Michael J. Allen
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places,
and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination or are used
fictitiously. Locales and public names are sometimes used for
atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people—living, dead
or in between, businesses, companies, events, institutions, or
locales is completely coincidental.
© 2016 by Michael J. Allen.
rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,
distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, including
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Layout ©2016 Delirious Scribbles Ink
Design ©2016 Delirious Scribbles Ink
photo: Jim Cawthorne, Camera 1
image courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory,
NASA Johnson Space Center
978-1-944357-00-9 (intl. tr. pbk.)
in the United States of America
9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
of Conquered Earth / Michael J. Allen. -- 1st ed.
For B, B & J.
for turning you into captive sounding boards in all of those
amusement park lines.
Kindness and Torture
Dogged Through the Ruins
Fool for a Pretty Smile
The Great Train Escape
Ogres & Pixies
Horrors of War
Quiet Between Storms
A New Friend
Stranger on a Strange Planet
Through the Murk
Pain & Consequences
Useful & Useless
A New Beginning
Edge of Destruction
Shadows & Truths
Walk into Eternity
Never Know Until You Try
Fighting & Frolic
An Offer Seldom Refused
Lost Souls Intertwined
A Simple Favor
Welcoming Aboard Trouble
Devil in the Details
Desperate for a Friend
“Pain is gain!”
The high pitch cry told him the aerobics instructors were about to
eat him alive—literally.
more ground than I thought. He cursed. Got to move faster.
tile and smashed brick slid beneath his soles. He went down, catching
himself on ruined buildings and shattered glass with an already
bloody hand. He scrambled back to his feet and pushed another burst
of speed from his body.
are life!” another woman shrieked.
didn’t look back. He raced toward less cluttered streets. Blast
craters in the roadway and the discarded belongings of a city’s
fleeing population forced him to dart this way and that. He jumped
onto a hover taxi smashed into a new career as an accordion,
scrambled across its hood and leapt to clear a bloated corpse.
go ladies! Feel that burn!”
teen reached a relatively clear stretch and risked a backward glance.
Too-long uncut brown hair obscured his vision and filled his mouth
with bitter reminder of how filthy he was. Not even half a block
behind him, five women pursued dressed in leotards and sweatpants
shredded enough to give him an eyeful he might otherwise have enjoyed
if they hadn’t been trying to eat him.
section of torn asphalt shifted under one foot as he glanced back.
lipstick applied in an earthquake, dried blood stained their mouths
beneath wild eyes and haphazard ponytails.
cursed and raced between a pair of destroyed cars, blackened by laser
blasts from invasion fighters. The sortie left a dozen burned out
vehicles in his way like a morbid obstacle course. He ducked into the
back seat of one and over half a child’s skeleton too fused to the
frame beneath it to be pried loose and gnawed on by feasters like the
ones on his tail. He slammed the opposite door from his way and
darted over the roof of the next car.
fell away several stories on its opposite side, revealing a vehicle
graveyard hosting another feaster camp with a dozen crazed looking
your body bikini ready!”
object,” a lawyer yelled back.
too,” the teen gasped.
spun left. His shoulder clipped a side mirror, stealing his balance.
He regained it in time to leap atop the next nearest car.
don’t you guys do lunch without me,” he jumped again, edging the
crater in an attempt to escape from both groups. He gestured to his
loose hanging golden jumpsuit. “See, not enough meat for the
are the enemy!”
restrain that man!”
cleared the traffic jam and darted through a series of bomb-gutted
storefronts. He dug into long exhausted reserves for a bit more
speed. He knew he didn’t have it, knew he couldn’t keep up the
had told him to avoid the bombed out gym, but he’d been desperate
for something to eat or drink. He’d found food all right, some poor
animal—he hoped it’d been an animal—roasted on a makeshift
firepit surrounded by deranged aerobics instructors seated on
half-flat exercise balls.
cleared half the block and darted down a tight alley.
suits and shredded leotards pursued him, getting into each other’s
way and tearing into one another. It wasn’t their fault they wanted
to eat him. The invading aliens—Welorin—had done things to them.
No one knew what went on in the re-education camps, but the
terrifying byproduct craved a meal of anyone the camps didn’t
been desperate. He’d been careless. Put simply, he’d been stupid
and stupid led him into not one but two of the feaster camps in the
tripped on something he’d rather not think about, sending him
tumbling into an old trashcan. The can careened off brick, clanging
like a dinner bell and bowling its way through a pile of rain melted
boxes. The makeshift hiding place disintegrated. Its occupants, a
woman and a small boy, shrieked.
scrambled back to his feet and ran three steps before cursing and
whipping back around. He snatched up the can. “Run. Go, now.”
hurled the can back the way he’d come, snatching everything at hand
and hurling it at other debris in a rushed attempt to clog the alley.
He hurried in the pair’s wake, knocking over anything that came
debris-clogged alley and the feasters’ amplified competitive
natures tangled his pursuers into a clawing, dogma-spewing Black
Friday mob. He made it to the other street and shot glances both
ways. Buildings lay at wrong angles everywhere. Reddish flames burned
behind a putrid haze, ghost lights within diseased fog.
caught a glance of the woman and child disappearing around a
probably should have followed and escaped pursuit ducking through
broken buildings. With his luck, he’d stumble into another feaster
camp, or worse, lead his pursuers to the pair he’d sacrificed time
removing from the lunch menu.
ran the other direction, taking advantage of the clearest roadway to
both gain whatever extra lead it would afford him and draw the
feasters after him.
made it almost a full block before they fought their way out of the
alley. A frazzle-haired woman in a tiger striped leotard shoved her
way to the front. “First!”
near twin shouted behind her. “Second!”
patent leather briefcase hurdled out of the alley. It slammed the
ponytail of the lead feaster, sending her sprawling. “Sustained!”
other lawyers chuckled, and the melee resumed. A robe-bedecked woman
broke from the fight and pointed after him, “The accused is not
chased him down a street bracketed by wrecked buildings leaning like
stubborn dominoes against one another. Varied degrees of ruin
mimicked his pursuers—some in far better shape than others.
cut across a parking lot and headed down another street, ignoring
shrieked oaths of those already demented then tortured into madness.
His pace slowed. He ordered his limbs to keep moving, but they
resisted the haste he demanded.
heart thundered in his ears, rising above the following mob. It got
louder, resolving into explosions accompanied by a low whistle which
pricked the back of his head.
whipped a glance over his shoulder. The feasters—restrained by who
knew what brainwashing from eating one another—fought their way up
his wake, making better time than he, oblivious to the danger racing
stumbled to a stop in a debris-littered parking lot, his legs still
feeling in motion.
rained once more from a putrid looking sky. He stared, shielded eyes
raised. Unhealthy swaths of green and yellow streaked ever-present
thunderheads horizon to horizon. Metallic grey death cut through the
putrid skyline toward them.
triangular fighters streaked up the street. Green lasers ripped up
the city on a direct line to him. Some sort of energy bolt seized
derelict vehicles and building chunks, wrapping them in a corona of
sparks and lofting them upward.
cut into the feaster mob. Bolts hit them, launching several screaming
gaped as their bodies curved a lazy arch through the air back toward
the ground—and him.
fled. “There has to be some universal law against lawyers raining
from the sky!”
feasters fled for cover. Others charged in his wake before deciding
easy meat was better than dinner fleeing through a fire zone. They
fled toward cover as fast as they could drag their fallen comrades
home for dinner.
ruined gas station offered his first real cover in a hundred
yards—other than the hover cars the Welorin used as Hacky sacks.
The huge blown out crater on its far side suggested it’d already
been a target. It shared a fallen-in storefront with some kind of
hair boutique. Opposite a small alley another building had been
demolished. A sign stood in the wrecked parking strip advertising a
combined air force and star force recruiting office, a tattoo parlor
and a sandwich shop crushed like a Panini.
fighter blasts strafed over him, exploding street and debris. Heat
washed past him, singeing his hair and partially regrown eyebrows. A
chunk the size of his head blew sideways, catching him in the midriff
and knocking him into the smoking hole.
scrambled from the mini-crater, hands burning on still hot concrete,
and paused at its edge. The fighters turned a lazy bank in the far
come on back. You might have missed a mailbox or something.”
coming back to see if they missed you, little brother. Time for hide
froze as the voice rolled through his thoughts. He didn’t remember
a brother, though he knew the nameless voice. It was right. He had to
get out of sight if he wanted to survive the assault.
checked his back path. No feasters barred his way, but there were at
least two camps that direction. The horizon around him was a mass of
jagged broken buildings and ripped up streets. Any could have
provided shelter, but also a target.
they’re even empty.
examined the little crater. It was hot enough still he might lie in
its burning recesses and the Welorin would think him dead—or an
easy target. The alley seemed the best cover. He’d have two avenues
of escape even if it wasn’t.
bolted toward the gas station, running around the long way in hope
it’d misdirect the fighters when they came back for him—assuming
he survived the next strafing run.
blasts and lofted debris rained down toward him. He counted the
blasts as they raked the roadway, trying to sense their firing
pattern. At the last possible moment, he ducked back the way he
laser blast cut through where he should’ve been standing, sucking
the air from his lungs and leaving his exposed skin sunburnt.
didn’t check the fighters.
scrambled to his feet and limp-ran across the blasted front of the
fighters streaked overhead, their blasts centered where he’d
jumped behind a large plastic sign reading: Shella’s B*U*Tique.
fighters swept overhead again without firing a shot.
ducked out from under cover and rushed into the alleyway. Mounded
debris clogged it, turning it into a V-shaped valley—not the cover
he’d hoped to find.
flopped down against the boutique wall and cursed.
decision seemed the wrong one. Even minor victories turned wrong.
With his luck, his interference had left the mother and child he
exposed roasted on a spit for some shark in a torn business suit.
shuttered and his gut knotted. It gurgled at him, reminder that he
hadn’t eaten either.
that there’s much I can do about that.
wondered about the sandwich shop. After so many months, anything not
crushed or spoiled had been looted. The recruiting place might have
had some food. It was the places that didn’t actually sell food
that he’d found the tidbits that kept him going.
swept the area again. A hover van lofted into the air and fell toward
the ground—toward him. He scrambled over the hill of debris and
down the alley. The van crashed down on his heels, crunching metal
and crackling power drowned everything else in his ears. It rocked,
nose on the building, then toppled off with a crash.
teen eased toward it, careful not to touch the clinging energy field.
It flickered away. He touched the side of the van, jerking back his
was cool to the touch.
power launched it airborne cracked the chassis like an egg. A reek of
rotten flesh escaped its interior. Holding his breath, he eased into
the gap for a look. Everything inside stank, scorched by laser and
cooked in summer heat. An ice blue duffle bag lay wedged beneath the
feet of a child’s corpse and the seat in front.
tugged at it.
braced a hand on the seat back and yanked. It came free, breaking
the child’s leg in its path.
rose in his throat. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to, well, you know.”
bag held a menagerie of small stuffed animals. Other than something
to pillow his head or burn he didn’t have much use for them. He
eased them from the bag and set them in the child’s lap.
adult’s skull dropped away from its neck.
jerked in surprise. His breath froze.
light gleamed through the spiderwebbed windshield.
scrambled out of the van and up the debris pile to gaze through a
dirty window at an electric light shining within the remains of
smashed the window open with a brick, taking care to clear the broken
shards along the edges of the window. He slipped inside, assaulted at
once by a palatable wall of perfumed hair products. He gagged and
choked, poking his head out the window to catch a cleaner breath then
turned back to the light.
shone like a ray from heaven inside a small bathroom. He rushed
across the shampoo-slick floor, ignored the shattered sink and threw
open the commode.
black slime clung to the water’s edge, spots of who knew what made
up a galaxy of ick. He cupped two hands and lowered them into the
bowl. The slime attached itself to his fingers, but he raised the
water to his lips. Bitter, warm water quenched his thirst, the scent
of weak chlorine tickling his nostrils.
drank the bowl empty, relishing his slimy quench of heaven.
blast shook the building.
heavily laden hair product rack fell sidelong, slamming into the
bathroom door and closing him in with a smash. It didn’t worry him
at first. Instead, he collected a wealth in paper towels, liquid
soap, and oh-so-precious toilet paper.
struggled open the tank, arms weak with hunger. Chlorine scent to
rival the perfumes reeked from the stagnant water. An army of
thumb-sized roaches ringed the water’s edge. He snatched at the
bugs, several fleeing through the water before he caught a slippery,
flailing morsel and shoved it into his mouth. Still moving legs
tickled his throat, but meat was meat, and things were desperate. He
tried for another, but they slipped out cracks he couldn’t. He
filled hands with heavily chlorinated water. It burned his throat,
but he drank his fill. One of the shampoo bottles might serve as a
canteen for the rest.
opened the door.
cursed. Of course, I should’ve known it was too good to be true.
little brother, always so put upon.>
shoved and strained until his breath fled. He drank more water and
fought the door some more. He finally wrestled it open enough to
slide out an arm. He reached through the gap, finding a rack and
myriad bottles against the door. He dug them away, eyes closed and
seeing with his hands.
door shifted more.
door opened enough for him to squeeze through. He took one last drink
from the toilet tank, threw the duffel through the gap and crawled
have to remove the fallen rack before he could canteen the rest of
the water and risk flushing to see if the pipes had more perhaps
turned toward the fallen rack.
outline of a door, painted over and previously blocked by the shelf
stood sentry in the wall between the boutique and the gas station’s
the power was still on beyond the door, there might be a feast of
foods awaiting him. If nothing else, with no other entry to the
store, it’d be a place to hide, rest his ankle, and be safe for a
door didn’t budge.
beat at it with a stool until he broke through its lower panel and
crawled into the store. What remained above dangled dangerously from
a twisted aluminum skeleton. Dead fluorescent lights hung from last
tenuous threads of electrical wiring, illuminating the room with
occasional sparks—that the building had power at all was something
of a miracle. They swung back and forth slowly, pendulums of doom
rocked by fighter craft barrages to spread seemingly infinite dust
reserves. Cracks riddled the cavernous ceiling above the skeleton,
chunks of concrete clung to rebar by their fingertips. Dust and
shattered ceiling tile littered every surface. Shelves teetered
drunkenly into their neighbors while others lay on the floor uncaught
by their peers.
lay on their shelves and at their feet—a fortune in canned items of
every description, crushed foil bags of chips, snacks and a few cans
of powdered baby formula.
Shella’s or the store had working water, he’d rest. He’d feast
like a king.
glanced at the ceiling.
least, he’d feast until the world crashed down on his head. The
store had stood this long. Who knew how long it’d survive.
sound of approaching fighters filled his ears.
He wailed. “No, no, no...”
heard them fire.
backpedaled, heel caught, toppled backward.
“Wake up, my
little alar, you’ll be late to destroy a world.”
explosion shattered his dream, wrenching the teen from blissful
oblivion. Panic wrapped wicked fingers around him, held at bay by
some intangible source of control. A heavy blanket of rubble buried
him. Flashes of recent memory crossed his debris-enforced blindness.
There was no way to tell just how much wreckage covered him.
He choked on dust,
but there was nowhere for it to go but back into his face.
His limbs were
pinned. Harshly angled wreckage dug into his legs and chest. A
collapsed rack even managed to get underneath him. He struggled and
strained, shoving ceiling pieces, aluminum frame, and lighting
fixtures away piece by piece. The whole effort made him feel very
much like a magician’s assistant trying to shove away swords stuck
into his coffin.
eternity later thick but cool air relieved his suffocation.
looked around and moaned. “I’m cursed. Whole world to smash and
they have to target my head—again!”
if the first hit took my memory, maybe this one...
dug into his mind. An ache filled it. Lost memories thrashed around
in his brain, angry beasts hurling themselves against some unknown
barrier. Their pounding insistence was a constant throbbing headache,
worsened by persistent thunder, Welorin fighter barrages, and the
occasional falling ceiling.
cursed, fighting back the urge to cry.
memories ached like the gaping wound of a dead friend. He couldn’t
remember what had brought him to Washington D.C., but it had been a
mistake. He didn’t even remember his own name.
initial invasion flashed across his thoughts in twisted, broken
fragments: arrowhead-shaped fighters bombarding the ground,
detonations deafening him from every direction, beings in
toe-to-crown armor with heavy weapons running everywhere and blood
misting the air. They’d tried to grab him, but he’d slipped from
them and ran until he literally collapsed.
wanted to escape. He had to get away—though to what he couldn’t
remember. Three months he’d ran, survived—if only barely.
round of fighter bombardment shook the ground, threatening to bring
down more of the roof already burying him. He shot a glance upward. A
massive ceiling section had been replaced by the nose of an
ambulance. It hung above him, dangling by crumbling fingers of
had to get out. He had to get unburied. He had to escape—now.
struggled to rise. Foot-long pins and needles ran up and down his
legs. Pieces of fallen ceiling and tumbled shelves kept his legs
pinned. He fell back, nearly impaling himself on the collapsed rack
beneath him. A deep breath beset his lungs with more dust, and they
objected violently. Once he finished choking, he spit grit and
searched his surroundings for any tool that might free him. Debris
littered the floor—the useful bits just out of reach.
He wiped dust from
his eyes with stiff blood-caked fingers. At invasion’s beginning,
it might’ve concerned him—no longer.
twisted to one side, trying to claw his way across the tile floor.
The effort sent pain lancing up and down one leg. He dug his nails
along a ridge of broken tile, gritted his teeth, and shoved what he
could out from under his body.
flopped down, breath ragged, and let the pain fade. His stomach
threatened sudden revolt in gurgling defiant tones.
studied the mess pinning his legs. He shifted them again. Pain lanced
he grunted shoving debris off the pinned legs, “and talking to
least you’re not hearing voices, princess.>
leg came free. He collapsed back down and panted for breath.
caught his eye.
beyond his reach under a shelf, several packaged cakes hid from
casual view. Otherwise useless debris drew some within reach. He
ripped the plastic with his teeth and shoved one into his mouth. He
choked down lumps of sweet, pasty, disgusting heaven.
the bug was better.” He gagged down several more.
building rocked, groaning metal heralding the ambulance’s pending
arrival. Dust rained down, insult to injury by nonexistent fairies
out to get him.
giggle escaped him.
stay focused. You’re losing it.
seized him. He thrashed about, yanking at his pinned limbs and
causing himself mind numbing pain.
mind raced through days and nights, smoke and wreckage, blood and
violence. Nausea filled his dream self as poisonous looking yellow
sponges with eyepatches and spears danced around him. Sponges became
brutal looking pixies throwing sticky dust in his face. Suppressed
memories of carnage too real for the most violent horror vid played
back around him from a dozen angles.
mind swam through thick, lethargic darkness toward the surface.
knew you’d just give up and die, wimp.>
lurched to a half-seated position, shouting at memories, “Shut up.
Just shut up.”
grabbed a nearby shelf and yanked it over on top of himself. Cans and
bags tumbled onto him, some striking in extremely painful ways. He
wrenched a shelf from its framework and positioned it into a
pulled on it from below, but couldn’t manage any leverage. He tried
again. He wouldn’t give up. His brother was wrong. He would never
combined his free leg and impromptu lever, prying once more.
pain proved his only reward.
barrage rocked the building. Chunks of ceiling tumbled down around
him. The ambulance’s horn blared and didn’t stop.
swore and then swore more for good measure.
levered the shelf off of the framework, shoved chunks of concrete
under it for more height, hanging as much of his weight on it as he
could from beneath.
wracked his body.
pushed it away.
shelf’s edges dimpled.
shoved against debris with his free leg.
lever bent, moments from buckling.
kept up the pressure, unwilling to give up. The rubble shifted a
little to one side. He wrenched his leg from beneath the debris,
scraping sleeping flesh across what felt like predator’s claws.
lever buckled, dropping all its supported weight onto his ankle.
ceiling groaned. What remained above him dangled with malicious
heart hid in his ears.
sweat trickled down his back.
ceiling stayed where it belonged.
titter escaped him. He slid his ankle out of the garbage and examined
it with practiced motions. A massive purple bruise, centered on his
ankle bone, spread over the pale limb. Twisted and later slammed, it
remained unbroken but burned like fire under the least pressure.
both hands and one leg, he crawled behind the store’s counter and
flopped against one wall. Clear of emergency medical squashing, he
checked himself out more thoroughly. He found no other injuries and
by some miracle after all he’d been through, his tough jumpsuit
doors lined the wall next to the counter. Occasional cracks shielded
collapsed and toppled shelves bearing a myriad of assorted
containers. He crawled to the first and threw the door open. Cracked
glass panes flew from the door and shattered, distracting him from a
faint sour aroma. Hands shaking with excitement rooted through yellow
jugs. With a triumphant cry, he raised up an intact jug, ripped the
top and poured its contents down his throat. It dropped from his
hands. Side by side, he and the jug spluttered and coughed up white
moved to the next door, sweeping shattered glass from his path with
one sleeve. He searched through syrup tacky plastic bottles. He
opened the first sealed bottle he found and sipped at the neon green
liquid. A taste later, he guzzled the bottle, its carbonation burning
down his throat. He repeated the process several more times, slowing
to every other bottle.
scrambled around his varied hoard and seized the next door. Door,
frame, fragmented glass and the rack behind it collapsed atop of him.
He jerked his head out of the way of a dagger-like shard of glass,
avoiding impalement by a fingerbreadth. He covered his head and threw
himself backward out from under an avalanche of dark glass bottles.
He smashed into the hoard. Bottles careened in all directions, adding
venomous hiss to the sound of shattering glass.
ceiling groaned in empathy.
cursed, resisting surrender to frustrated tears.
he scavenged what few intact bottles remained. He found a broken
shovel in a corner and with enormous effort, stood. Limping and
wishing the ambulance horn a speedy death, he collected anything
possibly edible and his hoard of drinks into the blue duffel and a
few plastic bags.
store scavenged clean, he dumped the remainder from the yellow jug,
reclaiming its cap. He limped down a short hall. A collapsed cooler
lay across its end, blocking a rear door. Bathroom doors stared each
other down. He considered the ladies’ room door a few moments
before grabbing the men’s room handle.
women’s bathroom opened easily. A blinding swarm of flies exploded
from the doorway. A monstrous stench of rot, feces and perfume
wrenched the breath from his lungs. He staggered backward, covering
his face. His bile rose, stomach convulsing, he scrambled forward,
wrenching the door shut as he disgorged the precious liquids in his
minutes of just breathing passed. He gulped air, stench still in his
nostrils and threw open the door once more. A tangled knot of bloated
corpses dominated a small room of ripped clothing, writhing maggots,
shattered porcelain, and standing water.
stared, his mind buzzing louder than his ears.
man’s lilting voice entered his thoughts. <What do you see,
young sir? What story does the evidence spin?>
mind probed what his fingers desperately didn’t wish to. He turned
and threw up again. The buzz of flies lessened and beneath it, he
heard a slow trickle of water. He turned back to the room, noticing
for the first time the trickle pouring onto the floor from a fly
mobbed broken valve. His gaze flitted to the bodies, stomach
just can’t. He reached for the door handle.
stronger voice cracked like a blow to the cheek. <You will
stand, you will look, you will see.>
bristled, and his expression turned mulish. He pulled the door shut,
realizing as it clicked the treasure buried in hellishness. He threw
the door back open, eyes falling upon handle and blade concealed by
fingers and flesh. He gulped a breath, choked on it, turned his face
away from the bathroom and replaced the first. He rushed into the
room before his courage fled and grabbed for the knife. Loose skin
sloughed off beneath his grip, but the hand refused to let go. He
tugged at it, his lungs tightening.
teen balanced on his good leg, spun the shovel and drove its
half-blade into the wrist. It stuck fast, and he wrenched at it,
breaking hand from arm and freeing the knife. His lungs burned. He
pulled the shovel away, and the knife wielder’s body toppled. Lungs
straining to exhale blew out their breath in surprise. A short club
between the bodies, caked in ichor dangled a copper key.
gagged on his new breath and rushed from the room. A dozen fresh
breaths and twice as many pep talks later, he reclaimed the bathroom
key, shutting the door behind him. He unlocked the other door, took a
deep breath and opened it.
a faint aroma of urine, the bathroom was perfect. He cursed.
half-remembered voices and buzzing flies, he hadn’t realized the
constant drone of ambulance horn had fallen silent. Behind the nearer
silence, a deeper silence hung in the air, empty of laser barrage and
explosions. Little hairs across his body stood up and screamed for
him to flee.
ankle twinged at the thought of flight. “No.”
stepped to the sink. “Not everything can go wrong.”
cranked open the tap. Cool, clean water flowed from the faucet. A
laugh, hedging toward the hysterical, escaped his lips. He gathered
his belongings and locked the door. He drank his fill. He rinsed and
filled the jug. And he bathed for the first time in memory. Once
clean, he ate and drifted off to sleep.
A resounding crash
followed by a siren wail woke him. A shrill voice screamed muffled
curses. “Mine. Mine. Mine.”
bolted upright, catching his head on the underside of the sink. He
cursed, grabbed the shovel/crutch and eased the door open.
he had been trapped, the smashed ambulance filled the store, doors
wide. Before it, a tangled storm of dirty blonde curls rose up and
down with each repeated cry and thunk. From behind, her frame seemed
famine-stunted at the brink of adolescence.
Do you need some help?”
whipped around, face blood-flecked and eyes wide. A bloodied pipe
wrench dripped upon an unrecognizable corpse. She smiled and
raised the shovel in defense and hesitated.
my little alar, we don’t hit girls.>
got to be negotiable.”
instinctual cringe responded to her answering glower.
bolted into the bathroom, slammed the door and locked it. Something
heavy—and probably bloody—hit the door. “My store.”
blow struck. “My home.”
landed with each wail. “My stuff. Mine. Mine. Mine.”
and dents peppered the wood, none well targeted. He glanced around
his temporary refuge. Concrete block supported the wet wall. A quick
mental image placed the walk-in refrigerator beyond the left. He
swung the shovel at the right. The broken blade carved chunks of
drywall and old, yellowed fluff. His blows fell into time with hers.
Wide eyes watched him through widening wrench holes. He cursed and
shovel broke through, not to darkness, but light and several low
growls. He shoved a chunk still hanging from its paper to one side
only to jerk back as canine teeth snapped at his hand.
growled back, running low on curses.
turned his back to the door and speared the shovel into the grout
lines between concrete blocks. The blade splintered, breaking clear
of the handle. Hot pain stroked one cheek.
thrust the shaft through a hole in the door. “This is the men’s
room, go away.”
yelped, and something heavy clattered to the ground. He shoved away
the immediate surge of guilt and resumed digging through the right
holes filled with snapping teeth. The shovel collided with one,
sending the creature yelping away. The wrench knocked a hole in the
door, just shy of the knob. She reached in. He slapped her hand, hard
enough to sting his.
snatched up his bags and threw himself between the wooden frames,
exploding into a well-lit storeroom. Loose kibble scattered liberally
across the floor slipped under his feet. He caught himself, planting
the shovel as a brace. Three dogs snarled from the feet of little
thinking, the shovel handle spun in his hands and snapped out,
striking two of the dogs in their noses. He caught the third’s open
jaw with the shaft. He shoved it back.
miss wrench snatched up an empty glass bottle and hurled it at him.
“Don’t hurt my puppies.”
him, he heard, “My puppies.”
cursed, scanning the storage room while dodging more rapid fire
bottles. Bottle-girl snatched up a claw-hammer. He backed away,
keeping the dogs at shovel length. “Look, we can all be friends. I
have some food and —”
food, sissy,” Bottle-girl said.
reached around behind, fished out something small and tossed it to
the nearest dog. He repeated the toss several times, adding one more
dog to his right snatched up the yellow sponge cake, biting through
the wrapper. It spat the treat out and began to lick at the ground. A
second dog sniffed it, pressed its ears back and snarled.
miss wrench pressed her way into the room, a new trickle of blood on
her upper lip. She hefted the wrench.
gripped the shaft in both hands. “Look, I don’t want to hurt
third dog, ignoring the sponge cake, whined and looked toward an
exterior door. The second dog followed its gaze, ears flattening.
loudspeaker crackled to life with a piercing feedback whine. A
robotic voice he’d heard too many times drained the blood from his
face. “Citizens of Earth,
Welorin Protectorate aren’t your enemy. We’ve come to protect you
from the wicked Alistari Empire. Surrender, and you will be
sheltered, clothed and fed. Every citizen is vital to the rebuilding
of your world. Every worker is valued.”
shot a glance at both girls, realizing in that instant that they
weren’t twins despite appearances, maybe older and younger sister.
He chanced a look at the digital read out on his jump suit’s left
forearm. He met what he thought was the older girl’s eyes. “We
have twelve minutes.”
work will be rewarded,” the drone continued. “Generous rewards
are provided for information leading to the apprehension of lawyers,
aerobics instructors or cabbies. These evil puppets of the Alistari
have corrupted your system and must be re-educated.”
shiver shot through him. Both girls hissed in unison. He couldn’t
blame them. Lawyers and aerobics instructors devolved into feasters
terrorized wasteland survivors—though no one knew what happened to
unless you’re desperate enough to go surrender to that spider
drone, we need to just sit here nice and quiet.” He offered what he
hoped was a warm smile. “We can continue our homicidal tea party
yours.” He checked his chronometer. Ten minutes remained. Fools
enjoyed last easy breaths. The wise ran. He flexed his ankle—if
able to run. They could hide. The store hadn’t been searched—at
least before an ambulance had opened it up to the world.
eased himself toward the door. Dogs turned back to him, lips peeled
from their teeth.
just going to check,” he shot glances between the girls, the dogs,
and the heavy steel door. He unlocked it and inched it open to peek
tackled him, driving both of them out the door. Her wrench flashed
down, pounding divots in the concrete as she screamed and he dodged
side to side. The dogs joined her attack, adding flashing teeth to
his troubles while she struck with one hand and pulled at his satchel
with her other.
shoved it at her. “Take it, just be quiet a minute.”
squealed with glee, mumbling, “Mine, mine, mine.”
dogs rushed to her, more interested in her and her rummaging than
him. He glanced up the street and let go his pent up breath—empty.
He checked his wrist. Seven minutes remained. Maybe they’d been too
far away to hear.
rose to a crouch and checked down another street. The spider drone
strolled away across broken streets and crashed vehicles as if its
six flanged and bladed limbs strode upon rose petals. Its spherical
body swept side to side, dark red eye sockets scanning terrain and
reporting back to the real danger.
the drone hear her screams? Has it reported us?
crawled to the store’s other corner and looked up the way it’d
two or three dozen humans comprised most snatcher teams. So few
couldn’t search everywhere. They missed people hidden well enough.
The enslaved snatchers, bent under the weight of glowing orange
collars, often did miss people.
team coming their way numbered twice the average, and he couldn’t
spot a single orange glow.
caught the movement in his peripheral vision, diving to one side and
bringing his staff up in defense. The wrench swept into the building
side where his head had just been.
shut up!” He pointed. “Don’t you see them? They’re all
blinked up the road, smiled at him and raised her wrench. Her assault
drove them more out in the open. He swept her legs from her and
considered living with the guilt of braining her just to make her
stop. Leaving her unconscious would doom her to being caught and who
don’t want to hurt you.” He looked up to where the other sister
kept the dogs restrained in the storage room doorway. “Either of
you, but those are collarless. We have to be quiet, hide, something.”
Miss Wrench rolled back to her feet and charged like a maddened bull.
He dodged, knocking her from her feet once more.
her, damn it,” he gritted his teeth. “Those people snatch for the
Welorin because they like being cruel, like hurting people. Do
you have any idea what they’d do to you and your sister? Stars,
they’d probably roast your dogs to celebrate your capture.”
Bottle eyed the dogs and the snatcher team coming down the road. She
shoved thumb and finger into her mouth and made an ear-splitting
whistle—practically summoning the snatcher team.
aren’t they more afraid? Don’t they understand?
girl stopped her assault. She raced toward the door, stopping only to
collect the blue satchel, and applied her wrench to a square manhole
cover. It squealed from infrequent use but opened until support arms
locked it that way.
satchel went first, followed by Little Miss Wrench. Bottle girl
climbed part way into its opening and then grabbed squirming dogs one
by one, handing them down.
paused after the last dog, watching him.
sewers might provide him escape. The sisters seemed sure it would, or
they’d have been more afraid. He’d seen others try sewer
entrances for escape only to be yanked downward to who knew what
least two horrors and three sets of teeth awaited if he followed. He
glanced toward the approaching snatchers, weighing his chances.
girl tossed back her sponge cake and decided for him. She descended,
released the braces and closed the sewer entrance behind her.
scanned the horizons. The fighters had done their job well. Apartment
buildings and businesses around him were smoking ruins. There weren’t
any good hiding places left. He couldn’t get far enough away with
were out, as were dumpsters and blown open storefronts. They were
and laughter rose in the distance. It was such a strange sound these
days he glanced over his shoulder.
rushed into the storage room. Loose kibble stole his footing. He
crashed down onto the concrete. He cursed.
pulse throbbed in his throat, each beat a second lost that might mean
crawled back to his feet and locked the steel door behind him. The
store had escaped search before, and the ambulance hole probably
wasn’t visible from ground level. Of course, the girls probably
hadn’t screamed their heads off the last time a team had passed it.
gaping hole he’d left in the bathroom drywall displayed the smashed
door beyond. If they entered the store, they’d search the cooler.
They’d search the pristine men’s room, find the back room and him
has to be somewhere I can hide.
horrible thought occurred to him.
haven’t the balls, little brother.>
he’d had the right clothes, he could’ve pretended to be a
feaster. So many cruel bullies in one place might make them bold
enough to attack him anyway, torment a flesh eater like a rabid
had the knife and shovel handle. He considered picking a defensive
position that limited their numerical advantage and making use of
them. He’d lose, but he’d fight.
you could man up.>
going to hate myself for this.
He rushed through
the wall into the store, casting around for the straws he’d seen
earlier but hadn’t needed. He grabbed a handful and rushed back to
the bathrooms. Rather than turn into the men’s, he sucked in a
breath and realized how pointless the clean breath really was.
heard the snatchers near, calling to one another, telling off-color
jokes. He heard them tromping on the roof. They’d find a way in,
leaving him no choice if he wanted to survive free another day.
edged around the bloated mutilated flesh, glad trod maggots didn’t
scream. He unwrapped the straws and wrapped the papers around them to
keep them together. He fit them into his mouth and crawled toward the
rotting flesh, struggling not to vomit through his breathing tube.
Three corpses provided just enough bloated flesh to hide beneath
until the snatchers passed.
thought sent him into convulsions. He spat out the straws and
can’t. Think. Think!
eyed the door that at any moment might fill with snatchers. He pulled
the knife and rushed the door, pushing it partially closed. He
pressed the blade to the drywall, laying his index finger along the
back of the blade to help cut through the easy-clean plastic
wallpaper. He juggled the numbers while he slashed. Assuming the wall
the same thickness as the men’s room, there ought to be just enough
room between frames to squeeze behind the door in a way that no one
should fit. The stench and bloated flesh would drive them back.
They’d never look.
knife sliced down and caught on something. He fought through it. A
surge of electricity bit into his arm. He jerked back, losing grip on
the knife as the lights all went out. A quick glance didn’t find
the knife, but he’d cut enough. He grabbed the drywall, glanced out
the door and threw it into the men’s room.
rushed back behind the door, pressing his shoulders against the old
insulation with the shovel handle held in white-knuckled hands.
reined in ragged breath, trying for slow quiet breathes despite the
sweet rot taste assaulting his tongue. Noises came from the store:
jokes, curses and smashed who knew what.
glanced left and saw his own face in reflected shadows.
closed his eyes and held back the urge to scream.
still or chance it?
rushed out from cover and cocked the shovel handle back a moment
before he realized just how much noise breaking glass might make. No
time to debate, he shoved a hand into bloated flesh, dragging a
handful writhing with maggots free and hurling it at the mirror.
ducked back into his hiding place. Footfalls neared. He went still.
Disgust and wriggling worms clung to his hand, but he fought the urge
to wipe them clear.
beam of light lit the room. It flashed off the dripping mirror onto
the horrid tableau.
deep chuckle echoed off the tiles. “Somebody tried to have some
nasal voice answered. “Didn’t go well for them, though, did it,
your nose, Chris. You sound like an idiot,” Burr said.
stepped forward without answering, his light reflecting oddly off of
would someone leave a knife behind?” Chris asked.
were in a hurry,” Burr said. “You smell burnt insulation?”
that?” Chris asked.
the place. Someone’s hiding.”
check the breakers.”
trailed away with Chris’s voice. “Boss says we’ve got a hider.
Tear the place apart.”
sounds preceded Burr’s lowered voice. “Poor slobs. If you’re
going to take a woman, put enough fear in her that she never thinks
to fight back.”
teen’s jaw tightened. His hands flexed around the handle. He
shifted slowly peering out enough to use the mirror to see Burr.
enormous dark-skinned man bent over the bodies, one hand sifting
through gore and heavy boots crushing maggots. A hunting knife hung
from his right hip and some kind of rubber loop from his left.
lights flickered back on.
resigned voice filled his memories. <Unnecessary brutality
happens in war sometimes, son. Some men become their darker selves,
but a good commander doesn’t tolerate such atrocities. Not against
women. Not ever.> A shot followed and then a falling body.
tsked. “Jumped an astromarine, dumb jackasses got what you
deserved. Should’ve clubbed her first,” he chuckled, “Or shared
with more men.”
built up in his chest. I should club him over the head or use him
as leverage to get out of here.
teen jerked backward out of sight.
rushed to a halt. “A girl just popped her head out of a manhole.”
go get her,” Burr said.
the sewers?” Chris asked.
you’re too big a woman to go after her, why did you come tell me?”
said if you found out we’d spotted someone but not told you—”
send you away for re-education,” Burr chuckled. “You’re safe.
No one would believe you’re smart enough for a lawyer.”
her, or we’ll find out for sure.”
chuckled. “I hate cowards.”
door whipped from in front of the teen, replaced by Burr’s looming
bulk. The lost knife came down. He ducked to one side and struck out
with the staff. A jab to the face made Burr step back. He struck
again at bare chest between sides of a pocketed vest.
maggot-boy, you’re not a fighter.”
kicked out, following up with a low swing at Burr’s fatigue-covered
took the blow and threw a left-handed haymaker which he barely
shoved his left into the rubber loop, its copper-studded knuckles
sparking blue. He slashed with the knife. A shallow cut burned across
the teen’s arm. The shovel handle clattered to the ground. He dove
fist hit him in the shoulder, a subtle shock making it through his
grabbed at the flex conduit he’d cut into earlier with one hand and
Burr’s vest with the other. He yanked the bigger man off balance
and thrust bare wires into his chest.
yelped and jerked backward.
followed the shock with clasped fists to the shoulder, sending Burr
into a disoriented turn. He grabbed the staff and slammed Burr with
an upward swing.
big man fell face down into the bloated flesh.
turned to run. He stopped, swore and traded the handle for his
dropped knife. He grabbed Burr by the back of his hair and saved him
from drowning in rot. He pressed the blade to Burr’s throat and
tried to pry off the taser knuckles.
left me to die, maggot,” Burr slurred.
can still kill you.”
snorted, dislodging a maggot. “You’re a coward.”
I want is left alone.”
not? Why do the Welorin want us? Why won’t they let us live in
care. I only know two things,” Burr said.
hesitate to kill someone who wants to hurt you,” Burr said. “And
always bring backup.”
tapped his shoulder. He whipped around. His shovel handle slammed
into his face.
awoke, head throbbing and wished the world would consider a target
other than his skull. He peeled his face from concrete and a puddle
his nose suggested he not examine too closely. Wheel-less shopping
carts strung together with barbed wire surrounded him and about a
dozen other males. Another several corrals filled a supermarket
parking lot like moons in orbit of a bizarre modern day Romani
and catcalls punctuated his thoughts. Beneath the resentful glow of a
parking lot light over another corral, several men dragged a
screaming woman toward the center camp. He pushed himself to his
feet. Balance fled. He tumbled, falling hard to his rump.
the best.” A slim hand behind a nasal tone held him from getting up
once more. “Heroes don’t last long in the camps.”
forced the hand away and rose again to face an older man, maybe
mid-twenties. A head shorter but twice as gaunt, his long, tapered
nose looked as badly broken as the taped glasses perched upon it.
heard it said heroes that interfere with their games become the play
they’re doing is wrong.”
shook his head. “Wrong doesn’t really matter anymore. Keep your
head down, and you might survive.”
him, Marvy,” a dark-skinned man drawled. “Burr’s got a hard on
for that one. That’s why he’s already collared.”
thin brows rose. “You’re the one that almost killed Burr?”
didn’t answer, reaching up to feel a collar fitted around his
shook his head. “Got a name for your tombstone, kid?”
searched his mind, racing faster and faster to find it this time
before frustrated anger grew into panic. Sweat dripped from his
all right,” Marvy said. “You can trust me.”
black man snorted.
shot him a dirty look. “Shut up, Terrance.”
him where your food is, kid,” Terrance said.
turned back to the others in hushed conversation.
can’t remember my name,” he said.
pay any attention to that loud mouth,” Marvy said. “You can trust
regarded Marvy, just as unsure of him as his own name. The constant
struggles to survive after the invasion had left him little time for
introspection, but rising fear was all his mental scouring could turn
up. Nameless voices plagued him, scolding, accusing and teaching in
aching fragments. Through it all, true memory eluded him.
turned his back. “Fine, be that way.”
drained from his face. He shivered. “I really can’t remember.”
scrutinized his face. “You can’t remember.”
Why would I lie?”
cursed. “Just get away from me.”
teen shifted toward Terrance’s group.
it, kid, don’t none of us want in on the trouble you’re in,”
scraped concrete. The others backed away from him, fearful eyes
marched into the corral, eyes narrowed. A muscled woman in similar
fatigues followed with a digital clipboard in hand. She drew a stylus
from a bun of dark red hair.
teen looked up, words failing him.
he doesn’t remember,” Marvy interjected.
turned on Marvy, shoving him backward into the barrier with a thick
arm. “Shut up, worm.”
painful collision with the barbed wire resulted in only a quiet
whimper. The small man retreated toward the other prisoners. They
shied away from him as they did Burr lest proximity garner Burr’s
or pain,” Burr demanded.
thoughts raced, but not fast enough to catch up with his missing
memories. His dream sprung to mind. The woman had called him
something he knew was and yet wasn’t his name.
starting at his neck, razored its way down his limbs. He jerked and
convulsed, limbs contorting.
a liar, maggot,” Burr laughed. “You know it, the collar knows it,
and now I know it. Lie to me again, I dare you.”
pain waned, leaving him gasping in his own urine. He reached up to
feel the collar around his neck. Its clasp design inhibited easy
removal by the collared.
me your name,” Burr said.
tried to remember once more, anything to avoid the pain. A soft beep
escaped the collar. It beeped again then again more and more often.
me your name,” Burr said.
collar beeped and with each beep seemed to tighten more. It squeezed
more and more painfully as he searched for his memories. It grew
harder to breathe.
don’t know,” he spat, “I can’t remember.”
mind-numbing pain didn’t hit him, but neither did the collar stop
tightening. A rapid beep seemed to thunder in his ears while he
failed to inhale.
doesn’t know,” the woman said. “He’s not lying.”
should I care?” Burr asked.
going to kill him,” she said.
spun toward her. “So?”
flat stare answered his anger. “Dead toys aren’t much fun.”
smiled. He pulled a remote from his belt and pointed at the teen. The
pressure released and he gulped air.
don’t know,” the teen answered.
kicked him in the stomach. It knocked him backward. Barbs poked at
his head and shoulders. Burr’s huge hands dragged him to his feet.
Standing face to face, there was only a half head in height
difference, though Burr had double the width.
don’t like liars,” Burr said. He slammed a fist across the teen’s
face. “Name and occupation.”
know I’m not lying!”
smiled. “Name and occupation, slave.”
met Burr’s smile with an angry glare. “I don’t know.”
swung again, but the teen’s hand shot upward and redirected the
blow. Before he knew it, his fist raced toward Burr. He snatched
Burr’s knife from his belt, ready to repay agony for agony.
woman’s clipboard clattered to the ground. She leapt upon him,
fighting to keep the knife from Burr’s gut. “Let go of the
fought her, the collar around his neck tightening.
shoved him off, seeming to swell in size. “Tell me your name and
he snapped. “According to you, my name is Maggot.”
got her arms around his, holding him in front of Burr.
purpled. “Well, aren’t you the little lawyer? Maybe we should
send you for re-education.”
of dangerous, isn’t it? Using such big words with so little
horsepower to move them?” he asked.
other prisoners gasped.
teen slipped downward out of the woman’s grasp, leaving her to take
Burr’s blow. More snatchers rushed forward, seizing him.
fast and slippery,” she wiped blood from her face. “That’s
leaned down until he was nose to nose with the restrained teen.
“You’re going to suffer before you join the other lawyers,
too young to be a lawyer,” Marvy said.
eyes turned on Marvy. He shrank back only to find no others around to
weasel’s right, Burr,” she said. “But he’s fast enough to
outpace most runners. I say we force him to snatch.”
studied him. “Doesn’t look like you like that idea. This is my
camp. I run it. Until you hear different your job is to beg, bow and
grovel to me.”
of hard to bow to slime under your boot.”
kid, shut up,” Marvy gasped.
turned toward Marvy. “Make sure he has a name and occupation for me
when I come back.”
me?” Marvy asked.
you want to be his mama, and you might need to remind him when he
wakes,” Burr turned to the other snatchers. “Hurt him.”