Folklore

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Chapter 2 - 04/11/2016

The villagers used the screams as a kind of proximity alarm, hoping that each cry of agony would be enough warning before the creature arrived. A gut-wrenching plea for mercy would mean the lives of another family could be saved. Silence became the enemy. Their rescue team sat in panicked terror after the wet gurgle of a final breath, praying the next voice would sound off just a little further than the last.


It had taken forever to gather the closest five families to the centermost cabin, and Aaron saw to it that every man and woman with a capable pair of eyes was staring out into the darkness. Not that they would see anything. While the others used the twisted cries of their friends and family to locate the beast, Aaron Harver could see it clear as day.


A harsh contrast against the dark night, the creature shimmered in brilliant hues as it crossed from cabin to cabin. It moved with curious purpose, and on several occasions he saw it even stop as if to consider which home it preferred. Every step it took set off another painful flash of light, and he did his best to keep from wincing.


“We’ve got every possible entrance locked down, but we’ve got to assume that whatever is out there can probably get in if it really wants.” Claire sighed heavily while speaking in a hushed tone.


“You’re probably right.” Aaron grimaced while taking a peek through a nearby window. ‘Whatever it is, it’s big.”


“Between the ten of us there’s enough firepower to lay out an elephant from across the street.” said Josh, the youngest of their group, while peering out between blinds.


“We still have the emergency flare gun from the lake medkit.” Daniel mused. “In case we need to see it.”


“Once we shoot that thing we’re giving away our position.” Aaron said between his teeth. “No sense in telling whatever’s out there where it can get a free meal.”


“We don’t even know what it is!” whispered a woman from the living room couch, her young son cradled protectively in her arms. “What if it just goes away?”


“Whatever it is, it’s not taking a step closer without us seeing it.” Stanton, the bearded man, said with determination. “An eye at every window. Anyone the beast gets past would have to be asleep not to notice-”


A loud scream outside caught everyone’s attention, causing men and women to crane their necks to see through the slits between blinds and floral curtains. It was a woman’s voice, cracking between the mixed experience of pain and exhaustion. Somewhere out in the dark of night her voice drifted, steadily growing closer.


They knew from the sound of her voice that she was in terrible condition. One of the men even gasped, clearly hoping they had not recognized the tone and pitch of her voice. Aaron tried to stay quiet as the voice approached. It was hard to keep his hands from shaking as he reached for the rifle at his side, staring out into the darkness.


It was Daniel to break their silence first, swearing in disbelief as the woman’s body came into view. Hovering off the ground she was sprawled dangling mid-air, blood soaked so deep into her nightgown it was impossible to discern its original color. One of her arms was draped behind her back, twisted and locked against her body as though it were crushed into her spine. Another arm hung limply at her side, swinging like a pendulum as she drifted unnaturally closer.


“What the fuck is happening? Are you seeing this?” Josh’s voice cracked, slipping an octave higher than he would have liked


“Oh God. It’s haunted. This whole campground’s possessed.” another survivor cried out, scrambling from the window.


“No. It’s not.” Aaron’s words were uncertain, but his voice cut through the fear in those nearby. “It’s not a ghost. It’s a creature.”


“What?” Claire grasped his arm while leaning forward, trying to peer into the darkness from his perspective. “I don’t see anything.”


“I do.” sighed Aaron, staring at the beast only yards away.


It looked ready to pounce at any time. Its body was larger than their truck, wreathed in a swirling, flickering light. A swirl of oranges, reds, yellows and whites that burned furiously in place. Deep within its blue maw was the woman, cradled in the vivid turquoise and violet textures that seemed to be its mouth.


The others looked to Aaron for answers, but he was at a loss. How could he even begin to describe what he saw? Even now as he watched an enormous, blazing paw take another step forward it was difficult to think anyone would believe what he was seeing.


Words began to form in his mouth when he noticed the cavern of swirling blue begin to slowly disappear. The woman cried out in agony. Her body wrenched under some unseen pressure. It was closing its mouth.


Without another word Aaron drew his rifle, butting out a corner of his window to clear the way for his shot. A single flash from the muzzle flared the outdoors in light, sounding off an otherworldly roar from somewhere in the dark. Without warning the bloodied woman dropped from her cradled position in the air, and all eyes turned to Aaron expectantly as the beast’s anguished howl sounded off into the distance.


“It’s gone.” he sighed in relief, letting his weapon slip down to his side.


Several men and women scrambled outside to the woman drenched in blood. John gave Aaron a fearful look, before stepping outside as well. Claire only shook her head in disbelief.


“Can you really see it?” she marveled, leaning close to examine his eyes. “A side effect maybe?”


“A side effect of what?” Stanton growled at the pair, hand resting nervously near the weapon at his side.


“He has a medical condition.” Claire flared up defensively, watching other villagers nearby begin to approach. “It’s nothing--”


“I’m Afflicted.” Aaron sighed, resting a hand on her shoulder in thanks. “It’s alright. I didn’t know what I was looking at before, but I can definitely see it.”


“What was your power? You know, before...” John trailed off, and their group stepped aside as the woman bathed in gore was gingerly carried into the cabin.


“They had a fancy name for it. Directional Photokinetic Wavelengths, or something like that. Heat vision. I was never into the science, but I know the Dust took it away. Left me colorblind.” Aaron sighed, running through the story with a practiced exasperation.


“So you think the Dust lets you...see invisible things?” Claire’s brow furrowed, and she visibly fought the urge to examine Aaron’s eyes with closer scrutiny.


“I don’t know what it did, but I can tell you right now I see it. It’s just shapes and colors. Like it’s on fire.” Aaron glanced out the window. “I know I wounded it, whatever it is.”


Aaron looked outside at the trail of liquid left in the creature’s wake thick pools of liquid that left streaks of vivid reds and pinks where they sat. Was it remains of the creatures energy? Radiation? A scent or smell? He frowned, agitated at the new perplexing limits of his cursed eyes.


Somewhere behind him an argument had broken out. The lady drenched in blood needed desperate medical attention. Their team only had only so much space in the truck, but if they moved quick it would be possible to get the woman back to the Federation forward camp in only a couple of hours. Claire and a few others could go, but some of the townsfolk were less than enthusiastic about staying behind.


Aaron stepped outside the cabin to give the beast’s footprints a closer inspection. Warily he slung his rifle onto his back. He could still see the color, although faint, bounding off into the distant woods. Bending down he reached with an open palm to where it had stood and was shocked to find how warm the print was. In the shape of a paw, but unlike any he had ever seen. Feline, but wrong.


“You can really see it?” Daniel asked curiously, kneeling down beside him.


“Yeah. It’s kind of hard to miss.”


“Then we can track it.” the professor adjusted his glasses in the dark, trying hard to see what Aaron could.


The commotion from inside the cabin had spilled into the night, with several members of the community carefully transporting the wounded woman using a sleeping bag as a stretcher. Claire was at the head, directing how to place the injured carefully into the flatbed. Close behind were men and women yelling in protest.


“I’ve told you, she’s stable for now, but unless we can get her some proper medical care there’s no telling how long she’ll last.” Claire climbed into the flatbed, protectively keeping others from following. “Leaving the supplies we brought here, we can take four people with us.”


“Five.” Aaron corrected her, following the trail of colored residue slowly fade into the woods. “The teacher’s right. It bleeds. I can track it down and put an end to this.”


Claire was ready to argue but lost her voice amid a tide of villagers vying to take the new vacancy. Stepping away from the group with a grunt was Stanton, hand still resting on his pistol.


“Then we should start moving now while the trail is fresh.” Stanton grumbled through his beard.


Daniel had already procured a bundle of flashlights, passing them between Aaron and Stanton while carefully cradling a shotgun under his arm. Aaron briefly saw the teenage John prepare to go with them before being turned back to the others. It was the right decision. He was too young to face whatever was ahead of them.


The three men exchanged a look before Aaron turned to Claire one more time. He wanted to say something to her. A thanks or reassurance before he left. She only had a moment before the small crowd would demand her attention, and he knew anything he said would fall short of the appreciation he felt for all she had done.


“See you soon.” Aaron called out to her. It was the best he could come up with, but she smiled anyway.


“Back in five hours, soldier.” Claire held up a hand then turned to the crowd. “We’ll have room for everyone then.”


Aaron didn’t stay to hear her finish explaining to the villagers. The tracks were fading fast. Stanton and Daniel stuck close to him the moment Aaron led them into the woods. It was like following a series of candles flickering in the night. To the others Aaron imagined it was more like wandering blindly in the dark.


As the drops of the creature’s liquid trail became more vivid Aaron couldn’t help but wonder how badly he had hurt it. Could it die of blood loss? Was he even looking at blood? He didn’t have the imagination to assume it could be anything else, and either way it seemed like a bad time to bring it up. Daniel looked afraid enough.


It was difficult to tell how long they followed the trail. In the pitch darkness of the woods Aaron nearly tripped himself coming to a stop, causing the others to stumble in kind. Ahead of him puddles of swirling crimson and lilac scattered around the remains of what Aaron assumed had once been an military aircraft carrier. It was snapped like a twig, its innards spewed across the woods.


A quick inspection revealed that it had slid for quite a distance. Trees all around lay broken or snapped in the wake of its momentum. The front half lay as though it had seen the brunt of the crash like a pummeled but mostly intact cave. Its cargo hold was only a few meters apart from the rest, upside down and impaled through several thick trees. The beast’s erratic movement had left a spray of blood across the warped shards of debris leading deeper into the wreckage.


“Looks like it’s been here for a while.” Stanton clicked his flashlight on warily, careful not to extend the beam recklessly into the night.


Drawing their weapons the trio eased forward, flanking Aaron as he worked to figure out where the creature may have gone. A thick pool of violet swirling just at the base of the plane’s cabin made him hesitate to go any further.


“We could be close. The tracks are bright here.” Aaron gestured his rifle toward the exposed center of the wreckage.


“Well at least you can see shit.” grumbled Stanton.


“Cover me then. If I make any weird movements, I guess you’ll know where it’s at.” Aaron gave the others a grim smile before stepping forward.


“Not the best plan, really.” Daniel huffed, watching Aaron slip his head around the corner and into the depths of the aircraft.


Gripping his weapon tightly Aaron slipped his body against the plane, slowly craning to turn his head around the corner while both villagers stood guard. The interior was in surprisingly good shape. Rows of seats lined the aircraft walls and some cargo had even remained fastened in the center under a web of thick belts. There were no bodies, although open lockers and some unzipped travel bags gave the impression that this place had been quickly searched at one point. Aaron could imagine someone hastily searching through the wreckage in the dark. He, on the other hand, could see quite clearly.


In the far reaches of the aircraft, curled tightly into a swirling mass of color, was the beast. Its powerful glow bathed the inside with waves of color. Blues faded into tinges of orange and yellow and greens Aaron wished he knew the names of. If it could see him it made no indication, though he tried hard to see where a form could be hidden within its mass of vibrancy.


Aaron raised his weapon slowly, waiting for a sign. What if the creature was intelligent? What if it was once human? Was it being transported, or did it simply claim this makeshift shelter as its own?


“What’s happening?” a voice from behind him whispered in hiss.


Aaron looked down the scope of his rifle, taking aim. When was the last time he had seen so much color? He knew the answer but the question still clung to him. If this would be the last time he could ever truly witness a sunset, or watch the foam of an ocean crash into an open beach he would soak in every single second of it.


“Aaron?”


His finger gently moved over the trigger. It looked so much more radiant earlier. Like a ravenous storm that could never be contained. Now it looked more like like a candle. Strong but fragile. A wisp of yellow that reminded him of cornbread formed at the peak of its form and Aaron thought for a moment it had moved. Maybe it was watching him all this time.


“There’s nothing..” Aaron said firmly, ending their hushed tone. He lowered his rifle. “It’s gone.”


It never moved. He watched it for a moment longer, waiting for some kind of retribution for his arrogance. Instead it simply flickered like a small sun. Brilliant colors danced between them, like a rainbow come to life.


“Where do you think it went?” pondered Daniel, lowing his weapon with a sigh of relief.


“Who knows.” Aaron took a deep breath, then turned back to the others. “There’s an abandoned town north of here it could hide. Or if it’s smart it may just circle back till it hits the main road. A lot of stragglers there.”


“Easy prey.” spat Stanton. “No one’s gonna believe some see-through monster is tearing up the backwoods.”


The trio quietly made their way back to the camp. Scanning their surroundings in the dark. Daniel and Stanton’s flashlights cut fragmented lines through the thick woods. Together the pair lit the way ahead, keeping a fearful eye on any moving branch or crunch of twigs underfoot..


Aaron’s flashlight was by his side, but never once did he stumble in the dark.

Chapter 2 - 20/08/2017

Have you ever been to the beach? Most people know that if you decide to take a step in the ocean it's important to keep your eye on the shore. It can be easy to lose track of where you are when you're having fun. One moment you're going for a swim, collecting shells or just trying to avoid a wave. You look up to try and see if you can spot your beach blanket, only to find yourself pushed somewhere down the coast.

That's the dangerous part of a current. When you don't feel it, it just takes you.

I don't know how far I drifted. How far my current dragged me. It was hard to focus, hard to pay attention to anything. I struggled to piece together the last few moments before my world fell apart. Before my body seemed to burn away, along with everything around me.

I must have travelled for miles stewing in a jumble of thoughts before I felt that same tingling pulse of electrical current in the air. I couldn't quite see where. In fact, I couldn't see anything. But I could feel it. The world was like flashes of contained fury vibrating in place, pierced by large gaps of nothing. There were objects, but it was hard to say what anything could be. It either was, or it wasn't.

Something below me was. I had to know what.

When I finally tried moving my body things started to come together. I knew where my limbs were, where they should have been, but nothing seemed to work. It was like having phantom limb syndrome, only with everything. So what do you do when your body is missing? I stopped trying to move the way I was used to. Instead I thought about the first time I used my powers. I thought about Carla, and the way I took her life.

There was energy gathering in the air all around me. I knew the sensation well. It was comforting, even. Like riding a bike, or talking to an old friend. When I had a real body I would try and focus it to a single point, then release it like one of those snake-in-a-can pranks. It was never about containing the energy I drew in. I just held it long enough to direct it where I wanted it to go.

This was different, but almost the same. I felt coiled to pounce. Below me was a world of possibility.

My first jump nearly killed me. I think.

It wasn't quite like falling, but there was definitely a sensation of movement that left me disoriented. A single lightning strike burst from the heavens. It was incredibly draining. I felt parts of me split off and arc through the sky, ripping energy from my being down ionically charged roads I never wanted to travel. It probably made for one hell of a light show.

The power transformer I hit was demolished instantly. I felt the spark of an explosion in the air, and as it died the world around me suddenly came to life. I was suddenly tethered to the modern world again. Rejuvenated. Every power line travelled somewhere, and I could see it all like an endless highway.

The storm had pulled me far from Bastion, probably miles away from where friends and family fought to the death. From where my body turned to dust. I could feel power lines branched out like a web across a network. Thin ones that passed electricity to small towns. Large ones that stretched across highways over the continent. I reached out to touch them, but was struck by a sudden fear. If I were energy, electricity, could I be dispersed into nothing? Could I be grounded? Drained?

I reminded myself I was living on borrowed time. I should have died standing. Fighting. Reaching out to touch a single line I felt strangely in control. Maybe just being here, I could still make a difference. I could explore this world freely. Find out what happened. Maybe there was still a way I could help. I just had to be careful.

I learned a lot of tricks after that. At first I stuck to exploring roads along the grid, like a wallflower in high school. The first thing you learn in the Federation is that every gift is a double edged sword, and I didn't want to push my luck and fade into nothing trying to explore some suburban two story. There were limits to every power.

If it could conduct an electrical current, I could move through it. Appliances became safe havens that I could reside in. Storms could help restore my lost energy, but I could drain power from batteries or power generators too. It was a lot like being a ghost, if ghosts only haunted things like toasters or hardware store generators.

I spent a week as an electrical parasite in a ghost town, drawing life from where I could. Some days would just be a matter of testing the limits of what I could do. Through surveillance cameras I could inspect abandoned stores and roadways. Places that looked safe, but abandoned. Preventative evacuation was a big M.O. of the Federation. Everything was meticulously organized to help reduce panic and fear. You could tell people must have been scared leaving so much behind, but there was an order to it all. Minimal looting.

Other places were less lucky. There were signs of battle -- gunfire and superhuman alike. Burnt homes. Cars ripped apart, warped or shredded by some kind of force. Fires. It's strange how long a fire can last. A busted up jeep could start a fire on one side of town that would take days to reach the other.

Most of the time it was stuff I could explain, or piece together. But every now and then I left with more questions than I had answers. Bodies bent or twisted in ways that didn't make sense. A pack of bodies huddled in a dark corner, dried like husks left out for months in the sun. One town was entirely gone. Missing. The best angle I could catch was from a security camera at a highway gas station. It was like a black spot on the horizon. A second sun, setting as a shadow underneath the first.

Once, in half-collapsed wreckage of a shopping mall, I found survivors. They must have been family. A mother, father, and three kids. The oldest couldn't have been more than a teenager. She carried the youngest, who was three or four at most. The group had just finished searching a clothing store when they'd wandered into Digital Boutique. The father was ruffling through the shelves, probably looking for batteries. Or anything useful, really.

I watched them from an old security camera as they scavenged through used handheld games. The group hadn't seen a good bath in weeks but otherwise were no worse for the wear. Whoever mom and dad were, they had gotten good at scavenging. Tired but well fed the pair turned over every inch of the store while the kids helped themselves to some portable games.

Their hunting had almost come to an end when the father began struggling with a locked door at the far end of the store. Employees only. Jumping through the grid I felt an electronic security system that kept the door shut. The power had died long ago, setting the lock in place. It takes a small part of me to activate the mechanism for a brief moment, causing the father to stumble through the doorframe to the other side.

It's a brief moment of respite for all of us. He called his family over to share the good news. Batteries. Stale snacks. Unopened games that had never made it to the display behind the counter. It was nice to let the weight of their good fortune and relief wash over me for a time.

I was too distracted to notice a group of men and women in emergency response attire make their way through the ruined mall. A mismatched collection of police officers, firemen, EMT, and military fatigues. It was hard to tell who they were or if they knew the family. These days almost anyone can walk around with a special forces uniform. All you needed to really do was find the body of a special forces officer.

The father spotted them right away. He took a lucky blind shot from a sidearm that clipped a police officer in the shoulder. The invaders fired in response, forcing the family to duck for cover in the back room. Electronic cases shattered in a violent mix of plastic and drywall that filled the air with dust. Too afraid to enter the family's line of fire the invaders waited a moment for a member of their team to pull something from their bag.

There was some deliberation among the group. One of the men seemed to shout passionately before walking away with his hands in the air, argument defeated. The others kept their defensive position.

Cameras inside the electronics store were video only, leaving an eerie silence while the ringleader poured a bottle of something vigorously across the store. He shouted to the family, arms flailing in open furious gestures. The others turned away as their leader tossed a match into the store, causing a burst of light to blind my camera's vision for a moment. I winced at the sudden bright flare.

Wait, could I wince? No. I changed to a security camera in the main hallway instead.

The fire grew strong and fast with plenty of fuel to burn. There was a visible tension as the group lingered just outside the store, watching the flames as it spread throughout the interior. Their leader was still screaming enthusiastically while the blaze continued to grow. Something pressurized must have gone off as a flashing spark caused the group to take another step back, only to finally retreat when licks of flame began to snake toward the store's ceiling.

I waited as long as I could in that camera, watching for any sign of the family. When the fire slowly crept out of the electronics store I moved to another. I had to abandon the interior cameras as the interior of the building became impossible for me to traverse. While the mall became a pillar of black smoke I felt those copper highways running through the walls slowly fade away like the nervous system of some great beast.

From a security camera posted in the mall's parking lot I watched as it bellowed dark ash for hours. No one ever came out.

I left that town just as aimless as I'd ever been. All of this power and nothing to show for it. Trapped, haunting whatever lens I can find just for the chance to watch over a world I was no longer a part of.

It was probably days before I saw another survivor. So many empty towns. Vacant cities. It didn't seem worth searching for signs of normal life any more, so I went elsewhere. I was still determined to try and do something with whatever time I had been given.

When I arrived at the lonely Fort Derringer I didn't know what to expect. If it weren't for Zachary Gilbert, I may have lost my mind.

Chapter 2 - 23/10/2017

The drive to Open Sky Reservation was an easy one. Few turns across a flat open land left plenty of scenic horizon for a bored traveller to take in. Flecks of green shrubbery dotted the desert landscape, giving you a full view of the world for miles in any direction. Far into the distance the earth crested like a wave of dirt and stone.

Large rock formations dotted the horizon, which came in handy when you were trying to make a long drive a little less boring. You could keep an eye on unique looking mountains, pillars, or the occasional jutting slope, keeping track of how far you’ve travelled based on the next stone landmark. The really interesting ones were tourist traps. People were bound to show up where sediment and volcanic rock formed in a way that looked like an angel, or pizza slice.

Jane had a few landmarks she followed when travelling north, to help her pass the time. A rock she thought looked like a rabbit. She named it Theo, after her favorite cereal mascot. Long drives made her nervous, but once she hit Theo she knew it wasn’t far to her next destination.

Unfortunately, Open Sky Reservation was to the west. It was a drive she was familiar with, but one devoid of landmarks. Dry, open space slowly gave way to scattered pine and prickly bushes. It made for a slightly more interesting landscape until hitting farmland, where everything became a uniform green.

Corn and wheat fields were the last major destination on American soil before officially entering reserve territory. Its close proximity to the Open Sky had blended the municipality’s culture over the years. Many young men and women living on the reserve that were looking for a way out made easy roots here. Homes weren’t cheap, but there was plenty of work for eager farmhands.

The cultural exchange went so deep that the locals had even voted to change its name from Flincher’s Park to the more humble Elk’s Rest. Jane had been there for the occasion and she was relatively impressed. Those kinds of exchanges more often dissolved into pointless arguments. She guessed the non-Indigenous locals must have really thought the name was cute.

Despite feeling anxious Jane keep a close eye on the road. There were few homes in the area. Even fewer side roads. If Lynn Kline had taken the trip on bicycle she would have stuck to the main highway. Skid marks or tire treads could points to signs of an accident. If Jane couldn’t find any reliable information on the reserve she would need to stop by these farms along the way back. It was always better to be thorough.

With fuel becoming a precious commodity there weren’t many cars on the road. Electric-only vehicles like hers were a rarity. Even still, there were signs of normalcy here. Harvest was soon. Long stretches of corn and wheat were occasionally interrupted by farmers working in small groups, inspecting crops or repairing fences. Some were armed, and gave Jane’s vehicle careful consideration as she drove by. Theft from desperate outsiders had become commonplace over the past few months.

Jane watched a group of teenagers working together to pull up a scarecrow. She always wondered how effective those things were. It was probably more busywork for the kids than it was anything else. In a few days they’d be swarming with crows looking for a place to rest if they didn’t go the extra mile to find some bright colored clothing to flap around in the wind.

Most of her farming experience had come from her mother’s side. Alejandra Pilton could do it all. Baking, gardening, fixing a plow, sculpting clay, setting a broken leg; even coaxing a nervous animal on a stormy night. No one ever knew how she managed to accomplish so much in a single day. On Jane’s quinceañera she converted their barn into a lavish dance hall, complete with twinkling stars that would swing above guests.

Jane only ever absorbed a small portion of it. Mostly the baking. She could make a mean pretzel bun. Her father spoiled her with all the really fun lessons.

He was a modern hunter, if such a thing could truly exist. Jane followed his every step both figuratively and literally. Summers would be spent taking outings once a month, where they would look up at the stars while recounting their favorite birds and constellations. In the winter he would hide paper-wrapped gifts in the woods for her to find. He was the kind of man who thrived under pressure. Graduating from her academy training made him so proud he cried for an entire week. Any time it was mentioned.

They used to target practice on scarecrows for fun. Ten points for the bucket head. Twenty if you could knock a hole in a glove. Those were good memories. It brought a smile to her lips. How strange it is, the things that make us return to the past.

The sign for Open Sky Reservation was large, beautifully painted and carved from several treated and stained planks of wood. It was well maintained and taken care of. A keen observer could fall in love with the small details carved into the wood. Rushing waters and strong trees. This attention to detail was a pride not often shared so openly by small communities.

In remarkable contrast to the reserve’s sign the well-maintained highway pavement suddenly came to an end, giving way to a rougher looking, more worn down highway. The road was smooth, but had clearly seen better days. You could travel past the reserve’s sign for miles and encounter several branching routes. Some marked, others left unnamed. Private driveways and dirt shortcuts made with time and enough off-roading.

Before all that, the social center. An impressive building that reminded Jane of a fancy modern art exhibit. Curved walls and high windows let plenty of light pour into the building from almost any angle. There was something unusual about the brownish coloring that made the building seem old. Maybe older than it was. It was designed to be a place to gather for a number of social events. Weddings, birthdays, celebrations, pow wows and holidays.

Normally Jane would stop by and say hello, but the gathering of trucks and absence of music or outdoor stands suggested an important meeting was being held. She didn’t have enough time to get caught up in a politics talk today. Instead she gave a friendly smile and wave to a group of older man standing guard near the road. Patio chairs gathered just outside of a weathered RV, they reciprocated the gesture, rifles kept at rest.

“Just you?” an older man called out as she drove past slowly. He looked buried under a wide-brimmed hat, barely able to see.

“Just me, a quick visit.” she tipped her cap back in thanks as they waved her by.

Her destination from there was a modest home, by country standards. Breaking away from open farmland the land was claimed almost entirely by pine trees, standing tall and proud. It was an hour drive down a winding dirt road, lush and green from a more than ample rainy season. There, tucked far in the woods, was what Jane affectionately called The Den.

She pulled up to the home slowly, not wanting to move too quick for the black lab that had sauntered up to meet her vehicle. The Den was a two story home with a large patio. Jane loved it. It looked warm and welcoming. Shade from an oversized oak tree kept much of the driveway cool. A set of swings hung from the largest branch, sitting just beside a comfortable looking hammock draped in a colorful blanket.

It was the most comfortable looking place to rest, but certainly not the only place. From a distance it looked as though the home had vomited out a stream of chairs of all shapes and sizes. Some had clearly seen better days, but most were in good condition. The Den had gained a reputation over the years for being a place to meet. All of the chairs had been brought and left behind by others. Most were claimed. Jane knew for a fact that it took around half an hour to bring them all outside -- which was important to do because you never knew who would show up.

Stepping out the front door was a woman in her early thirties. Tan worn from years spent working under the sun, she cradled a box filled with pipes under one arm while taking a sip from a water bottle. Her worn shirt and faded jeans were stained with bright paints and dark oil. Workers clothing that fit her as naturally as a uniform. A smile crept across the woman’s face as she watched Jane’s jeep make its way to the front of her home.

“¡Mira quién es!” she laughed as Jane parked just beyond the gathering of chairs. “Tu asiento no está listo todavía.”

“No te preocupes por eso.” Jane smiled. “I won’t be long, Dawn.”

Dawn set her box aside to give Jane a warm embrace. Jane gave an audible sigh, closing her eyes with relief.

“It’s been too long.” she said, pointing over to the swings. “Have time for a chat?”

“I’ve got a few visitors once the town hall is over. Give me a hand with these and we’ll have a drink.”

Together the pair got to work organizing chairs into place. Jane had been to plenty of these before. Family meetings. Friendly gatherings. Less frequent during the harvest season and stormy weather, it was a chance for everyone to share stories about their day. Not just any stories, really. Only the best. The most memorable stories would move from week to week, creating a competition within the community to come up with the best tale. One that could dethrone the king.

Funny stories usually lasted the longest, and while the pair idly worked Dawn filled her in on a few new ones that were bound to become classics. They both had to stop working to laugh over a retelling of the Yazzie twins switching places on a date with daughter of a family friend. When they were done outside the pair took their conversation indoors. While Dawn made tea, Jane took a moment to appreciate her art.

There may have been better painters in the world, but there was something special about Dawn’s work. Jane wasn’t well-versed enough in the art word to describe it. The living room was like a cathedral of color, off-white walls mostly hidden behind a collection of murals, watercolor portraits, and half-finished landscapes still resting on easels. Jane couldn’t help but be drawn to the works in progress, waiting to be finished.

“Is this the rec center?” she paused at what appeared to be the start of an unusually shaped oval.

“Yeah!” Dawn yelled from the kitchen after poking her head around the corner. “I was thinking about making a map. Start with the entrance to the reserve. Maybe block out some property lines.”

“I like it. Maybe if we can ever get a printer up and running we can scan and make a few copies.”

“That’ll be expensive.” said Dawn, passing a steaming mug to Jane. “Plus, don’t you have Sheriff Duty?”

“Mmm.” Jane admired another portrait of a desert landscape, black clouds rolling across a bright blue sky. “Yes and no. That’s why I’m here actually.”

Walking slowly through Dawn’s impromptu gallery Jane filled her in on the disappearance of Lynn Kline. Her red bicycle, the yellow dress, the unusual circumstances of her vanishing. While other locals may have held some reservations in speaking with an outsider, Jane knew that Dawn would be honest with her.

“I’m sorry to hear about the girl, but I don’t think I can help you on this one.” said Dawn with a frown. “I’ve seen her around too, but not in the past few days. Pretty girl.”

“What about the boyfriend?”

“Uh, John River. He’s a skinny kid. Kind of lanky. If you ask around, ask for ‘Creek’.”

“Creek.” Jane flipped open a small writing pad and jotted down a note. “Any idea of where he is?”

“You getting all tough cop on me, Officer Pilton?”

“I’m not afraid to break out the nightstick on this one.” Jane grinned.

“Almost everyone’s working the farmland these days. Either that or watching the main road.” Dawn sat down on a reclining chair, stirring her cup with a spoon. “You see the post on the way in?”

“Some. A big gathering at the rec center?”

“No, that’s no gathering. That’s the way it is. Had a few raids a week back and we decided it’s time to close borders.”

“Raids? On what?” concern fell across Jane’s expression. Things had always been tense since the Federation fell, but the dam’s need for labor and supplies had kept everyone working toward a common goal. “Who would risk starting a fight?”

Dawn paused for a moment, letting Jane take a seat before speaking further.

“About a year back we were approached by a Federation representative. It was part of that reparation initiative they started. Guy flies in with a fancy suit, asks to speak with our Chief.”

“I heard about that. They did that for a lot of tribes didn’t they?”

“All of em. Everyone got the same treatment. They offered to bring the entire reservation ‘up to speed’. Pave new roads, update our medical facilities, assist with housing, electrical, you name it. Said that we were ‘long past due for being treated like citizens of the twenty first century.’”

“How much?”

“For free.” Dawn snorted a laugh. “Said there were no terms, no conditions. Just good will. We could ever put together a list of things we needed, to see if they could manage anything extra.”

“What? Why?” Jane’s confused expression made Dawn shake her head in reply.

“That’s exactly what we said. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the Feds were nice. They always seem to be. Just seemed too good to be true.” Dawn sighed. “We said no. But they tried again. Two more times. Then we wake up one day and find a few dozen crates left outside the reserve, right under our sign.”

Jane had heard about this from the locals. It had stirred up quite a controversy at the time. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of medical equipment, left unattended for the Indigenous residents of Open Sky to receive. Most of it came with replacement parts and contact information regarding further inquiries.

Most who were aware of the drop off knew they needed it, but it had caused a tremendous rift in the community. The offer, soon after known as the Indigenous Reparation Initiative, was an effort to bring these more isolated communities up to date with Federation standards. It was meant to be a balancing act. Many saw it as favoritism.

Explaining life here to outsiders was always tricky. Jane knew the frustration well. She wasn’t born here, but she considered Open Sky to be a part of her family. There was a lot of pride in every Indigenous community. Dawn’s great, great grandfather had built The Den. Since then, every generation had added a little more. A second floor, a shed, a garage. Dawn had taken it upon herself to fully restore the home. No one wanted, or expected handouts. Where self reliance was valued most, it was equal parts embarrassing and infuriating to be assumed lazy or selfish.

“These people...” Dawn trailed with a sigh. “They kept trying to give us things, ya know? Stuff. As if it just fixes everything.”

“Maybe in this case it’s better late than never. Equipment like that can go a long way.”

“We just want to be left alone.” Dawn leaned back in her recliner, cradling the drink close. “Sometimes it feels like no one gets that.”

“You ever think that just humoring them would have made it stop?”

“The government? C’mon Jane, you should know better. You can’t compromise with suits. The second they want something they just figure out how to take it. People think we’re just complainers. That we’re still crying about something done to our people hundreds of years ago. But till the very end, they kept trying to take and take. Pipelines through our land. Farmers relocated. Industrial spills that bled into our rivers --”

“Well I don’t think that will be a problem anymore.” Jane spoke loudly, not wanting to interrupt but know full well when a rant was coming. It’s not that she disagreed. Normally she would be all ears, but there was still a girl missing.

“Every day I think about it. Maybe the collapse was the best thing to happen to us.” Dawn shrugged. “Now we just need to worry about our neighbors stealing food. We can manage that.”

“I’ll try to find a lead on that for you. I just can’t imagine who would be that stupid.”

“Try looking in your own backyard.”

Jane opened her mouth to retort, but paused. Dawn held a hand across her mouth, eyes glossy with tears.

“I’m sorry Jane. I’m so, so sorry.” Dawn’s voice was muffled but full of strain.

“Hey,” Jane got up quickly, and the two women embraced in a hug. It was easy to feel her friend’s restrained sobbing through the jump of her shoulders. “I get it. Really, I understand. Things are tough on everyone, but we can make it work.”

“I know. I know.” Dawn sniffled, regaining her composure. “And I know you’re not like them. I do.” She took a step back, wiping the tears from her eyes. “You’re always welcome here. Everyone agrees. We don’t get why you’re so bent on staying at Beryl.”

“Well, someone’s gotta give them some perspective right? Education and intervention.” said Jane with a grin. “I’ve got a nice lakeside view, too.”

“Kenny didn’t deserve you. My brother really fucked your marriage with his bullshit.” Dawn stifled a laugh. “I wish I said something before you got together.”

“He was an idiot.” Jane nodded. “But I was too. We were young. After the first few months I just told myself I was in it for the family perks. I shoulda kept the surname though. Jane Thundering Bear had such a nice ring to it.”

“Well, you’ve got that nickname out of the deal.”

“Yeah. There were a couple of those in the running. I remember hearing ‘Bear Fucker’ was popular with the boys when I was working the strip.” Jane frowned, recalling the experience.

“Well let’s be glad Bear Lady won out. That’s the kind of name that really ages well.”

“I picture an old woman surrounded by furs. Maybe with an oversized shotgun.”

“And one of those hats with the flaps. You know. Whatever it’s called!” laughed Dawn, holding up a hand to her ears as an example.

They talked for another hour. About funny hats, tea, movies and men. It was a good distraction from the hard times they lived in, and Jane knew that she had always been luckier than most. The least she could do was spend some time sharing a laugh with a good friend.

Jane would have probably stayed longer but she still had work to do. Dawn walked with her outside, promising to let her know if she learned anything about Lynn that would help her investigation. At the very least, she would come visit.

A small caravan of vehicles had just begun to make their way down the dirt road just as she was stepping into the driver’s seat. Jane recognized a couple of faces. She waved as they started to pull in, lowering her window while she waited for them to park.

“Bear Lady! You bringin us good news?” one shouted while pulling his truck beside her.

She laughed, greeting each with a cheerful hello as they started to fill in for the planned gathering. Most were still dressed from their work in the fields, with exception to who she assumed were the Yazzie twins. They both wore leather bomber jackets with a unique letter embroidered on each arm, a B and a J -- gifts probably forced on them after one too many teenage pranks.

No one had any information about Lynn. They’d seen her around and knew she dated this ‘Creek’. He worked night shifts at the dam, but otherwise he was a good kid. Knew a lot about electrical wiring. No one had seen him for the past day but that alone wasn’t too unusual. You could go a week without seeing a neighbor in these parts.

But he was scheduled to work night shifts all this month. If Creek was going to be anywhere, Beryl Dam would be the place to find him.

Driving away from The Den she checked her rearview mirror for as long as she could, wanting to soak in as much of the home as she could possibly hold in her memory. It was still early in the afternoon, but the ride to the dam would take a few hours. Leaving the reservation she passed a new set of men on guard. Armed, attentive, and happy to wave goodbye while she drove off toward the main highway.

With another long ride ahead of her Jane tried to think about how she would confront the boyfriend. If he wasn’t at his job then she would have wasted hours trying to get in touch with him. It would have been smarter to go visit his home while she was on the reserve. Maybe press the locals harder. She had assumed she knew better, but the truth was anyone was capable of murder.

She knew right then she was making a mistake. If she turned around now then she could still visit his home, then the dam without wasting much time. Maybe a half hour lost, if she drove fast.

Quickly she pulled her jeep into a U-turn, checking both lanes of the farm-surrounded road to make sure there was no oncoming traffic. She was just about to complete the maneuver when something bright red caught her eye in the drainage ditch. Pulling to a stop Jane stepped out to look down into the dirt spillway.

A red bicycle, twisted and mangled. Its bright red somewhat tarnished with dirt and grime, the bike looked like it was well taken care of, at one point. There were several sets of footprints in the dirt, some boots and some barefoot. Drag marks. Some corn stalks, broken at the stem. It was a clear sign of a struggle if she’d ever seen one.

Jane checked her surroundings, hand reflexively moving toward her revolver. In the distance she could see the other side of the farmland where she had drove in earlier. The scarecrows were all up. There was no yelling, none of the unusual loudness that comes from working in the outdoors. Everything seemed strangely quiet.

For a moment she eyed the field of corn, playing with the idea of following the trail of confusing footprints. It was always dangerous to enter a field of crops. You never knew what machinery could be working, and the way everyone had been on edge at the reserve there was a good chance these farmers would be equally dangerous. It was always best to avoid spooking an armed homeowner.

Realizing that she needed a better vantage point Jane drew her pistol and strode into the crops, moving past the obvious trail of struggle to the direction of a nearby scarecrow post instead. Those things were fairly sturdy. If it could hold her weight then there would be a much better view of --

Blood. So much blood. The post was soaked in it. Dried from too much exposure to air and sunlight, but thick enough to leave the ground crusted in a foul smelling red.

The scarecrow was nowhere to be found. In its place were ragged scraps of torn leather and faded denim. All of it was covered in a thick red sludge, save for a single tattered strand of yellow cloth. The squelching of wet soil underfoot told her whatever happened here wasn’t that long ago. It may not even be finished.

Gun raised, Jane doubled back and found the trail of footprints in the dirt. Walking low, trying hard to reduce the telltale sound of shifting corn, she followed the signs of struggle deep into the unknown.

Chapter 2 - 23/08/2018

Hours passed. Although designed for sitting, the mall’s rental wheelchairs weren’t exactly comfortable. Maria struggled to stay still. She tried everything to keep pressure off her hip. In the end, complaining seemed to help the most, and it came with the added benefit of making plenty of noise should anyone pass by.

Help never came.

Several times she tried her cell phone, but could get no service in the dark surrounded by thick concrete and steel. Realizing it may be some time still before aid arrived she quickly wheeled herself away from the entrance to do the only thing that seemed sensible.

It took several trips back and forth to gather the things she needed. A face mask to help with the dust, matches, a small pot, plastic utensils, and some portable campfire burners. Three cheap comforters from the bedding section, and a shaped wood stick that she knew was meant to be decorative but could likely hold her weight if she needed to stand. A flashlight, batteries, bottles of water, instant ramen, a bag of granola, and a pillow she was sure must have been stuffed with lint.

Maria knew she was gathering things for survival, but she couldn’t help but feel as though she were looting. It was a fun little fantasy that helped pass the time. Were she not in so much pain it would have been more exciting.

With her supplies gathered she went about the slow task of setting things up. All three comforters together made for a decent bedding, and she sighed with relief when finally stepping out from the wheelchair to lay herself out. Her bones were old, but good. The more she moved the more she was certain the hip would heal quickly.

She lit two of the burners, poured water into the pot, and waited patiently for it to boil. It had grown dark and she didn’t want her mind to wander too much. Whatever else had happened, she was alive. For that she was thankful. Carefully pouring her water into the styrofoam bowl Maria was reminded of her days in college.

Were she twenty years younger this would have felt like quite the adventure. Maria loved a good challenge, though she was certain that a small flight of stairs wouldn’t pose much of one to her younger self. Still, surviving such a huge ordeal like this had a certain thrill. She wished Daniel were still alive. He would have had such a laugh at the thought of her, laying down at the bottom of the stairs like a squatter, waiting to be rescued. He was always laughing at her expense.

She hoped Thomas and her grandchildren were ok. She hoped rescue would come soon.

In the dark of the mall’s lowest basement store Maria fell asleep. Flickering light from her burners danced wild shadows on drab grey walls. Only once did anything shine brighter. A single flash of red luminescence that moved past the stairway at a lazy, slow crawl.



-----------------------------------



She woke the next morning to a blended mix of disappointment and back pain. With only a collection of cheaply made comforters as protection from the concrete floor, she was surprised it didn’t hurt more.

Some daylight filtered down to her from above the stairway. A hole in the mall’s skylight. The earthquake must have shattered the glass roof. Maria hoped no one had been caught underneath, but she was glad to have the light. It was easier to get a view of her surroundings from the night before.

The stairs were completely clear, but garbage and debris still littered the ground from the night before. Emergency floodlights still kept the interior of Dollartown well lit and Maria took full advantage of the good fortune. With some great assistance from the walking stick she pulled herself to her feet and into the wheelchair. Her mind wracked slowly over the list of things she’d need. Who knew how long the floodlights would last.

Dust had largely settled throughout the store and every movement she made kicked up small trails in her wake. The first of her essentials was to help with that.

A portable first aid kit. Another bottle of water. Granola bars. Some kind of fruit snack. A small backpack with a cartoon eggplant on it. Probably intended for a child, but it suited her needs fine and she’d rather have the eggplant than the one with a robot.

She wheeled back to the entrance to entertain the idea that someone may still be looking. Breakfast was a hearty bag of trail mix and assorted gummies. Beyond the occasional crunch of granola or roasted peanuts she ate in silence, looking up at the entrance to Dollartown.

It seemed darker than normal at the top of the stairs. Perhaps it was just the time of day, or the way the mall let in natural light. Knowing she had no reception she had turned off her phone rather than waste battery. She regretted not bringing a watch, but her son had made fun of her for wearing one when she always carried a cell phone nearby. She made a mental note to slap him when she got home.

Wheeling herself back into the store for a second time, Maria took a little more care in browsing through the shelves. A flashlight and some batteries. One of those electric campfire lanterns. A roll of duct tape. A pair of scissors. A ball of thick string.

She brought it all back to the store entrance and carefully sorted her bounty. Stuffing the backpack with her food and small collection of supplies she tied the string firmly around its straps. The lantern clipped onto the bag neatly, and she laid the entire collection of goods at the bottom of the stairs. Only the burners, pot, and comforters remained behind. Too big or heavy to carry, she was certain she wouldn’t need them anyway.

Two flights of stairs. Her hip still ached from her fall and terrible improvised bedding, but she was certain now it was more bruised than anything else. All she needed to do was make it up one flight. If she could do that then she could rest after a short break to gather her strength.

Making sure she kept the ball of string close, leaving plenty of slack between her and the backpack, Maria took her first step up the stairs.

It hurt, but it went shockingly well. She had been so afraid something had broken yesterday that she half-expected to fall over after her first step up. Instead Maria gripped the railing, using it for balance as she worked her way to the first flight’s landing one step at a time. Pain flared in her hips, but it was something she could manage.

Once she reached the first landing Maria paused to catch her breath. The second would be no problem. She could do it. Just a moment to rest, and then she’d be home free. Taking a seat on the ground she turned her attention to the ball of string she walked up with.

She tried hard to pull the bag up the stairs in a way that wouldn’t bang around the attached lantern. It was a fairly durable lantern, but she hated the noise it made as it clattered against each step. The silence of the mall had almost become sacred, and she wanted to protect that as best she could.

With her supply bag in hand she took a seat on the floor. Looking down at the Dollartown it seemed like a prison. Dark and sinister. The world above was warm, inviting. Freedom, tinged with a tone of red.

Maria paused, then squinted. There was nothing but sunlight in the mall earlier, but a flood of red light had begun to coarse through the mall. A brilliant, vibrant crimson. She couldn’t see the main floor from where she sat, but could tell the light must have been coming from outside. Wild shadows were being cast as it passed over the skylights above. It was traveling slowly. Maybe minutes away from reaching her.

It felt wrong. It didn’t seem like a searchlight. There was no noise. Maria furrowed her brow to listen for the sound of footsteps. Of a vehicle, maybe a helicopter or crane.

There was nothing, but the light continued to approach.

Pain in her hip still throbbed terribly, but she grit her teeth through it. The light was getting closer, only a minute away now, and she needed to make herself as flat as possible. Whatever it was, whatever its purpose, Maria didn’t want to be caught in its beam. She would never make it down the stairs in time. Pressed as still as she could against the cement steps, Maria stifled a sob as her hip flared again.

The air filled with pressure. Maria felt her ears pop. She resisted the urge to cover them with her hands. The sensation only grew worse the closer the light approached, but she forced herself to lay flat. If her hands clasped over her ears then her arms would be too high. The red light grew steadily closer. She needed to keep as low as possible.

Maria tried to watch as it approached, but the red light was brighter than she could have ever thought possible. At a distance she could watch it comfortably, without even so much as squinting. Now, up close, it shone with such ferocity that she expected to be hit with a wave of heat.

A sudden anxiety filled her. She wasn’t hidden well enough. If she ran now, stumbled her way down the stairs, there may be just enough time to make it around the corner. Or better, into the darkness of the store. It seemed so inviting now.

Despite her instinct Maria kept herself on the floor, pressed against the bottom step of the second flight. She closed her eyes as the light made its way down her section of the mall. It was like being a child again, pretending to be asleep when her parents checked in. If she was caught something terrible would happen. She knew that, deep down in her heart.

If it had noticed her the light seemed indifferent. Eventually the intensity of its beam passed by slowly, though she stayed still for a while after it had gone. Something about its presence here felt undeniably wrong. It moved so lazily, and left such an uneasy feeling in its wake.

Too slow and too imprecise to be described as searching. There was no urgency in it. The red light was performing a casual scan more than anything else. For what, Maria didn’t want to know.

The light was gone. She needed to move.

Chapter 2 - 12/09/2018

Matt woke up the next morning with an uneasy anxiousness settled on his chest. In the quiet of night his apartment wasn’t much to look at, but come morning its large glass windows flooded the room with light. More so than usual, since he had woken up late.

Having selected his apartment with the arbitrary criteria of ‘good couch’ Matt was pleasantly surprised to find its former occupants shared his personal taste in other ways. There were shelves full of books he wasn’t sure he’d ever read, but certainly made him look smart for owning. Its decor was modern; clean and functional without looking snotty. A large tv and several racks of movies held the promise of future entertainment should power ever return.

There was art on the walls, but Matt had removed and replaced the floral and panoramic paintings with subjects more his own taste. Several gaming and comic book posters he had secured from a comic shop lined the living room instead. It seemed stupid at first, but the longer he stayed there the more he appreciated how it reflected who he was. Like a proper home.

He never had the heart to throw away any of the previous resident’s personal belongings. It seemed like such a heartless thing to do. Instead he shoved them all into an unoccupied apartment across the hall. He called it his ‘personal storage area.’

Propping himself up against the headboard of his bed Matt wiped grogginess and crud from his eyes. The mattress sat directly across from a wall of glass, and it was hard not to admire the view of the city below. It was hard not to appreciate this good fortune.

He could never afford a place like this before. Not as the student he was, and certainly not as the photographer he was hoping to be. He had a good eye, but his shots never seemed to capture the same energy needed to impress his teachers or peers. Another year in school would have likely convinced him to move to film, maybe get credentials as a cameraman or a grip. Good professions, but ‘survivor’ just seemed so much more impressive.

Matt brushed his teeth and rinsed his mouth with clean water from a plastic jug, pouring the excess backwash out the balcony window. His attire was simple and comfortable. Jeans, a t-shirt, and a pair of running shoes. A crowbar, empty backpack, and a pair of workman’s gloves helped complete his look.

Checking his watch Matt quickly made his way out the door. Breakfast had likely started already and being late meant missing out on whatever had been prepared for the day. Everyone learned fast that it was always better to eat with the group. The morning check-in made it easier to communicate plans with each other beyond their routine meetings. Even the few who weren’t active talkers would make sure to arrive early to share their thoughts on what the group should tackle next.

It was thirty flights of stairs to the ground floor. By the time Matt arrived from his late start most of the hot food had been cleared away. Only his closest friends had stayed behind to wait for his arrival. Dante had saved him a bowl of hot oatmeal and an apple, though whether it was out of friendship or guilt for last night’s behavior he was unsure. Lu was cheerfully carving a piece of wood into what appeared to be a small ghost or an odd napkin. Matt wasn’t sure, and was too hungry to care.

They sat and talked about their plans for the day while the occasional resident passed by to say good morning. Apartments on the first floor had been converted into more essential things. A dining area, storage for supplies, and an extremely meager armory. Beyond food and fuel, weapons were next in high demand. Their looting so far had only yielded a single rifle and shotgun, which were left in the hands of those assigned to take up the evening watch.

“I was thinking I’d hit up the Plaza again.” Matt set aside his bowl, feeling much better with a full stomach. “They’ve got a parking lot that should still have a few cars I could tap for gas. Plus maybe a store or two.”

“That’s kind of a way’s out.” said Dante. “Do you need a hand?”

“It’s not that far. I just want to be fast. In and out. I’d take a bike.”

Lu blew wood shaving from her carving before setting it aside. “Well if you’re going to go you should at least take the one with the basket. If you do find something you can just strap it in.”

“Yeah. Between my bag and a basket I can come home with something decent. No one else is going out today right?” Matt looked between the pair. Lu shrugged, leaving Dante to speak up.

“I don’t think so. Everyone wants to just finish clearing out this place. I think not having the building fully explored is makin em anxious. Like we focused too long on the block.”

“Well, whatever. We can clean up the twenty-second while you go find us something valuable. Like fully functioning electricity or water I don’t need to carry in a bucket.” Lu said while standing from her seat.

“Oh yeah, I’ll get right on that.”

After breakfast the trio parted ways. Dante and Lu began their journey back upstairs to assist with the long overdue floor-by-floor cleanup. Matt promised to bring them both back a souvenir from his journey, and his mind was already starting the spin with ideas.

The Plaza was a small mall they discovered several weeks ago during their exploration of the city. Not being locals their group had focused their attention toward major landmarks first and foremost. Grocery stores, farmers markets, and hardware supply shops. Places that were easy to identify, loot, and then leave.

An unfamiliar mall was filled with its own dangers, no matter how small it may be. Stores were jumbled about. Coveted supplies were often hidden behind locked rooms or secure loading bays. They had never encountered any survivors, but that didn’t mean some weren’t out there either. Matt knew if their band of misfits had somehow managed to endure the chaos then others must have as well. It was only matter of time.

There were other places in the city he could have looted instead. Safer ones. But he had been to the Plaza once before, and he knew it contained the store he was certain would have what he needed.

It was a beautiful, clear day. Without traffic, without people, the roads and sidewalks were clear save for the occasional parked car or bag of trash. Though he tried to keep out of the open, Matt was free to weave his bicycle through lanes and across the sidewalk. The basket on the front of his bike rattled with every bump of the road. They had taken it, and several others, from a pizza place early on in their exploration of the city.

In the twenty minutes it took to ride to the Plaza Matt kept a close eye out for changes in his surroundings. A car moved aside, or maybe a newly broken window. They had heard a few stories from survivors like CJ of the things that lurked in the shadows beyond the city. He had no idea what to look for, but any sign of an abnormality was better than nothing.

The Plaza was roughly the size of a city block, with a portion of that being dedicated to underground parking. Before the Dust settled it was a fairly popular spot for clothing and electronic stores. There were only two floors and a wide walkway on the first was filled with kiosks that changed from season to season. Matt had only been here once with his family years ago -- not exactly a tourist trap, but still handy if you wanted to get some extra shopping done.

Matt guided his bike across the road and down into the underground parking. Slowing and stepping off the seat he guided the bicycle to the mall’s entrance, letting it rest against a nearby wall. Crowbar in hand he quietly eased open the heavy metal door, scanning the area for any signs of movement.

Outside the sounds of nature helped mask your position. The wind alone would prompt building doors to open, flags to snap, and shudders to swing with the pulse of the air. Inside the mall, without the cover of nature, there was only silence. The absence of humanity in a place that was once a hub of life.

Normally Matt didn’t mind a little quiet, but the Plaza wasn’t a place designed to sit quietly. Its high glass ceiling and wide hallway captured and echoed noise throughout. Everything was dressed opulent golds and regal reds, which at one point may have lent an air of wealth to its vendors and patrons alike. Now, without its regular cleaning, the Plaza looked like abandoned royalty.

He was always expecting some kind of sound would break the silence. The Plaza’s main hall was like an inflated lung that was ready to exhale at any time. His footsteps felt too heavy against the tiled floor. Too hard to conceal. Not wanting to spend more time than necessary he jogged over to the nearby mall directory to quickly sort out his trip.

There were only two stores Matt cared about, and the first was nearby on the first floor. He moved quickly, risking the extra sound his running shoes made against the tile. Crowbar in hand he was glad to see the door to Circuit Kid was wide open.

Rows of inoperable computer monitors and dusty televisions sat all along the edge of the electronics store. In a different time this would have been a looters paradise. Cell phones and freshly sealed games sat open for the picking. In another timeline Matt would have probably been here to pick up his own copy of Breathless Saga 3. Jumping over the front counter he wondered if it held up to the original at all.

His search of the store was fast and precise. Batteries of every size and grade were swept from display racks and end caps. Twice he used his crowbar to break into locked shelves, yielding an extra flashlight and a small solar powered lamp. With so many valuables left behind it seemed unlikely that anyone had been here before, but that didn’t mean he was eager to stay long.

Once his bag was almost completely full he made for the exit -- but not before snatching a copy of Breathless Saga 3. If they ever got power to work again he’d be ready.

The second stop was upstairs, past the escalator that was now conveniently just a flight of stairs. Despite trying hard to keep quiet his footsteps rang clearly against the hollow metal. The effect made him wince. He looked around fearfully, making a mental note to use the parking lot stairs when it was time to leave. The hard cement wouldn’t be as eager to betray his movement.

A different kind of fear gripped his heart when he reached the second floor. Just past the escalator were the glass doors to The Dragon’s Riddle. It was a locally owned gaming shop that grew an incredible reputation with its customers for friendly service and weekly contests. Puzzles would be posted online once a month for customers to solve, and a correct answer would earn you a reasonable discount on certain items in store. It was a cute gimmick, and the puzzles would often make their way to different web communities.

Reaching out to open the doors Matt found neither would budge. Locked, perhaps by the mall’s automated system. He took a moment to think, checking all around to make absolutely sure no one was watching.

It was entirely possible there was another way in. A back door, loading dock, or even a vent he could climb. Walking more than thirty flights of stairs a day had put him in fairly good shape, and if the wall were basic drywall material it would be easy for him to break through. If it were anything else he’d be making a terrible amount of noise for nothing.

Still, he was here for a reason. There’s no reward without a bit of risk, he thought while taking several steps back.

Winding up his crowbar Matt charged the glass door, stopping just short of it to add momentum to a heavy swing of the metal tool. The dull THUNK it made ringing against the glass made him cringe as it echoed off the mall’s high ceilings. Where he was hoping the door would have shattered, a fracture formed instead. A telltale spiderweb of cracks spreading across the pane.

Not sparing a single moment Matt stepped back and swung again, this time feeling the glass door buckle and start to give way. One final swing prompted the bottom half of the door to shatter inward into thick, uneven shards. If no one had somehow heard the sound of metal cracking against class they would most certainly have heard the door’s collapse.

Anxiety that suggested someone could be near gripped his heart. Scrambling forward he reached in through the breach and undid the lock that kept both doors set in place. Matt pulled the flashlight from his side and began to scan the store’s inventory for his game of choice. Every minute that passed he felt his heart race faster, until he finally stumbled upon what he was looking for on a display rack near the back.

The Dawnblade: A Golden Age Expansion. Its silver letters were scrawled into the side of the box in an elaborate cursive. Matt pulled the box from the shelves and was thankful it didn’t feel too heavy. It must have been mostly cards and a few plastic figures. Normally he’d read the back of the box to see what he was getting into, but if it made the core game more fun to play then that was all that mattered.

Cradling the game in his hands Matt turned to leave when something caught the corner of his eye. There was no shape to it. Just a mass of flesh, twisting and writhing in on itself with the consistency of molten goo. Somewhere near the center of its form placid skin rippled and began to part. Long fingers stretched out as though emerging from under the surface of water, parting its flesh with ease as it extended first into a full hand, then an elongated arm.

More than anything else, it was close. Danger screamed in Matt’s mind. How did it get so near to him? Was it fast, or just silent? Despite it’s revolting appearance there was no accompanying foul smell or monstrous shriek to herald its arrival. It simply was. And it was moving closer to him.

Matt didn’t want to wait and see if there was more. He pulled his eyes away from the mass of flesh in time to hear the clanging thud of metal against metal above. There was a flash of light and cracking boom like thunder. A painful ringing sound filled his ears and he stumbled backwards, his vision a swimming mess of white spots. Reflex told him grab onto the nearest thing for balance, but fear quickly paralyzed his body.

With fingers clutched tightly onto The Dawnblade Matt struggled to keep standing. His other hand gripped the crowbar, half swinging to make sure nothing was near. Matt knew the creature was nearby, but it was impossible to tell where it may have gone now that he had been robbed of his senses. A part of his mind told him it was safe to take a step backwards.

Something with incredible force slammed into his stomach and he doubled over. With his ears robbed of all but the endless ringing Matt wasn’t sure if he had cried out in pain, although his mouth did open. He tried to catch his breath when something strong suddenly pulled around his neck. The crowbar in his hand seemed to vanish, slipping from his grasp. A hand, or a grip like it, grabbed at one wrist and then another.

He couldn’t move, he couldn’t breathe. As consciousness faded from him Matt thought of his friends. Whatever trap he had fallen into, let it be satisfied with his death. Don’t go looking for him. Stay away.