By Chef JRHEvilInc/Joel R. Hunt
It took three days for the visitor to reach our facility.
Sharon was the first to see him, while she was on entrance duty sometime after midday. Of course, she didn’t know he was a “he” at that point. All he was at first was a bright reflection, a spot of sun glinting at us from a scope far across the rubble. A sniper, she presumed. That wasn’t a worry. Sniper bullets were far too precious to waste on settlement guards, especially sublurks like us; at the first sign of trouble we could hunker down, disappear into the endless tunnels that wound away into the dark folds of the Earth.
He wasn’t a sniper, though. When he appeared the next day, a dark figure lurking against the rising sun, we saw from his movements that he was observing us through binoculars. Though any more than that, we couldn’t discern. He kept his distance and circled us, always keeping the sun behind himself, masking his features with its relentless glare. Bernard wanted to send a team out to track him down, but the Major refused. It was likely, he said, that the visitor was trying to lure out scouts; all the easier to butcher them for meat, far from the protection of the facility.
On the third day, he finally approached us. I was stationed on the entrance, and the morning had been mercilessly warm, even for the Aftermath. My rifle was hot and heavy in my hands, and I wanted more than anything to drop it, but with the past days’ sightings, that wasn’t an option. Any potential attackers needed to see me holding the gun. I don’t know what kind it was – I’d never taken an interest before, never even held one – but I knew it could do some damage. It held something like sixty-four bullets with a full clip.
Mine currently had three. But no outsiders had to know that.
By the time he appeared, I was getting light-headed. It seemed like he swam into being, woven together by the shimmering heat that danced lazily back and forth, and as he walked closer, more and more features materialised. I saw a wide-brimmed hat, light beige robes that hung drably in the paralysed air, a brown beard matted with dirt and sweat. I should have raised the alarm, but I could only stand numb and stare. It had been so long. I had forgotten what outsiders looked like. I almost thought he was a mirage, some vivid hallucination, until he spoke to me.
“Water,” he said, “Do you have any water?”
A common enough request. Indeed, the skin on his belt was visibly empty, and there was a desperate determination in his eyes, but something felt wrong about him. I waved my rifle threateningly in his direction. He didn’t even look at it.
“There’s no water here,” I lied easily, “just keep walking and there won’t be any trouble.”
He took a step forwards. The heavy satchel at his side rattled. A Junker, I guessed, so it was probably full of scrap metal and bits of dead machinery. They said that Junkers were mostly metal themselves these days. An absurd rumour, but meeting his intense gaze, I couldn’t help but wonder.
He took another step forwards.
“Just water,” he insisted, and reached into his satchel, “I can pay.”
“We don’t trade water,” I told him. No one did. He stepped forwards again, and my finger crept to the nearby trigger, made painful by the heat of the sun.
“Please,” he begged, reaching as if to scratch his throat, “I’m dying.”
“You’ll die much quicker if you take another step!” I yelled. Why wouldn’t he listen? Was he testing me? Did he know I’d never killed before?
There was a tense silence between the two of us. I could see sweat streaming down his face. I could feel it drenching mine. My heart was beating painfully, and my head was swimming. Why wouldn’t he leave?
“Just… back away,” I breathed, trying to keep myself together. This visitor said nothing. I waved my gun at him again, “This is your last warning! I’ll shoot you where you stand!”
Still, the visitor said nothing. A growing sense of unease filled me. At the back of my mind, a small voice started to question why a dying man stood so straight, spoke so clearly.
And why his hand was still buried in that satchel.
Behind me, the door opened.
“Shift’s over,” Tara said, stepping into the garish light of the surface and shading her eyes with a three-fingered hand, “chuck us the rifle, I wan- … who the hell is that?”
I turned back just in time to see the grenade fly past my head, and as it clattered down the steel steps behind me, I watched the visitor hurl himself to the ground in what seemed like slow-motion. I on the other hand simply stood there, rooted to the floor, as the grenade clattered into my home once, twice, three times.
I woke to the sound of a million wasps crawling into my skull. I was face down on the ground, and my limbs were stone. I didn’t know how long it had been, and I didn’t know how much dirt I had breathed in, but my mouth was thick with the stuff, and the moment I was aware of the pain raking all over my body, I lurched forward with a retching cough. Even with my vision shaking back and forth I could see the dust cloud emerge from my mouth, and I kept coughing until it felt like my lungs were clear of the stuff.
As more and more of my senses returned to me, I thought I could hear distant gunshots, but perhaps it was simply echoes in my mind, an accompaniment to the shrill whistling that seemed to be coming from all directions. I tried to rise, but my body responded only with burning agony. So I lay there. For a time that could have been seconds or hours I lay there.
Until I thought of what was below.
Suddenly the pain didn’t matter. I forced up a hand – bloody, I noticed, with a torn sleeve, and burned red by the sun, or the explosion, or both – and used it to prop myself up. My head felt like it was being torn in two, but I clamped my jaw together and lifted a second hand. Then, using all of my remaining strength, I pushed myself up to my knees. From there, somehow, I was able to pick up the rifle I had dropped – it didn’t hurt, despite having lain in the sun for all this time, though perhaps my hands had simply lost all feeling – and stumbled to my feet. When I swung myself round to face the facility entrance, I saw that it was no longer there. Where once there had been a wall, there was now a crater, and where once there had been a door, there was a torn hinge and a gouge in the floor that led to the thick metal’s resting place. Tara was there as well, in several places. I tried not to think about that. There were more important things to focus on.
The steps down were a problem. Most had been blown away, but I clung to the wall and edged down, ignoring the stabbing ache in my probably-broken leg. When I finally reached the bottom, I nearly stumbled over a pile of bodies. Blood was splattered, still dripping, along the walls and the ground, and one face stared up from the tangle, looking with glassy eyes at a god who had abandoned them long ago. Peering down to make out recognisable features, I realised I didn’t know a single one of them. They must have arrived with the visitor I had spoken to. They must have tried to launch an attack against us, and died charging down the stairs.
None of the corpses were ours.
I was foolish enough to hope we might have won.
Then I reached the end of the corridor and saw the remains of my people. Rubble. Bullet cases. Limbs. We hadn’t stood a chance. The Major was slumped by the doorway. One of the first into the fight, rifle by his feet and knife clenched in a lifeless hand. He always said he’d die for our cause. I’d never believed him until now. Further in were the other guards; Sharon, Jakob, Ibrahim. Two outsiders were slumped alongside them, but beyond that fray the fallen were mostly ours. Bernard, Doc Francis, even little Zara, who had never stepped foot beyond the facility.
I didn’t remember leaving that crypt of a hall, but I found myself wandering through the smoking remains of my home, stepping over corpses I had stopped trying to identify and ignoring the trickling down my spine that felt like far too much blood for any one body to store. At some point my rifle fell from fingers as dead as my companions. I didn’t even notice.
The only thing that stopped me was when I realised I was getting close to the main laboratory. I saw her lying there, bloody cleaver by her limp hand, throat slit open, dead eyes staring down the final corridor.
She’d never been a fighter. She was like me. Had been like me. She never wanted to hurt anyone. But she’d had to. We couldn’t let them get to the laboratory. So even with all the guns having been taken, even this deep into the facility, she’d grabbed whatever weapon she could and she’d tried to stop them. And she’d failed.
We’d all failed.
Yet as I made that last turn, I gasped a ragged, pained gasp. One last body lay ahead of me, propped up as if he were a child’s toy in a doll house. His brown beard was flecked with blood. His beige robes were shredded by a dozen slashes from Jo’s cleaver, and stained red by some which had gouged chunks from his torso. His chest lurched every few moments as a breath was sucked loudly in and then rattled harshly out.
Beyond him, the door was closed. He was the last. He had to be the last. They hadn’t reached the laboratory. Perhaps there was a god after all…
I stumbled forwards, eyes on the door. As I staggered past, the visitor looked up at me, blood dribbling from his mouth.
“You should just have let us take them,” he said, “no one needed to die.”
I leant against the wall as my legs threatened to give way, and without thinking I laughed a cold, bitter laugh.
“You attacked us,” I spat, “we were defending ourselves. What did you expect, we’d just let you kill us all and not fight back?”
He shook his head, as if I were some idiotic child failing to comprehend his real, adult world.
“We tried to buy them from you, long before now. We were turned away, threatened, even shot at. So we tried to find our own, and each time we did, your scavengers go there first. We had to act. We had to get them. But you didn’t have to die.”
“Yes,” I insisted, feeling the warm trickle run down my back and pool around the torn remains of my belt, “we did. Because some things are worth dying for. Because some things…” I stopped as my body was racked with violent coughs, and I tried to ignore the flecks of red that flew from my mouth. I waited until I had regained my composure.
“Because they’re worth protecting,” I finished.
For a long time, the visitor sat and stared, seemingly at nothing at all. Then, at length, he spoke, barely audible, the ghost of a whisper.
“But we were trying to protect them from you.”
And as I stared, mouth open and breath laboured, the visitor in light beige robes drew air into his lungs for the final time, and died.
For a long time, I stood and watched him, almost expecting him to come back. But he didn’t, and he never would, and I knew I would soon be following him.
It took me ten minutes to reach the end of the corridor, and I knew without looking that I had left a red trail along the wall behind me. Stumbling now, I fell onto the keypad that protruded from the wall, and my shaking fingers tapped in the only number that mattered in this world.
The door moved aside, and a wall of moisture and artificial heat assaulted me from the newly opened room. I collapsed to the floor within. I was moving automatically now, drawn to my destination as if magnetised. I crawled while my body screamed at me to stop, to rest, to close my eyes and lie there until all the pain disappeared. Still I crawled, until the hard floor beneath me gave way to dirt, and my tattered clothes caught on roots and brambles, and my face was wet with sweat and blood and tears. I crawled until my hand hit solid wood, and when I got there, I wrapped myself around it like a shawl. Like a parent protecting its child.
If I had to die, let me die here. Let my body break down right here, and nourish it. Let it live.
Please let it live.
Let all the last green things live.