■ My submissions ■ Partner’s submissions
The rumblings of a fuel-starved RV carved through the stale air, sputtering along a trail of asphalt and paint which was slowly being reclaimed by the earth below it. Charles cursed under his breath and ripped a sigh through his teeth, knowing that his next few hours would be spent recharging the cells for his improvised engine sooner than he had planned. The rust-covered behemoth finally came to rest near a small patch of forest, which was less than ideal due to the fact that the lanky black… things which now roamed the earth were known to use trees as cover. He supposed that mounting a turret on the roof of the RV would prepare him for the worst if he needed to react in a hurry and defend himself. One could never take enough precautions in regards to what could be waiting outside the safety of a reinforced, improvised all-terrain vehicle.
Though it wasn’t circled on the calendar which hung above his fold-out bed, today was the seven-year anniversary since the extra-terrestrials launched a massive invasion of Earth, attempting to wipe out a species for reasons that the human race could only speculate. Despite the uncertainty regarding their intentions, however, the changes which were sweeping across Earth made themselves indisputably known.
For one, the wind seemed to blow from all directions at once in sporadic bursts. There was also a type of strange, otherworldly, creeping type of vegetation slowly swallowing the indigenous plant life in such a way that could almost be heard, if one stood still and listened close. The sky above always seemed to be a muted gray, with a pale sun prying its light through the thickened shroud of muddied atmosphere.
These changes, however, were not entirely the result of a ruthless otherworldly threat. In fact, humankind had halted the advance of the aliens with the desperation of hastily-developed weapons that were decades ahead of their time. There was no time to consider, however, the devastating consequences to the environment, wildlife, and everything in between.
This didn’t stop Charles from accepting his scouting assignment for a budding colony of post-war survivors, which had ballooned from six hundred to three thousand. He was tasked with roaming uncharted areas and uncovering survivors outside of the colony’s walls, if he could find them, and offer them the opportunity to start life anew. Most were not only willing but eager, and Charles made a number of life-long friends who proved their usefulness amongst the people back home.
There was a disturbing hitch in Earth’s fostering rebound, however. Rumors were spreading that a small group of humans colluded with the aliens after being convinced of their species’ need for removal. They accepted technological augmentations which granted them superhuman abilities, helping to ensure the success of the extra-terrestrial’s initial assault. These treacherous conspirators, along with the crawling black monsters, were the last remnants of the invasion that had lost contact with the alien species which controlled them. Unfortunately, they still operated on ingrained commands to neutralize all human life.
After a moment to gather his bearings, Charles set out and embraced the outside world with conquered reluctance. He emerged from the side-hatched door of his RV wearing his usual pair of blue jeans with a dusty leather jacket and faded Nirvana t-shirt. He never did much with his jet-black hair beyond slicking it back with his own saliva, as having to spend any time styling it seemed a pointless endeavor. Deep brown eyes kept a keen watch on movements near and far, ready to discern, demand, and react. Various indentations across his arms, and one faded scar across his left cheek, had stories to tell to ears who would hear them.
Hours passed, and Charles had assembled most of the large metallic receivers in a circular pattern around the stationary RV. Sunlight was now being collected, which would be transferred to the fuel cells of the vehicle after a standardized conversion. A few more hours of patience would result in several day’s worth of travel. After dusting off his hands, Charles decided to roam the perimeter to kill time and see what he could find.
A dilapidated shack in the distance had caught Charles’ attention since he ventured out from his RV. He approached slowly with the caution of a paranoid soldier before hearing a noise, which immediately set him on edge. Charles quickly determined that it wasn’t a crawler and put a hold on his instinct to flee. Quickly and quietly, he loaded a small pistol and readied it in his right hand. He positioned himself a few yards away before barking his command.
“Show yourself, whoever you are, or be fired upon!”
What was that old cliché; any port in a storm? Muted blues shifted from the ominously dark clouds rolling across the sky to the small weather worn building in front of her. If there was another option around, she certainly didn’t see it. A slight frown knitted a smooth brow as she mulled over the pros and cons of stepping into a barn that looked like a mighty fine home for all manner of creepy crawlies.
A flash of lightning abruptly seared across the sky followed by the predictable crack-boom of thunder. A quick breath was sucked in and every muscle in her body tensed in involuntary fear of that noise. What was it about thunderstorms that brought out the frightened child in us all? The impending storm, as well as the recent adrenaline rush, was instrumental in encouraging her to step forward to inspect the structure in hopes that it would be adequate shelter for at least an evening.
Rusted hinges loudly squealed out their protests as she used the scuffed toe of her boot to gently nudge the door open. It swung back slowly revealing exactly what she’d feared; cobwebs. One would think that in a world that had been turned upside down that something as trivial as a spider wouldn’t even cause her to her bat an eyelash but it did. Oh, but it did.
Old straw littered the wooden floor and further into the back, nestled along the wall, there were a few bales of hay barely held together by the loose bands of twine. A fat drop of rain fell on her forearm and she glanced over to it, watching as it began the slow roll off the edge of her arm. Another quickly splashed down across her cheek followed by yet another on her hand. The trepidation she’d felt earlier upon entering a den of arachnids was now replaced by the urgency to stay dry. Thus a tentative step was taken inside removing herself from the steadily increasing onslaught of rain. The mere action of placing the sole of a well worn boot on the floor stirred up dust that had long settled to swirl in the air.
The compound bow was lowered from its customary resting place on her shoulder to rest against the wall just inside the door. A backpack and knife belt soon followed suit and joined the meager collection of possessions. A deep breath was in haled then exhaled, disturbing a strand of pale blonde hair that had come loose from the hastily pulled together ponytail that crowned her head. It had been weeks since she’d even seen a mirror and quite honestly, she wasn’t sure she wanted to. It would take a bit of work to make it comfortable but at the very least, she’d be dry.
The storm had rolled through by the next morning and thanks to a small tarp that she’d stretched over one corner of the old barn, she’d been able to remain dry and relatively unscathed through night. Several bales of hay had been utilized as a barrier between her person and the hardness of the wooden floor. Although she felt the urge to break camp and press on, there were a few matters that needed her attention before the trek continued.
The needle was pushed through the thick canvas fabric and pulled through the other side until it was taut before the process began all over again. It was ironic that her mother had tried for years to get her to learn to do domestic tasks such as cooking and sewing; stating that one day she was going to be on her own and would have to know such things in order to take care of herself. One corner of her mouth twitched upwards into a wry smile. If she’d only known then what she knew now – she would have done so many things differently.
The final stitch had been taken and she brought the thread, along with the canvas backpack, up to her mouth to use her teeth to snap through the thread to separate the items. It was at that moment the foreign, rumbling sound of a distant engine cut through the familiar sounds of morning. Both hands stilled at their current task, her breath caught and held as she strained to focus all senses on that one reverberating sound. There was no doubt about it, it was definitely an engine. The knowledge was as equally exciting as it was terrifying. Who would have thought that it was possible for the human body to experience both excitement and sheer panic at the exact same exact moment? A part of her was elated to even ponder the possibilities of another human being in such a close proximity; the other part was absolutely terrified.
Unfortunately the demise of the old world structure turned some of those who had survived its collapse into ne entirely different breed of people. Most of them seemed just as frightened and lacking in resources as she was, but instead of choosing the softer side of humanity, many of them had elected to callously and cruelly take from others rather than make the effort to rebuild a civilized society. A quick little prayer was sent up on a whispered breath in the hope that whoever was chugging along in the motorized vehicle wasn’t one of these people.
As the sound of the engine drew nearer, she was horridly breaking camp. The tarp had been pulled down and was hastily stuffed into the backpack along with the lengths of braided rope that were utilized to hold it in place. The woolen blankets were rolled and soon joined the tarp. It wasn’t until after she’d finished packing and securing her things that she realized the sound of the engine had completely stopped. Had it already gone by? Where was it? The icy cold fingers of panic traveled down her spine as the reality of the situation made itself fully known.
There was no sound; no birds, no insects, nothing. The nothing was even more frightening than something. Panic had a way of jump starting one’s survival skills kicking them into overdrive. In one fluid movement the pack was dropped and she launched herself at the bow that had been left leaning against the wall by the door. It felt like her heart had suddenly grown legs and was actively trying to claw its way out of her chest and up through her throat. Nocking the arrow proved to be a much more difficult task when your hands were shaking rather violently.
A breath was inhaled and exhaled slowly through her nose in effort to mentally wrestle control back from the paranoia that her own mind had evoked. “It’s ok, Alex, you got this.” The whispered words of encouragement did very little to still her shaking hands.
Over time the worn boards of the barn had shrunk and pulled away from one another leaving gaping spaces between them. It was through one of these slits that the end of the arrow protruded, aimed for the tall figure of a man who had attempted to stealthily approach her current location.
Strangely enough she had no idea what clued him in to her presence but suddenly he was on high alert, a pistol cocked and aimed straight at her through the boards of the gaping boards of the barn.
Jesus! Was he really going to shoot her? For what reason? There was a moment of indecision before the metal latch on the barn door clicked and the rusty hinges once again did their part in alerting everyone that the door was opening. It seemed there was a brief moment of indecision before the bow was tossed out into the tall grass of the field, the quiver of arrows quickly following suit.
Two hands came out first, both raised slightly in a sign of surrender as well as a show of being empty as she stepped up and over the wooden threshold of the barn and into the grass just outside. A frown of concern currently marred her normally smooth brow, giving the diminutive woman’s delicate features a very somber look that currently matched her situation. Dark blonde, shoulder length hair had been pulled up tight into a ponytail to keep it out of her face and the muted blue eyes that stared spitefully back at him, as if this entire unfortunate situation was on his shoulders. Although she didn’t quite have the look of one of those hearty survivors, she certainly had the attitude.
“I don’t have anything other than what you see.” A lift of her chin was given in the general direction of the bow and the few arrows that remained. “Take them if you have to.”
At first, Charles was confused by the pleas that broke the silence after he voiced his warning. A wave of relief quickly swept over his mind, due to the fact that the worst of his fears were alleviated – there would be no need to use his weapon before making a hasty retreat towards his idling van… at least from his initial outlook of the situation as it stood. Charles remained motionless for a time, handgun still steadied towards the general direction of the barely-visible girl in the darkness of the barn. Soon afterward, a look of dawning comprehension claimed his features. He’d gaze at his own weapon-wielding hands with a tilt of his head before abruptly withdrawing it to his holster.
“It’s okay! It’s okay… I’m not here to hurt you!” A sudden acknowledgement of the stranger’s words would result in a gaze that seemed to add a rider to his claim of benevolence. So long as you’re not thinking of hurting me.
The lack of response from the blonde-haired female prompted Charles to perform a diplomatic gesture. He casually reached for his belt and unclipped his holster before presenting it to the girl in both palms, then parting them to drop the weapon towards his boots. His hands then retreated back to the air by his sides, furthering his point of concession.
“See? Nothing to worry about. I thought you were one of those crawlers I’ve run into before…” His voice trailed off, as if to correct his course of conversation. With a breath, Charles started again.
“I have food, water, a place to sleep. I’m a scout for a colony about a week’s journey south of here. I don’t usually run into people in the middle of nowhere like this, but…” Charles’ own words seemed to give him pause. Could this woman be trusted? The evidence at hand suggested that she privy to hunting… for food, for self-defense, for survival. But the war with the aliens brought out the best and worst sides of humanity. Many strays were simply raiders and looters whose instincts to survive seemed to be on autopilot, with seemingly no desire to reintroduce themselves into society.
“I’ll be on my way soon,” Charles began once more, adjusting his offer on the fly. “I need another few hours or so before my van’s batteries recharge. You needn’t make a decision now. I’ll assume you want to be left alone if you haven’t shown yourself by the time I’m ready to leave. If that’s the case, I promise I won’t disclose your whereabouts to anyone.” And with that, his silhouette pulled itself from the barn’s open doors after retrieving his holster, out of view from the blue-eyed girl.
It seemed as if every muscle in her body was knotted tightly in anticipation. There were so many ways all of this could go wrong and really only one teeny tiny way it could go right, if right was even a possibility anymore. Although she heard the words of peace and kindness that seemed to tumble so easily from the man’s mouth, they weren’t really believed. To her they were just trigger words utilized to weave a hopeful net fabricated with the intent of enticing their target into a false sense of security. The hardened edge to her eyes and the thin slash of red lips, pressed together in tension never altered, even after the good will shown by removing and laying his weapon down on the ground. It wasn’t as if the man didn’t have eyes and lacked the ability to determine the outcome of a physical altercation. The only that laying down his weapon did is show that he would prefer her to be alive for…whatever it was.
Food, water, a place to sleep. I’m a scout for a colony….those words, all of them, generated more emotion in one split second than she’d allowed herself to feel in weeks, probably months. A small surge of hope swelled in her chest and it was immediately squelched by the firm hand of caution that had been allowed to grow unchecked within her. Regardless of whether he noticed or not, a small breath hitched in her throat and remained there for the duration of his presence.
It wasn’t until the man had retrieved his weapon and began walking back to his vehicle that she allowed herself to exhale the breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding. Muscles that had been tensed were now quivering as the adrenaline rushed through her veins, unneeded now that the threat had moved away.
The bow and arrows that had been tossed out as an offering were quickly gathered by a shaky hand and yanked back into the open door of the small barn. The sounds of the squeaking door were heard as the door was quickly closed and latched, for whatever good that would do her. The shack itself was really no barrier, not even against a single man – if indeed he was just a lone man.
The man’s departure was watched through a sizeable gap through the wooden walls in effort to determine the location of his vehicle and in essence, the location of him. She could just barely make out the dark outline of the RV through the thin line of trees between them. Once she knew for sure that he was back within his own area and well out of hers, it was as if a dam broke and all the emotions she hadn’t allowed herself to feel came rushing forth, overwhelming the protective barrier. A sob escaped as she slid to her knees on the hay covered floor, her mind now free of the false bravado of adrenaline to go over the events, realizing how very close that situation could have been.
The tip of an index finger flicked away an unwanted tear that had managed to get past the barrier of her lower lashes. The little drop of moisture was quickly rubbed into the well worn denim of her jeans. The words she spoke were whispered to herself, as if speaking them aloud helped give them more authority. “Well that did not go as expected.” But really, what had she expected? Quite frankly she expected to be killed right there on the spot so any non-death outcome was much welcomed.
That little voice of reason in her head piped in reminding her that there was really no time to sit and deliberate over the events of the last few minutes, she needed to get moving. The voice, which had served her well enough over the course of the last few years, was obeyed and she automatically rose to her feet and began breaking camp to pack the few items she claimed as her own.
The knots that held the tarp in place were quickly unknotted by deft fingers as she allowed herself to mull over the implications of the man’s words. A colony? That seemed far too good to be real. But then again, why couldn’t it exist? Why couldn’t there be people out there that wanted more than to just exist from day to day? If going by her own wants and desires was any indication, then it was entirely possible. Again that little swell of hope began but this time; she allowed it to exist – just for a moment, just to see what it felt like. It was warm, like a little flame to warm your hands during the cold of winter.
But what if he was lying and there was no colony? Hell what if there wasn’t even any food or water? Another glance was cast to the wooden barn wall, as if she could see through it and straight to the intentions of the man who had caused this little bout of internal dilemma. What was worse? Being mired in the quicksand of being alone and knowing you aren’t going to make it or grasping at an offered branch, no matter how tenuous?
The last of her items were packed into the backpack and it was set aside while she sat and stared at it for what seemed like hours while she mulled over the endless number of possible outcomes; most of them quite horrible given the fact that she’d bore witness to some rather unpleasant things in the last several years.
It was all so quick she barely remembered how she’d gotten herself over the little hump of indecision. One moment she was sitting there contemplating the situation and the next she was on the move, the backpack was being hefted over her shoulder as she walked. Quick strides ate the distance between the location of the two points and in minutes she was standing well within range of the vehicle and the man to be heard. The end of the bow was lowered and rested on the ground, a similar show of his good faith from earlier.
It was difficult to keep the skepticism from her voice as she addressed him. “There’s really a colony of people?” Yes, she wanted to make sure they were people and not those other pseudo people. “Why would they send you out to bring more people back? Don’t more people mean more mouths to feed?” It was obvious by the way she carefully lowered herself into a comfortable sitting position that she had every intention of quizzing him until his batteries were charged and he was ready to depart.
The yellow eye of the sun was slowly inching itself towards the horizon, gazing obstinately at Charles as he retreated back to his RV. He wasn’t sure what to make with the encounter of the silent girl back at the barn moments ago… he almost had the feeling that a confrontation was averted by shifting gears with his approach. Despite having practiced his negotiation tactics in the mirror numerous times, he always found himself disappointed with his own performance. The feeling in his gut was that the blonde-haired stranger wanted to be left alone, which manifested only a few fleeting pangs of regret. After all, his job was to recruit the willing, not draft the unwilling.
Time passed as Charles busied himself with some minor repairs on the underside of the RV, halfway forgetting the blonde girl in the barn who was a yell’s distance away. Her voice would startle him out of a hum-filled concentration, almost hitting his head on a steel beam before rolling himself out upon a wheeled platform. There she was, bow lain innocuously at her feet, and she was asking questions. There was both curiosity and skepticism in her inquiries, which Charles quietly identified with. He was basically in the same situation a number of years ago, distraught and alone, before a chance encounter with his good friend Steven lit a flicker of hope within the cynical shroud which had overtaken his mind.
“Yes, a colony. Still working on a name, but tentatively called the Phoenix’s Nest,” Charles responded with a casual smile. “We’re always looking for people who’d like to join us and offer their skill sets. Even the unskilled can be trained, and we won’t turn our backs on the sick or injured.”
It was the truth. The Nest was dedicated to reestablishing humanity’s propagation upon the Earth through a community of hard work, ingenuity, and compassion. Everyone lived well under its care and everyone had a say regarding its direction. Politics played little part in decision-making and was hardly the contaminating influence that claimed prominence in the old world. That’s not to say that the Nest didn’t have its flaws, but an escalating wave of optimism propelled its purpose ever forward.
“We have farmers and scientists who have set up some impressive hydroponics,” Charles continued, trying to allay any concerns from the seated stranger ahead of time. “No one goes hungry, and we’re just now compiling a surplus to prepare for any future droughts or famines.”
Charles was somewhat at a loss, disappointed that his blue-eyed audience hadn’t perked up with any sort of optimism; hell, he’d even accept incredulity at this point. The sudden realization that he must be sounding like a pitchman reddened his cheeks slightly with embarrassment, knowing he himself personally detested salesmen. All the while, the desire to prove himself a harbinger of opportunity remained steadfast in his mind and fervent on his tongue. His mouth would open as if to continue before raising a forefinger to interrupt himself.
“I’m just about due for an update with the check-in station,” he stated with renewed determination. “I don’t think they’d mind me knocking it out a day ahead of time. Wait here and I’ll be back.”
He stepped inside the RV and returned moments later with a large radio that had two spiraling antennae jutting from the top of its steel chassis. A microphone was also attached to its side with a thin black cord which Charles held in his hand. He walked towards one of the sun-dishes before setting it down and fiddling with the dials.
“Chirping bird? Chirping bird? This is Scout 1, over.”
Static at first, but the sound was strong and encouraging.
“Chirping bird? This is Scout 1, over. Reporting in a bit early but everything’s just fine. Over.”
Static again, but a sound would soon bleed in, first as a wave-like distortion that quickly unveiled itself as a male’s voice.
“Scout 1? Scout 1, are you there?” A warm, friendly Southern twang accompanied the inquiry. Charles welcomed the voice with a triumphant exhale and a confirmation before it responded in kind. “Thanks for checking in. Glad you’re doing all right. Any news to report?”
“I’m about fifty clicks north of the last checkpoint and I think I’ve made a new friend,” he’d respond with a gaze that never left the woman. “It seems as though I’ll be having a partner with me to introduce to the Nest when I make my rendezvous in a week’s time.”
“Well, if he or she is listening, howdy-do, sir or madam,” the voice cordially offered as a greeting. “Tell him or her we’ll be awaiting their arrival with open arms and a hot bite to eat.”
Charles smiled warmly and nodded to no one in particular. “I’ll push out a little farther after my cells recharge,” Charles continued as a shift from the formalities, not wanting to risk making the blonde-haired woman uncomfortable. “After that, I’ll be heading back with the supplies I’ve gathered from the town in sector seven. Be sure to tell the housing commission to make room for a new guest.”
“Sounds good, will do. Don’t head any farther than that, ‘cause it looks like the weather guys are sayin’ there’s some electrical storms headed our way… middle o’ next week, the way I understand it. Like those crazy ones from last year.”
Charles’ eyes widened just a bit at the warning, but he otherwise kept his poise. “Thanks for the heads up, Chirping Bird. Expect my next check-in at the normally scheduled interval. Over and out.”
With that, the radio fizzled back towards static before Charles turned it off. A look of accomplishment was on his face as he slowly walked towards the newcomer sitting before him, hand outstretched.
“It’s nice to meet you, stranger. The name’s Charles. And you are?”
To the outside observer the whole interaction was absorbed in silence and although she seemed to be somewhat at ease in her current crouched position, it was nothing but a very well crafted façade; in reality she was tightly coiled bundle of nerves set to spring at the first sign of trouble.
The multiple answers to her few questions were a little too perfect. Pieces and parts of his answers were mentally caught and held so that she could ponder the words as well as the possibilities: a community of scientists, hydroponics, no one goes hungry, preparing for future natural disasters…without sounding cliché, it all sounded a little too good to be true. But if it was, why would anyone carefully craft such a plan to lure in survivors? What would be the benefit of expending so much energy and so many resources to net a few straggling remnants of humanity? As far as she was concerned humanity wasn’t worth the effort it took to even set out those solar panels to recharge the vehicle.
Most of the people she’d encountered over the course of the last few years were nowhere near this level of civilized. It was if the alien invasion triggered some type of evolutionary time warp and humanity took a huge step back to the days of the Neanderthal. Warlords rose to power by bullying by taking from the weak, all the while beating on their chests proclaiming their dominance. They formed little pockets of misery set up to trap the unwary traveler and more than one unfortunate survivor had met their fate over something as simple as a fresh piece of fruit.
The announcement that he needed to check in with his base was actually met with a small twinge of enthusiasm that was certainly not revealed. It had been months since she’d conversed with anyone civil at all and now she got the opportunity to hear a conversation via radio? Once again the possibilities of his words swam to the surface of her consciousness.
Every single word of the conversation was heard and filed away as he spoke but instead of keeping her gaze fixated on him, she took to studying the vehicle in which he had arrived. If man was able to take a few giant steps forward to create this, why couldn’t she?
When the voice on the radio directed his words to her she couldn’t suppress the surprised reaction. One corner of her mouth ticked upwards in the slightest hint of a grin. That small action changed the entire demeanor of her face and it was clear from that tiny deed alone, that she’d finally allowed hope the freedom of sprouting within her.
When Charles finished his conversation and moved towards her, hand outstretched, she didn’t flinch or stand to take a few steps back to put distance between them. Instead she rose to her minimal 5’4”, hurriedly ran the palm of her right hand down along the fabric of her jeans in effort to remove any traces of nervous sweat and readily accepted the offered hand. One firm shake was given before she released. “Alexandria Morgan, but you can call me Alex.” Although specific areas of the country had been destroyed or practically rearranged, the people that had called those places home were scattered but still retained traces of that former life. Alex’s origins were very clear in the manifestation of a hint of a southern inflection.
Although she wasn’t entirely afraid it had been quite some time since she’d been within such a close proximity to a person. Let alone a person as well armed as Charles. The anxious looks cast around them, the steps taken in place as she attempted to remain still, all these actions were attributed to a slight case of nerves rather than fear.
A quick cast of her eyes was given to his vehicle before settling back on him. “So how can I help?”