Holdout

 

“They’re coming!” Luca bellowed. “Safeties off, people! Do not fire unless they give you no other choice! Those are still people down there!”

I could hear them from a mile off, crying out and choking on the toxic, hallucinogenic air as they clambered over one another to reach the building.

Luca crouched close to the rooftop railing, sliding twelve gauge shells into his shotgun, staring out at the wasteland through his gas mask. A full crate lay next to him, ready for the task ahead. Whether it was enough was anyone’s guess.

They arrived in force. A good thirty or forty people, covered in their own filth. No masks. I watched them through the sights of my rifle as they flailed about, swiping at ghosts, trembling and twitching the entire time.

Luca grabbed a bloodied limb from the crate with one of his gloved hands and lobbed it off the roof. It landed in the dirt, and no less than ten people lunged for the fresh dead meat, fighting among themselves for a taste.

The others on the roof joined in, throwing legs, arms and even a few torsos down to the masses.

To my right, I saw Emily gaze long and hard at an arm before she tossed it over, staring at a ring on one of the stiff, lifeless fingers.

“I’m sorry Zach,” she whispered, almost on the verge of tears. The arm went over. She twisted the matching ring on her own finger a few times before reaching back into the crate for another limb.

A shotgun blast rang through the air, followed by a pained yelp and distant thud.

“Watch the walls dammit!” Luca called, ejecting the spent shell. “Keep them busy!”

A desperate shriek from my left caught my attention. I swung my rifle around just in time to see a dishevelled man reach up and claw at Anthony’s neck before disappearing back over the edge, taking a fresh chunk of flesh back down with him. I fired a round, but the bullet missed its mark. Anthony toppled, almost falling off the roof

“Shit!” I chambered another round, cursing myself. We couldn’t afford to keep losing people like this.

There would be no burial for Anthony. We needed the meat. It was all they ate now. It was all we had left to eat. Those people down there have no idea what they’re doing. It’s not their fault they’re like this. This was grim, nasty work, but it was our job to keep them alive and fed until the toxins subsided.

Exactly when that would happen, though, nobody knew.

For now, we held our position.

After what seemed like hours, the mob down below dissipated, wandering off into the fog, their hunger satisfied for now.

I joined Luca’s side as he pulled Anthony’s body away from the roof edge, lifted his mask and gently closed his eyes.

“Same time tomorrow?” I asked, placing a hand on his shoulder.

“Yeah. Same time tomorrow.”

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Chosen

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All he had to do was point at someone in the group.

Nobody would ever see them again.

It was anyone’s guess as to what happened to those people once Mitchell Larson got his hands on them. Being here in this place was bad enough. The sun was a distant memory. I could scarcely recall the feel of wind upon my face.

They picked one of us each day. We all stood in a line, wearing our ragged clothing with our hands held above our heads. Two men dressed in perfect suits wielding automatic weapons went down the ranks, patting us down in case anyone had the bright idea of concealing a weapon or any other kind of contraband from the Watcher. The monolithic observation station towered above all in the middle of the cavernous antechamber, its red camera lens consuming everything in sight.

Their frisk searches turned up nothing. Larson stepped forward and walked down the row, inspecting each of us. For what exactly, nobody knew. Whatever it was, he would always find it, sooner or later.

Some of us stood still, staring dead ahead, doing our best to maintain composure and not stand out in any way. Sometimes it worked, other times it didn’t. Today it seemed to do the job.

Others, however, couldn’t hope to contain the fear of being chosen. They trembled, drenched in their own sweat, nervously glancing in all directions like frightened deer.

Larson reached the end of the line-up and turned around, deep in thought, stroking his neatly trimmed beard and removed a fleck of dust off his pristine suit. He went back down the line for a second pass, to the dismay of many.

He made it a quarter of the way back up before he stopped, right before me. No. The man next to me, who seemed neither nervous nor confident, staring right into Larson’s eyes as he looked deep into his. To compare them was almost comical. Larson’s hair was cut short, with not a single thing out of place, while the man looked wild, as if he had been living rough for many years, his hair long, filthy and unkempt, like many of the other men here.

In almost slow motion, Larson took a step back and raised his finger, pointing at the man next to me.

“Him,” he said. “Welcome aboard.” His two armed escorts each took an arm and gently, but forcibly guided the man away, leading him towards the door leading into the Watcher. Nobody who entered the structure returned. Only Larson and other guards ever emerged from within.

“The rest of you, get back to work,” he said, disappearing within the Watcher almost as soon as he had appeared.

The following day, it was the same story. Larson did his rounds while his two guards stood watch over us, the closest looking me right in the eye before averting his gaze.

I searched his face for another hint of recognition. Something. Anything.

I found none.

Salvage

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With no tools other than my bare hands and cast-iron resolve, I dug around the limitless, empty expanse, unsure what I even hoped to find anymore. Piles of junk littered the landscape as far as the eye could see, items which served no purpose in this new life.

Laptops and smart phones, their batteries long since drained. Unreadable, almost totally faded books and magazines. Filthy, rotted sheets of fabric and clothes, abandoned by their previous owners when they left and headed for greener pastures.

My fingernails were black with dirt. To wash them would be a waste of precious water. So they remained as they were, growing more and more calloused and battle-hardened with each day I spent scouring the land for anything I could make good use of.

I found a decent length of intact shoelace, its accompanying shoes long gone. Good rope was hard to come by these days. I had to make do with what I could find. Extension cords were my preferred option, but they were becoming hard to come by.

The sun hovered in the air like a bad stink, casting shadows across the flat plains where civilization once stood, memorialized in piles of unusable salvage.

As I tossed another handful of dirt over my shoulder in an aimless arc, my other hand struck something under the surface. Plastic, by the feel of it. I yanked it free and brushed it clear of excess dirt.

A bottle. Two litres. I gave it a shake. It was still sealed and unopened. Water? Likely. I stashed it into my pack and moved on.

It may not be what I was searching for out here, but it was a good start.

Exodus

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“Auntie Mona! Auntie Mona! What is that?”

The child’s voice quavered with near reverent awe as she pressed her face against the glass of the empty observation deck, peering outside at the increasingly distant glowing sphere.

“That’s where you were born, Clarrie,” Mona Fitzgerald said. “It’s where we live…well, used to live now, I guess.”

“It’s so small.” Clarrie’s eyes never left the window as they spoke. “How did we all fit?”

“It’s a lot bigger up close. And we don’t all fit there. That’s why we had to leave.”

“But why? Didn’t you say we live there?”

Mona sighed and knelt beside her niece. “There were too many of us living on the same planet. It all adds up. Before long, we began to consume more food and water than we could possibly hope to produce. People turned on one another. They fought amongst themselves. So the only thing we could do is leave. Find another home with enough resources for the rest of us to live. A new world to start over on.”

“How many times have you had to leave?”

“Five? Six, maybe?” Mona thought out loud. “I honestly don’t remember, honey. They’ve been hopping worlds since long before I was born. It’s in our nature. We can’t change who we are. How we live.”

“Okay.” With their conversation apparently over, Clarrie returned her focus to the tiny blue full-stop in the darkness that was Ancillary Earth Twenty-Eight.

Perhaps number twenty-nine would be the one they could finally call home.

Retribution

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“The vial, please.”

Andrew Blake held the tiny glass ampoule out in his hand for the supervising officer, Tyler Yvonne. She carefully plucked it from his palm, the thick, dark red blood sample contained within sloshing around as she brought it up to her eyes for a closer look.

“This is the one?”

“Yes. He and two others. Johnathon’s getting theirs from the vault now. Should be here soon,” Andrew replied.

“Good. I’d like to get this over with, sooner rather than later.”

Tyler moved over to the machine. It filled the entire wall of the Southwest Police Precinct basement level, looking like a supercomputer with some unusual, outwardly protruding additions. Chutes, tubes, dozens of lights of every colour conceivable, and a screen with a digital replica of the precinct’s badge emblem rotating in the centre.

“How does it work? I’ve never actually seen it in use before.” Andrew moved closer to Tyler, standing beside her before the machine.

“Do I look like I know how the hell this thing works? I just put what the chief tells me to put into it. Don’t ask again, he’s been super touchy about the subject as of late.”

“Alright, if you say so.”

Tyler broke off the blood vial’s seal and, after taking a slow, deep breath, poured its contents into a small compartment underneath the screen.

The on-screen badge disappeared and was replaced almost instantly with a profile picture of a short, angry looking male, alongside a laundry list of information. Given name, age, place of birth, current address, and, most importantly, crimes.

It was one of the longest lists Tyler had seen since they started using this machine to deal with suspects.

And, on the same token, one of the most deserving of what was coming to him.

On the bottom of the screen, several options appeared for the individual named Gus Ramoe.

COMA.

BLIND.

SHUTDOWN, followed by several sub-options including KIDNEYS, LIVER, BRAIN and HEART.

Last of all, on the far right of the screen, in the smallest possible text: EXECUTE.

“Well, newbie’s choice,” Tyler said as she pulled a small remote control from her uniform pocket. “Whaddya think?”

Andrew closed his eyes. His right hand slowly curled into a ball, shaking in anger. Or was it sorrow? Tyler couldn’t tell.

“You should have seen that house. What those men did to that family. I’ve never seen so much blood.”

After a moment of no response, Tyler shrugged. “Alright, execute it is. Again.”

She pointed her remote at the tiny button on the far right and hit CONFIRM.

Somewhere else in the city, next to the other two suspects in an abandoned home, Gus Ramoe’s entire body froze, and in a single, terrifying instant, he keeled over, sweating blood, not much longer for this world.

His accomplices scattered in a panic, running for their lives. It wouldn’t save them.

“Where the hell is Johnathon with those other vials?” Tyler groaned. “We’re going to be late for lunch.”