, he didn’t hate her. Shila was just dealing with him about something, a slut wholeheartedly walking around nearly naked, even on this floor. ​​The thongs underneath the clear plastic miniskirts and an unbuttoned jacket were her idea of ​​dress code. Apparently she was trying to convince Jack about something with her dangling charms and failing. Finally she slammed the table and turned to leave. She walked with legs apart, like a guy, hair thinning due to a lack of vitamins.

“Try something and you’re dead,” she hissed into Anna’s ear as she passed her. Obviously she was afraid. If Anna decided to sell her body (and it was generally known that she may perhaps have nothing else left), she would lose customers.

“Oh, Anna Fenton, how are you doing?” Jack shouted at her.

“Great, the only thing is a shortage of toothpicks. I’m done for today,” she waved her wrister above the scanner. A wrister was a data tape, personal computer and identity, which a person received before the umbilical cord was cut.

“Bad news,” he said, and it seemed that he was truly sorry about something. “Wages for scavengers have gone down. You get twenty credits.”

“What? Yesterday it was thirty!” She swelled with rage, but quickly suppressed it. This was a game of nerves and she would not give up, not yet.

“I’m sorry,” he said out of courtesy.

“Okay, you got something else for me?”

He stretched his back and tapped his fingers on the monitor. “Sorry, I have nothing for next week. Work is scarce. Perhaps our provider will approve the renovation on the fifth floor. But when the containers are filled again, it will be yours, provided that you got it for me.” He handed her a piece of paper and a pencil.

“In my shared files, you will find a single folder.” She wrote the password: FuckPaco69. “You got access for thirty minutes.”

“More than I need,” he said as he read the password and revealed crooked teeth, “you’d better get out of here.” He took the paper and shredded it.

Jack had a particular fondness for titillating recordings. The Internet, a declining restricted network that dwindled with each shattered computer, had not been a place full of information for a long time. It was difficult to find something, data a prized commodity. And Roderick knew it.

Anna opened the account status on her wrister. Eighty-six credits. She bought a can with eight percent meat for seventy and cigarettes for Jolie for fifteen credits. It had been a debauchery, but it had been Jolie’s birthday, and Anna hadn’t wanted to just let it go.

A single credit remained.

She returned downstairs into the living area. On the way she met Micky, also a member of the OP (Order Patrol). The OP was Paco’s police unit, enforcing local laws. Of course, they also preemptively looked for rebellion and conspiracies against him. He promised many credits for exposing these revolutionaries. But only for the OP units. Ordinary citizen thus couldn’t inform against someone on their own. That is, unless they made an arrangement with an OP member, which was not so complicated.

The simple rules of Home, tightened after the rebound civilian attack of the starved on the warehouse, hung framed on each floor. The following was written in the most important part:

 

Penalties for violation of moral laws:

1. Theft                                                          Three months in prison

2. Repeated theft                                           Thirty minute exploring

3. Attack or assault on OP units                    One hour exploring

4. Murder or attempted murder                     Two hour exploring

 

Other offenses dealt with individually.

 

If a citizen undergoing the punishment (exploring) found a valuable product for society, the penalty was immediately retracted.

Firearms were also prohibited. If a survivor who wanted to join the Home community was found, they could buy an apartment, food and clothing in exchange for their gun. However, this had not happened for years.

Regarding the OPs, they were answerable only to Paco, and so their jurisdiction was questionable.

Anna walked past Micky and stared at the ground. Fortunately, he was busy hunting remnants of snot from his nose and sniggering at a video on a local network. She finally got home. It was in the dirtiest part full of the cubicles of former tobacco shops and fast-food restaurants. Now these were the homes of the poorest families on this floor: only a glass door from the outside, covered with a blanket or sheet from the inside. And in that corner where the eighteenth street ended, where drunkards went to urinate, and behind which there were only escape corridors and outside the walls of the building itself, where the majority of the LEDs were lit, and where it was the gloomiest and dirtiest, was where their apartment was located. Now there was a couple wedged against the wall, embracing. A tall girl and a boy a head shorter with untied shoelaces.

“Jol? What the hell are you doing?” Anna couldn’t believe her eyes.

The girl winced, but before turning, she finished the kiss. The whites of the eyes belonging to the girl with walnut skin and short black hair shone in the dimness. The young man was so dirty he was hardly visible.

“This is none of your business, Anna, go away,” came the reply.

She walked up to them. She recognized the crooked figure. “Fred the Slug?” She was at a loss for words at the moment. “Why him?” she managed. “He tried to rape your sister! He snitches to the OP. He’s a pig.”

“That’s not true,” Jolie said, looking at the ground. “He loves me,” she said.

“You don’t have to torture yourself like this, honey.”

“Shut up, bitch. Name’s just Fred, alright? Watch yourself, okay?” Slug raised his voice, and then tried again to embrace Jolie. She broke free. “Hey! Don’t talk to her like that.”

“Get your filthy paws away from her, Slug, if you don’t want to lose them.” Anna was running out of patience. “Look at yourself. Shoplifting probably doesn’t earn you too much if you can’t even shower, does it?”

“No one gonna call me Slug,” he choked on his anger. Even in the pale light he could be seen turning red. A knife flashed in his hand. He hesitated using it. Compared to Anna’s Hibben hanging from her waist in a leather case, it was a penknife. Fortunately, she was known for her throwing skills and Fred was not stupid enough to try them.

Suddenly, as if at a snap of the fingers, the lights went out. First the general lighting, then the LED strips along the sidewalks. There was complete darkness, just unnecessary fluorescent tables with the arrow keys pointing at the emergency exits glowing in the distance, like stars in the universe. The air circulation stopped, as well as radios, speakers and distant voices. There was no reason to panic. If everything started up again, that was. Anna pulled out her knife as loudly as she could.

“We’re not finished yet, is that clear?” Slug whispered and the footsteps revealed his departure.

“Get in, get in,” she muttered to herself. She was sure she wasn’t alone. Fortunately, after some moments the lights gradually lit up and everything returned to normal. Anna sighed.

“How is it that whenever I’m interested in some guy, it turns out this way?”

“You’re welcome.”

“I mean it!” Jolie put her hands on her hips. “You always have to have the last word. I respect that, but this is my own business! Hell, I’m a grown woman!”

Anna looked into the brown, temperamental eyes and said: “When you become really interested in someone and not just caring about satisfying your body crazed by hormones, I won’t stand in your way.”

She herself wasn’t doing well in this regard. She hadn’t had anyone since Simon. Not that she didn’t want to, but the men here were simply unacceptable. Rather than waking up the feelings in her female parts, she experienced a strong feeling in herstomach. She preferred to remain celibate than mix with those pigs. A bit unhappily, she realized that she couldn’t impose this attitude on Jolie.

They came home, the door recognizing their bracelets and opening. Jolie worked in a warehouse in the section for the redistribution of food and toiletries. Despite strict checks (she had to pass through naked) and a high risk (risk of punishment for repeated theft), she always managed to sneak something out. Recently she had brought home black acrylic, which they diluted with water and painted the door with. This enabled them to remove the blanket that been blocking a view into the apartment until then, and Frank could use it to warm up at night.

Their apartment was a former shop for athletic footwear. It had two rooms. The smaller one, a former warehouse, was a room where someone hid when they wanted to be alone. When Paco took Simon’s place, he moved all the goods to the central warehouse, but he somehow forgot about this tiny room. That was why boots were the only goods they had enough of.

The room was mostly inhabited by Roderick. While working online, he needed peace. The rest of the family lived in a large room divided into smaller rooms by cardboard boxes and hanging blankets and sheets. They managed to exchange them, like most of the equipment, for shoes with the large and rich Dando family. The exchange trade was often the only way to get shampoo or razor blades.

Four rooms for each family member, one common room with a kitchen, nothing more. There was no furniture, only a shelf jutting from the wall and storage space by the ceiling. They slept on the ground on carry-mats or blankets. There were no windows, light radiating from neon lamps.

“Yes, come here, I want to show you something,” a stooping old man waved at her with a stick. It was Frank, the oldest member of the family. He was the oldest man in the Home. Maybe even in the world. Had Anna not taken him in and paid for his bail years ago, he would have gone to jail for stealing food. For him, it would have meant certain death. It was strange that he was at home; usually he didn’t show up at all during the day. She came closer and looked at his joy – a Paradise Flower. The old man was growing it from a tiny seed.

“Look,” he mumbled, pointing to a small yellow flower.

“It’s beautiful,” Anna was leaning over and examining it from all sides, “but somehow I can’t imagine that it will grow food.”

“Perhaps. We have bad lighting, it would need the sun. It’s interesting that this species doesn’t need pollination to reproduce.”

“What is more interesting,” interrupted Jolie, who was returning from the showers, “is that I could have already been pollinated today.” She sat down on a padded seat and rested her legs on the same one. She watched Anna’s reaction. Apparently the topic was not over.

“I think we have more important things to do than dealing with your coochie all the time!” emanated from the tiny room.

“Roderick!” Anna snapped, “we don’t speak like that here.” She received a murmur of apology in return. She warmed up a tin on the cooking surface and divided it into five equal parts. With this, she roasted pieces of meat, skin and cartilage, which she pulled out of the bag at her waist.

“A girl like you can aim higher. After all, the boy can’t even write,” said Frank, who was usually silent on such issues. The fact that Frank knew about him was nothing unusual. The family talked about everything.

“He wouldn’t be putting his brain down there,” she murmured.

“That’s enough. Let’s not talk about it again,” Anna ended the debate and began setting the table.

“Rod, come and eat!” she yelled to the adjacent room. All that echoed back was subdued music. According to her, one could often tell what mood the kid was in. Quick music suggested a good mood. She sighed, and on the bracelet she tapped the message: FOOD!

“Just a second, I’m close,” the boy’s husky voice resonated.

“Certainly he’s there masturbating,” chuckled Jolie. Even Frank smiled.

“You’re both like teenagers. Even the kid’s got more sense,” said Anna, but she couldn’t help smiling. She served crackers on the plates, which were the mandatory daily ration for each individual worker, along with a handful of pasta. Today they also received a rare egg to celebrate the anniversary of the election of their leader, Jerremy Paco.

A boy with tousled thick hair, pale in the face, walked into the room. His eyes darted from side to side as if he wasn’t sane.

“Take it out of those eyes and let’s eat!” Anna raised her voice.

He listened and reluctantly took out the lenses. There was not much they could eat, but when they had something, Anna insisted on everyone sitting down. This maintained their familial togetherness. They sat down on plastic seats.

“What is it?” Roderick looked suspiciously at the white cone-shaped thing.

“Pi also calculates addresses from his head, but does not recognize an egg. Just don’t be coy, kid,” murmured Frank with a full mouth, stuffing himself with his share of meat so quickly it was falling between the last two teeth and trickling down his beard. Then he bent over and raised his right leg, which he put on the plastic table, almost decomposing. Beneath a tattered trouser leg he had an unsightly bulge larger than the knee, which was outlined under the white veins interwoven by skin. “Just eat the egg or you’ll get rickets. That is worse than when a fracture doesn’t heal.”

“Put it down, old man, you don’t have to show it to us at every meal,” Anna said. Jolie could not even eat because of how much she laughed at the boy’s expression.

Roderick’s egg slipped from his fingers and rolled across the floor. He picked it up and wordlessly slipped it into his mouth.

“When I was your age,” Frank gestured, “we had a blast! Every Sunday my mother prepared a feast so good we were smacking our lips for an extra week. Baked, fried, boiled. Chicken, pork, lamb,” he said and aroused himself. “And when it was too little, I ran into the garden. There I picked an apple, or took a cucumber. “

The boy looked at him with interest.

“You won’t find this out from the network, eh?” chuckled the old man.

“Will you tell me more?” He asked when it did not seem that he wanted to continue.

“Later. I’m tired, I’m going to sleep.” With difficulty, he bent for the stick which fell to the ground and then limped to his cubicle. Before he disappeared into the room, he turned to say something, but then changed his mind. Finally he said, “I love y’all.”

All three looked at each other. If Frank started being sentimental, it was not a good sign.

Roderick stuffed himself with the rest of the meal and then disappeared into his virtual world. Jolie talked a bit with Anna when he reappeared, his face pale. “I feel terrible. Probably from that white thing. Can you go with me to the bathroom, Ann?” He then leaned forward and coughed, but nothing came out.

Anna grabbed his hand and quickly led him to the washroom. When they entered the tiled room, there were three black teenagers “discriminating” against a boy with their fists as he huddled on the ground. They went around and squeezed themselves into a stall. They had survived for so long because they didn’t do good deeds or interfere in the affairs of gangs.

Roderick suddenly straightened up and looked completely normal. “I know from a friend that there should be no cameras here,” he whispered. “Otherwise you can’t be certain anywhere.”

“What’s wrong?” she whispered as well.

The boy dropped the seat and sat down. “Some time ago I managed to run the break-in system, which I worked on. Every functional and unprotected computer on the planet is now secretly working for me. There are not too many, but occasionally their number increases. I now have a much greater capacity.”

“Well, what did you find out?”

“I already knew that our network, which we use every day, is a simplified mini version of a real network. And I’m not the only one. Most people suspect something, but they don’t care. Whatever they need, they will find it there. Paco gave us a much smaller network so he can control it better. But now I’ve found how many things are altered compared to the actual Internet. And how much information is completely different! For example, surface sensor data. Do you remember when you came here? The atmosphere was still breathable. And then, the OPHS (Organization for the Preservation of the Human Species) tested new weapons on Earth, or God knows what, as it is impossible to determine, and these weapons reportedly destroyed the atmosphere.”

“Well, yes, but what about it?” She was still lowering her voice because the brawl at the door had ceased.

Roderick waited a moment, then continued: “OPHS clearly really messed something up, but it’s interesting that this data is only in our network. Not a word is mentioned about it anywhere else.”

Anna smoothed her hair behind her ear as she always did when she was nervous. “Wait, it still doesn’t have to mean anything.”

“There’s another thing. I did some poking into it and I found a lot of detailed reports by Russian biologists. There I learned that most of the monsters that they analyzed normally inhale oxygen, just like us, and some even in higher amounts.”

The booth became silent. Anna felt her heart pound and her breath quickened. “You mean that you can stay outside with an oxygen mask longer than two hours?”

“I think you don’t need any mask. I think Jerremy is lying to keep us here.”

Anna chuckled. “To keep us? Nobody wants to get out.”

“Even you?”

There was silence. “Good. Can anyone find out that you know about it?” Her voice quivered with excitement.

“I don’t think so, I have a dynamic address. Unless somebody is downright after me, they won’t find out. And hopefully no one has reason to come after me.”

“Hopefully. Find out what you can, try to confirm it. If one day we decide to leave, we must be sure we won’t choke outside,” she decided. “Don’t say nothing yet to Frank or Jolie. And Rick, be careful.”

The boy retreated back to the terminal, Anna deciding that she could shower. She needed to think. She returned to the washroom, crawled into a brick box whose tiled lining was covered with a myriad of different body fluids, cigarette butts and a black stain. She closed the door, putting her own lock into the metal eyelets. It wouldn’t be nice if someone surprised her with soap in her eyes. She undressed, waved her wrist in front of the sensor. The last credit was deducted and the water began to flow. The water was lukewarm. While she was quickly lathering, she tried to organize her chaotically dodging thoughts. She knew that Paco was a bummer, had always been so. But would he have gone so far? Would he lie about pollution, just to keep them here? It was possible. He had absolute power over Home residents, but on the other hand, he would not survive very long without them. She realized that she didn’t count herself among them. If the atmosphere was indeed breathable, she was a little closer again. The next step would be to get supplies. That would be a problem. In the Home she could get anything, if one had something to pay with. She did not.

But wait, she did. Anna had known it all along. She just hadn’t thought about it as a reasonable possibility. But now it was not just about her. Soon she would have to decide. Let her family starve or give them food and a chance at a better life. The water stopped. She bowed her head and looked at her pale body, covered with drops, transforming into runnels, pouring from between her breasts to her belly and legs, to the ground. That was all she had. And if she wanted to do it, she had to while still young.

She took out her Hibben from the belt resting on the concrete block in the corner, an eight inch-long throwing knife from one piece of steel. Her father had given her three, and now she only had this one. She spread around the remaining soap and began to shave. Whoever didn’t shave their legs (and private parts) daily with a knife didn’t know how difficult it was not to cut yourself. Fortunately, she had experience. Then she disguised the dark circles under her eyes with makeshift makeup and tried to smile at herself in the mirror. She felt much better.

Anna returned to the apartment. Jolie had gone to the store and Frank went to do what he could. Begging, selling stories to children, being worthwhile somehow. Anna unfolded the couch and relaxed. She connected to the network and took out personal documents from the wrist strap. In “Open Recent” she opened a file that Roderick had gotten for her. It was her husband’s old Facebook profile. She viewed her favorite photograph, in which he was fighting with Simon in a virtual reality, helmets on their heads, concentrated. Sam had always won over her, but she had tried that much more. The photo also captured her father, who was standing in the background, smiling. A truly rare picture – her father had never laughed, and had certainly not stood around. She had to smile against her will, then anxiety attacked her.

There was a beep and the door opened.

“Here … you come with me!” Jolie stormed inside. Her face had a horrified expression that made Anna stand up instantly.

“What’s happening?”

“Crazy old man, he went out!” She turned and ran back immediately. Anna caught up with her outside by the railing, leaning over to peer at the cylinder of monitors suspended from the thick rope reaching to the ceiling on the floor above. Outside, there was screaming and chaos. She had to break through the crowd, nearly tripping over a man in a dirty white robe who was kneeling on the ground. It was Mayatav. Member of a sect whose followers believed that monsters were hungry gods who leave as soon as they feed on sufficient human flesh. Therefore, for them, every victim was a reason to celebrate.

There was a shot of Frank on every screen. He was dressed in his best clothes, a thin new-looking sweater and fashionable beige pants. He looked unusually serious and had the same expression. He had just refused a gun (if he did not return, the appropriate number of credits would be deducted for it from his family), but accepted a mask. Then Jerremy came to him and cut off the wrister with special pliers. Two heavily armed guards stood by his side. They were not there to protect him, but to prevent anything from getting into the elevator. One of them put his leg between the elevator doors to keep it open. Now it was time for Frank’s speech. Everyone fell silent in anticipation. Frank’s face reflected fear, but also a kind of serenity and perhaps relief. Suddenly he smiled, turned and stepped inside.

Anna was dominated by a mixture of feelings, then rage overtook all of them. After everything she did for him, they were not worth a few words of farewell? But then she realized that he had given them the whole previous day as a farewell, they just did not realize it. Surely he had planned it.

The image shifted, switched to the camera outside on the ledge. The dust motes reduced its quality, but they recognized the elevator door under the camera. After a while a figure with a cane appeared. The old man put on his mask, and took off. Some of the crowd began to whistle. At that moment Anna wanted to claw their eyes out. One by one. The figure was stepping cautiously but confidently. The camera turned and watched it move as it slowly climbed down the remnants of broken stairs and walked among the ruins.

She heard some bets about how far he would get, hoping there would be something to see. One of the screens showed Jerremy standing in a dignified way and not showing anything on his face.

Frank was already far away, just a small dot in the upper right corner of the screen. Anna could not see whether it was still him or just a game of shadows. All was relatively quiet, most eyes intently watching the picture.

Suddenly something flashed in front of the camera lens. It was just a moment, too short to detect anything, but it was so close that it covered the entire image. A few yelps and the clamor of many voices sounded. A woman next to Jolie screamed in fright.

The followers of the sect, who had sat down in a circle in the meantime, joined hands, jacked up their litany, and quickened their squirming dance.

Anna grabbed Jolie by the hand and led her home. She should not see this.

When they returned, Roderick was standing there. It was immediately clear that he had also seen it. Anna wanted to find some words of consolation or encouragement, but nothing occurred to her. So they all stood there, looking at each other in silence.

“Maybe he’ll come back,” said Anna eventually.

“Maybe,” said the boy, but it was clear that the chances that Frank had survived were slim. Yet they waited silently, Anna and Roderick holding hands, hoping. Only Jolie paced back and forth, upset. Anna knew this was going to cost her quite a few incisions on the skin.

Everyone coped with their problems differently. A few were so level-headed that they could do yoga and feel good. Someone dealt with them using alcohol, others drugs. Jolie would cut into her thighs and arms. Anna did not do anything like that. But from time to time she fell into a deep depression; some days she could not get out of bed, exhausted, unable to move and just crying, not knowing why.

When Paco announced that they would call the elevator back and continue to wait no longer, she angrily kicked the boxes full of ancient newspapers and magazines which exploded across the room. Then she ran out.

She was upset. Raging. But for what reason? Her inability to care for them? For their empty stomachs? For the empty stomachs of creatures that have penetrated into their world? For Paco? Yes, if he had told her what Frank wanted to do, she would have talked to him. The bastard. Certainly Frank did not try to persuade him twice. Now she would go right after him and tell him nicely what she thought of him. But then she stopped, realizing that was what he wanted. He wanted her to run to him, all upset. He would wave everything away with a smile, apologize a hundred times and eventually force her to think that she was the stupid one with his sweet talk, and when she finally stopped sulking and returned to him, everything would be fine. She always considered the brief affair she once had with him to be the biggest mistake of her life. Now she was not sure of anything. And so she would not go there.

Maybe Paco had done the right thing, keeping them down here. Perhaps it was best to stay here. Maybe it was better to be surviving here unhappily than dying outside quickly.

She slowly walked around the entire floor, and when she calmed down, she returned home. A man in a black fitting jacket stood in front of the entrance to the apartment. She recognized Paco’s personal security immediately. As she came closer, he gestured toward her own door wordlessly. She entered.

Paco was medium height, groomed, wearing a dark blue suit and tie. His receding hairline fought a battle with his millimeter long hair on the nape and scalp, so he was half bald. The lower half of his face was covered with groomed stubble and narrow suspicious eyes gaped from beneath a perennially furrowed brow. A thick but not aggressive fragrance entered the room along with him. She hated perfumed men. For a moment he looked around as if looking for a place to sit. Another man in the room, a tall, muscular, eccentrically tattooed Ukrainian, wandered from room to room. He was Paco’s right hand, commander of the PO. He had earned his place thanks to a voluntary exploration. The man frightened her.

“If I’d known you’d come to visit, I’d have cooked something,” she said and sat next to a stunned Roderick. She crossed her legs. It was still her apartment after all. “Could you tell your rude friend to please not touch someone else’s things?” she added angrily for effect. Although she wanted to feel that way, anger was in fact replaced by apathy. Paco hinted with a look to the bodyguard, who was groping the leaf of one of Frank’s flowers in a fascinated way, to wait outside. He gave Anna an eloquent glance and left.

“Can I sit down?” He didn’t wait for an answer, and sat uncomfortably close on the pouf opposite, his hands folded in his lap. A gold ring shone on the middle finger.

“Why are you here, Jerremy?” she asked.

“To convey my deep condolences, of course. I want you to know that Frank wanted me not to tell you anything.”

“Condolences?” She laughed bitterly. “Just your suit alone would be enough for Frank survive on for half a year. Don’t try anything, Jerremy. I’ve known you long enough for me to know your rotten heart. So why are you here?”

“Always so inaccessible, always merciless. But I’m glad you know that I also have a heart,” he smiled sadly. “But please try to believe I’m serious. You know how it goes. We must adhere to some kind of order. I especially have to observe the rules, which I invented myself, don’t you think? At this time we can’t afford to be weak: it could be the end of us. I know you don’t want to hear this, but Frank was old and did the right, brave thing.” She wanted to say something, but Paco interrupted her: “Thanks to him there will more left over for the boy. And for you. And you know it.”

She knew, but simply couldn’t think of it this way.

“Someone must be on top. You could have been there, too. We were a family, remember? We have built this here. We have a greater right to life at the top than anyone else.”

Anna’s heart sank when she thought back to Simon, her father, and old times of hope in a dark future. “That’s just what you’ll never understand. There should be no ‘on top.’”

“I understand very well. There will always be a top and bottom. And there always will be a fight. You gave up the struggle, Anna. I won it. Although I don’t feel like a winner. Someone just needs to tell people what to do. If I left, somebody else would take my place.”

“Someone else doesn’t sound bad.” She felt like a cornered prey. It was so always when she spoke with him.

He laughed. “Maybe soon. Maybe then you’ll find out that old Jerremy wasn’t so bad, Annie.” She hated it when he called her that. It was his way of saying, I’m still the cunning older boy and you’re still that naive little girl. She didn’t know what to say. In his presence she simply couldn’t think calmly.

“I’d like to invite you to dinner, Anne,” he got up. “And your entire family as well,” he added quickly. “We’ll discuss it.”

What did he mean? Warning lights were flashing before her eyes, but it was a very tempting offer. On one hand, she didn’t want to have anything in common with him and his methods. Let alone let him try it again. The man had no boundaries. After all, he had invited her on a date a week after the death of her husband. On the other hand, it was a small price for good food for her family.

“Fine, we’ll come.”

 

Anna didn’t wear skirts and shorts. They were needlessly provoking, moreover impractical when running, no pockets, and the knife sheath could not be hidden anywhere. One pair of trousers had already been in such a state that it had more holes than fabric. So she cut it up, and she was just wearing the result, denim shorts. This was perhaps the only occasion when to take them, and so she took advantage. When examining her reflection in the dark glass door and saw her shining white thighs, she felt naked. But Jolie convinced her again that she must occasionally feel attractive. She spent over thirty minutes doing her makeup and styling her hair. It was worth it, satisfied with the outcome.

Jolie dressed up as well. She hoped to hook up with someone from higher society. Roderick had to climb over boxes and go through the entire storage area before finding the best ensemble she had hidden there. He got ready as well, able to comb the mess he usually had on his head and dressed in black trousers and a clean shirt.

They managed it somehow and waited in the street at the appointed time. They saw Paco running down the stairs from afar. A random walker had just realized that he had to go a different way, just like a crowd standing around realized that they had something to do, and so he had a free path.

“I’m sorry for being late. Problems on the fifth floor.” He looked like a different person. He replaced the suit with a leather blazer and gray trousers that looked as if someone had just sewn them. The clothing seemed clean, the creases could cut steel.

“You look terrific, ladies. Nice haircut,” he winked at the boy. “Nice shoes, Anna.”

“Thank you. But you don’t get courteous for free,” she had to nag.

“Acerbic as ever. But you’re right again. Your presence will, however, be sufficient consideration,” he said, looking at Anna.

Kein saw them only when they were almost upon him, because he was completely absorbed in a game on the wrister, leaning against the glass plate of a railing. He swung up like a kicked rattlesnake. He nearly bowed to the ground for Paco, going as far as to press the elevator button for him if Paco hadn’t shooed him away. He probably didn’t even recognize Anna and Jolie.

They stopped at a floor just below the ground. Anna, nor any of her family had been there in years.

Once they got out, they were surrounded by the scent of fresh air. Anna deeply inhaled, smelling the plastic freshness, reminiscent of the smell of new shoes and flowers, which she remembered only from air fresheners. Even here the temperature was a few degrees higher, it could be called ideal.

“Sir.” Two guards in bulletproof vests nodded at Paco and stood to attention. One of them wanted to throw away a cigarette, but Jerremy, apparently in a good mood, stopped him. They were not like Kein. They had real weapons and were dangerous. It showed in their eyes, emanated from their movements.

They walked straight into a huge hall, which was as wide as it was high. A chandelier hung from the ceiling. If that was what we could call the monstrously large structure made of bright colored hanging tubes, of various lengths and widths, connected together seemingly at random like modern art, reaching almost to the floor, almost touching the water (and functional!) fountain. Anna, like the others, was tilting her head back, fascinated.

“You know that if we have the energy, we have quite a lot of it. So there was no reason to hold back,” Paco said, as if apologizing.

They avoided the luxurious armchairs and leather seating that looked unused, as if someone had wiped dust off them. Three floors below they would not survived an hour. It was clean here, no garbage to be seen. Music played quietly from the ubiquitous speakers on the threshold of audibility. They were only disturbed by two skinny blondes chattering at the table with instant coffee or another black drink nearby. As they walked, both went silent and studied them with blunt contempt. So far, they hadn’t seen anyone except the blondes and patrolling men. Paco took them into the tunnel glowing with blue shadows, which welcomed them with a huge inscription.

“The monster!” Jolie cried and exceeded the entire width of the corridor with a single leap. A huge, frowning fish swam around them. They were in an aquarium. All around and above them the water sparkled with shoals of fish. Roderick affixed himself to the glass and watched the teeming life in fascination.

“I wish you tried the salmon steak,” said Paco. “It is excellent.” He did not wait for them and kept walking. Reluctantly they moved away from the fantasy perspective and caught up with him.

They went out and turned toward the door with a silver handle. Anna noticed that from the elevator could go a shorter route. But it would not go through the tunnel.

“Few people could pass through these doors,” said Paco to Anna, “and nothing has changed about that.” He moved out of the way for her.

She came closer and hesitantly put her hand on the battered square sensor. The green LED light lit up and the lock clicked. Anna smiled sadly. “Something has changed after all. Most of them are dead.” She stepped back and let him pass.

They entered a narrow, cold corridor, past several doors, turning twice and stopping before the inscription: Monitoring Room. Paco opened it for them. Anna hesitated. They were going to have dinner, what were they doing here? She felt faint breeze on the back of the neck… she turned and got horribly scared. Viktor was towering over her. He was half a head taller than her, powerful, and looking at her as if at an enemy who needed destroying. He had a patterned tattoo across the upper half of the body, including the arms up to his muscular neck. She didn’t hear him coming at all. Reluctantly, she turned back and followed the others.

They entered a rectangular room whose longer wall was formed by a monitor, or several joined ones. The sight of them immediately caught her eye. The sharp images looked like the view from the window of the endless verdant meadow beneath an azure sky. The quality of the resolution was entirely convincing. Gusts of wind were playing with the blades of glistening grass heavy with dew. She realized that Rod was tugging her at her sleeve. She wanted to dismiss him when she saw where he was looking. Like Jolie, he could not tear his eyes away from the dining table in front of them. The long table was groaning under the weight of food, drink, glass and porcelain. Four stacks of plates with a pair of cutlery and a wine glass were arranged on pure white tablecloth. A folded napkin was next to each plate. The food itself was served in deep bowls, which were stacked on the table so that not even one extra bowl could fit. Baked, fried, boiled, stuffed fish, chicken, duck and other meats were decorated with potatoes, vegetables and fruit in a wide range of colors. The steaming bowl scented the room so that their stomachs twisted, triggering saliva.

If Jerremy wanted to impress them, he did it well. Anna could not stop feeling nervous however. They weren’t located in the ornate hall of a luxury restaurant, but in the control center, although nicely designed. There was no great music playing and a pleasant atmosphere, and Viktor did not take his eyes off them, his monstrously large pistol hanging at his side.

“Before we start eating,” Paco said, now resting on a small console in the middle under the monitors, “I would like to ask you a question.” He pressed a few keys, but nothing visible happened. He moved to a massive armchair, which was prepared at the head of the table, adjusted the crease on his trouser leg and calmly lit a cigarette. For a while, there was silence.

“Imagine life here on this floor,” he said, puffing at the cigarette and blowing smoke rings toward the ceiling. “It’s literally another world. Wide beds, whirlpools, gym, solarium, cinema. Such generous rations of food and drink you’ll never be hungry and thirsty. All for free. Unlimited access to electronics and a network,” he declared and glanced toward Roderick, and then Jolie. “My men are tough but loyal and classy. No more dirt, cold, sore backs and torn clothing. Just a safe, dignified life.” Finally, he focused on Anna. “Sure, you would work, but not for credits, but because of the vision. You’d work at my side, and together we’d make a better life for ourselves and others. Some think that I just sit here and scratch my ass, but I have a goal. I have no illusions that everyone will have everything, that we will have a great time and live in peace. But I want all Home residents to live in safety and with a full stomach. And I don’t only have a goal; I have a plan. And with your skills, we could implement it. Think about it.” Cigarette smoke spilled into the space and lazily hung over their heads.

She did not believe him. The crap about a better life gave him away. Did he think she didn’t remember anything? Ever since he started being in command, everything was just worse. And that thing about caring for someone else other than himself was also absurd. She didn’t know what he was actually planning, but it wasn’t caring for others.

“It wasn’t a question,” she said.

“What?”

“You wanted to ask a question.”

“Well,” he frowned and narrowed his eyes, “so I’ll ask. Do you want to spend the rest of your life in hunger, filth and fearing death?”

Anna turned to the others. There was no need for words to see what they were thinking. Rod was with her, he also didn’t like Paco. Jolie was obviously thrilled with his offering. She looked at Anna pleadingly. Anna knew that whatever she decided, they would stand behind her. The rest would be discussed at home.

“I prefer the dirt and hunger,” she said after a long pause. “I don’t know what you’re doing, Jerremy, but don’t drag us into it. We can take care of ourselves.”

His expression changed in an instant. Apparently he hadn’t been expecting this response. The smile fell from the affable face, wrinkles taking shape and looking ominous. “So to be clear, this is no debating society.” He rose from his chair so quickly it creaked and pointed a finger at them with his carefully trimmed fingernail. “You’re up to your ears in shit. Only my feelings and respect toward you can rescue your family, Anna. It seems that this is only one-sided. I was patient enough. You chose yourself.”

A soft click in the upcoming silence could only mean one thing: Viktor had cocked the gun.

“I thought that when you saw what animals people are down there, you would be smart and come upstairs to me,” he spoke as if to himself. He walked over to the control panel and tapped a few touch keys. “Maybe I shouldn’t have protected you. I should have let them eat you.” The meadow swaying in the wind split into several smaller screens. Black and white security camera recordings appeared on them. Paco gradually clicked on the boards and summoned records. There was everything. An overview of all test rides, adjustments, the charging and hiding of Bumblebee. It showed her, Jolie, Roderick. Paco tapped on the monitor and the image changed to a data column. It was the sort of a record of movements across the network. She didn’t know what it was, but a look at Rick was enough to make everything clear. That was the end. The end of all hope.

“I know about everything. About every illegally exchanged shampoo, every illegally downloaded file. If you think you can hide something from me, you’re dumber than I thought. It was me who invented this system! Sure, sometimes I overlook something,” he continued in a seemingly softer tone, “like when Viktor breaks a few bones in a friendly scuffle. Or when someone has fun and forgets to pay. But do you think I didn’t keep watch over you?” Now he was looking directly at Anna.

She didn’t even listen. There was no way anymore, she would remain here forever. Maybe if she fell to her knees and begged, before it was too late. But when she looked into his wily piscine eyes, she knew she’d never do that. He could take everything – except her pride.

She had a memory flash that she hadn’t successfully extracted throughout the years.

They were hardly more than children; she, Jerremy and Simon. At that time they still hadn’t realized how lucky they were to have been born as the children of exceptional people and living their lives in the safety of prominent bunkers, while their fathers or mothers were literally saving the world in labs and isolated workplaces. They were bored, because their parents didn’t have time for them, and because they had no entertainment.

Whoever catches me first will get a kiss as a reward, she remembered saying patronizingly to the two young boys. She sat astride on a fat pipe up by the ceiling, under a single fluorescent tube. It was a room full of pipes and purring machines that smelled of steam and chlorine. Water from the surrounding soil was extracted here.

Simon was stronger and faster, plus he knew every bolt, unlike Jerremy, who spent most of his time in the northern part of the habitat or by the computer. That she knew. But Jerremy shot out and climbed like a madman. When Simon was catching up with him, he stomped on his fingers until Simon cried. She tried to escape, but the older Jerremy easily caught up with her. She still recalled the triumphant look in his eyes. But she rejected him and instead threw herself into the arms of Simon. He still hadn’t forgiven her.

Paco stretched his back, looking calm again.

“Boy, you have the potential” he turned his gaze to Roderick, “you only need equipment and a goal. You’ll work for me, I’ll give it to you.” This time he didn’t ask, but announced.

“Our little black princess. We’ll also find use for you. Decent figure,” he circled around her, “everything in the right place.” With those last words he smacked her ass. Jolie instantly turned around and slapped him in the face. Well, she wanted to, but Paco caught her hand, as if expecting it, the sly smile not disappearing from his face. “Lively and quick,” he said, “maybe we will find a place for you in the uniformed patrol. I think Viktor will gladly train you.” The mentioned one grinned eloquently.

“That’s out of the ques—”

“And finally,” raising his voice, “we have Annie. She’ll stubbornly reject everything I suggest, even if it is for her own good. But I’ve had enough of begging. Now I speak with you frankly, as I should have a long time ago.”

With every word he was getting closer and burning into her with his flaming look, exactly the same as when he had been climbing the pipes for a kiss. And she didn’t like that look at all.

“You’ve been ignoring me forever,” Paco said through his teeth while he lit another cigarette, “now you won’t anymore. You’re going to worry about my comfort, support me and make me happy, in all aspects. You won’t talk back, and you will smile. You will be groomed, presentable and not speak until you’re spoken to,” he listed. “If you make a mistake, I’ll let you wipe my ass, understand? Believe me, there are far worse jobs than emptying bins in the Home. Over time you’ll get used to it and see what the benefits are. You will become my fourth partner. The fourth, but always first.”

Anna did not move.

“And what if we don’t give a shit!” said Jolie. She didn’t look like that, but Anna knew her and also knew that she was barely holding back so as not to jump on him.

“Then you don’t give me a choice,” Paco said and raised his hand to Viktor, who had already poised himself for the signal to punish her misconduct. “In violation of the law and other offenses I would be forced to cut your rations and send you out to explore. The exact punishment has not yet been meted out, but due to the offenses I’d consider an exemplary punishment.” He blew smoke into the air and then suddenly slapped his forehead. “And let’s not forget dinner.” He went to the decorated table, gripping it by the edge and suddenly overturning it, throwing it against the wall. Bowls filled with food splattered on the wall and plates shattered and fell to the ground. Paco stepped on the salmon, which he mashed without resistance beneath his polished shoe. Then he picked up a can of meat from under the table and tossed it to their feet. “Enjoy your meal.”

 

***

 

There was a tense atmosphere at dinner. Their meal was a can of unhealthily pale, poultry sausages. They tasted like despair seasoned with humiliation.

“We have no choice,” Jolie violated the silence, “we either conform or we’re dead.” She was silent, and then, as though nodding to herself, she added: “There’s nothing else we can do. There’s nothing to discuss. “

“That suits you, huh? You’ll get a job and Viktor as a lover,” said Roderick, who was just poking a bit of the slimy mixture. Since what Paco had said about knowing his intersections outside the network, he hadn’t touched the computer.

“How dare you, little brat? You think I didn’t see how your eyes sparkled when Paco promised you new toys?”

“What you saw is your business, I’d never conform to him.”

Both turned to Anna. She had barely touched the food and stared listlessly at the wall.

“Is it clear here?” She waved above herself, gesturing for eavesdropping. The boy shrugged helplessly.

“Jol is right. We will conform.”

“We cannot!”

“I’ve already decided.”

Go along, she almost said. With that, she got up and left.

 

She sat on the edge of the canal near the school. Water used to flow through here before and formed a gurgling strip along the main street between shops. The nozzles became clogged, the water dried up, so today just dirt and cigarette butts from twisted paper lay around the gutter. She wanted to enjoy a moment of calm, perhaps her last. She thought of Frank, Simon, her father Norman and her mission. She was afraid, but also felt a certain peace. It was inevitably approaching and she had a clear conscience; she decided correctly.

Around the same time, when the information boards started to frantically blink and the wristers to beep, even people poured out of their houses. She knew that no one would want to miss this matter. The more people knew that she had gone out rather than kowtowing to the dictator, the better.

Anna was not heading towards a certain death. Compared to others she had an advantage. She knew where to find things of value. The bunker where she had spent her youth was located less than two miles away as the crow flies. If she got there (and back) she could provide for her family. Although she shuddered with horror just thinking of the memories associated with this place, the thought of losing and being Paco’s meek little wife made her shiver just the same. And if that didn’t work, her family would be well either way.

She heard excited voices behind her. She didn’t look back. Now she didn’t have to watch her back anymore. Soon, people rolled up from all sides. They talked to her, touched her, pushed against each other. She got up and went home. The crowd parted, no one preventing her.

“So that was your plan,” Jolie said, “to flee to the other world and leave us here alone.” She waited at the landing, not sitting on the bolted bench. Instead she was nervously pacing up and down.

“I’ll bring weapons,” she tried to sound convincing.

“Bullshit,” Jolie said. Her chin trembled in anticipation of crying.

Anna hugged her. Jolie first wanted to twist away, but then she hugged Anna as if she never wanted to let go. “Maybe I’ll meet Frank,” Anna was keeping herself together, suddenly feeling like crying, too.

“I’m going with you,” Roderick ran outside and looked intently.

She turned to him and smiled. “You are brave, but I have to do this alone.”

“Too late, I already registered in the system.”

The two stared at him, completely unable to speak for a moment.

“I always wondered what it’s like out there. Plus, it occurred to me that you’ll need help,” he said, as if they were talking about a bulb replacement.

Anna was not the head of the family due to nepotism and certainly had not reached that position thanks to her kindness and good-natured character. She was the leader because she made good decisions, was strong when needed, and felt it was the right thing.

Rage overwhelmed her. “You idiot! This is not a game! However smart you are, you sometimes act like a complete lunatic!” Roderick’s eyes widened. She grabbed his hand and pulled him down the hall to the elevator.

“Ow, that hurts,” he whimpered. While she took one step, the boy had to take three. She must have looked really determined because Kein also got out of the way.

In the elevator they were silent. Anna avoided looking into his face. She was afraid she might cry.

“Take me to Paco immediately,” she spat the words at an astonished security guard. The men were just killing time playing with tokens. They were so into the game that they didn’t notice the elevator. One of them jumped up, knocking over a makeshift table with the won cigarettes.

“I can’t…” he mumbled and rushed toward the wall where a machine gun leaned.

“I’ll find him myself,” she said, while walking forward.

Joe, Anna remembered his name, caught up and started persuading them, self-consciously. He must not let anyone in, but couldn’t shoot a woman and child. Finally he gave up and led the way. This time they didn’t go to any door, Joe leading them up the stairs to the mezzanine. Chamber music wafted in at a slow pace, sounding eerily in the echo of the large area.

They passed through a narrow service corridor. It was an emergency exit, as suggested by the dusty table with a fleeing figure, hanging at every ten yards. There was nothing else besides them and the doors. The only sound was the clunk of Joe’s steel shoes. With each tap she calmed down more against her will. Reason fought for supremacy. She didn’t need it now. She was determined to do everything possible to save her son’s life. Yes, it was her son and always had been. Though this was the first time she called him that.

She would grovel before him. Do whatever he told her. This time, yes.

Even from afar she recognized Victor’s tattooed neck through the window in the door. He was arguing with someone. Joe must have seen it too, because he slowed down and stopped.

He opened and let them into the warehouse. He himself remained in the corridor. They were enveloped by the hum of the air conditioning and its cold biting into them. The warehouse was smaller than she remembered, but was surprised at how full it was. In the three stories with six rows of shelves, at least the first story was always full. In addition, the opposite wall was lined with rows of silver freezers with unknown contents. At first glance it seemed that there was plenty of food, but she realized that she couldn’t estimate how long supplies would last for so many people. Maybe it was really a few.

Jerremy stood by one of the pallets. He slit open a plastic bag with an ornate knife, unwrapped the crate and pulled out a dusty honey-colored bottle. He opened it, and emptied nearly a quarter of the bottle. One empty bottle already lay at his feet. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked at them with watery eyes. Chills went through Anna. In these states Paco was useless. She could only hope he wasn’t completely drunk yet.

“If you don’t decide within an hour, I’ll have to do it for you.” Viktor was red-faced and sweat dripped from his forehead despite the cold.

In contrast, Paco seemed calm. Anna knew that he only looked like that. Apparently he was just going through another of his depressions. Compared to others, he suffered from very severe conditions in which he even tried to take his own life. Alcohol helped him then. He usually vomited so much that no one was capable of that.

“Are you giving me an ultimatum? I can do the same,” he trod over his tongue. He took two steps and hurled the bottle in his right hand against the shelf stand. It shattered in his hand, alcohol spilling on the ground, blood appearing. He ignored it completely. He came up to Viktor at a slight stride, and waved at him with the rest of the sharp bottle neck in front of his nose. “Go do your work before I decide to barricade myself in here and starve you bastards.”

There was a pause. Viktor stared at the makeshift weapon without fear. As if thinking. Then he snorted and walked away.

Paco staggered back to the shelf and sat down on the ground. Suddenly, as if all the strength had left him. He swapped his blue suit for an originally elegant dark suit, as though tailor-made. Now he had his jacket unbuttoned, his shirt torn, the polished semiformal shoes spattered with blood. He wiped away the blood with his finger from the wrister’s beam transmitter and pushed it to his eye.

“You must cancel the ticket for Rod.” Anna could not hold back.

He looked at her in a peculiar way. Then he rose and walked over to the next bottle. “I never told you, and thank God you never asked,” he said after a moment. “When it attacked us, I did not fire once. I could not move, I was paralyzed, stuck like in a nightmare. Simon died within seconds. It just … it sucked him in. It was so terribly fast. Your father attacked it, but… It was just stupid. Suicide.” With a shaking hand he unscrewed the bottle and took a long sip. Then he poured a little on the wound on his hand.

“I don’t want to hear this!” she cried.

Paco went on as if he had not heard her: “The only thing I remember after, was how I ran. I was so scared. I knew I was going to die, but it was the panic that gave me strength. I didn’t care where I was running, mainly I didn’t want to be there.”

Everything came back. Pain again surprised her. Warm drops went down her cheeks. She realized that she was clutching Rod’s hand.

Paco stared off into the past, but then quickly continued. “I could have warned them when I saw it. I don’t think they would’ve made it. But I should’ve warned them. Like this, I killed them, but also us, Anne.”

“Why are you telling me this?” she interrupted him. Always somehow she intrinsically felt that he was responsible for their death. She had always known it. All three went out and only he returned. It could not have been fair.

“That’s when I finally established two things. That I will never again act like a pussy,” he frowned, “and that I could never come back up. And why am I saying this to you? I’m not sure. Maybe you’d believe me. Believe that this is not what I wanted. That I didn’t plan it this way. Now I will lose the only thing that mattered to me. Now I will lose what I’ve always loved. But I can’t do anything about it.”

“You must cancel the ticket for my boy, you must,” her voice broke.

“It can’t be done,” he hung his head. “The system automatically deregistered him.”

“Fuck the system! You hear me?” she cried, even though she knew where it would all lead.

Paco hung his head. “If you don’t go, people will carry you out. You can’t promise them fun and then not give it to them. Otherwise, the expectation changes into anger. Rebellion. You know after all, Anne, that they’re animals. They’ll carry you out. And massacre is a violation of my own rules. And if not them, then surely Pig will. It’s no secret that he’s planning a revolt. He has people on the third level, just waiting for the right moment. I sent Viktor to him to negotiate, but if it goes wrong… I can’t even say about my own people that they are all loyal. The system is collapsing, and if that happens, people will loot the warehouse and everyone will be condemned to death. Maybe this is the last chance to save us, Anne. Not only do you need to go out, you have to find something. Before we become weak and powerless.” He drank again and started coughing with a whoop. “I tried to order the men to escort you. It almost cost me my place. I really can’t do anything for you.” He took a long drink, then he grabbed his head and slumped to the floor.

There was a long silence. She didn’t want to believe it, but the more she thought about it, the more she had to agree. There was no way back. She turned and left with the boy behind her. Before the door she turned around. “Jerremy? You are wrong about two things. You do not love me, you only love yourself. And yes, you are a pussy. Otherwise, you’d come with us.”

 

 

***

 

 

She was carrying a backpack stuffed with about half the things they owned. Two blankets, basic medical supplies, brushes (she simply took them), electronic toys necessary for Rod, toilet paper, a canvas for water (if the rain was not sour), Frank’s flower and a few other useless things. They both took newer shoes and three lighter sweatshirts. They changed into more comfortable clothes, Anna finally feeling better in her pants. She had the knife with her at all times. Rod put on a special case for a portable computer which thus became a Taser with a performance of over a hundred thousand volts. Paco gave them weapons, but she refused. She hated to shoot and Jolie did not want unnecessary debt. Although Paco promised to take care of her, it was just words. He himself claimed that the system was the system.

“You will return, right? Sure, yeah, it’s only two hours. You’ll hide somewhere and then return,” Jolie was biting her nails.

“I have a gift for you, in my room,” Anna said, “I’ll give it to you when I get back, okay?”

Jolie nodded, could not help her tears. They hugged, Anna feeling how Jolie winced when she accidentally touched the fresh scars.

There was nothing to wait for. They pushed through the crowd, who cheered them on like heroes. Some of them congratulating them, some thanking (Rod got half a chocolate bar), but there were also those who wanted them to fail. They wanted to see blood. Or to simply make sure that outside it was still dangerous. Paco didn’t even show up, probably asleep somewhere intoxicated. Anna was glad.

Two men boarded the elevator with them. Joe and one whom she knew only by sight.

“Take a scarf and tie it properly around the mouth and nose,” she said to Roderick, even though they both knew that probably didn’t matter. Yet they could at least do something. Something to slightly increase their chances.

The moment of truth arrived. The elevator stopped with a barely perceptible movement, the doors opening. Anna’s stomach turned and she nearly vomited. Her legs started trembling. She had to be strong for Roderick. She took a deep breath. The air was warm and humid.

“Let’s go,” she said. They took a few steps (the door closed behind them immediately) and stopped right away. It was an intense sensation to appear outside. Black, dirty clouds about to descend. The secure ceiling above her head was replaced by an immeasurable space in which she became lost. Her head was spinning so much from the empty space above that she looked down again. Gravel crunched beneath their feet. In the distance, lightning struck silently. They both winced. The air was somewhat sour, but it seemed clean. She yanked off the cloth and breathed freely. She knew the entire Home was now watching.

There were many new sensations, but she quickly got used to them. Roderick looked from side to side and the only thing visible on his face was his bulging eyes. Through the ominous clouds she felt the warm glow of both Suns. No one was certain about what the New Sun was or where it came from. In the Home, the theory once published by the American government had not caught on. Rather than a distant exploded supernova or attacking alien life on Earth, people believed in religious interpretation. They just could not agree on whether the New Sun was a god who had come to judge, or that judgment day was already behind them and now everybody was in hell for their sins, where the New Sun represented the Devil. According to Anna it came out to all the same.

They headed north. This used to be the commercial capital once. Department stores, tall office buildings and banks spread out in all directions as far as the eye could see. The global war for water, looting, fires and time had been the first disruption in these manmade wonders. The rest was taken care of by the monsters. Today it was just a field of ruins, full of dust, sharp edges and dark shadows.

They proceeded with caution. Every now and then they stopped to see if they would hear anything suspicious, but the only sound was the crunch of gravel beneath their soles and distant howl of the wind. She imagined a huge wide banner, towering above the nearby highway, whose size was ridiculed by the adjacent building: a bizarrely huge skyscraper. The billboard crashed before they found it, only a massive pillar remaining, towering into nowhere. They moved into a spacious plaza, into the ruins of a former skyscraper. She knew the lovely glassed buildings just from the pictures on the net, but it was the sight of them with her own eyes that convinced her how gigantic they were. Now the view was not so pretty anymore. This building was destroyed by fire, only a black frame left. The upper third was missing, as if some giant mouth had bit it off; bent girders and cracked concrete jutted out from the torn bowels of the building. Something fell from the top here and there, whether a wind-blown piece of metal or concrete stone. Anna felt dizzy from looking up. The idea that they should live so high above the ground, even if the building was in perfect condition, was ridiculous to her.

The sound of stone grinding against stone forced them to freeze mid-motion. Something moved under a pile of rubble behind them. Anna felt choked by horror. Here it came.

They turned and saw something pushing itself out from a small opening between the concrete slabs only a few feet in front of them. It was black, slimy and inconsistent. As if darkness itself materialized. It climbed slowly but with incredible force. Unconsciously they began to back away. Concrete began to inch away and crack. The hole expanded.

They waited no more and started running. God knew what it was and Anna certainly wasn’t curious enough to find out.

Goosebumps broke out all over her body, flooded by cold sweat. She was scared. In spite of this, she controlled herself and did not run frantically, but watching where she was stepping and choosing a path. She hurried the boy ahead and they stopped only when he couldn’t run no more and it seemed like he was going to fall to the ground.

Everything was quiet, the winds quieting as well. Roderick was spitting and breathing raggedly. The eternal frightening fogginess stimulated their senses and imagination. Traces remained behind them in the dust on the road. Once they caught their breath (Roderick tore off the scarf), they walked around the place where the street fell into the underground and continued along the wall until they reached the highway. After a strenuous run they became cold, and so they stopped and Anna unwrapped the thin sweaters.

“Where are we going?” whispered Rod.

“Shh,” she covered his mouth with her hand. She could not shake the feeling that their movement was the loudest noise in the area. She showed him the direction. She wanted to climb the steadily looking emergency stairs to the highway level and look around a bit from the height. They had no compass and Anna was unsure about the direction. When they reached the stairs, they discovered that they were intact. The same could not be said about the rest of the highway, undulating like a spasming snake from the bottom between the pillars. They climbed up and an asphalt plain opened before them, striped by dividing islands and emergency walkways.

Suddenly, the wind brought the sound of a terrible blow. Both spun around in that direction. It was far away, and another, less loud explosion revealing that the noise source was in motion. And that it was approaching pretty fast.

“Behind that wall, quickly!” she pointed to the displaced block of road barriers that formed a right angle with a second one. She ran. It was approaching it pretty damn quickly. Now they heard almost regular, thudding blows. It was a few feet away, Anna sure it had noticed them. They crouched and huddled together. She checked whether the knife was in place. For now it meant a comforting talisman rather than a weapon. She regretted not having taken the gun.

As it was coming closer, the sounds became more specific. The mechanical blows were created by banging metals.

What was it? Fear gripped her from all sides, like giant hands. When she looked around, the world seemed like it was composed of a thousand shadows. And behind every one of them there was something waiting, wanting her blood. Perhaps she should have discarded her pride. Being Jerremy’s wife would not be so bad after all. Suddenly she realized that she was considering her chances imperturbably. If they opened their arteries now, they might bleed out and manage to drop into a sweet sleep. When she looked at the boy as his chest rose from panting, she immediately rejected the idea. She couldn’t do something like that. Gathering her courage she looked over the edge of the guardrail. At least an eight-lane highway stretched around them, forming a bridge over the gorge and continuing several miles downtown, where it curved to the west. The explosion they had heard before came from there.

An antigravity truck hurtled down the road just a few feet above ground. It was visibly damaged, could not manage to compensate for the inequalities of the twisted asphalt and occasionally touching the ground with showers of sparks. It rammed away rusty, old hulks of wrecked cars without a noticeable slowdown and they flew through the damaged guardrail down to where it continued to fall with an echo. Still, the driver tried to dodge and choose paths to gain maximum speed.

It was clear why. A monster surpassing one’s craziest ideas was running after the car. It had a body resembling a fish gangling on four double-jointed legs, with a big slimy rumen almost touching the ground. As if it had problems handling that weight alone. There was a flat head without a neck, inserted in the body bearing four eyes in two rows. Other eyes were located precisely in the joints of the strong and sharp extremities. The monster was dominated by yellow teeth as big as human legs, situated in different directions, pointing out from the grinning, idly smacking mouth. Lots of bones and scraps of material were enmeshed in a cluster of teeth, indicating what happened to the food even before it got to the mouth. The monster was twice the size of a truck, but moved with a certain agility. It was reaching after the car with its front claws growing from the sides, like a spider, bending into unnatural angles. Yet it wasn’t able to reach its prey only because the sharp legs were sinking into the road under its weight.

Horrified, Anna realized that it was heading straight for them. As she lay on the ground, she clearly felt the ground vibrating beneath her. That’s not possible. I don’t believe it. This is not happening.

The monster issued a howling, agonized groan, which stomped all the doubts in her. She was shaking with fear, but she couldn’t tear her eyes away from it. She watched as the monster, still running, stood up on the rear and with the front pair of legs clenched and bounced off the thick pillars rising above the ground and forming the walls of the bridge. A long jump, the steel struts groaning, and it was by the car. Two long talons grabbed the car, there was a ghastly creak, and yanked it to its body like a baby pulls a toy. The monster opened its jaws, biting. The carbon steel spikes and synthetic metals became visibly deformed, but didn’t loosen. The creature pushed so hard that black blood gushed from its mouth. Then it jerked violently and released its grip. The truck lifted from the ground, the antigravity propulsion shining with rows of blue flames. Tons of metal slammed to the ground, blue lights dying out. The car continued at the same speed and engraved a furrow in the asphalt.

The driver’s window disappeared and strong hands in leather gloves, clutching a huge gun appeared. Oh God, there is a man in it, she realized belatedly. How could he have survived that impact? The not-slowing truck, still plowing a furrow in the ground, shook so much that Anna could not understand how a man could keep himself in the cabin and not fall out, let alone aim. But he not only aimed, he also got the target.

A blue and white flash lit up the dim scene, and so Anna saw the finest details. An electric discharge flew through the eye of the monster, which again started to run to attack. It sucked it into itself and then it exploded inside the head. Even with half of the hull. Literally a wave of blood sprayed the air, dividing into small drops and wafting downwind like rain, disrupted by an occasional scrap or a piece of matter. The ground shook for the last time, the torso of the giant body tumbling and collapsing through the highway already behind the bridge, on a lower level. Clouds of dust billowed from the hole and only a long limb remained visible from the monster, which seemed like it wanted to reach the armored car even after death.

The car barreled forward a few more yards, and then, with an ear-tearing crash it halted only a short distance from where Anna was hiding with Roderick.

Anna turned to the boy in disbelief, who wiped the lenses in his eyes of dust.

“I got it all on tape,” he said.

They waited.

There was a screech, followed by a sigh of exhaust air. Then they heard the thud of something heavy and a lot of cursing.

 

 

***

 

 

I was drowning. I was choking, panicking, swallowing seawater. The pressure crushed my eardrums and I felt like my head was going to burst. I only wanted it to end quickly. But the relieving unconsciousness would not come. Something as if crushing my heart with violence and forcing me to keep on living. So I was swimming, kicking and rising.

When I arrived to the surface, I was completely exhausted but conscious. I coughed up the water until my lungs ached like never before. Then drained, I laid down on the water surface and floated. Sounds of war: screams, gunfire, explosions, brought to me as if someone were increasing volume in headphones. After the necessary mental and physical rest, I was forced to move and swam to shore, half dead. The water tasted like salty blood.

“What are you doing, soldier?” a man shouted above the shooting. His voice came as if from above. “You should have long ago… it’s you sir! I didn’t recognize you. What the hell are you doing here?”

He helped me to my feet, and I looked into the face of a man about thirty years old with a bloody gash over his eye. I’d seen him before, but I couldn’t remember who it was. “Harrison, where is he?” I shouted.

“He’s on the Wall, sir, but you won’t get there. Those monsters are everywhere.”

“I need a weapon!”

“You’re lucky, sir, I have something from the specialties of your forces. We were supposed to keep guard of this wall with the eighth squad, but they completely overran us. Only five of us are left. Here, this was Johnson’s,” he said, and thrust an ion rifle, XB-1 model, into my hands.

“Well, get out of here, staying here is suicide,” I shouted at him, already running.

I hung the gun on my back and climbed onto a sand dune on all fours, behind which was a valley, the Wall towering behind it. I would have gotten all the way up, but at the top I was nearly knocked down by a monstrous creature. I would have gotten knocked down had I not been warned (or rather flung away) by a terrible stench, evoking sour milk and rotting meat. That was how I reacted quicker, jumped back and rolled back down the slope.

A monster resembling a giant snail spewed forth from behind the sand horizon. The slippery body unexpectedly quickly made its way across the sand. It didn’t mind the dry surface at all, transforming it into a cloud of dust behind it. The monster had no eyes, instead divining the way with antennae, similar to a snail. Sensory limbs emerged and disappeared as if randomly from different parts of the body. Instead of a shell there was a hideous black ball sitting on its back, studded with sharp black spikes. People were still impaled on some of them. The monster was injured, a part of its amorphous body blackened, no spikes protruding from it. The slug suddenly twisted and sucked its body into itself, only a black, spiny ball remaining. And it was rolling straight toward me. The thorns sprayed sand and rocks high into the air.

I stood in a place that could have been quite romantic before the war. A bay lined with rock as a high shaggy fence, with clear calm water and soft sand. This place was definitely gone. The war had shattered it and splattered it with black blood. Yet, a piece of the rock had survived here and there. I chose a massive one and rapidly moved toward it. I switched the gun to FF mode (Force Field) and gently touched the trigger. Even though the force field was invisible, it was now partly revealed by the dust and sand bouncing from it. I used it as an umbrella stretched out in front of me and waited.

Two seconds. One. Two. I aimed at the monster and fully squeezed the trigger. Meanwhile, I activated a second receiver, located in the butt stock, exactly in the opposite direction to the barrel. I leaned this part against the rock as spears once used to lean against horses.

Just in time. The monster picked up speed and now clashed with the force field. One force was crushing the other. As the pressure on the front part grew, so did the power supply to the rear. The ion rifle shuddered and began to glow. The huge, black ball started to slow down a few feet in front of me. Despite the hot equalizers, which burned through my gloves, the gun began to shake so much that I thought I couldn’t hold it steady. I lay on her with my whole body. Had it not withstood so much pressure and broken open, it would have torn me to pieces. I heard the ominous sound that reminded me that the gun wasn’t the only thing I have to worry about. The rock behind me started to crack.

“Fucking stoooop finally!” I screamed at the spiny ball. It was indeed slowing down, as if caught by an invisible web, and finally stopped. Just in front of my face. The accumulated pressure, like in a coiled spring, fired it backwards. It worked, but narrowly. The weapon overheated and stuttered for a second. I jumped to the side, scrambled to my feet and ran as fast as my legs could carry me. I don’t know what anyone expected, but finally hundreds of barrels began to fire at the monster from the Wall. Straight through the dune, which simply disappeared, exploding in the air in a steel-stone rain.

I ran around the attack site and moved upward. I watched how the Snail threw itself against the wall in despair, bullets ripping it to pieces, still writhing on the ground coated with sand. It endured an incredible amount of shots. Before it finally fell, it got all the way to the Wall.

Somebody opened the gate and pulled me inside. I didn’t talk to anyone and looked for Harrison. Someone tried to prevent and interview me, but I didn’t care. I went through two corridors and burst into the conference room.

“What the hell happened there, sir?” I snapped. Harrison sat at a table, having a discussion with two groomed men in suits, so inadequate for the sandy environment. For a moment, he looked surprised, but then put the old and tired, but hard expression back on.

“I’ll explain everything, Commander, come with me to the other room, please.” Okay, I’ll give him a chance, I thought, even though anger boiled through me and my hands were at risk of strangling him without my knowledge. We walked out a side gate and headed for a makeshift sheet metal interrogation room.

“Anyone else survived, or just you? And tell me, how on earth did you get out?”

“No, sir, they’re all dead. Something happened there. The bomb exploded, but the monsters were everywhere. I’m not sure how it’s possible that I’m alive. I immediately ran to you.”

“That’s good.” Harrison turned his back and was doing something.

“Sir, what happened? Why did the bomb explode so soon? With all due respect, now you should quickly explain everything to me and not look as if I’ve disrupted your lunch break.”

“I’m sorry, Commander,” and suddenly he was holding a gun and pointing it at me, “but it doesn’t matter anymore.” Indeed, he looked as though he was sorry. He shot me twice in the forehead.

 

I touched my forehead, blood sticking between my fingers. I must have lost consciousness for a moment.

Fuck!

How else could one react to the situation when one collapses right before the finish line? I unbuckled the seatbelt and nearly battered myself against the dashboard from the tilted chair. I was stiff from the long trip and pummeled as if from the baton of an overexcited cop. The doors loosened on the second kick. I grabbed the ion pistol and fell out. I had to see for myself whether the motherfucker was dead.

Landing on sharp pieces of asphalt was not pleasant, but I had experienced worse. I leaned against the warm metal, took a breath of fresh air and lit a cigarette. I’ll rest, and then examine the situation. I smoked and waited for the clouds to settle around. Glancing at the gun on my lap, I became sure of what I had already known: the last segment on the scale shone on the small screen.

Suddenly a girl stood in front of me. A woman rather, a young woman in good shape. I was probably more exhausted than I had thought, because I hadn’t noticed or heard her coming. Suddenly, she was there. Her blond hair was pulled back into a ponytail, a tall athletic figure. She wore a shabby outfit, but despite her disheveled appearance it was immediately clear that this was the type of girl with a symmetrical and pleasing face, which was and would remain nice until old age.

Her hands were empty and loosely hanging at her sides, posture clearly indicating that she was on alert. I was probably surrounded by her equally evil silent accomplices.

I pretended not to see her and fully focused on the cigarette. Meanwhile, I unobtrusively reached behind my belt with my right hand. As if I wanted to scratch myself. It was a long time since I had last seen a person and it upset me more than I had expected.

Zack once asked me, while drinking our second bottle of rum, why I always carried a gun with me, an unnecessary extra weight, useless against monsters, he had said. That was just before I hit him across the face with it in a friendly manner. Perfect against people, that was what I told him.

Peripherally I saw the woman move. I drew the gun and squeezed the trigger. I aimed at her feet. A shot slammed across the tense silence.

She was fast. She jumped to the side. I missed and the second shot went into the air. Something glinted and it felt if something had lifted my arm up. She was already next to me, kicking me in the face with her knee. Meanwhile she scrabbled for the throwing knife stuck in the door next to my head, pinned in the sleeve of the Tyvek shirt above my shoulder. I managed to block the kick with my left, but I didn’t completely stop the hit. My head thumped against the sheet metal. She managed to free the knife and place it at my shirt collar. For a few seconds, we didn’t even budge.

Smelling and feeling the warmth of another human being was special after all this time. Almost pleasant. “Neck protector, the invention of Mr. Marcinek,” I nodded toward the blade. At the same time, I pressed the gun barrel to her side and made sure she knew about it.

“I don’t want to fight,” she revealed white, healthy teeth. She stood up in front of me, as if she had the situation under control. With all my senses, I searched for signs of the presence of other people. Surely she wasn’t here alone?

“Definitely not. Just a quick kill and robbing,” I said. I noticed how she curiously eyed the gun.

“Yes, a tempting offer, but I don’t kill people.”

“Nearly,” I checked the gash on my shoulder, which could have been a hole in my skull.

“Usually she aims exactly,” said a young voice. So there were more after all. A big-haired boy emerged from behind the small wall. Also unarmed. His young face was easy to read, like a book. He was scared, but more curious. When he approached, he glanced at the outstretched Kloubitch’s claw (this is how I had named this type of monster), but instead was fascinated by the view of the truck from which moisture was steaming. “What is it?”

“What a machine, huh? This is what we called a Bulldozer.”

The boy nodded appreciatively.

“Didn’t I tell you to stay there?” she snapped. “And don’t talk to that guy.”

“I’m sorry, I’m Mark. What’s your name, boy?”

“Don’t tell…”

“Roderick, but you can call me Rod,” the boy said through the chewing gum between his teeth.

I knew that the more one gets to know another person, the harder it is to kill them. It didn’t apply to me, but I wasn’t human anymore.

My gaze returned to her. I raised my eyebrows questioningly.

“My name is none of your business. I should be the one asking questions.”

“Later. We have to disappear, it will be unpleasantly lively here in a while,” I said. Slowly, so as not to provoke (and because I couldn’t even walk quickly), I got up and still slower, I hung the gun on my back.

She hesitated.

“I don’t kill people either,” I said. “Unnecessarily.”

She didn’t look convinced. She still hadn’t moved. “Why should I believe you?”

“Do you think I’ll shoot you and steal your sweater? But do what you want. I’m outta here.”

Of course, I didn’t want to go away. What I wanted was to get the truck to work and quickly continue toward the target. But the target wasn’t going anywhere. And why not take the opportunity and check what kind of people lived here? Or rather, what technology they had that could be useful to me?

After brief deliberation the blonde called the boy, who was poking the monster’s tentacle with his toe, and they followed me.

I got my stiff body moving and set a pace, so that the Blonde (who always wanted to have an eye on me) and the boy had to speed up. We climbed the wall and headed for the nearest descent. We had to hide. I stopped and looked underneath me.

“I see nothing,” she stood next to me, “do you?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Trouble.”

I took the stairs three at a time, and from the slapping soles I knew she was right behind me. I ran to the destroyed road, turned, jumped over a low fence and ran toward the river. I stopped at the edge of the channel and looked around. The sun was setting and the light fading rapidly. My eyes couldn’t see them, but all my other senses screamed one thing: dozens of hungry monsters lurking in the shadows all around us.

“Ugh, what a smell,” Rod coughed, trying to catch his breath.

Only a channel of thick black mud was left from the river. I could see that already from above.

“Anyone want a bath? I strongly recommend it. Mud baths prolong life.” I didn’t wait for an answer and jumped down. My considerable stature, hung with iron, glided like a tank. I sank into the mud up to my neck. Above me there was a ghostly hiss of Dogs, then a woman’s scream, then another louder one, and in a moment two bodies splashed next to me.

“What the hell was that?”

“Did you see them?” Rod shook his head as he tried to catch a glimpse of something.

“Can’t you be louder? Maybe they’ll hear us in Europe and come to our aid,” I said through my teeth. “Now they won’t smell us,” I said after a moment. “We’ll wait until they lose interest.”

“And then what? We won’t stay here right?” whispered Rod, still too loudly. I had been with them just for a few minutes and they were annoying me already.

With great effort I yanked my hand out of the mud. I took out a roll from my left pocket, which turned into a plastic flask after unwinding. Water began to appear in the shallow holes that formed around our bodies in the mud. I loosened the lid and proceeded to fill the container. Water and ammunition were the most valuable things on the planet. “Then what? Then you’ll thank me for saving your life and say goodbye to me. Listen,” I looked at her, “what were you two doing out here unarmed?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she wrinkled her nose. She tried to move, gritting her teeth in the effort. When she failed, she let it go. “I have a suggestion. There is a former trade center not far away from here, now a home to several hundred people. If you bring us there and give us some information, you’ll get water, food, weapons and ammunition.”

I silently laughed. She stared at me blankly, so I explained it. “I don’t need any of that. And even if I did, I doubt I would get it. You say several hundred people? I don’t like people. And they don’t like me either. It is more likely that they will throw themselves at me and I’ll lose everything I own, if not my life. The question is whether you’re so naive or you’re planning to do that to me before they get the chance.”

“What? I…”

“Quiet!” I pointed a finger above me.

I love silence.

“Wait, are you Immortal Warrior? Devil’s Nightmare?” Rod enthusiastically announced, rather than asking. “Holy monster shit!”

“Roderick! What kind of expression is that?” the blonde snapped. Interest shone in her eyes.

“I learned it from Mal, one online friend. And he just sent me a recording from a security camera in the San Francisco Municipal Railway. It shows a guy who attacked a monster with giant claws twice his size, like crazy. The recording quality is not the best, but I think he had the same jacket as Mark. And the best thing is,” he said fervently, “that Immortal Warrior only carried a knife. The monster nearly killed him, but he just stabbed it to death with the knife. It’s a viral video, quite popular on the net. I’d show you, if I didn’t have my hands stuck in the mud.”

The Blonde turned to me questioningly.

Immortal Warrior. That fit. After my death, as I like to call the incident with Harrison, I started fooling around. I knew that I couldn’t close the gate, so I wandered around, killing, pulling away from reality. I did terrible things. I traveled on foot or by car, not knowing where. I didn’t remember sleeping, but time went by differently. I took a vow that I would kill monsters until one killed me. But it didn’t happen. Maybe I didn’t really want to die. Maybe I just wanted proof that the world hadn’t gone mad. That a normal person could survive what I had survived. That some rules still applied. It had been years before I put things together in my head somehow. And it happened because I did something crazy, convinced of my own immortality.

It was monster against man. I killed him, but I was seriously injured. The vest withstood the sharp claws, but the bones didn’t. I had my thigh muscle torn to the bone. It was the pain that healed me. Basically, I swapped my good physical condition for mental.

I was on the verge of death like never before. I think my heart stopped for a while. And in that moment, when I was lying on the ground in my own blood, the clouds parted and all was clear. At the same time my mind brightened, as though a big black cloud of madness had sailed away. I saw the moon sprinkled with small dots, and I knew what I had to do.

“I’ve never been in San Francisco,” I said. Internet colleague, you said? That meant they had electricity…Okay, Blonde, let’s climb out of here so that you can get home before dark.”

“Why?” she asked, a mixture of relief and disbelief visible on her face.

“I can’t leave you here, what kind of man would I be?” I smiled.

She thought for a moment. “Okay. And keep the ‘blonde’ to yourself. Name’s Anna, okay?”

“Sure, Anna. Can I ask something now that we’re friends? Why did you go out when you can’t survive here?”

“I … I couldn’t stand it inside. That helplessness, everyday bleakness and desolation. Not having anything to look forward to, just waiting for more and more bad news. And staying strong during all this.” She bowed her head as if she were talking to the mud. “And finally, I would have had to subject myself and my body to the man whom I despise the most of all. But all this is irrelevant. Now we have to go back. I wonder how I could forget what’s outside. What killed my…” She looked at me. She was crying. “I can’t let anything happen to that boy.”

“You don’t have to do it for me, we won’t go back,” Roderick said proudly.

“You shut up!” she silenced him.

 

Sound could still be heard here and there, so we had to wait. Meanwhile the Suns set and the shadows multiplied. And it started to get cold. Off we went. The movement through the mud was slow and exhausting. It was the hardest for Rod, who couldn’t reach the bottom. With every movement he just sank deeper. Finally I had to pull him forward. When we got out, we were pretty breathless. Nothing could be heard besides us. Everything was quiet. That would’ve been fine, but this silence was somehow strained. That made me nervous.

”Ugh, I’m covered in mud all over,” Anna complained.

“Not all over yet. Your blond head is glowing a hundred miles into the distance.” When I collected mud in my hands, she looked at me as if I was joking. “Just a piece of loose skin and it can cost you your life. They have an excellent sense of smell.” She understood, bravely took a handful of mud and massaged it into her hair. I then checked to see whether they indeed hadn’t missed a spot, fixed myself up, and we set off with six eyes glowing in the dark.

The echoes of our footsteps were the loudest sounds over a wide area. I went first and chose the way. We soon entered the winding alleys formed by decayed houses.

Suddenly there was the flapping of wings and a Bakersfield Dog landed with a thud on a brick chimney overhead. It was a blind creature about the size of a bandog with black membranous wings that didn’t enable flight, but rather sailing with long jumps. This creature never had enough, seeking food twenty-three hours a day. The most common way of death for this species was a ruptured stomach and blood poisoning (from overeating) if they caught a bite bigger than they could handle. With a rattle, it opened its mouth and the pointy teeth flashed. Another thing that made it a perfect killer was its very low pain threshold. If it even had any.

We froze in mid-motion. And waited. The dog sniffed, issuing a rapid wheezing sound.

Rod shifted and a stone sounded under his shoe. The dog whirled towards us and jumped down without hesitation. Before it could hit the ground, it spread its wings and sailed off. It missed us by the width of an arm.

We hid between two twisted sheet metal plates, which had a bit of hidden space between them. Meanwhile, I disassembled and cleaned the gun (Heckler & Koch) and the magazines (I managed it even in the dark), asking Anna to describe the Home and its surroundings. If everything goes according to plan, they’ll just forget what’s happening. In my experience, nothing ever went as planned. And so Anna talked about how her father discovered, secured, and populated the place. How after the tragic death of her father and Sam her husband, who had to take over the management of the Home, Paco took the opportunity and made it his kingdom. From what I listened to, they should have been doing fabulously. The only thing they started to lack was food.

“As long as you have something to drink and don’t eat each other, you’re good,” I said. “I have seen it with my own eyes.” There was silence, so I raised my head and looked at the two frightened faces. I probably shouldn’t have said that.

I heard the unmistakable sound of wings. I quickly put down the gun and I ordered silence. We sat very still and watched a flock of dogs through the crack over us. The wings rustled, dust falling on our heads as the claws took off the tops of the ruined skyscrapers to be able to glide farther. There were at least two hundred of them. Worst were the sounds that the dogs emitted: the screech of hundreds of monsters, vaguely resembling child’s screams, sending chills all over my body.

One of the dogs calculated the path incorrectly and sailed too low. With a hollow thud it crashed into the girders from which it wanted to bounce off. Then it fell down to us, followed by a shower of rust. I watched it through a crack between the sheets, and carefully inserted the magazine into the gun so that it didn’t make the slightest sound.

The dog shook itself, tried to stretch its wings, but could not do so in the narrow space. Then it sniffed something. It hesitated. We all froze, two pairs of white eyes staring at me from the black face. The dog jumped for me, being the closest. I knew a couple of nine-millimeter holes would not stop an alien dog, and so I clutched the ion pistol in my other hand. It leapt across the sheet metal and bared its teeth. I forced the gun sideways into the creature’s throat, because it worked as well as for the earthly ones. I felt a stabbing in my shoulder, having to fight to maintain balance and not let the Dog ​​knock me down. It bit harder, and frantically tried to chew up the gun. Sharp teeth engraved shallow paths in the titanium. I didn’t hesitate and fired the entire magazine into the dog’s neck in muted shots using the second hand. It pissed the dog off. It spread one wing so hard it threw away the corrugated sheet metal, thus ruining our makeshift hideout. Additionally, it finally managed to topple me and now I had its sharp jaws right in front of my nose.

Anna didn’t hesitate. She drew her weapon and began stabbing the monster in the head, face, into its eyes. It infuriated the dog to insanity. Spit rained down on me from the toothed maw. I smelled its sour breath. It squirmed so much that I had to use all my energy to keep myself on the ground. It slashed at me with the forelimb. The nails unraveled my pants as well as the Kevlar sewn into them (!), and bit into my flesh.

I mobilized all my strength, lightly eased down (Anna was still stabbing) and pushed. I slashed the weapon even deeper into the animal’s neck until something snapped. I looked into the blind eyes. I couldn’t see anything. Like it was long dead.

The creature rebounded with a huff. Black, thick blood was slowly oozing from the numerous wounds, but it didn’t seem that it somehow bothered the creature. As if it was watching us. Then it simply turned and ran, and when it got out of the alley, spread its wings and disappeared.

“What the hell was that?” Roderick squeaked. “Why did it fly away?”

“I don’t know. I’m not a monster specialist. Perhaps he went to call reinforcements.” In fact, I was as confused as the boy. I thought that I knew this kind well, but apparently I was wrong.

I checked the injury. The Dogs’ claws were sharp as knives. Once they slice with their claw into something, they immediately jerk the claw to cut or tear the meat. It was the same with me too. A deep, clean cut ran almost across my entire thigh. If I hadn’t had padded pants, I probably wouldn’t have the entire leg. I took a plastic package from my pocket, unwrapped it, and bandaged my leg.

“Can you walk?” Anna briefly glanced at me after she checked Roderick, who didn’t exactly want it.

“We’ll see.”

As quietly as possible we wove through the debris and after about twenty minutes of too careful sneaking around we got to the vast area of ​​the former parking lot. Small dust devils chased each other along the asphalt surface, gnarled and covered with cobwebs of cracks as the grass broke through them. Besides the electric alien plant, dry grass was the only living flora which I had encountered in recent years. The remaining fauna was just ants and small insects, but only in certain places. Even the toughest kinds awaited the same fate.

Black tubular tunnels, curving into the ground, gaped in the corners of the car park. Entry and exit to an underground parking. We quickly walked through the area and stopped at a low building, whose roof, demolished and full of debris, stretched far into the distance. Despite the destroyed top, the rest of the building seemed in remarkably good condition. It was obviously built to withstand earthquakes, just like a few other buildings in the area. Maybe that was why the majority of the buildings were still standing here.

Anna stopped at the massive door of the passenger lift made from stainless steel material, covered with encrusted splashes. We waited for a bit, but nothing happened. She wiped her face and waved to the camera eye. Still nothing. I started to get nervous. I didn’t feel very well in the middle of the open space. I stood aside and watched the surroundings. When she started swearing and kicking the door, I rushed to her and grabbed her arm. “This is hopeless,” I said. “I won’t wait here until someone remembers that they’re supposed to watch the screen. I’m leaving.”

I was getting really impatient. The possibility of energy recovery was tempting and contact with people exciting, and I admit that I was a bit curious. But taking care of a girl with a child and swimming in the mud while there was a pack of hounds wandering around shifted the scales in the opposite direction.

“That bastard! He didn’t forget to watch, he’s condemning us.”

“Too bad.”

“Wait. We’ll conclude a new agreement. “

I gave her an impatient eye, at which smaller monsters back away. “You couldn’t even fulfill this one.”

“I know how to get inside,” she ignored my tone. “You’ll help us save Jolie, my sister, and for that you can take whatever you want. There must be something you need. “

“Yeah, and inside they’ll give it to me on a golden platter.”

“Just like everywhere else.”

“I don’t want to kill.”

“So you’re not the one we need,” she said harshly. “Come on, Rod,” then she turned to the boy.

She was right. These human prejudices. It was either me or them. Sometimes I forgot it.

“You want to stab them with a knife?” I caught up with them.

“It would be about time,” she said with a strange look on her face.

It was completely dark inside the tunnel. I took down the Velcro arm straps and fastened them in a reversed position. On the other side they were luminescent, powered by body heat, and so they slightly lit the surroundings. Suddenly, all was light. As if someone had flipped a switch. I turned, squinted and saw Rod lighting up the way with his personal computer.

“Good,” I nodded appreciatively.

The road was full of holes riddled with rusty valves. Moreover, the rotten asphalt was crumbling and the risk of a twisted ankle or something worse thus increased. There was an uncomfortable silence, amplified by the echo of the tunnel, intensified every stumble, so that we felt like a herd of elephants. I asked Anna to tell me about the guy who didn’t let them in and about the atmosphere prevailing inside. From what I was told in whispers, I got mixed feelings. The good news was that the people at the Home weren’t very well organized or motivated. Everyone cared only about themselves. The bad news was that they were rather well armed. Supposedly they had acquired lots of equipment also from the complex of military bunkers, which lay about six miles to the east, now destroyed and plundered.

Finally we got down. A wall stood before us – just as Anna had told me. I removed my glove and found out by touch that it was soaked in water. Just a few kicks and the thick plaster showered to the ground from half of the wall. I waited a moment, and when I was sure that no one noticed the sound, I continued the inspection. The bricks had insulation filling, the mortar between them rotten. MAXIS Building Materials was printed on each of them. I took them out without any problems and lay them on the ground. After a while a hole consisting of stinking, rotting garbage appeared in the wall. Some of it spilled and fell out, most of it remaining in place. That was fine because we were wearing a protective layer of mud. I held my breath and climbed inside first.

When I dug out with an incredibly loud rustling, I lay still. Nobody to be seen, fine. After a moment, Rod rummaged inside, followed by Anna.

“Stay still,” I said, when both were about to run somewhere. “Rod, can you operate that portable halogen? Can you do something about the cameras?”

“That’s not a problem, but we will expose ourselves,” the boy said.

“We don’t want that. We will try to avoid them and hope that no one is watching upstairs. We don’t have guns yet, so we won’t part. Ann, you said that we have to go upstairs. I’ll go first. Rod will go after me and you’ll watch so that we are not surprised from behind. Understood?”

Double nod.

“Let’s go.”

Anna drew a knife, I did the same with my HK. I tried to move quietly. I chose a route in which we were concealed from the static cameras by pillars and car wrecks.

We were just walking around the elevator when there was a loud clang and the door opened. They learned about us quickly! We barely managed to hide behind the pillars.

A clatter of shoes drifted through the hall. There were two to four of them. I knew that I had to attack as soon as possible, before they cornered us.

“I don’t see anybody, boss,” said a voice behind me.

I was a little relieved. They were amateurs. No pro would ever walk into a room and say I don’t see anybody, boss! But that didn’t mean I would underestimate them. After all, it was still four guns against one.

“Shut up and go look in the back,” said the second voice and thus revealing their position.

I took advantage of that sound and their restlessness and I moved behind another pillar. I counted to five and rolled out. The first one stood sideways to me, the second on the left, and the third was just leaving the elevator and heading right. I didn’t see the fourth, if there was any. Smile, motherfucker! I saw how the eyes widened on the blond guy’s face with a dumb expression on a strangely long head. And one emotion was well readable in them: panic, fear. My mud camouflage evidently impressed him. He flinched, turned and pointed a short submachine gun at me. I was faster and I squeezed the trigger. Click.

Nothing happened. The weapon had jammed. Holy crap!

I jumped back behind a pillar. It was already raining bullets at that point. A long assault pounded into an iron mast, ringing in my ears. Luckily I didn’t need them to run, and so I sprinted to Roderick before the furious firing ceased, where I nearly didn’t stop in time and squeezed him against the post. We both followed tightly behind him, and in the meantime I frantically pumped the cap until the jammed bullet fell out. Finally. I heard quickly them relocate. Anna was nowhere to be seen. It was time to deal with the blond man. Two steps to get the speed, I felt a scab on my thigh breaking open and I welcomed the pain because it kept me alert. I moved closer to the pole where I had been before, but this time from the other side.

No one fired at me. Nobody made use of the situation. I crouched and looked to see what was happening. It seemed that the blond man wouldn’t hurt me anymore. He had hit a metal pole from close range, the ricocheting bullets blasting him better than I could have myself. Idiot.

The second man was aiming the pistol at the place where I had hid with Rod, but the total unprofessional moved his eyes (and his steps), trying to figure out what had happened to his buddy. I walked around the pole, still sticking to it with my back. I grabbed the barrel, which peered at me before the opponent’s face and twisted it to the side. There was a gunshot. Before the echo faded, I pulled him to myself, thrust my Fällkniven into his neck and turned it ninety degrees. Maybe I couldn’t throw a knife as well as Anna, but I could gut someone very well. While he gurgled I wiped my blade on him, took his gun and let him drop to the ground. A shooting spree sounded from the other side of the garage.

I picked up Rod and we went in the direction he showed me. There I found Anna. Her opponent lay on the ground with a pierced heart. She stood over him, as if she couldn’t believe he was dead. His uniform was already red, blood forming a puddle underneath his body. His eyes were still staring at Anna.

“It’s Kein,” she said, as if she didn’t believe it. “He really wanted to kill me.”

“If you hesitate next time, they will succeed.” I checked the status of Kein’s magazine, but it was empty. I looked around, but no one was there anymore. I went back and they remained standing over the body.

“Are you okay?” I asked the boy.

“Yeah. I’ve seen corpses before,” he said. “Of my parents,” he continued. “But I was little then.”

I didn’t know what to say. I never knew my father either.

“Come on, let’s go.” Anna said, and led him to the side. In the meantime I returned and searched the two remaining bodies. They weren’t carrying anything besides a handkerchief, some chewing gum and their computer. No bullets for the submachine gun.

“Give me your hand,” I said to Anna, when I found them by the stairs. She did, but wasn’t listening too much.

“The other one.” She returned to reality and looked puzzled. I cut off her wrister. While I was removing Roderick’s computer, he became red and rolled his eyes.

“I’m stupid! Tracking devices! How did I not think of it…”

“Even if they had seen us on the cameras, they wouldn’t have managed to react so quickly,” I added to Anna as an explanation. Just in case, I trampled both bracelets.

“We have two pistols, a few magazines and a submachine gun with one magazine. We’re better off now.” I gave an army Beretta to Anna, which I took from Kein. She didn’t want it.

“It was your plan, remember?” I said harsher than I intended. It was clear that she hadn’t killed anyone before. That’s why I couldn’t give her space to think too much about it. She would have the rest of the life for that. “Do you still want to save your sister?”

“Yes.”

“And do you want to die while doing it?” She blinked and looked as though she wanted to object, but then she said: “No. But still…”

“If you have friends here, they’ll help you. But others will get in the way between you and your family, so…”

“So what?

“So you shoot those bastards.” I was still holding the gun in my outstretched arm.

She took it. She straightened her back. I saw a fire lit up in her eyes. She peered through the aim and shot a blank. “You’re right. Well, except for one thing. I don’t have any friends.”

“Let the mud dry, don’t rub it off. We’ll keep the camouflage. Let them shit their pants from fear! Let’s go!”

Despite all the talk I didn’t feel very pleasant, having a girl and a boy behind me. I was used to working with my unit, or by myself. Like this, I didn’t know if I had to worry about them or myself.

The modern staircase was round and revolved upward, like in a fairy tale tower. There was a hole in the middle, which would have been visible up to the highest floor if not obscured by the green, dense vines of deciduous plants hanging from somewhere overhead.

We climbed slowly and quietly until Roderick brushed against the railing. I spun back, but I only saw the boy’s dumb expression. He stood frozen in place, head bowed between his shoulders. Something alarmed me in the middle of the floor. I raised my fist and stopped. It was a quiet sound, maybe the click of the door, maybe I just imagined it. I was waiting.

What an idiot I am, I realized about the same moment when I looked into the lens of a small camera (I hadn’t expected it here). And then two grenades rolled down the stairs to us.

“Back off!” I shouted. Anna was right behind me (hadn’t I told her, for God’s sake, to watch the rear?), Roderick nowhere in sight. I took her arm and sprinted down. I didn’t care if I was stepping on the flat or edges of the steps, if I twisted my ankle or not. But be as quick as possible. I didn’t stop in the mezzanine, which was just a short plane, and bounced off the wall. It might have taken two or three seconds, but seemed to me that the grenades were taking too long to explode.

I jumped.

Double blast.

The shockwave seemed to slow down our fall and then slammed us against the low ceiling and hurled us into the open space. The world spun. I automatically curled into a ball. As I landed, I forgot the gun. It painfully nudged me in the spine and I fell flat.

I knew that I had to get up but I couldn’t. My ears rang, stars flashing before my eyes. Then I was able to roll to my side. Anna was lying next to me. I crawled to her and wrested the gun from her fingers because she still clutched it. I rolled her over on her back and fired the entire magazine into the dusty space of the staircase.

I transferred the last magazine to the Beretta, which I kept with me (Anna didn’t have a pocket for it) and waited to see if anyone appeared. I suspected that they would run in here simultaneously with the explosion, but so far nothing had happened.

Anna stood up unsteadily. She was all pale, bleeding from the torn sweatshirt.

From afar Roderick was staggering toward us.

“Are you okay?” I worried.

“I was…I think I broke my ass,” he was rubbing his behind. When he saw Anna, his face froze.

“We have to go, I lost my shoe,” she said absently.

“She’s in shock. She’ll be okay, but you gotta do exactly what I tell you.” He nodded. “I need you to take her to the emergency exit through that door,” I pointed to the unmistakable white door that literally shone in the gray area, “and barricade them with something. Then find a pharmacy, lay Anna on the ground and tightly bind her wound. All the way around. When the dressing seeps through, bind it again. And give her a drink. In small sips.” I threw him the last bandage and the flask.

“But…” He didn’t grab her.

“When you’re done, decommission as many cameras as you can,” I threw him my computer. It bounced off his palm and fell to the ground. “Meanwhile, I’ll be back. You can do it. Go on and run! “

“But blood makes me ill,” he stammered.

“You can do it. Oh yeah, your Taser!” I got an idea.

I could hear Anna complain again about the lack of shoes. She didn’t want to go, so the boy had to pull her by the hand.

In the meantime, I hid behind a car wreck to have a clear view of the stairs and elevator. I hoped that there was no third way. In a moment four men climbed down the stairs, went to their location and searched the area through the sights of the submachine guns. Two of them were moving confidently and were well coordinated. The other three men climbed out of the elevators, briefly checked the corpses and dispersed.

That didn’t look good. The way back to the hole in the trash looked inviting. But the chance to beat up an ion pistol was also appealing. And most importantly, escape was not my style. I’d been in worse situations.

I tried the electric vehicle door, behind which I was hiding. They were unlocked. I climbed inside. I stretched out on the seat, careful to not stick out my head. I got rid of the rugs, knife, cut out the nylon fabric and poked out the cover. Bingo!

“We know about you! Surrender and nothing will happen to you!” said voices. “We only want to talk!”

The metal box was in place. And now quickly the bolts. The knife slipped from my sweaty fingers, there was no time. I forced myself to inhale and exhale and continued. After a moment, the cover was removed. The batteries were in place. The small thing was harboring so much energy that even half-charged it could power this building for several hours.

“You have ten seconds before we shoot,” a nervous voice said. If I were them I’d already be shooting.

I broke off the top cover with the knife and gently removed the surge protection. One bad move and it would fry me.

I managed it.

I peered out beneath me and by my legs I discovered that the adversaries had dispersed out to about two hundred and seventy degrees. They knew exactly where I was.

I barely crawled out, and they started to fire. Bullets tore the sheet metal to shreds and whistled around my ears. Glass shattered over my head. I rolled underneath the chassis and returned a few shots. The wreck shook in the hail of bullets. Yet, I didn’t even think of using the ion pistol (which I had left in the car). It was a powerful weapon for which I had risked too much to use for enemies who didn’t deserve it.

And now it was my turn. I lay down the battery. It was necessary to activate it. This was what Rod’s Taser served for. I fired the highest dose into the battery and held it until it began to overheat. It happened quickly, that was how I knew it was working. I held it until it begun to burn and threw it as far in front of me as possible.

The glowing cube could not be overlooked. I leaned out and fired, but missed. Instead, I was showered with a bunch of shots. I tried again.

Suddenly it was as if a horse had kicked me. Strapped to a running locomotive. The shockwave blew my gun away and I skid across the floor like shit after rain. The riddled door flew by me. I hit something twice before I stopped. It seemed that the battery was not completely discharged. The blast threw the standing vehicles into the distance. The fire protection system responded, some sprinklers launched with spit. Water sprinkled through the black cloud of smoke like hoped-for rain. Remnants of the flames died and turned into smoke. Then there was silence.

The pain I felt in numerous places on the body trumped the thrill of the fight. I got up and went to look for the ion pistol. Or the truck in which it was. I didn’t believe that somebody could survive this devastating explosion. I went through the whole area, looking for the electric car. I clung to the ground, and the slight breeze luckily warned me that the ventilation worked.

The blast was so powerful that the support column the battery fell close to shattered the concrete up to the steel rods.

The enemies were well covered, but from the wrong side. The detonation swept them away in all directions. Bloodied bodies were lying in different places, one even up on the stairs. Strangely, not all of them were dead, but certainly not capable of fighting.

Deceit was not a bad feature, it was a type of fight.

Actually, only one survived. He sat on the ground, next to a piece of wheel on a shaft. Shrapnel had ripped his entire face off. He was rocking back and forth. He looked at me, but it wasn’t clear if he could actually see me.

“I’m never merciful to those who shoot at me,” I wanted to say threateningly, but it sounded more like an excuse. I grabbed him and dragged him into the elevator. They could take care of him. I thought for a while. Then he was followed by some other bodies I found, some in multiple pieces. When I finished, I pressed the button to the top floor and went to find the ion pistol.

The boy had done well. He had taken off Anna’s sweatshirt and undershirt, bandaging her wound tightly around her shoulders and armpits. The bandage was all soaked and it didn’t look too good.

“She fainted, I don’t know what to do. Will she be alright?” He jumped up when he saw me. He was almost as pale as her.

“If she gets a transfusion quickly she will survive. You should have made a barricade here.”

He looked like I had said, You should have brushed your teeth. “I knew you’d come,” he said. “Are we going to pick up the transfusion?”

“Did you have time to check out the cameras?”

“Deommissioned the whole building,” he said with barely concealed pride.

I raised my eyebrows. “How did you do that?

“I let out a worm I worked on last year into the system. I encountered an open road when I tried to hack into the bank server and get a few credits. It’s not yet finished, Paco could remove it in safe mode. I hope he won’t, but so far I have full control over the entire system.”

“I see that you’re not an amateur.”

“You’re not one either,” he looked at me, “I nearly blew it when the explosion happened.”

“Here,” I handed him the wrister I had stolen from a corpse.

 

She looked dead but was breathing. The bandage had been thoroughly soaked in blood. I was seething with rage at the sight of her. I was mainly pissed at myself.

Over the years outdoors when the end can sneak up on you at any minute, I had seen only death, pain and desolated dry land without hope around me. I would’ve given up long ago, had I not felt guilt, wanting my revenge and requiring certain answers. Then I got to know them, those two naive uncorrupted creatures, and it reminded me of the times when people used to laugh, men had their wives and children and only one sun shone in the sky.

“We need a hospital,” I said.

“Supposedly Paco has a private one. Everything we need should be there. But it’s not easy to get there and I don’t know exactly where it is,” Roderick mused aloud. “Swine has decent facilities, the entire ground floor goes to him. But without credits he won’t even open the door for us. Maybe even with the credits. In addition, he has many people around him. It is said that half the floor works for him. They’ll see your gun and throw themselves at us.”

Hm. Too bad I didn’t send those corpses to them. But maybe there was a way to use my method of deterrence…

“Could I speak to them? I mean all of them.”

“No problem.” He put the lenses on and two minutes later he handed me my computer and set the screen so that I could see myself. I sat down cross-legged and rested the ion pistol on my lap. I looked really great. Burnt hair on the scalp, scorched eyebrows, ruptured veins in the eyes, dry mud with blood all over the body, bloody bandage in a hole in the pants. And unfeigned anger in my face. Behind me there was the elevator, which converged paths of blood. Even before I began to speak, Rod played a recording of the incident when I got Kloubitch under the wheels, just to get their attention. Then my face appeared on the screens on all floors.

“Residents of the Home,” I said to them, “I greet you. My name is Mark Badluck, former commander of the last offensive team of the United States against the alien invasion, unofficially named Last Chance. Right after I deal with some personal matters here, I will leave and not return. Until then, don’t leave your homes and don’t try to come my way or even stop me. I have nothing against you, but at the same time I don’t care whether you live or not. This is true for both you and your leaders. Whoever violates my orders dies like those amateurs who tried to stop me. Over and out.”

We rested Anna against a metal corner of the elevator. I noticed that there were still two floors below us. Now it wasn’t time to examine what could be there. I pressed number one. We started up and the lights went out. I felt relief, as the elevator began to fall. The mechanical brakes were blocked and almost immediately the elevator stopped.

Rod immediately withdrew his computer. “I have restricted access! It must’ve been Paco. What the hell is going on?”

I didn’t know and I didn’t like it. The amount of dirt on the vest had even buried the lighted zippers, and so it was dark. I searched for the gap with my fingers and pried the door open with a knife. It opened obediently. We stopped in the middle of the floor, but the crack was large enough to squeeze ourselves through. First I helped the boy climb out, then I picked up Anna. Handling the floppy body was not easy, especially if the shape and state were supposed to be maintained. I had to pick up Anna with one hand and hold her under the chin, having my arm wedged between her breasts and along the abdomen in order to be able to give her wrist to Rod with my left hand so that he could help me pull her out. Finally I did it, and we all got up.

We found ourselves in a large hall. The place didn’t look amiable. Sprayed areas, piles of shit in the corners, smashed windows. What had not been properly attached was torn off. And what had been properly attached was cut off. And no one was there. It seemed my speech had worked. Wait… I heard voices. At first I assigned the sounds to the radio break between music, when the news program read years of old news, but it was a dialogue. I signaled to the boy to keep an eye on Anna, took out the gun from the case and approached the source along the wall.

“…try to understand! Everyone’s trembling with fear in hiding! We have a unique chance! We’ll run up, take everything and be back before anyone notices,” an excited voice declaimed.

“Uncle, you really have your ears totally full of crap! Didn’t you hear what that guy said? And did you see the gun? Did you know that Dumb Face went with them? Swine lent him the MP5.”

I hid the pistol and reached for the rifle. “You mean the blond?” I got out and entered the conversation. “He really looked dumb. Died first.” I pressed the button on the side and put the gun into action mode. The display and the lights at the front of the barrel came on and the gun quickly beeped twice.

The first youngster, called Uncle, got so scared he jumped maybe two feet high. He tried to flee, but tripped over his own feet and stretched out on the ground. Yellow teeth snapped loudly against each other. The second boy, tall with dreadlocks, widened his eyes and squeezed the can in his hand until it splashed round. Uncle lay on the ground crying, and the smell of feces spread after a moment. He was begging for something, but I couldn’t understand through sobs. He probably had just gained respect.

“You,” I pointed at the guy with dreads. “Drop it,” I pointed to a long taped shard, which was tucked into his waistband. He did so. “Swine has a hospital here. Take me there. Fast.”

He threw the can away and went without a word. People often tended to immediately do what I told them.

If he was surprised that a boy with a dying girl were waiting for me around the corner, he didn’t show it. I took Anna in my arms and hurried after him. He led us through the corridors and shortcuts through smashed shop windows and looted stores. “One little piece of advice. He’s called Swine everywhere, just not in front of him. His name is Nicholas Proskurkin. And he doesn’t let strangers in,” Dread Boy kicked away the foot of a plastic figurine, which lay in the way, “but with your persuasive methods, it probably won’t be a problem, right?”

Indeed it wouldn’t. We stopped at the devastated escalators. “Just keep going straight and turn right past the jail,” he pointed.

“If it’s a trap and someone tries to fuck me there, you’re dead. Got it?”

He nodded gravely.

“All right, I believe you. Now get out. “

He ran off, but then he turned and shouted: “Hey, gunner! How is it out there?”

“Too big for you!”

A jail like a number of separate rooms, locked by scroll bars. Only a few were full, and those were easy to discern from afar, based on the semicircles of spit on the ground. The prisoners looked at us curiously, but no one said anything. In one of the cells, I had a sad look at a small child with a bulging belly, feeding one prisoner (perhaps the father) a piece of roasted meat with a tail.

At the end we turned to the right, and indeed, I knew that we were at the spot. The security door with outer lattice didn’t look exactly like an entrance to a public hospital, but that was precisely the reason why this was the right place.

I left Anna with Rod, and because I couldn’t find a bell, I banged on the door with the butt of the rifle. For a long time nothing happened. When I was about to knock again, the lock clicked and the door opened. Behind the bars was a man, although I wasn’t completely sure about that. The body shape resembled a pear, the face a grapefruit. Chest size was not clearly identifiable under the baggy shirt. Legs slightly O-shaped, clothed in loose blue sweatpants. And to make the best possible impression, he cradled a pink two-headed dwarf + pig in his arms. Ears were missing from the side where the heads touched, so there were only two of them together, which seemed extremely odd. One of the heads was gently nibbling on a biscuit, the second one sniffing at me. I had heard about these genetically modified animals before, but never about someone who would have actually owned them.

It seemed to me that there was a certain resemblance between the three heads. I almost started laughing.

The man looked at me, rested his sight on the rifle for a little longer, and then returned to my face. “Get out,” he said, stroking the animal. His deep voice would not have left anybody in doubt about his sex any longer.

“Are you Swine? I need help. Do I have to ask the one awkwardly hiding behind the info board? Or should I go speak with what the one trying to blend in with that plastic palm tree in the back?”

It didn’t seem like the revelation of his men had thrown him off. He leaned forward. “You have nothing to pay with. Or does he have anything to pay with?” He nodded toward the jail where Roderick was waiting. He reeked of alcohol. “I have more men than the number of these bars,” he raised his free hand and patiently stroked every bar in front of him. “And now get out,” he said confidently, although he had to lean back so he could look into my eyes. I knew these types of people. In the end we would talk business anyway, this being just a cognitive game. Despite this charade he was obviously waiting for me. But I was in no mood to play.

“The only reason the bars are not melted across the floor is that I need you. I don’t care how many people you have. Whether two or twenty. People stopped worrying me a long time ago.” I clicked the safety off the rifle. Subtly but obviously enough to notice. “So. Surely you understand that we’re in a little bit of a hurry. So I’ll give you a choice. Do we play the butcher pretend game or do business?”

For a moment he stood there and watched me. Then he straightened, stepped back, opened the grille and walked right up to me. He smelled awful. Literally awful, since I could smell him despite what I wore myself. “I want the gun,” he said.

“You won’t get it,” I said.

He frowned. His eyes flicked past me. He probably had another man concealed there. I didn’t care. “So what do I get?”

“Anything in this damn house.”

“Anything you say?” He ran his fingers through his greasy sparse hair. “I don’t want anything. I want everything. I want this whole damn house.”

“Deal.” I put out my hand. He handed me his and smiled.

We brought Anna to the “operating room.” Naively, I imagined a sterile room, but we went into a filthy burrow, through another door with a knife sticking out of it, precisely in the head of a bald man on the poster. The two-headed swine ran around.

“That smell, as if corpses are stored here,” I whispered to Rod.

“They say it smells even in pictures,” the boy said earnestly, “but only from the second floor up.”

Even though the room was large, we almost didn’t fit. Everywhere there were boxes and bags full of pills, syringes and other medical equipment. Rats hung on the clothesline stretched between the hooks, barely holding in the rotten walls, and beetles dried on plates. It smelled almost like Swine, which means like heated vomit.

He deftly scurried through the path across the mess, and since I was carrying Anna, I tore down half the things. Finally we got to the other side with the hospital bed, which was relatively clean and had surprisingly enough space. We laid Anna down. Nikolai ran to the old table, which groaned under the weight of piled wheelchairs. From the middle drawer he pulled out a small box with a needle. He washed both the needle and his hands, disinfected and took Anna’s blood. Hopefully it was not her last. It turned out that fortunately she was blood type 0, which is the most common. He nodded to Rod to come with him and ran to the door I hadn’t noticed before, and in which I had a glimpse of control panels through the crack. A moment later he returned with a blood bag. The boy was carrying an armful of containers and other things.

“Now I have to insert the bag into the water and cook it like my dinner,” Swine said. “Stir slowly and cook. Then we wait for about an hour and a half before I can inject it. Blood must be at room temperature.”

“For now give her something to slow down her circulation and look at the injury.”

“She has almost no pulse. I think it’s not worth it,” he said, putting his hands on his hips and looking at the ion pistol. Then he pulled out a Colt 911, which had been tucked in his waistband and placed it beside him on the table.

“No!” shouted Roderick.

When I really want to, I could develop incredible speed and strength. It was one of the few skills that I once acquired when my life was miraculously saved. For some time I thought that it was God. Now I know it was them. Extraterrestrials. A second sun. The same ones who destroyed the earth. Why? I don’t know, although…I have my own theory.

In one leap I was next to Swine. He managed to reach for the weapon but nothing else. The sole of my shoe slipped on the mud, and I was forced to make an extra half step. Instead of landing in front of him, I took and slammed him on the shelf behind him, a few things falling. I grabbed his hand, and put the gun to his throat.

“You’ll heal that girl. Or you’re dead, I promise. I don’t care how you do it. I don’t care whom you persuade,” I looked him in the eye, “or not. Clear? Otherwise, the deal’s off.” I let go of him and carelessly tossed the Colt on the floor.

He touched the place where he had hit his head and nodded. Lightning flashed in his eyes from fury, but fear was visible in them as well. Apparently he was not accustomed to such behavior. He wasn’t so stupid as to not realize that I was in charge here now.

“In that case I think,” he said slowly, “I’ve got some blood already prepared.” I guess I indicated surprise and so he chuckled and continued: “You didn’t count on that, Commander? As soon as I learned that there was an intruder, I knew that when they need anything or are injured, they’ll come to me.” Meanwhile, he undid Anna’s bandage, cleaned the wound and gave tasks to Roderick. “So just in case, I prepared for anything. So that I have something to trade with. But as soon as I stitch up this beauty, you owe me. I was going to take over the Home myself anyway. You’re not giving me anything that I couldn’t procure myself. Plus, you killed my cousin, Dumb Face.”

“You’re wrong.” I turned and looked round. After a while, I really saw crowbars, knives, explosives, homemade and cases which could contain nothing other than weapons. “Your men would’ve died in action,” I continued, “you’d have wasted all ammunition. You’d have ruined it here. This way you won’t have to lift a finger, and your enemies will be dead. Some already are. And your cousin? If he hadn’t been an idiot, he could’ve lived. Besides, we both know that it was you who sent him there.”

“You’re right,” Swine laughed after a while. “Anyway, I didn’t like him.”

Of course I didn’t trust Swine. I decided that I would still watch him until Anna was stabilized. I took one of the wheelchairs and sat down.

“How did you know what blood type Anna has?”

“I didn’t. I have quite a selection, so I have prepared more. “

“Just in case enemies need help. Don’t lie and spill how it really was.”

Swine chuckled through the facecloth in a distorted manner. He was obviously amused. “You don’t overlook anything. Disinfectant gel, the blue one, and tweezers,” he barked at Roderick, who handed them to him in white gloves. “Well, to get you into the picture. Viktor, the big tattooed bastard whom you haven’t had the honor to meet, came down to me and wanted to negotiate. He babbled something along the lines of Jerremy being no longer suitable, and that he agrees with me. We’d overthrow him and then split the power among ourselves. He told me that he himself would place the gun between Paco’s eyes, but he needs me to take the elevator upstairs with my people and burst onto the Order Patrol from the back. That he can’t do it alone. I could see very well that the thick-head with his brain eaten up by steroids was talking bullshit. He tried to trick me and thought that I was so stupid I’d fall for it. Because I knew that the Order Patrol no longer belonged to Paco (maybe just officially), but to Viktor. So, who did he then need help against? Hey kid, give me that little needle. No, the little one!” He paused as he concentrated on stitching. Then he continued: “So I nodded and then put pressure on one friend up there. And you know what he told me? That Paco is long out of the game and the elevator which I was supposed to take upstairs with my guys for the supposed ambush attack has just been compromised! Sure, I could have gone a different way and led an open war, I have more men. But Viktor has better weapons and as you say, I could lose a lot. And then suddenly you appeared. I’ve seen your toy, and I thought that it might help. So I called a couple of dumb corrupt Order Patrol guys, offered them unrealistic sums and sent them to you. I saw that you have Paco’s Blondie with you and it was clear to me that she’d tell you that this was the work of those at the top. I kinda hoped you’d throw yourself at them. It didn’t happen, but I considered that as well. And also the possibility that I’d have to fight you. The blood was for my boys, not for your whore.”

“Now you’re talking a lot.”

“You ask why I’m saying all this? Maybe I started to believe that I could really take down that bastard!”

“I doubt it,” I got up.

“And what if he does something to her!” Roderick worried.

I looked at Nikolai. “He won’t.” Not yet.

“And don’t ride the elevator!” I heard the laughing Swine calling behind me.

I told Roderick to watch over Anna, and went back. Did I want to get involved in some power conflicts? No way. My plan was simple. Swine would give me a break for a moment. I would save the girl, charge an ion pistol. No matter in what order. I didn’t care whether I would fulfill or fail to fulfill anything along the way, whether I killed someone or not. I keep promises only to those I respect.

I went back to the elevator, but this time I climbed the stairs. I got to the upper floor with no problem, but before I went on, I had stopped at a body lying in front of the stairs. It was a man, about thirty-five years old. Someone had shot him in the head at close range. He had been dead a few hours at most. I checked him, but he wasn’t carrying anything. I continued. Entry to the next level was through a closed door with a magnetic lock. That could be a problem without access to the system, but a solution offered itself. A man in a black uniform stood in the hallway facing away from me, leaning on the open door and smoking. I flattened myself against the wall, climbed each stair while checking access from the upper floor. I tried not to cause the slightest sound, which required absolute concentration due to dirt, which crunched with every movement.

Suddenly, the man spoke: “You better hurry, the boss said to close the entire floor and the elevator’s got to be finished by five.”

“The first rule when working with explosives is: do not rush. Or do you want that shit to go off in my hand?” he replied, voice echoing. “So let me do my job and watch the stairs. I wouldn’t want that freak hitting me from the back.”

At that moment he began to turn, so I ducked back behind the corner. I was waiting. I closed my eyes and listened.

“Yeah. What could he want?” he said to himself. I heard him shift his weight from one leg to the other as he finished his cigarette and threw it on the ground. Then apparently he became bored because he turned again and started to talk.

I started off. I had the gun in the holster and carried the knife in my hand. I ran up the stairs, stood behind the man, waited half a second before he stopped cackling at a joke and clogged his mouth. With the other hand I stabbed him in the side of his neck and severed the carotid artery away from me so that blood flowed into his windpipe. I laid him down and left him to choke. I managed to get inside. I quickly looked around. A man with sleeves rolled up sat leaning forward in an open doorway by the elevator and fastening explosives to the main cable. I moved toward him in long strides, but he must have felt or heard something, because he turned and his free hand immediately fumbled for the gun at his waist. I shot him twice in the back and once in the head. He fell into the shaft. I must have accidentally hit the bomb with the last bullet because it exploded. It was a directional explosive and so it blew off the main cable, but caused no other damage. A cloud of fire and smoke rose from the shaft to the high ceiling. Then came the thump as the elevator, “accidentally” devoid of emergency brakes, crashed to the ground. So much for silent action. I refilled the magazine and went to look into the black hole.

I turned to go search the body of the guard, when two figures jumped out the door, and partially hid behind the island with artificial ivy.

“You fucker. You killed Jack. What the fuck is going on? What the hell are you doing here?” one of them said.

“As I said, I need a few things,” I said calmly.

One of the figures was a girl. She was pretty, had a soft, chestnut complexion, clothed only in a white undershirt and trousers. A tattooed arm belonging to a muscular figure hiding behind her like a donkey behind a carrot was clutching her neck. From the other side of the neck the girl had a handgun pressed to her, a polished Deser Eagle .50. The man, at least according to his eyes and face, could hardly control himself.

I believed that they had a task for me, and they wouldn’t let me die unless I fulfilled it. I believed it, but wasn’t sure. But even though they had repeatedly plucked me out from the claws of death, why risk it? I also had my own goal. My own plans.

I definitely didn’t want to test what would happen when the meathead tried his shooting skills from a weapon that could tear a man’s leg off.

“Don’t move. That is, if you don’t want her in pieces.”

“Why would I want her? I don’t know her.”

“You came with Anna. You protected her. I don’t know why you’re doing it, or how she convinced you. I’ve known her for some time and I’ll stake my gun that she was part of the deal, too.” He pushed the barrel into the girl’s neck.

I remained silent.

“Where is Johnson?” he asked.

“You mean the explosives expert?” I nodded toward the elevator shaft. “Somewhere between this floor and the ground floor.”

I saw Viktor frown. “Somehow I can’t figure out on whose side you’re on. You joined Swine? Hopefully not, otherwise he’ll stab a shank in your back when you least expect it.”

“I’m just on my side. Why, Viki, are you scared? Did my shipment arrive?”

“Scared? Hardly,” he snorted. “You messed up the elevator for no reason. They were traitors, you saved me the job.” I didn’t believe him. He was nervous, sweating. Inadvertently subsiding. I took advantage of it and moved forward.

“Doesn’t anyone here watch TV? It was playing on the air. I’ll take just a few things and leave. One of them is her. We can make a deal after all.”

And then Viktor made a mistake. “No shit!” he yelled. “I won’t make any agreement with such a madman! Now I’m the boss here, you understand? What would Anna say? What would the leggy blonde with blue eyes do if you brought her sister without a head? Is that what you want? So keep your fucking distance!” A drop of sweat slid from his forehead to the eyes. He blinked furiously.

“Jolie?” I spoke to the girl. “Hold still, it’ll soon be over.” She nodded bravely.

“It will indeed be the end. But either yours or hers,” he roared.

“If you let go, Viki, I swear I’ll let you go.” Another step closer.

“You think I’m a complete idiot? You connived with that stinking swine. I said drop your fucking gun!” Finally, he started aiming at me.

“This one?” I looked at my gun. “Well, Viki, calm down.” I reached out took a big step forward and tossed the gun away.

“Viktor, let me go!” the girl hissed.

“Shut up! And you. Now that rifle. On the ground!”

“I can’t do that, Vicki.” One step closer. They were about ten yards from me. I still needed to get closer by about three yards.

“Throw the rifle on the ground right now or I’ll blow your face out of your head, you dumbhead!”

“Okay, okay,” I pretended to surrender. I took my rifle from my back and slowly placed it on the ground.

He smiled. He felt like he was at an advantage. He thought he had won.

While I was waiting on the stairs for the guard to turn around, I thoroughly cleaned the soles of my shoes and picked out the mud from the designs. Thanks to that they now adhered to the vinyl now, the way bad luck adhered to my enemies. I again felt the vibrations, shaking in the arms and tips of my toes as if I was touching an electric current.

As soon as something unexpected happens, the body reacts reflexively, before the head has time to think about it. So, once I started straight from my crouch, Viktor’s arm automatically followed my path rather than turning back and threatening the girl. At that distance it was enough for me to kick twice. I employed my second kick vertically from the screen recessed in the wall. The glass trembled but withstood it and didn’t affect the power of my kick.

He started to turn, but I was already behind him. I took advantage of my kinetic energy, and I was about to give him a blow between the eyes and crush all his nasal bones. He managed to fire (it was like a shot from a cannon), and even though he aimed for places where I was no longer located, the recoil force jerked him and my knuckles just brushed his temple. It threw him off. He stumbled and let go of Jolie.

Since I had nothing to stop myself against, I just flew past him and fell to the floor. I couldn’t see the fact that he was just aiming and walking toward me, but I knew it. I jumped into a squat, turned on the hard heels of the steel boots and stabbed the knife deep into the surprised Viktor’s abdomen.

He looked at the wound, and then back at me. His eyes showed clear surprise. Blood flowed from the wound and dripped onto the clean floor. Only then did I realize that I only thought I had the Fällkniven in my hands. My hand was bloody… but empty. And indeed, the knife was still stuck in a holster on the belt.

Viktor took two steps and collapsed two steps lower to the ground right into a fake lake.

It sounded like ice cracking. I turned. Viktor’s bullet had pierced a hole in a giant aquarium, and now cracks were spread all over it. The tempered glass burst and thousands of gallons of water had nothing to keep them back. Tons of the liquid flowing from the ceiling created a wave that rolled towards us like a tsunami. There was nothing to grab, nowhere to hide.

Without hesitation I dived and hit the floor hard. I managed it. I firmly grabbed my pistol a second before the wave gripped and swallowed me into its bowels, like a voracious monster.

I spun around until I encountered something hard. Pain clutched my arm, water pumped into my mouth and nose and I felt that I would choke and puke at the same time.

When the flow finally stopped, I vomited a few small fish, unwound myself from the vines and ferns and my wiped my face. Water swept around us, pouring down the stairs, disappearing into the elevator shaft and falling through the railing to the lower level. Moments after only the floundering fish were left.

“What a ride!” Jolie returned to the stairs while squeezing her hair. A wet vest stuck to her breasts and she looked naked. Either she didn’t notice, or didn’t care. For a moment I thought of something I hadn’t thought about for a long time.

“Victor wouldn’t have agreed with you,” I said. “He didn’t have an amazing ride.” His body lay under the floor level, that was why the wave had swept over him. The dry lake filled with water, and now he was floating face down in it.

Jolie seemed a little pale, but it could’ve been because of the cold water.

Heavily, I stood up, she took my hand. I was twice as heavy, water dripping everywhere. “You came with Anna?”

I nodded. I searched Viktor. He had only one spare magazine, a real paper photo of a half-naked woman, a foil packaging with pills and an entry card with a red stripe. After a moment’s thought, I hid the Desert Eagle along with the magazine into the TV frame. If I discovered more ammunition for it, I would come back.

We quickly found Jerremy Paco. It was enough to follow the not too distant angry whimper. He hung in a fishing net suspended on the spruce handle of a luxury rail. My heart sank when I realized that he hung over me as I climbed the stairs and I hadn’t even noticed him. Paco was not in top form. The ice shower modified his pitiful appearance so that he looked like a drenched Dog. Twisted body in the net, once-white shirt full of stains. Yellow eyes, a bruise on the face, it all suggested that he hadn’t just experienced a weekend at the wellness center. When he finally focused and noticed me looking at him, he croaked: “Who are you?”

“My name is Mark Badluck. I’ve already introduced myself here,” I nodded toward the screens hanging from the ceiling.

“I must have slept through it. My name is Jerremy Paco. I am the former president of this community.”

“I’ve heard about you,” I said. “You must be a real idiot.”

“A man in my position has friends and enemies, logically.” He chuckled briefly. “Actually, no, I have only enemies. If you let me go, you might be the first exception.”

“No problem,” I flipped my knife in my hand and put the blade to the cluster string.

“No!” Jerremy winced when the net rocked. “Wait! I have information. If you pull me up, I’ll tell you what you need to know. I won’t meddle under your feet, I just want something done with an old friend.”

“If you mean Victor, he’s dead. He drowned.” Paco stared at me in disbelief, but said nothing. “Well,” I said. “If you advise me well, I will reward you.” He nodded frantically.

Jolie leaned against the railing and watched curiously what would happen.

“Let’s say I need to recharge batteries. High capacity batteries. I need to charge twenty kilovolts.”

“This will be a problem,” he frowned, as if he was really sorry. “We don’t have enough juice for that. As you’ve surely noticed, everything here is arranged so that it’s energy efficient. LEDs, plasma, heat utilization…The kettle has the largest power consumption.”

Disagreement must have shown in my face because he started defending himself.

“I swear! I mean, I’m not saying it won’t be possible, I just don’t know how. We have a power station here, but I don’t know how it works. No one in the Home does. As long as it works, there’s never been a reason to be curious… “

I turned to Jolie. She shrugged. “What a help he was. Let’s go.”

“Wait! Give me a drink at least! Water!” he shouted.

I looked at the girl. Her expression suggested that she would’ve rather given water to a monster than Paco.

“Wring your shirt,” I shouted at him and started walking down. Along the way I met two uniformed gunmen, but they saw me from afar. They fled.

“Hey, Mark,” the girl caught up with me, “where in the world did you come from?”

“A blonde with a boy stopped me. It was a mistake. I’m getting out of here.”

I sat on a bench. I needed to think. Meanwhile, I almost automatically striped the magazine.

“What are you doing?” asked Jolie.

It took a while before I realized that she meant the slitting of cartridges. “When I carve a slit into them, they tear and cause more damage.”

“And why are you slitting only some?”

“It destroys the ballistic trajectory. Sometimes I need a precise hit,” I replied laconically.

I didn’t get rid of Jolie until I told her that Anna needed her. Only then, as if she had just remembered her, she hurried down. I was filthy and smelled bad, and so I decided that before leaving, I’d visit the bathroom. Education of my father, special army units. My whole life I had this activity encoded as commonplace and even in the thirty years during which I had lived like an animal, I could not completely erase this fact. In addition, I didn’t feel like dying because I couldn’t remove a magazine from a sealed pocket. Now I missed the decontamination chamber in the Bulldozer. Maybe I ought to get back and wash there…

I heard a sound. A woman in a skirt so short that it could barely be seen, running from one booth to another. She ran around the low rims of decorative pools, which had only about a foot of water in them. As she was taking a turn in heels and her glance fell on me, she became startled, yelped and fell on her ass.

Yeah, shower first.

I found the bathroom quickly based on the practically distributed signs. I spent about an hour there. Ten minutes of shower time (during which I discovered that the wound on my thigh was merely a scab now), the rest of the time trying to fix up my clothing. When I was finished, I sat down and lit a cigarette. The sink became clogged with mud and black water was slowly leaking to the ground. I decided to look into the warehouse. Now that I had undertaken this unnecessary detour, at least I could have something from it.

I went out and walked in a random direction. I went through the maze of low bars built into a V-shape. For the most part, they were empty, but here and there I saw a bottle. In the distance, on the opposite platform, I saw some figures watching me, but when I came nearer they disappeared.

You can recognize a person best by the way they move. When walking, especially when running. Jolie tilted her hips a lot, shook her buttocks and waved her arms. She was barefoot, high heels in her hand. I waited for her.

“Where are you? I was looking for you in the entire Home,” she told me, as if we were old friends. “She finally woke up and wants to talk to you.” I almost asked “who?”, but remembered in time.

“Why?”

“I don’t know,” she looked bewildered. “She probably wants to thank you. You saved her life.”

“She doesn’t have to. Do you know which way I can get into the supply warehouse? “

“Yeah, but I promised…”

“Well, which way?”

She looked at me as if I were a disobedient little boy. She put her hands on her hips. “Follow me.”

As the gateway for the receipt of goods was on the surface, we went through a service corridor, passed through the entrance for staff, walked into the lobby and there in front of us there was door with the sign WAREHOUSE NO. 16. The handles were wrapped in a chain, which had a great iron lock on it. I was going to blow it off, but Jolie reached into her pants and waved a key ring before my eyes, on which hung a key card with a blue stripe. “I still have shifts scheduled here, it should work.” It worked, she unlocked both locks and the door opened.

“That’s an option as well,” I had to agree.

Something occurred to me. Before we continued, I tried Viktor’s card with a red stripe. Obviously it worked.

The temperature in the first room was only a few degrees. Two boxes with air conditioning were on opposite sides of the room. In the middle there were grocery pallets on the shelves, and I also saw boxes of cosmetics and hygiene products.

“Is this the only warehouse you have here?” I asked.

“No,” she shook her head, “but it was closest to Paco, so he moved the most valuable things here. You can get to most other warehouses through the floor below. “

The aligned squares of folded clothing wrapped in plastic were located along the wall in front of me was at the height of my eyes. I flipped the stack and the clothes fell on the floor. On the wall behind them I noticed a rectangular outline. I made space under my feet and put the card to the reader. A green light lit up, I turned the doorknob, and it opened obediently.

“We should go back. I hate to leave them there alone with that loathsome man.”

“He won’t do anything to them. Maybe he’s loathsome, but not stupid. He knows that I would go after him, and moreover I have a few things which he certainly desires. So far they are safe.”

“Thanks, Mark, for what you’re doing for us.”

“I’m not doing it for you. I need solid bags. The bigger, the better. Go.”

I stepped in and the unmistakable scent of oil hit my nose. A narrow but elongated room was situated behind the door, illuminated by white light. Shelves with a wide selection of different weapons from different years and different production facilities were spread out on both sides. It was a museum, making me afraid to shoot with some of the pieces. On the contrary, some looked almost new. I was surprised when on one shelf I discovered a pyramid of forty bricks of C-4 explosives, including detonators and a remote control. That would have been enough to blow up an entire building. I supplemented my thigh holsters with pistol cartridges. I also grabbed a new set of products for cleaning weapons and a couple of frag grenades. At the very back, I found ordinary bulletproof vests, reinforced pants and helmets. None of that was suitable. When my vest was in better condition, it was able to measure health status and apply, for example, adrenaline, morphine or a tetanus vaccine as needed. Now the dispensers were empty and most of the technical functions didn’t work. Yet even passive and used it withstood more than a ballistic U.S. Army vest.

Meanwhile, Jolie returned. Five bags of hay, which she had found in a former pet shop. Ideal for my purposes. I filled the full five bags with weapons, and while Jolie put tape on the camera lenses, I dragged them into the hallway and even hung some on me. I left those big guns, but I took the ammunition for them. Then we moved the arsenal to a private office with a magnetic lock with the highest authorization. In it we found little furniture and two expandable couches. We stacked the bags into their storage space and then covered them with the mattresses.

“You didn’t tell me to stay out. You show me where you hide weapons, and you hardly know me.” Suddenly Jolie stood up and looked back at the locked door. I saw her gradually controlled by fear.

“Yes I barely know you,” I said, putting the last mattress into place and standing up. “Still, you’re one of the few people whom I trust. Just like Anna and Rod. In this I fully rely on my intuition.” I tried to smile, walked around her and went out.

I lit a cigarette and waited until Jolie found new shoes in the warehouse (she insisted, otherwise she would have revealed the secret, she said with a laugh) and locked it. Then we went to Nikolai Proskurtin. Paco shouted at me from the net, but I ignored him.

We came to the door, where two teenagers stood. When they saw me, they looked at each other and aimed their weapons.

“I’m here to see Swine,” I told them.

“He doeth not have time,” the tougher one was lisping. “Nobody can dithurb him.” He had about twenty studs stuck to his face.

I was not in the mood for long discussions. I grabbed his crotch and squeezed hard. He stretched on tiptoe and shouted, revealing a lengthwise slit on the tongue, which now consisted of two independently moving vines. “Announce me or you won’t have a chance to lisp anymore.” The other guy was waving a gun in my face, as if he wanted to aim me to death.

At that moment the door opened and Swine unlocked the bars.

“Welcome back, Commander. Good to see you,” the jovial Swine invited me inside. “From what I hear, pretty soon I won’t need to lock myself in anymore,” he said.

I didn’t answer and quickly went through the corridor to the bed with Jolie in tow. Anna lay on a clean sheet bandaged and dressed in a hospital gown. Roderick sat beside her and played with my computer. I took it back.

“Are ya’ll hungry? Maybe I have some dried mushrooms left.”

“How is she?” I nodded toward the bed.

“As you see, I met my part of the bargain,” Swine walked around me, leaned toward Anna and stroked her hair. “Now it’s your turn.”

“Viktor is dead.”

“Yes I know. But that’s not enough. You promised me dominion over the Home. And I don’t even have access to the fucking fourth floor. I need to get to the control room, to set up the permissions. And that can only be done in two ways. More complex or simpler. I would choose the simpler one. I want that card. I know that you have it with you, Commander.”

“How could you?”

“I know that there are just two of these cards in the Home. Paco managed to deactivate one of them, and carried the other one with him. But he doesn’t have it anymore. The only one who could have stolen it was Viktor. With whom you had the last dance.”

“You’ll get it. When you fulfill your part of the bargain and Anna wakes up.”

“She’s out of critical condition.”

“When he wakes up,” I insisted. “Besides, I’m tired. We’ll deal with it in the morning.”

Swine suddenly pointed a pistol at me which he had taken from God knows where. At the same time a man with a red scarf on his head came out from the door beside me (thereby confirming my theory of the second exit) and a person emerged from a box seemingly full of cabling, like from a birthday cake. He had an Uzi in his hand and a grin on his face revealing a sense of his own superiority. “It seems that you don’t understand the seriousness of the situation,” said Swine, after a moment of theatrical silence.

I turned slowly and gazed in the face of everyone in the room. Roderick looked frightened, Jolie winked at me. The girl was not OK. Our attackers looked different (Red Scarf was aiming at me, but one could see that he would’ve preferred to have dropped his weapon and run), but I knew they wouldn’t press the trigger. Not that they perhaps couldn’t, but at the moment they didn’t want to kill, they wanted to negotiate. They drew their weapons to threaten, not to kill. Thus I gained the advantage.

“Alright then,” I said and took down the gun. Swine’s eyes widened.

It was time to play the madman. When someone didn’t know how you would behave in the next minute, it was harder for them to control you. I began singing in a low voice: “Shoot me, stab me, bite all my limbs, rip out my organs, scoop out my eyes, break my bones, cut the veins…” I muttered to myself this mantra while I popped the cap in the ribbing and pressed the button combination. The center of the gun began to glow blue and beep at about one second intervals. “Burn me alive. They never let me die, believe me, even if I want to,” I finished my litany and threw the rifle on the ground with a boom.

“There are two things you should know about me,” I looked Swine in his eyes. “I never give up. A second fact which I’ll reveal to you is that there are very few things which I am afraid of in the world. But death is not one of them.” I smiled.

The beep rate gradually increased, suddenly twice a second.

“You’re bluffing,” said Swine, but I saw how his hand had started to tremble.

I said nothing. The tone frequency increased.

“Bullshit! He’s just bluffing!” Swine said to his men. I didn’t have to look to know that they had a different opinion.

“After all, you wouldn’t have rescued the Blondie to kill her later!” shouted Swine triumphantly, as if he had found conclusive evidence.

“In a moment it won’t matter. In a few seconds, everything fifty yards around us will vaporize. Another one hundred yards will be destroyed by the blast wave. It will be a good death. Pray to your gods, maybe there’s still time. Otherwise, we’ll meet in hell, idiots!” I laughed. I had to admit that the possibility of a quick death partly wasn’t entirely bad for me. Red Scarf couldn’t take it, dropped his weapon, opened the door and fled. Beeps fused into a single, endless tone rising higher and higher.

“Mark?” Roderick whined and pulled my sleeve urgently. I ignored it.

“Fine, we’ll talk about it!” Swine lowered his weapon.

I said nothing.

“Just shut it down, for God’s sake!” hysterically said the guy behind me with the Uzi.

The beeping was piercing our ears. “Can I sleep tonight peacefully and count on the fact that nobody will visit me?”

“Oh yeah. I swear, stop it finally!” Swine started to panic. I picked up the ion pistol, pressed a few buttons and the sound stopped, as if it had never existed. Just a whistling in the ears as an unpleasant memory.

“Good night,” I turned around and left.

 

Outside, Jolie and Roderick caught up with me. “It was just a trick, wasn’t it Mark? You wouldn’t have blasted us off, right?” asked the boy. Tears dissolved the dirt on his face to gooey mud.

“Of course, man. Now go back, you better watch Anna in case she wakes up.”

“And what will we do?” said Jolie.

“Sleep.”

“Sleep? I’m so full of adrenalin that I won’t fall asleep until morning.”

“So go to Rod, someone has to watch him.”

“And what will you do?”

“I told you already, sleep.”

 

Of course, I wasn’t going to do that. Last time I tried, my nightmares reflected an eerie recapitulation of my worst moments in life, plus a few strange, foreign and very unpleasant thoughts and feelings. I didn’t know what was worse, but wasn’t going to try it again.

My plan was different. I’d lie down for a moment, wait until the lights switch to dim night mode and everyone was asleep. Then I would find a way to charge the ion pistol. And in the morning I would be far away.

I chose a small room next to the one with the armaments. No one should have searched for me there. It was a kind of warehouse. I had to kick at the doors because they were locked with a standard lock. The room was identical in size to the one next to it, even finding the same bed inside, but still wrapped in plastic. Benches and tables were stacked in a straight row along the walls. I got rid of the rustling plastic and comfortably stretched myself. I ran the computer and tried to connect on a few networks to find out where I could find a larger energy source. When I found nothing, I turned off the device and just thought.

Suddenly, my sixth sense declared an emergency. Someone approached me. I closed my eyes, since it was dark anyway, and pretended to sleep. At first I smelled soap, then heard the rustle of clothing. They were walking silently. Must have been barefoot.

Very carefully and very slowly I reached for the knife behind my belt. The closing part of the new casing was equipped with impractical Velcro. I pulled it apart strand by strand, and then finally pulled out the knife and hid the blade in my palm so as not to accidentally reveal myself with its shine. I breathed slowly and deeply, as if asleep. The change of airflow told me that the intruder had opened the door. They were almost next to me, bending over.

My left hand shot out in front of me, grabbed some kind of fabric and jerked it toward me. At the same time, I rolled down on them from the couch so that I could fall on them with all my weight. In my right hand I had a knife, ready to bury it into the opponent’s kidneys. Upon impact, the attacker grunted and I knew who I was dealing with. If something hadn’t stunk and if I had really felt threatened, they would have had the blade in their body by now.

I felt a warm body beneath the thin fabric with the backs of the fingers in which I held the knife. I rolled on the ground. “Next time you want to be killed, you don’t have to it in such a complicated manner.”

I heard her get up and sit down. “You really know how to spoil the magic of the moment. Nothing surprises you, huh?”

I got up and went to turn on the light. “No, it’s…” I was surprised. Jolie was wearing a loose shirt with narrow shoulder straps and black panties with a big bow on the side. She had her long ebony legs crossed. Her hair was still wet from the bath, the longest strand dangling under her chin. She got up and walked over to me without looking into my eyes.

“How did you find me?”

“I followed you. Remember, I lived here all my life.” She smiled. She had white, healthy teeth. “You’re strange, Mark. As if nothing concerned you. So cold… I wanted to find out if you’re so indifferent to everything.” She pulled on her shirt, as if ashamed. “You know what happened today with Viktor… I saw it.”

I remained silent. How do I explain this to someone when I don’t understand it myself? “I’ll put it this way,” I breathed deeply, “a lot of things about my person are weird. Sometimes, things happen that cannot happen, and I can’t explain them. But the things that I can control are the essential ones.”

“That’s enough for me,” she said, and suddenly slapped me. Properly, making my face burn. “Come on, show me that you’re a man!” Her eyes showed determination.

“Weren’t you supposed to be on guard?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she replied, “but I haven’t fucked for two years. Worth risking it.”

In one yank I ripped the shirt off her and she gasped in surprise. Round breasts with black nipples toppled out. She was surprised only for a moment, but said nothing, didn’t move. She was not shy. A snake tattoo, strongly resembling a penis, stretched from the lower abdomen, up to the chest.

“When I was smaller, I joined a sect named the Slaves of Sin and Desire,” she explained, “according to which communication with our master takes place through our body. They called masturbation prayers. I escaped the next day when they wanted me to name my pussy and talk to it.” She laughed. “Anna was then very angry.”

I grabbed and threw her on the couch. She squealed during the flight. I had already been fighting with my belt…

 

Suddenly I realized that I had been thrusting like a madman, Jolie’s sighs turning to muffled wailing. I knelt on the ground in the middle of a broken couch. The wall of stacked benches fell to the ground, now occupying half the room. I immediately stopped and stood. I was out of breath, done. When had I last been out of breath? My thoughts tumbled over one other, but now they didn’t matter. It was a great feeling to get it all out. But it was not enough. I wanted more, so much that I almost lost it. But I didn’t want to hurt her. I got dressed and also put the ion pistol on. She wanted to say something, but couldn’t speak. Her whole body glistened with sweat and her face was red.

“I gotta go,” I said and ran outside.

I ran.

I don’t know how long, time didn’t play a role, just choosing another and another path and continuing to run. When I finally stopped, my head was clear again.

I signed into a local network. It would have been impossible to find Roderick had he not wanted it, but fortunately he wanted the opposite. A video ad in which I played the lead role flickered on the intranet home page. Video by: Szerlock Fox. I wrote to him:

I need the construction plans of this building.

I had barely lit up a cigarette, and the answer came:

Where are you? Anna’s sharpening a knife and looking for you. Will you come?

Can you get those plans?

It’s searching, just a second… I think Swine’s looking for you … be careful.

Incoming file: Maps_aII.cum. Accept?

I thanked him and disconnected.

The file contained over three thousand pages of maps, twice the number of pages of text and 3D simulation. In fact, I could go through the entire building and walls like a ghost. I had no idea how extensive the building was. A total of six floors, not counting the service shaft and the second floor above the ground, which was destroyed. A maintenance-free geothermal power station operated on the lowest floor, whose two main wells fell to a depth of the five Homes built one on top of the other. It seemed that Paco had not been lying.

A fifth of the ion rifle comprised a special battery, two fifths by cooling. It was designed to withstand extreme power. Theoretically it should have been able to charge even if struck by lightning. I never tried that – we always had spare batteries. Of course, it could be charged through a lower current as well, but not even halfway. At least something, somehow I couldn’t reconcile with the fact that I had undertaken all this in vain.

What could have the highest performance? I entered: Heater. Air heaters were placed on each floor. Altogether, there were fifty-two of them. Damn. In the end, it was enough to correctly enter the request in the computer and it clearly displayed the results. The computers in the control room had the largest consumption in the whole building, even more than the lighting in the whole building together. Damn.

So I had two options. Penetrate back to the control rooms, maybe shoot my way to Swine (I would have bet that he was trying to get in without a card, unless he had already been there a while ago) and probably kill him because he wouldn’t give anything for free (for sure he wouldn’t forget the shame suffered during the negotiations in front of his people); somehow find and rip out the strongest cable from the wall, create an impromptu reduction and shoot the ion pistol into it. And hope it would charge.

Or just forget it, get out of here and go on.

The LED lights on the walls lit up fully. It was morning. Life began to emerge in the Home. I walked around loudly conversing men and smiling women frying fish in a tin pan, and descended the stairs. They fell silent, but otherwise they ignored my presence. Due to recent events I understood it. I was not the only danger to be feared.

The walls were riddled by bullets, a blackened stain marking the spot of the grenade explosion.

“Come on, take off his shoes. We’ll sell those well.”

“His feet stink, I’ll vomit.”

“Shut up and do it. Yours stink even more, and you’re alive unlike him. “

At the stairs I disturbed two boys buying new shoes. As soon as they saw me, they ran down to the garage.

There it looked even worse. As if a small war had transpired. Overturned car wrecks, blood and plaster everywhere, the air reeking of smoke and death. I aimed straight at the garbage when Anna with Rod suddenly appeared before me.

“How the hell does everyone know where I am?”

“Once you let me in, I know all about you,” Rod tapped the wrister. He was right, I had accepted his file.

“I thought you’d stay a little longer,” Anna said, scratching herself with the tip of the knife above the eyebrows and deftly putting it back into the patterned leather belt holster. I almost didn’t recognize her. She was washed, wearing discreet makeup, her hair loose. She was wearing a tight tank top that left her shoulders and décolletage bare, transitioning into running leggings in one outfit. Everything was black, except for a red belt and same color strips running along the top straps down to her ankles. The outfit very closely followed the curves of her body. The only thing indicating previous injuries was the bandage on her shoulder and her pale face. Or maybe it was the makeup.

“What do you think?” she shifted her weight and flattened the invisible crease on the fabric in the thigh area. “I ransacked through half the store, but it was worth it.”

“Yeah…very nice.” I cleared my throat.

“I wanted to thank you in person.”

“You should have stayed in bed. Your stitches may rip open,” Roderick expressed concern.

“He’s right. I don’t care for a thanks,” I said, harder than I intended.

“Same here, Commander,” said a voice behind me. Swine was sitting on the front step, as if he had been sitting there forever. He, too, had changed. He had exchanged the tracksuit for fashionable plaid trousers without pockets, complementing them with a dark jacket with padded shoulders that leveled his asymmetric figure. “You can thank me from morning to night and it won’t do nothing for me. Can I buy a piece of food for a couple of thanks? Or a weapon to protect my family with five nice thank you’s?” He stood up and slowly descended the stairs. “No, no, you’re absolutely right. Now imagine how I feel when I haven’t received the agreed reward for my services, or haven’t gotten paid, or received even a worthless thanks. And on top of that, I see with my own eyes that my business partner is running away at a time when she should be resting to get fit!”

As if ordered, two figures came down behind him, along with Swine’s two-headed pet. One of them was a young man with a crooked back and unkempt appearance. In his dirty fingers he held a gun and aimed it at Jolie, who was once again held hostage. She had her hands tied behind her back, wearing only a coat under which she was naked. “Sorry, Mark, I shouldn’t have let myself get caught,” she said.

“Shut up!” her guard shouted and pulled her by the hair, throwing her head back. Meanwhile he lifted the coat with a gun and pressed the cold iron to her thigh. “The more you prolong it, the more time we’ll have for each other.”

I felt anger bringing the strength to my veins. I promised myself that he would pay for this. Anna looked around at everyone, shocked, incapable of saying a word.

Swine noticed my expression. “It looks like we have finally found a weak spot,” he chuckled.

“Okay, you win,” I resigned. “Let her go and I’ll give you what you want.”

“Slug, can you hear me?” shouted Swine, without turning around. “You notice one suspicious movement or situation, shoot,” he said.

“With pleasure, sir!”

“No, Commander,” he turned to me again, “give me what I want and then I’ll consider whether I let this chocolate kiss go. First, I want you to drop the gun and the knife.”

I nodded and did so.

“No hasty moves. And now that card.” I slowly reached into my pocket and threw it at his feet.

Swine pointed at Anna. “You. Give it to me.” She looked around, swallowed and obeyed. When she bent down, he grabbed her by the hair and pulled back. With his other hand he drew his gun and pushed it against Anna’s ribs, where she was injured. She cried out in pain.

“You see what you’re doing, Commander? You underestimated the situation and the innocent will suffer for it. And this is not the first time, right? Go back, now!” he pressed the gun harder when he saw me losing control. “I want that gun right now!” he shouted like crazy.

I was on the verge of self-control. I imagined myself tearing his head off with my hands. But I would have never been fast enough to save the two girls. I needed the ion pistol, but I just couldn’t take responsibility for their lives.

My whole body was burning with excess energy, and I still hardly found any strength to remove the ion pistol from my back. But I did it. I relieved my back from the weight, and it felt like I lost a piece of myself. When I handed it to Swine, he was unable to hide a triumphant expression. He dropped Anna, as if tossing a cigarette butt. Blood was seeping again through the bandage. I helped her stand up.

Swine glanced at the weapon. “It’s heavy. Does it have a barrel in the back as well? No, it’s not a barrel,” he muttered to himself. When he was done, he looked back at me and began to retreat. “You have an hour to get out of here, Commander. For now we’ll keep her to make sure. Slug, go up slowly,” he ordered. He was definitely enjoying the domination, as if power was his drug. He couldn’t keep the mouth turned down and smiled like a stoned schoolboy.

“I’m not Slug, boss, I told…” the filthy animal didn’t finish his sentence. He stepped on his shoelace, lost his balance and fired…

Jolie’s eyes widened in surprise. The loud bang subsided. All was silent. “The bastard shot me,” she said in disbelief. Then she fell on the stairs. Since she had cuffed hands, she hit her head badly and collapsed lifelessly.

Anna cried out.

The pink swine squealed in unison and ran.

I yelled.

Swine’s almost ecstatic expression disappeared in a second and was replaced by sheer terror. He was well aware that now he had nothing that could stop me. Of course he was squeezing the ion pistol’s trigger like crazy, but nothing happened. He didn’t wait anymore, grabbed the gun with both hands and ran up the stairs. I never expected him to run at such a speed.

“It’s not my fault! I tripped. It fired by itself!” Slug became pale and threw the gun on the ground, as if to prove it wasn’t his. When I went to him, he started to back away involuntarily, but again tripped on a step and plopped on his ass. I grabbed him by the neck and yanked him up into the air. I wanted to crush his throat and immediately end his miserable existence. But it was wiser to postpone for a while. Now I couldn’t afford to get carried away.

“Bandages, relief drugs, stretcher. You have one minute,” I snapped at him, and made sure that I looked sufficiently severe. When I released him, he took a deep breath and immediately ran off.

“Go watch the stairs. Now!” I pushed Rod, knelt down next to Jolie and rolled up her sleeves.

“Come on, Jol, honey, you can do it,” Anna stroked her head, tears streaming down her eyes.

He had shot her in the kidneys. That was bad.

“Come here. We’ll turn her around, meanwhile you must put as much pressure on the wound as possible, OK?” I couldn’t believe that the bleeding body was the same on with which I had gotten so intimately acquainted.

“Mark, I think she’s not breathing.”

“Come on, let’s go.” We turned her onto her stomach. It was slippery, blood everywhere. The most important thing now was to stop the bleeding. I put pressure on the wound with my entire palm, but the blood still flowed.

“Where the hell are those bandages!”

Meanwhile, Anna was giving her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but based on Jolie’s white face it was quite unnecessary. If she immediately got professional help, she might survive. But nobody was there and we didn’t even have the bandages.

With each breath she grew paler and hope descreased. I caught Anna’s arm. Tears ran down from her red eyes.

We heard the sound of someone jumping down several stairs, and still running. “He’s coming back,” Roderick yelled, “They’re coming!”

I heard the thud of several feet behind me, but I didn’t turn to look. Somehow I couldn’t tear my gaze from the dead girl. All those murderers, thieves and rapists. They are the ones who should die. I should die. But people like Jolie and Anna? There weren’t many like them in the world anymore. They should survive.

“I hope you rushed for medical equipment,” I stood up. My voice shook. With rage. I subtly hinted to Anna to hide somewhere with Rod.

“Not really.” Two men stood behind Swine. I had already had the opportunity of meeting one of them. It was Red Scarf. He stood astride, looking determined. I didn’t know the other one. Swine tried to act like a boss again, but fear had not left him yet. Maybe that was why he made another mistake. He pointed at me and ordered: “Kill him!”

His men raised their weapons hesitantly. I was unarmed, unlike Swine.

I hung my head. Not in resignation, but to show how enraged I was. Anger absorbed me, but this time I was still fanning the flames.

As a commander of The Last Chance, and formerly a member of the special forces, it had been absolutely necessary for me to be capable of maintaining full control of my actions despite a high degree of aggressiveness, and not let myself be swayed under the discharge of adrenaline. In fact it was one of the most important skills required for this job.

Now much was different. I was already a different person.

I looked sideways at Anna. Her lips were pressed tightly together, the boy behind her back, and fear in his eyes.

“I give up! I’m armed!” I cried, holding my hands up. I briskly approached them. I felt lava circulating through my veins, glowing energy just waiting to be exploited. The attackers hesitated. But Swine wasn’t convinced by my trick.

“Shoot finally, you fools!” he yelled.

I reached up and bounced swiftly. Quick reflexes were only demonstrated by the unknown man who managed to shoot. He missed.

I landed right before Red Scarf. I kicked him in the chest with a knee, knocking him onto the stairs. His cheeks puffed like a bloated frog and there was a loud thud in the spray of saliva and blood. A man in a suit one size larger stood behind him, but didn’t represent a threat for me. He was aiming an unreliable ATC Browning pistol at me, a caliber which couldn’t kill me (in fact, this weapon could have caused more damage if thrown). He probably also realized it when I fearlessly stood and briskly went toward him. He turned to run. I grabbed his arm and flung him aside so hard that he literally snapped against the railing. The lower part of his body remained on the steps, while the torso bent over the railing, almost touching his feet at one point. It crunched loudly, then the weight shifted and he fell down.

My heart was beating so fast, it felt as if a stranger’s hand was forcing it toward a higher performance by squeezing. My muscles seemed to swell with blood, the lungs expanding, my vision extending to the sides. I was invincible.

I had nearly reached the mezzanine even before the first attackers hit the floor, where Swine ran thanks to his providence (or fear) in the meantime. He was so nervous that he only alternately pushed the rifle buttons, pointing at me and squeezing the trigger. I wanted to rip his head off with my hands. Then something warned me. Perhaps it was the involuntary oscillation of the eyes to the side, which I noticed in Swine’s face. Why would he glance up at the upper floor in a situation when I’m about to kill him?

I threw myself to the ground and took out the Fällkniven from its holster while falling. The third gunman, whom I hadn’t noticed, sprayed me with bullets. They flew over my head and dug into the wall. I allowed myself a second to assess the situation and threw the knife at him. I knew the throw wasn’t good before it even hit anything. It flew through the glazed railing at the top of the opposite staircase and the handle hit him in the helmet. Still, the throw was sharp and the shooter’s hesitation gave me time. For me, it was as difficult to get from a prone position to my feet as moving a finger. I blinked my eyes to wash out the plaster and wanted to bounce from the railing, and thus not waste time running around the stairs, but as soon as I grabbed it, a framed plastic cube remained in my hand. I reflexively used the plastic as a shield. Just in time. Through the riddled vines of flowers, I saw that the man had recovered. Bullets from a machine gun bolted to a handrail hammered into the plastic. The immprovised shield endured three shots and then fell apart. The rest painfully pounded my chest. I endured it.

“Get him! Get him!” Swine yelled over the roar of gunfire, as he passed the man in a helmet and sprinted up the stairs.

He fired the entire magazine, then he ran out of bullets. There was a pause and we both looked at each other. There was no time to wonder whether he hit me or not. Actually, it didn’t even matter. I was invincible.

He wouldn’t have had time to recharge before I got to him. And he knew it.

Something caught my leg. It was Red Scarf, whose scarf fell from his head in the meanwhile, revealing blond hair. He suddenly looked much younger than I thought. I knelt down, picked up a shard of broken plexiglass and thrust it through his wrist into a rubberized corner of the step. He shouted, and let me go. I ran down the stairs, where to my misfortune I slipped even with my non-slip soles. When I stood, the shooter had already reloaded and was turning the barrel at me. There was nowhere to escape.

I made a mistake. I didn’t remember being taught in any of the courses or special exercises to throw ourselves unarmed at an opponent, well visible and uncovered.

The machine gun roared. The bastard used some special explosive ammunition. Hot lead was drumming in my chest, breaking my ribs despite the vest and painfully penetrating my body in several places. The firing swept me back to the mezzanine and slammed me against the wall.

But also, no teacher ever expected you to have a demon inside that wouldn’t let you die.

An angry, inhuman roar sounding like a predatory beast escaped my throat, delivering courage before the fight. It was really hard to stand up. The first step was then steadier and with every passing stair and second I felt stronger. I climbed the stairs, grabbed the surprised soldier’s submachine gun by the hot barrel and ripped it from its hinges. The man didn’t even move. His face was snow white and his eyes opened so wide in horror as if he was looking at the devil himself. I had no mercy. I swung an iron weapon like a mace at him. The helmet, including the contents, broke like a raw egg and pieces of blood-stained brain sprayed the leaves of a hanging flower. The torso of the headless body toppled to the ground.

I ran for Swine. Thirty seconds had passed since the time he fled. Before I reached him, he had somehow managed to get almost to the top. He dropped the ion pistol on the way. Perhaps in order to run faster or maybe thinking I would let him be. I put the rifle back into the holster on my back, not even slowing down.

A hole was gaping from the wall at the ground, exposing a pipe in the shaft. Steam rose from one pipe, condensing into water and apparently resulting in a breach of the wall. Someone had casually bricked it up, but it was falling apart again. The huge flower pot that had been hiding it had been pushed aside. Right now, a grown man was desperately trying to push himself through the hole. I grabbed him by the belt and pulled him out. I kneeled down on his chest until he groaned. He tried to push me off, waving his arms in the torn sleeves, but I sat on him like a boulder. I took him by the beard, my other hand by the neck.

“You really want to kill me just for that slut?” he gasped.

“Exactly,” I said, leaning toward him.

“Wait!” he squeaked. “I saved Anna! I saved her life! And the accident that happened wasn’t my fault. It’s not my fault that…”

I jerked and broke his spine, the spinal cord ripped. Suddenly all of my weight dropped, and I slumped beside the corpse. I gradually calmed down, and the pain came. “Did you want to say something?” I said into the dying eyes. Those who argue that revenge wouldn’t alleviate your pain, have probably never killed anyone.

When I returned, Anna was sitting on the stairs, her face hidden in her hands, weeping. Rod sat next to her and stared numbly at Jolie’s body. At the sight, I regretted that I had finished off Swine so quickly.

“Slug ran away,” I said and Anna flinched. “When I find him … you can watch,” I wheezed. Every breath hurt me.

She looked at me and for a moment I saw contempt in her red, crying eyes. It was not the look of someone looking at a human being. “No. Let him be.” She stood up.

“But he killed her, Ann.” I didn’t understand.

“No more murders,” she insisted.

“I can’t let him just walk away…”

“But you can, Mark!” Surprisingly she raised her voice. “Half of the Home is dead, do you get it? I simply can’t bear further violence. Let him be.”

Reluctantly, I agreed and sat down next to the boy. I felt old, burnt out. My hands trembled.

“Who exactly are you, Mark?” she looked around at the mess. “And you can shove the story of the Commander of The Last Chance up your ass. That was thirty years ago. “

Had it been so long? Yes, I supposed…

I took a moment to answer, but then finally spoke. “I’m like every other man who has lost absolutely everything. My wife, son, work, my unit. My home and the ground beneath my feet. And at the very end, even the right to die,” I said, and Anna’s exasperated expression softened slightly. “But unlike some, I haven’t given up. I have my goal and I will do anything to achieve it.”

“What was his name?” Anna asked softly.

“Michael.” It was very strange, but I hadn’t thought about my past life for so long that I had almost forgotten him. It was so long ago. “I should have spent more time with him,” I said. “I should have done a lot of things differently.”

“What happened to him?”

“He died. Just like everyone else.”

“Monsters are …”

“No,” I interrupted her, “old age. Michael was lucky and died of old age.”

Wearily, I got up and went downstairs.

“That’s okay, Mark, we don’t have to talk about it, if you don’t want,” Anna said, “but I need you to take us with you.”

“What? Why?” I wasn’t the only one surprised. Rod turned to us in perplexity. But he, unlike myself, and to my surprise, with joyful anticipation in his eyes.

“Because we can’t stay here,” she said calmly. “Every dead person belonged to some family. And everyone knows that I brought you here. Even before we weren’t exactly popular here, but if you leave, they’ll massacre us to shreds. There’s no one left to stop them.”

“Paco is still alive.”

“They’ll deal with him just like with us.”

“I’m sorry,” I said after a moment. “With me you’d end up worse. There’s no return from where I’m going. “

Anna suddenly chuckled. “Honestly, Mr. Badluck,” she looked around, “I can’t imagine anything that could stop you.”

 

The geothermal power plant under our feet was fully automated. In fact there was nothing complicated about it. A heat transfer medium, usually gas, was pushed into the borehole, where it was heated and traveled back upwards, where electricity was produced in thermoelectric components. The engineers also considered the possibility that the spring would dry out or become cold. Although it happened once every few dozens of years, the system would automatically deepen the borehole. The excavated rock then travelled to a special shaft. It climbed upward, opened out into a small bare room with a service hatch and a ladder. And that was the Home’s cemetery.

After we wrapped Jolie’s body, we took it there. The place for the last farewell seemed cold. Bare metal walls, under a weak yellow light, a crucifix on the wall, a couple of burned-out candles and the foul odor were the only furnishings.

I was not a talker, and even then I was the last one with the right to speak. But there was silence. Anna looked like she was about to collapse. I embraced her. Everyone was immersed in their own thoughts. Surprisingly, Rod broke the silence:

“I think it’s my fault. I was the only one who went unnoticed. Before Slug fired, I had plenty of time to do something. I had a terminal, time and skills. And I just stood there. I might have tried to turn off the lights, then it would…”

“No,” I said before Anna could take a breath. “It was my fault. This situation should never have occurred. I shouldn’t have come here, I shouldn’t have come close to the people at all. Those around me often die. The only thing I can give them is death and destruction. This was the case previously, and it will be so forever. Now you know. Still, if you are able to forgive me, and if you really want, you can come with me. I think I owe you a lot more.”

Anna nodded. Then she gently pulled away from me, muttered a short prayer and opened the hatch. An almost visible stench filled the room. We threw the body into the hole and quickly closed the lid. A hollow thud echoed from the great depths, it seemed like from another world.

“We are going immediately,” I said, just after the door closed behind us, “we’ll just have the weapons and armor.” I had looked at the pictures of several cameras before, whose addresses I had in the computer at hand. Groups of people formed in several places. One of them noticed Paco and raced toward him.

“What about supplies? We can’t go without food and water,” Anna said.

“Don’t take anything, it would slow us down. Take only clothes and weapons, everything else is in the truck. “

“And where are we going actually?” asked Rod.

I pretended I didn’t hear him.

On the way to the warehouse they went so fast that I could barely catch up. The mood changed, excitement visible on the two. While Anna explained to Roderick what clothes to choose, I was wondering whether I had made the right decision after all. The truth was that the decisive, though selfish factor for me was certainly empathy, which I felt towards them. Despite everything I had done in the Home, Anna didn’t look at me like I was an animal, a fearsome creature. Roderick’s admiring glances and bold questions also had the effect of me feeling much more human.

The chain securing door to the warehouse was transected and the doors open. Inside, everything was as I had left it there, except the card reader and entry to the armory, which someone had tried to blow up. It was a pity that they had failed to break in; they would’ve been welcomed by empty shelves.

Rod rushed to the pallet with boxes of chocolate, Anna exploring the piles of fabric.

“Ann, I found something for you,” I reached into the box and lifted a transparent bag with new clothes, shoes, and pink-colored heels above my head.

“Wear that yourself. At least you won’t have to kill the monsters, because they’ll choke on laughter,” I received as a reply.

Fortunately the selection was wide, so everyone chose what they needed. Anna stripped to her underwear and changed directly on the spot. I helped her get dressed (apparently due to the scar she still couldn’t really bend), put my rather inappropriate thoughts away and started dragging the bags with weapons. Roderick was excited about the heated army pants, almost doing somersaults while testing whether they fit him properly. Anna chose a close-fitting black ensemble, suitable for running, similar to the current one, and put on a sleeveless vest with a turtleneck sweater. The last step was the weapons.

“Do you know how to use it?” I opened the first bag and took out guns and boxes of ammunition.

“It’s been long, but yes,” Anna reached for the Glock and looked at it expertly.

“What about you?” I said to the boy.

“Better not,” Anna said quickly.

“Why not?” he protested.

“Just no.”

“What a reason,” he muttered to himself.

We left most of the weapons there. There wasn’t much difference whether you had one or three guns against the monsters. The burden of heavier weapons was a considerable disadvantage when fleeing.

“Are we taking bulletproof vests?” asked Rod. It seemed that the thought of going out excited him.

“Do you expect someone will try to shoot you?”

On the way back down I explained a few basic rules: “Whatever happens, once we find ourselves out, we will be silent and fast. No one will speak until we are discovered. Just in case. But there’s a greater chance that they will smell us. So no perfume and no food with us. If we get into an open battle, we won’t stop. Under no circumstances. And the last and most important rule. You do as I say. Is that clear?” I held on to the railing, descending the last staircase. Behind me there was a murmur.

“I asked you, is that clear?” I raised my voice and stopped.

“Yes sir,” said Anna in an odd voice. She was a little green.

“Are you sure? Last chance to not unnecessarily risk your life.”

“Funny, I’ve never felt more safe,” she slid her eyes to the ground, where a submachine gun from the previous clash lay, with the main barrel bent at a right angle. I couldn’t remember exactly what had happened, but there was no time for that.

Preparations took us about two hours and it must have already been dark out there. While it would have been wiser to wait until morning, I decided to go now. I didn’t want to stay here another minute, not just because of the heads of the devils occasionally peeking from around the corner at the stairwell.

We threw the bags aside, uncovered the hole in the wall and got into the electric car. Luckily it had been standing away from the explosion and hadn’t been damaged. Anna sat in the passenger seat, Rod in the back.

I had never thought of using a personal car to retreat, but when Anna talked about how difficult it was for them to get into the Bumblebee (brute force didn’t work, locks opened by Rod’s specially written program), I had to go see it. And I was welcomed by a pleasant surprise. The car only looked ordinary, but in reality it was more like an armored transporter. Bulletproof windows, dual ceramic plates beneath a metal body, protected control unit and fuel tank, fire extinguishing system and other hidden goodies. In the trunk I found a hidden safe and discovered the reason for the high standard security: the electric vehicle apparently transported cash or securities. But the biggest surprise was the color. Some joker had airbrushed the car yellow.

The car deftly shot off and the acceleration pushed me against the padded backrest. I didn’t at all feel the pieces of concrete and unevenness which we passed over. We broke through the wet wall like paper, bricks hammering on the windshield. The rest of the masonry collapsed, leaving only some of the material in the lower corners. We all knew that we had expanded it to double its size and thus opened the entrance for monsters. No one said anything aloud.

We climbed upward in spirals, headlights automatically increasing in intensity and lighting up the whole tunnel. I immediately turned them off and followed the structural image on the screen. I held the gas and didn’t reduce speed, it being good to zoom through the large holes. Now the steering wheel was noticeably shaking.

Finally, we got out. I stepped on the brake and reduced the speed to a minimum. Bleak scenery welcomed us. The two glowing balls were setting behind the horizon, despite the thick layer of clouds they changed into a red stain, a bleeding wound seeping from heaven. The former city teeming with life was now just rubble, oblivious of color other than shades of red and gray. In combination with the damp humidity, the dead country looked like a place where hardly anyone could imagine life.

I turned on the air conditioning and microphones to hear the outside sounds. We drove at a walking pace, but still the sound of crushed stones beneath our tires was the loudest sound in the neighborhood. No one spoke, even though the voices wouldn’t penetrate the car frame. We focused and looked for signs of movement.

“There,” Anna whispered, pointing to a place where it was possible to drive through. I nodded and tried to weave around obstacles.

I stepped on the brake and we stopped. “We haven’t gone very far,” I said in disbelief. Anna followed the direction of my gaze. A muscular body emerged from behind a bent iron structure in the places where we had wanted to drive through. The dog had folded wings, slowly walking and sniffing. I had to admit that there was something majestic about it. If it had been next to the car, it could have looked us straight in the eyes.

“Seatbelts,” I commanded.

At this distance I wasn’t sure, but it seemed to me that the animal had wounds and dried, black blood on the neck and head. As if it knew I was looking, it raised its head and gave a piercing scream.

I wasn’t waiting for anything and stepped on the gas.

I didn’t care about the obstacles and made my way straight through. Now speed was important. The display showed fifty-eight miles per hour and the car was still accelerating.

“There’s a wall,” Anna told me.

“I see,” I said, and kept my foot on the floor. We sped away, and each hole or unevenness rattled the electric car.

Roderick began to scream. The engine hummed in disapproval.

“We can’t pass through” cried Anna, but she braced herself against the dashboard.

“Brace yourselves!”

The sudden blast shattered the two and a half feet high wall, pieces of brick and mortar sputtering into a wide fan. We were pushed against the seatbelts, the car flying through and falling from a low support wall onto a former highway. Another jolt, a little milder, and we landed. Unfortunately, the front wheels received the biggest shock again. The right tire didn’t last and burst. Fortunately, the car had spare tires, on which one could drive for up to eighty miles. Another car defect was the bent front axle, thereby reducing the maximum speed by half.

Even though we had lost a lot of speed, we didn’t stop. When Rod stopped screaming, I heard the familiar flapping of wings. I peered through the dusty window (quicker than switching on the camera). It was impossible to determine exactly how many there were; the flying bodies retreated into the shadows and reappeared so that it seemed they were everywhere.

Still I didn’t release the gas pedal, and I wasn’t going to change that. Although more lazily and noisily, we started up again. The dog that originally discovered us had been waiting at the spot since then. As we approached, it ran to us from the left. When it picked up speed, it jumped, spread its wings and glided just above the ground. It turned in an arc and frontally attacked the electric car. From so close up we could examine its mouth and sharp teeth in detail. It crashed into us with such fury that I momentarily wondered what would run over what, the car or the monster. The monster broke its teeth on the steel bumper. Literally. But it still held on.

I turned the wheel and crashed into the iron structure. A sharp piece of pipe ripped the Dog’s wing, which got tangled in the wheel and finally dragged it to the ground. I went over it with the rear wheel, but still noticed a bloody heap moving in the rearview mirror

“Dear God in heaven,” Anna’s voice faltered, who saw it on the screen. “We can’t hide from those in the mud.”

“Do you want me to hand you the big gun?” Rod gasped.

A menacing cloud of living forms shielded the sky, even the last rays of light falling on the ground. I suspected I knew what the two were experiencing. The view of the entire flock was frighteningly overwhelming every time, let alone when one saw it the first time. The Dogs loved hunting for prey, as well as eating it. Their thrill of the hunt is undeniable. They flied to pillage and move away again, as if simultaneously feeding themselves by fear.

Once they taste first blood, they completely lost control.

“It’s protecting us! Did you see it, too? How it wanted to fly toward us, but the other one knocked it to the ground!” Distrust and hope echoed in the boy’s voice at the same time.

“No. Just fighting over who will kill us first,” I said. And then I added aloud: “We’ll see!” opening the back window with the button. “And remember that they must tear something apart!”

Rod threw out a bag of blood, which we had fetched from Swine. The throw was a success and the blood splashed on the corner of a concrete slab. And indeed, part of the huge swarm, which had been hopping all around us like grasshoppers, separated and frantically rushed to the site.

“It’s working!” the boy rejoiced.

Meanwhile, I struggled with the driving. The good news was that despite the amount of roadblocks I was able to maintain the speed though we were flying from side to side within the car. But the fact that the road was leading us in the opposite direction we needed wasn’t that great. Some Dogs had already caught up and started to hammer at us. If they managed to bite through the emergency tire, which we were already using on the left-rear wheel, it would be bad. And they had teeth sharp enough to do so. One of the monsters got hold of my side and tried to get inside. It couldn’t get through the bulletproof glass, but when it started to tear the sheeting, cold sweat doused me.

“Blood!” I reached in the back and Rod handed me the sack. I rolled down the window and stuffed it into the creature’s maw. Meanwhile I took out the pistol with the other hand and began firing into the claws hooked to the car. Now the ripping bullets did a great job. They shattered and separated flesh and bones. The creature fell and immediately the other ones collapsed on top of it. They couldn’t resist human blood. But in the meantime no one was driving. Although Anna reached for the steering wheel, it was too late. We were driving on two wheels, and then smashed through a shop window into the basement of a one-story building and broke several shelves until we finally stopped, buried under an avalanche of books.

Rod shouted something behind me about an incoming monster. My ears were buzzing from the shooting and I was glad to hear anything at all. I turned and saw the boy clutching an empty bag in his hand. He was splattered in red blood. I saw him panic.

“Quickly undress and leave the clothes here. Then we’ll get out of here,” I ordered.

Roderick fumbled with the belt, so I cut it. Then I opened the door and rummaged about with great effort. I helped Anna, the boy, took the ion pistol and the machine gun, cut and spilled the remaining bags in the car.

“Now which way?” Anna asked me, as if I had planned it precisely this way. A way back was out of the question. The roar of those creatures could be heard closer than we liked.

We didn’t even have little time, we had none. The beasts, sniffing prey, nearly killed each other as they tried to squeeze through the window.

“That hallway,” I showed them. I unpinned two small grenades and sent them rolling along the floor. I also managed to empty the cartridge from the submachine gun into the monsters. Then I ran behind Anna and Rod.

On the other side of the building, the hallway was barricaded with furniture, but next to it there was a hole in the wall. We ran out through it. There was silence, as if no Dogs had ever ​​existed. Rod, who appeared like he had come from a movie thanks to the white undershorts, summoned the projection of the area on the wrister. A three-dimensional map appeared before him, on which all beings that radiated heat glowed red. It was enough to monitor infrared radiation, and it was actually a thermal imager.

I wish he hadn’t done it. There must have been at least a hundred Dogs. Most teemed near to where we had parked the electric car. One of them had just discovered the passage we had run through and entered it.

“What are you waiting for? Run!” I ordered, pointing out the direction. I myself turned around and pulled out a walkie-talkie. I waited a few seconds to give Anna and the boy a lead. “Surprise, you fuckers,” I sang and pressed the button.

Ten C4 bricks, placed in a semi-open safe in the trunk of the electric car, exploded. I must admit that I misjudged the amount of explosives – I had been expecting a smaller explosion. The ground shook and my knees gave way. I didn’t have time to fall. The air drawn into the center of the explosion sucked me in, as if someone had grabbed me by the collar, and then the blast wave hurled me a few steps back. On my face I felt the heat and saw the fiery mushroom cloud rise and dissolve into space. I quickly got up and began to retreat. Meanwhile, pieces of pulverized building were showering the ground around me. I hoped that all the dogs had burned to ashes.

I caught up with Rod in a small square which used to be a park. Now there were only a few tumbled pillars and a ruined concrete ring, which apparently used to be a fountain. And before us towered a tree, burning in slow, reluctant flames.

It had been a long time since I had last seen a tree. This one was dead, naked, and uprooted. But still, a piece of nature. And now it burned, as if fate had realized that it had forgotten to destroy the last living thing on planet Earth, and had quickly corrected its mistake.

“Are you okay?” Anna was clutching her side and coughing the dust the pressure wave had blown into our faces.

“Don’t stop! Run towards the highway! “

The girl ran, her blond ponytail bouncing, Rod behind her, and I was coming in last. We ran through a narrow corridor in which the rubble had been moved aside by God knows what. The heaps on the sides were piled up above our heads, and if some obstacle had appeared before us, we would have been trapped. The road veered slightly to the left and I saw that our worst fears had come true. Across the road there was a stone overpass which collapsed and created an uneven wall. Although numerous projections allowed ascent, but only with enough time.

Two black triangular shapes flew over my head. They parted in the distance, turned and came back, each from a different side. Within seconds, two blunt blows announced who had just sat on top of the wall.

“Get down!” I shouted at the girl and the boy, who had stopped in front of the Dogs. I fired the cartridge into the monsters and threw away the gun. Too small a caliber for too big a problem. Nevertheless, several bullets tore one monster’s wing, and rather by accident, threw it down from the wall. The second Dog bared its teeth and strained its muscles to leap. I was already looking at it through the Desert Eagle visor. Eventually I found the ammunition for it, and now I was grateful for that. Twice I pulled the trigger, twice I hit it in the mouth. I distinctly saw a piece of meat flying away and the Dog falling toward its fellow creature with splashes of blood. I hurried to the pile of stones, unpinned the grenades, counted to three and threw them to the other side in an arc.

“Quickly, quickly,” I straightened and joined my fingers together while the blast went off, and as soon as the boy put his foot on them, hurled him over the wall. Let him break a leg, if it meant he would survive. Anna was next. She took me by the shoulders and bounced off herself. Surprisingly, neither of them yelled. I climbed last.

One of the Dogs was dead. The grenade had opened up its ribs, ripped out the entrails and tossed them aside. The stench of burning blood filled the area. The other dog had a wing and the hind legs torn off, thick blood flowing out, but alive. It bellowed insanely, knocked at the air, snapping the jaws and using the wings to crawl toward Rod, who was backing away on his hands and knees. Anna didn’t hesitate, jumped towards the Dog and shot out the monster’s brain with five shots from close range into an eye.

“I know I wasn’t supposed to shoot without your permission. You can punish me later,” she winked at me, helped the boy to his feet and they both ran.

After the next turn, I found that we had reached the canal where we had been hiding in the mud and now we were even standing on the correct side. That was good news. I heard something, so I turned around in anticipation of something bad. The flock of monsters had thinned considerably, but there were still too many. The strongest one scrambled forward, gracefully leaping over obstacles, followed by the wounded, yet dangerous monsters. They had not yet known where we were exactly, but they headed in the right direction. They were to catch up with us in a few seconds. I hurled the belt with the last grenades as far as possible, but they exploded too soon, without effect.

“Mark, use your rifle! Otherwise, we’re dead!” Rod yelled at me in a voice that wasn’t far from hysteria.

I turned around and yelled at them: “I said no stopping! So fucking run!”

Every second they were closer. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a small, approximately one-inch long cube. My last trump. The closest monster was so close I could smell its odor resembling rotten meat.

I pressed the button on the side and threw the Speaker, or the Wheezer, in front of me on the ground. Immediately there was a very loud rattling and squeaking. What I heard as an unpleasant, rising tone, apparently caused some tremendous pain to the monsters.

And indeed, blood shot out from the ears of the closest Dogs and they collapsed to the ground howling. Those who had been in the air fell to the ground and rolled down the slope. The Dog in front of the attack, the one closest to me, tripped, fell and did several somersaults before it stopped. It floundered in convulsions, hiding its head between its wings. Suddenly the entire road, as well as the tops of the mounds, was dotted with writhing creatures. If one had seen them for the first time, perhaps they would have been sorry.

And I had a headache. In addition, I noticed that the monsters at a greatest distance from the sound were getting up while staggering, and stumbling away. It was time to leave.

I ran and the farther I was getting, the better I felt. I felt wetness on my neck and ears, but that wasn’t important. I caught up with Anna and Rod at the top of the stairs.

The wrecked truck sat there sadly, just as when we had left, and nothing had changed on the highway either. Only the limp claw from the slain monsters protruding from the hole was gone. What remained was a black decal in the dust. We jumped over the fence, wove among the wrecks and reached the place. The mad roaring of the Dogs grew louder behind us, as if they knew they couldn’t overtake us. Sara, the truck’s internal control system, identified me from afar, so the door was unlocked. I squeezed everyone in and closed the door.

We were surrounded by clean, warm air and pleasant shading.

For a great while we all lay there on top of each other, panting. Just Roderick’s breath wasn’t calming down. He was breathing as if he were still running for his life. From outside came the screams and the futile prodding of the Dogs. I kicked the door and it finally clicked into place. The noise stopped and the lights began to come on.

“Calm down, man, you did well. We did it. They can’t get in here, it’s like being in a fortress.”

The control room, control panels and two chairs slowly materialized around us. I got up and my gaze fell on a charging holder for the ion pistol on the wall. It was broken. I had spent hours and hours trying to fix it, but I had concluded that I lacked both the tools and the knowledge to at least find out where the fault was.

Anna and Rod were squinting in the healthy white light. It was something different from an LED strip emergency lighting, energy not spared here.

I saw Anna holding her side, and so I brought the first aid kit and checked it on the spot. Some stitches tore while running and she was bleeding. But it was enough to pinch her skin together and staple it with plastic studs from the emergency kit. They were faster, sterile, and more efficient than the archaic needle. Then I patched the area up again.

Rod was oblivious to us. The whole time he was staring into the door, a tear running down his face. “Hot gum,” he said when he returned to reality and noticed we were looking at him.

I could only guess what he was thinking. I wouldn’t be surprised if he fell apart from what he saw. But he had to put it together in his head himself. Still, I felt obliged to say something.

“If someone is afraid of all the horrors lurking about us in life, they would never do anything else,” I said. “In that case, you might as well give up. That’s what my colleague once told me, just a little more harshly. I think there’s something to it.” Then they both looked at me, and I didn’t know what to say.

“You must be hungry.” The door in front of me jumped back into the wall and I passed into the living space. On the sides of the room hung three vices, as we called the handles intended for transportation during action. Otherwise, it was empty at first glance. In fact, most of the equipment was smartly stored in thick walls. I walked to the square on the wall and inserted my fingers into the crescent hole above. Two plates popped up, one towards me and one to the side. The padding at the head of the vice now served as plate holder and thus created a simple table. The seats of the vice could be used as chairs.

Then I realized that I hadn’t set up permissions for Anna and Rod, so the computer didn’t let them through the door. It was unusual to have someone over. I returned and found them there, curiously looking around.

“Sara, set the A2 permission for my friends. Introduce yourselves, please,” I said to them.

Anna looked puzzled, but Rod responded: “Roderick McRoy.”

“Voice authorization created. I confirm the setting,” said a pleasant female voice.

“Anna Fenton.”

“Voice authorization created. I confirm the setting. “

“Fenton?” I said, “Norman Fenton’s daughter?”

“You know my father?” she asked incredulously.

“No, not really. Only his work. Let’s eat.”

Meanwhile, Sara informed me that a moderately severe dust storm was coming. That meant no danger. Similar weather anomalies were so frequent that they had ceased to be anomalies. Like the fact that night lasted only a few hours. Hard to say if it was the fault of the New Sun, the dehydrated and war-torn country, or parasitic extraterrestrial life.

The food (closer identification would be difficult even for a computer) was located in plastic trays in a box behind the desk. The supply for six people was supposed to last two months. Almost ninety percent of the supplies remained. I chose three servings and the microwaves brought the food to a warm state. The case contained four cups with a gelatin-like and paste-like mass. I removed the lids and served it on the table. It didn’t smell good but didn’t stink either.

Roderick popped out the spoon and bravely tasted the meal. He looked like he had eaten the spoonful itself, but swallowed a mouthful. “It’s… pretty good,” he looked up in surprise. “The green tastes like flower bread,” he spoke with his mouth full.

I also tried it, because I was really hungry. But I knew how it would turn out. The green tasted like algae. The coveted feeling of fullness didn’t come; instead it seemed that the stomach was giving resistance. A cramp twisted my abdomen.

“Yeah, it’s good. Actually, it’s so good that I’d better not waste it,” I got up and went to wash myself.

Anna laughed, choking on the food.

The shower was a truly ingenious device. It was located in the rear part and its second outlet was actually a second entrance to the vehicle. It functioned as an airlock in the case of gas poisoning, chemical weapons or virus. It destroyed all bacteria. The cab took care of (washed or burned) clothing as well (which was previously necessary to place in a drawer) or chemical protection suit. The swirl of warm moist air and drops of water with disinfectant then purified your body. Each fold, even teeth, mouth, nasal cavity, partly lungs and stomach. Fortunately, an enema wasn’t part of the procedure. To all perfection, it was possible to choose ordinary shower mode, where one could breathe. Although the Kloubitch wrinkle bent the ceiling and walls in the rear of the car around the shower, fortunately it hadn’t caused any damage.

The cleansing was pleasant. It was like flying up a waterfall while not having to move a muscle. Water massaged the body and the soul felt better as well.

I was a bit scared of what I’d see when I stripped off the clothes, but as I had hoped, all the wounds were already almost healed, my body having repelled the bullets. Even though it still hurt in my left lung when I inhaled deeper, I was sure it would also heal.

I was thinking of doing it one more time, but I decided against it. Despite the refreshing effects, fatigue also came. Hard. Again, I felt very tired. When I climbed out, my knees almost buckled.

“Make yourselves at home. If you need anything, Sara will help.” I pressed the button and the vice turned into a bed. The blanket was located in the storage area at my feet. As soon as I put my body on the padding, the spotlights around me reduced the radiation intensity to a minimum. I turned to the wall and tried to sleep.

Of course, without success. So at least I meditated and listened to an ongoing conversation, revolving mainly around Bulldozer, Rod’s ecstatic screams from the shower, and Anna, who tried to get secret information out of Sara in vain. She asked how old I was, where I came from, and so on. Then she asked Rod for help, and when she didn’t have any success with him either, she sent him to bed and went to wash as well.

A little later, I pretended to wake up and stood. I saw an unfolded table, a spoon stuck in jelly on top. On the table was a flower, transferred from the broken flowerpot into a green mess tin. Anna must have dragged it with her the whole time. She sat hunched in a chair. She wore a green shirt with folded sleeves and military pants, a towel twisted on her head. Her face was hidden in her hands. She was sobbing quietly.

“If it’s inedible, we’ll find you something else,” I jumped down.

“You’re awake?” She raised her head.

“You should lie down as well. The beds are more comfortable than they look.”

“It’s too much for me,” she wiped the tears. “At first Frank, then Jolie and now the Home. And those monsters out there…I have to somehow recover from that…”

“Hey,” I interrupted her, “you don’t have to apologize. A lot of people wouldn’t have made it out at all.”

Shyly she looked away and smiled. I got up and realized that I was wearing only shorts, which I wore in the shower. First I had to drink. I drank a liter of water, and only then I put on a buttoned shirt and pants. Again, I heard sobs. Maybe I should have stayed naked to make her laugh.

“I’m sorry. I just can’t shake the feeling that whatever I do is wrong,” she said, “and because of my decision people have died. I know I acted conscientiously, but that doesn’t excuse me. I don’t know if I can ever forgive myself. Others pay for my mistakes. That’s awful.”

“Listen,” I went closer, “it’s not your fault. It is terrible, but these things happen. It is a war, and until we die, we have to fight. Fight for our lives. I don’t know if anyone died or didn’t die on the basis of your decision, but I know that thanks to your decision you saved two people.

“You sure?”

“Here you’re safe. And it will remain so.”

Suddenly she looked at me in a different way… it reminded me of my wife’s gaze, just before she (rarely) showed her feelings. “You should eat,” she said, but then, as if she had realized something, she lowered her eyes and added, “if you like.”

The boy came into the room, earphones on his head. He drew a bit of water from the tap in the dining area, sating his thirst.

“Rod is in his element. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so excited about something,” Anna smiled.

“Hey, I can hear you. Music mutes when you talk,” he said, and went forward.

“I think I should go see what he’s doing,” I rather withdrew.

Roderick sat in the main chair, his legs crossed on the counter and head tilted back, studying the information on defensive weapons on board.

“Impressive reading, eh?” I said.

He winced visibly, startled. “Definitely, but it’s a pity that the description is not more detailed.”

“It is, but so far you haven’t received authorization. Same goes for access to the database, operating commands, and driving. That is, unless you hack into it.”

He laughed. “I know the system, it’s impossible. Useless to try.”

He was somehow too sure. “Sara?” I commanded.

“Three hundred and sixteen unsuccessful attempts for software penetration. Outdoor activity in the past ten hours decreased by eighty percent. Hot water has run out. It will be recycled and heated in twenty minutes.” I had to smile. Resourceful boy.

“Get out,” I said without a trace of anger in my voice and kicked the chair in which Rod sat. The chair, placed in a rail on the floor, moved to the side. I sat down in the second seat and moved to the middle. “Let’s see,” I opened the menu with a touch and chose Glass mode.

A clear view appeared before us. The bottom half of the windshield was covered in debris and chunks of asphalt and concrete, as the nose of the car plunged into the road. In spite of this, the view through the panoramic window was impressive. Outside it was quiet, as if nothing had moved in years. Dirty, dark clouds formed a low ceiling, ruins of buildings everywhere lining the seemingly unending highway, disappearing in the distant blackness, as if it was the only road in the world… There was something eerily fascinating about it. The boy was bent over and watching the world outside in awe. It must have been amazing for him to enjoy the view without fear for his life.

At first I wanted to get off the road and straighten us up. The floor slope was slight but annoying. I rerouted the power to the front of the antigravity belt and slowly added performance. The truck shivered, a scraping of tensed metals, but then the asphalt pile slid off the glass and the Bulldozer straightened up. Oddly enough, it was easy; we were not stuck so deep in the road. The bad news was that despite the fact that Sara divided the power back into the whole strip after the wrecking, the rear end slammed to the ground. So, we were tilted again, this time to the other side.

“What are you doing here?” I heard Anna behind me.

I wanted to start analyzing the damage, but Sara had already taken care of it when we crashed. I displayed the results on the screen, but didn’t turn off the Glass, so we could still see outside between the letters.

“How’s it going?” asked Rod.

I leaned back comfortably in the chair. “Better than I thought.” My eyes flew from line to line. “Much better. Sara can take care of some stuff, the minor defects don’t interest us. The problem is antigravity panels. The chassis got its ass kicked.”

The boy was incredulous. “And what about this?” he pointed out to the crumpled front.

“A few scratches. Won’t trouble the Dozer.”

“Okay, keep it to yourselves then. I’ll be next door if you need anything,” Anna said again.

“How does it work?” Rod pointed at the screen.

I restored the operating area and displayed the simulation. “Basically, it’s nothing complicated,” I explained. “Already about a hundred years ago someone discovered that a superconductor spinning in a magnetic field could weaken the force of gravity. This is not accurate. In reality it produces a power similar to it and that may act as a repellant. In the following years the technology improved and now it works in the form of anti-gravity panels. Each contains fifty discs, the size of a beer mat. This sensitive equipment is blocked by thick pads. The left bumper, as you can see in the simulation, had structural damage from a previous collision and completely disintegrated. The panels on the left are damaged or bent so the computer can’t calibrate them.”

For a moment, I studied the screen, thinking. A second before the eager boy inhaled to ask another question, I got up. “We have to do it manually. Will you help me?”

He said definitely.

We moved next door. “Ann, can you do something for me?” I asked her. She was just sharpening the blade. “Can you make us all some coffee?”

“You have coffee?” She asked in surprise.

“In a locker for personal belongings,” I directed my thumb into the cabin.

“We’re going to check the chassis,” Rod boasted.

“I can help, too.”

“You’re hurt, you should rest now.”

“Sure,” she said to herself and focused on the knife again.

 

“Why is it blocked?” the boy asked when we discovered a display screen under a square hatch on the ground.

“Have you ever thought about how it’s powered? It’s a lot of energy,” I started indirectly.

“From the battery, of course.”

“Yeah, and the battery is powered from where?”

For a moment he wondered, but I stepped back and uncovered the tag resembling a yellow-black CD under my sole.

“Nuclear energy?”

“Tame, improved and safe. Yet in fact no one can play with it except a specialized technician. I don’t have his code, but my code should do in safe mode.” I entered it and watched what was going to happen. “In a normal case, approval via satellite should occur,” I explained, “from a living man in Britain.” That didn’t happen, and the system threatened access denial. Fortunately, as the commander of the group, I also had an access code to an emergency input. I entered it and the locks jumped out. I waved to the boy to step back and together we raised a bigger and heavier cover, which included the previous one.

On the right side of the created space there was an entry with an even greater sign of radioactivity and even larger screen. Luckily we didn’t have to go there. A hole appeared on the left with a ladder in it leading to a low, green-lighted area. I crawled first, Rod behind me.

“It’s good that it can be repaired from the inside,” I said as we proceeded further. “I will now remove this cover and disconnect the power cord. Then we will take out all fifty plugs on this panel.” We did it, and I pointed to the small control levers. “Now we’ll put them into a vertical position. Like this, don’t be scared to use strength. It must be exactly in the central position, you see? If the green LED light doesn’t turn on, the reducer is destroyed and you have to push it in until it clicks and snaps into each other. It must be deactivated, otherwise we’ll have to crawl in here again.”

It was warmth here and my forehead was beaded with sweat before we closed the first panel.

“Now, the remaining eight.”

It was a routine work requiring concentration, made more difficult by the small space with no ventilation. Rod wasn’t successful, not being able to hit the spot, but he continued to try and lose patience. He dived into the work and not once in two hours did he want to take a break or drink.

“Will it work?” he wiped sweat off with his shirt when it was done.

I shook my head. “Temporarily. Hopefully. The rest is up to Sara.”

When we got upstairs, Anna was already putting together the last weapon from our obtained arsenal. She had dirty hands and it seemed that she had dismantled, cleaned and oiled them all. “Your coffee is cold,” she said.

With Rod we closed the covers and went to initiate the calibration. I could command it using my voice, but I wanted to get a visual overview.

It took about 0.03 seconds to test each reducer, so we immediately knew the result. The graphic model showed red and green areas, but most of them were orange. The verdict was: Able to Operate with Restrictions.

“Hooray,” said Roderick with pretended indifference, not being able to hide his joy.

“So I’ll go warm up the coffee,” I smiled.

 

An hour later we were all sitting at the table, washed and in a good mood, enjoying a drink. Rod looked a little disappointed, obviously not liking it. But he didn’t admit it.

“So what happens now?” asked Anna.

“We will continue along the highway to the north. We’ll turn at the next exit to the west. There we get to civilization. We’ll overcome the field, find a way through the valley between two hills and reach the site of the former military base. If we’re lucky, we’ll be there in twenty-four hours.”

“And what happens after?” Anna asked impatiently.

“That we’ll learn in time.”

“Okay, when do we go?” the boy asked.

“We’re already on the way. If a problem, Sara will let us know.”

“What?” Rod jumped up and ran into the cabin. Anna looked at me hesitantly, but then followed him. I turned on the “glass” and a wide road full of holes appeared before us, stretching to the horizon. On one side stood the skeleton of a ruined factory from which only a chimney remained, on the other stood a forest of coniferous trees with no needles and most branches missing. Both seemed depressing. We moved slowly, not even twenty-five miles per hour.

“What if we something sees us?”

“Sensitive sensors capture the slightest movement in the air and on the ground in a wide area. The computer analyzes them, and once the danger is evaluated, it sits the car down and turns off all unnecessary systems. The truck is completely isolated. No sound, heat, light, radio waves can penetrate to the outside… For the monsters it becomes a rock.”

“A few days ago I saw one huge monster get hungry for such a rock.”

That was a fact. I myself didn’t know why that fucker had attacked me. “But just to be sure, we will do patrols. I’ll take the first turn,” I said.

“But what if they really hear us?” Rod asked.

I shrugged. “If it makes no sense to go quietly, we need to go fast.”

 

Nothing strange happened over the next two days. Perhaps except for the special sight that greeted us early morning the next day. We were driving through the dry wasteland, disturbed only by an infinite pipe perched on the beams. It was a traffic tunnel intended for magnetic trains. In the place where it fell to the ground we drove to the other side, where a surprise awaited us.

Even from a distance we saw a kind of unnatural bluish glow shining through the clouds and ripping the darkness into light shreds. When we got closer, we found skeletons of dead monsters, no doubt about it, and the ruined, rusted hulks of American tanks. They had been there a long time. Undoubtedly there had been a fight between the monsters and an armed convoy and with losses on both sides. What was strange, however, were the flowers growing everywhere in between the bones, producing an eerie light. A piercing glare drifted into the area from translucent, veined cylinders, resembling a rugby ball. “Fruits” sat on thick stems the size of a trunk of a mature tree, so the plant seemed somewhat asymmetrical.

“It’s beautiful,” Anna sighed.

I had encountered it before. “No, it’s not beauty, they’re alien flowers. I’d prefer to avoid them.”

 

“He fell asleep as soon as he lay his head down,” Anna came into the control room late in the evening on the same day, “but insisted in exploring the shower again,” she smiled. I was lying in a chair, not staring as much at the screen but into my head. “Mark,” she said softly, “is the reactor dangerous?”

“No. Currently the interior of the Bulldozer is the safest place around.”

I didn’t turn, nor did I move. There was silence, except for the silent reggae wafting from the side speaker. Before she could leave, I said, “Sit down for a while. I want to show you something.”

She sat down next to my chair and huddled. She was only in an undershirt, shivering and yawning. I didn’t realize that I should have turned on the heating. I thought that the computer would take care of it. I raised the temperature, but before that I brought a blanket.

“Thank you,” she said. There was silence. She wanted to ask something, gathering the courage. At the same time she fought her sleepiness. She must have been really tired from loss of blood and recent events. “Who are you?” she finally asked. “What is it…”

“I think,” I interrupted her, “that the less you know about me, the better for you.”

Startled, she looked at me. “And I think that due to the fact that I’ll now be spending time with you in the same room, it might very well be the opposite. I deserve to know who…whom have I entrusted my life and the life of my son to.”

“Well,” I resigned after a moment and turned down the music. “I can probably tell you something. Remember the Drop of the Gate?”

“How could I? It was then… about a couple of weeks old. You’re not trying to tell me again…” She looked skeptical, two perpendicular lines forming between the eyebrows.

“You want to hear it or not?” I said sharply.

She nodded.

“You surely know that after the first few weeks, when the Americans succeeded in locating the alien artifact, and when a connection between the artifact and the unknown animal or demon, murdering and eating people on the Mexican coast in the Bay of Bahía de Banderas was finally discovered, it was decided that it must be destroyed. But whether the Americans tried to close the area or destroy the gate, everything was ineffective. Firstly, the situation was complicated by the fact that the gate was deep under water, and secondly, time was against us. Every second, during which the shocked world advised on how to proceed, those monsters worked their way to the shore, creating an army, which we had to fight to get to the source.

Then before the secret service got involved, Harrison, at that time adviser to the president, hastily assembled a team that was tasked to penetrate the gate, detonate bombs and cover it with tons of rock. He didn’t get permission because he had the best plan. But because he was the fastest. The action carried a variety of complex labels, but none of those who had an overview called it anything other than the Last Chance. And I was the team leader.”

I didn’t like thinking about it. I got up and opened the wall cupboard containing first aid and took out Zachs matured whiskey. When I take down the last motherfucker, I’ll drink half of it and shove the rest of it in its eyes, which I’ll then suck out while still warm, he liked to say. I think he had known that he would never open it.

I uncorked it, took a swig and handed the bottle to Anna. “Then everything went to shit,” I said. “Someone sabotaged the campaign to save the Earth.” I shook my head. Even after such a long time I just couldn’t comprehend it. It was absolutely ridiculous. “Nobody survived,” I said, more to myself, plunged into memories.

“And you? How did you get out?” Anna whispered.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

Anna sipped from the bottle in her hand and coughed violently. She was all red. “Now what? Are you looking for the one who betrayed you?”

“No,” I turned the chair to her. “I’ve known where he’s been the whole time.” I stopped and let the truck drop to the ground with a few touches on the screen. I nodded my head toward the screen.

Tensely she turned and after a moment her eyes widened and her jaw dropped slowly. A huge moon glowed on a cloudless night sky, illuminating the surroundings as bright as day. It shone like crazy and as if ashamed, the stars reduced their intensity.

I was lucky. And had a precise weather forecast program.

“God, it’s beautiful!” she burst into tears. Maybe it was the alcohol.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I just… I last saw the stars as a child. With my father.”

“You see the clusters of white dots almost underneath the moon that look like blobs in black craters?” I pointed the finger.

“I see.”

“So that’s where I’m headed.” I looked into her eyes. “I’ll take the next watch. You go to sleep.”

The dust storm was gone and now it was raining hard, impossible to see anything. That was good. It didn’t make the route calculation more difficult for the computer and I liked rain. Who wouldn’t like the life-giving water that drips from the sky, hiding us from unwanted attention?

Thanks to perfect aerodynamics the drops avoided the glass and the view outside resembled a journey through space at warp speed from science fiction movies. I opened the roof flaps and pumped in fresh water instead of recycled. Then I made some more coffee (God knows when I would have the opportunity) and tried to relax. Everything was already prepared.

The vehicle stopped on the spot and launched into silent mode. I nearly spilled my drink.

“Suspicious object two miles northwest,” said a voice from the speakers. The music went silent and the map appeared on the screen, a distant point which filled half the Glass approaching on it. It was a gray-green prefabricated house. The gray color was an image captured by the camera, the green the computer’s digital estimate. Both colors blended as the computer analyzed the image and tried to faithfully represented it over the distance and poor visibility.

The bare building without windows jabbed wryly into the low, black clouds. The upper third of the building bulged unnaturally to the side, like a bizarre structure of modern art, with great imagination. The longer Sara calculated the image, the more I could make out details. Now the object looked like a tumor, rampant on a dilapidated building.

“Hive,” I said. It was unmistakable. Suddenly my throat went dry somehow.

I knew well that Composters formed a nest from biological material. Flora and fauna were not spared, often they also attacked humans. They could build their homes very quickly. I didn’t even want to imagine whether people had been hiding in the building at the time they chose the place for their nest. Then the nest would mainly consist of their bones and preserved flesh.

Composters were about the size of small birds, mouths similar to beaks, in which they goiters hung from their necks, containing stomachs for the rapid gutting of acids. It served both to attack and also to build nests. They were called Composters because they (and the other symbiotic life forms) profited from the processes of decomposition, which took place in their nest until the material rotted and completely fell apart. They were dangerous mainly because it was impossible to fight against a large flock with conventional weapons. They attacked the victim in large numbers, surrounded, eroded and torn away at it at the same time.

The hive appeared deserted. We only knew a minimum about the alien race, this kind included, and so it wasn’t impossible that it had moved or become extinct for some reason.

“Movement?”

“Negative.”

“Let’s get out of here,” I decided. “Find another way. See if there’s any trail around that hill,” I tapped a finger on the screen. Even an antigravity truck needed roads for movement. It wasn’t an escape or exploration, but a combat vehicle. It wasn’t built for movement higher than two feet above the ground. Despite the computer operation it would overturn and crash to the ground, like a paperweight from the table.

So a new route. While not taking undue risks couldn’t be my middle name, I was not a complete lunatic. And now it certainly wasn’t the time or place for impatience. I preferred to think of the possibility that the real reason for the empty hive was that the tenants had gone hunting. And if I thought further, logically they would have chosen the nearby base as their target, where I was headed. That would mean that I was back to square one and waiting for my next long way to go and finding another air base.

I banished the counterproductive “perhaps” and hit the gas instead.

The repaired panels were seemingly fine, but as I began to accelerate, even if only by a smidgen, noises as if someone were tapping an iron bar against the radiator began to sound in the otherwise quiet cabin. Sara had more and more problems keeping the car in the right direction, and again reduced the maximum speed after new calculations.

We drove around Whimsical Hill, at least that was what the mountain was called on the old maps, for about two hours, because I didn’t want to move closer to the forests where something could surprise us. Instead, I chose a route through the fields. Rain turned the vast acres into a sea of ​​mud. The mud parted under the chassis like the sea before Moses, creating a visible wake behind us. There was nothing to do about that but hope that the water flow would efface the track. I was staying away from dead forests when suddenly a gravel road appeared before me. I climbed onto it and went into the trees. I reached the target.

I stopped at the sight of a high concrete wall. It was newly built in front of a high fence with barbed wire, the original wall of the military base. In fact, not much of the old complex remained during the rebuilding to the exile stations. The spaceport had to be rebuilt, along with the appropriate roads and livable spaces, warehouses, etc. Security measures had been greatly enhanced. Simply, when any survivor wandered here, they must have been taken good care of until all the spaces in the transport ship filled up. OPHS had committed maintaining these stations for a hundred years, even if no one had shown up.

About a hundred yards down, the muddy path was intersected by a sturdy gate surpassed in height only by the watchtower. A large-caliber machine gun on top of it was unattended, half-drowned in the dark. Others were placed along the wall so as to cover each other. The silhouettes of their long muzzles aimed at the clouds, motionless. I didn’t know why, but I had a bad feeling. These toys would make a hole about the size of a coconut in a person’s body. Even if they were made of armor.

I hardly suppressed my outbursts of euphoria and feelings. After almost thirty years (it had been that many?) I was almost there. Still, I controlled myself. I wasn’t a winner yet.

I got up from my chair, stretched my back and went to wake the guests. Anna wasn’t sleeping, just staring at the ceiling. “Has fatigue overcome you yet? I’ll take over,” she jumped out of bed.

“Yes, you’ll take over. But first I have to say something. Wake up Rod.”

“I’m not asleep,” the boy jumped out of bed.

“I set the permissions for you, so you have the vehicle under control. The operation isn’t difficult, if there’s any trouble, Sara will help.”

“I knew you wanted to get rid of us,” she was outraged. “Thanks for your help, and have a nice day, hopefully nothing will eat you.” Then she paused, realizing the meaning of my words. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and looked puzzled.

“But…”

“You’ll wait for me here,” I said quickly. “I’ll be back. It is the only possible solution.”

“We could go with you…” the boy suggested timidly.

“No. I’ve got something to settle there. When it goes well, I’ll come back for you.”

“And if not?”

“In that case, I put a few places where one could live decently in the computer. I’d recommend northern Michigan. Clear skies and a lake, supposedly even grass and trees, Annie, you’d like it. Minimum of monsters. If you follow the routes marked by me, go patiently and follow Sara’s proposed strategies. You can do it. The local community is relatively friendly. They will definitely take you in exchange for the truck. But you’ll figure that out yourselves.”

The boy looked helplessly at Anna. She wasn’t satisfied: “Forget the trees, Mark. I… we don’t have anyone else, just you. Please don’t go.”

She looked heartbroken. I got furious with myself. I should have never let them get this close. It always ended badly. I wanted to kick something. Instead, I went to her and stroked her face. “You saw what I can do, right? I’ll be back.”

Once I honestly swore, she nodded and wiped away a tear.

“Hold on, man. You are in charge here until I get back,” I put my hand on his shoulder. “I have no doubt that I’m leaving the most valuable thing I have in good hands,” I looked sideways at Anna.

I grabbed my backpack, in which everything necessary had long been prepared, the ion pistol, and turned to leave.

“Mark,” Anna jogged to me, stood on tiptoe and gave me a wet kiss.

 

I had pursued my revenge for too long. Thanks to it I had never given up, always getting back on my feet, always somehow surviving. This kiss couldn’t convince me to just throw up my hands either. But something had changed after all. Suddenly I realized that it wouldn’t be the end once I knew what I needed and executed my vendetta. Maybe there was a chance for another, better life. Maybe. As I walked into the gathering darkness, toward the deadly shadows, the remaining water after rain dripped on my neck from the bare branches, and I just had to grin. Over half a century I had been spilling blood, and not always bad blood. Somehow I knew that my debt to Omnipotent Providence would be repaid only once my blood spilled as well.

Theoretically, even when I was alone, on foot and suspect, there should not have been any problem with my arrival. The station stood there precisely for that reason. For medical assistance and the evacuation of civilians. Since Harrison had tried to remove me, I hadn’t wanted to draw attention to myself and had created a false identity for all those cases. My name was Eric Carpenter.

To my left a sandstone rock loomed from the dead forest, a little above the level of the camp fortifications. The surface bore clear traces of bullet holes. A sharp boulder the size of a car probably loosened due to shooting and now sat in the middle of the road. I walked around it and before continuing, I showed my empty hands just to be sure and shouted: “My name is …”

I didn’t get to continue. I was dazzled by light, the sound of heavy hydraulics and then roaring gunfire.

So much for the theory.

I could only thank my reflexes, paranoia and luck. I jumped backwards, feeling as if grenades were exploding under my feet. I sat on a rock and capsized back down without thinking. I hit my neck and shoulders, then my legs and the rest of the body followed. I felt an unpleasant stabbing in the neck. Yet it was a success. With the rifle and backpack, I weighed well over two hundred pounds and people had broken their necks in a simpler way before.

The firing continued, rock fragments flying around me. By the sound of it, there were two machine guns firing. It was clear to me that the sandstone would last only a second. Or two. I took the liberty of using the second one to think and frantically rolled toward the verge. It was only a few feet away, but I was lucky that the ear-tearing shooting didn’t hit me. Thankfully, I fell into a ditch. The stone broke, shattering into small pieces. I didn’t know exactly what kind of explosive ammunitions they were using, but I bet it would have slashed my Bulldozer the same way as the rock.

The shooting stopped. I waited whether a human patrol would come. I gathered only so much movement needed to lock-off and move the Desert Eagle from its holster into my hand. Nobody showed up.

The fact that weapons had started firing at me certainly wasn’t a mistake. Such sophisticated software like the kind that operated the machine guns and fired without permission couldn’t mistake me for a monster. Someone had set the defensive system to also fire at people. Anyone. All the more reason to get there. I wanted to know what was going on.

I had outdated maps of several centers, of course there was nothing mentioned about their security. Fortunately, I’d seen these weapons in action against the first invasion waves from the Pacific, and so I roughly knew what to expect. The gun was equipped with motion detectors and thermal imager. More wasn’t necessary.

Once, someone had asked me if it was possible to pass through a motion detector slowly. It wasn’t. I would have to shake my head about a question regarding a hacker attack. Each weapon had an autonomous system. Although it was connected to the central system, the cable was buried in the ground.

But if you had asked my men, they wouldn’t have understood. They didn’t know the word “no.”

Carefully, I fumbled around me until I felt a stick in the dark. It should be okay. I lifted it above the ground and waved. Nothing, silence. So far, so good. I incised it and wedged the computer into the cleft. It went up again with the stick. Slowly, I turned to it until the computer scanned all the electronic devices in range. When it was finished, I began analyzing and hoping to find some blind spots. Each system should have them.

But this one did not. A hundred and eighty degrees were covered against the wall horizontally, ninety vertically. The sensors were even placed underground. Although there could have been a weaker place on the edges of the machine gun range, it overlapped with another gun. There was only one solution. Only one that occurred to me.

My multifunctional vest shadowed the heat quite well, but the pants were ordinary. At least I covered them in mud, as well as the face, arms and shoes. There was enough mud in the gutter after the rain. I moved to my knees, backpack and computer in the hand. I sent Rod instructions and coordinates and waited for an answer. I braced myself to run, and once he got the signal I rushed forth.

At the moment, Bulldozer sent a flare on a modified route. Instead of free area, it shot into the woods in an arc. At least two machine guns launched, the earth trembling. My foot slipped on the soft ground. I lost precious time, but I went ahead anyway. There was no second chance. The forest was lit up like at daytime. I ran, concentrating on the road and on the computer screen, but I still noticed what was happening around me. Projectiles literally felled the trees, collapsing to the ground in clouds of chips.

Third of the distance remained to the target, when one of the muzzles started turning in my direction. It continued to fire while doing so. If I had had a hard surface underfoot, I would’ve managed it. But it was impossible to run full speed in the muddy tracks. The long black Lauf covered in a fireball shot toward me. And then suddenly the gun jammed! Either that, or it ran out of ammunition. Or had it been the guardian angel that had been preventing me from entering the next world for years?

I sprinted and threw myself against the wall. I was there at a standstill. When the flare burned out or had dispersed, the shooting died down and it was dark again. From the forest came the crackling of wood and the falling of branches, otherwise everything was the same as before. For a moment I reconciled with the fact that I wasn’t dead. But just for a moment. I looked at the screen. The flare was destroyed in 4.8 seconds. Including half the forest. I was relieved again and frankly.

It was a breeze getting over the wall. From the bag I pulled out a rope and with its help I climbed with no problem. Hardened plastic forceps dealt with the other fence. The strip of land between the two barricades had been thoroughly mined, but the defense was not intended against people: the oron petals sticking above the surface could be seen even without a computer.

Finally, I found myself inside.

It was as if I had cut my way into a cow’s tit. Fog so thick that I almost reached for the forceps again swept lazily across the space. The wet whiteness enveloped me so that I couldn’t see my hands. The fog also isolated sounds, so there was a strange, hollow silence.

I went blindly onward. After a while the wind blew and the fog began to thin. I could see the outline of a two-story building. The closer I got, the clearer it was that this station was abandoned. The scrubby house was the prototype of modular buildings, which began to be used instead of military tents as they were built at about the same speed and thanks to the second floor they provided more space. But why was the house abandoned? What had happened here? I decided that before going to the spaceport, I’d go further and examine the other dwellings.

Fortunately the muddy path inside the area turned to stony ground, making the walking easier. A view that nearly knocked the wind out of my lungs opened before me.  A look at the latest technology, so sharply contrasting with the previous chalet.

The other buildings had been demolished and a deep corridor created in their stead. There stood a two-story building of giant proportions. Each floor, as tall as a small skyscraper, was divided into regular, cubic blocks, stretching into the distance and disappearing into the fog. Each of the massive cubes contained some sort of metal egg floating without a visible thread hanging in the middle. The eggs were covered with circular protrusions, massive pipes and harnesses of blue wiring.

As I looked around, a rift formed in the clouds and a sheaf of light pointed to the ground like the finger of God. Light reflected off the walls and threw glints from the walls of the cubes. What was that stuff? Glass? Or was it some kind of force field?

It dawned and the fog dissipated completely. The giant building full of holes grew by another building. This one was much smaller and connected with this structure through a tunnel. According to the uneven surface and strange links, I estimated that it had another, mechanical purpose. Three rails ran from the opposite side. I had no opportunity to examine beyond that, because I noticed a series of building robots suspended in recharging boxes. Although they were inactive, I wouldn’t have wanted to be around them when that changed. Although the robots weren’t primarily designed to fight, the last thing I wanted was to be chased around by a sixty-ton bastard with two-foot long steel scissors.

I hid in the chalet, the only place with a roof I knew about. I built a tent and climbed into my sleeping bag. Only then did I start working with Sara on getting information. At the beginning, I couldn’t find anything, not even a single mention. Which was suspicious. But I was so curious that it forced me to get out and check the serial number of one of the working robots. That led me to the Bright Technology firm. There wasn’t any mention about it anywhere either. The date of the company’s establishment was suspicious: around the time when the vast majority of the population were thinking only of how to save their lives. And so I didn’t search for formation, but for renaming, and voila! Less than an hour later, I knew more than I needed.

It was worse than I had thought. Just before the Great War or the War for Water, the Americans had been close to mastering the so-called power of the stars, thermonuclear fusion. It was our company, then called Better Tomorrow, Inc., that had been involved in it. It could ignite it, but not safely tame it. Now it seemed that it had succeeded. If I read between the lines correctly, the eggs, levitating in the magnetic fields, could actually be thermonuclear reactors. If I was right, I only had one more question: Why? Why so much energy? According to the information we calculated with Sara, one “egg” would have been able to power the entire prewar civilization for decades.

Anyway, my simple plan that came to me first, and to which I  now returned after many years and hundreds of other plans, which was to destroy something and wait for someone to arrive to fix it, was out of the question. I was not going to even look the wrong way at those time bombs.

So I stayed at the spot, sometimes sneaked out and searched and studied information. Unfortunately, there weren’t too many results. The bad news was that the metal monstrosity now stood in the place where the heliport used to be in the former base. Another piece of bad news was that I didn’t find any control center, or even a single computer, which would at least enable me to control the robots. It seemed that the whole unit was controlled from somewhere outside, or completely self-sufficient.

Later I found out that this couldn’t be. The energy recovered from the eggs was deposited in silicon super-capacitors, which were essentially batteries with unimaginable volumes. They themselves were at least as great a technological marvel as the reactors. The stack contained twenty-three of them. What would happen once they filled up? I could only wait and find out.

I stretched my stiff back and lay down on a hospital bed, where I moved when I learned that the internal department remained as it had been: never used. The only difference was in the ubiquitous layer of dust, stale air and lack of light. The source did not monitor faults in the wiring, but I didn’t mind.

The bleeping reported an incoming video call. It couldn’t be too many people. I ignored it, I had to think.

Two days later, as I was unsuccessfully trying another attempt to swallow a granola bar with stomach pain (I found it in my backpack and got mad cravings for it – it was worth it), something distracted me. I heard a faint knocking, as if someone was tapping on the door. The sound grew in intensity and then another one joined. The window pane vibrated and the rattle added to the sounds. I grabbed the gun and ran into the hallway. The resonance was stronger there; I even felt the floor rattle. I kicked out the opposite door, crossed the small room to the window and looked out.

Motionless clouds, low as a ceiling, obscured the sky as far as the eye could see. Here and there a faint ray of sun shone through to be forever silenced by the everpresent gray. Above the structure with reactors, clouds gleamed by the blue light, which expanded rapidly. After a moment, the clouds began to move: first, as they were sucked into themselves, then gushed out, resembling a geyser of azure gas.

“But they’re not yet full,” I glanced quickly at the computer.

A ship fired from the sky like an arrow, barely visible through the clear blue light of the slowing engine. It landed soundlessly a few feet above the building, handling the pressure wave nevertheless. A cloud of dust and pebbles tinkled the glass. I was already running out of the room into the hallway and outside.

I crept along the wall, step by step, my heart beating like crazy. I couldn’t get rid of my excitement. I had to stop, suppress all emotions and distractions and behave like a professional.           Only then did I dare continue.

I ran back to the fence and walked around the area from the other side. It seemed that the reconstruction was proceeding rapidly. The residential buildings were not being dismantled by anybody, the heavy machinery simply shoving them to the side. The crushed houses were compressed together along with the equipment, forming a massive wall, which was in some places higher than the defensive wall. Thanks to this, I could get in sight of the ship undetected.

It was a light transport ship, a newer model. It moved toward that smaller building with ease and precision even in a vertical position. In the meantime the building opened, the walls and roof changing into arms, which lowered and formed a tunnel around the rails. The landing pad was slowly coming closer on them.

The ship was unmanned, but could carry one man. I needed to get closer, but there was nowhere to hide. Everything fell into place, and there was silence. Nature was dead, and the only sound one could hear was the roar of the monsters or distant echo of some kind of aggregates.

A black hole emerged in the still raised dust and a man in semi-combat overalls exited it. He appeared unarmed. He briefly glanced around and trotted toward the tunnel. A rectangular cover opened and he looked into the monitor behind him. He was turned sideways from me. I forced myself to wait. The cargo area of the spaceship opened, its bowels ejecting a special container with cylindrical holes on the side. That was where the accumulators went. The man confirmed the program and closed the door. Meanwhile, one of the work robots arrived and took off a container from the ship that could only contain explosive ammunition, according to the warning stickers. The man watched it until it left, then he turned and began to stretch. He put his legs together and touched the ground with his hands without bending the knees.

I firmly grasped the ion pistol and ran. I tried to run fast, but quietly. I touched the ground only with my toes, on the smallest possible area. As I approached the man from behind, I could see what helmet he was wearing. If the battle mode was on, the computer would amplify suspicious noises and he would hear me. When he straightened up, I was two steps away from him.

He turned briskly. Not in a defensive act expecting an attack, but rather startled. The surprised face of a young woman was looking at me from behind the transparent helmet. Despite the features blurred by the visor I recognized that she was of Asian origin. Even if Genghis Khan himself had been smiling from the helmet, I wouldn’t have been able to stop my thrust. The speed of the run was supported by a bounce of my left foot and I hit her with the ion pistol in my right hand with all my strength. The helmet couldn’t withstand the heavy rifle butt. It bent inwards and still deformed, it exploded outward in the form of blunt fragments just before contact with the user. The impact threw the woman to the ground.

She was shocked but uninjured. She crawled on her elbows away from me, jabbering something. I walked slowly behind her. “Stop,” I said. She listened.

“In how long does it lift off?”

She didn’t answer, just opened her eyes wide, as if she could not believe that a human was standing in front of her. Nothing new. I aimed on her.

“ Watashi wa nani mo shiranai, watashi ni mo oshietekudasai,” she was spewing the words.

I stepped on her hand and suddenly had a knife in my hand. Since I knew these suits weren’t a problem for me to locate and destroy the radio, as we called the communications chip. I didn’t want her talking to someone about me. I approached even closer and put the gun barrel to her nose. I made sure to look sufficiently impatient.

“If you want to survive the next minute, you should remember English.”

“Please, please, it lift off shortly,” she said and stared at me with frightened, tarry black eyes.

“Thank you,” I got up. I turned and headed toward the open door.

“Don’t leave me here,” I heard behind me.

“I’m sorry. We both know that there’s only room for one,” I said, quickly entering the hole. I pressed the green illuminated button and the doors closed. If she was smart, she would find my backpack and increase her chance of survival.

 

 

The cabin was surprisingly spacious, with a tubular space in the center of which floated an arm chair on a stand. It was waiting for me at the elevator shaft. I sat down on it. Nothing happened. I buckled the belt, the orange glowing light faded and the arm shifted me to the core. Wide monitors stretched in front of me and to the sides. Same ones above, but turned off. They would turn on if the ship turned to a horizontal position, and so would the chair as well.

I watched the data on the monitors. Everything was manual, batteries loaded and the starting process begun. The right-side monitor showed the view outside. I zoomed in on the figure standing nearby. It was the Asian girl. She had raised her hand, removed the glove, and showed me the longest finger.

The countdown reached zero, the chair began to vibrate and we took off. Centrifugal force pushed me into the seat, but the arm didn’t even creak. When I rose, I saw Bulldozer for a second, but then we tore through the clouds and tumbled into the black void. The speed was approximately thirteen kilometers per second and still increasing.

I had been on the moon several times. Once I flew there with the crew of a space shuttle with genetic banks carrying the genome of all life forms on Earth. I was invited as an adviser for security against external threats. Fortunately, someone had realized that the monsters were not to be underestimated. Even though they were over two hundred thousand miles away. And on another cosmic body. This act with a passenger exchange would have failed in my time. I would never have permitted a manual intervention in the process of loading such sensitive material. A person could make a mistake. Not a machine (unless the person who operated it made the mistake). It seemed that the leadership was upgrading the technology, but no one worried about security.

A not very long journey to the moon was ahead of me, then waiting until the wing turned to the right side and landing. Total time: seven hours and twenty one minutes. I began to inspect the weapons and prepare. It would have been ethically inappropriate if something fell out of my pocket, and I found that my zipper was open.

The Sun, shielded by Earth, was “rising” behind us and supporting its rays on objects in space. Light slowly but inexorably pushed away the darkness, and the moon revealed its true colors. Dome-shaped buildings connected by tunnel-like halls shone on it like the tops of gray mushrooms. Deep ravines were filled with bridges, overhangs dug through or completely razed to the ground. Satellites and radars of all sizes stood tall like flowers between all that. It looked as if there was not a single piece of free land on the Moon. The longer I looked, the more buildings, disguised as natural formations, I discovered.

When I looked behind me on the monitor, my jaw dropped. The Earth moved away from the view of the Sun in our system, which powerfully shone in the distance of infinite space. I reduced the brightness on the monitor and looked at how our Sun was literally being absorbed by an entity slightly smaller than the actual star. The Second Sun. It was tearing off trillions of particles in strong, clear streams, rolling in the ring, which it was devouring. Like a black hole, but shining. Almost glowing like the Sun itself. Both buildings formed an infinity sign, a sidewise eight, burned onto the blackness of space.

Our Sun shone in all directions. Rays like straight lines, or yellow lasers, blasted into the ship’s cameras and formed natural lines on the screen. The second part of the figure eight emitted light in a strange way. Rays spread in waves, stretching through ​​space like infinite snakes of different widths in different places, or like tentacles tasting the universe. Despite the fact that it shone like gold, I had to look at them from a peripheral view. When I looked at them directly, it got lost like a fleeting blaze. Some of the tentacles were heading to Earth. And one of them, as if shining here…as if shining straight into my eyes.

I had to look away. Suddenly I couldn’t catch my breath. I indulged a few deep breaths, ran my hand through my short graying hair, burnt in the explosion in the Home, now beginning to grow again, and rubbed my eyes.

Tchibo, the word appeared to me. I couldn’t remember where I had heard it. It was strange. For an unknown reason I connected to the backed up offline version of the Internet from 2049, but even there I couldn’t find reliable information about what that word meant.

The aircraft, christened by the former crew as Horse Smuggler, sailed with inertial force in a precisely calculated direction at an accurately calculated speed. When the Moon’s gravity could take it into its arms, I was very close. It was busy at first glance, the surface teeming with life. Go-karts raced on the narrow roads, teams of people in snow-white suits working on unfinished domes. On a giant satellite, I saw a man strapped by a cable and welding something, bright light reflecting off his helmet.

The roof of the cylindrical entrance to the hangar opened, the computer altering the course with lateral jets and flying inside. After everything I saw (and how much it differed from what I had seen when I was here last time) I started to wonder if I had underestimated it a little. I had tried so hard to get here that I didn’t really think about what I’d do once I was up here. Maybe I hadn’t believed that I would actually get here.

The transporter shuddered and the computer opened the cargo space. I undid my belt and unbuckled the gun from the holster on the wall. I moved to the elevator and rode down. I was surprised that the gravity was the same as on Earth. I knew how demanding the change was in terms of energy, but I only wondered until realized what load I had brought.

I couldn’t prevent the door from opening immediately, and there was no frame which I could hide behind. I hung the ion pistol on my back and drew the pistol from the holster. I knelt, made myself into a smaller target and pointed in front of me.

Fortunately, nobody was waiting outside for me. Only well-rounded gray-blue walls and air-flavored plastic. Wait, oxygen? I leaned my head through the hole and watched the blue planet floating in space. Perhaps a force field. I shrugged and looked out. Three men were coming from the left. The middle one had a uniform and a gun, the other two had loose clothes. I quickly drew back.

“So you two would like to work?” the man said. He spoke in a mocking, sneering tone. “Haven’t you changed your minds, eh? And I thought that it was nice in waking sleep. One has time to think and not have to worry about those pesky things like food, sleep or conversation.”

“It’s not so great, sir,” one of the other men replied with a trace of anxiety in her voice.

The man chuckled. “We’ll see, we will still check you out. And if you have any ulterior motives, you’ll make my Bertha happy. She hasn’t fired for a long time, that’s for sure.”

As they passed, I slipped out and went right. The hall was larger than it originally seemed. The ceiling was a wide semicircle reinforced by three metal structures, reaching across its entire length. Lights were hung on top of them. The ceiling arc ended about sixteen feet above the ground, where it bent into an ordinary side wall perpendicular to the floor. Disassembled spare parts, unidentifiable electronic components, large pieces of sheet metal, fuel cells, and even entire boats in various states of disassembly were piled by the walls. Working lines or machines reaching to the ceiling stood or passed amid them. In some places, black spots covered the floor.

I hid behind a tall swivel shelf and waited to see if the alarm would start. I had attached the thin plate of a personal computer on my left wrist already during the flight. I ran the program that would scan the surrounding area and record it on the virtual map using acoustics: reflected sound. At the same time it scanned the surroundings for active cameras and helped me determine the optimal path. Yet it didn’t seem that the female pilot was missed by anybody. So I went along the walls toward the only door there was. To my bad luck, two elderly men stood by it.

“… I have never seen her here. Such a hottie! When I opened the door, she smiled at me. I found out that it was Samantha Grey, the direct offspring of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. During the oath she adopted a new name: Zoey,” I heard a rough voice with an accent.

“And? Are you eyeing a child of royal blood?” the other one chuckled.

“You idiot, they were actors. And why wouldn’t she choose me? I have served, I have the same right as everyone else. And I have good genes,” he strutted.

“You? With your height and bowel problems? Hardly,” mumbled the second man.

While they were talking, I hid behind the hovercraft, from where I had a good view of the door. There were busy, greasy workers, spectacled people in cloaks or civilians walking here and there. They opened doors using smart cards.

I got an idea. A cart with tools stood next to me. I put it to the side, emptied the drawer, and put the pistol and holster inside. I placed the ion pistol on the table. And locked it off. If it came to the worst, I’d create another window. I put on a busy face and went off. The wheels of the cart creaked so much that it had to be the loudest sound in the hall. I would have bet that the computer drew a detailed map of the entire station, including the washroom, based on the sound. Here and there someone turned to look at me, but nobody said anything.

“Wait, I’m in a rush!” I shouted at the worker who walked through the door.

Puzzled, he looked around, but held the door open.

“Hey! You have to use the card,” a man who had just been depicting feminine curves to another man with gestures turned to me. He wondered if he’d ever seen me here.

“No time,” I pushed the door open. He tried to stand in my way.

“Stand back, or we’ll have a problem,” I pointed at Jonte.

“Who are you? I haven’t seen you around yet.” He didn’t like me, it was obvious at a glance. With his right hand he reached for a gun or radio behind his belt.

“You see that indicator light?” I nervously wiped my forehead. “It shouldn’t blink this way, don’t you think?”

He looked puzzled. “Well, I don’t know…”

“All I know about it is that it’s a loaded ion XB-1 M-Class rifle with an active defense system, and it certainly has nothing to do here, thrown in the mess. I think someone will be very interested in knowing where it has come from. If they have time,” I said the last words quietly. “But I’ll be glad to leave it for you here. Just take it very quickly to someone, or it’ll make a really decent mess here.” While I was talking, I let go of the handle and slowly backed away.

“No, no!” said the other man and pushed his partner aside. “Come on, take it out of here!”

I found myself in a long, densely lit hallway. The sensor didn’t reveal any cameras. But that didn’t mean there were none. If someone wanted to hide them, my equipment would be insufficient.

The gray-blue wall on my left was formed by components from a set of blocks. Each component was “disturbed” by one oval vista that showed breathtaking images. The bumpy gray of the Moon dotted with craters and domes of the buildings was nothing in the endless, dark universe.

Passages with numerical designations with larger spacing were on the opposite side. I looked into one through a small peephole made of frosted glass. I saw a platform of the middle floors of a huge room full of aquariums, in which seaweed and cables were floating. The liquid in the tanks bubbled as if boiling. Oxygen was apparently being produced here. The sound of hundreds of bubbling aquariums could be heard all the way up here.

I walked on. The corridor slightly curved to the right. The lights on the ceiling flashed and the alarm sounded. Why the hell had it revealed me?

Actually, it didn’t really matter.

I took the guns, kicked away the table and ran.

My hasty progress was halted by a sturdy-looking card-operated door. I shot three times at the terminal but it didn’t spark and the passage remained closed. With two shots I tried to blast the lock and kicked it several times. The door didn’t budge.

When the last shot subsided, I heard steps. And then there was silence.

I went back and stayed along the left wall. I felt them before I saw them. One group was deployed along the wall. Just the barrels and the heads of masked men were sticking out from behind the aptly protuberant columns in the wall where I was hiding as well. The second group just came running from the other side of the door, which I had tried to get through. How did they manage it so quickly?

“Drop it, and hands up!” the man leading the group shouted at me.

I thought.

“Are you deaf? Drop it, you’re surrounded!” They wore tactical vests, machine guns with reduced efficiency for fight in in their hands. Yet they looked dangerous.

“I need to speak to Harrison! Bring him in, and then I’ll surrender. Otherwise nothing but a nice memory will remain of these corridors, I swear.”

There was a momentary pause, as if the commander couldn’t decide.

“There’s no one with that name here,” the voice said hesitantly.

I felt a chill. How come this possibility hadn’t occurred to me?! No, impossible. “You have thirty seconds. I want to see Harrison Fletcher or his obituary.”

“Oh yeah, Mr. Fletcher. His name is Harrison? “

At that moment I realized that I had been duped. While I argued with the commander, a soldier from the second group had approached me from behind. I had gotten so upset thinking about the possibility that Harrison wasn’t here, or that he was dead, that I stopped paying attention.

I quickly turned around and pointed the massive barrel against the first unit, ready to send them to hell.

I squeezed the trigger.

The shot didn’t fire. Actually, I hadn’t pressed the trigger. A low tone on the border of recognition increased and penetrated into my brain. It wafted out of the box held by the fingers of the man behind me. Even though my brain was giving orders, the body wouldn’t obey.

The men in masks lowered their weapons.

“Stretcher,” snapped the captain and one of the men ran off. He approached me and broke the ion pistol out of my hand. He turned the gun and examined it. He stood almost outside my field of vision, but I saw part of his unshaven face and an earpiece in his ear. Then he took off his holster and appropriated the gun.

“Captain Kent?” said a voice behind me, and then someone pushed the padded board, hovering above the ground. Two men lifted me, put me on and strapped a harness across my chest and the leg to prevent me from falling in this position.

The captain, who pushed me himself, also moved me closer to him. “A decent performance,” he said. His breath smelled of cigars. “You got through the protective fence into the transporter and up here. Like a professional, I must acknowledge that. But if Juko isn’t waiting for us on our next trip to Earth, this song will be playing for you till the end of your life,” shoving a black box in front of my face. “And it might not be as long as you would wish.”

I didn’t reply.

We went through the door into another corridor. I was being carried in the middle, not being able to see anything through the men. Nobody said a word, except the commander, who responded to a few short orders with a finger on his ear. We stopped at wide double doors with the number 29.

“Twenty-nine open,” said Kent, the red light changing to green, and the two and nine slowly parted. I was forced into a hall with a low ceiling, which was almost empty. The space was divided in half by a series of back to back beds, standing vertically. The same beds were attached around the perimeter of the room. Most were empty, but people were handcuffed on some. Overall, there could have been over a hundred of them. They stood in their coffins, looking like corpses under a bluish light. They weren’t dead because they had IVs attached to their veins.

Kent chuckled as if I had asked him something. “Those are waiting until they realize that working together is more convenient for them.”

They threw me to the ground and with great effort, straightened my legs so that I fit on the bed. Then they stripped the vest off, went through my pockets and strapped me to narrow plastic strips, hands and feet to the wall. One of the soldiers dripped something in my eyes, and then left. I found myself alone in total silence.

My eyes stung and I desperately wanted to blink out the solution from my eyes, but I still couldn’t move an inch. After a while I gave up and stopped trying.

As time passed, my thoughts were more and more confused. At first I tried to figure out how to get out, but other ideas kept creeping into my head and hindering my focus. They alternated between the pictures of my wife and son, my men, actions and even Anna and Roderick. Most often I saw the monsters and myself in the endless battle against them.

And then there were thoughts, or perhaps ideas – but eternal, like recovered memories –of something else, indefinable. Of some intelligence beyond my comprehension, but somehow associated with me, looking for a single goal. To keep getting stronger.

And then, all of a sudden, I remembered. Something I did not think I could ever remember. I grabbed that memory and squeezed it, turned and examined it until I was sure that I had gotten the maximum out of it.

When it was revealed that the clear “comet”, increasing with every moment in our sky, was actually a kind of extraterrestrial intelligence approaching the Earth, I finally decided to retire. Enthusiasm for the end of the war quickly turned to anger. Unrest, civil war, had raged throughout the Earth, and chaos had engulfed the streets. After the death of my wife I was left with a secluded house where I could live in peace, just me and a few of my shotguns. But things had picked up an unexpected pace. People had talked about the gates of hell, which fell to Earth and demons being born in droves, talk of beings possessed by an alien entity. Mass ritual suicides, a mother eating her child, the appearance of new dark religions, all this filled up the television news every day. When an enemy that could be fought appeared, and I found that it wasn’t as amazing as I had imagined being holed up and hiding in a deserted house alone with my thoughts, I was easily persuaded.

As Harrison had said to me, every man was needed. Given my experience, I was assigned to a much more important task.

While I was being transferred to a nearby aircraft carrier by helicopter, I saw how bad the situation was with my own eyes. An object had crashed into the waters of the North Pacific about a thousand miles from the coast of California. A wave rose, which almost completely covered Hawaii on one side, and on the other side completely erased San Francisco and Los Angeles from the map, having devastating consequences for the Mexican California Peninsula. These cities turned into plains of wet, rotting debris, a battlefield for what emerged from their waters. Even from that height I saw colossal creatures, swaying in all directions. Corpses covered the entire coast, sometimes in huge piles. The remains of monsters were everywhere, and it seemed that people were winning…but that wasn’t the case. Swarms of enemies coming out from the sea in a wide whirling of foamy bubbles, not diminishing. The sea and land were covered with black blood. It looked like dozen oil tankers had shipwrecked here.

The monsters were under fire even before they surfaced. Artillery, air force, infantry and heavy machinery incessantly attacked the proliferating targets. The ambit of a few miles, bounded by the foundations of the Wall which was supposed to block off the affected area in the future, had turned to hell. Napalm was on fire, bullets and mines tearing everything in the water and on land into pieces. Those monsters that survived the massacre clawed up from the resulting crater, over the dead bodies and the blood-soaked ground, toward the Wall, constantly expanding and bristling with hundreds of gun barrels.

When we burst into a pillar of black smoke that rose from the turmoil beneath us, the smell of burning flesh and blood filled the lungs and almost made me retch. And I’d been through a lot. No one talked in the cabin, everyone mentally preparing for action.

The gate apparently fell somewhere to the bottom of a deep ditch, surrounded by huge rocks. The mission plan was simple. The three selected members in midget submarines would head towards the foot of the rocks and place explosives at strategic positions. The rock would then collapse and close the trench like a cork. The monsters would then drown before reaching the surface. If they didn’t drown, they would get crushed by a ton of material piled in more and more layers on the rock. It was a makeshift solution, but crucial.

 

When I finally descended underwater, unusual silence surrounded me. The sound of war carried for miles, but the water seemed to act like earmuffs. Far below the surface I only heard hollow bangs. The water’s temperature was a whopping one hundred fifty-eight degrees Fahrenheit.

I was dropping lower, the light fading, the dirt in the glow of the front lamps my only company. I approached the foot of the hill, to where my computer displayed strategically placed points. Mine was highlighted in red.

The rebuilt personal work submarines were more or less automated, but human presence was required nevertheless. Failure was not an option. I sank to the bottom, which was not very deep in these places, but the sun’s rays had not reached it. I copied the terrain slowly, quietly creeping towards the goal.

“Cod Two here,” a voice came from the speaker, “I’m on target. I’m starting the drilling. No sign of aliens.”

“Great. Keep in touch. How are you doing, Cod Three?”

“The original route is blocked, I have to take a different route. Something is sitting on my route… what the hell is it? Look at it.”

The whole screen was occupied by a creature of unnatural appearance. The lower part had tentacles like an octopus, but without suckers. Each tentacle ended with three fingers, deftly catching not only fish, but also larger bullets and pieces of twisted sheet metal sinking to the bottom, and stuffing them into its monstrously huge mouth. The column of light from Cod Three was licking the creature, revealing the pinkish skin that covered the cylindrical head planted with black, intelligence-lacking eyes around the perimeter. The gills were clearly visible on the sides.

“Don’t risk it, find a safe way.”

“Sure thing, Mark, I’m on it.”

I arrived to the destination, the turbines triggering a reverse stroke. I confirmed the configuration settings, stabilizers sliding out of the chassis and pinning me in place. Then the drill clenched its teeth into the rock and bubbles gushed out of the hole.

“Cod Two here. Bomb placed, I’m moving to the next position. I’m almost with you, Boss.”

I moved the lamp, and soon saw a slim torso of the midget submarine. It looked like a single-pilot airplane with vestigial wings. The submarine slowly drifted past, investigating what was ahead with the flashlight.

Suddenly, a big thing loomed out of the darkness and stepped on the midget submarine like it was a toy.

“What the fuck? I was attacked, Captain.” A wiry, slimy thing tore off the rear turbine, like a child curious about what was inside a Christmas gift. It was tossing the submarine around, while Jackson begged for help. I watched the terrifying scene in absolute silence and I couldn’t do anything for him. And even if I could, I wouldn’t have. The priority was to place the explosives. I watched the beast squish the steel like paper, only hoping that the explosives would withstand it. After a while, Cod Two was destroyed and the light faded. I had already turned off my flashlight.

I was surrounded by darkness, broken only by the light of the screen. I followed the course of the laying of explosives, displayed as a percentage. It seemed that the more intently I watched progress, the slower the percentage was increasing. I had never believed in God, but now I prayed. Just in case.

“Cod Three calls Cod One. Mark, what the hell happened there? I found a way, I’m coming to you.”

“Negative. Bombs placed, we can’t get to the third point. Let’s get out of here, it should be enough.”

Within seconds, there was another connection. “Cod One, this is General Harrison, come in.”

“I hear you, sir,” I replied.

“What happened?”

“Jackson is dead. Something sucked him in like a snail from a shell, sir.”

“It’s reporting active charges, do you confirm the successful placement of the two?”

“Affirmative, sir.”

Just when I finished speaking, a message appeared on the screen: ACTIVATION OF CHARGES. TIME REMAINING TILL EXPLOSION: 59 sec.

“It says that the bombs will be detonated. I thought we were supposed to do it,” Tod said.

No answer.

“Sir?” I raised my voice.

“Sir, the display is flashing that I’ll be fucked in forty seconds. Are you there?”

Still nothing.

“Mark, they don’t give a shit about us, let’s get out of here,” said Cod Three.

“Get away!” suddenly I pulled the stick. There was no time to maneuver or turn, so I moved backwards. Turbines had the same power for rear and forward thrust. The computer automatically analyzed the undercurrents and proposed a better trajectory. Nevertheless, the acceleration wasn’t significant.

The submarine kicked up dust, so it was impossible to see.

“It was an honor for me …” crackled the loudspeaker.

The underwater explosion was different from an explosion on the surface, or in the air. The water acted as an insulator and as it was almost incompressible, it absorbed most of the energy. Still, the explosion had to disrupt the rock and demolish the entire overhang, so there was a large quantity of very effective explosive used.

I almost couldn’t feel the actual explosion. The temperature of the surrounding water rose and the pushed water tripled the speed of the submarine. Through the vista I only saw the swirling clouds of dust.

“Oh my God … what is that?” came a voice from the loudspeaker.

A view of the radar told me that the second submarine was located about three thousand feet above me. Undoubtedly it was pushed there by the current or air bubble after the explosion. I headed towards it. “Tod, what’s happening? Can you hear me?”

“Oh my God… God…” echoed an intermittent murmur, as if he didn’t know he was talking into a microphone.

I turned the light back on again, so once I got from a cloud of dust, I found myself in a murky ambience supersaturated by the remnants of sunlight. But what I saw when looking down shocked me even more.

The limestone overhang which we were supposed to topple into a ditch had actually disappeared. Instead, a mile-wide chasm appeared at the bottom, shining through the dusty bluish light. From it there rose a funneled pillar of diverse creatures, monsters that were twirling, twisting and clawing at each other, swimming toward the seabed. Larger monsters, heavy fleshy creatures, scrambled awkwardly after the rising landslope for the same purpose. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of them. And I dared not guess what was lurking beneath the clouds of dust, out of my view.

Before we knew it, they were next to us. We had no defense against them. I entered full operation, but tentacles or some limbs got entangled in the turbines and the blades broke. I desperately reported to the command, but no one answered. Cod Three was swallowed by a big fish with legs. Rays from the flashlight were still visible through its taut skin. The dome over my head burst when something scaly brushed against it. A thin but strong trickle of warm water sprayed my pants. At this depth there wasn’t so much pressure to immediately crush me, it would have been more like half crushing and half drowning. I unbuckled and held onto the foolish hope that I might perhaps be able to hold my breath and swim to the bottom somehow.

And then I saw it. Yes, only now was I able to say that it had really happened. A twine, thin like a snake, impossible not to notice thanks to its sheen, stretching from somewhere in the distance. It moved quickly, as though the water resistance hadn’t affected it at all. It fearlessly approached the monsters and twisted its end around them as if actually a snake head. Even though I was surrounded by freaks of nature and incredible life forms, it was such a strange sight that for a moment I forgot about everything. I followed the golden glow and realized that I saw something… very intelligent in the way the twine moved.

The snake turned to me exactly when the lid cracked, and the cabin was filled with water.

 

I only learned a bit of the whole mosaic, just peered into particles of consciousness for that omniscient megamind, but I felt that my overloaded brain would melt under the weight of that knowledge.

Suddenly I had power, and its use was unrestricted. Not abruptly, I had had it the whole time. It all fit together. Now it was enough to… engage the imagination.

I felt my blood circulation in my hands, feet, fingers, my heart beating. It was warm. It wasn’t just the fact that I was able to move again. It was as if someone had poured life into my veins. I felt a strength that was necessary to utilize, otherwise it would accumulate and explode in me. The known tingling in the fingers was multiplied. I gritted my muscles just to stretch, and the metal which I was attached to grinded.

Captain Kent entered the room, followed by a tall man. Kent managed to take off his bulletproof vest and helmet. He looked relaxed. A hard-faced soldier with a vertical furrow between the eyebrows and a distinctive chin gave him a chair, which he had carried with him. In my mind I baptized him as Furrow. Kent sat down in the chair importantly.

“You know, Mark, it’s a really interesting weapon” to put the ion rifle in his palms in front of him. “I wonder whom you stole it from.” When I didn’t answer, he continued: “Well, no, I don’t care. I wonder how you can reset it to default settings or reprogram for a new user. No, I’m kidding again. I don’t care about that either. Our smart guys told me how to do it. Apparently it’s impossible without a password on this model. So …” he didn’t finish. When I didn’t answer, he looked at his watch, and then at Furrow. “Paralysis should have worn off by now, shouldn’t it?”

“Have you found it? I don’t see him here,” I said.

“Pardon me?” Kent’s smile was overtaken by honest astonishment. “You’re talking about Mr. Harrison? I am the chief of security and you’ll talk only…”

“That’s enough,” I said calmly, interrupting the captain again. “Before you get to intimidation and make an even bigger fool of yourself, I have to say that I’ll still need the gun, so why would I reprogram it? But I got an offer for you, Kent. Take me to the bastard immediately, and I’ll promise that nothing will happen to you, or anyone else. What do you say?”

Furrow looked at the captain uncertainly. Confusion was replaced by anger and captain reddened in the face.

“You made a choice, fucker,” he lost his self-control and leapt from his chair. “If Harrison doesn’t kill you, I’ll do it.”

I laughed from my heart. “Harrison’s already done it. It was a long time ago. But I came back. And now I owe him something. And Kent, I honestly don’t care if I take someone with him.” I looked him in the eye and the amused grimace disappeared from my face, replaced by a hard look.

“Idiot,” Furrow said and took a step back.

I didn’t tear the handcuffs, but burned through them. In one leap, I found myself in front of him, grabbed him by the head, and before he could react, I turned it to face backward. This was called having eyes in the back. Bones cracked and the soldier fell dead to the ground. I turned to the captain. He held the ion rifle in disbelief and took almost an eternity before he dropped it to the ground and reached for his gun. With two fingers of my right hand, I grabbed him under the lower jaw. Fear flashed in his eyes. He dropped that gun as well.

Sucking the life out of his body and claiming his vital energy seemed like the simplest thing in the world. He rolled his eyeballs, twitched and then went limp. His skin crumpled, water evaporated and blood dried. He was fading before my eyes and eventually just a pile of bones remained, covered in slimy skin. It was so fast that his brain was still alive when I let him fall on the ground. I gathered the ion rifle from the ground.

The metal heated up under my touch, the battery showing one hundred percent.

Red lights came on and a siren sounded again.

On the gun I calmly set weaker energy projectiles and a higher cadence. I aimed at the door of my cell and gently stroked the trigger. There was a sound not unlike a garden sprinkler, only faster. Doors filled with eight-hundred one-inch holes per minute. In half a second, just a few burning ruins remained from the door.

I exited and dealt with the next passage in the same way. The weapon self-compensated the recoil, so it was possible to hold it. With both hands. Now I could do it with two fingers.

I came to a crossroads. Flashing lights subconsciously forced me to rush, but I didn’t know where to go. The corridor to the left curved back and in the vista I saw that it led to a crater whose surface was formed by the same large dome-shaped building. Perhaps barracks. In the right hallway I heard the echo of voices, and so I went there.

As soon as I noticed the shadows of ordinary figures on the wall in the bend of the corridor, I started firing without grace. The ion rifle was not designed to fight humans. The projectiles of formed energy couldn’t be stopped by any vest. It was enough to hold the trigger for a moment and the impact was devastating. The shots destroyed and burned everything that got in the way. Pieces of floor split and shattered into flaming fragments that sprayed the faces and helmets of the soldiers that rushed to the place. The inner lining of the corridor and the fireproof plastic boards twisted and fell onto the path, forming another obstacle for the soldiers. They were so confused – thinking that someone was attacking them from several sides – that I shot them before they lifted their weapons.

I went through the rubble, looking at pieces of bodies. About ten people paid the ultimate price for Harrison’s stupidity and cowardice. Maybe he’d finally realize that he couldn’t escape his fate. I leapt through the closing fire barrier that divided the corridor. I found myself in the lobby, dominated by a huge gate. The heavy door was perfectly straight, like the level of calm waters. The gateway divided the main hall, twice as big as the one I came from, leading to both sides. The tunnel was much more massive and durable, not having vistas and its smooth surface not defaced by any visible protrusions. Which meant that I was here like a target at a shooting range. Still, I felt that I was going the right way. Also, I wondered what was behind the gate.

A suspicious hiss warned me and I quickly turned around. The controlled missile was too slow. I ducked. The bullet missed me, but loudly exploded just behind me. Ha! A controlled missile with controlled firing! The blast wave was larger than I had expected. It tossed me aside and the ion rifle fell out of my hands. The surroundings were filled with a deafening barrage before I could hit the floor. I finished a somersault and touched the ground only for a moment, then bounced off and flew again.

In war or in battle, I always let the body to handle the situation instinctively, and most of the time it was better (and faster) than if I thought through the various steps somehow. Now it was otherwise. Now I had other weapons. I also used those instinctively, but I had to give a conscious impulse for it.

The mere thought was enough and my arms up to the elbows became heavy with the weight of the charged energy, bursting into transparent flames. Machines rushed into the hall from both directions. I chose one and shook energy off in a way one would drops of water after washing their hands. Two glowing arrows destroyed one of them in a massive explosion.

I was already flying somewhere else. Persistent and accurate enemy fire firing from all sides. I even heard a heavy machine gun. There was nowhere to escape, nothing to hide behind. I put my hands in front of me and created an invisible shield. That protected me for a while. Bullets and missiles deformed and reflected from it as if it were steel. Deformed explosions modeled abstract shapes. I found that a couple of previous shots had found their target. My energy-filled body dealt with them and with the injuries. But with each additional blow to the shield, I realized that even my strength was not completely unlimited. Shooting soldiers covering behind battle robots stopped, the men looking at each other.

But a robot was not human, so its morality didn’t drop. Machines fired on. When a rocket hit the shield and its power forced me to kneel down, a deadly barrage unleashed again. It was as if giant hammers pounded the shield and their strength pushed me back. The shots were gaining momentum, while I trailed off. I gritted my teeth, got up and ran toward the nearest robot trying to maneuver toward my side. A rocket left its shoulder container and went on a journey toward my face. I swatted it to the side. I jumped, transformed the shield into a sharp, invisible spear in the air with my left arm and thrust it deep into the bowels of the machine. Then I let the spear expand, stretch to many times its size. The robot was torn into two pieces and several smaller components.

“I’ll kill you!” a man’s voice, trying to give himself courage, was brought to me through the hall in a short break between shootings.

“Over my dead body!” I replied, and sent a bevy of rampant invisible needles through the crumbling robot, which instantly tore the soldier to atoms. From the thighs up he was just a pile of material that would fit into a palm.

But the destruction of the robot was not the best idea. Once I had harbored behind their comrade, the machines stopped shooting and the people hesitated. Now, nobody hesitated to shoot anymore.

Brute force struck me in the thigh, shoulder and hip. Bullets tore my flesh and shattered bones before I fell on the ground. Within a moment I was lying on the floor, staring at my own blood. The shooting continued. I screamed in pain and despair. Every second I was hit by another blow which shoved me across the floor like a rag.

It can’t end now. Not when I’ve gotten so far, I thought. While I’m still able to think, until a fundamental part of my mind ceases to exist, I’m not out of the game. I pulled away from the pain, as if it were an unimportant thing, not feeling anger or resentment, nothing more than a desire for power, which was always as big as the force itself. It cost a lot of energy to regenerate the body and my inner strength, but I would have managed it, if … a grenade exploded too close. Shrapnel pierced my chest. Only bloody rags remained from the shirt, and my body was gradually in a similar condition as well. An unwelcome ridiculous thought flashed through my head: Am I dying?

Never.

I flicked the mental whip at my rifle and pulled it toward me. I could switch to defensive mode even without looking, so I quickly did so. A semitransparent powerful shield materialized from the barrel like an umbrella. Basically similar to what I had created, but this time not from my strength. I could use it now for regeneration. While I was covering behind the shield, pieces of lead fell out of my body, tissues growing at unusual speed.

The enemies were not stupid. With the shooting they got me back in front of the fire doors so that I was again surrounded by pliers and the two groups could come closer and shoot without restrictions.

The seconds were crucial. I demanded more and more energy. As much as my body could tolerate. It hurt, a lot. I felt every vein and organ, like after an electric shock. The more power I received, the more the body fought it. But I was stronger…

Battery status of the ion rifle: twelve… fifteen… thirty… forty-five… seventy… one hundred percent.

I jumped up and sowed death again. In one hand I held the ion rifle, which incessantly fired electric balls as big as a head, which after hitting fried or melted everything in a three foot perimeter with a temperature of fifteen hundred degrees. I was its cartridge. Lightning flashed from the fingers of my other hand, searching for its own targets. As I held the hand out in front of me, I noticed that it was burned black up to the elbow, gray smoke rising from it. Soldiers, uncovered until then and sure of their victory, either died writhing with molten suits over bare skin, or managed to hide behind the robust bodies of ballistic missile robots. But it wasn’t safe there either. Balls filled with energy were spreading fire and destruction to all the corners and crannies within their reach.

I caused them heavy losses and it seemed they were withdrawing. They left the wounded and dead on the spot and the rest of the troops promptly moved to the wall to my left.

At that moment, I lost my balance and fell on the wall beside me, as if being pulled by an invisible force. I didn’t know what was happening, and before I could figure it out, fell from a height of about fifty feet on the hard wall, which was now the floor. A few bones cracked in my body. The soldiers expected a change of gravity and moved in one step. Even the robots could walk freely across the rounded edges.

Nothing was certain in that moment. Robots and soldiers were in perfect synchronicity and trained for the changing gravity, and so the sides changed as quickly as they managed to run to the right spots. And the robots were firing incessantly, so a bullet struck me and changed my flight path. I was falling from side to side, up and down, unable to regain a sense of direction. But I kept squeezing the trigger. When the gun fell out of my hand due to impact, I just screamed in pain and let the energy gush from my body on all sides.

Everything burned. The debris of the destroyed robots, bodies, concrete, fireproof insulation. Even the antigravity panels embedded deep in the walls fell off in some places, looking like a honeycomb of blue steel. And everything flew up and down, as if someone was holding the room in their hand and shaking it like what a bartender does with a shaker.

I was lying on the ground, my head spinning and I couldn’t move. I realized that the shooting had stopped and the floor stayed on the bottom.

Could I move? I could, but it was as if I had gained ten times my weight. The soldiers were dead. Pieces of sheet metal squealed and slid under my own weight. A charred but functional robot approached me. Perhaps the last one. Slower than normal, straining itself, but closing in. I grit my teeth and rolled onto my back with an elbow. It was worse than I had expected. Maybe because I had no legs. Instead, I only had two shredded pieces of meat of different lengths left. I clasped my hands on my stomach as if in prayer. The view of my torso, the mixture of meat and organs with bits of crushed ribs, was shocking. I should have been long dead. I saw my own motionless heart in a pool of blood. I couldn’t breathe.

The red lights had long since melted and only a few fires shone. I couldn’t hear anything through ruptured eardrums.

My hands lit up in bright, albeit fluctuating flame. It grew in intensity until it shone so much that it was impossible to look at. Maybe I was just screaming in my head, but that was much louder. I held it until I collected enough energy. And then I slowly opened my palms. This energy expenditure was much more painful through the extensive injuries. If I could take a breath, I’d have torn my vocal cords by screaming.

According to the door’s position, I had half a chance that I would hit the ceiling.

And it happened. A hole into space opened up above me, covered by slowly leaking oxygen. Debris was falling around me and slamming into the ground. I yanked my hands apart and the opening grinned. I almost fainted, and that would have been the end of me.

Meanwhile, a robot came to me. I thought that it wanted to run me over, but instead it stopped. It raised its arm heavily; it was the long narrow barrel of a heavy machine gun.

If I had had my lower jaw, I would’ve smiled. I noticed how the soldiers changed gravity. Each of them had something resembling a square watch with arrows in all directions and the scroll bar with percentages below them on their wrist. The group commander could change the gravity, and if he died, permission would be transferred to the next in order. During my air escapades, I managed to catch a severed arm with this control. I put a small amount of energy into it, transforming into heat, so that perhaps the chip in the watch would think that the owner was still alive. There was nothing left but to try.

Just before the robot aimed, I had given an order.

The contents of the lobby suddenly rushed upwards. Part of the bodies and debris stopped at the ceiling, the rest, including me and my robot we launched into space.

I rotated in all directions, not knowing which was which. Every time I saw the base, it was a little further. I flew in a clump of debris, among which was the robot, still holding onto me. It didn’t really mind the changing positions. Once it had me at gunpoint, it fired. But it hadn’t considered one thing. The kickback spun it into fast backflips and abducted it quickly toward the emptiness of open space.

If I had been just an ordinary person, I’d have been dead many times. Naked and battered, I rotated through space, ice teeth biting and immobilizing me. Gushing blood turned into red spray of strange shapes and small ruby shards. I lost my clothes, equipment and most of the body in the fight.

I was determined to use my brain until it froze. Did I say my power was limited? It was not. Only my ability to receive it was limited: all the limits were only in my brain and body. But even that was full of possibilities. I concentrated all my strength, oblivious to the cold and getting rid of the fear. What could I be afraid of when I was omnipotent?

I smiled and a crust of frozen sweat burst on my face. I felt a gush of heat and pumped as much energy into my body as I could handle. My whole body tingled and burned as new cells formed. I had never felt anything better than this almost euphoric pain. Completely different than the one I felt when expending energy. This was a good pain.

I had the feeling that the golden snakes were flashing before my eyes, and in my mind I was thanking them.

When the Moon was so small that it could be cupped in a fist, I was complete. Full of strength.

Quick as lightning, like a flying ray, I fired back. I broke back into the lobby, and full of undischarged power I headed for the huge gate. I was going to see what was behind it.

“You don’t even know what you could cause with it,” said a voice that made me freeze mid-motion. “If you want to see what’s inside, I’ll show you. When the time comes,” said a blurred voice from a suit microphone, but it was unmistakable.

Slowly my gaze wandered down the gate. “Harrison,” I said.

“Mark … you’ve changed a lot. I almost didn’t recognize you. “

“I had to. But I didn’t forget your flat face,” I said.

“You really traveled all this way to kill an old man?”

“Yes.”

Slightly he bounced off the ground and travelled all the way to me in one long jump. “You know, one day…” he didn’t finish.

I grabbed him with both hands by the plastic underneath his helmet and pushed. The rim bent and snapped. Oxygen began to leak out of the hole. “The only reason you’re still alive is that I’m just thinking of slower ways to kill you.”

“Seriously? I don’t think so,” he said in a conversational tone and smiled ruefully. “I think you’ve come here for answers. I’d rather give them to you before you destroy everything here. And maybe if you hear them, you’ll change your mind.” He was so certain about himself, not afraid. I was a little taken aback. “So please follow me to my office where we can talk.”

“Nothing will make me change my mind,” I released him. “But I need some clothes.” A layer of ice had started to form on me.

Through the right corridor we reached the closed barrier, where we waited until the wall closed behind us and the space filled with oxygen. Then Harrison took off his helmet and encouragingly smiled at me. I smiled back at him. There was a reason. I knew I’d remove his smug expression today. We walked into the living quarters.

Harrison dispersed the small crowd standing there by sending them to work. Either they felt respect toward him, or fear. Some wiped their tears, some suppressed their frightened screams, but the crowd dispersed. I noticed that Harrison’s gait slowed in the ​​high gravity area. He moved heavily and panting as if sprinting uphill.

His office was surprisingly modest. There were two interconnected rooms. One was crowded with screens and communications equipment, the other one had a bit of furniture, a bed and a table with an unfinished meal.

I waited for an ambush, a dastardly trick which Harrison would use to try and bring me to my knees. Instead, I had to help him out of his suit. An old, frail man whose hands trembled so much that he couldn’t unfasten the buckles, wriggled out of it.

“Gravity doesn’t suit me,” he said when he got himself out of his pants. He was dressed in a faded but clean dark suit and tie that was one shade lighter. I’d never seen him wearing anything else. I wore the same suit because there was nothing else in the closet. It was a little tight but better than being naked.

“I won’t offer refreshments, I have little time. I have to take care of the mess you made. So, ask me, I will answer all the questions.” He sat down heavily on the only chair.

“Why did you want to kill me?”

“I understand you’ve come to kill me. And do you think I’m going to let you run around and destroy everything I’ve built? No, no, no,” he shook his head, “I just defended myself.”

“You know what I mean. Or do you have sclerosis as well?”

“No, Mark, not yet,” he said in a friendly tone. “I think you’re referring to the situation years ago, with the prematurely detonated bomb, right? And also about how I shot you in the head. It was a pupil’s error. I was to see to it that you died, say completely. The fact that I had sent you to your death was nothing personal. As a commander, you have surely been in a situation when you had to sacrifice a team member in order to save others, haven’t you? This is the same situation.”

“Why did we have to die?”

“Oh, Mark, this is getting us nowhere. I told you that I don’t have time. You should start asking the right questions.”

His condescension started to piss me off. I concentrated and asked for energy. I saw myself in the mirror opposite, the skin translucent, fire glowing and flowing underneath, the pressurized liquid energy. My eyes were a bright red flame. “I ask, you answer. Clear?”

“Fine, whatever you want,” he said calmly. “And drop the acting. I don’t fear death.”

“What’s behind those big doors? You said not to open it.”

“We’re building an interstellar ship. It’s actually a Plan B. If you destroy it, it would be a fatal mistake.”

“What Plan B? I don’t even know about Plan A.”

Harrison laughed. The first time I heard him laugh. “You really don’t know anything? I thought you’d figure out many things. Okay, so I’ll start from the beginning.” He folded his hands in his lap. “Surely you remember how a few years ago an object emerged in the Lyra constellation out of the blue, just twenty light years away from us. It looked like a star, but it was too quick and its movement was not affected by the gravitational influence of other objects. And not only that, it didn’t influence its surroundings either. In other words, it had no measurable gravity. If it had had gravity, our solar system wouldn’t have looked the way it looks for a long time, and life on Earth would probably have disappeared within a few weeks.

And yes, it was closer to us. Scientists from across the Earth were all eager to find out what it was. I was among them, too. Eventually we found a lot more than we would have liked to. How? That’s the most interesting thing – it told us itself. From time to time, a person would be found on Earth who claimed they could speak with it. Of course, no one paid attention, but it soon became apparent that these people had remarkably accurate and interesting information. And they coincided with each other even in details. And they also had something else in common. They all suffered headaches, vomiting, disorientation and then fell into a state of shock, from which they mostly didn’t wake up anymore.”

“Wait, wait,” I lifted a finger, “you mean it communicated with those people?”

“Funny you’re asking, Mark. Not communicated directly, rather it was some kind of connection.”

“But why?” I asked.

Harrison just shrugged. “Who knows? They gather information, seek hostile intentions… maybe they’re just curious. Nevertheless,” he looked at me like on a naughty son, shifted in the chair, and crossed his legs, “the entity has proven to be a kind of ancient intelligent energy that calls itself Tchibo. It’s life, plodding through space and searching for an ideal energy source it could absorb. It needs a power source small enough to destroy it – which isn’t that simple in the vast universe. But it has found it. For ten years these parasites have been attached to our star, sucking the life out of it. Over the next ten years, the Sun will be so light that matter won’t stick together and it’ll fall apart. Death to life on Earth will occur almost immediately. And there’s no way to prevent it.” He cleared his throat and continued.

“It turned out that our civilization doesn’t mean anything to them at all. They don’t want to destroy us, but we’re not worth salvation either. So why did they contact us at all? Wait, don’t interrupt me. Nobody knows for sure, but most agree that they’re just passing by our world, dimension and mass, and perceive us as they would perceive a vacuum, somehow inadvertently, and all that is happening, all that we see is only a byproduct of their presence. Shit, Mark, I’ll tell you frankly, we don’t know anything about them. Maybe they’re just bored, if a life form, overcoming unimaginable distances and living for thousands of years, is even able to feel this way.

That’s not very encouraging, is it?” Harrison looked at me with the slight grin of a bad poker player holding good cards. “And it would get worse,” he continued. “Once we realized that the Tchibo did not intend to negotiate with us at all, plans for the salvation of mankind began to be discussed. Evacuation was out of the question. We would never have been able to build ships on time. And even if we had, there were hundreds of other problems, but I won’t bother you with that. Thermonuclear reactors were another alternative. But, as you know, at the time there were only theoretical plans and years were left till the construction of the prototype. Not to mention the difficulty and the fact that it would be very, very expensive. What we had would have never been enough to preserve even a few percent of the flora of the Earth, not to mention the gigantic bunkers, greenhouses and sheltered habitats that would have had to be built within a brief period. However, the decision to build anyway was made, hoping that in the meantime we would invent such technology that would accelerate the construction so that we could make it. And as you have probably seen yourself, we’ve finally built the reactors. Unfortunately, it was too late. Now they will be used in spacecrafts.

Luckily I and a few rich people understood that it was a pretty weak card and the chances of success were slim. As I said, it was clear that the majority of life on Earth would become extinct and nobody could do anything about it. Oh, my knees hurt.” He stood up and began to walk around the room.

“Go on,” my voice harsh.

“Sure. While this base was being hastily finished and supply ships flying from the Earth to the Moon around the clock, a friend of mine (or a scientist working under him) came up with a really crazy plan. But the longer I listened, the more I knew that this might be our only chance. I immediately took him over to OPULD and began to question him.

However, genetic engineering had already been at a high level before and people were able to do incredible things with nature. Surely you’ve heard of the famous WW – Without Water contract, which was to create genetically modified plants, not needing water, which began to be lacking on Earth. But we managed more than that. Achievements ensured the funding and we even started with animals as carriers of fighting viruses, and so on. Simply, we didn’t start from scratch. So, this young scientist claimed that he could create the seeds of plants that didn’t need light to live, and they would still create oxygen, but most importantly, collect and store energy. Incredible, isn’t it? Their roots, reaching sometimes up to a kilometer into the ground, would use geothermal energy and store the surpluses in above-ground tubers, which would actually serve as biological batteries. Doesn’t that sound perfect?​​” Harrison was in meltdown. The urge to kill him was stronger than ever.

“If the plant spread out enough, humanity would survive. In a form other than we know it today, but still survive. For a moment it seemed that humanity would be saved.

The scientist did create this plant, but it turned out that in those past conditions it wouldn’t have survived longer than a few days. The plant managed with any soil and almost any conditions, but only at a later stage of development. For proper germination and growth it required its own pH, a certain amount of water, bacteria, and other things. In addition, it didn’t like the organisms living underground. So our only chance was to create the conditions for it.”

“Can you get to the point?” I was holding my composure.

“Hold on, I’m getting to it. Then a video in which a gateway to ‘another world’ falls into the ocean went viral,” Harrison twitched his index and middle fingers on both hands. “Yes, Mark. The rumors that the video were fake were true. In fact, it was me who had pushed this imaginary button and let out armies of monsters, sleeping in our large underwater labs. These research workplaces were created in the bearings of extracted methane, and secret genetic research had been happening there for years. Animals were bred on huge farms there, genetically engineered as killing machines.

The government decided not to support our brave projects, so I had to think differently. Release the monsters, and with your help, ensure that they couldn’t stopped.” He waited for me to digest it.

A glass paperweight, which I inadvertently picked up from the table while walking around the room, turned to dust in my hands. “I don’t understand…” I managed to say.

“Together we detonated the bombs, Mark. Were it not for our ‘intervention’, maybe they would’ve managed to stop our animals. Maybe. But by blasting the rocks overlying the greater part of the underground space, we allowed them to quickly leave their prison. Do you understand? You created bigger doors for them.”

I was speechless. The blame that I taken upon myself for failing to stop the monsters multiplied. It was I who released them onto the Earth.

“And now you will probably want to ask why. I will answer you. Once the monsters eat most of the organic material, or each other, they will die and decompose into soil suitable for the seeds embedded in them. So, now you understand? Ingenious, yes?” Harrison sat down slowly, leaning back in his chair and waiting for my reaction.

I gasped. “For you, ‘ingenious’ is the word that describes the greatest mass murder… no, the annihilation of the human species…”

Harrison surprisingly leaped from his chair. The smirk turned into a stern expression. “Murder? Exactly the opposite. I’m the one who saved the human race. Someone had to do something. I’m the one who accepted the responsibility. Either I sacrificed the most, or we all died. Is it such a hard decision, Mark?” He saw me shake my head and frowned even more. “You may think that there was another option, but that’s not the case. Perhaps if we had had more time, but we had to decide immediately.”

“That’s not possible…” I muttered to myself, but a little piece of me knew he was telling the truth. Too much made sense…

“Impossible?” Harrison chuckled wryly. “How old are you? Ninety? And you look younger than my son, you know how to cook a man alive and fly through the vacuum, is that possible? We live in new times, Mark. Either we deal with it, or die out. Do you think that what I’m doing here, I do for myself? Get a grip.”

I still didn’t understand. No, didn’t want to understand. Didn’t want to believe. “So,” I took a deep breath, “you’re saying Tchibo came over to eat the Sun and the only thing you thought of was to release an army of mutant monsters on Earth to exterminate the human race before it even gets a chance to learn the truth? That’s the biggest load of crap I’ve ever heard in my life!”

“And what would they have done with the truth? Would it have saved their life?” he quickly replied and looked genuinely puzzled. “You know the facts, Mark, and you’ll have to decide. Either you think of the dead, or fight for the living.” With that, he stood up and began to put on the space suit.

I sat on a chair, rested my elbows on the terminal and buried my face in the palms. Do I really I have to think about it? I reached for the control console, selected the satellite and zoomed onto the Earth. “I think you’re a heartless asshole, who is not entitled to make such decisions,” I said. “But you’re right about one thing.” In the reflection of the screen, I saw Harrison glance over his shoulder. Meanwhile, I zoomed in till my Bulldozer filled the screen.

It was torn to shreds, debris and bent sheet metal lying everywhere. Fire after the fight was still burning around it, mostly the bodies of slain monsters. They came from the direction of the furrows etched in the dirt. I zoomed in closer to the truck’s body. The cabin was ripped open with a trio of cuts left by strong claws. The large screen and the windshield were torn out of the cab and lay nearby, still strapped by cables. The last viewed picture shone on it: the Moon, huge across the entire screen.

“You’re right,” I said again, and I stood up, striding towards him. “It’s not worth dealing with the dead.” I grabbed him by the throat and yanked. A bloody rag was left in my hand and the shocked Harrison stood for a moment, gurgling and rolling his eyes. I told him that I wouldn’t change my mind.

I looked into his eyes and I realized that he was absolutely correct in one thing. He had feared death.

 

THE END.

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