• Published 24th Jul 2012
  • 20,846 Views, 420 Comments

Anno Domini - chrumsum



Ash to ash, dust to dust.

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1: Anno Domini

Warning, subject expired. Warning, subject expired.

In the blackness, a soft, feminine voice repeats the same bleak message over and over. Not missing a single octave, the pleasant tone repeats infinitely, each phrase punctuated by a grim red flash from a light on the dashboard. The flat melody is the first thing I hear as the shadows of my mind recede, and I come to.

Warning, subject expired,” insists the computer’s voice. I open my mouth to speak. My tongue feels three sizes too big for my pasty mouth, and my head is aching horribly.

“Not yet, no,” I croak, my words slurring. A sharp metallic taste in my mouth makes my brow furrow and nose wrinkle. Reaching up to scratch my head and chase away the numbness that invades it, I find a sticky substance matting my hair. Bringing my fingers away, the pulsating red glow finds blood.

Warning, subject expired...

“Oh, for fuck’s sake... computer, force reset,” I swear, rubbing the blood between my fingertips. The pulsating red light stops and the voice falls silent. A few clicks and beeps later, and it returns.

Main Drive reset. Welcome back, Corporal Hayden Sparks,” it says soothingly. Exhaling forcefully, I wipe the sweat off my brow with the back of my wrist. My arm feels heavy and wooden, and I have to shake it a few times until I can feel my nerves prickle again.

“Full systems check,” I command, and the computer complies, listing off the technicalities of the combat suit as I fumble with my straps.

Weapons system: online. Primary armor integrity: full. Secondary: full. Power levels: zero percent. Local power: eighteen percent.

“Zero? Shit,” I swear, successfully unstrapping myself. “Engage back-up power supply.”

Emergency power stores at five percent. Proceed?

“Proceed.” As soon as the words leave my mouth, small LEDs light the interior of the machine, replacing the red glow with an artificial white light. Blinded momentarily, I wait for my eyes to adjust to the sudden flash. The familiar controls and curves of the cramped cockpit soon slide into focus from the blur, and I look down.

My thin gray tank top is drenched in sweat, and the blood running from the wound on my head has dried into a congealed rust-colored crust on my shoulder and neck. That explains the headache. Pulling some gauze from the first aid kit nestled in a slot behind the backboard of the cockpit, I wrap it around my head and ask the computer for an environmental analysis.

Temperature: 34 degrees Celsius. Time: approximately thirteen hundred hours. Warning! Radiation levels: twenty five million Curies. Location: unknown, no satellite found.

Twenty five million? What the hell had happened? I sit there for a moment, when a horrifying thought strikes me. I can’t remember. Gingerly touching the wound on my head, I try to pry into my memories. They were in there, somewhere. Like fingers just barely plucking at a ball, every attempt to grasp it only pushes it further away. I lick my lips and find the metallic taste again.

“Computer, give me optics,” I order, donning a pair of goggles stiffly attached by thick cables to the computer. I slip my arms into the sleeves of red and green wire, and grip the controls at the end. “We’re getting the hell out of here.”

The screens crackles to life, flickering with static before finally becoming clear. As the wires around my arms tighten, I become one with the machine.

My eyes find nothing but blackness. Engaging the environmental lights embedded in the thick armor of my war machine’s head, the same light as within the cockpit spills forth. I sweep the beam across the craggy scenery. Concrete slabs rest in a chaotic jigsaw puzzle around me, entrapping my metal suit. I move my arm, and the suit follows my movement, the thick appendage forcing its way in front of me. Clawed fingers wrap around the concrete blocks, and push. With a grinding crack, the powerful gyros and hydraulics force the heavy stone up and away. Fine dust blossoms from the moving stones, settling on the black steel machine as I push aside more rubble and attempt to move my legs. The machine muscles upward, then stops. Grimacing, I try to raise my legs and push the rubble further away. It refuses to cooperate.

Warning, emergency power supplies reaching critical state. Complete power failure imminent,” says the computer coolly, despite the hopeless news.

“I can make it,” I grunt, gritting my teeth. I have to make it. “Redirect all available power to hydraulics.”

Acknowledged.” The lights in the cockpit dim to blackness, followed by the environmental lights as well. Scrambling to find a good grip, I press harder with both arms, forcing the machine’s might against the weight of the concrete.

Complete power failure imminent. Emergency power at one-point-five percent.

“I can make it.” Sweat pours from my brow as cracks spiderweb along the concrete slab. “I can make it.”

Suddenly, a spark ignites the cockpit. Jerking back, I cry out as a yellow arc of energy leaps from the hull to the dashboard and the surrounding equipment.

“What in the name of--”

Power source connected. Charging,” interrupts the computer in the same eerie monotone. Almost immediately, the lights in the cockpit return to full brilliance, and the dashboard lights blink and flare. As abruptly as they came, the jolts of power stop. Breathing hard, I stare at the glowing dashboard. The voice confirms the readings. “Power source disconnected. Charge complete. Emergency power supply at one hundred percent. Primary power supply at one hundred percent.”

Eyeballing the display numbly, I try to articulate a command. But no words come. A miracle? A blessing? Or had someone just saved my life? Fumbling, I grab the goggles and slide them back into place.

“Hello? Is someone there?” I speak into the microphone. The sound returns in echoes, spreading among the crevices of shattered concrete. No response comes. Nervously biting my tongue, I focus on the task at hand.

“Computer, re-balance power outputs to normal,” I order, and then I push my arms forward. Under the full available power of the suit, the concrete tears like paper and flies outward. Peeling aside the layers of stone bit by bit, pale sunlight pours through gaps in the rock. Invigorated, I pump my feet, swing my arms, and rip free from the tomb. Hauling myself from the rubble and thick dust, the gears of the machine rumble as it rises from the depths and plants its thick metal feet into the concrete with a resounding crack. The smile of triumph on my face fades as I look up to find the surface world.

“Oh my God,” I whisper.

The shredded concrete ruin stretches for miles. Bathing in seas of shattered gray stone, blackened steel pylons and gnarled mesh wire protrude from the chaos, frozen and still. Thick curtains of ash fall softly in swirling black snowflakes, leaving smears on the seared stone. It’s as if for miles around, a massive wind has torn monoliths like cardboard, flattening them with unbridled fury. I stretch a mechanical hand, and let the drifting puffs of soot fall into the claws of the suit. The machinery whining slightly, I look upwards.

The sky is on fire.

Thick, swirling black clouds, bloated with thunder and crackling with violent lightning devour the skies. They crawl into each other, tearing and yawning as hot flashes of energy pop and fizzle between them. A bloody red glow leaks through the throbbing clouds, engulfing the hellish landscape.

The only voice is that of a howling, burning wind tearing through the husks of a broken world.

Dazed, I stumble forwards, the powerful anchors of the war suit keeping me from falling. Gears and hydraulics groaning, I gingerly pick my way through the torn concrete. Searching for... I’m not sure what I’m searching for.

“Computer, message to all open channels,” I command breathlessly. It complies, and with a click, I speak into the microphone. “This is Corporal Hayden Sparks, calling out to any and all units. Is anyone there?” I wait for a moment, but there’s nothing but the hush of static. Repeating my message over and over, I stumble through the wastes. But here’s nothing. Staring into the screaming, wailing emptiness, there’s nothing but scorched earth and twisted steel. For a long time, I stare numbly at the nebulous chaos.

“What in God’s name happened here?” I murmur, desperately trying to find some familiar sight, anything at all to pull me from this nightmare. My brain runs furious laps to piece the fragmented landscape together. It’s a fruitless chase that leads to shadowy half-guesses and mercurial silhouettes. The foggiest echo of a voice flits through my brain.

You can’t do this!

For a moment there is naught but silence, split by the roaring crack of lightning overhead. Then the computer speaks.

Transmission incoming.”

Before I can even accept it, my headphones pop and fizz with static. After a brief pause, a voice crackles through.

“Testing, testing,” speaks the voice in a strange, lilting tone. “Hello? Anybody there? Wakey-wakey, time to get moving.”

I blink. The voice is... teasing, almost. Shaking my head to rid myself of the numbness that’s creeping into the folds of my brain, I answer.

“Who... who is this? Identify yourself!”

“Oh, alright then,” comes the reply. Then nothing. I wait for a few seconds, before anxiously speaking again.

“Hello?”

“Yes, I’m done. Now it’s your turn.”

“Excuse me?” I stutter, incredulous.

“I identified myself. Now it’s your turn.”

I shake my head again. I must be dreaming. All this has to be some sort of hallucination. Maybe I’ll wake up. But until then, here I stand, in the middle of this apocalyptic wasteland, with some insane voice at the end of a forgotten signal.

“This is...” I start, hesitating for some reason. “This is Corporal Hayden Sp--”

“No, no, no,” comes the low, rumbling voice of the man on the radio. “I know who you are, Hayden. That isn’t the question. I want to know what you are.”

I find myself once more at a complete loss for words. Was this person toying with me? Who the hell was I speaking with? It takes me a long time to answer. The voice is patient.

“I’m... a soldier?” I answer hesitantly, the way an uncertain student might respond to a question from a teacher that he had missed due to his lack of attention.

The voice sighs, not with irritation, but with something more akin to disappointment. “Oh well. I suppose that will have to do for now.”

I stand there awkwardly again, shifting the legs of my battle suit with a low mechanical hum. Soot is getting all over my visor, smearing my window onto the battered wastes. Before I can ask the voice anything more, it starts again.

“Well then, Hayden Sparks... or can I call you Hayden? I can tell that you’re a tad busy, and so I’ll cut to the chase. You’re alive. And a lot of people aren’t. That’s a good place to start. For now, what you need to do is get to me.”

“Come to you? But where are you? And what’s happened here anyways? What do you mean people aren’t--”

“Ah, one question at a time, Hayden,” scolds the voice.

“Answer me, goddamit!” I scream into the microphone.

“Well now, that’s no way to speak to someone who just saved your life.” When I fall silent for a moment after that, the voice takes it as an invitation to speak once more. “You think that random charge came from nowhere? Please, Hayden, miracles only happen in children’s books. And we’re... very much in reality.” For some reason, the voice finds this last statement hilarious, and the speakers of my suit are filled with hysterical giggling. It seems almost vulgar, echoing in the roaring crimson sky.

The laughter eventually dies down, and the voice is silent before it returns again. “I’ve saved you, Hayden, and I think the least you can possibly do is hear me out.”

I deactivate the microphone of my headset for a moment, and recline in my seat. For a moment, I lie there quietly, among the hum and buzz of electronics. Every muscle in my body is itching and throbbing for some reason, and the faintest hint of nausea eases into the pit of my stomach as I stare at nothing. Once more, I force my mind to remember. And yet the invisible wall remains, firm and unforgiving.

Never! You hear me? Never!

I lean forward again and reconnect the headset. “What do you want?”

The voice sounds pleased. “Simply to show you something, Hayden. To give you the answers you’re looking for. Head north. I’ll be waiting for you.”

With that, the static buzz of the headset dies, and the computer flatly informs me of the lost connection.

***

It takes an agonizingly long time before I can finally pinpoint my cardinal directions. Through the thick curtain of the radiation, the computer corrects and adjusts its calculations constantly. Eventually, it settles on north.

Marching through the torn wasteland, the constant falling of soot makes it almost impossible to see where I’m going. Every lurching step is precarious and risky with the concrete rubble shifting underfoot. Were it not for the potent gyroscopes and hydraulics of the suit’s legs, it would have been an unthinkable trek.

For miles and miles, I find nothing but rubble and glassed stone. Every turn, every hill abuses my hopes to find something, anything of recognition. The world yields nothing, only giving fuming sky and endless desert. The suit whining as it adjusts itself once again to the uneven footing, I suddenly stop. Uncertain, I head towards a darkened clump punching through the cracked stone. Standing above it, I carefully let the machine crouch down for a closer look.

It’s a hand. Reaching through its rocky prison, a black, clawed metal hand reaches for the sky, as if it could seize the throbbing clouds and heave itself from death. Looking down into my own palms, I realize it’s the same as mine. Another combat suit, buried beneath the stone. I stare at the deathly still hand, unconsciously flexing my own, before finally gripping the stone around it. Easily tearing it away from the metal structure, the pale red light glows dimly on the black steel beneath. Tossing away a final piece of concrete with a crunch, I find an angular chest plate. Scraping at the surface, I discover a weathered insignia. I briefly zoom my optics on it.

“Commander Reese…” I mumble under my breath. The name sounds familiar somehow. Carefully, I brush aside the soot as it soundlessly settles on the insignia. My eyes scrutinize every centimeter of the weathered paint.

That’s an order! Do you hear me? Do it!

Throat dry, I force the arms of the machine upward, clearing the rubble around the broken suit’s head. I find a familiar helmet, square towards the back and thinning out to a triangular point. A thin slit of glass concealing the suit’s optics glistens. Cracks rim the red glass, shattered where the steel helmet has buckled and burned. I place my mechanical fingers under the rim of the battered helmet, and start to lift.

Do you hear me, Corporal Sparks!?

Slowly, my fingers come away from the helmet. I don’t think I want to see what’s… under there. I step away from the body, staring in disbelief into the broken visor through my own. For a long time, it’s just the fallen commander and I. Then my radio crackles morosely. As I watch the still suit of armor, the voice over the radio asks me a simple question.

“When’s the last time you saw death, Hayden Sparks?” it wonders.

I don’t give it an answer. I can’t give it an answer. A lump in my throat refuses to let the slightest word of denial or anger slip through. The voice doesn’t insist. After another sputter of static, the signal ends.

Silent, I take the hand of the broken suit into my own, and respectfully cross it against its chest. I pile rocks together into the best imitation of a tomb I can manage, and return my path northward. It takes every fiber of my being to force myself to not look back.

The howling winds born from crimson sky sing their solemn hymn to no one in particular as I leave the corpse behind.

***

Stone by stone, the seared rubble begins to give way to expanses of dirt. The pale remnants of vegetation litter the darkened earth, blanched and crisped to ash. Rolling dunes of charred soil stretch across the horizon, pockmarked by fragments of steel and fallen concrete.

The war machine has even more trouble here. I swear with nearly every step as the dense machinery sinks into the dusty earth. More than once the combat suit sinks down to its knees in dust, bogging every movement. Looking skyward, I find that the skies are not as red here, and have fallen instead a sickly green-gray. Breath heavy as the effort of the machine becomes my own, I trudge along the steep slope of the dune, sinking slowly in the tides of soot and dust.

Catching myself as I crest the dune with staggered steps, I find myself in darkness. The grime-colored skies are blotted with a massive shadow. Like a monolith, a massive pillar of metal pierces into the sky. Blinking in wonder, I realize what I’m looking at: a war machine, thousands of times larger than my own.

Four enormous legs, nearly devoured by the hungry miles of ash, rise solemnly from the landscape. Once formidable bringers of death, they now lie silent, void of the fire and smoke that gave them life. The behemoth machine, bristling with cannons and turrets and plated with thick armor, is dead.

Scarcely peeling my eyes away from the massive, crab-like machine, I slide down the length of the dune, throwing dust into the air. Stepping around the broad legs, I suddenly hear a crack as my feet press down into the sand. Lying in the dust, snapped in two, is a scorched rifle. Cracked and scarred, it too is half submerged. And it isn’t alone. I look up, and for several meters around, fragmented rifles and glittering shell casings litter the ground.

We’re surrounded, sir.

It takes me a moment to realize what exactly it is I’m standing upon. Looking up, the peeling red paint banded across the legs of the colossal war machine confirm my fears. Somewhere, something in the back of my mind is ticking quietly, like a pendulum ever so slowly rocking back and forth on its axis. It’s the sound of cracks creeping across the impenetrable wall. Shapes and voices flicker around the shadowy edges of the blockade, whispering harshly in a language I seem to have forgotten. It’s too much. I shut my eyes and bite my lip until they stop.

The radio crackles once again.

“Whose side were you on, Hayden Sparks?” it murmurs, before dying again in a cloud of grating static.

Looking up again, the hulking mass of the still machine is etched in the ghastly light of the forsaken sky, a grim sepulcher in a field of metal bones. And yet, it’s as if the massive legs that could flatten buildings were raised and pressed onto my combat suit. Shouldering the weight, I turn away and march through the unmarked graveyard.

***

Heading further north, praying that my suit’s instruments aren’t pointing me in the wrong direction, more and more signs of civilization begin cropping up. At least, the ones that are still recognizable. Traffic signs and street lights barely stand on their metal stilts, warped and twisted. Through the dust, cleared by the hot, gusting wind, the black asphalt of a road begins to appear. Clonking along the road, the broad feet of the suit seem to almost sigh in appreciation as the hydraulics readjust to more familiar footing. I don’t blame them. The rocking motion of the dusty dunes was disorienting, and fatally lulling as well. But now the sudden transition to solid ground is painfully realistic.

Although in any rational time, it would’ve been expected, my breath catches in my throat as I stumble across the first car. Sprawled in the middle of the road, it’s amazing that it’s even in one piece. Melted on its right side to nothing but slag, the shattered windows spray cracked glass across the scorched metal. Walking around the side of the vehicle, I found the tires had melted and fused into the pavement. Limbs humming softly, I bend a knee to peer inside the carcass of the car. The environmental lights embedded into the exoskeleton of the suit click and flood the interior with an artificial glow. There’s nothing to see. Nothing but cracked seats and drifts of somber gray ash. Crushing the metal frame of the car as I step away, the computer vainly tries to analyze the bruised license plates as I look up to find row upon row of stalled vehicles in the road.

The huddled masses of metal and glass are tossed together in chaotic rows, pressed against each other. Walking past their sagging roofs, the sound of crunching shrapnel beneath the feet of the machine seems foreign in this plane of silence. Clustered together, overturned and crashed, the ghostly vehicles are going nowhere fast.

Following the road northward, the parade of decaying, rusted vehicles continues for miles on end. The graveyard of rusting pickups and scorched minivans seems to stretch forever, as limitless as the bleak skies and fallen ash. Despite the constant sound of the creaking machinery and the hum of electronic equipment, I slowly feel the biting loneliness of the wastes beginning to seep into my veins, like a numbing, icy chill. These cars piled end on end, abandoned to nothing but ghostly winds and phantom echoes aren’t... right. It’s not right for them to be idle, it’s not right for them to be empty. The stillness on this crossroads of exploration and venture is unsettling. I hasten my pace.

We will not surrender. We’ve come too far for this.

Soon enough, the pileup of cars reaches its peak. My eyes flicker across another heat-blasted road sign. I read it under my breath: “Georgeton Tunnel”. Georgeton... the name sounds familiar somehow. Sweet to the tongue. But stacked cars clog the mouth of the tunnel, like a corroded clot to an already irrevocably poisoned artery.

Flexing the mechanical muscles of the war machine, my claws tear into the side of one of the cars, ripping into the metal and fastening securely to the workings within. Testing my grip, I easily lift the vehicle and toss it aside. The crash makes me jump slightly. After the echo subsides, I sink my grip into the next one and repeat. I toss aside rusting pickups and flattened convertibles, throwing each ravaged machine aside with little care. In fact, I think I start to enjoy it. The pure visceral relish of throwing aside the cars brings a smile to my lips. I laugh hoarsely as I toss another vehicle with a sweep of my arm.

Something tangible in the world of ghosts, and I can control it. Yeah, I’m in control here.

With another grim smile, I seize the final obstacle, a minivan with its nose flattened against its windshield. As I lift it overhead, something falls with a muted thump from the torn sunroof. I look down. And a wilted stuffed rabbit looks back at me with smokey eyes.

For a moment, I don’t move. The stuffed animal stares up at me, not saying a word, not making a move. Slowly, I lower the minivan, placing it aside. I look inside, at the piles of ash and melted plastic. The stuffed rabbit doesn’t say anything as the gears click into place in my head. My head feels like it’s swelling, and something akin to guilt sinks into my throat. I feel ashamed. And the stuffed rabbit’s glass eyes seem to judge me. I kneel down, hovering a clawed hand over the stuffed animal. Reaching out for it, I hesitate a few times. It looks so fragile, lying with its weathered fur in the dirty concrete. Scooping it gently, I bring it up to my visor. The sad creature’s head lolls in my hands.

Abandoned. Something tight forms around my neck. I know the feeling.

Tucking the stuffed animal into an ammunition pouch on my leg, I pat the container, as if to reassure its new inhabitant. I look one last time at the minivan before turning back towards the yawning cavern of the tunnel.

“Who did you leave behind, Hayden Sparks?” sputters the voice on the radio as the blackness of the tunnel swallows me up.

***

The tunnel seems to go on forever, and every step is like swimming through some bottomless bog. Marching blindly into the shadows, the lights of my suit seem somehow devoured by the inky shadow. All I can do is stumble forward and pray that it leads me somewhere far from all this. Somewhere where the voice is waiting for me with the answers.

“Computer,” I start, desperate to do anything to break the silence, “get me a position. I’m going blind here.” I wait for a moment for the computer to respond. But the even and docile voice doesn’t come. My brow furrows.

“Computer, get me a position,” I demand again, being sure to spread my words and enunciate clearly. Still the computer doesn’t respond. Slipping my arm out of the wire sleeve of the combat suit, I give the computer a sharp bang with the palm of my hand.

“Computer, force reset!”

There’s nothing, not even the click or buzz of electricity. A frustrated swear leaves my throat, and I fumble about the cockpit to find the manual reset switch. My fingers brush against the smooth button located inconveniently behind the casing of the machine. I give it a sharp press. But still nothing happens.

“Son of a... bitch!” I cuss violently, stabbing at the button a few more times. Giving up, I slam my hand against the side of the computer, the cold metal cutting at my hand. At least it’s better than feeling nothing. On-board computers were designed to survive the most brutal of physical and virtual assaults. It simply wasn’t normal for one to shut down without reason. Especially to manual control. I flex a mechanical arm. The suit can operate without it, thankfully.

As I look up back into my optics, wondering what the hell I’m supposed to do now, there’s a blinding flash and a burst of sound through my speakers. With a gasp of pain, I pull away from the suspended goggles. It feels like my retinas are on fire, and my ears trill in protest. Flashing spots dance inside my tightly-closed eyes. Rubbing them away with the heels of my hands, I blindly fumble for the goggles and look through them cautiously.

The first thing I see is the blue sky.

All strength leaves my arms, and they fall weakly to my sides as my jaw hangs open. Where there had once been sickly skies, there was now nothing but immaculate, sapphiric expanse. It was as simple as that. One moment there, the next gone. Jaw agape, I lower my eyes from the heavens, and find the impossible.

The dust and ash of the desolate world has evaporated. Instead, the streets are now lined with evenly trimmed lawns and the proud white facades of houses. Tastefully dispersed oak trees rise from the turf, shading the grass below from the glimmering sun. Beneath my feet, the road is now smooth and pristine, with freshly painted white lines on the edges. The distant roar of a passing car coughs in the distance.

It’s cut off by a clapping sound as a basketball bounces from one of the front lawns and into the middle of the road. A careless, laughing child runs to grab it, sprinting back to his calling friends as quickly as he possibly can. A couple old-timers, faces wrinkled from the tests of time, prop their elbows against a mutual fence and share stories as they observe the world around them. From the sidewalk, a teenage girl in a prim khaki uniform patrols the street with a cart in hand, loaded with scrap. She pauses here and there, collecting old pots and pans from smiling housewives with tired eyes. Finding a street sign, the image seems to solidify as I read the painted white words.

“Hunter Street,” I whisper under my breath. Hunter Street and Georgeton.

I’m home.

I stand there, paralyzed by some otherworldly force as life goes on as it always has on Hunter Street. None even give me a passing glance, their eyes passing through me, accustomed to the hulking form of combat suits. All is sunlight and peace, even as the children play beneath the shadow of a perched evacuation siren. Voices echo around me through my speakers, disconnected and distant.

“What was the score again?”

“It’s their coach, I’m telling ya…”

“Stephanie? Don’t get too dirty, we’re going out tonight.”

“Mom, I’m thirsty.”

“Just a moment, Thomas.”

The last voices, one chipper and infantile, the other gentle and feminine, strike me like a brick. With a slight hum, I turn and find, sitting together on a front porch with a dripping glass of lemonade, a mother and child.

My wife and son.

It takes every ounce of strength in my body not to collapse to my knees. Marissa. Thomas. My family. The impenetrable wall in my mind ruptures and crumbles, spilling stale memories. I can’t even remember how long it’s been. I can’t even recognize my boy’s own face. He looks so much like his father.

With wavering steps, I steer my combat suit up the cobblestone pathway to the front porch. Misty-eyed, neither of them spare me a single glance. A loving smile on her lips, Marissa watches Thomas gulp down the rest of his lemonade, eager to return to his friends. Her warm amber eyes have creased around the edges in my absence, and her fingers seem thin and frail as she runs them through Thomas’s mop of unruly dirty-blonde hair. Sitting together, they enjoy the simple moment together with nothing but the familiar sounds of the neighborhood around them, and the monotone of the radio nearby. I stop on the first step of the porch.

“Marissa,” I whisper, each syllable coming like a wave. For the faintest moment, her eyes flicker upwards. But they never reach my visor. Instead, they return to her son… our son. He fumbles with his glass before putting it down on the tray next to the radio.

“Mommy,” he starts quietly, “when is Daddy coming home again?”

For some reason, for some damned reason, I can’t bring myself to say a word. Marissa smiles sadly. “I told you, Thomas, I don’t know. He’s off doing a very important job.”

“But I miss him.”

I shake my head. “No, no, Thomas, I’m here! Daddy’s home!” I say, taking another step up the porch. Marissa looks up at me, and for a moment, my heart lurches with longing. But her amber eyes don’t focus. They go right through me.

“I miss him too, sweetie. Every day.” With another morose smile, she pats him on the head and shoos him off to go play with his friends. My son walks past me without a second glance. I try to call after him. But nothing but a pathetic croak escapes. I turn back to Marissa, who sighs again and reclines in her chair.

“Marissa,” I beg, my voice cracking. “Marissa, honey, please, this isn’t funny.” No response except a mournful glance towards Thomas. My voice rises, becoming a pleading whine. “Marissa, please look at me!”

She suddenly sits up in her chair a little bit straighter, as if hearing something. Then she reaches down and adjusts the volume of the radio. I watch numbly as Marissa listens intently to the voice of a newscaster.

“...intensified. As the battle continues, it is becoming more and more apparent that the Southeast Alliance forces are being pushed to the limit,” says the feminine voice, shouting over what sounds like the thwup-thwup of a helicopter. “Conglomerate troops press further and further towards the reactor, where the SA is making their final stand.”

I can’t breathe. And suddenly everything feels cold.

We’re surrounded, sir.

“In this reporter’s opinion, the battle seems rather hopeless. Assault vehicles and heavy infantry barrage the resisting forces, and… I’ve just been informed that General Caswell has sent an official demand for the surrender of the facility.”

We will not surrender. We’ve come too far for this.

Never! You hear me? Never!

“The outcome is decisive, and it would seem this will turn to become another brutal loss for the SA. Connected to thousands of reactors around the country and the world, the Ross-Gerundt reactor hub is a crucial control point and foothold for their army. With Conglomerate forces seizing this point, it could spell the beginning of the end of this--“

Another sound rises above the constant sound of the chopper and the static of the reporter’s voice: a wailing crescendo, blaring from the speakers of the radio. Marissa draws away from the radio, her eyes widening in fear. The reporter mutters something unintelligible, then speaks again with a shaky voice.

“I… something is wrong with the reactor hub. I’m being informed that an emergency alarm has been given; the reactor is going into meltdown.”

That’s an order! Do you hear me? Do it!

The voice of the reporter is shrill and hysteric. “Conglomerate forces are falling back and beating a… this isn’t… oh for God’s sake, Harry, get us out of here!”

The last words of the reporter are drowned out as a wail pierces the air. Every breath in the street seems to hold at once, and all eyes rise upwards to evacuation alarm. For a moment, none move, none say a word. Then the evacuation alarm trills its doomsday siren once more.

Do you hear me, Corporal Sparks!?

The screaming begins. As the alarm whines with a dying wail once more, Hunter Street blurs with motion. Frantic parents seize their children, toys fall to the ground, and doors tear open. Luggage exchanging quivering hands, the people race to save everything they possibly can.

Marissa falls out of her chair, fumbling to her feet and racing down the steps of the balcony. She passes right through me.

“Thomas? Thomas!” she screams, whipping her head from side to side in search of our son. And I can’t move an inch. Paralyzed, I can do nothing but stare numbly up at the siren as the impenetrable wall in my mind shudders, quakes, and collapses into sharp edges and searing sound. I find strength again, strength to turn around as panic grips Hunter Street with its cold, fidgeting fingers. Voices scream and beg.

“Stephanie? Stephanie, where are you!?

“The keys, where the hell are the keys?

“Father who art in heaven…”

“No, no, no, this isn’t happening. This can’t be happening.”

Marissa stumbles towards the car, clutching our son by the arm. Tears of fear glisten off his face.

“Mommy, what’s going on?” he weeps, staggering as Marissa fumbles to open the car. The siren rings once more.

“Please, Tommy, there’s no time, get in the car,” she answers, her quivering hands failing her.

“Daddy, I want daddy!”

“Tommy, please--“

Stephanie!

“They were here, dammit!”

“Hallowed be thy name…”

“I don’t wanna die!”

I collapse to my knees. Every nerve in my body is on fire. No. Please, God, no. I can’t watch this happen. I can’t.

“Daddy! I want daddy,” protests Thomas, sniveling and shaking. The siren wails one final time.

Clawed mechanical arm quivering, I reach out for my son as he pulls away from his mother. “Daddy’s here, Tommy,” I whisper, a burning tear rolling down my face. “Daddy’s here.” Everything in the world ceases to matter as his swollen, tearful eyes find mine. They grow wide with disbelief.

“Daddy?” he asks, tiny hands reaching for mine.

I never get a chance to answer.

The screaming stops, the siren stops, every noise simply ceases to exist. It’s as if a single, ancient breath has inhaled every molecule of air in the world in a mighty vacuum. Nothing moves, nothing breathes.

The horizon flashes. The world loses all color, shadows lengthening in the light of a megalithic new sun. All turns black and white, with razor contrast and clarity. It’s a moment out of time.

And then breath exhales in a furious, ear-ripping roar.

In an instant, houses flatten and incinerate in a single, wrathful gust. Flattening like cardboard structures, brick sears and blackens, timber vaporizes and glass evaporates. The trees lining Hunter Street don’t get a chance to burn. They shrivel and blacken in an instant, consumed by the blinding light. The grass turns to soot. The sky ceases to exist. And the people of Hunter Street… the people can’t even scream. They can’t even look their death in the eye. They stiffen and blast apart in a stream of ash and smoke, like sand in a storm.

I can’t move. I can’t escape.

I can only watch as Tommy and Marissa become nothing but gaping skulls before shattering into oblivion.

***

And then, with a snap of two fingers, it’s all gone. I find myself kneeling in a field of ash and rock, the skies the same greenish-gray they always were, and a howling gust carrying dust and smoke.

Numb, I look up to find a serpent. Casually floating in front of me, with the face of a crude horse and disproportionate limbs, he lowers a lion-like paw. A slight pout steals across his face. He speaks with the voice of the man on the radio.

“How tragic.”

Somewhere in the gaping, hollow void of my mind, there’s a spark. Like a match in kerosene, a flame erupts and spreads with furious heat. Rising and roaring, the flame burns in my lungs and the smoldering heat fuses into my brain.

Screaming, I come to my feet. The war machine bristles and shrieks like a black metal dragon. I give the serpent everything I’ve got.

Cannons slide forth from metal sheets and spit fire. These shells can tear holes through Conglomerate armor, these rockets can vaporize flesh. Shaking and cracking, they fire with a blast of flame and shrapnel. Every bullet and round tears into the serpent. The machine burns with the light of my burning arsenal. It’s so deafening that I don’t even know if I’m screaming anymore. But I don’t care.

The ground quakes with every round, and the machine bellows and screeches with inhumane fury. Together we scream in pain. Together we return it tenfold. I can’t feel my hands anymore, and the gunfire is the only thing telling me that they’re still gripped around the firing controls. Sweat stinging my eyes, and my breath burning in my lungs, the violent shattering of fire stops. The weapons click uselessly. And through the mud-caked visor, the serpent reclines in the air, unimpressed and unharmed.

“Feel better yet?”

With a clack, a serrated blade punches through the top of the machine’s hand. Screaming, I swing the blade at the serpent. It passes through him as if he were nothing more than a nightmarish illusion. But I keep hacking, slashing, mind ablaze with nothing but a primal desire to tear and hurt. Furiously cutting at the monster, my voice rises in my throat, wrathful and hollering.

Give it back!” I bellow, taking another vengeful swing. “Give it back, you motherfucker! Give it--“

I don’t get a chance to say anything more. Suddenly I’m in the air, thrown aside by some incredible force. Then I fall. Hard. The machine whines and groans as it strikes into the rubble and ash, snapping my head back. Coughing violently, I feebly try to raise my arms. Instead, my entire body comes aloft, hovering in front of the serpent. He clucks his tongue slightly in disapproval.

“Now, now, you need to calm down, Hayden. There’s no reason to--“

Fuck you!” I spit, struggling to break free from whatever was holding me. The potent hydraulics of the combat suit creak and groan uselessly. But I keep fighting. The serpent creature murmurs under his breath.

“Such an amazing species. You’ve lost, but you just don’t give up. How delightful,” it chuckles. With a shake of its head, it releases me, and I fall to the ground again. I grit my teeth in pain as I crash down. Sweat blurring my vision, I look up into the face of the creature. One fang protrudes from its lopsided grin, and its pupils seem mismatched, and as mercurial as the ash in the wind.

“What are you?” I pant weakly, trying to get upright.

“Oh, of course, where are my manners? Allow me to introduce myself: Discord, spirit of chaos.” With the strangest smile on his face, Discord leans down close, propping his chin upright with an eagle talon, and adds, “The product of your race.”

Product of my race? This… Discord makes no sense. And his fluctuating eyeballs are making me nauseous. Chest heaving as I gasp for breath, I look away from them. My entire body feels completely numb, and a static buzz invades my brain. Pulling my arms free of the controls, I bring them to my face. The sweat and tears sting as I wipe them from my eyes. Another bout of tears comes up my throat, along with the horrific image of screaming skulls burnt into my retinas. I force it back down.

“Why are you doing this to me?”

Discord gives me another crooked grin, and comes down to the earth, his feet kicking up dust. “To show you the consequences of your actions, Hayden. To show you what you’ve done, and what you’ve lost.”

My entire mind goes blank for a moment. It’s nothing but whiteness, and I feel the blood drain from my face. Sitting upright, I look Discord in the eyes.

“How many?”

“Hmm?”

How many are left?!” I scream, my voice echoing across the charred desert. Finally, the bemused grin leaves Discord’s face, and his eyes flicker somberly.

With a hushed whisper, he says, “Only you.”

The words ring in my head like a horrible song, and an impossible truth. The only one. The last one. It can’t be true. I couldn’t possibly be the last one. But the look in Discord’s eyes is one of distant sorrow, with a glimmer of sadness. Those damned shifting irises watch me in the way one might watch a beloved pet in its death throes.

An order. It was just another order.

Sinking to my knees, I raise my head to the wailing, wretched skies, and I scream in denial. Here I lie, upon the ashes of the dead, the billion dead, and no hand to blame. No man, no creature, no disease or calamity. No one but myself. Clutching at my head, I scream again, my pain tearing at my throat and wracking my lungs like a violent fever.

My fault. It was my entire fault: the instantaneous evaporation of life as I knew it, the burning of the trees, the death of everything in an instant… everything.

My God, I’ve never felt so alone in my entire life.

The cries of pain don’t come anymore. All I can do is shudder as my body wracks itself to pieces, as if wanting to fall apart and join its fallen brethren in the dust. But then Discord speaks.

“There’s another chance, you know.”

Vision blurred with hot tears, I look up to find the creature absently picking at something in its coat. He looks at me with a knowing gaze. “Neither of us need be alone. There’s always another way. And I can make it happen.”

For a long while, I don’t say a word. This Discord… or God or Death, or whatever you would call him, was powerful. Not of this world. I didn’t know where he came from, what he wanted, or why he wanted it, but one thing was certain. He had saved my life. And he had a reason.

“What do you want?” I ask with finality. He brings a clawed hand to his breast, snorting indignantly.

“What do I want? Who do you take me for? I would never ask anything in return for…” He stops mid-sentence, and his false front rapidly dissipates. I shift my feet in the ash impatiently. Discord rolls his lopsided eyes with a patronizing grin that makes my knuckles clench. “Well… there is maybe one little thing you could do for me.”

Turning his back on me, he looks up to the shattered skies. Like a prophet reveling in the work of his lord, he raises his arms. “This, Hayden Sparks, is as good as it gets. The pinnacle of chaos. Of destruction. What you see right now is the height of my power.” He sighs regretfully, lowering his arms and craning his neck to look at me out of the corner of his eye. “It’s all downhill from here.”

“How can you know that?”

“Because, Hayden… I can see it. Time is a string, and we’re always looking at the frayed tip, unable to see further. But I can look up and down the length of the string, because I have the power to do so.”

I snort in frustration. “Well if you’re so damn powerful, what the hell do you need me for?” Discord vanished in a puff of smoke. With a bang, he reappears right beside me. I jerk back in surprise as he explains.

“An excellent question. You see, Hayden, time is a fickle thing, full of twists and turns. Nothing is what it seems. And for some reason, every vision of the future at some point… stops. For no reason at all. Isn’t that weird?”

Wracking my brain to understand what this creature was talking about, I eventually come to a conclusion. The war machine squeals, as if with anticipation, as I bring my visor closer to Discord’s eyes. “Something happens, doesn’t it?” I ask bluntly. “Something that makes you lose your power.”

Discord falls backwards, laughing heartily. “Bingo! Right on the nose. You humans are smarter than I gave you credit for. I mean sure, your race committed what’s tantamount to suicide but--“

“Get to the point!” I spit, stomping a metal foot angrily. The machine rears to fight once more.

His laughter dying with a feeble chuckle, Discord wraps himself around the hull of my combat suit, until his head is right next to mine. “Something is going to end my reign. Two creatures, of the new dominant race this planet will spew forth. They will make my empire fall, they will ruin my fun. That simply cannot happen. But it can’t be stopped, either. So here’s the deal, Hayden Sparks. You will sleep, sleep long into the time where the string becomes a mystery to me. And when you wake up, you will ensure my return. And in exchange,” he adds, waving an arm at the barren landscape, “I make all this go away. I give humanity a second chance.”

With a coy grin, Discord vanishes again in a puff of smoke, reappearing before me. He extends a paw. “So what do you say, Corporal Hayden Sparks, last of the humans?”`

I don’t look at Discord, or his offered hand. Instead, I see right past him. I see into the dust and ash, but through that as well. I see the laughing children that should be there, I see the cars and the games and planes in the sky. Everything that could have been. Everything that ended too soon.

And for the briefest moment, I see Thomas and Marissa.

Daddy?

I don’t take Discord’s hand. Instead, I slide the blade on my wrist back to its position, and let the weapons creak back into their metal sheaths. Summoning every ounce of strength left in my body, I look Discord in the eyes.

“What do I need to do?”

***

“Ah think it’s a clock.”

“What? How is that a clock? It totally doesn’t even have numbers on it!”

“Well Ah don’t know what it is. Sweetie Belle, what d’ya think?”

“I’ve never seen anything like it either. Wait… Scootaloo, give me a boost! I think there’s something written on the side here.”

“Ouch! Hold still! Apple Bloom, be careful!”

“Not mah fault!”

“There’s all this ivy in the way… hold on a second. If I can just…”

“Easy on the shaking up there!”

“What does it say?”

“I think it says…”

Corporal Hayden Sparks, welcome back.”

I awaken. Gasping in pain and surprise as the darkness rips away from the corners of my mind, I reach out around me for something solid. I can’t breathe. But as I try to reach for my mouth, it’s as if my fingers aren’t even there. Giving them a panicked shake, I slap at where my mouth is supposed to be. I find a mask. With a tug, I almost vomit as the long, plastic tube slides out of my throat.

Heaving, I double over with my hands to my throat. I cough once, twice, mucous violently spraying from my mouth. The world spins, and I can only barely hear the computer mumble something before a needle buries itself into my spine. I jolt back in my seat, every nerve on fire, every muscle paralyzed. Then, bit by bit, the chemical lock down fades, and my breath returns, labored. I try to speak, but it’s as if a vise is clamped around my jaw.

Hibernation sickness antidote administered,” coos the computer with her pleasant voice. “Cryogenesis timer: eight hundred thirty eight thousand five hundred and sixty three years.

Slowly, the ache in the back of my head begins to ebb, and I flex my fingers to force the blood back into them. The computer continues its diagnostic.

Weapons system: online. Primary armor integrity: full. Secondary: full. Power levels: seventy eight percent. Local power: ninety percent. Location unknown: no satellite detected.”

“I’m not the only one who can hear that, right?” chirps a distant voice.

I slowly sit upright, clenching my teeth as my muscles protest against the movement. Coughing once again, I rub my eyes, scrubbing away the grime and filth that’s been building for several thousand years.

“Computer…” I croak feebly, “give me optics.” I slip on the goggles hanging above my head. With a crescendo buzz, the computer fires its signals, and the combat suit comes to life. The outside world flickers into view. Two wide eyes are staring into mine. With a yelp, they fall away and collapse with a grunt. Breathlessly, I watch as three tiny creatures scramble to their feet.

No… their hooves.

“Sweetie Belle, what did you do?” demands one of the equine creatures, backpedaling away on the overgrown forest floor. The one called Sweetie Belle shakes her head nervously, her wide eyes brimming with anxiety.

“I didn’t do anything!” she squeaks.

“Y'all reckon it’s alive?” mumbles another.

I do nothing for a while. I simply stare at the small, terrified animals cowering before me, their eyes awash with a mixture of fear and curiosity. The machine hums expectantly. With a calm tone, the computer breaks the silence.

“Vocal recording detected. Allow playback?” it asks.

“Yes,” I say numbly. There’s a pause, and then I hear myself speak.

What do I need to do?” crackles the ghost of my voice. There’s a sinister chuckle.

Bring them humanity’s greatest creation,” responds the other speaker.

“Hello?” asks one of the creatures outside, gently tapping a hoof against the foot of the war machine. “Are you alright? We’re not going to hurt you!”

Our greatest creation? What do you mean?

Another laugh.

Bring them war.

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