24 March 2012

Zero Hour

It's 3am and my wife is dying.  Her breathing is slow and labored; the monitor keeps careful, implacable track of her hearbeats: blipblip...blipblip...blipblip.  That steady, electronic pulse has been the metronome of my existence for two months.  Up until now, it hasn't wavered, it has held steady, even as her breath stutters and stops, gasps and resumes, when she sleeps and wakes.

Now, the count is altered.  Blip...blipblip...blip...blip...blip...

It's 3am, and I know what is about to happen.  I have dreaded this moment for months, for a lifetime, for an eternity.  I have secretly longed for it, as well, deep down in the black, Stygian depths of my soul.  I've never told anyone,  but when she finally lets go, floats away, I know she'll be free.  And so will I.

I hate myself for wanting that.  For wondering, even for a moment, in the frail, fraught silence of the hospital room, what it will be like when she is gone.  I curse myself.  I have not left her side for more than a day, in all the time she has lain here, in that mechanical hospital bed, and I wish that dedication absolved me.  But it doesn't.

She would forgive me, I know, but I cannot forgive myself.

A nurse bustles in, checks her monitors, her IV drips.  This is to reassure me.  There is nothing for them to do.  They cannot make her more comfortable.  They cannot save her.  The cancer has spread throughout her lungs, and nothing will slow its appetite. 

My eyes burn, weigh a hundred tons, my brain spins and flits in abstract circles, feeds nonsense through my thoughts.  She moans, low in her throat, almost inaudible, her eyes flutter, see me, whisper to me across the silence.  I squeeze her hand, murmur the reassurances that I have uttered a thousand times before. 

I cannot look at her.  Her head is shorn bald, reflecting the light in dull glimmers; tubes slither into her nose, mouth, arm, [like a tangled knot plastic serpents], pumping venom into her once-lovely body.  The white sheets drape her skeletal form; all that is needed is to pull it over her face, and she will be at rest.  At rest.  No, that is a coating of sickly-sweet sugar: she will be dead.  I say it to myself, whisper it under my breath, trying to make it seem real.  She will be dead.  I cannot form the words out loud, as if doing so would speed the cancer, speed the end.

This hospital room haunts me.  I look around me, take in the features that I have long since memorized: the false-wood floor, easy to clean the blood from, the pastel painting of flowering vines and flittering birds, the machines by the bedside, inscrutable, squat, mechanical demons, blinking and beeping, measuring the spaces between now and death.  I have dreamed, at times, of rising from this hard plastic chair that is my bed and my watchpost, and taking those infernal machines in my sudden-claw hands and hurling them with godstrength through the wall, through the plaster that will fill the air in white snowdust, into the hallway to skid down the tile floors that squeak with nurse-step sneaker-sounds.
Doctors glide in with pure, spotless labcoats that mock mock mock, too clean, too bright, too inconsiderate in this dark, drowsing, sick-stained place; nurses with skin-deep smiles, practiced and perfect, thumbtacked on as they enter the room with purposeless busyness, oozing false sympathy; the well-wishers with their flowers, their horrid, brilliant, colorful, meaningless flowers, their cards full of vapid phrases, frail comfort.

I cannot be angry at her, nor at myself.  We didn't ask for this; we fought this, day in and day out, together, for three years, through remission and relapse, until it was undeniable, and she could no longer fight it.  I do not know who to be angry at.  God?  The gods?  Mother Nature?  [Do any of these things mean anything, in the face of death?]  Can anger at them, or myself, or anyone, mitigate this heavy sorrow weighing me down, bearing upon my shoulders as if I were a failed Atlas, unable to support the titanic weight of the world.  I have tried to let go the anger, but I cannot.  It comes back, arisen from some hidden place, like a spider skritching from a shadowed corner.

She squeezes my hand, oh so gently, almost imagined.  I look up, and she is awake, truly awake, looking at me intently.  I scrape the chair closer to her in a brief, blaring screech of noise that startles me; she struggles to touch my face with her emaciated fingers, a herculean effort.  I help her, lift her feather-light hand to the salt-and-pepper scruff on my face; she hiccups, and I cannot decipher if she is trying to cry, to laugh, or simply to breathe.  I lean over her, touch her cheeks, sunken and hollow, kiss her forehead, her chin, her lips, her dry, cracked, trembling lips.  She kisses back, barely.  Barely.
She draws a long breath, tremulous and tenuous, speaks: “love...you.”  Her voice is an ethereal whisper that barely breaches the space between us, a mere breath of air with delicate shreds of sound woven through.  I hear her, clearly.  Once more, she marshals her remaining strength to speak: “love...again...for me.”

I have to stifle back a choked gasp of disbelieving laughter.  The idea seems impossible, here, in this place.  Love again?  There is no one else, anywhere.  The doctors, the nurses, they are not people, not men or women.  They have no lives beyond the pallid glow of the oncology ward, no loves or desires.  Is there a world, beyond these walls?  I honestly wonder.  Sunlight, moonlight, winking numberless stars, these are vague memories; grass and trees, flowers and pollinating bees, buzzing mowers and spitting sprinklers, snow and ice, these too are residual notions from a past life. 

I have always been here, in room 317B.  I have always sat in this green plastic chair, the one with seven slits in the seat, three in the backplate, and a rusted dent in the front left leg.  I have always eaten cold chicken salad sandwiches from the cafeteria, always drunk burned coffee from Styrofoam cups, sugared with Sweet-n-Lo and powdered creamer.  I have always heard the blipblip...blipblip of the heart monitor, counting away the last hours of her life.

Now, it happens. 

Love?  No, this a portion of my self, slipping away.  Her hand is limp, her eyes drift away from mine, rise up above my head, gaze into nothingness.  She smiles, as if she sees something I cannot, something away in the distance, just this side of forever. 

The flatline tone rings in my ears.  It will always ring in my ears, even when this day is years behind me. 

I fold her hands on her stomach, close her eyes. 

The nurses rush in; they are weirdly silent, moving in syrup-slow motion, lips moving, but I hear nothing. 

I cannot weep, all I can do is sit, slouched and spineless, empty.  They are speaking to me, but I am not here. I am floating away with her.

I look at the clock: 4:01am.  


I have decided to remove the story "Piglet" from the blog, as it did not reflect the kind of story I wanted people to identify me with.  It may have been a well-written story, but it was one that I would want my kids to stumble upon someday.  So upon that note, I hope you enjoy the other stories found here.

Thank You,


03 January 2012


Weird shrieks pierced the humid silence, sending shivers of terror down Alanna's spine. They were coming. She'd been running for three days, stumbling through the Wastes, fleeing the hungry hell-wights known as Scavengers. Her stomach rumbled and twisted in her gut, hollow and aching. She pressed a forearm over her stomach as she ran, wrenching her head around to look behind her. They never showed themselves, staying always out of sight, following her tracks, her smell, her bioelectric signature.

She'd prayed, wished, hidden, run, and now she was at the end of her strength. The Scavengers would get her and she'd be turned into harvest for a power cell. She was alone, now. Mama and Papa were gone, and Louis was gone too, now. She had no one to mourn her, if she died. That thought, more than anything else, is what kept spurring her burning legs and lungs ever onward, over the bare, blasted, naked mounds of the Appalachians, through windblown empty cities echoing with windsong and the voices of ghosts. Keep running, she told herself. Don't let them get you. Make them take you, make them pay for it.

Ahead of her now was the skeleton of a city, gaunt bones of wracked buildings rising into the leaden sky. She was parallel to the road, and she could make out a billboard in the distance, faded letters announcing Welcome to Columbus. If only a city meant refuge. Usually, it just meant vicious, nomadic gangs and hordes of Scavengers. There wasn't much difference between the two. The gangs were, technically, humans, having flesh-and-blood appendages and speaking comprehensible dialects of English, but they were desperation and hunger embodied; they took no prisoners, and weren't above cannibalism, if they were hungry enough.

The ululations were louder now, and they were coming from all directions. They surrounded you just before they took you down, Alanna had been told. She ducked into the gaping mouth-hole of an apartment building on the outskirts of the city. It was a burnt out shell of exposed, blackened rafters and scorched brick, smelling still of smoke. She wandered from room to room, tiptoeing, as if silence or smaller footprints in the dust would make it harder for the Scavengers to find her. It was a pleasant fiction, while she allowed herself to believe it. The problem was, she couldn't keep up the pretense for long: the howls and shrieks had turned to growls and garbled words, steps crunching in the street.

She found herself cowering in the darkest corner, fists clenched around her last line of defense, a two-foot-long metal pipe. Her skin prickled in the twilight chill, her breath coming in ragged panting gasps. A bulky figure appeared in the doorway, mech-light eyes glowing dull orange in the gloom. The figure sputtered an unintelligible guttural command, gesturing at her to stand up. She burrowed deeper into the corner, raised her jagged-ended pipe. Heavy steps thumped closer, crashing hard enough to shake ash down from the ceiling. She could just make out the details of the figure now: it was barely recognizable as human, its legs grafted from an obsolete bot-suit, thick metal jointed pistons, whirring and whining servo-motors, arms assembled from mismatched cybernetic parts, a torso showing sickly, rotting flesh through a tattered shirt. The Scavenger's face was a nightmare vision, a rusted metal lower mandible, a gaping hole leaking mucus where a nose had rotted off, bald scalp peeling scabbed and leprous flesh, orange mech-light eyes oozing pus where oxidized metal met skin. The thing was clearly male, no cloth covering its all-too-human groin.

As it neared her, repeating the stand-up motion, Alanna coiled her legs beneath her, tightened her grip on her make-shift weapon until her knuckles ached. One more step and it was within reach; Alanna lunged at it, swinging the pipe with all of her fading strength. She connected, and the thing's head split open, splattered gore across the room. Mechanized arms still reached for her, carrying out dying commands after the brain was compromised; she bashed at the ovoid head again and again until it was pulp, pulled free of its grasping fingers and stabbed at its chest with the end until it stopped moving. It had an Impulsor pistol in its grip; Alanna pried the gun free, crept away from the foul-smelling corpse and back out into the echoing canyons of the city streets. The rest of the Scavengers were close by, she could hear them calling to each other in their unintelligible language.

A gurgling howl of glee signaled that she'd been seen; she forced herself into a run. She heard at least two behind her, there, two to the right and ahead of her, another on the left. Hopeless, it was hopeless. Alanna sobbed, staggered to a stop, leaned against the rough crumbling bareface cinderblock wall of a bombed-out edifice; the nearest Scavenger was less than ten feet away, growling wordlessly. Alanna raised the Impulsor, fired. The shockwave shook the dust at her feet, rattled her teeth, and the creature lurched, clutched its chest, fell twisting to the ground. She fired again, and another shockwave blasted the silence, another Scavenger fell, the building behind Alanna rumbled, trembled, shook, wobbled; an upward glance showed the building swaying back and forth, chunks of brick tumbled down at her. Alanna threw herself into the street, felt fingers snatching at her arm. She flung her fist out, felt flesh crunch, thrust the muzzle of the Impulsor into the thing's face, fired, felt the shockwave more than heard it, was doused by blood, hot and sticky on her face and in her hair.

Another hand grasped at her, gripped her, squeezed her arm hard enough to make her gasp, yanked her to her feet. She hadn't realized she had fallen to the ground; “move, girl!” a voice commanded, deep, reassuring, human. Alanna scrabbled in the dirt with her feet, pushed off and ran pell-mell, tripping to keep up with the hand pulling at her. Dust was in the air, shards of brick stung her cheeks and back and legs, Scavengers shrieked angrily; she couldn't make out the form of the man in front of her. She hoped he was helping her, rather than saving her to eat her, or rape her. Or the one, then the other. His voice had given her comfort, at least. His presence soothed the terror hammering at her. She held onto the hope that he would be a rescuer, but kept the Impulsor in her hand, ready to defend herself against him.

The crashing roar of the building's fall quieted, but the Scavengers were still ululating behind them, close and loud and vengeful. The man stopped, pulled Alanna into a crouch behind a jagged hulk of masonry: “stay here and keep shut, if you want to live,” he told her, then he was gone into the skirling dust. A few seconds later, she heard series of wet percussive thunks, howls and growls abruptly silenced. She felt a syrupy wave of energy roll over her, something psionic, hugely powerful. Its effects were immediate: the dust whorling in the air skittered, slowed, froze, caught some the gelatinous force, Alanna's matted, tangled, dirty hair stopped mid-lash before her eyes. Alanna could see motes of dust, minute and myriad, spinning in place like a cue-ball on a pool-table. Sounds pulsed in Alanna's ears like sonic sludge: crunches, thwaps, wet plops like blood splatting in the dirt. Time and motion resumed with shocking suddenness. A lone figure strode towards Alanna through the wind-slung debris: tall, dark and handsome. Her heart skipped a beat as he got closer; it wasn't entirely a school-girl-crush kind of beatskipping, it was partially fear. He was feral-looking, primal, despite his modern gear. His hair was black, dreadlocked, falling to his back; broad shoulders, thick arms bare at the biceps, forearms covered by metal and leather vambraces, a cuirass of homemade ringmail over his torso with a thick sleeveless tunic underneath. He wore heavy, dark pants tucked into knee-high boots a wide leather belt slung low with holsters on both hips, and a backpack; handles of arc sticks poked out above the backpack, between the bag and his back. Utilitarian gear, not expensive, but good, well-used and well taken care of. His facial features were what kept her hand on her Impulsor: he did not look kind. His eyes burned with the fire of a man who has survived in the Wastes for far too long; it was the glint of near-insanity, a quickhot anger, a never-dormant hatred for Scavengers, a determination to keep breathing at any costs.
“What the hell are you doing out here alone, girl?” His voice was the same, deep mellifluous rumble she'd heard when the hand had jerked her away from the crumbling building.
“I...I don't have anyone,” she murmured. “My brother Louis was killed, just a week ago. There was a gang, they...they took us. Louis...he fought them off, made me run. I didn't want to leave him, but he...he was sick, anyway. His leg, it was gangrenous, and spreading.” Why was she telling him all this? He was nodding slightly. He patted her on the shoulder awkwardly.
“You did right, I guess. You got away, and you're still breathing. That's what counts. If he was gangrenous as you say, then he was gonna die soon anyhow, and he must've known it.” He looked around, sniffing, listening. “Shit. There's more coming. We'd better get scarce. Come on, girl.”
He pulled her with him into a swift walk, almost a run. Alanna had to trip-skip-stumble to keep up; she yanked her arm away, looked over her shoulder, trotted next to him. “Thank you,” she said.
“Course,” he grunted, uncomfortable. “Couldn't let 'em get you, could I? Name's Dez Marlowe, by the way.”
“Alanna al'Haran. So...where are we going?”
“Well I don't know know about you, but I'm headed towards Detroit.”
“Well then, that's where I'll go.”
“I can't slow down for you, so you'll have to keep up and pull your weight.”
“I'll do my best.”

Dez sat in front of the small fire he'd made under the lee of a massive oak tree. The girl, Alanna, hadn't lasted long. Got up to pee in the middle of the night, went alone, not even twenty feet from the banked fire, and hadn't come back. Nice girl too, it was shame. It'd been too late by the time he'd realized anything was happening.

13 December 2011

Pandora's Curse


It all started with a girl, as so many things do. She was young, beautiful, curious, slightly naive and idealistic, and such women have been the downfall of nations. So proved this woman to be. She had a name, once, something ordinary and forgotten. Now, her only name is Pandora. This Pandora, like the one from ancient mythology, opened a box and let evil loose upon the world. Only, this Pandora was the box. The evil she loosed wasn't contained in a clay amphora, no, this box was far more commonplace: the human mind. In the oldest stories, Pandora was given a sealed jar and told not not open it under any circumstances. So, of course, consumed by natural curiosity, Pandora opened it. When she did so, out rushed all the evils of the world, save hope, which alone remained.

This new Pandora was a chemical engineering major, back when such quaint things as universities still existed. She found a way to do something incredible, like J. Robert Oppenheimer and Alfred Nobel. It had been said that people only used 30% of their brain, so this girl, being young and idealistic, found a way to unlock that elusive 70%. She tested it on herself, being young and naïve. She was right, in that she unlocked the rest of her brain using her chemicals and compounds, and she was right in that she found herself capable of things far beyond imagination. People had theorized in books and movies what would happen: telekinesis, telepathy, empathy, perfection, terrible and wonderful things.

Terrible, and wonderful, indeed. Telepathy, telekinesis...yes, she discovered these, and found them to be burdens; but the weightiest burden Pandora unlocked was immortality. With her new, profound intellect, she created the ability to put off sickness, invented regenerative techniques to stave away Death's specter, she developed all this, and more. But, like the ancient Pandora, what she opened couldn't then be closed. She took a lover, our postmodern Pandora, a courageous, foolish man, and together they conceived a child, and that child had control over its entire brain. And so it went. Children born thereafter were able to do nearly anything they wished...except exercise restraint.

The purpose, it became clear, for that millennial restriction on the human brain was to protect mankind from itself, to protect men from themselves and each other: nearly infinite power, but no understanding of the forces wielded...the result was apocalypse. Not by nuclear holocaust, or melted polar caps, or meteoroids, but because of one ambitious girl who thought she could unlock the mysteries of the human brain. So then, men murdered each other with bare hands, with lasers and plasma rifles and fission bombs and empath hunters, with hate and hunger and overcrowding.

See her now: stumbling across a blasted plateau, bare feet catching on bleached bones buried in the soil, hair thick and youthful still, lovely face unlined by age, yet heavy and haunted with grief. She carries in her gut the thickest of gall stones: the knowledge that she wreaked this havoc, she created this hell, the road to which was paved by that commonest of stones, good intention. She cannot forget and she cannot die, while her lover lays long rotted in the wind-scoured soil, her descendants stare out from caves in hillsides, lope through empty streets of skeletal cities, gaunt and gangrenous apparitions. Pandora, who carried in her synapses the spark of Apocalypse, now wanders Earth trailing the ghosts of mankind behind her in an ethereal skein of sorrow, palpable to her senses as voices singing elegies and curses to her ceaselessly. She weeps, and regrets, but she cannot close the box she has opened.

Chapter 1: The Walls of Detroit

Snow falls, thick clumps drifting and hanging like a curtain of frozen fog, covering my tracks and muffling my footsteps. I'm grateful for the snow, I had prayed and wished for it, and had gotten it, miraculously. No one knew if Pandora's Curse had ever given anyone control over the weather, but everyone wondered in the generations following the Devolution. She had given us our whole minds to control and in so doing unleashed chaos and anarchy—true anarchy—upon us all. We had telepathy, telekinesis, precognition, empathy, clairvoyance, increased physical strength, endurance; she had given us near-immortality as well, through regenerative medicine, anti-aging techniques. She had improved the human race in every way imaginable, but in so doing had destroyed human society. We overpopulated, brought technology to levels only dreamed of in the most speculative science fiction, but society couldn't handle it. People lost the ability to think and do for themselves. There were no consequences. No one died, everyone lived longer, but that only led to civil war, to anarchy, to the implosion and collapse of social structure.

Then came Terrance McHale, America's first dictator. He seized power from the bottom up, began as a petty but ambitious drug lord operating in the blasted, war-torn slumtowns of Detroit, and then he wrested control over the city, block by block, having coalesced the various factions into a single united force. Under his rule, Detroit eventually became a bastion of order, the last hold-out of any kind of organization, and the de facto capitol of what remained of the United States of America. The first thing McHale did once his rule was secure was to build a wall around it, a ring of stone and steel and razor wire.

The rest of the country fell city by city, emptied by war. Buildings were blown up, streets became territories fought over, then abandoned when supplies ran out; industry and business collapsed completely, taken over and exploited and ruined. Detroit survived, under McHale's iron fist and brutal, bloody tyranny. McHale is a complicated man. He wields his power much like Hitler and Stalin and Trujillo, with bloody-minded absolutism, but he does so with the single intention of preserving order. He carved a functioning community out of the ruins of dead nation, and he has no intention of letting his little kingdom fall apart, and so has no qualms about keeping his power consolidated by any and every means necessary, defending it against the onslaught of the other city-states still surviving: New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, and Atlanta.
I recognize the necessity for someone like Terrance McHale, but I don't have to like him. His security forces, which he calls the Fist of Peace, are little more than glorified henchmen, an organized, well-equipped army of thugs, but perhaps in such times as these that may be exactly what is needed to maintain some semblance of order.

Whatever the case, it is these hardened, shoot-first soldiers that I have to get past tonight, if I want to get into Detroit, and I have to get in. I've got too many Scavengers on my ass to stay out here in the Wastes much longer. They've been tracking me for three weeks now, despite my most desperate attempts to lose them. Now, with the snow falling around me I just might have a chance, if they haven't caught up and surrounded me while I was sleeping. They're sneaky bastards like that. You think you've gotten ahead of 'em, you think you've lost em, but then just when you really think you're safe, there they are, the rotting sickly foraging creatures. I don't even consider them people anymore; they're little more than semi-human cybernetic amalgamations. Civilization may have collapsed, but technology never really slowed down, it just got twisted and misused, warped and made wicked, and now everything becomes a weapon for the Scavengers, who got their name from their habit of roaming the Wastes to kill anyone unlucky enough to get near them. They steal the obvious things, of course, clothes, weapons, power cells, food, but they can also take your bioelectricity. That, more than anything else, is what frightens people about the Scavengers.
Bioelectricity is what powers technology these days. It was a known commodity for a long time, but it wasn't until a young man named Takeshi invented a way to harness bioelectricity to an automobile that it was any use to society. He called the technology he invented Impulsion. His development was borderline miraculous in two ways: one, he exploit the heat and energy within the human body, and two, he created a way to harness the increased mental ability unlocked by Pandora to technology. I'm no engineer so I don't get the fine details of how it works, but I get the basics. Somehow, the Impulsor takes the unique signature your bioelectric heat and converts it into power, which is stored in power cells. Then you use a mental impulse to send the vehicle into motion. The amount of power you get depends on the amount of mental acuity you possess. This Impulsor technology was converted for use in pretty much every other facet of life after that, at least until the collapse. It's used in cars, motorcycles, elevators, phones, anything and everything that uses energy. Takeshi's invention may have saved the Earth in terms of pollution, eliminating emissions completely, but it couldn't save humankind from itself.

The most famous bastardization of Takeshi's impulsion technology was the Impulsor rifle. It was inevitable, really, and everyone knew it. We were all just waiting for the first person to come out and say they've done it. And when someone finally did, the results were as transformational as everyone expected. Impulsor rifles work the same as cars do, converting the user's bioelectric signal into an explosive force, storing the energy in rechargeable power cells. No need for powders or intricate machinery any longer, just a few wires, power cells, and induction plates. Guns still look pretty much the same, but the bullets fired are more akin to the balls used in muskets from the 17th and 18th centuries, but smaller. Impulsion rifles were silent, initially, which was weird. Battles after the invention of Impulsor rifles were bizarre scenes, men running and ducking, blossoming crimson blooms of blood as they clutched wounds, screaming and dying and cursing, but absent was the crashing deafening noise of gunfire. Then some enterprising gunsmith developed the expansion chamber, a way of exponentially increasing the explosive force of the rifle, and that provided enough impetus for the projectiles to break the sound barrier, so each bullet fired creates its own sonic boom mid-trajectory. So now, when gangs or armies meet, the deafening noise of gunfire is delayed, the boom happening after the rifle is fired, and since Impulsors can fire bullets as fast as the person using it can think, the sonic booms come in concussive chains that are often as destructive as the bullets themselves.
I hear a howl behind me, the piecing, ululating shriek of hunting Scavengers. It's answered by howls in front of me and to either side. Shit. They miserable clanking bastards did surround me while I was sleeping. I lean back against a tree and exchange clips in my rifle, check to make sure there are spares readily accessible, check that my handguns are loose in their holsters tied to my thighs. A deep breath, and I'm stepping silently through the snow, ears attuned to the silence around me, listening for the heavy treads of Scavengers. There, to my left. I crouch, pivoting to face the approaching knot of creatures. They're still quiet, so they haven't seen me. When they have prey in sight, they growl and moan, chatter at each other in their slurred guttural language. Scavengers hunt in large packs, splitting the whole group into units of six or seven that spread out and surround their prey, communicating with each other by means of those squealing shrieks. I thumb the switch that turns off the expansion chamber so I can kill them quietly and retain the element of surprise for a while longer. They know they've got me surrounded, but they don't know exactly where I am yet, so hopefully I can drop this bunch and slip out of their noose undetected. If not, I'll have a hell of a fight on my hands. These things don't die easily.

I draw a bead on the first Scavenger I see, fire once, watch its chest burst open. Before the others can howl in surprise I drop them one by one, a single bullet for each; ammunition is scarce out in the Wastes so I can't afford to miss. The only sound when I shoot is a low, barely audible thump of air followed by the wet crunch of the bullets striking the Scavengers. There's six of them in this bunch, I drop five before the last one has time to flinch. The only problem is, it only takes a millisecond for it to bark out a warning.
Damn it. Not fast enough. I hear the other groups hollering and hooting around me. I splat the last one, jog over to the bodies and search them. These haven't been scavenging long, judging by their still human-looking appearances. They have two arms, two legs, one head, which isn't the case with ones that have been out in the Wastes scavenging for a long time. They acquire new parts, become more machine and less human. These ones, so close to Detroit, have high-quality tech grafted on to themselves, rather than the obsolete cast-offs that you'd see on most Scavengers. These have human faces, four male, two female, all have long, matted, tangled hair, the men have beards, all are scarred and sickly. Their torsos also are normal in appearance, but after that the resemblance to humanity ends. Cybernetic arms clumsily grafted onto shoulders, hastily and poorly modified to be rifles, swords, laser-cutters, and a few other less-identifiable objects; legs made from rusting clockwork, all-terrain wheels instead of feet, reverse-knees, anything and everything, all stolen from wayfarers, scavenged from dumps and ruins and ghost-towns. Skin, where it exists, is gangrenous and crusted and filthy. All the machinery and hunger, the desperation and disease and insanity has twisted them away from humanity into nightmare creatures. If you were able to get close enough to them—and stay alive—to hear them converse, you might understand one word in five or ten as English, the rest being growls and grunts, howls, clicks, slurred and garbled words.

I hear three more groups of them, behind and to my left and right, close and closing in. I finish pawing through the corpses, finding three more clips of ammunition, then I sling the rifle over my back and draw my handguns, knowing that the cumbersome rifle will be little use in close quarters combat. I lope off in a space-eating run, the gait of someone long used to distance running. Detroit is only four or five miles off, and if I can get away from these Scavengers I'll be home free. Well, relatively. Nothing is certain: getting into Detroit will be difficult in itself, as the Fist is notorious for refusing entrance. Right now, however, simply surviving will be enough.

Shit. Here they come. Just can't get away from them, the filthy creatures. Eastward I run at top speed, ears and eyes searching for any hint of movement in the white-blanketed landscape. I see one to my right and send a round towards it at supersonic speed; the bullet goes clean through its chest near the shoulder—spraying blood and clockwork cogs everywhere—and into the next Scavenger a step behind it, punching through that one as well and into the pine tree ten paces further along. I might have put a bit too much power into that one, but panic is pinching me with its claws, blurring the edges of my control with desperation. I keep running, not stopping to finish off the group like I know I should, but fear has my feet under its control and I give in to it. I hear a growl over my shoulder, inches away, accompanied by labored gurgling breath. A Scavenger has caught up to me, moving with blinding speed on a chassis sporting four large knobbed tires where its legs had once been. As it comes abreast of me I can see that this one is a male, a thin, lank-haired boy of eighteen or so. He has a makeshift machete in one hand and an ancient pre-Impulsor-era pistol in the other. He veers towards me, swinging the machete. I duck, stumble, he bashes into me and sends me flying, slices open my arm along the triceps with a wild swing. I hit the snow rolling, feel dirt and snow and pine needles mash against my face and in my mouth, tasting bitter and cold. The wheeled Scavenger is barreling towards me firing his pistol, I feel the bullets whip past my face, three angry wasps buzzing by my ear, he fires again twice more and one creases my thigh, but I barely feel it through the adrenaline coursing in my system. I brush my eyes clear and fire my own pistol once, feel a rush of satisfaction as his head explodes. There are three more rushing at me now. I lurch to my feet and fire with both pistols, the reports coming in such quick succession that it sounds like a long peal of rumbling thunder. Two bullets slam into the first one, dropping it instantly, two more for the next and by now the third is barely five feet away and barreling at me, growling rabidly and swinging a spiked club at my head. I throw myself backwards to the ground and let him stumble past me, firing upwards into him at point-blank range. His torso bursts open, spraying gore all over me, and he drops to the ground. I wipe snow on my face to blot away the blood. Five corpses lay strewn around me, and I search each one carefully, taking their weapons from their slack hands and clips from their ragged pockets. They have nothing else of value so I leave them where they lay and take off through the snow and trees of the primal forest surrounding the wall of Detroit. I hear the rest of pack howling wildly behind me, running together now that they have their prey on the run. I know they're gaining on me, but I have no intention of waging a running battle against them. I'm nowhere near that stupid. I sustain a flat-out run for another ten minutes before I let myself stop. The snow is still falling heavily now, obscuring my tracks within seconds. I pull my rucksack off of my back and rummage through it until I find what I'm looking for: three small discs—mines—and a length of razor wire. Working as fast as I can with bare, numb hands, I fasten the razor wire at chest height and plant the mines in the snow in an arc beyond the wire. As soon as the trap is set I move off again at a full run for the road, the remains of the freeway once known as I-75. Now it's little more than a clearing in the forest littered with crumbled chunks of concrete and rusted hulks of vehicles. It's the only way into Detroit now, so I have no choice but to follow it, even though my instincts tell me to stay far away from the open spaces—in the open, the Scavengers have you at their mercy. I hear a cry of agony followed by three massive explosions that send me sprawling into the snow. I get to my feet and brush off the snow, waiting and listening. Silence reigns the forest once more.

Damn, I'm good.

That feeling of satisfied pride last for the thirty seconds it takes for the adrenaline to wear off and the wounds to make their presence felt. I wrap the cut on my arm with a strip of cloth from a pocket, examine the crease along my thigh and decide it's not worth bothering with. I put gloves back on my hands: the only downside of Impulsor firearms is that they require direct skin contact to work. I set off eastwards towards the road.

I plod through the falling snow for three long, bitterly cold, uneventful hours before the wall of Detroit comes into view. I haven't been here before, I've only seen pictures and heard stories of the massive architectural wonder that is McHale's wall. I stop dead in my tracks half a mile from the gate and gape slack-jawed at monstrosity before me. It is fully one hundred and thirteen feet high and thirty feet thick, but those numbers don't really express anything. The legend goes that when McHale seized power twenty years ago, Detroit was mere months away from being completely abandoned, like so many other cities. McHale's first act was to order a wall built around Detroit. He organized a workforce of whoever was left in the city to begin gathering materials by tearing down every derelict building within fifty miles of the city proper, and when enough raw materials were on hand, he began the construction of the wall itself, supervising, designing, and doing actual labor himself, it is said. The wall took six years of constant work to complete, with labor coming from volunteers, paid crews, and forced-work gangs rounded up by the nascent Fist of Peace. During this time McHale also successfully defended his hold on power from revolts, assassination attempts, as well as fending off assaults on Detroit by Chicago and Cleveland. After that short, vicious battle against Cleveland, McHale launched a massive reprisal attack, surprising the city in the predawn hours of October 25th, 2123. His forces decimated Cleveland completely, overrunning it in a matter of hours. Weeks of looting saw Cleveland in flames, with the already-waning population scattering in every direction. Refugees from Cleveland did eventually show up at Detroit, and, to McHale's credit, weren't turned away, but were welcomed with a warning that they had to either contribute, and abide by the law, or be turned out. Word that Detroit even had laws that were being enforced spread quickly, as rumor will, and refugees began to pour into Detroit by the thousands. McHale welcomed them all, put them to work on his wall and the ongoing revamping of the city within the walls. When the wall was completed, McHale ordered that the flood of incoming refugees be stopped and a quota set. Other attacks were attempted on Detroit, but most were turned away by the mere sight of the wall, and even the most determined of attackers, Chicago, was repulsed within days.

I approach the gate slowly, hands in plain sight, away from my weapons; the guards at the gate are infamous for shooting first and not bothering with questions at all. The gatehouse is a small armored nook built directly into the wall itself, and it is here that travelers are interrogated before being ushered through into the city. The gate, imposing and gigantic, is built out of recycled steel and titanium and wide enough to allow convoys of supplies and military forays in and out, with a smaller doorway set into the gatehouse to let people in and out. The wall and its defensive arrangements are drawn straight out of medieval castle design, including crenelations and Impulsor cannons along the top of the wall.

“Stop there,” a guard barks at me. He unslings a rifle from his shoulder and draws a bead on me. He stops 
a few feet away, lowers his rifle and looks me up and down. “That musta been you, before, doing all that shooting.”

“Yessir, it was,” I reply, lowering my hands slightly.

“How many?” He asks, slinging his rifle back on his shoulder and lighting a hand-rolled cigarette.

“Five in the first bunch. The rest went up in that explosion, I doubt there's anything left to loot, but I didn't check. I'm seeking entry.”

“Where are you coming from and what's your business?”

“I've been out alone in the Wastes since leaving New York in the spring. Found a few scattered towns here and there with some folks in 'em, but mostly been on my own. I'm just looking for somewhere to hole up for awhile. Don't really have a business, as such.”

“We don't take slackers here, boy,” he warns. “You gotta pull your weight, one way or another. Ain't nothing free here.”

“Nothing ever is.”

He regards me for several beats. “I suppose if you've made it here, on foot, from New York, then you probably can hold your own. Run into many Scavengers?”

“More than I care to count, honestly. They've nearly taken over the Wastes outside of New York. I had to fight my way out of there, literally every step of the way. I must've taken out nearly thirty packs of 'em in the month it took me to just get clear of the ruins of the old suburbs. Out here, outside of Detroit, there aren't quite so many of 'em, but they've got better parts, and they're better armed.”

“If you say so. What'd you say your name was?”

“I didn't. Dez Marlowe.”

“Welcome to Detroit, Dez.” The guard put out an armor-gloved hand. I shake it, breathe a sigh of relief. He opens the door and leads me down a long straight dimly-lit hallway lined sides and ceiling with pipes and tubes. The hallway terminates in a small room where my belongings were searched and my weapons registered. After being led by the same guard through another hallway identical to the first, I found myself standing at the top of a stairway overlooking the dark, sleeping city. They've built upwards, out of necessity. Walls provide protection, but they also limit expansion, and even in these harrowing, war-torn, hunger-ravaged times, population increases with the years. I've heard they've also expanded downwards under the ground, but that's more hearsay than fact. Few people leave Detroit once they're let in, so it's hard to separate fact from fiction. I guess I'll find out soon enough. I shrugged my bag higher on my shoulders, loosened my guns in their holsters and set off down the stairs.

Snow is still falling in a wind-blown curtain of white providing only brief glimpses of the city. The gate is centered on the central boulevard of the city, a thoroughfare lined with high-rises, tenement buildings, and small shopfronts by the dozen, the main artery of a thriving city. I slog through the ankle-high snow down the street, hunching down into my coat against the driving wind. I should've asked the guard for somewhere to stay, I realize. Now I'd have to trudge through this damned blizzard, freezing my hide off, until I find somewhere that would rent me a room. Which might take awhile.

The city is silent except for the wind skirling through the buildings. I pass an intersection: a street sign tells me I'm walking down Woodward Avenue. I've drastically underestimated the ferocity of this storm, or it's intensified while I was in the gatehouse; either way, I'm realizing that I have to find shelter, and soon. I've gone maybe a mile when I see a sign through the snow: “Lodgers Welcome (cash only)”, and I breathe a sigh of relief.

Archaically, a bell dings as I open the door. I stomp my feet and shake my head as I approach the battered desk, at which is sitting an old man. He has a few wisps of hair drifting over a liver-spotted bald scalp, drooping, wrinkled, and gaunt features, a scraggly beard hanging from his chin. His eyes, however, are sharp and alert.

“What'cha want, boy?” He asks in a thin, rasping voice.

“A room, obviously. It's cold as hell out there.”

“Sure is. You look about froze t'death. Well, a single is $89, local credit or hard currency only. Pay up front.”

“I just got in from the Wastes, haven't exchanged anything.”
“Screwed then, ain'tcha?” The old man chuckles. “Naw, I'm only messin' with you. Here, gimme what you got, and I'll trade it for you. Got a friend who does exchanges, see. Getcha a good rate, too.” I hand him a thick roll of New York City bills with a handful of loose change, and he thumbs through it, counting silently. 

“Haven't seen New York money in an age, I'll tell you. Don't get many from over there anymore. How is it there?”

“Bad,” I say. “Really bad. Scavengers have overrun the outskirts and they're starting to push into the inhabited areas. Getting bolder every day The Anarchists have the whole city on lockdown, and they're running it into the ground in the meantime. Can't get a meal without looking over your shoulder the whole way, weapons at the ready. Gangs rove wherever they want, robbing, raping, killing, beating anyone and everyone. 'Survival of the fittest,' is all the Anarchist Mob Patrol will say. It's even worse outside the cities, too. Scavengers are just one of the dangers. There's empath hunters, bandit gangs, even a few cannibals here and there. A lot of places have gone wild, taken over by the forest.”
“Sounds like hell on Earth, to me,” the old man says.

“It sure is. You have it good here.”

“I s'pose. Hard to see sometimes. The Fist can be as bad as the gangs you were talkin' about. McHale can and will do anything and everything to keep what he calls 'the peace'. Arrests whoever he wants, on trumped up charges, he's executed people, publicly, and people flock in to watch like it's a fuckin' holiday parade. People are sick these days, I tell you.”

“Forced peace is better than free chaos, from my perspective. Anarchy is the death of civilization, and AMP is the weapon used to kill it.”

“Heh. Well, maybe you're right. I don't know if I can say. I lived here in Detroit before McHale took over, and since he did, you can't move without being afraid of the Fist behind you, watching everything you do.”

“Lesser of two evils, I guess.”

“Maybe so. Well, here's your local credit, minus the charge for the room for one night. Room's up those stairs and to the left. Best to you.”

“Thanks, you too.” I find my room, small and sparse, smelling of cigarettes and age, but warm and dry. I haven't been under a real roof in weeks. I shed layers of clothes, spreading them out to dry in the small bathroom, roll and light a cigarette, lay on the bed smoking it and wondering what Detroit has in store for me.

*       *       *

A week passes with Detroit inundated by a white-out blizzard that keeps the city stifled and silent under a blanket of snow. It finally subsides on my eighth day holed up in the tiny room, eating from a diner next to the hostel, bored and restless but glad to have reached Detroit before I was caught by this storm. I'm exploring the city the day after the snow stopped, wandering aimlessly. Jasper, the proprietor of the hostel, was right about the Fist. They are everywhere, poking their helmeted heads into shops and restaurants and homes, thugs given authority, throwing their weight around. I have a feeling it's only a matter of time before I have a run-in with them.

If only I could have known right that feeling was.

The streets have been cleared of snow, and I've gotten to know this city. It's buzzing again, people coming and going, buying, selling, visiting, all this under the watchful eye of the Fist of Peace, striding arrogantly down the street armed and armored, wearing thick black spidersilk armor glimmering with the telltale haze of a Repulsor Field, two-foot-long arc sticks in each hand crackling with arcing electricity (thus the name). Arc sicks...I hate those damn things, despite carrying a pair myself. I haven't seen anyone but Fist members carrying them here in Detroit, but back in New York, anyone who can get their hands on them has them. They're supposedly non-lethal, but get hit with them hard enough and in the right place—or wrong, depending on your point of view—and they're plenty lethal. I saw a kid back in the Bad Apple get jumped by a pack of empath hunters carrying arc sticks. Nasty bastards popped him him straight in the throat a couple of times. Poor kid dropped instantly, vomiting blood like a fountain, like something out of the horrorshows, writhing and arching backwards so hard he snapped his own spine. Those empaths probably had tweaked their arc sticks to produce more juice. These Fists more than likely have theirs set to low power, to stun and debilitate. I haven't seen them actually harassing anyone yet, but I can see what Jasper was talking about. They're everywhere, in everything, watching, spying, poking and prodding and questioning, roaming the streets in groups of three, which most people just called tri's. As I began to understand the rhythms in of the city, I started to notice the changes in behavior in people when the tri's were around and when they weren't. Groups of kids would stand in shivering huddles, smoking, laughing, shoving and rough-housing, acting the way kids have for centuries. As soon as the tramp of booted feet on the sidewalks was heard, steps clomping in the packed snow in unison, the kids would drop their smokes in the snow, stamp them out ,whispering “a tri is coming, better vanish!” And they'd do just that, disappearing into doorways and alleys, reappearing when the tri had moved on down the street.

I've been in Detroit close to a month, pulling in some credits by doing odd jobs for Jasper and his friends. I'm slogging through a fresh dowsing of snow, well after midnight. Fat flakes float in the air, swirling and drifting, settling on my nose and lashes, stinging my cheeks. The air is still, the sleeping city silent in the thick, muffled way of a late-night snowfall. The hood of my coat is pulled low, the hem sweeping the ground at my heels. The only sound is the skritch-skritch of my boots in the hard-packed snow. My thoughts are long ago and far away to when I was teenager in NYC, that crumbling Babylon. I had a sister, then. We were only two years apart, she the younger. Stubborn thing that she was, she was always sneaking out, taking off with friends, hanging out in abandoned buildings, drinking, smoking pot, being typical teenagers. Nothing anyone said to her made any difference, she thought she knew it all, thought she could handle the big bad city. The last time I saw her alive, I was yelling at her. “Tamara, don't be stupid! It's dangerous out there! You're gonna end up dead if you don't stop wandering out alone.”

Damn prediction came true. My buddy Germaine brought her home, carried her in his arms across three city blocks. At one point, he said, he had to put her down to fight off some punks. She'd been raped, beaten bloody, and strangled, left dead in the middle of the street. It was a night just like this, unnaturally light out at midnight, snow-lit, silent and still. Germaine kicked the door open, set her down on the couch, tears and snot frozen in his beard, on his face. Germaine had had a crush on Tamara for years. He'd been waiting for her to grow up some, hoping, hoping.

That was the first time I hunted someone down and killed them with forethought and intent. Germaine and I went out, bought Impulsor pistols, a satchel of clips and hundreds of rounds, ammo belts, holsters, the works. Decked ourselves out like heroes from the 2D Western shows from centuries past. We were gunmen. Killers for hire. Badasses out for revenge.

Revenge is exactly what we got. Her assault had been witnessed, but of course, this was anarchic New York, when the AMP (Anarchist Mob Patrol) was just starting to consolidate their power base. No one did anything at all, as there was nothing they could do. But they told us exactly who had done it: six local hoodlums, violent, soulless punk-ass bastards. They gave us names. We hunted them down, each and every one of them. Shot them in the knees, beat them into shapeless pulps with our bare fists and booted feet, hung them dangling twitching feet from the streetlights. I was never the same after that. Kept the look, kept the attitude. Nothing mattered then. Life was empty, just subsistence from one day to the next; Germaine and I started boozing, partying, trying to kill off the grief we both felt over Tamara, trying to drown it in liquor. That lasted until Germaine got himself killed in a stupid brawl. I found his body lying just off the road near the Brooklyn Bridge, barely recognizable. I snapped, went blank. I don't remember the next few months after that. I woke up in an empty tenement building in a pool of vomit and blood, far from anything, with nothing but ripped, stained, blood-stiff clothing. I never found out what happened to me in the three months of blank memory, even under hypnosis or drugged memory-dredging. Tamara was my only family, our parents having both been killed in the New York Anarchist Revolt when we were kids. And Germaine...he was as good as family too, so when I found his barely-recognizable body, I had no one left at all.

I left the empty building, stumbled through the chill spring air, mind empty and echoing, soul shattered, heart hollowed and holed. I gradually gained my equilibrium, physically speaking, and decided to just keep walking. I made it three days nonstop before I collapsed from hunger, pneumonia, and exhaustion. I remember falling, tumbling, lying on my back andstaring up at a clear cerulean sky as it spun crazily above me, thinking Thank God...I'm free...

No I wasn't. Nothing is ever that easy. I woke up again, this time in what seemed, against my better judgment, to be a cave. Flickering fire-light, stalactites and stalagmites, the sound of trickling water coming from everywhere and nowhere at once. Yes, I was in fact in a cave. A cave? Really? Ok, I thought, I'm game. Now what?

“Awake, finally?” A lilting, feminine voice, to my left. “Thought you'd die for sure, more than once. You nearly did, at that. But yet here you are, waking up, alive and well. Guess I healed you up right and good, I did, aye?”

I sat up, dizzy, confused, disoriented. When I stumbled and fell in the abandoned ruins of suburban New York City, I hadn't expected to wake up at all, yet here I was, alive, in a cave with a woman.

“Where am I and how did I get here? Who are you?” The woman turned out to be young, tall, short, spiked red hair, decked out in leather and bandoliers and holsters. Beautiful, nubile body accentuated by her mercenary gear. She was sitting against a stalagmite, braiding strips of leather. Her eyes were a piercing luminous green, glittering with amusement.

“You're in a cave, you dolt, I thought that'd be obvious enough. As for me, my name is Isis Munro. And as for how you got here, my brother Huginn carried you. And your next question, why am I here...we found you collapsed and near death outside New York, and Ignatius decided you might be useful. I don't know why. He didn't say, and I'm not inclined to question him. He knows things others don't. He is the empath after all.”

Shit. These were empath hunters. In a society of men and women with powers and abilities that had toppled society itself, empaths were the most feared, and the rarest. They have the ability to feel other people, to tune into emotions. It seemed innocuous at first, but after the Devolution of Society it was discovered that empaths have other capabilities as well. They can detect people, they can walk into an empty city and track down any living person, without needing so much as a footprint. Simple enough, so what? In conjunction with harvesters, the process becomes more sinister. Harvesters are people with the power to suck out the energy from a person, store it within themselves, and then transfer it into power cell. Harvesters grasp their victim—their prey—by the temples, suck the poor dying bastard's bioelectricity out and channel it into power blocks which then are sold, used, or traded. Glow-leeching, it's called. Glow harvested this way is far more potent than what comes from a person naturally, but at the cost of stability. Glow-leeched cells are prone to cut out without warning, or just explode, or surge and ruin the tech. But, in a world where nearly every natural resource has been tapped out or the facilities to process them have been abandoned, the practice of harvesting pirated bioelectricity is becoming more and more widespread, as a means of acquiring cheap, disposable energy. Empath hunters are usually nomadic gangs, post-apocalyptic pirates, and there's always at least one empath, a harvester, and a few others as muscle.

Few people targeted by these predators escape to tell of it, so my presence in their camp, alive, is an anomaly that I can't quite figure out. I'm not an empath, I'm not a harvester, I'm not much of anything special. At least I wasn't then. Just a starved, sick, heart-broken kid with nothing but the clothes on my back. The girl guarding me—and guarding me she was, no mistake: she had an Impulsor pistol on her lap, and she was watching me carefully—must have read my mind, judging by her next words: “I don't know what Ignatius wants with you. I told him just to let me harvest you and be done with it, but he wouldn't have it. 'I've got plans for this one,' was all he'd say. You don't question Ignatius, I've learned. He's never wrong.”

“He's a precog?” I asked, referring to precognition, the ability to see glimpses of the future. Precogs were even rarer than empaths and harvesters, and far more disturbing. I've only met a few, and they were uniformly bizarre, eccentric, difficult to be around, prone to outbursts of violence, unable to control their precognition.

“No, he's not a precog,” Isis responded. “He's a very, very powerful empath. Powerful to the point of going beyond empathy into something else I don't think we have a word for. You'll meet him soon. My advice? Go with it. You can't do worse than where we found you, after all.” She had a point, I realized. Whatever this Ignatius wanted with me, it was bound to be better than wandering alone and aimless. And I truly didn't care what happened to me.

And that is how I became an empath hunter. I started out as just a camp-boy. I was barely eighteen then, angry, hateful, and empty. I didn't care what they did, who they did it to, where we went. I lit the fires, cooked food, cared for equipment, and kept to myself. Eventually, though, it was Huginn, Isis's brother, who got to me. He was a massive man, over seven feet tall, hugely muscled, but he wasn't a lumbering, stupid giant, as I expected when I first met him. He looked the part, certainly, towering, strong enough to lift me up easily with one arm, deep-set brown eyes. He was quick and lithe, for all his bulk, graceful, gentle, and funny. Whenever the group sat around the fire at night, he was the one to crack jokes and tell long, convoluted stories. Where Isis was cruel, careless with human life, cunning and violent, Huginn was the opposite, often upset by the harvesting, more inclined to discuss the books, films and movies of the bygone ages, philosophy, politics...he was an erudite and educated man, but few ever guessed it. Even his sister often underestimated him. He took a liking to me, I guess, and made it a mission to pull me out the downward spiral of depression that my sister's and Germaine's deaths had put me into.

The first month or two were the hardest. The group I had been drafted into was large. There was Isis, Ignatius, Huginn, and eleven others, and now myself. We left the cave, part of a series of caverns outside what had once been Albany, and moved south on foot. Ignatius refused to use vehicles, apparently.

“They mask the trail, confuse the scent,” he said. He was an unremarkable-looking man, of medium height with unruly brown hair, brown eyes that were always moving, eyes full of malice and intelligence, insanity. 

“Can't hear them, in a car. Can't feel them. Find the prey, hunt them on foot.” I stayed away from him as much as possible. He would watch me, stare at me, musing, considering. It creeped me out, feeling his eyes on me wherever I went, whatever I did. I often wished he would just order Isis to harvest me.

Huginn took to walking next to me. “Don't mind him,” were his first words to me, rumbled in his deep, syrupy-slow voice. “He's a weird one, sure enough, but as long as you don't cross him, you'll be fine.”

“He creeps me out. Looking at me like I'm a pawn, like he's figuring out his next move.”

“That's true, that is,” Huginn said. “Don't mistake me, he's dangerous, not to say evil. He'll kill you as soon as talk to you. Watch him, be aware of him. Isis too.”

“Isn't Isis your sister?” I asked.

“Yes, she is,” he answered. “Doesn't mean we're alike, or that I agree with her. She's one to be wary of, more than Ignatius in some ways. Ignatius is a sociopathic genius, the most powerful empath I've ever heard of. He can track six different people at the same time, feel them, hear their thoughts and feel their fears, follow them each one till they're cornered. It's not enough for him to just harvest them though, he feeds on them, in a way. Not literally, he's no cannibal. I just mean he thrives on terrifying his prey, he lives for the hunt. Isis is just the same, worse maybe. She hunts with relish, like a lioness, stalking, waiting, pouncing...She and Ignatius are perfect together, and I can't leave them. They'll have me in minute, and Isis is my only family, I can't just leave her. So I'm stuck with them, stuck helping them catch their prey. And really, most of the ones we catch aren't worth shit anyway. Starving, selfish, evil, self-absorbed pathetic creatures barely recognizable as people. Barely able to speak, illiterate. More animal than man, and we're nearly doing them a favor, taking them out of their misery. But I still hate it.”

“So I'm stuck with them too, then?”

“Oh no, not necessarily. You might get free of them. You don't have anything holding you to them, except maybe that they saved your life.”

“I'm not sure they were doing me any favors,” was my response, bitter and honest.

“I know. You seemed angry when you first woke up, angry that we had saved you.”

“I was. I am. I was dying there and glad to be.”

“Well,” Huginn seemed to be choosing his words carefully now. “I can't say that I know what would drive a person to that, and I won't pretend to understand. But even in these times, there's always something worth living for, I think. Maybe you just have to find out what.”

“Maybe there is for you,” I said, “but not for me. There's no point to anything. It's all shit. This country is dead, and nothing can change that.”

Huginn looked down at me, and I could see anger in his eyes, but it didn't bleed into his voice. “That's blasphemous bullshit, that is. Nothing is ever hopeless. This country may be dying, sure, but it's not dead yet. It just needs the right person to take control, to rebuild. It may not be America as it once was, but it could be something, anything better than it is now.”

I couldn't see, then, what could ever be built out of the dead, ruined mess of America, and I thought Huginn was a delusional crackpot, but it didn't seem prudent to say so. Huginn seemed to sense my feelings, so he changed the subject. I was glad he did, because I didn't want the only person I could even nominally call a friend to be angry at me, especially since he could break me in half with one hand.

After that, Huginn was my constant companion, the only person out of the whole gang that I could stand. The rest were bloodthirsty, cold and unfeeling, symptoms of the disease that ravaged the country. They were cruel and selfish, using their mental abilities for every least thing, fighting viciously with each other for trinkets and gadgets and scraps. I never bothered to get to know them, not even their names. This angered them, and they made me their target. They hurled jokes, pranks and insults, they picked fights with me, they forced me to do their dirty work. For a long time I just took it in silence, enduring it all. As with so many things, it Huginn who taught me another way.

“They're just bullies, boy. Show 'em that you won't take it, that you've got a core of steel and willing fist, and they'll shut up, and right quick.” I remembered the bully that had tortured me for months, when I just a boy. My dad had given me the same advice Huginn was giving me then, fifteen years later. Then, as a boy, I had faced the bully, and got beaten to a pulp for my troubles. The bully had beaten me up, badly, but I refused to stay down until I blacked out. He would lay a haymaker on me, knock me flying. I would stand up, swing at him, sometimes connecting, sometimes not. This continued until I found myself lying on the ground, sight blurring and fading. The bully had stood above me, looking down at me with what might have been admiration. He never bothered me after that.

Now, I was faced with a similar situation. Now, however, it wasn't one bully, bigger and stronger and older than me; now I faced six bullies, each different. I knew that I had to face them, and I had to do it on my terms, and take what came from it. The problem was, these weren't schoolyard bullies, these were hardened, callous killers. They would slit my throat from ear to ear and leech my glow, leave me for the vultures.

The moment came all too soon. I was building a fire at the end of a day's walk. One of them came up behind me, a man slightly older than I, thin and sallow, unkempt, unwashed dark hair. He was fond of knives, always flipping one in his hand in an calculated, absent-minded way. Huginn was leaning against a tree opposite me, watching surreptitiously. He caught my eye, glanced at the man behind me as a warning. Huginn had given me an arc stick and a few lessons in its use, and I kept it within easy reach at all times. I palmed it and mentally sent a trickle of impulse into it, just enough to make it buzz in my hands, a low, inaudible hum. I felt him behind me, approaching on what he apparently thought were silent feet. I shifted my weight, crouched before the fire I had been building. I turned just slightly, enough so I could now see him out of the corner of my eye, and I caught a glimpse of glinting silver, a long curved, wickedly-sharp knife, his favorite, one I'd seen him use all too often on hapless prey just before Isis drained them.

He lurched towards me, knife upraised; I rolled to the left, felt the tip of his knife whisper past my ear. Lunging to my feet, I cranked the arc stick all the way up so it was crackling with bolts of arcing electricity. Olsen, that was his name. I remembered Huginn talking about him once, describing some of his nastier predilections. Olsen cursed as he missed, and I saw his eyes go wide with surprise and panic as he realized what was coming. Namely, my arc stick swung with full force at his gut. The tip of the arc stick plunged into Olsen's stomach just below the diaphragm; the electricity jolted him violently, twisted his intestines and stomach into knots. He vomited past me, blood and bile and half-digested food. I'd seen what a gut-blow of an arc stick could do, and I'd stepped out of the way. Doubled over in agony, Olsen was helpless, the fight gone from him now. My first reaction was to let it be done, but then I looked to Huginn, who drew his thumb across his throat in an age-old gesture that meant, finish him. If I didn't, he'd regain his strength and plunge that knife into my chest one night as I slept. So I growled a curse, lifted the arc stick and brought it down across the back of his head hard enough to crack it and send blood dribbling down his neck. Olsen dropped to the ground, bleeding from ears, nose, and mouth. His eyes were rolled back in his head and he was in the throes of a seizure. I couldn't let it end there, though, despite knowing he was as good as dead. The rest of his cronies were watching, and if I showed any weakness, they'd be on me like hyenas in an instant. I picked up Olsen's knife and dragged it across his throat, pressing so hard I nearly severed his head. As his twitching and seizing slowed and ceased, I pawed through the layers of ragged clothes. He had little of value besides knives, so I took the sheath for the one in my hand, and another arc stick he had hidden at the small of his back in a clever contraption, rigged so that he could reach back and draw it like a gun, and there was a space for a second stick. I undid the straps of the hidden scabbard and stuffed it the rucksack I'd taken from Olsen.

His friends were staring at me hatefully. I'd hoped that with this display, they'd back off and leave me alone, but from the looks on their faces, I was in for the fight of my life, and soon. Huginn hadn't moved the entire time, but now he came over to where I was standing, looked down at Olsen's corpse.

“Deserved it, he did. Had it coming. But I warn you, his buddies will be after you. They're just like him, but he was the worst.” Huginn turned at walked back to where I had been making the saying over his shoulder, 

“Olsen kept an Impulsor pistol in that coat of his. I'd check him again.” I checked again, and sure enough, the crafty bugger had rigged another holster for easy, hidden access. I took the pistol and the holster rig, as well. I could feel eyes on me, watching, assessing. They wouldn't wait long.

They didn't. One came in the middle of the night, with a knife. He stood over me, knife glinting in the dim starlight, hatred written in the lines of his face. He lunged downward with the knife, a movement so sudden and swift that I nearly didn't roll out of the way in time. Unfortunately for him, 'nearly' was just enough. His knife plunged through my blanket roll and into the sod beneath, stuck for a split second. I was already up on my feet, Impulsor pistol in my hand, muzzle against his head. An impulse, quick as a single synapse firing...the man whose name I didn't know, a smelly, selfish coward, died in a silent burst of gray matter. He slumped to the ground on my blankets, a pool of blood spreading beneath him. I frisked him quickly, found nothing but another Impulsor pistol, a few worthless odds and ends, a few dozen credits. I dragged him to the edge of the camp, just beyond the ring of light cast by the fire. I saw Huginn wrapped in his blankets, watching. He nodded slightly, went to sleep.

The others were just as easy. One by one, they came for me, at night, from behind, from afar, never up close and personal, face to face like men. Cowards. I slaughtered them like the pigs they were, and if I didn't enjoy it, exactly, well...I didn't mind it, either.

“You're a bit too good at that, I think,” Huginn said to me after I'd disposed of the last of Olsen's cronies. 

“I'd be careful of that, If I were you. Get too good at it, get to enjoy it, and it's worse than any drug. Worse than being addicted to glow, in a lot of ways. Just don't get to where you like it, is all I'm trying to say.”

I told him not to worry, I didn't like it and never would, but deep in the pit of my stomach, at the core of my soul, that small hollow where lay the hardest truths about one's self, I knew I did kind of like it. I knew, from the instant the tip of the arc stick zapped Olsen's gut that I would do it again, and again and again, I would take lives and find release, find some dark relish in the act. I knew it, and it scared me, because I knew I didn't have the moral fortitude to resist it. I think Huginn sensed it as well. He was more distant after that, still my one and only friend, but there was a gap between us where there hadn't been before. I had planned on talking to him about it, but I never got the chance.

Huginn, despite his warnings against developing a taste for killing, continued to train me in various ways of fighting. Unarmed, hand to hand combat, arc sticks, drawing, firing, and aiming the Impulsor pistols. It turned out that I had a natural aptitude for firearms. I could draw and fire the pistols faster than Huginn himself, and could group my shots tighter as well. Ignatius was at the lead of the now-smaller group. He hadn't said or done anything about the confrontations that led to his band being winnowed down by seven. We were heading towards Florida, he had told us. He was tired of the north, he wanted somewhere warm. I think he'd also tapped out the entire region around New York, harvested anyone one foolish enough to venture out in a group less than twenty. He wanted fresh blood, fresh glow. So, southward to new hunting grounds. It took us six uneventful months of endless trekking, through empty cities, echoing suburbs, vacant, war-blasted farmlands, but we eventually we reached Florida. The only indication I saw that we had actually crossed into Florida territory was a metal sign laying in the dirt next to the highway we were following. It was large, rusted, dented, bullet-pocked, and the words “Welcome to Florida, The Sunshine State” were barely legible. I stepped on the sign, my boots making tinny thumps on the metal.

“Well, here we are,” I said to Ignatius, who was squatting in the dirt a few feet away, his expression unreadable. “Florida. Now what?”

Ignatius stared at me for so long that I grew uncomfortable. At length, he said, “Now...we hunt. And then we find someone to buy the glow.” He licked his lips, rubbed the pouch of glow-cells at his belt. He stood up, sniffed the air, turned in circles a few times. Casting for a scent, looking for a trail, I supposed. Apparently he sensed something, for he abruptly took off in a quick, space-eating lope. Isis, Huginn, myself, and the other four—nameless, faceless grunts I never spoke to, never acknowledged. They left me alone, and I left them alone, an arrangement which suited all of us. I knew they were there, heard them conversing among themselves, but I never interacted with them in any way. They were expendable, useless, base, vain and selfish creatures, like Olsen and his crew. These four, however, simply lacked the courage to attack me, having seen the fate of Olsen and the others. The odd thing was, none of the others talked to them either. Isis and Huginn ignored them as completely as I did, and Ignatius only spoke to them to give them orders.
Hell descended upon us a few days later. When I was a boy growing up on the outskirts of New York City, I once stepped on a yellow-jacket nest buried in the ground. One moment I was running around, playing, pretending I was piloting a space-jet to the Mars Colony, and then the earth erupted without warning, spewing a massive swarm of angry, stinging yellow-jackets that surrounded me, got under my clothes, in my hair, following me all the way home, stinging, stinging. The ambush in Florida was like that. One moment we were walking in a scattered group, chatting, Huginn whistling a merry, skirling tune, then abruptly Impulsors were going off all around us in bone-jarring explosions, and those four grunts were now literally faceless, one two three, down in bursts of bone and brain and blood and the fourth was throwing himself behind a chunk of concrete firing his own pistols at nothing at all, firing blindly. Isis was hit, her shoulder streaming blood and her mouth streaming curses, Ignatius was pulling her behind the highway divider, firing his pistol much less blindly, using his empath senses to track the attackers. Huginn and I were left in the open and now we were drawing fire. A bullet grazed Huginn's beard, drawing a curse from him.

“Over there!” he shouted, pointing at a copse of trees a few paces from the highway. I drew both Impulsors and fired off several rounds, felt the concussion of the sonic boom before I heard it, watched the pebbles and dirt underfoot jump with each detonation. Huginn was pulling me towards the rusted, burned-out hulk of an old automobile, pushed me to the ground behind it. I couldn't hear, for some reason. I felt Impulsor concussions rolling over me like waves of thunder, but they were felt, not heard, I saw Huginn's face in front of me, yelling yelling yelling, pistol-wielding hands gesturing at the attackers, now emerging from the treeline. Other explosions were coming now, powder and fire explosions, grenades or bombs or mortars, flinging dirt and concrete and limbs and blood in the air, but I couldn't move, couldn't see except for a narrow tunnel of blurred vision.

Then, suddenly, Huginn's ham-hock fist connected with my jaw and sound returned, Impulsor shockwaves and grenades and firearms, shouts and screams and curses. I looked around me, saw Isis and Ignatius down behind the divider, Isis still and bleeding, Ignatius still firing, but weakly. Huginn was next to me, a rifle in his hands, eye pressed to the scope, unhurriedly picking off the Scavengers, one by one. I picked a target, a thin male with too many arms, fired a round at him, watched him drop, felt a burst of satisfaction, drew a bead on another target, dropped him, and then I had a rhythm, breathe in, one shot, one kill, breathe out, each of my pistols firing independently, my brain empty now, my entire existence dropping Scavengers. I saw one lob a grenade at us, saw the small dot flying toward me. My pistol lifted on its own, hesitated an eyeblink, fired. The grenade exploded mid-air and I saw Huginn turn toward me, a look of puzzlement and awe on his face.

It wasn't enough though. They were too many. They were closing in, fast, surrounding us. Huginn slung his rifle on his back, drew his own handgun, fired it in the same cool, unhurried rhythm. I found myself on my feet, rushing forward at the Scavengers, shooting as fast as humanly possible, a succession of explosions that knocked the Scavengers off their feet. I was in among them now, and they were rabid, snarling, my nostrils filled with the smell of rotting flesh where man met machine. I saw one of them aiming his pistol at me and I knew I wouldn't dodge that one, felt panic hit my brain. The panic activated something in my head, uncorked something long-dormant in my brain.

My whole life I had been surrounded by people with gifts from Pandora: telekinesis, telepathy and the like. I never had much by way of talent in those things. I had enough to fit in, so I wasn't a Blank, someone without any abilities at all, but I had nothing to set me apart. My sister was able to dig into people's heads, burrow deep inside to the most secret places, read your most private thoughts and memories, and no defense could stop her. My mom and dad were both kinetics, able to move things mentally, no matter the size. Even Germaine was gifted with the tech-touch, the ability to interact mentally with any kind of electronic device. 

Not me. I struggled through life feeling mediocre at best.

Then, that day on a rutted and ruined Florida road surrounded by Scavengers, I discovered something within myself. Panic hit, slamming into me hard enough to stop my breath. I froze, just for a nanosecond, thought to myself: “Oh hell no. Not like this, not here, not now. Do something!” In that frozen fragment of time, I pulled upon every shred of mental energy I possessed, drew and drew and drew until there blazed within my mind a hell-hot inferno, a supernova. I held it in until I could hold it no longer, like a diver at the end of his long-held breath; the Scavengers were upon me, firing, I saw the muzzles expel bullets in slow-motion, syrupy-slow and impossible like a raindrop at the end of a fern leaf drooping low low lower and falling off. I saw the bullets spinning on their axes and saw the Scavengers sweating and slavering as they coursed towards me and then my pistols were raised and pouring out projectiles as I hurled myself to the side, hit the ground rolling and came to my feet several yards to the side and still the Scavengers' bullets were inching through the air towards where I had been. Some small part of my brain was reeling at what I was doing, slowing the time around me, or my perception of time, or my own personal physical speed or something I didn't understand at all, but I knew it had saved my life. I came to my feet, blinked my eyes and released the mental tidal wave. The Scavengers jerked and twisted in real time, blossomed brilliant bursts of blood as they flew through the air, tossed like rag dolls like clods of dirt by the impact of whatever force I had released. They were thrown back by the impact of my bullets, then the invisible wave struck them like a palpable wall and they burst apart into piles of limbs.

Silence suddenly stretched out and lay heavy and hard on us. I stood, out of breath and sweat-drenched, blood spattered, surrounded by the bodies of the Scavengers; all eyes were on me, awed and puzzled.
Huginn stood slowly, looking in disbelief at the battlefield, at me. “What the hell was that, Dez? What'd you 
do? I saw it happen, but I can't make sense of it.”

“I don't really know. I saw them circled around me, about to all shoot at once and I knew I wasn't going to make it, and I refused to let die like that. Then something exploded inside me, kind of in my chest and my brain at the same time. You saw what happened. I don't know...I don't know.”

“I'd figure that shit out if I were you.” Huginn shook his head, a look of wary respect in his eyes.

I eventually learned to control it. It's tricky though. I can't do it all the time, and not to that kind of intensity, but I can slow down time, briefly, or stop it for a few seconds, and I can send out that concussive wave, but I've never been able to duplicate what happened that day. I'm not sure I want to.

*         *         *

A sound brings me back to the present: a whimper, a shriek, scuffed steps slipping in the snow. I pass an alley and pause at the mouth. I see a figure at the end, a small female silhouette wearing a cloak, cornered at the end of the blind alley, four hulking male figures facing her in an inescapable line. The girl has an arc stick in her hand, waving back and forth, trying to ward off all four at the same time. One of the men feints, she cries out, jabs at him with the arc stick, misses, he yanks it from her grasp, chuckling, jabs her in the side with it. She contorts away from the tip, a scream juddering from her throat that shivers the snowflakes as they fall. She's a sonic, I'd guess, but she probably doesn't know it, or she'd be ripping them apart with sonic blasts.

I pull my arc sticks out, crank the flow to max so they're crackling and sparking and arcing spitting electricity between the two tips. I take hunter-silent steps in the soft snow towards four unsuspecting backs, holding my breath, letting the psionic power pool in my core, let my rage at cowards preying on helpless girls build it in exponential bursts. I'm less than two feet away now, I send out a burst of power that slows time to dream-slow sluggishness: the girl's face twisted in fear and agony and rage, wisps of hair trailing across her face as she falls, hands reaching for her, hands fumbling at belts, hands loose on the handle of the arc stick. They're all nearly but not quite frozen in time, unsuspecting and helpless. I'm darting forward with the psionic burst, burying one stick in a kidney, twisting it so the prongs rip flesh and pour searing bolts of blue-white energy into the wound, the second stick finds a spine, gouging through the skin to the lumbar itself and his body is folded backward in half, broken; and now I take a step forward, spin on my heel, jab into a throat and revel secretly as the thin skin breaks open and blood pours forth; one more time my arc stick flashes out into the last man's chest and bloody froth bubbles out of his mouth immediately. I release time and all four fall the ground, several spouts of gore fill the air and splash the girl as she collapses to the ground. She's down and screaming, curled into a ball, expecting harsh cruel hungry finger to rip her clothing and pry her legs apart, so when I kneel down next her and touch her shoulder, tell her it's okay, it's understandable that she shrieks, a blood-curdling ululation so unnaturally loud that it sends me stumbling backwards, clutching my ears. She's definitely a sonic. I pick myself up and approach her cautiously, talking slowly and soothingly to her, telling her I wouldn't hurt her, she was okay. She must hear me, because she peeks out from behind a curtain of sticky, matted black hair, sees the bodies, dead and bleeding in front of her. This elicits another howl from her, but not a sonically-charged one. I stand over her, apologize for the mess, reach a hand down to help her stand up. She shakes her head, whimpers, shrinks back against the wall.

“Calm down, darlin',” I tell her, with some exasperation. If the sight of a few dead bodies affects her like this, in this day and age, then she must be pretty sheltered, I figure. “I'm not gonna hurt you. I'm helping you, ain't I? No one is going to hurt you. I'll take you back home. Come on, now.” I grab her arm and pull her up, more forcefully than I should, I guess. She lands on her feet, she's thrashing and pushing, not listening as I implore her to calm down.

“HALT!” Shit. It's the Fist, a full hand of them, five massive, armored brutes wielding arc sticks and Impulsor pistols and lead-knuckled gauntlets. It only takes a split second to realize how this looks. I turn around slowly, hands in plain sight, empty.

“This isn't how it looks,” I say. I point at the bodies on the ground. “These guys had her cornered, I saved her—”

“Shut up! Hands on your head! On the ground!” Not good. These gorillas aren't going to listen. I consider, briefly, pulling my Impulsors and fighting it out, but decide against it. I might be able to take these five, but the sound of gunfire will bring more in a hurry, and I can't take on the whole damn city. Besides...these guys look salty. I lay down, hands on my head. It galls me to the core to submit to anyone, but survival always trumps pride.

Rough hands strip me of my gear: bag, weapons, harnesses, boot knives, everything...except a few secrets they'd never find without a strip search.

A muzzle presses against my head and a gravelly voice growls, “Up, slowly. Any movement I don't like, and you're a dead man.”

Another voice: “Shit, Sarge, these guys are tore up! This fella may be telling the truth. One's got his belt open and he's all hangin' out of his pants.”

Sarge, the one with his piece to my skull, says: “Don't care, Skerritt. Any one gets killed in Detroit, it better be us doing the killing. He goes in, he gets processed.” The bodies are rifled, a code is called in, bodies for removal, send a vehicle for prisoner transport.

“Uh, Sarge?” Skerritt again.


“You know who this is? The girl, I mean?”

“No, should I?”

“Yeah. It's Layla McHale, sir.”

“Like, The Old Man's daughter? That Layla McHale”

“Yes, sir. That Layla McHale.”

“Damnit. Is she hurt? Coherent?”

“Doesn't seem to be hurt,” Skerritt said, “she has a shit-ton of blood all over her, but it ain't hers. She's in shock I think. This fella really did a number on these guys, and I think it messed her up. You know how the 
Old Man keeps her locked up. Betcha she ain't seen anything like this before.”

The sergeant grunted grudging acknowledgment. “Prolly right, at that. She's gotta be only the person in the entire world, then, who hasn't seen a body killed before. Well, best bring 'em both to see the Old Man.”