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Excerpt for Anamnesis by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Anamnesis


By Ronan Frost

Copyright 2018 Ronan Frost




The world sang in a note of jagged edges drawn against one another, sharpened splinters of pain the beginning and end of everything. His nerves were razor wire searing the length of his spine from balls to brainstem. He could not be sure when, but at some point the swirls of time must have settled, for he found himself aware of a high-pitched whistling, its tone distorted with each jerking drum of blood in his ears. Escaping gas, he realized, from some small nozzle, slowly dropping in pitch, calming as it equilibrated with whatever lay outside. The pain was inescapable and he pleaded with lips barely moving for it to stop even it if meant death, yet his body even in its ruin fought dumbly for life. He found himself lurching upright like a puppet pulled by strings, eyes springing open, finding nothing but darkness before him, and he wasn't sure if he was still in the capsule or had been blinded.

He tried to reach up to pass his fingers before his eyes but saw nothing but such was his dislocation he was not even sure if he had moved his arm at all. He heard only his own breathing, so edged that even to his own ears it brought its own escalating panic. It drove him further down the spiral of the feedback loop that tightened his chest until his whole body began heaving up and down uselessly for air, throat constricting until it felt as if he were breathing through a straw.

He knew he was in shock, he knew he had to calm down, but his body seemed controlled by something that refused conscious command to slow, working itself into paralysis. The roaring in his ears grew louder, the memory flashing back; the moment the engines had failed, his gut weightless and rising up his throat, buffeted and thrown about in his tiny and darkened prison as he fell with no idea of how high he had flown and what lay beneath.

He snatched out his hand, splayed and desperate, suddenly claustrophobic in the darkness, his blind fingers skating against the wall as close as the lid of coffin before his face.

“Let me out for Christ's sake! Let me out!”

The panel gave a click and moved fractionally, a hollow sucking of seals being broken. The man froze, squinting against the blood-red light of the setting sun that dazzled his eyes, and he realized he was not blind after all. There was a moment of hesitation, then with a hydraulic whir, the panel opened completely. Without support, the man tumbled out and slid down the side of the metal hull, a chrysalis spewing forth its damaged pupae. He lay there upon still hot ground, baked smooth from the force of the impact, a line of smoldering smoke drifting noiselessly up into the sky.

---

The boy worked on his back, twisted about in the tiny cavity and hands up before his head, working the screwdriver by quarter turns at the chipped enameled panel above him, buried in the rubble. His torch was orange and dull and the shadow of his head made it difficult to see what he was doing. The last screw fell out and the boy switched tools, prizing at the edges until the seal that had formed over time uncountable finally cracked open and in the darkness revealed a tiny blue glowing diamond. His fingers worked against it, pinching it free, and finally it fell into the palm of his hand. The hole was too low to turn around so he had to work his way out backwards on his stomach until his feet were in space and he was able to lever and twist himself out. He put his tools in a satchel that lay in the tunnel and carefully put the glowing crystal into a small tin box, joining a handful of others that rattled like teeth against the metal. He knew his way through the tangled ruins well enough to not need the lamp, for every inch of this narrow passageway he had cleared himself, digging further and deeper into the collapsed ruins of the building. The light of day grew stronger and took on color as he approached the surface, and he emerged with his eyes blinking. The sun lay almost touching the horizon, a deep red light of distant heat, the skeletons of ruined buildings casting long deep shadows across the landscape. Everything lay still, disturbed only by the flutter of air of pigeon taking flight and cutting a line through the air. His breathing slowed, then he held it, and all was so preternaturally quiet he could hear only the half-imagined subsonic hum of the citadel; a skulking block crouched among the empty buildings far away in the distance.

There came sudden movement from behind and the boy huddled in on himself as the huge spider-like droid crouched over him. The boy proffered the satchel with hand shaking piousness and the droid, massive and casting a huge shadow against the wall of debris, lowered itself like a crab until its body was at the level of the boy's eyes. It made no sound, but the boy read something in those blank black discs arranged like a row of spider's eyes across its midsection. The corner of the boy's lips twitched and he took a step backwards and the droid raised itself up again upon six legs and the boy almost fell, stumbling and just managing to keep his feet beneath him as he bolted down the mountain of garbage, the droid gliding preternaturally overhead upon feet as sharp as throwing knives.

The boy hurried with hunched back along a tortured path through the rubble following the contours of the wreckage of shattered sheets of tarmac and slumping ruins of buildings concealing precipitous drops and voids of blackness. He moved through places where streets lay mostly intact, where many of the buildings still stood, cold and grey, roofs tipped inwards like a trap ready to be sprung. The sun had dropped below the horizon and the light quickly faded and before he had gone another few blocks it was a dark as night. The droid still paced after him, black upon black and utterly silent.

The boy cut through a parking lot, cutting across to a place where the earth had split apart, a wide ravine of darkness. Without pause, he dropped down the embankment, kicking his heels into the soft dirt to slow his descent, uprooting a few scrubby weeds as he went. The droid was not perturbed by the shifting and unstable ground in the slightest, forelegs extended and hind legs high to keep its body horizontal.

The boy became aware of how dry his mouth was as he began to breathe in the cool and languid air, his empty military issue water bottle already out of his belt and in hand. He felt its scratches and weakness in the plastic in the way it gave under his fingers, and knew he should find a replacement. In the beginning, there had been plenty lying about, as long as one was prepared to approach the bodies... Such was his distraction in the narrowing of his purpose that he forgot his natural caution and did not notice the whiff of smoke upon the air until he was at the bottom of the ravine. He stopped mid-stride, cocking his head and sniffing, but there was nothing but the silence of the night, and he was no longer sure if he had simply imagined the smell. He was about to walk again when he heard a noise, a hollow clank of metal upon stone. The boy shot a look upward at the droid, who had changed its stance, raising itself, a subtle tilt forward giving the air of intent readiness.

The boy dropped into a crouch and moved through thickening undergrowth and tangled remains of an old steel staircase until he saw a pale light of a nascent fire, flickering and growing, the cracking of burning twigs now reaching his ears. There was someone down there, at the spring, standing now to return to the fire, silhouette rotund and lumbering, cloaking in a mountain of rags like some comic book monster. The figure, a woman he suddenly realized, raised her head as if she had heard his approach, and the boy snapped to his feet and fled back into the trees, running headlong and panting up the slope with his heart racing. As he ran, he realized he had dropped his bottle, but he did not pause.

On the road again he was able to pick up speed, the thin soles of his worn shoes slapping upon the road, hearing the tap-tap-tap of the droid's feet spidering behind him. His pace slowed as he tired, but he did not stop until he had arrived at his shelter, a mound seemingly indistinguishable from the rest, and near the top was a half collapsed ring of sandbags and an overturned and damaged tripod, its legs twisted like a broken umbrella. The droid did not climb with him, but stayed at the base, blending into darkness, ink upon ink. The boy cast a furtive look about, then opened his satchel and carefully tipped the scattering of glowing beads into his palm. He then crouched and reached into a space in the rubble and withdrew a battered metal tin. He rolled the beads from his hand into the box where they joined a modest pile within, replacing the dirty rag over the top of them all, then closing the lid on the box.

He sat back on his heels, exhaling and legs shaking with exhaustion and remnants of fear. It was cold and he hunched his shoulders, and he continued to scan his surrounds in the deepening night, watching for signs of movement. The droid lay below, picked out only vaguely as a slight curved reflection of the rising moonlight. He kept the metal box close in his lap, clutching at it, ready to flee should he see movement anywhere in the full panorama of threat. It had been a long time since he had had to relocate, a long time since he had seen another person, but there was nothing here he could not leave behind. Nothing, except for the box.

By degrees, the rigidity of fear bled from his limbs, an easing ratchet of tension in the strings of his muscles. With the lessening of fear, baser needs ripened in his mind: his mouth a bowl of dust, empty of saliva, the pain in his back, the headache eating at his temples. His head dropped and he succumbed to the claws of sleep and half-collapsed into a shivering ball, shreds of his mind skimming across the borders of sleep. Time lost meaning, every moment an aching eternity. He awoke in fits and starts, the moon seemingly moving across the sky like a flashbulb animation. The horizon to the north glowed with the burning electric lights of the citadel, and to the south, the stars came out strong and sharp and cold against the blackness.

---

He felt an odd sense of displacement. He knew he was descending a stairwell with cold concrete walls, but he didn't feel as if he were quite himself. It were as if a transparent copy of his sense of proprioception had been badly laid out upon this body that walked down the metal stairs. He knew there was someone following behind him in this plunging subterranean shaft, just on the edges of his vision. He could sense her warmth even from here, and a smell haunting in its indefinability. He longed to direct his attention to her, to at least a linger a while until she caught up with him, but in the manner of a dream he had no control of his actions and continued ever deeper without change to his cadence. His way was lit by the orange cone of the flashlight he held in one hand, slashing it to and fro as he walked. The stairs were thin plate metal that rang hollowly with every footfall, with holes in the steps, so that the light where it shone through to the lower levels was patchy and shadowed. His free hand trailed lightly upon the handrail, picking up dry flecks of rust in his palm. The staircase descended deeper and deeper and the air took on the stillness and warmth of a cave, a heavy dust over everything, flashbulb illumination of bones of birds and rats picked up in the dancing light. The earth pressed in above him, sensing an intruder, this narrow tunnel bored by the hands of man now crumbling at the sides, the walls running slick with water. He tried to keep his breathing shallow, revolting at the dust drawn in with every breath adhering to his lungs like a tacky gum.

The close sounds of the stairwell vanished suddenly and with his next step his foot struck something unexpectedly high and he had to reach back, hand upon the railing, afraid he would lose his balance in the vertiginous darkness. He realized he had come to the end of the staircase. With his next step, his boot came down upon something that snapped like a tangle of dry sticks, the echo disappearing into the void. The cone of his flashlight directed outwards faded into the nothingness inside the cavern, the ground as far as he could tell level, although littered with lumps and debris. Strange serpentine shadows moved under the sweep of the torchlight and a chill raced up his spine as his mind pieced together the puzzle. Hundreds of people had lain down here, ribcages collapsed in jumbles, scraps of hair clinging to skulls, undisturbed by scavengers and slowly collapsing like poorly stacked cords of wood.

Someone spoke, loud and close at his back, and it was only then he remembered the girl that had been following him down the stairs, and he turned, startled to the degree it wrenched him from the dream and the boy awoke.

---

When the boy arrived at the ravine, the air was still cold and the sun only just above the jagged teeth of the shattered horizon. The droid followed in a crouch upon spidery legs as he once again descended the steep slopes. His only hope was that the woman had gone, or else he would have to go thirsty another day. He moved cautiously, checking his footing and retreat options at every step, dropping down to the base of the ravine and once again into the scattering of trees and scrubs at the base.

Then he saw her, still camped at the spring. She was a large woman, rolls of fat under her chin, her forearms protruding from her sleeves hanging with flesh, standing much taller than him. She was moving about, packing things into a bag, a fire crackling and something sizzling upon a pan, the smell of hitting the back of his nose and throat and he almost collapsed, this stomach twisting over itself. The boy drew closer to himself and squatted down, prepared to wait it out, when the woman called out over her shoulder.

“Good morning lad. Back for this?” Back still to him, she held out his canteen at arm's length, swinging heavily, its flanks still dripping water.

“He's a big one, isn't he?” said the woman, this time half-turning towards him, reaching out and placing the canteen upon the stones as far away as she could reach.

“Your droid.” She gave a toss of her head. “Big fellow, isn't he?”

The boy did not reply, frozen solid.

The woman turned her back once again and gave a chuckle. “Sorry to startle you lad. Come on out, sit down, have something to eat. I won't bite. I promise.”

The boy stepped forward and into the clearing surrounding the spring, edging forward just far enough to snatch up the canteen, then retreating a handful of steps and clutching it to his chest.

The woman cocked her head. “Here, take some food, you look half starved. Now a little guy like you, what are you doing here all by yourself? Why aren't you up there with the rest of them? Your daddy here?”

The boy shook his head.

“How about Mummy?”

Again, he shook his head.

“Plenty of kids up there.” The woman looked up through the trees, in the direction of the settlement. “Must be tough by yourself. But you've got him though, right.” She chuckled and leant forward, rocking the pan then tilting it, the sausages dropping out onto a cracked plate, rolling like contorted sacks, something wrong and disfigured in the way they fell.

The boy stood rooted to the spot, small birdcage of a chest working. The woman drew closer, her steps rattling upon the rounded stones in small cascades like a bag full of teeth being ground together. She stopped a few paces away when she saw him stiffen and back towards the line of trees.

“Come on lad, have a bit of breakfast.” She gave him a wink, and crouched low and put the plate upon the stony ground and retreated three full steps.

The boy looked at the offering, eyes darting left and right, knowing some comfort in the fact the droid stood above him yet not confident it would actually come to his aid. He edged forward enough to snatch at the plate and his fingers wrapped around the sausage and cramming the mass into his mouth where his saliva drenched and washed it clean down his gullet in two swift chews.

The woman gave a smile and half-turned in what the boy imagined elaborate nonchalance. She resumed packing her gear.

“I'm heading up to the settlement, if you want to come along,” she said, not looking at him. “I could really use some help. I've got friends, they are working on something that could help us. Help us, against... Them.” The woman straightened, and cast a look towards the horizon. The boy followed her gaze and was surprised to see that even this low in the ravine he could see the very top of the citadel, a spine towering against the morning sky.

There was a pause. The woman looked at the boy.

“Don't say much, do you?”

The empty plate hung lax in the boy's hand. He could feel his stomach give a little twist and he feared for a moment if he would simply vomit up the whole grisly mess. He must have closed his eyes, for an instant later knew hew he had made a mistake, panic flushing through his system, but the woman had already grabbed at his hand, her flesh soft and clammy and he was twisting away out her her grasp and falling backwards hard upon his tailbone against the rocks. He crabbed backwards, the woman not chasing him but simply standing there, a self-satisfied smile upon her lips. It took him a moment to realize he had been too slow. He raised his wrist, examining the band she had slapped around it, tugging at it with his other hand. It seemed to be made out of a single piece of material, stiff yet vaguely pliant like thick rubber. The boy burst into a run to the trees but the thing on his wrist drew him back, the force doubling with every step further away he took, until finally he was struggling for every tiny scramble, moaning and grunting wordlessly, feet furrowing into the dirt, his entire arm pulled towards the woman as if tethered by an invisible band. The boy's eyes rolled back and he sought out the droid that stood statuesque on the edge of the tree line, impassive and seemingly inoperative. The boy's veins seethed with the bitter anger of betrayal, having some strange echoing memory that somehow the droid had been complicit in whatever was going on.

The woman advanced slowly, and as she did he felt the pressure upon his wrist easing. The boy folded his hand, trying to force the bones through the band, determined to do so even if it every one of them.

“I can blow it at any time,” the woman said. “It won't be pretty.”

“Who are you?” the boy shouted.

“Ah, so you can talk! I think you know who we are.”

“Please, let me go. I'll take you to where I keep it.” The boy tugged at the band on his wrist, twisting it close to his chest, his flesh now red, the skin broken. “I have a full box, you can have it all, everything.”

“We don't care about your scraps boy. We want you for something else entirely.”

The boy stopped, confusion in his eyes. “Then why?”

The woman tossed her head to the droid. “Him. Ex-military. Indestructible. And it follows your every command.”

“You've got it wrong.”

“Oh, really? We will see about that. Now, I suggest you co-operate, and leave that thing alone. Easy to get an infection out here.”

“I won't go. I won't go against them, they know everything, they can't be touched!”

“We're going to try. When we're done, you will be free. Cheer the fuck up boy, I'm rescuing you.”

---

As the girl approached she saw that despite the hour, the door was cracked open, a wedge of light leaking out. She pushed at the door and it swung open. An overhead light illuminated only a small portion of the room; directly under it was a bed, upon which sat a young man wearing a worn plain t-shirt and track-pants, head bowed as if in deep though, loose fists at his temples. He did not look up as she took a tentative step inside. The rest of the room stretched back into darkness, a mass of shadows of stacks of strange equipment.

“You've been waiting?” she asked.

The man on the bed looked up. His head and face were shaved smooth, the lines of his face lean, the muscles of his neck dense and ropey from hard work and little sustenance. Most striking was the scar that ran up his right cheekbone, dipping slightly into the very edge of the concave of the eye socket, crossing his eyebrow like a ploughed line through a field.

“Had a feeling you'd be here.”

The girl smiled, edging silkily in the room, arching her back ever so slightly.

“Then you're getting better at it,” she said. “You know, everyone thinks you're crazy going without a Seconder. You know how easy -”

“What are you doing here?”

She halted her advance, smile fading a little upon her lips, head cocked as if listening for something. Then, hearing something, the smile returned to her face and she resumed her approach.

“You can't keep running from your fate. This is much bigger than all of us.” She stood right before him, and she lowered herself to her haunches, keeping her back straight, all but presenting the swell of her breasts to his downcast gaze. She reached for his hands but he pulled them back into his lap, so she simply cupped them together raised them to her lips, forefingers tapping against one another.

“I need to show you something.”

“The room full of bones? I know.”

“I know that you know.” The coy smile returned to her lips. “Nothing is surprise to us. You should know that by now. But we've still got to do it.”

“Yeah, I get it.”

Her gaze moved past him and to the back of the room, to the machinery covered in canvas and shrouded in semi-darkness.

“That's your father's?” she asked.

“Did you want something?”

“They told me he dragged himself all the way to the tower, died a few days later. He left only the programming on that droid...”

“He wasn't my father.” The man's mouth formed a dark, grim line.

“Your father's project is the only chance we have. We need him.” She nodded towards the shape at the back of the room, the shape covered in canvas.

The man waved a dismissive hand. “Take the damn lot then. And no, before you ask, I shut that fucker down ten years ago and I don't intend to boot him up ever again.”

“We know the future, dumbass. You're going to fix it, and you know it.”

“You don't know any better than I what happens in those last few hours leading up the Silence. It's a mess of white noise.”

“Yeah, well maybe I don't, but we still have three years until then. But I know you do get it running, so let's just get on with it.”

“What if I refuse? Things can't be set in stone.”

“Here I was thinking you had actually learnt something!” The girl blinked and shook her head. “Come on, let's go.”

She saw his reluctance as he stood slowly, unfolding himself upright like a folded toy made from sticks in awkward, jerky movements. Her eyes narrowed.

You're afraid of the ruins? There are rumors of another uprising planned, you know.”

“They don't know what's best for them,” he growled.

She tried to analyze his expression and finally shook her head.

“I don't know if you're being serious.”

In response, the man simply hunched his shoulders, took up a jacket hung by the door, and strode out.

---

The boy followed the fat woman and four other gaunt men as they moved in an awkward attempt at stealth. Each of them carried a satchel, held close and heavy to their bodies. The carpet upon the concrete stairway had long since been worn away to colorless tatters, with only a few remaining fluorescent tubes to light the way. The droid barely fit up the stairway, moving sideways, crablike, legs folded close to its body.

The boy knew something was wrong. The sensation clawed at his gut. Tears welled in his eyes and it was hard to see. Once again he worked at the bracelet upon his wrist and the red welt of broken skin raised up about it.

The fat woman held up a hand and made a quick motion. The droid had stopped, and worked its by folding itself up through a doorway.

“Where is it going?” she whispered. “is this it? Are we here?”

“He's not my droid,” growled one of the men.

“Is this it?” the woman hissed again, this time her question directed at the boy, threatening him with her fingers fingers clawed around the detonator. The boy turned away wordlessly from her glare and hunched his shoulders.

“Leave the bastard alone,” grumbled the man. “Come on, it's got to be here.”

The man followed after the droid, then the three other men followed close after. The fat woman paused a moment, eyes narrowed, then grabbed at the boy's shoulders and forcefully propelled him through the door.

Huddled together with the others by the door, the boy saw the droid had moved fearlessly into the center of the vast space of the room, a floor of marble. Tall windows reached from the floor all the way up into vaulted ceiling, revealing a breathtaking view of the city; hues of blue and black and oddly distorted shapes of the wrecks of skyscrapers.

The group moved, doubled over at the waist, spreading out along the walls.

“What is he doing?” hissed the fat woman.

The droid stood immobile immobile in the center of the room, its legs centered perfectly atop an eight sided star painted in garish gold paint upon the floor.

They all hesitated, and one of the men was about to say something when suddenly the droid dropped into a crouch as a quick rattling pop erupted, as if a row of firecrackers had gone off from every corner. The boy's eyes stung with the sudden flash, seeking out the droid, but he was blinded by the whiteness and, blinking his eyes, strained desperately to see to and piece together the maelstrom of noise.

Then came stunned and mute darkness, punctuated by the limp heavy sounds of torn-apart bodies falling to the ground, and the plastic scratching of the detonator as it slid from Agnes' hand and across the floor.

The boy watched it glide, a blinking light in the darkness, spinning and slowing until coming to a rest at the base of a boot. The boy's eyes moved upwards and the outline of a tall cloaked man resolved from the background darkness. He lofted a machine gun across his shoulder as he bent to pick up the detonator. He did not look up, and the boy remained motionless and hidden in the shadows, unsure if he had been seen.

The figure cast off his hood at the same time as a bank of spotlights switched on with a hollow sounding clunking noise, the stark white light picking out in fine detail the bodies massacred upon the floor.

“Welcome, boy.”

The boy raised himself from the floor, hands slipping upon the floor. Blood dripped liberally from a long cut that ran from his cheekbone, grazing past his eye, to the top of his head. The boy tilted his head so the blood ran from his face and squinted, his vision blurred, at last distinguishing the shape of the droid that stood in a half-crouch behind the cloaked figure. It took the boy's, his wits dullard with shock, to piece together why it had not reacted to the attack. It had drawn them into this trap.

“Are they... Are they all dead?”

The man gave a shrug, and dusting off the front of his cloak, he considered the detonator in his hand.

“Do you care?”

“Yes! No!” The boy closed his eyes and felt his senses burning.

The man moved to him and the boy flinched away, but not quickly enough. The man hauled him to his feet and directed him to the full length window. He stood there with him, side by side, looking out at the ruins of the city from the vantage of twenty floors up. The low sun of morning banked the grey sky with deep red hues that lit the bellies of the long clouds and cast jagged shadows over the decayed teeth of what had once been skyscrapers, now only frameworks of steel and broken glass. From here, the encroachment of the twisted pale green of the foliage was obvious, creeping up the cracks and expanding.

“Look at that. The world is not what it once was. There are limits on how many of us can live here, above the squabbling and racked starvation of the ruins. Count yourself fortunate your father deemed you worthy to take his place among us.”

The boy squirmed and twisted, but the man still held his wrist in a vice grip.

“What?” I don't-”

“All this, it's part of his plan. Get the scavengers to collect as much as possible, bring it all here themselves.”

“Collect...?”

“The antimatter capsules, boy, don't be an idiot. God only knows what he wanted that much for.” He curled his lip. “Could bring down the whole tower. Although, of course, we know it won't.”

“I don't understand.”

“I'm not surprised,” the man grunted. He turned the boy's wrist over to examine the bracelet for a moment, then the detonator he held in his other hand. He pushed a button and the boy winced, but the bracelet about his wrist simply gave a muted beep and split apart. The boy gave a terrific tug and tore himself free of the man and scrambled away, causing the bracelet to fly from his wrist, the two halves clattering to the floor.

“What's going on?” said the boy. “Who are you?”

The man blinked and smiled without mirth. “You need to be quiet and listen if you are to survive.”

“To what?”

“To yourself. From the future. You will be your own best teacher. You are living the final iteration in a countless series that has come before, each re-written and erased each time there has been a change, until there is only one left.”

“Please... I have no idea what you are talking about.”

The man sighed. “If we listen, we can hear the future, and change our actions. Look, enough of the monkey chatter, I don't have the time.” He turned and began to stride out of the room, but paused as he passed one of the bodies of the men laying torn apart upon the floor, giving it a poke with the toe of his boot. “Oh, and this is your mess. You clean it up.”

---

She was in the workshop when he arrived, dragging the heavy cables across the floor and was attempting to plug them into the metallic dome occupying the center of the room. He watched for a moment in silence by the door, hidden in the confusion of stacked equipment and noise of pumps and fans and whirring belts, until he grew bored and spoke loudly over the background noise.

“What are you doing?”

His voice started her. Her head spun in his direction and she froze a moment, then scrambled with fumbling motions to a rifle and slung it up to her shoulder, casting a slew of papers and debris from the desk as she did so. It was an old weapon, wooden stock pale and worn, barrel foreshortened with perspective as it directed straight at his head.

He waited until the miscellany of items from the desk rattled away.

“Caught you off-guard for once,” he said. “Kinda sucks, not knowing the future, doesn't it?”

He took a step into the room and she held up the gun. He stopped and spread his hands, and gave a wry grin.

“The Silence, it's coming at last. The pain... it's... it's something, right?”

She still made no comment.

He took another step forward and she responded by raising the run to her shoulder and squinted down the sights as if taking aim at a far distant target rather than someone a few strides distant.

“Don't think I'll hesitate,” she said. “I've run the calculations, there's only room for one to make it into high orbit.”

The man worked his neck back and forth, rubbing at his temples. “You think I don't know that?”

“Then you were going to betray me!”

“No. No-one might be able to hear the future now this damned noise has set in, but at least I've had experience without it. I can make guesses. I knew you'd try this.”

“You can't stop me.” Her finger trembled upon the trigger.

“I won't.”

“What do you mean?”

“The craft. It's yours. I don't want to go.”

“But what about the...? After it happens...”

“Bring it on.” The man took a step to the side and slumped his bodyweight back into a broken office chair that skewed upon rickety wheels. “At least soon we'll find out what's on the other side.”

“There is no other side,” the girl snarled. “Only escape. Now get back.” She moved forward, the held the rifle with only one wavering hand as she bent to retrieve the stack of cables she'd dropped. She tried to pull at them without success as they caught upon some snag in the furnishings. The man watched from the chair, bemused.

“You don't trust me?”

The girl's voice sudden broke, raised in high pitch. “Shut up!”

“Where's everyone else? Shouldn't you -?”

“Everyone is in the bunker. Hiding their asses. They don't know, they refuse to know, that it won't help them.”

“You didn't show them what you showed me? The room of bones?”

“Have everyone trying to get on this craft as well? You think I'm an idiot?”

“It's charged,” the man said softly.

“What?” Her voice was almost a shout.

“That. It's charged. It's ready. The antimatter capsules are installed. It's ready to go.”

She threw down the cables.

“Then why the fuck didn't you tell me?”

“You're the one who-”

“Shut up! Shut up!” The rifle now pointed down at the floor. “God, it hurts.”

The man did not say anything, but simply spun himself in lazy half-circles back and forth in the half-collapsed office chair.

The girl licked her lips and sniffed and the barrel of the rifle drooped. “I'm sorry. This is all just so... You don't know how wrong it feels like not having any memories of what is to come.”

“Are you scared?”

The girl paused, then gave a slight twitch of her lip.

“Yeah. Yeah, I'm freaked the hell out.”

“You have no idea of what is going to happen next?”

“No.”

The man grinned wolfishly and the girl's suspicions immediately came returned. She took a few steps back, gun raised.

“Get back.” She reached behind her and pulled the canvas down from the craft. Despite himself, a shiver raced over his flesh at the sight. The hatch was open, the inside small and cramped. At the rear craft four squat nozzles projected from within through opened hatches.

She strapped herself in, keeping the rifle levelled at him as she did so. It made her movements slow and awkward. All around them it seemed the very air was starting to pulsate, building static charge.

“Wait,” said the man suddenly, jerking to his feet so swiftly the chair rocketed backwards and overturned as it hit something. “I've got to tell you something.”

The girl's lips hardened and she raised a hand to press the button to close the hatch.

The man stopped, mouth ajar, headache rocking through his body. “I lied,” he said softly, beneath his breath.

She gave a sudden jerk forward, restrained by the straps about her shoulders, and continued thrashing about, neck arched, spittle flying. He narrowed his eyes and forced himself not to look away. He would do her the justice not to look away at least.

He waited for a full minute, long after she had stopped moving. It was awkward to get her out, her flesh blackened and the smell overwhelming, but he did. He thought he would feel something more, and was careful not to look closely, keeping his head averted when he had her up against his chest in order to pull her out, but he surprised himself; he felt no emotion. Perhaps it was the noise in his head. The rising din of echoing voices, the coming crescendo.

He lay her body down upon the floor then climbed into the craft and sealed the hatch, darkness sealing him in, making his awareness of sounds and the hidden motions of activating machinery all the more acute. Values hissed, the seat transmitting vibrations in some complex indecipherable language, then all was quiet for a moment. Without warning everything exploded and there was a smashing as the roof gave way and the craft rocketed skywards. Acceleration pressed down on him, flattened, every internal organ pressed into the cushions at his back, a terrible acceleration leaving no room for thought. Dark and windowless, he gave himself into whatever may come.

---

Down here, deep in the room of bones, the air was still and warm like a cave. A heavy dust of matter lay over everything, the echo of decay and jumbled pyres of the bones the huddled mass of humanity that had cowered here and died. The man felt a prickling of unease, a primal fear of things unknown, as if he were an intruder. The earth pressed in above them, this narrow tunnel bored by the hands of man now crumbling at the sides, the walls running slick with water, cracks in the concrete.

“This is old,” he whispered. He spoke between breaths, his lungs drawing in that heavy dust laden air. It felt as if it were sticking like tacky gum to the branches in his lungs. He tried to keep his inhalations shallow. “Why in hell were you don't down here in the first place?”

“Don't worry, we'll be ok. If you had a Seconder, you'd be more confident too. Can't very well send messages back to yourself once you're dead.”

“I'll take my chances.”

She sensed something in his voice and she stepped closer, raising the flashlight between them so it illuminated her face in stark up-cast shadows. “You've spoiled it, haven't you?”

“Spoiled what?”

“About us.” She gave a sly smile.

“Jesus Christ. No. Not a word.”

She stepped closer still, this time her presence in that darkness brushing up against his chest and he felt an instinctive warmth thrill through his veins. He swallowed down his emotion and kept the mask of impassivity. She scanned his face, and he could tell he was listening - listening to her voice of her future self, all those possible branches narrowed down a single one. She gave a quick nod and flicked the torch back down.

“Good. Because I want it to be a surprise. Now come here, this is it. Can you see? It's happened before.”

“What has?”

She ran her fingers down the strata of layers embedded in the wall, her flesh stark white in the torchlight.

“They keep it secret. They don't want panic. They know digging and hiding is no use. It's not going to protect them. The thing that's coming is going to take us all. All of the future voices working into a great crescendo and then stopping. Our very ability to see into the future vanishing past that one point. A great bubble is going to swallow up everything, a bubble of time...” Her voice drifted off, and she caught herself, shaking herself awake. “Digging isn't going to get us out. The only way, when the time comes, is to get out of the bubble. To get high enough, so that when everything resets, we won't be caught in it. Your father's craft. The droid. It's the only way.”

---

The light of the blood-red sky shot straight into his eyes and he bowed his head away. He managed to stand, noticing as he did so his shoes were half burnt and took a few shaky steps away, slipping and having to catch himself. He looked down and saw the sand had been melted and cooled into a sloped polished sheen by the firing thrusters and impact. He had to crouch, painfully, and limp up and out of the bowl. He had just made it to the periphery when he heard movement from the craft he had left at the base of the crater, and he turned and involuntarily sat down hard, watching dizzily as the four jets retracted, jerking a little as they did so with some protesting whirring of misaligned levers, but finally with some awkward tugging all was stowed and the shell was complete and smoothed. Motors whirred within, and eight legs unfolded from recesses in its belly, causing it to stand a little skewed at first, then straightening as servos compensated and recovered. It took up a half-crouch and spidered up the slope toward him, pincer feet digging into the stone like ice picks.

“Tough fucker,” the man said.

He turned his eyes to the horizon, and could see the silhouette of the tower if he shaded his eyes against the sun. He tried to stand straight but searing pain flared like a spiny devil in his gut and he doubled over, coughing blood onto the ground in an ugly smear where it sat gleaming like bird shit. He cast a glance up and sideways at the droid, the angled light of the sun highlighting the old scar running across his forehead and above his right eye.

“Make yourself useful, you dumb bastard. Get some help...” He waved his hand absently towards the ruins. “Get some more power next time. Bloody half-assed...”

The man's vision blurred and he had to drop his head until the wave of dizziness passed. When he came to again he found he was upon all fours, and from the corner of his eye he saw the droid had not moved and his lips curled. Without word, he drew himself up and started the trek towards the tower.



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