The chanting bleeding through the air crawled through Zack’s head, spreading through the buildings like blood from a wound. Out amongst the grave fields where they’d buried the last of those to continue fighting silence was as commonplace as rain. But here, this close to what was left of the city centre the streets were alive with the distant howl of worship.
‘How far back do you think they are?’ his son’s voice reached Zack’s ears in between great wooshes of air as Saxon tried to catch his breath, and for a moment Zack’s thoughts filled with gills. How well could the cultists run with those things? What did they do when they were out of breath?
A splash brought his head up. Ripples were spreading toward them down the flooded alley.
‘I don’t know, just keep going.’
The thin man with an old soldier’s scars checked the way they’d come and said again.
‘We can’t stop son, understand?’
Zack shouldered the rifle and bag with its precious contents and Saxon nodded.
‘Is it heavy?’
He pointed at Zack’s burden.
That was more right than his father cared to admit, and besides – nothing that steamed like the rocks the cultists pulled from the creature’s back spoke of anything good. Zack concentrated on controlling his own breathing and checked the bottom of the alley once more. The cult could move silently enough when it wanted, and they were trained from birth to keep their pain to themselves. The visitor wrapped around its monument didn’t like to be disturbed when it fed.
‘I should have known better,’ he muttered to himself.
‘Just keep going Saxon. We aren’t out of this yet.’
Zack reminded himself that they hadn’t had much choice, it was take the job or face the consequences. The people sheltered outsiders only so long when it came to tithe taking time and if you had nothing to give you were sure to be the first offered up. The biggest mistake had been thinking they could use the ruins to escape. He returned his attention to the youth following him.
Saxon looked pale. He should do, deep in the city light was a memory at the best of times and they’d already passed plenty of the things the gulls brought back from the oceans. They looked better on the shattered ‘crete, far from the water where they’d lived, but not by much.
‘We only took a little. Why are they still following us?’ said his son.
‘You think they care about that? They’ve been picking it out for years. Whatever they’re going to do with it they’ve saved every last shard.’
Zack still hadn’t told Saxon what he’d seen. He’d heard the stories before he went of course, but he’d put them down to the oldsters rambling. There was nothing they liked better than spinning yarns about the collapse and no amount of persuasion could persuade him the missile had any earthly origin. Still, when the stranger had arrived and spoken at the palaver’s fire, he’d seen the credits dance before his eyes and taken the offer. If they were mad enough to want what pinioned the beast to its eyrie he was just mad enough to think he could get it for them. Besides, Zack and his son hadn’t had work for so long they had bellies more full of air than anything that kept meat on their bones. There wasn’t much call for thieves with most of the population in the ground.
‘I can hear them Dad.’
So could Zack, as the first cries slid between the crumbling buildings he gave himself time for a glance behind as a whisper of doubt filled his mind that quickly grew to a clamour. He can’t have laid the wires properly if they were this close.
‘Keep straight on till you hit open air.’
‘Go, this won’t take a minute.’
Zack would have been happier if the moisture all around wasn’t echoed by that in his palms, but at least when he found them the wires were still in place.
‘Ten inches above the surface, perfect.’
Zack paused with his eyes searching the empty doorways and broken shop fronts.
‘Come on then.’
His words bounced down the fissure until they met the first of the gleams winking into life at its end.
Zack didn’t wait. You didn’t with their kind, not if you wanted to keep breathing. It wasn’t just the worshipful that would be down there. It was what they’d have brought with them snapping on the ends of their leashes that was really worth being afraid of. Lucky the handler’s sight was so bad these days that they could barely see more than a few feet in front of what remained of their noses, unless they were under water. Zack glanced at the deluge lapping at the broken high rises – no bubbles…yet.
But soon the eyes were so close he could see what had been done to their owners, trace the damage as they began to ape their master the closer it came to their turn. Zack wondered if they screamed then as they realised they were changing and felt the hair on his neck rise. The nearest’s arms curled and writhed and he watched the mangled remnants of the man’s mouth try and form words. It worked on the second attempt.
‘Thhhief, you die soon.’
Zack had been expecting that, but what he hadn’t reckoned on was how close the rest had come. The windows on his level were already alive as pallid shapes slipped closer and he stepped back from the light. He’d been careful of course; Zack’s eyes flicked to the markers. An inch to the left or right and his descending foot would vanish in a cloud of bone and blood along with the rest of him. When nothing happened the breath that left his lungs felt like all it was missing was the organs themselves.
The silver coins staring back at him from the alleys depths didn’t so much as blink as wet chocking laughter curled its way toward him.
He’d gotten as far as the sun’s first near smothered beams when his legs were knocked from under him and a blast wave nearly punched a hole in his back. So, they had tripped his present after all. Zack didn’t need to see. He knew what the skills the collapse had taught him did, even if he didn’t like them much. Instead he rolled until he felt hands on his back and the patter of falling debris had stilled.
‘Son,’ gasped Zack, ‘get out of here. Get to the council building. They don’t like that place; they can see what they’re worshipping from up there in all its glory. The client will be waiting.’
‘I will, but you’ve still got what we took from it.’
Zack felt the rock they’d strapped to his back.
‘Let me worry about that. You’ve better things to do if you don’t want to end up as fish food. We’ll make the meet and offload like we used to with the other contraband, don’t worry.’
Those had been good day’s, back before the flood and the bad dreams that had come with it. Zack got up and reached out his hand.
‘I doubt they’ll be in any condition to come after us now they’ve found what I’ve left behind, but there’ll be others. Now go.’
The car park they’d entered still held the last daubs from the evangelists on its walls. The faithfull had run amok at the end; when it finally became apparent that there was going to be no second coming and no rapture either. A few had survived the burnings and Zack saw them on occasion, gibbering in the darker corners. There was something about the thing perched on what had been the city’s tallest building that did something to their minds.
He paused and took in some writing.
‘Make your peace while you still can.’
Zack’s lips moved as he finished the scrawl.
‘It ends at dawn.’
But despite the dead author’s warnings the sun had kept rising, day after day, so many that Zack could barely remember most of them now. After a while you just got used to a world without anything you’d grown up with. There were no longer any ATM’s, planes, or cops, and the only thing’s moving on the roads were rats. Most of all you travelled fast, rodent, beast, or human. If you didn’t you could count your breaths on the fingers of one hand and it was nothing that looked likely to end soon, unless of course they did something about it. He patted the bag, and the ticket out that lay inside.
‘Let’s get you up there.’
There was a hiss of static from the audio bud in his ear that resolved into the client’s voice.
‘You have what I want?’
‘More than enough,’ gasped Zack as his feet found the stairs. ‘When will you collect?’
‘I’m already on my way.’
Zack yelled after Saxon’s disappearing back, ‘Careful, it’s dangerous.’
But the kid wasn’t listening as he sped around the first corner. He wouldn’t have far to go. The council’s multistorey was on the city’s only other hill. The top wasn’t high, not compared to the sprawl that had grown up around it. But now with the traffic long stilled and the fumes swept away you could see the vista clearly.
‘Soon they’ll pick this place clean. Then they’ll finish what’s left of us.’
Zack thought of the ancient credits; they’d been so old they still held the emergency administrations seal. At least now they should have enough to return to the outlands, maybe hole up and let others do the work before the accolytes finished theirs and them into the bargain. He was tired of running round scrabbling through the ruins of better times. Zack looked up again. The thing that had crawled from the depths looked as though a wrecking ball had collided with the tower it had chosen as home. Except the creature that had caused the destruction could still be traced with your eyes all these years later, and it was far from still. It coiled and howled despite the rock pinioning its back.
‘Look at them, they’re like ants,’ said Saxon, awed by the sight spread in front of him.
Lines of black clad figures crawled over what had been no. 1 Indies Wharf, creeping from its shattered windows with picks and hammers ready to mine the missile from the creature’s spine.
‘You have something for me.’
The voice came from shadows near where the council had displayed its flags.
‘You found us.’
‘Of course. You’ve fulfilled the contract.’
‘I don’t understand. Why didn’t you take it yourself?’
‘Because, I’m not expendable.’
The new arrival stepped into the weak light. Not that it made much difference it was so shrouded in rags they’d never seen its face, but the voice was soft and calm like a woman’s.
He was about to say more when a noise from the rubble strewn plaza below reached his ears.
‘Of course, the visitor will be in their minds like a whip by now,’ said their client.
‘What is it?’
‘Something that should have stayed where it was. Now, give me what I paid you for.’
Zack was already reaching for the first of the cords binding it to his back.
‘If it makes you feel any better this will be put to good use.’
Their customer had stepped close while they’d been distracted and the smell of neoprene and canvas met Zack’s nose like he was in the presence of a deep-sea diver far from home. Whoever it was must be one of the ones that still believed in armor. That was a joke, something that could get into your heads was nothing that could be defeated by anything so primitive, fish or no fish.
Zack had barely realized he’d taken his burden from his back before he felt its weight lifted from his hands.
‘Thank you,’ said the stranger.
‘What are you going to do with it?’
‘Use it for what it was intended for.’
‘That’s not very helpful.’
‘Alright, it was part of the administration’s last attempt to get rid of one of them. They’d grown desperate enough to try anything by the end. But they missed; I will not.
Zack realized he was staring. The fragment in the stranger’s hands was glowing now.
‘That’s not rock is it?’ asked Zack.
‘No, it’s metal, a particular type of metal.’
‘Who are you?’
‘Captain Indigo,’ the figure saluted, ‘science officer for the International Space Station.’
The woman paused and looked at them.
‘We didn’t last long up there after everything went down.’
There were more than just noises coming from the plaza now. The shouts had the familiar song of bloodlust and madness threaded through them.
‘Dad, what are they doing?’
‘I don’t know.’
The stranger’s feet had left the roof top’s bitumen as they powered up something hidden under their rags.
Zack’s eyes widened as he took in the sight. She was high above now and Zack could see her clearly as the last of her cloak burned away. He’d been right but not about the sea the stranger’s armor was intended for. Their client was an astronaut in the dirt and patchy white of an EMU suit, rockets flared as they adjusted their trajectory.
‘Take good care of your son.’
Fists were pounding on the door to the multi-storey’s roof, but Zack was too busy watching the figure rotate like an arrow pointed directly at the thing perched on its tower. Afterwards he could never remember if he’d seen it move. There’d been an almighty bang and a moment where the world went blank, like the old over exposed pictures they’d shown him in science class so long ago the world had still been how he remembered it. Then it was gone and all that was left was the feeling that somebody had clapped too loudly next to his ears.
The tower was burning. As they watched shreds of something that could only loosely be described as meat fell to the distant pavement.
‘It’s over isn’t it?’
Father and son turned to the door that had been shivering under the assault of the mob’s fists. It was quiet now.
‘That’s right. They didn’t aim for its head.’
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