The Clockmaker Ch. 8 + 9

8 Jun

Kurtis stared at the revolver dumbfounded. It had been polished and shone brighter than he remembered, but it was still unmistakable to him. The gun sat perfectly still on the table, catching the light of the setting sun that was shining through the office window and reflecting it around the small room.
And then there was Mr. Quick, sitting still himself behind his large wooden desk, watching as Kurtis tried fruitlessly to make sense of his predicament. Kurtis was still standing, and so had a pristine view of the top of Mr. Quick’s balding head, complete with black spots that he couldn’t identify and thin grey wisps of hair.
“I believe this is yours,” Mr. Quick said, breaking the silence that had fallen over them.
Kurtis nodded, sitting down. “Were you…” he started, trying to find the right words, “Did you send those raiders after me?”
Mr. Quick nodded. “I did, and little good it did me too. That will be the last time I deal with those degenerates.:
Kurtis was still confused. “But… why? And how? How’d you know where I was going?”
“Your new friend Jack,” Mr. Quick said simply, but when Kurtis only looked more shocked, he continued. “No, he didn’t betray you, but we have him under surveillance. He’s proven himself to be a nuisance in the past, but I’m not allowed to harm him.”
“And who is ‘we’?”
“Myself and the Clockmaker, as well as several of his higher up intelligence personnel.”
“You work for the Clockmaker? As an intelligence agent?”
“Yes.”
“And yet you’re in a library, reading books all day.”
Mr. Quick sighed, “Well, I won’t get into any details. But I used to have my own office in the Workshop, and then I asked the Clockmaker if I could have a more… relaxing post. And he obliged me.”
Kurtis shook his head, “You just asked the Clockmaker to go from an important member of his staff to being a librarian that does nothing useful all day, and he said yes?”
“For one, I had some leverage on him. And two, by no means am I doing nothing useful. Rather, I managed to apprehend you, didn’t I? And don’t think you’re not the first of my employees that has acted out in this way. In fact, this library is actually just a method for the Clockmaker to keep his eyes on people he deems a risk for one reason or another. I was quite surprised when he first sent you to me, but now I see his judgement was, as always, impeccable.”
“But…” Kurtis started in protest, as he had been sent to the library by the Ministry of Employment, not the Clockmaker. Then he considered that the Clockmaker would have the authority to influence of the Ministry of Employment’s decisions, as well as a lot of other mundance functions within the city. “But how did he know I was going to be a risk? I worked here for five years before I did anything at all.”
Mr. Quick sighed, “I honestly don’t know. He just sends people over to me whenever he feels it necessary, and I keep an eye on them, and report back when they fall out of line. And what’s truly amazing is that they all do, every single person that has worked here ending up betraying Amalin in some way or another. The Clockmaker was right every time, without fail.”
“So what now?” Kurtis asked, alternating between looking at the revolver and Mr. Quick.
“Well, you can try to run, and I’ll try to shoot you. I might miss, and you might escape the building, but there really is no way you can hide within the city or escape to safety. We’ll find you. The other way is you wait patiently right here while a group of soldiers come to get you and they’ll take you directly to one of those farms where you’ll spend the rest of your life.” Mr. Quick  took the revolver in his right hand and pointed it at Kurtis. “And just so you’re aware, I do know where to get ammunition for this particular weapon, and it is fully loaded now.”
“I’ll go with the soldiers, if you answer one question.”
Mr. Quick nodded his acceptance of the deal.
“Where’s Julia?”
“Who?” Mr. Quick had a puzzled look on his face.
“Julia. Red hair, she disappeared a few years back. That’s why I’ve done all this, for her.”
Mr. Quick shook his head, “I’m sorry Kurtis. I honestly have no idea who you’re talking about. If you’d believe me, this isn’t exactly uncommon. A few of the other people I’ve had to deal with have gone on about somebody missing, a mother, a son, the who’s really not that important, because in the end, it didn’t matter. They lived out the rest of their days locked away out in the wasteland, and whoever they were looking for never saw them again.”
“You know though,” Kurtis accused, leaning forward. “You don’t know who she is, but you know what the Clockmaker does with these people.”
“You’re sharp Kurtis, but if you’ve managed to work it out this far, you’ll probably understand that if I were to explain these things to you, I’d likely end up in the same cell as you. My position here requires a certain amount of discretion in these matters. I hope you can understand that.”
Kurtis nodded sadly. It was something he could understand, and he wouldn’t press Mr. Quick any further. He had contemplated making an escape attempt, but now that the revolver was pointed directly at him, and his task of hopping out of his chair, turning around, and running out the door would be awkward to say the least. He still had the picture, he told himself, and as long as he had that he would manage a life on the farms.
“The soldiers will be here shortly,” Mr. Quick informed him.
A red light began flashing on a small box on Mr. Quick’s desk. Kurtis paid it almost no attention, but his former employer leaned in a pushed a button while bringing a small microphone to his mouth.
“Hello?” he asked hesitantly, “Is anybody there?”
Only static could be heard coming from a speaker on the box.
“What’s going on out there?” Mr. Quick asked with a hint of panic in his voice.
This time there was a reply, but faint and incomprehensible to Kurtis. “Who’s here?” Mr. Quick asked into the microphone. His eyes were darting around the room, and he quickly spun around to check the window behind him.
Once again there was only static, and Mr. Quick sat completely still as he waited a few more seconds in the hopes that the voice would return. He repeated his question, spit flying at the microphone. When there was still no reply, Mr. Quick slammed the radio down on the table and stood up.
“Move,” he ordered Kurtis, motioning with the revolver towards the door.
“What’s happening?” Kurtis asked.
“There’s going to be a gun pointed to the back of your head for the next little while, that’s all you need to know.”
Kurtis opened the door to the office and slowly walked out, Mr. Quick following a few feet behind him.
“Slowly now,” Mr. Quick instructed.
The two men walked between two massive shelves of books. Kurtis had never noticed how imposing the library’s inventory was, but now the shelves towered above him, and there were a hundred rows just like these two. The lights had been turned off, and as they were no nowhere near a window, they had almost no light to work with.
Kurtis kept walking, without knowing exactly where he was leading Mr. Quick or what was happening within the building. When they came to a break in the shelving, Mr. Quick would bark out an instruction, seemingly at random, and Kurtis would obey. For what seemed like ages they meandered their way across the library in this fashion.
All of a sudden there was a loud bang from just a few feet away.  Kurtis dropped to the floor. He wasn’t hit, as far as he could tell, but the shock of it, after such a long time in near-total silence, scared him half to death. He looked behind him, and Mr. Quick was crumpled on the floor, a large, bloody wound on the right side of his head, and blood pooling underneath him.
Kurtis looked up to see a friendly face. “Jack!” he cried in excitement.
Standing a few feet down one of the rows of shelves, was the old man. He nodded at Kurtis, stuffing a small pistol back into his belt. Kurits pushed himself to his feet, grabbing the revolver from Mr. Quick’s limp hand. As soon as he did Jack too him by the arm and led him from the library at a hurried pace.
“Listen, son,” he said in a gruff voice, “there’s a lot of things you don’t know. And it’s going to be hard for me to explain them all to you.”
“Like Mr. Quick was working for the Clockmaker?”
Jack nodded as they passed by the front desk of the deserted library. “That’s a start, son, but there’s a lot more.”
“Like what?”
Jack didn’t answer.
Kurits wrenched his arm free from Jack’s hold and planted his feet. “What the hell is going on?”
“More than you’d understand right now, son.”
“So what then? You’re just going to -“
“Listen, son, if you’ve got any sense in your head, you’ll stop this, right now. I won’t always be able to save you, and there will always be more like your boss coming after you.”
“What do I do?”
“Go home, son. The Clockmaker’s a smart man, he’ll know a surrender when he sees one. He won’t waste energy on you if you can show him that you’ve given up.
Kurtis shook his head. “I have no home. And no one to go home to. The Clockmaker took everything from me, and now you want me to roll over?”
Jack’s eyes softened as he leaned in a put a hand on Kurtis’ shoulder. “Son, you can’t win. You will get close, you will think you’ve succeeded, but that’s just what the Clockmaker enjoys. He loves to watch as his enemies have all their dreams slip through their fingers and their entire world is shattered before his eyes.”
“How do you know this?”
“He did it to me,” Jack said with a shrug. “And he’ll do it to you just the same.”
The sun was falling behind the black towers of Amalin and streams of people continued rushing past the two men. Most of them were moving too fast to be able to hear more than a few words before they passed out of earshot, but it still made Kurtis uncomfortable to be having such a conversation in public. He motioned towards a nearby alley, and Jack followed.
“What do you mean he did it to you?” Kurtis hissed once they had gotten to a safe location.
“I used to be a member of his staff, up in the workshop. I had a wife, a son, a perfect life, some would say.” Jack’s voice had slowed as he spoke and his shoulders hung low.
“And then what happened?” Kurtis persisted.
“I did something that the Clockmaker didn’t like, so he took everything from me and kept me alive so that I could experience never-ending misery.”
“It’ll end sometime,” Kurtis said, trying to be as comforting as possible.
“Hasn’t yet,” Jack sighed.
“What if we took him down?”
Jack laughed. “Just us two? Trust me son, you don’t want to end up like me.”
“I already am like you. I’ve lost the things I loved most, I have no home to go back to.”
“There are fates worse than this, you know. I’m still alive, and have my health.”
“Back with Mr. Quick, I had already given up. I was ready to die or be locked on a farm the rest of my life. I don’t care what could happen to me now, I’ve got another chance to see this through, and I won’t waste it hiding under a rock.”
Jack gripped Kurtis’ shoulder tight.   “You’ve got a second chance on life, son. So you loved one girl, and now she’s gone. Get over yourself. You could marry three more times and have ten kids. If you walk away now, you’ll die a happy man.”
Kurtis shook his head.  “I won’t give up on Julia.”
“It’s not giving up, son. It’s letting go. Everyone in this city has had to learn the difference at one point or another, you best do the same.”
Kurtis stood in silence for a moment as he studied the old man. He had gone through such hardships, and to fall so low from such heights was unbearable for Kurtis to even think about. “You want somebody to stop him, don’t you?” Kurtis asked. “You want somebody to take down the Clockmaker. As much as you tell me that it can’t be done and to just go home, you’ve helped me so far because deep down you want me to succeed.”
Jack shook his head. “I guess you’re right about that, son. I’d like it a great deal if someone brought down the whole Workshop on his head. But I don’t think I can watch you go through with this.”
Kurtis nodded with an air of confidence. “I’m going to do this, whether you help me or not. But if you really did work in with the Clockmaker, I could use your help.”
Jack stared at Kurtis for a few seconds.  Kurtis could see all the pain and anger that he held behind his noble eyes.  Jack wanted to scream, to fight, to kill, but something was holding it all back.  “I’m sorry son,” Jack sighed, “I should have never lead you out of the city all those months ago. I didn’t save you from Quick just so you could go and get yourself killed again.”
“Well,” Kurtis said, extending his hand to Jack, ” I think this is goodbye, then.”
“And probably for good. If you go into the Workshop, you won’t come out.”
“I know. But it doesn’t matter at this point. I’d rather die in there than live my life out here.”
“I don’t know if you’ve got courage or stupidity, son, but I wish I had it too.” Jack clasped Kurtis’ hand in his, and gave it a firm shake. “Good luck.”
Kurtis left the alley with a spring in his step. Night had taken hold of the sky, a thousand little lights now shone from the forest of towers that comprised the city. With a final look back to Jack, still standing where they had had their chat, Kurtis turned and melted into the river of people flowing through the main streets.
The revolver was tucked neatly under his shirt, and although he might normally have been paranoid that someone would see it, he had much bigger concerns now. On the outside he was calm and collected, just like everyone else around him, but on the inside he was more nervous than he had ever been. His heart was pumping at a wild pace in his chest, and as he pictured himself coming face to face with the Clockmaker his palms began to sweat and his breathing increased.
As he walked, Kurtis wondered if he would ever see Jack again. It was unlikely, he knew, that he would be alive come the next morning, as a man in the Clockmaker’s position did not get there by falling to every confused and overly emotional enemy that raised an arm against him. But even though he was headed towards an almost sure death, Kurtis continued on.
The trip to the workshop went by in the blink of an eye for Kurtis. Even though it was halfway across the city, he had barely enough time to compose himself and bring his rampaging mind back into check. There was no time to think of what he would say to the Clockmaker, if he even made it that far. He had never been within a hundred feet of the Workshop, and had no idea if he would have to sneak, shoot, or talk his way in.
But now Kurtis stood outside the massive black complex. As large as it seemed from his bedroom window, nothing could have prepared him for the daunting sense of forebodding that washed over him in the presence of this colossal structure. Every off-shooting tower, of which there were too many for Kurtis to count, was the size of a normal apartment complex. The main dome itself was the single largest thing kurtis had ever seen, and even the steps up to the front doors were taller than many buildings throughout the city.
Kurtis hesitated to begin his climb. Was this really what he wanted? Jack had made some good arguments. If he applied himself and stopped wallowing in self-pity, he would most likely be able to find another love. He would still be alive, still be able to experience happiness if he so wanted.
No, he told himself. He wanted Julia, and he wanted justice for Jack. If he backed down now, he would never be able to bring himself here again. And so he put his foot on the first step, and began his climb.
Whereas the journey to this point had sped by faster than he could have expected, this part was arduous and slow. At first it wasn’t so bad, but as he climbed his thighs burned fiercer with each step, and sweat began to run down his forehead and drip off his nose.
Kurtis finally reached the top of the stairs, and even though his entire body begged and pleaded with him to take a pause and recover, he pushed through the front entrance to the Workshop.
The first hall was just as large as he expected it, with a vaulted ceiling and a dozen corridors that spun off into the bowels of the Workshop. Rather than black iron, as the rest of the city was built with, every surface was made of polished black marble. Kurtis could see his reflection in the long floor tiles, and the light from several large chandeliers hanging overhead bounced across the room.
There were several guards standing at intervals around the hall, each one next to one of the off-shotting corridors. Directly in front of him was a long reception desk that was made of the same black marble that covered the rest of the room. Sitting behind the desk was a woman about his age, black hair and wearing a simple, black dress.
Kurtis approached the desk. With each step his feet slapped against the smooth marble and echoed around the room. As he walked closer to the receptionist, he could feel the eyes of all the guards watching his every move. They were dressed in black uniforms, black helmets that covered the entirety of their faces, black boots, and had black rifles resting in their arms.
The woman behind the desk smiled at Kurtis, revealing a shining white smile of teeth that stood as straight as the guards around her. Before Kurtis could say anything to her, she beckoned to a page that was standing just out of sight who quickly ran to the desk.
“The Clockmaker’s expecting you,” she said, her smile still radiant.
Kurtis opened his mouth to ask her how the Clockmaker knew he was coming, or why he would just let him up to his office, but she cut him off before he could say anything.
“Jacob here will take you.” Kurtis didn’t move though. He studied the woman behind the desk. She was truly beautiful, he thought to himself. Her face curved and pointed in all the right places, and her smile was like a light bulb, flashing on and off at will.
Kurits didn’t move, even though the page had already started walking away. He continued to stand where he was, but all of a sudden a burning, hateful anger flashed across the woman’s eyes. Kurtis was taken aback, but just as soon as it had appeared, all signs of emotion left the woman and her blank smile returned.
The page had stopped and turned to wait for Kurtis. Without another look at the woman, Kurtis moved after the page and followed him through the twisting and turning halls that would lead him to the Clockmaker.

Chapter 9

Two large, black doors stood in front of Kurtis. The page had brought him this far, and was now standing a few feet back, watching as Kurtis steadied himself before making his assault against the Clockmaker. With a slight nod and a deep breath, Kurtis put one hand on each door and pushed. They swung open with relative ease, revealing a cluttered office with books, blueprints, and various tools thrown about at random. There were several doors along the walls of the room, though Kurtis hadn’t noticed any hallways adjacent to the one that had led him here.
There was a table right in the center of the room, and hunched over and tinkering with something small was a middle-aged man with combed black hair. Kurtis took a few steps into the room without the man noticing his presence, but when he did, the man immediately drop his small tools and leaned back in his chair.
“You must be Kurtis,” he said. He had a thick black moustache and thin glasses that sat low on his nose. When he spoke he conveyed no emotion, and whether he was irritated or pleased that Kurtis was here it was impossible to tell.
Kurtis nodded, stopping short of the table by a few feet.
“It’s been a long time since I last saw you,” the Clockmaker said, standing up and walking towards the back of the room.
“And when was that?” Kurtis asked, following the Clockmaker hesitantly.
“A long time ago, but we’ll get to that all in good time. Drink?” The Clockmaker poured himself a glass of amber liquid from a crystal bottle and held up a second glass as an offer to Kurtis. “It’s not poisoned,” he added when Kurtis didn’t reply. “It would be quite cruel to walk you all the way up here just to kill you like that. If I wanted you dead I would’ve had you shot at the doors, or at the farm or…”
“Shot by my former employer?”
The Clockmaker gave a laugh as he poured the second glass without Kurtis’ permission, and then shoved it into his hand. “Quick,” he sighed, sitting back down at the table and motioning for Kurtis to do the same, “that man never knew the meaning of ‘discretion.’ Frustrating to deal with, that’s why I gave him the nursery post, as I call it. It was rash of him to do what he did, and I apologize for that.”
Kurtis took a sip of his drink without taking his eyes off the Clockmaker. “And why was in the ‘nursery’?”
“Later. I know you have a lot of questions to ask me, and you will get their answers all in good time. There’s something I want to show you first, but before that, I have a question of my own for you.”
Kurtis nodded. He had his revolver, but all in all he wasn’t in a position to make demands, nor did he have any kind of time restraint, so he might as well play along for the time being.
“How did you escape from the farm?” The Clockmaker placed his drink on the table and leaned forward. “I watched your whole journey, from the night you killed those youths at the Wall of the Lost. I thought I had you locked away, and then…” he flashed his palms to Kurtis, “…gone.”
“I don’t really know,” Kurtis said, “I was chained to the wall and the cell was locked. I fell asleep, and when I woke up, all the locks had been opened, and I just walked out.”
“Did you dream?”
“Yes, of unlocking the door.”
“And how did you do that, in your dream?”
“I was a soldier, there was a battle going on at the farm, or something like that. Gunfire and explosions everywhere, but I couldn’t see anybody. I just ran down to the cell and opened it.”
“There was a firefight at the farm?” The Clockmaker asked his questions with genuine intrigue.
“Yes.”
“I’ll have to remember that.”
“So where’s Julia?”
The Clockmaker grinned. “You are impatient, aren’t you? All in good time, but I still have something to show you.” He stood up, and walked towards one of the side doors to his office.
Kurtis followed and joined the Clockmaker, who had his hand on the door handle. Before opening the door for Kurtis, the Clockmaker leaned in and put a hand on Kurtis’ shoulder. “This is your last chance, Kurtis. Once you walk through this door, I can’t let you go back to your life. You’ll find the answers to your questions, but it will bring you little comfort.”
“Open it,” Kurtis said without hesitation. His face was steeled and his eyes cold and lifeless as he watched the Clockmaker turn the handle and push the door open. The Clockmaker stepped back and let Kurtis enter first.
On the other side of the door there was only darkness. Kurtis took his first step and his foot landed in soft mud. With his second step he realized it was not only mud, but uneven terrain that in the darkness he was at risk of falling or twisting an ankle. He took a few more steps with caution, feeling out the ground before him with the toe of his shoe before committing his weight. Looking back, Kurtis saw the Clockmaker pass through the door and close it behind them.
“What is this?” Kurtis asked.
“Keep going.”
A light shot up from the horizon, hissing as it cut through the darkness. It was small, but bright such that it lit up the entire landscape around Kurtis. It was the wastelands, Kurtis realized right away, except there were a few things that didn’t feel right. The first was that there were fresh bootprints everywhere, making the site look active, rather than an endless waste that had been all but forgotten. The second thing was the bodies. There weren’t as numerous as the bootprints, but there were still dozens, if not hundreds, within sight.
The light continued to sail across the sky, leaving a tail of yellow smoke behind it. Shadows from the few dead trees and the rotting corpses moved all together with the flare. Just ahead of Kurtis was a small table and two chairs. The table had a pristine white table cloth, a single rose in a crystal vase and place settings for two people.
The Clockmaker sat down at the table, and Kurtis took the second chair. As soon as he was seated, the Clockmaker took the white napkin that was waiting for him and tucked it into his collar. Each plate had a strip of meat, seared black almost all over and drizzled with green and red sauces. There were two crystal glasses, each filled with red wine, which the Clockmaker took a small sip of and nodded in approvement.
The light had crossed from end of the sky to the other, and began to flicker and fade. Just as it went out, a second flare was shot from the same location, wailing as it climbed higher and higher. The Clockmaker was oblivious to the oddity of their situation, and began slicing his meat into small portions bringing them to his mouth with delicacy. With each bite he took, the Clockmaker’s face twisted in pleasure, though Kurtis did not find the food particularly appetizing.
Kurtis was about to ask what was going on again, but was stopped when he felt the ground rumble.
“Ah,” the Clockmaker said, his eyes alive with wild excitement, “here we are.”
Kurtis looked around behind him, but still couldn’t see anything. The rumbling was growing more powerful with each passing second, and the untensils on the table were shaking and clinking against one another. Then from the same direction as the flares, a defeaning roar was heard. A third flare was shot, revealing thousands of silhouettes moving in front of it. Kurtis could identiy most as men, running towards him, but there were several more than he had never seen before. They were large, hulking figures that bobbed up and down as they moved over craters and trenches.
“Technically we’re not here,” the Clockmaker said through a mouthful of food, “so they’re no danger to us.”
Kurtis wasn’t scared of the approaching army, but he was transfixed nonetheless. The distant figures were rushing towards him under the light of multiple flares, but they were still just as dark. Kurtis could hear the roar of engines now and deduced that the larger silhouette were vehicles of some sort.
The Clockmaker finished his meal and set his cutlery and napkin back down on the table. Kurtis still hadn’t touched his food, he was far too occupied watching the men approach, now only a few hundred feet away.
From behind Kurtis there was a series of bright flashes. Unlike the flares that had streaked across the sky and provided continuous light, these flashes were pushed back by the darkness as soon as they appeared. A few seconds later there was a low thuds, then another, and then a near-continuous stream. The thuds were so deep and powerful that Kurtis could feel the pounding in his chest.
Then there was a screeching, similar to the flares, but angrier and more volumous. It came from the same direction as the flashes, and Kurtis could tell that whatever was making that sound was coming closer and moving lot faster than the oncoming men.
The men were now close enough to Kurtis that he could identify them as soldiers of Amalin. Every man was dressed in the same black uniform, cradling rifles in their arms as they ran. The large forms were indeed vehicles, though unlike Kurtis had ever seen. They were hulking metal trucks, with no windows or doors that Kurtis could see, and a massive cannon mounted on the top.
The first of the advancing force reached the table and continued past. Explosions went off across the landscape, sending flailing bodies flying. Flashes and thuds continued from behind Kurtis, and men streamed across the field with no end in sight. The Clockmaker pointed to one of the approaching men, and just as he drew even with their table, he was torn apart by an artillery shell that had landed only a foot from him.
Kurtis blinked. He had since this before. He had already experienced this very scene. He had been that man, one second a soldier and the next just bits of flesh and bloody pulp scattered and trampled into the dirt.
“Familiar?” the Clockmaker asked.
Kurtis could barely speak. “I…” he said, shaking his head and blinking as he stared at the mess before him, “I’ve seen this… before. That was me, wasn’t it?”
The Clockmaker raised his eyebrows with a thin smile on his face. “Just watch.”
The world flickered once, and all the men and trucks had vanished. The flashing in the distance had stopped, as well as the shrieking of the artillery shells. There was still a flare in the sky, hissing as it moved, and Kurtis could once again see dark forms approaching from the distance. They were closer this time, and only took a minute to reach the table.
Even though they were in the same location, it had been changed somehow. Both the footprints and the craters had been rearranged, and this time there was no flashing of artillery cannons in the distance. What Kurtis did hear was a dog barking, vicious and hungry. There was fog, or smoke, or something else that obscured his vision.
The Clockmaker pointed out another man amongst the oncoming army, and Kurtis watched him with an unwavering glare. Then there were soldiers on the other side of him, coming out of the mist screaming and shooting. The man the Clockmaker had indicated dropped to his stomach and began firing.
For a few seconds he was just lying on the ground shooting his rifle. Then a dog was on him, it had been running so fast that Kurtis had seen nothing more than a dark brown blur leap from the fog and rip the man’s throat out with a shower of blood.
“I’ve seen that happen twenty times while I sleep,” Kurtis said, facing the Clockmaker. “Are these my dreams?”
“No, all of this actually happened, a long time ago.”
“How long?”
“About nine hundred years.”
Kurtis blinked. “What? How is that possible, I’m dreaming some…” his voice trailed off, unable to even put together a somewhat logical explanation.
“No, it’s you Kurtis. In fact, you’ve died twelve hundred times, most of which were in this exact spot, over the course of twenty thousand years or so.”
The world flickered again, and reset, with the oncoming army even closer.
“You do control time then?”
“The details are quite complicated, but the short answer is yes. I… hmm how do I put this… I’m in a volatile position, and so is Amalin. As it turns out, our city is not the final bastion of humanity, but rather one of a number that survived when man tore itself apart. I would have hoped that my confederates, the leaders of these other nations, would have learnt some lessons from our earlier cataclysm, but unfortunately not. Whether it be food shortages, or personal spite, war always seems to happen, no matter what I try. Amalin isn’t the biggest city, nor do we have the most resources needed for warfare. As a result, we are normally decimated on the battle field, and in order to avoid full-scale ruin, I reset time, and start over.”
“So these dreams, they’re actually memories from…”
The Clockmaker nodded as Kurtis watched himself receive a bullet to the chest.. “Most people don’t get them, but you’re obviously an exception. That’s why I created the nurseries, and assigned Mr. Quick to watch over you every day. You see Kurtis, you are a great soldier. One of the best in the history of Amalin. If war were to come, I would need you, and many others like you, that live a normal life now that I’ve achieved peace.”
The world flickered once again, and this time the man was only a few feet away from the table. He ran forward, but stepped on a mine and was sent spiraling through the air, his legs soaring in opposite directions.
“Why don’t you just reset time to before we destroyed ourselves, humanity that is?”
“I wouldn’t be able to change anything. I wasn’t alive back then, I was born well after the bombs fell, and so even if I reset time, it would just happen over and over again.”
Now the scenes of Kurtis’ previous deaths were playing out in rapid succession. It would only take a few seconds for Kurtis to appear, run a few feet forward, and then be killed in varying ways. The world would then flicker, and it would move on to another death sequence.
“And Julia, what happened to her?”
“I’m sorry Kurtis, but when I reset time, in order to change things, I need to make some changes, sometimes they appear quite insignificant, but in the end they make all the difference. It’s a very frustrating process, trying to solve a puzzle that’s taken you twenty thousand years, and you’re not even sure which of the pieces are the right ones. Julia was one of those pieces that I cast aside.”
“How long ago?”
“Quite recently, actually, that’s likely why she was such a driving force in your life. The memories of her felt so recent, as they had been built up over several millenia of you two being together, and could not be wiped clean in only a few short liftimes. You haven’t seen her in almost a hundred years now.”
“Why… why’d you throw her away? She was good, she was nice, she never hurt anyone…”
The Clockmaker sighed. “Kurtis, you have to know it pains me every time I do this. I really do care about this city, about the people within these walls. I never enjoy removing people, but it’s something that I have to do. You’ve seen for yourself, in this timeline at least, that there were no wars. We’re at peace. It’s impossible to say how, but she was an obstacle between us and peace.”
“How…”
“I honestly have no idea, but what’s become apparent to me is that the smallest interactions, the slightest of details, are normally the things that have the largest consequences in the long run. Maybe she didn’t smile at the right boy in school, maybe she was late for work one morning, I really can’t say. But there was something about her that while she existed, as happy as she was with you, war was unavoidable.”
“I don’t… believe it…”
The Clockmaker rolled his eyes. “I know, Kurtis, it’s all quite complicated. I warned you these answers won’t comfort you. I’m not going to plead with you to believe me, so if you have any more questions, you should move on to those.”
“Uhh… in the farm, how did I escape? You didn’t know until I told you it was through a dream.”
“At first I thought one of my guards had helped you, or had just been grossly incompetent, but my men were unable to figure it all out. But when you told me you dreamt of unlocking yourself, I figured it out quite quickly.”
“So I freed myself, in a past life? How would that even work?”
“Not a past life, but a future one, I believe. I’m sure you noticed when you came back from the wastelands and re-entered Amalin, that time had passed much more quickly in the city than it did outside.”
“I thought I was just in the cells a long time, but six months did seem a little too long.”
“Well, Kurtis, answer me this: when a nation is outnumbered in population and overall resources, how do they win wars?”
“I guess they have better weapons, better armour.”
“Precisely. Having more advanced technology that will kill more people, use less resources, or at least ones that aren’t traditionally needed in warfare, and save more of our own lives. Overall we have to get more out of our weapons per person, which is why we need technology far more advanced than everyone else. Now, how do you advance weapon technology?”
“I don’t know, have scientists working?”
“Time, Kurtis, time. Yes scientists are the ones that do the work, but they require time to do it. I find they produce new technology at a rather consistent rate, and the more time I give them, the better the weapons they give in return.”
“But wouldn’t everyone else progress at the same right?”
“Yes, given the same amount of time, we would all progress at roughly the same rate. Sure, some would make major breakthroughs before others, but in the end it would all even out. Resetting time isn’t the only thing I do. It’s hard to explain in words, but this is how time flows in Amalin,” he said, brushing a hand along the smooth white table cloth. Then he took a corner of the table cloth and folded it over and over again, “And this is what I do to everyone else. In order to ensure our edge, I distort time slightly so that it passes slower outside of Amalin. This allows our research teams to develop technologies years ahead of everyone else, but I can’t actually just slow time down in one place and not in another, I have to fold it over, per say, because not even I can actually create or destroy time, I can just manipulate it.”
“So then how does this get me out of the farm?”
The Clockmaker took his glass of wine, and poured a few drops on the table cloth where it had been folded over. “In a future life, and I’m speculating as this hasn’t happened yet and I can’t see into the future, there will be a battle fought at the farm, likely for control of a bountiful food supply. You will be dispatched, and having recalled a dream or memory from your present life, and will open the cell door, an action which will bleed through the timelines, as they have been folded over onto one another.” The Clockmaker smoothed out the wine-soaked section of tablecloth, to show that the stain had soaked all the way through. “This effect is not that uncommon. There have been instances of people killing themselves, and one rather unfortunate man that fancied other men, particularly ones that looked like him…”
Kurtis gave a weak smile as the Clockmaker drained his wine glass.
“Anything else?” the Clockmaker asked, placing his glass down with gentle precision.
“Yes,” Kurtis said, fingers reaching behind him and closing around the stock of his revolver. “Bring Julia back. The next time you reset, put her back in.”
“Kurtis, if it were somebody else I might consider it. I do feel like I owe you something, you’ve sacrificed more than you could possibly know for me, and yet that’s something I cannot do.”
Kurtis drew the revolver from his belt and placed it on the table. “I wasn’t asking.”
The Clockmaker smiled wide, picking the napkin off his chest with a steady hand and flicking it onto the table. “It seems I’ve misjudged you.”
Kurtis nodded, “You’d do best not to make that mistake again. Now will you return Julia?”
“I meant that I misjudged how selfish you are. That is quite a pretty gun, but frankly you don’t intimidate me.”
“Selfish?” Kurtis said, pointing the revolver at the Clockmaker. “All I’m asking for is something that you took from me, and that’s selfish?”
“I understand that you love her. I really do, but what you’re asking me is beyond simply returning a person to you. She causes war, you understand that right? Without her in existence is our only chance for peace and survival.”
“…The only chance you’ve found. You said you’ve reset it a thousand times? Just keep going. Find another way with her. It might take a couple tries, but you’ll find it.”
“And what happens during those couple tries? War? Death? Misery? Not only is it an exhausting process for me personally, but just because I reset time, does not mean all the pain and suffering disappears. Thousands will die every time I do it, and countless more will suffer endless heartache, just like you are now, as their loved ones are ripped from their grasp.”
“What does it matter? You’ll find peace in the end.”
“It matters an entire lifetime, every single time I reset. These are people, Kurtis, not dolls for me to play war with. It doesn’t matter if I they don’t remember, they will still have lived several lives in fear and sadness. They will have experienced horros that nobody should wish on another. And you would inflict that upon your city, your neighbours, your friends, for one girl?”
Kurtis studied the Clockmaker as he stroked his thick moustache. Seconds passed with only the sound of the nearby battle being heard.
“Yes,” Kurtis said, “I would.”
The Clockmaker sighed and stood up from the table. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said, walking away.
Kurtis jumped to his feet. “Stop,” he called after the Clockmaker, pointing the revolver at the back of his head. The Clockmaker kept walking, and Kurtis fired a warning shot into the air.
The Clockmaker stopped and turned to face Kurtis. “I like to think of myself as a good leader, just and fair. I try to give everyone as much as they deserved, and when I can I’ll give them some more. But what I don’t like is when people demand more than they deserve, and more than I will give them.”
“This is your last chance,” Kurtis said. “Give me your word that you’ll bring Julia back and I won’t kill you.”
The Clockmaker laughed. “You think you’re the first person to raise a hand against me? I’ve been shot, stabbed, strangled and poisoned, and yet I’m still here.”
“They weren’t as good as me. You said yourself I was one of the best “
“I did, and you are quite good at killing things you understand, or shooting enemies that fall when they’re hit. I’m a little different.”
“You can’t reset time if your brain’s in the dirt.”
“Maybe I already have. Maybe these are the final few seconds of your current life, and I’m just letting it play out as a test.”
“A test of what?”
“Of what I should do with you. If you pull that trigger, and I live, you will be punished. I would say you will regret this moment, but you won’t have any recollection of it. You will live out your entire life experiencing misfortune upon misfortune, and you will never understand why. You will curse the heavens and ask the world how it could be so cruel to you, but you will never know that it was of your own doing all along. This will happen for another thousand years, and every time I reset the world, I will make your existence more miserable. Is it worth it, Kurtis?”
Kurtis took a deep breath, his fingers slick with sweat as they gripped the revolver. Gunfire and screams of pain from a particularly brutal battle scene made it hard for him to even think. Flashes of light from scattered blasts cast flickering shadows across the Clockmaker’s face.
“Yes,” Kurtis said, squeezing the trigger. There was a bright flash as the gun fired a single bullet straight into the Clockmaker’s forehead. Kurtis blinked and his arm shot up in recoil, and when he opened his eyes again the Clockmaker was lying motionless in the mud.
Kurtis sighed a deep breath of relief, and the gun slipped from his fingers and landed in the mud. The door to the Clockmaker’s office was still there, and Kurtis started walking towards it. He had won. Julia wouldn’t be returned to him, but it still seemed like a victory to him, albeit a hollow one. Things would change now, he told himself as he stepped over the lifeless body of the Clockmaker. Even if Julia was still beyond his reach, he had avenged her, he had killed the one that had taken her, and Kurtis knew that would bring him at least some form of closure.
As he was walking towards the door, Kurtis shivered. It was odd since it was relatively warm wherever he was. Still, he felt cold on the inside, and hot too. His heart started pumping in his chest and a cold bead of sweat trickled down his forehead. He wiped it off, and his forehead was burning under his hand. His breathing sped up his heart raced his chest.
Kurtis stumbled as he walked, falling to his knees which pushed through the mud. His forehead had a dozen streams of ice cold sweat running down and as he fell over sideways, his stomach turned as he felt the ummistakable sensation that the world was about to end.
Tick.
Tick.
Tick.

Far From Home

31 May

A wooden cart clattered slowly down an empty dirt road.  Two large horses pulled the wagon, breathing clouds of steam that floated up and disappeared into the night air.  From behind a few wisps of grey clouds, the moonlight shone across the landscape.  Long stalks of grass shimmered under the light as they swayed back and forth with the breeze.  The air was chill such that it only allowed the faintest scents of wildflowers and conifers to be detected.

In the driver’s seat was an old trader, the reins clutched in veiny hands as greasy white hair fell to his shoulders.  Occasionally he would speak a gentle word to the horses, but they never showed a sign of understanding.  In the back of his cart, sitting amongst burlap sacks of cabbages and potatoes, was a middle-aged with brown hair and an unkempt beard.  On his left hip he carried a longsword and a dirk was fastened to his right side.  With his own small bag held under a thick arm, the man whistled a tune, slow and sorrowful, as he was carried down the road.  His legs hung off the back of the cart and swung back and forth with every rut and bump that the wagon hit.

Every so often, the younger man would glance behind him, to where the wagon was headed.  Most of the time, he would simply find himself staring into a shadowy and indiscernible horizon, but when he finally saw a faint glimmering light in the distance, he took a deep breath and closed his eyes.  He paid no attention as the light grew brighter and in number, signalling that it would only be a few more minutes.

As the cart drew closer and closer, the man began to recognize the features of his childhood home.  The way the fields rolled up and down and the soft bubbling of Old Tillman’s Creek sent waves of forgotten memories flooding back to him.  The wagon passed the first of the outlying houses, a small stone structure with a thatched roof, and the joyous roar of the local tavern could be heard as the villagers celebrated the end of a long harvest.  The center of the town was made up of several houses packed together that doubled as stores or workshops for their owners.

The entire town existed in the shadow of Greyhelm Keep, a powerful fortress that could be seen high in the distance, atop a rocky bluff that dominated landscape.  Lanterns were hung from every conceivable part of the castle, though they did little to dampen the intimidation and self-worthlessness one felt when they gazed up at the Keep.  Greyhelm was the home of the Rickards, the family that ruled over the town and exerted their taxes upon the surrounding farms.

Without saying so much as a word to the elderly driver, the young man hopped off the wagon as it passed through the center of the town.  For a moment he stood still as stone, letting all the memories wash over him.  He could hear his brothers’ laughter and his father’s constant shouting at the lot of them as if it were only yesterday.  He shook his head, and began walking in silence out of the town center and towards one of the outlying farms.

The village had been lit but a lantern or two on each of the clustered buildings, but the road he was currently on had no light save for the moon’s white rays.  The stars were twinkling high above him and a wolf howled longingly into the night.

Finally the man reached his destination.  It was a non-descript farmhouse, just like the dozen or so he had already passed on his way here, and it would have been all too easy to miss it if were anybody else.  Calmly the man walked up to the small stone house, and hesitated for just a second before knocking forcefully on the front door.  There were a few moments of silence, then a couple angry curses could be heard, and finally the slow shuffling of feet moving towards the door.

The door swung open, revealing a balding man with countless wrinkles across his face.  He was holding an oil lamp in his right hand and used his left to balance himself against the doorway.  He squinted for a second, struggling to recognize the man standing before him, but when he did, his eyes widened with shock.  “Rowan?” he gasped.  “Is that… is that you?”

Rowan nodded.  “Father,” he replied simply.

“What are you doing here?”  His father asked in a panicked voice, leaning out of his door to look around the house.  “If anybody saw you…”

Rowan reached into his small bag and pulled out a piece of paper, creased and bent, with a broken wax seal.  He handed it to his father and watched calmly as the old man’s eyes moved back and forth across the paper.

“This is from the King,” he said in amazement.  “How did you get this?”

“It’s a long story.”

“So what is it then?”  He asked, his tone turning sour.  “You came home a war hero?  You want a big celebration now you’ve proven you’re the hero this town wanted?

“No,” Rowan replied defensively.  “I just wanted…”

“You think just because the King forgives you that this town will too?  There are a hundred graves just down the road ‘cause of you.  Soldiers beat the commonfolk like us in plain daylight, and taxes are twice what they used to be.  This town’s dying all ‘cause some stupid boy thought he was a hero.”

Rowan stood silently staring at the ground.  He could feel his father’s eyes burning into him, but dared not look up to meet them.  His father was heaving deep breaths he was so enraged and Rowan could see his fingers trembling.

“Is that Rowan?”  A familiar voice asked from inside the house.  Rowan looked up to see his mother limping slowly towards them.  “Thank the Saints it really is!”  She cried in excitement.  She rushed as fast as her feeble legs would carry her towards her son, wrapping him in a loving embrace.  The sprint was a little too much exertion for her, as she doubled over in a coughing fit as soon as she released Rowan.

As she stepped back into the house, Rowan finally took a good look at his parents.  His father was hunched, with the years etched across his face.  Where once he had been a strong man, his muscles had all but faded, leaving bony wrists and a skinny figure.  His mother had similarly aged, her hair falling in thin wisps of grey and her fingers frail.  There were bags under her eyes, blue and veiny and her writs looked likely to snap at any moment.

“Well what are you standing there for?”  His mother asked.  “Come in, come in.  Are you hungry?”

Rowan nodded in response, and saw his father open his mouth to protest his wife’s invitation, but didn’t say a word. Apparently his will to argue with his wife had been worn down over the years.  Begrudgingly he stepped aside and let Rowan enter, locking the door behind them.

By the time Rowan entered the kitchen, his mother was setting out some bread, cheese and two mugs of beer.  As soon as she finished, though, she had to sit down as she was suddenly possessed by another coughing fit.

Rowan sat down and took a bit of the food.  His mother clasped his hand with hers and looked at him with a bittersweet smile.  His father took a seat opposite him and took a long drink from the second mug of beer.

“I was praying, every night, that you would come back to me,” his mother said, tears welling in her eyes.  “I told the Saints that you were a good boy, and that you didn’t deserve what happened to you,” his father scoffed, but his mother paid it no attention.  “And they brought you back to me.  I just wanted to see you one last time.  The Saints answered my prayers.”

“The Saints had nothing to do with it,” Rowan said flatly, not looking up from his food.

His mother gasped with shock and clutched her chest with one hand.    “Rowan, how can you say that?  After all that the Saints have given you?”

“What have they given me?  I don’t quite remember.”

“The Saints gave you life, they gave us a good crop every year so we didn’t starve through winter, they gave you good brothers and a lovely sister…”

Rowan looked up from his food, visibly irritated.  “They let my brother die in my arms because a smug Lord didn’t like the way he looked at him.  That’s what the Saints have done for me.”

His mother stood up and slapped him across the face.  She was seething with anger and her eyes were aflame with a demonic rage.  “They also gave you the strength, courage, and loyal followers to rise up and avenge your brothers.  But you spat in their faces and turned and ran with your tail between your legs like a cowardly bitch.  And you blame the Saints for what happened?  Shame on you…”  She would have continued but was taken by another coughing fit, forcing her to sit down with both hands covering her mouth.

Rowan seized the moment, standing up, his face bright red and stinging where he had been struck.  “I killed the man, didn’t I?  I took his head right off his shoulders.  And what good did that do?  Did that bring Tom back?  What about Bryce?  Is he still dead?”  He too would have continued, but he saw something that stopped him dead in his tracks.

There were a few drops of blood splashed across the table.  His mother had another single drop trickling down her chin, her coughing now finished.  Her breathing was laboured and heavy, her voice wheezing as she spoke.  “I’m so tired,” she gasped her eyelids hanging low.  Rowan’s father immediately stood up to escort her back to their bed chamber.

In their absence, Rowan took a deep gulp from his mug, and nibbled on a wedge of cheese.  The house still smelt the same, he reflected.  It still smelt like potatoes and dirt, but in a good way, that felt comforting to him.

His father hobbled back into the kitchen and sat down without saying a word.  All the anger and reproach had left his face, replaced by a mix of fear and sorrow.  “She’s ill?”  Rowan asked.

His father nodded, swallowing his sadness.  “The priests say they can’t help her.  It’s a good thing you came back when you did, she really was praying every night for you.  The last few weeks should be easier for her now.  Well, on her mind at least.”  His father drained his mug, and slammed it back down on the wooden table.

There was a moment of silence as both men lost themselves in thought.  “I’m sorry,” Rowan said suddenly.

His father looked up, not fully understanding.  “Eh?”

“For everything,” Rowan started, shaking his head as he spoke.  “For her, for what I did, for what happened to this town.  I never wanted any of this to happen.”

His father gave a short laugh.  “Nobody wanted any of this.  We did what we thought was right, as this is the price we knew we might have to pay.”

“Who’s in charge these days, up in Greyhelm?”

“Expecting a welcome home party?  In any case it’s the son.”

“Jeremy?”

“No he got himself killed,” his father said also cheerfully.  “The King asked for men to fight some battle on the Desmian Plains, and this kid runs as soon as he gets word.  Took a lot of good men with him, and only a few came back.”

Rowan raised an eyebrow.  “I fought on the Desmian Plains.”

“Shame you couldn’t save him.  Anyhow his little brother Jacob got the Greyhelm after that.  He was about as fond of his father as you were, but he’s still not one to take any kind of disobedience lightly.  His brother raised the taxes as punishment for what you – we did to his father, and this little shit kept ‘em raised so he can shit in a golden pot.  People are going hungry everywhere you turn ‘cause of this little prick.  Every few weeks another family packs up and takes the road south, looking for greener fields.  They just can’t survive here anymore.”

“I didn’t expect…” Rowan started, unable to find the right words.

“Expect everything to have gone to shit?”  His father offered, giving a short laugh.  “What did you think it would be like?”

“I don’t know.  I thought we had won, in a way.  I thought even if the Rickards kept themselves in power, they’d respect us more, they’d treat everyone better.”

That gave his father another good laugh.  “Fuck the Rickards.  Those maggots can’t spell the word respect.  All they know is power, how good it feels and how much they don’t want to lose it.”

Rowan shook his head, disappointed in his own folly.  He knew what kind of family the Lords were, and he shouldn’t have expected them to act with any compassion.  “What of the rest of the town?”  He asked, trying to move on with the conversation.  “Where’s Greg, Pete, and Eric?  And Arthur?  And Mary?”

“Your brother’s married, still lives in town but he ain’t set foot in the fields for almost fifteen years now.  His new father offered him work as his forge, building shit shovels and swords and all that.  He said it was work that was less likely to let him starve through winter.  Have I ever starved to death?”

Rowan cracked a smile and took another sip of beer.

“Your sister took a fancy to a trader passing through.  Just hopped on his cart one day and I ain’t seen her since.   As for your friends, well, they didn’t get such a happy ending.  Greg they killed a few days after you left, dragged him up to the Keep and took hung him the gatehouse.  Didn’t take his head like a soldier, they hung him like a thief or rapist.  Pete and Eric they didn’t come after, but Pete followed Jeremy Rickard and fell with him on the Desmian Plains.  Eric, what happened to Eric?  Oh, right, the poor bastard got so drunk one winter night that when he tripped on his way home, he passed out before he could pick himself up.  Frozen solid by morning.”

Rowan hesitated before asking his final question, but knew he needed the answer.  “And Thea?”  As soon as he said her name, a thousand memories came swarming back to him like angry wasps.

“Married your brother,” Rowan’s heart sank.  The entire journey back he had been dreaming of Thea, her sweet smile and gentle kisses, and now they were destined for someone else.  “When you left, she was coming around the house almost every day, saying she was checking on us or something like that.  But she’d stay here for hours at a time without saying a word.  She wouldn’t eat or drink or nothing.  She missed you something fierce, and so she spent as much time as she could here.  And that’s where your brother was.  And don’t you go blaming Arthur for this, neither.  He was just as crushed as her.  In just a few weeks he lost three brothers, and they just sort of found each other.”

“Are they happy?”  Not as happy as she had been with him, Rowan knew, but he wanted the answer nonetheless.

“They’ve got seven kids, so you tell me.”  His father was about to laugh at his own joke, but saw Rowan glaring at him and put on a serious fac.  “But yes, they are quite happy together from what I can tell.  She’s been with him almost twenty years now, that’s a lot longer than she was ever with you.”

Rowan shook his head in frustration.  “What happened…. Not to her, but this town.  I remember it being such a nice place.  The people were friendly, the sun always shone on the right days, and the streams were always clear.  But now what?  All my friends are gone, mother’s on her deathbed, and Thea’s beyond my reach, and the town itself is leaking people southward.”

“What happened is we made our choice, a long time ago, and now we’re living with it,” his father replied pragmatically.  “You made your choice, I made mine when I stood aside and let you start that whole ruckus, and the town made theirs when they grabbed their pitchforks and followed you.  We all knew there was a chance it would end like this, but we didn’t care.”

Rowan nodded sadly, his father lowered his head for a moment.

“Why?”  His father asked suddenly, raising his head and looking at Rowan with piercing eyes.  “Why did you run?  We had it won, you were going to be the Lord of Greyhelm.  And then you just disappeared.  Why?”

Rowan cracked a slight smile.  “You know, when I knelt before the King and was granted my pardon, he offered me a title.  Lands too, a castle, everything I could ask for.  But I didn’t take it.  I never wanted that.  I didn’t do all I’ve done just to sit in a fancy house and grow old.”

“What did you do it for then?”

Rowan shrugged, rubbing his eye.  “For Tom, and Bryce.  My brothers were taken from me, and I just wanted them back.  I just wanted to hear their voices again.  To work the fields with them.  I fought in their name the whole time, but I never wanted to sit in Greyhelm in their name.  I wasn’t going to use their murders for my own gain.  I just wanted them back…”  Rowan laughed with tears welling in his eyes.  “I was just a boy, and it was just like when you would take my toys from me, and I’d throw a fit.  That’s all my great rebellion ever was.  A little boy’s tantrum.

“And then we started winning.  But every time I’d walk through the town center, I’d see the pools of blood that Tom had left.  Red and slick, and just as fresh as the day they were made.  When I’d look up at the Greyhelm, I’d see Bryce hanging from the walls, limp and swaying back and forth in the wind.  Crows on his shoulders and picking at his eyes.  Winning the Greyhelm wouldn’t have helped with that, it would have just made it worse living every day in those halls.”

His father released a deep sigh, his eyes looking straight down at the table.  “Don’t hate yourself boy,” he muttered, his voice rough and slow.  “It’s just as much my fault as it is yours.”  Rowan looked up with confusion written across his face.  “When you came home that day, when Tom was killed, screaming all sorts of curses, up to your shoulders in blood and tears running down your face, I stood aside.  I shoulda just put you back into the fields, let your anger blow over.  I was your father, and I let you lose everything you loved.  A good father wouldn’t have let you throw away your life like that.  I shoulda done a hundred different things that would have stopped you.  Your mother has her prayers, but every night when I go to sleep, I regret it, with every inch of my soul.  I never forgave myself for what I did, and I don’t reckon I ever will, ‘til the day I die.  If I could just go back… If I just got another chance…”

“You and me both,” Rowan said compassionately.

Both men locked eyes, and nodded their understanding to each other.  This will likely be the closest they’d ever get to forgiving one another, Rowan thought.  His father had always been a hard man, never one to talk about his emotions, and Rowan had followed suit.  After this agonizing night was over, and the homecoming had transitioned into normal life, they’d never speak to each other in this way again.

“I should be getting to bed.  The harvest may be over, but winter is coming, and I’m not very fond of freezing to death in my own home.  I’ll leave you the lamp.”

As his father hobbled away, Rowan sat in silence.  There was still more food on the table, but he was no longer hungry.  Left alone, he began to whistle a tune, slow and sorrowful.

*             *             *

The sun was setting, painting the sky a radiant gold with red and pink ripples.  The wind was blowing strong as brown and orange leaves fluttered across empty fields.    The cold was biting at any skin left exposed, and Rowan clutched his cloak tighter about him as the temperature was continuing to drop.

He had been standing still for hours now.  The wind pushed his hair back and forth around his head, but he paid it no attention.  Thin blades of grass brushed against his leather boots and the lowering sun cast frighteningly long shadows that scarred the field like festering wounds on an arrow-riddled corpse.

In front of him sat two crooked slabs of grey stone.  Countless others dotted the field, but for Rowan these were the only two in the whole world.  They were both cracked and a dark moss was growing from the bottom.  The years had taken its toll from the slabs, their edges had become smooth and rounded and the lettering had faded, but Rowan could still make out his brothers’ names, written in large block letters.

Oh his right lay Tom and on his left was Bryce.  The slabs were almost indistinguishable from all the others in the graveyard, and having refused his father’s offer to come along with him, it had taken Rowan a long time to find the resting place of his brothers.  Wildflowers had sprouted across the field, with a particular fondness for appearing at the bases of gravestones.  They were wilting with the cold, though, their leaves a sickly green and their colourful petals gradually being stripped from their stems.

“Trying to join them?”  A familiar voice asked.

Rowan wheeled around, caught completely off-guard.  A woman was walking towards him, passing between the various gravestones with dark hair flowing elegantly behind her.  She was lifting her knees high which each step and had to hold her long dress so that she didn’t trip.

“Thea,” Rowan breathed, his heart fluttering and his palms sweating.

Age had not tarnished her beauty in the slightest.  Her eyes were still as pure blue as he remembered, her form still slender and her cheeks still rosy red.  And when she smiled Rowan’s heart ached so bad he thought he might just keel over dead.

“You’ve done a lot of good things for them, but freezing to death won’t be one of them,” she joked, her smile radiant.

Rowan was so stunned by her that for a moment he had no idea what she was talking about.  When he finally caught on, he glanced back at the graves, and then looked to her again.  “Maybe if I had it twenty years ago, it might’ve served some good.”

She scoffed as she stopped beside him, looking at the graves herself.  “Oh hush.  You didn’t do nothing anybody didn’t want somebody to do.   Nobody liked that Rickard fellow, anyhow.  You just gave us a name to cheer when we won, and a head to chop when we lost.”

“Should I still be afraid then, of being chopped?”  Rowan asked somewhat seriously.

“Not with that fancy paper the King gave you.  I don’t reckon the town would do well if the King brought his whole army down on us, not after the last decade or two.”

“How’d you hear about that?”

“Same place that told me you were back, and where I could find you.”  She paused for a second, and then seeing Rowan’s expression she added, “Your father does love you, you know that right?”

Rowan nodded, “Thank you,” he said quietly.

The sun was shining directly into their eyes, but neither of them moved or turned away.  Rowan wanted desperately to ask her to run away with her, as he had failed to do last time.  He wanted to spend the rest of his life with her and never leave her side, but he knew it was no longer an option.

“They’d be proud of you,” Thea said, breaking the silence and motioning towards the grave.

“Would they?”  Rowan asked, looking directly at her.  “I keep trying to see their reactions, and hear what they would say to me.  When they’re looking at me, I don’t see forgiveness in their eyes, and I don’t hear congratulations on their lips.”

She turned to return his deep stare.  “What do you hear?”

“Nothing… I just see their faces, hard as stone.  I can never tell what they think of me, they just look down on me with no emotions.  Sometimes I can see anger on their faces, and sometimes I see disappointment.  But never have I pictured pride.”

“That’s what you think, not them,” she said compassionately.  “You want to hate yourself, and so you picture them with your own hatred, your own disappointment in yourself.”  Rowan cast a skeptic eye towards of her.  “They wouldn’t hate you, Bryce didn’t follow you because he thought you were a good leader, he followed you because Rickard took his brother same as you…”

“…And then I got him killed,” Rowan interrupted.  “And Tom, I should have just let him rest in peace.  I should have just knelt in this spot twenty years ago and screamed all my curses until I had none left.  I put a hundred dead souls at his feet, all good men.  You know why?  You know why I started all this in his name?”

Thea shook her, pushing a strand of hair back behind her ear.

“When he was dying,” Rowan started slowly, staring down at his older brother’s grave.  “Sprawled out in my arms, blood running everywhere, he pulled me close and whispered in my ear, ‘Don’t let me die like this.’  And that was it.  Those were the last words he ever spoke.”

Thea stood silently, her blue eyes shining as she listened.  She had stood beside him the whole time he had struggled with the deaths of his brothers, and now Rowan was forcing it on her all over again.  But she still listened nonetheless, without any protest or sign of weariness.  That was just another reason why Rowan had loved her so madly.  For all her beauty and her adventurous spirit, she had just as good of a heart.

“I took it to mean he didn’t want to die like a pig skewered in some alley,” Rowan continued, “and so I tried to make him a martyr.  He would be the hero whose selfless death would inspire a rebellion like none other.  But now I think he just didn’t want to die.  He never wanted us to rise up, he never wanted anybody to die in his name.  Now look what I’ve done,” he finished, lifting his head and gazing across the graveyard.

The stones all seemed so lonely.  Some stood straight, though many more had become slanted or crooked.  A couple had completely crumbled and others had been cleaved in half by unknown forces.  “What would they all say to me?”  Rowan asked after a few seconds of silence.

“The same thing I’ve been saying to you.  There might still be some that are angry at you, but only ‘cause they can’t accept their own blame in everything.  Most people have gotten over it, and I suspect most of these fellows have too.”

“The first person I met when I came back wanted to kill me, I could see it in his eyes, and he was my own father.”

“And then he calmed down didn’t he?  You just pulled the scab off a sore he didn’t even remember he had.  If you want to stay around here, you’ll have to get used to that.  As soon as they soon, everyone will want your head, but they’ll come around quick enough.”

Rowan looked back at her, gazing deep into those eyes.  “Do you forgive me?”

“For all this,” she started, glancing back across the graveyard, “Yes, I do.”

Rowan cocked his head, “But not for…?”

“Not for leaving me here,” she finished, with a mix of anger and sorrow flashing across her eyes.  “I would have come with you, wherever you lead me.  You know that right?”

Rowan looked at her longingly.  Now would be the best chance he’d ever get to ask her to come with him.  He had planned to stay in the town, but that wouldn’t be possible if he stole his brother’s wife. , “I know.  I knew it then, and I know it now.”

“Then why?  Why’d you leave me without saying so much as a word?”

“I don’t know,” he answered simply.

“That’s it?  You don’t know?  After twenty years you can’t give me an honest answer?  I was okay with you running,” she said, a tear trickled down her cheek.  “I understood it, and I would have loved you no less.  ”

Rowan shook his head.  “These last twenty years, you wouldn’t have been happy.  I’ve done things… not even you could have loved me if you’d seen it all.”

“I wouldn’t have cared,” she reiterated, taking his hand in hers.  “I would have closed my eyes and thought of better times.  There is nowhere I wouldn’t have followed you to, and nothing I would not have gone through for you.”

Rowan stood silently, studying the woman before him.  She still had the same eyes and the same smile that he had fallen for all those years ago, but there were definitely things about her that had changed.  He noticed now small wrinkles around the corners of her eyes and mouth.  More than that, though, she seemed harder now, as if her carefree spirit had been worn down by the years.  It was understandable, but Rowan lamented it nonetheless.

For what seemed like hours they stood in silence, side by side and staring at the graves of Rowan’s brothers with steeled eyes.  The sun had fallen below the horizon, and the sky had turned from bright pink to a cold, dark blue.

The silence was interrupted by the sound of a horse galloping towards them.  Thea and Rowan both turned to the dark figure approaching along the nearby road.  As soon as it reached the graveyard it cut off the road and began trotting carefully through the field, steering clear of the various gravestones.  The rider dismounted and walked towards them.

“So it’s true then,” the man said when he was a few feet away from Rowan, pulling back his hood to reveal his face.  “You really are back, after all these years.”

“Arthur, it’s so good to see you again,” Rowan replied, stepping forward to embrace his younger brother.  Arthur stopped short though, refusing to return the gesture.

“You think that’s it?”  Arthur asked aggressively.  He was a lot bigger than Rowan had expected, but when he had left Arthur was only 15 years old and had barely started working on the farm.  The forge had definitely made a man out of him, he reflected, his arms and his chest were both huge as barrels and his eyes burned with a ferocity learnt from hammering steel all day.  “All you have to do is show up and we’ll greet you with open arms?  Do you so easily forget your last appearance here?”

“I forget nothing,” Rowan said defiantly, standing tall and glaring down at his brother.  For all his bulk, Rowan still had a few inches of height on his brother.

“Then you’re here to do it all over again?  Finish what you started, and drag us all through the dirt and blood you leave behind you?”

Rowan glanced at Thea, confused that Arthur was still so angry while she had explained to him that these sentiments had all but subsided.  After only returning a helpless shrug to Rowan, Arthur beckoned his wife to his side.  He hissed angrily at her in a whispered voice, such that Rowan could not hear his words.  She tried to protest, but was interrupted as soon as she had started.  After the second round of berating, she flicked her eyes tearing back to Rowan as a goodbye, then turned and walked back towards the town.

Both Rowan and Arthur watched her move slowly across the field and along the road.  “I suppose I have something to thank you for,” Arthur gloated, turning back to Rowan.

“Is that what you came here for?”  Rowan asked, irritated that his brother had interrupted his moment with Thea.  “To show me the great man you’ve become?  I’m surprised you didn’t bring your children, or at least the pretty ones.”

A smug smile cracked across Arthur’s face.  “Don’t worry,” he replied, “they take after their mother a lot more than their father…”

“Are you sure you’re the father?  I knew a couple of strapping young lads in my day that wouldn’t have said no to her.”

“Actually the oldest one, which she insisted be named Rowan,” he paused, a dastardly smile growing on his face, “is yours.”

Rowan was stunned.  He shook his head in disbelief.  “I have a son…” he managed to gasp.

Arthur broke into laughter, “Not at all, but your face is quite priceless.”

Rowan fumed in silence as Arthur continued to laugh, unable to think of any retort that would be able to save him.  Finally Arthur stopped laughing, and his face slowly returned to a serious expression.

“What do you want?”  Rowan asked flatly, wanting to be done with his brother as soon as possible.

“Two things.  First, I want to hear what actually happened that day in the market.  When Tom died.”  He shook his head, his eyes looking down.  “I came in from the fields one day, you and Bryce were screaming like wild dogs and covered in blood, and mother and father were crying silently, holding one another.  I gathered that Lord Rickard had killed Tom, but I’ve never heard how it happened.”  Rowan glared back at him in silence, hesitant to say something.  “Go on then,” Arthur coaxed, his smug smile returned.

“We were in the market,” Rowan started after taking a deep breath.  “Selling our harvest.  We had our small cart set up, but nobody was buying anything.  Tom said it was ‘cause I was so ugly I was scaring all the customers.  So I grabbed a potato, and hit him right in his pretty little face.  Naturally, he didn’t just take this lying down, so he grabbed his own potato, one of the biggest I’d ever seen at that, and threw it as hard as he could at me.  But saw it coming before he even picked it up, so I ducked and it sailed right over me, into the street.

“We’d done this a hundred times before, ‘cept this time a certain Lord was walking through the street, and managed to get himself hit by that potato.  It wasn’t even on his head or his just, just his arm, but he went into a blinding rage.  He was screaming at his guards to find who did it and bring him their head.  One of the guards had seen the potato come from our cart, so they all ran over to us.  Bryce ducked under the cart and hid, and Tom was standing behind me, so the guards grabbed me and dragged me into the street.  They pushed me to my knees and bent me over so my neck was a nice easy target.  I heard the ringing of steel as the captain of the guards drew his sword and then felt the cold steel touch against my neck as he was checking his mark.

“Just before the blade fell, I heard Tom yelling.  ‘No,’ he cried, ‘no it wasn’t him, it was me.’  He was waving his arms and jumping trying to get the guards attention.  And it worked.  The guards let me go, and everyone just stood still looking at Lord Rickard, waiting for him to say something.  ‘Okay,’ he said, and for just a second I thought he was going to let us go.  I was about to start grovelling and thank him for his mercy, but then he said, ‘Kill him.’

“Before Tom could put his hands up, there was a sword through his stomach.  He fell, and I crawled over to him, just in time to hear him say his last words to me before he bled out.  Rickard let him keep his head, saying he was impressed by his courage.  And that was that.”

Arthur nodded with a noticeable lack of emotion.  Rowan’s voice had gone hoarse while he was retelling the encounter, and yet Arthur still wore a hint of his smile.  “Well told,” Arthur remarked.  “Now as for the second thing.  I came here to tell you to leave.  Leave my town, leave my parents, leave my wife.  Leave.”  His smile had disappeared, his face becoming hard and steeled as he issued his commands.

“And if I don’t?”  Rowan stood perfectly still as he spoke, in contrast to Arthur whose hands had taken a slight tremble.

Arthur pulled back his clock to reveal a rather unremarkable sword hanging from his belt.

“Cute,” Rowan said sarcastically, “Did you make that all by yourself, brother?”

“You’re not my brother,” Arthur said in a commanding voice.  “I had three brothers, two died a long time ago, and the other fled, never to return.  This man standing before me, he’s nothing just a stranger passing through.  By the Saints, the boy you orphaned that works on the farm with mother and father is more of a brother to me than you ever were.”

“You’re talking to me of brotherhood?  Where were you when Bryce was captured, and I marched on Greyhelm?  Cowering under your bed?  And what of Thea?  You use her grief to woo the love of your own blood?  And now you talk to me of brotherhood?”

Arthur drew his sword, pointing it towards Rowan.  It was shorter than the one Rowan was wearing, and did not have a single nick or scratch the length of the blade.  “I speak to you about family.  And being there when you’re needed.  Something you never understood.  I needed you, brother.  I needed you to stay.  I needed you to be there for me when Bryce and Tom no longer were.  Thea needed you too.  She saw her home burned to the grown and her own brother fell following you.  Mother needed you too, and by the Saints, even father needed you.  But you ran, and you say you never forgot, but nobody here never did either.”

Rowan drew his own longsword, holding it low and unthreateningly.  His own steel shone brighter than Arthur’s Rowan’s hand was perfectly steady as it clasped the handle of his blade.  “Don’t be a fool Arthur,” he warned.

“The fool is the one who returns to the scene of his crimes.  This was a long time coming, Rowan.”

“What are you going to do?”  Rowan cried.  “Kill me?  Do you have any idea what I’ve been doing these last twenty years?  You think I got a pardon from the King himself for mending his garden?”

“Why don’t you enlighten me?”  Arthur was still holding his sword menacingly, his trembling hand causing it to sway back and forth.

“I learnt how to kill here, and when you went back to your forge, I wasn’t so fortunate to have a new father.  I had one skill that paid quite well, and so I kept working it.  There are a dozen fields just like this one ‘cause of me.  Do yourself a favour, brother, and walk away.”  Rowan gave a flick of his longsword, motioning towards the road back to town.

“You were right,” Arthur answered, “when called me a coward.  I did hide, twenty years ago.  I was afraid.  But no longer.  You took this town through hell itself once, and I won’t let you do it again.”

Rowan to answer and try to calm his brother down, but before he could Arthur lunged at him, swinging his blade wildly.  With a quick flick of his wrist Rowan knocked the blade away, sending an off-balance Arthur stumbling.  It did not faze him though, and as soon as he regained his balance, Arthur threw himself at Rowan again trying a direct stab at Rowan’s stomach.

Rowan stepped aside and Arthur flew past him.  “You can’t win, brother, you’ve never even lifted a sword before, have you?”

Arthur was heaving deep breaths and his eyes were alight with fiery rage. He glared at Rowan for a few seconds, knowing full well that he was no match for his older brother, but still wanting to inflict countless pains upon him.  “Fine,” he said at last, tossing his sword aside and letting it clatter against Tom’s gravestone.

Rowan lowered his own blade, and just as soon as he did, Arthur tackled him to the ground.   The two men fell to the ground, in a heap of dark fur, brown hair, and flying fists.  They were rolling directly on top of their fallen brothers, but neither considered anything but their current engagement.

Arthur was the heavier one, and was all muscle.  Rowan’s advantage had been his skill and his agility, but in these positions such qualities were almost useless.  As they rolled back and forth, it became clear that Arthur could dictate the fight much easier that Rowan could, and soon had Rowan pinned underneath his bulk.  Arthur straddled Rowan on his knees and rained down blows that were almost invisible in the darkness of night.

Rowan managed to block a couple, but a few found their way through and crunched against his face.  In a last desperate attempt to free himself, Rowan grabbed the back of his brother’s neck and pulled him back down while twisting himself, sending them rolling again.  This time Rowan managed to push himself free of his brother’s grasp and bounced to his feet before Arthur stabilized himself on his knees.

Before Arthur could make another move, Rowan delivered a powerful kick to his midsection.  With a loud gasp, his brother rolled onto his back, his head just a foot in front of Bryce’s gravestone.  Rowan pounced on him, pushing his forearm into Arthur’s throat.

“You think I wanted to run away?” Rowan screamed, spit flying onto his brother’s face as Arthur thrashed wildly beneath him.  “You think I just enjoy people hating me?  I spent every second of my life hating myself, and I did it all for you.”

Arthur’s eyes widened, and he tried to say something, but Rowan’s arm held firm and was still preventing him from breathing.

“That’s right,” Rowan continued shouting, his face turning bright red.  “I loved you, you were the only brother I had left, and I wouldn’t let the same thing happen to you that happened to Bryce and Tom.  I knew that if I stayed, you’d end up like them.  And I was not going to let that happen to.  I gave up everything so that you’d be safe.”

Arthur stopped struggling, and Rowan rolled off of him to sit against Tom’s gravestone.  Arthur was staring up at the sky, alternating between gasping and coughing.  His chest was heaving, but other than that he lay still.

Rowan was breathing heavily too, his heart was pounding in his chest and his face was aching where Arthur had struck him.  He could feel the all too familiar sensation of warm blood trickling down his face from his mouth.  Touching his lip with a dirt-covered finger, he looked behind him to his oldest brother’s grave, and then to Bryce’s.  “Don’t worry,” he breathed quietly to Arthur, who turned his head to him.  “I won’t stay, I’ll leave at first light.”

Arthur coughed, nodding his head slightly and his eyes showing a sympathy Rowan had never known from his youngest brother.  He wanted to say something, a thanks, perhaps, or maybe he was going to rescind his previous request and invite Rowan to stay.  But all that escaped his mouth was a wordless gasp.

Rowan watched his brother struggle to speak, but Rowan had no interest in what Arthur had to say.  “And I promise, you’ll never see me again,” Rowan finished, looking out across the empty field.  With a final deep breath, Rowan put a hand on Tom’s gravestone and pushed himself to his.  He looked back at his brother one final time, still lying in the grass, massaging his throttled throat.  Rowan picked up his sword, and turned his back to his brother.  As he walked away he whistled a tune, slow and sorrowful.

The Clockmaker (Ch 1-7)

25 May

Tick.

Tick.

Tick.

Kurtis burst from beneath his bed sheets in a cold sweat.  He had been dreaming, but could not remember what it had been about.  Beads of cold sweat trickled slowly down his forehead, his heart was pounding against his chest, and his breathing was heavy and fast.  Whatever had happened to him in the dream world, it hadn’t been a pleasant experience and Kurtis was thankful that he had no memory of it. 

The clock on his night table was still ticking away loudly, designed and produced by the Clockmaker himself, though Kurtis secretly doubted that the leader of one of the few remaining bastions of human civilization was still fiddling with cogs and gears all day.  There were plenty of more important things to do, with the threat of war hanging like clouds over iron city of Amalin.  The Clockmaker of course had ministers and advisors to help share the load of his responsibilities, but it still seemed absurd that the self-proclaimed savior of mankind does the work that any gutter rat could do. 

Kurtis still had a bit of spare time before he had to leave for work, and although he would have greatly enjoyed to curl back under his sheets and drift away for just a little while longer, he had been shaken wide awake by whatever his sleeping mind had conjured, and as he tossed aside his bedding he felt that they were soaked through and cold from a night of feverish sweating.  Kurtis regularly dreamt, but never before had he woken in such a terrified state.  Most nights, he would have the same dream, of being a soldier in a war that had never happened.  And though he saw before his eyes all the horrors of war, all the killing and dying sprawled out on an endless field of mud and shattered trees, he was calm.  Kurtis would rise those mornings with his mind at ease and with a noticeable clarity to his thoughts.

As his eyes moved past his clock, he focused on the small picture frame sitting just behind it.  Held within the glass case was a drawing he had made of Julia, as despite his best efforts he had never found a picture of her, and so had to sketch her face from memory.  It had taken him a hundred tries to get her eyes to match the beautiful orbs that he had lost himself in countless times, and a hundred more attempts to curve her slight cheeks and sharp lips into their perfect shape. 

Standing up, Kurtis moved towards the window of his small room and drew back the blinds. The rising sun had not yet crested the horizon, but the sky had turned from the deep black of night to a royal blue in anticipation of daybreak.  Below him, the city was already hard at work, pedestrians milled about on the streets, lunging and hopping between the dirty metal cars and trucks that pushed slowly through the crowds while coughing out thick clouds of black smoke.  Further on, there were massive smokestacks from the factory district that shot into the sky, pumping their own streams of smoke into the sky.  And then barely within view to his left stood the Workshop, the capital of Amalin, where the Clockmaker spent all of his days, along with most government workers.  It was easily the largest structure in the city, dwarfing even the greatest of factory plants and living quarters.  The main shape was a dome, but there were a couple towers that stood straight and tall.  To say it was imposing would not do it justice, as it was designed not only to be the seat of authority within Amalin, but also to be the last line of defence for its citizens in the case of an invasion by one of the other cities that existed beyond the wastelands which encircled the iron city. 

After staring out the window for a few more minutes, Kurtis took a shower, and then dressed himself sat quietly on his bed while he waited for a few more minutes to lapse before he left for work.  He never ate any food in the morning, as he received very limited rations and he much preferred to eat in once in the afternoon and then once more upon returning from work.  The room he lived in was small, and almost everything was made of metal, including the walls, floor, and his bed frame. It had rained a lot the last few years, such that the few fields that could nurture crops around the city were constantly flooded and food had grown scarcer and scarcer. The damp weather had also left its mark on the city itself, as the lower end buildings had become notoriously leaky, and the insides had streaks of rust along every wall, with Kurtis’ room being no exception.  His bedroom was his only private place, as he shared a cooking area and washrooms with several other tenants on his floor of Tower 144, his residential building. 

Kurtis stared straight at his clock as it slowly ticked towards 7:00 am, and just as the second hand stood up towards the painted 12, so too did Kurtis.  It only took him three steps to reach his door from his bed, and from there he marched steadily past the kitchen and down the staircase that was littered with trash and had taken a yellow-brown glow to it.  At some levels on the way down, the light was not working, but the clocks always were.  Say what one might about the Clockmaker, Kurtis had never seen a clock malfunction in the slightest.

On the street, Kurtis stepped into the masses of other poor souls making their daily trek to work.  A delivery truck that had once been white sputtered past and the people that were walking through the middle of the street quickly jumped aside like water in a stream gently flowing around a rock.  And then just as quickly as they had gotten out of the way, people swarmed back into the streets when the truck had passed by. 

Kurtis rounded a street corner, and as he began approaching a transport station, he began to hear the cries of a zealot above the usual drabbling of a crowd.  A few more steps and he was able to recognize the man shouting praises for the Clockmaker and the inhabitants of the Workshop.  It was a grizzly man who stood a head taller than the crowd, with a thick, messy beard and tangled hair drawn back behind his ears.  “The Clockmaker has won a thousand wars for Amalin, and destroyed a million enemies,” he shouted to the passerbys.  “No god has done so much for man and demanded so little.  He gives us all safety, food, and allows us to love.  He has stopped the horrors that mankind brought upon itself under guidance from our old leaders.  Even now, he is working to undo all of our wrongs and save humanity from itself.   I give a million praises to our salvation made human, and so should all of you…” 

As Kurtis approached the zealot, he tried to pay him no attention, but he could feel the dark eyes find him through the crowd, and then the shouting suddenly stopped midsentence.  Kurtis somehow knew he had attracted the ire of the religious crier, and so lowered his head even further and continued walking, hoping the man’s eyes would go away and he would continue preaching for the Clockmaker. 

But Kurtis felt no relief as he continued to walk.  He was now within a few feet of the crier, and he could feel his glare piercing right through him.  Kurtis began to feel very small and naked within the crowd, that somehow those eyes were not only exposing him to the zealot, but to everyone around him, and Kurtis tried desperately to shrink out of sight.  The eyes didn’t break focus though, and Kurtis desperately began to try and divert his attention to something else, but nothing could shake the haunting sensation of being completely undone by those dark eyes. 

Finally Kurtis could bear it no longer, and just as he was passing the bearded man, he peeked out of one eye and looked right back into those dark orbs.  As soon as he did, the fanatic’s face turned bright red with a hateful rage, and he began screaming with all his might.  “My brothers!  We have a dark presence amongst us!” he cried, pointing directly at Kurtis.  “This man seeks to subvert and destroy all that we have achieved together!”  A few heads turned towards Kurtis, but when they saw that he was an average citizen, they continued with their own business. 

The zealot was unfazed by the lack of a response, though, and continued screaming at Kurtis, “We have given him nothing but love and good fortune, and yet he strives to betray us all.  He loathes the Clockmaker and all of those hard at work to protect us.” 

Kurtis was relieved to see that the fanatic was getting almost no response from the crowd, and soon he would be out of sight and likely out of memory soon after that.  From behind he could already hear the man begin his transition back into his standard preaching.  “But fear not, for one black-hearted man cannot stand against the Clockmaker and the might of Amalin.  He will be struck down and removed from existence.  The Clockmaker will be victorious just as he has been a thousand times over.”  And then just as Kurtis was moving beyond earshot of the man, he heard something that he considered quite humorous, “The Clockmaker controls the clocks, and so the Clockmaker controls time itself.  Such power can never be defeated.”

Kurtis chuckled as he considered the claim for a few seconds and found it absurd from every approach.  Clocks simply measure and keep track of time, saying they have any control over it would be akin to saying a measuring tape controls distances. 

Stepping gingerly down the stairs to the transport station deep underground, Kurtis quickly glanced behind him to make sure that nobody in the crowd had taken inspiration from the fanatic and was now in pursuit of him.  Feeling safe, he continued on to the platform and awaited his train.  The station was dark, and the lights were flickering, but nobody paid them any attention.  For a few seconds at a time, the station would occasionally be put into complete darkness, but still nobody panicked, as it had been a common occurrence for years now. 

The train arrived on time, just as it always did, dirty and rusty with dim headlights and choking out vapours into the poorly ventilated station.  Kurtis stepped through the small doorways, pushing past the stream of people getting off, and then stood silently as the doors closed and the train sped away.  As Kurtis swayed back and forth with the movement of the train, he couldn’t help but shake his uneasy mindset as a result of both the dream and the fanatic.  If one had occurred without the other, Kurtis likely would have simply just dismissed it as a trivial event, but two uncomfortable incidents before he had even arrived at work was too much to overlook.  It was hard to fathom that they were connected in some manner, and as best as Kurtis tried to relate one to the other, he was left with more questions than answers. 

So deep in thought was Kurtis that he almost forgot to get off the train when it came to his stop.  Quickly hopping through the train doors as they began to close, he made his through the station and out into the street just a few buildings down from the Metropolitan Library, where Kurtis worked. 

Just like every other day, there was nobody else in the library besides Kurtis and a handful of other employees.  They hadn’t had a patron for several years now, and Kurtis never really understood why they bothered to keep the ancient library open.  No new books had come in for as long as Kurtis had worked there, in fact he was quite sure that nobody in Amalin had even written a book within the last decade.  The shelves were filled with dusty leather-bound tomes, so old that they creaked and cracked like old floorboards on the rare occasions that somebody pulled them down. 

Kurtis sat down behind the front desk, where he was meant to greet and assist any visitors to the library.  Beside him was Mr. Quick, the manager of the library and Kurtis’ boss, quietly reading a book with a plain red cover.  Kurtis had never learnt Mr. Quick’s first name, nor had he ever spoken to him much since he had begun working here.  Mr. Quick was satisfied with his position at the library, and spent much of his time reading various books that piqued his interest.  From the few things that he did say, Kurtis had realized that he was quite a smart and learned man, and rather enigmatic in his willingness to share wisdom. 

Not being one for books, Kurtis spent most of his work hours sitting in silence at his desk.  There were a few other employees spaced throughout the library, but most were doing nothing more than he was. As the seconds slowly ticked away into minutes, Kurtis began to push the sense of uneasiness he had developed over the course of the morning out of his mind.  Maybe today would be a normal day after all, he thought to himself, but little did he know the day had only just begun. 

 

 

Chapter 2

Kurtis watched the second hand slowly tick around its final lap of the clock face.  As it passed by the black twelve to signal five o’clock, Kurtis silently stood up and walked out of the library.  Striding down the front steps and into the sea of people wandering below, Kurtis felt himself being pulled in the opposite direction of the transport station which would take him back home.  He knew where his feet were taking him, but didn’t know why exactly he was taking this path.  It had been a number of months since he had gone this way, and as he thought about it more he knew it was something he needed to do. 

The sun was just reaching down to touch the top of city skyline, which was comprised of countless black towers.  Soon enough the sun would be gone, and the Iron City was known to be an unfriendly place when lights were off.  All of the streetlights had been decommissioned due to lack of available energy to light the thousands that dotted the city streets, and so they stood as ancient relics, rusting away until people would no longer remember what they were and would likely scrap them for their metal. 

Despite knowing the danger, Kurtis persevered, turning off one of the main roads and onto a smaller deserted side street.  Ahead on his right, there was a homeless man sitting quietly, his knees held against his chest and his head hanging down.  Long grey curls fell to his shoulders and he had a short grey beard. 

As Kurtis approached, the old man lifted his head and stared directly at Kurtis.  Initially, Kurtis feared that the man would go into a fit of rage just as the fanatic had earlier that day, but when he met the man’s stare, he was stunned.  It wasn’t that he recognized the man, or that he said anything delirious, it was those eyes.  Their colour was the purest blue Kurtis had ever witnessed, and they held a quiet yet powerful dignity behind them.  The man had a powerful jawline, which he held strong and noble.  Kurtis would have expected such a man to be a high-class government official or an industry magnate of some sort, not be found here.  

Kurtis continued walking, holding the man’s glare with his own.  Both men remained completely silent, and after only a few seconds the engagement was over, and Kurtis continued walking down the side street.  It was an odd encounter to say the least, but nothing had come of it and Kurtis had other issues on his mind, and so his train of thought quickly moved on. 

He turned again, onto a smaller and even darker street, at the end of which was one of the Deadman’s Stairs, a long, steep staircase of hard stone that led one from the Upper City to the Lower City.  Many men had slipped and fallen to their death on the unforgiving steps, and they were particularly vicious when slick with rain. 

Halfway down the steps, Kurtis became enshrouded by thick fog, which always accumulated in the Lower City when the sun had gone.  To say that it was dark would be an understatement, as the sun had all but disappeared now, and Kurtis had to make sure every single step was well-placed so as to avoid a long tumble to his fate.  Each step carried the possibility of being a killer, but Kurtis continued steadily with his descent until he finally reached the bottom of the massive stairway. 

After a few more turns and dark streets, Kurtis had arrived at his destination, and he stood silently in front of it.  The Wall of the Lost it was called, and once it had just been a non-descript building but in recent years it had become a thing of infamy within the city of Amalin.  It had begun slowly, with a few people fixing posters of missing loved ones, and over time it grew to where the posters covered a massive area.  The building was abandoned, but its roof had a large overhang, which protected the posters from the rain and allowed them to remain fixed for years. 

The wall itself was massive, fifty feet high and a hundred long, and posters covered it from end to end, and went so high that Kurtis could no longer read the names.  All of the posters were hand-drawn, just like the one Kurtis had made for Julia, as if there were no more cameras in existence.  Initially Kurtis had considered it odd that none of these missing people had had a picture taken of them, or that such a picture was available, but as he searched his own small apartment, he realized how easily even the most important things can be lost. 

For a long time he stayed in front of the wall, slowly moving from one end to the other, trying to remember where exactly he had placed the image of Julia.  It wasn’t that he just wanted to see her face again, as he had the same drawing back in his apartment.  When he was here, in front of this wall, he felt as if there was still hope.  Just seeing the poster would remind him that there was still hope.  She had disappeared, yes, but no trace of her had ever been found.  It was still possible that she would come running from the mists of the wastelands or be released from the hidden prison cells beneath the city or a hundred other options that would see her returned to Kurtis.  When he looked at that picture on his night table, though, it was as if he had given up, and was only remembering her through the good times they had while she was still alive and well. 

Eventually he found it, and when he did he sat down on the ground and stared up solemnly.  It had been months since he had come here, and he always found it quite an intense experience to make the pilgrimage. He could no longer remember how long it had been since she had been taken from him, nor had he any memory of the day when she did not come back from work. 

All he had left, in fact, were just wisps of memories, not entire days or weeks, but just seconds, stroking her hair, holding her hand, her laughter sweet as chocolate.  There was nothing left of the big moments though, when they had met, their first date.  Every day he berated himself for having let such important memories slip from his mind. 

The seconds slowly ticked away into minutes, and those into hours.  It was now well into the night, and Kurtis hadn’t moved an inch since he had sat down.  The only light he had was the moon, crescent and occasionally blocked out as dark clouds passed in front of it.  The poster was barely visible anymore, and yet Kurtis still sat and stared up at it. 

Behind him, Kurtis began to hear footsteps.  Not just one set though, but multiple people walking together.  He turned his quickly to see a group of young men approaching.  Standing up quickly, his heart began pounding in his chest and his palms turned sweaty. 

Amalin’s undercity was feared because of thugs that wandered the streets during the night, and Kurtis knew that these men approaching had grave intentions.  Silently the men stepped forward from the fog, and slowed their walking pace as they approached him. 

By their appearance, Kurtis could tell that his fears had come true.  There were six of them, and all had tough faces, which could have been taken as both ugly and handsome at the same time.  Two had facial scars, and another had a large one streaking up his forearm.  They were dressed in dirty, loose-fitting clothes, and each had a matching patch on their right sleeve. 

Kurtis could have easily run away before they had seen him, but for some unknown reason he stood where he was sitting just a moment before, directly beneath Julia’s poster. 

The gang stopped a few feet from Kurtis, who still had not taken a step backwards.  For what seemed like ages, each party stood silently, glaring angrily at one another.  Kurtis had not been in a fight since his boyhood, but something told him that was about to change. 

After what was in reality only a couple of seconds, one of the gang members called out to him.  “Who the fuck are you?” he asked stiffly. 

Kurtis could see that one of the men was holding a revolver in his hand, holding it behind his leg but intentionally just within Kurtis’ sight.  Such a weapon was a rare commodity in Amalin, particularly in the Lower City where poverty was rampant.  These must be one the more prominent gangs for them to be so armed.  “Just a visitor,” Kurtis replied calmly, nodding towards the Wall of the Lost. 

“Oh yeah?” the man called back, stepping towards the wall and looking up at all the posters.  “And which one’s yours?”

Kurtis wasn’t fooled by the mock sincerity the man was displaying, but decided he should probably play along.  “Her,” he answered simply, pointing to Julia’s poster. 

“Ah, she’s pretty,” he said with a grin from ear to ear.  Behind him his cronies chuckled.  “Was she a sweet little girl?”

“She is feisty, actually, and quite the temper.”  It was true, Julia would quite easily be sent into screaming fits.  Politics generally go to her the easiest, as she hated living in Amalin and blamed the Clockmaker every day for her unending misery.  “But still sweet when she wanted to be,” Kurtis continued, even though he knew the thug had no interest in what he had to say, it was soothing for him to talk about her to somebody else. 

The man laughed darkly, “Think she’s still alive do you?”  Kurtis held himself still, waiting for him to finish speaking.  Maybe he knew something about her.  At this point any information he could get would be a relief.  Even if she had died years ago, Kurtis still wanted to know her fate with all his heart.  “That’s almost as sad as all these other stories up here,” he said waving his arm at all the posters along the wall.  “Breaks my heart,” he finished with no amount of empathy in his voice.  “Every day poor souls like you come here to cry their eyes out and get my streets all wet with their tears.  But none of them ever face the truth: what’s gone is gone.  When the Clockmaker gets his greedy little hands on somebody, he never lets go.”

Kurtis was confused by the last line, “The Clockmaker…” he started, but was cut off before he could finish his question.

“Now, on to business,” the man said ominously, turning to face Kurtis and all of the men taking a couple steps forward.  “I’m Robby, and we’re the Mordocks.  Now these here are my streets, and this here is my wall.  I don’t let anybody just use them, you know, how would I make any money that way?”

Kurtis stood still once again, not speaking, flinching, or backing up.  As the man approached even closer, Kurtis realized he stood a few inches taller than any of them, but that seemed not to faze them at all.  It was six to one after all, Kurtis told himself, and they’d likely seen a hundred encounters like this, while this was just his first.

“Not talkative anymore?  That’s alright, I can do the talking.”  Robby began walking around to Kurtis backside, as the others fanned out to encircle him.  Kurtis still stood just as was, turning his head to keep his eyes on Robby for as long as possible.  “Now there’s a toll to pay to use my streets, and to look at my wall, and to cry in my territory.  I just hate it when people cry on my turf, so that there’s going to cost you.”

“I have no money,” Kurtis replied defiantly. 

“Really?” Robby asked rhetorically.  “What do you think of that, Crissy?”

The man carrying the revolver replied angrily, almost screaming, “I think we should fuck him.”

Robby nodded, “Sounds good to me, fuck him up real hard, where the girl he fucked can watch.” 

With that, the four men who hadn’t spoken stepped forward in unison.  They were each armed with a club, iron pipe, or another blunt weapon.  Now it was time for Kurtis to take a couple steps back, but he was still facing the thugs, not turning and running. 

The first attacker jumped at Kurtis, swinging a black club at Kurtis’ head.  With deftness he had never known he had, Kurtis stepped aside from the blow and punched upwards catching the attacker in his throat.  The man crumpled to the ground, gasping loudly as he struggled to keep breathing. 

It had happened so fast that Kurtis was in disbelief just as much as the five other ruffians.  Until now, they had looked confident and arrogant in their handling of him, but in one quick instant Kurtis could see doubt creeping into their eyes.  The three attackers quickly glanced back to Robby for his instructions. 

“Kill the fucker!” he screamed, livid with rage, and the three men turned their focus back to Kurtis, growling loudly as the stepped closer. 

All three attacked at once, and it wasn’t so easy for Kurtis to find openings to strike.  Dodging each blow as they were thrown at him, he was backpedalling with his arms held up, praying that he did not catch a rut and trip backwards.  He was turning gradually as he backed up, and eventually he managed to isolate one the thugs on his own while the other two were stuck behind him.  Ducking under another vicious swing, he landed a powerful punch to the man’s gut.  As the man fell to his knees in pain, Kurtis grabbed the back of his head with both hands, and brought his right knee up to connect square with the thug’s face.  There was a crunch, as Kurtis felt facial bones crack and burst inward, and when he released the man, he fell silently on his side and lay motionless. 

There was a grunt from behind him, and he knew right away that Robby was trying to blindside him.  Kurtis ducked quickly, and felt Robby’s club brush through his hair, but it did not connect with the back of his head.  As Kurtis stood up straight, Robby was stumbling forward and would have been an easy target, but the two other unnamed gang members were pressing the attack and Kurtis had to focus on them. 

One of them came swinging high, and Kurtis caught the man’s forearm with his left hand, and delivered three blows in quick succession to the side of the man’s face.  He fell to the ground moaning and clutching himself in pain. 

From the corner of his eye, Kurtis saw Crissy raising the revolver and pointing it right at him.  And from his other side the next attacker was lunging at him.  As Crissy brought the revolver level, he blinked, signalling that he was about to shoot, and Kurtis dropped to the ground as he could, landing on his hands and knees. 

There was a bang as the gun was fired, and from above him Kurtis heard a soft thud and the thug jumping at him was hit by the errant shot.  Kurtis had no idea if the shot was fatal, and he had no time to check, as he bolted to his feet and began sprinting the ten feet or so to Crissy. 

The kickback from the shot had sent Crissy’s arm and hand soaring up high, and with each step Kurtis took towards the gun-bearer he could Crissy fighting harder and harder to bring the gun back to level and get a second shot.  If he managed to, there was no way for Kurtis to avoid this shot, he was in full tilt straight ahead and would be at point blank range. 

Just as the gun was brought back to shoulder height, Kurtis dove at Crissy from over three feet away and just barely managed to get underneath his outstretched arm.  Wrapping his arms around Crissy’s midsection, Kurtis tackled him to the ground.  With one hand, he smashed his head against the hard asphalt, and with his other hand he grabbed the revolver from Crissy’s weak grasp. 

In one fluid motion, Kurtis stood up, shot Crissy straight in the chest, and then pointed the revolver straight at Robby.  The last thug standing threw his arms up in the air, surrendering to Kurtis.

“Don’t kill me, please,” he whimpered.

Kurtis cocked his head to the side, “And why shouldn’t I?  I’d be doing Amalin a favour, taking out scum like you.”  Kurtis had never been so cold-hearted in all days.  He had always considered himself a compassionate individual, but he was very seriously considering murdering this young man right here.  Never had he been a violent person either, and yet he had just killed one man, and likely several more.  The strangest thing to him, though, was that he felt absolutely no remorse.  It was just like in his dreams, where he was a soldier in the midst of a terrible war, and he felt calm and at peace with everything in the world, as if he were curled up in his childhood bed. 

Both men were breathing heavily as Robby stepped backwards, his eyes darting around looking for a way out, but Kurtis allowed him none.  “I can tell you what happened to her, if you promise to let me live.”

A dozen thoughts all crashed together in Kurtis’ head.  “What do you mean?” he asked angrily, “You know where she is?”

Robby shook his head, “No, but I know what happened to her.  You said she angry, right?  She was angry at the Clockmaker, wasn’t she?”

Kurtis was blown away by the last question.  It was definitely true, but how could this thug have known?  “Go on,” he instructed. 

“I’ve seen a thousand of you; people come here every day to see the posters.  And every day I come have a chat with them.  I’m a curious man, and every one of these faces here had something against the Clockmaker.  Sure, they would call it by different names, ‘passionate’, ‘rebellious’, but it all comes down to the same thing.  They didn’t like the Clockmaker, and the Clockmaker didn’t like that.”

Kurtis was in disbelief.  “You lie,” he asserted strongly, “The Clockmaker protects us, he’s won a thousand wars, and saved our lives a thousand more times.  Why would harm Julia?  She disliked him but she was not going to do anything about it, she wasn’t crazy.”

“I have no idea what he had against your girl, but do you really believe he’s won all those wars for us?  I don’t remember going to war recently, and he’s only a man, he can’t be old enough to have even won more fought one or two.  Listen, when the world went to shit, and all the old nations tore themselves apart, the Clockmaker saw an opportunity. And he took it.  You don’t have to be a genius to figure it out.  The only wars he fights are against those who want him gone.  There’s nobody else beyond the wastelands, there hasn’t been for years.  We’re all that’s left of humanity, and he will do anything to keep power.”

“How do you know all this?”  Kurtis asked angrily.  “Last I checked gutter rats like you aren’t what I would call politically savvy.” 

“When someone thinks they’re about to disappear, as they say, they come to me to get them out of Amalin.  I know a way through the sewers that leads to the wastelands.  I can’t say what happens to them after that, but I know that they’re scared shitless of the Clockmaker.  He’s not the guardian angel you take him for.”

It was a lot to process for Kurtis, and the more he thought about it, the angrier he became.  Thinking was causing the peace of mind he had just achieved the melt away, which only agitated him more.  All his life he had been told that the Clockmaker was the most noble of all men, that he had dedicated his entire life to protecting Amalin from the dangers beyond the wastelands.  He had been a humble tradesman when he was thrust into leading the last reaming bastion of human civilization from the ashes, and accepted it as his duty, not for any personal gain. 

Without warning, Kurtis shot Robby straight through the forehead, a perfect shot from twenty paces.  As soon as he did, the world began to make more sense to him.  It was less confusing, less frustrating, and he was on the verge of smiling as he tucked the revolver into his pocket and began to slowly walk back towards Deadman’s Stairs.

“Impressive,” a gruff voice called out to him, and Kurtis whirled around, drawing the revolver and aiming it all in one quick motion.  “Six against one, and you walk away unscathed.  Where did you learn to do that?”  There was a form leaning against a building up ahead, and as Kurtis approached with the revolver pointed straight at whoever was standing there. 

“Who’s there?” he called out, and just as he did, he recognized the homeless man he had passed in the alley earlier that night. 

“You don’t look like a soldier, boy,” the old man continued, ignoring Kurtis request for a name.  “How did you learn to do that?”

Kurtis lowered the weapon and took a few steps closer.  “I don’t know,” he answered honestly.  “I’ve never fought before.  I’ve never done anything at all like that before.”

The old man sighed as he began walking down the street towards Kurtis.  As he passed by, he muttered something that Kurtis barely caught, “A dream, perhaps.”

As Kurtis was trying to wrap his head around what was just said, the old man disappeared into the fog, leaving Kurtis alone terribly confused.

 

 

Chapter 3

 

Black combat boots thudded loudly as they hit the damp dirt.  Every couple steps Kurtis’ foot would land in a puddle and muddy water would splash, but he paid it no attention.  He was already completely covered in mud, from his toes to his forehead, and his pant legs were soaked through.  It was lightly raining, and small droplets of water bounced off of Kurtis’ face and his jacket as he ran. 

With both hands Kurtis held his rifle, black as night, and cradled it back and forth while he continued running.  All around him he could hear gunfire accompanied by constant shouting.  Once in a while there would be a shrill whistling signaling an incoming artillery round, and Kurtis would dive to the ground and ball himself up as tightly as possible.  Most of the time they would far off, but every now and then one of them would land dangerously close, hammering his ear drums as they burst and showering him with chunks of mud. 

Immediately after the explosion, he would check to see that he still had all his limbs, and then begin running forward again.  In his peripherals he could see dozens of other men running alongside him, though decently spaced out so that a single artillery round couldn’t kill more than one or two.

Kurtis and his comrades were running across the wastelands, a massive amount of empty land stretching for miles in each direction from Amalin.  There were hardly any trees still, and those that were showed little signs of life.  Scarred by shrapnel and riddled with bullet holes, the twisted trunks wound their way into leafless branches, many of which had been snapped or blown in half. 

Visibility was poor, there was a thick cloud hanging over the field, and it wasn’t clear if it was mist or just smoke from the cannons and rifles.  Nevertheless every man on the field pressed forward, some screaming war cries, others just keeping their heads low and focusing on not tripping over a tangle of barbed wire or another hazard.

Finally Kurtis began to see forms moving through the clouds.  At first they were very faint, but as both forces were running towards each other, within a split second the enemy was clear as day.  Kurtis dropped to his chest and brought his rifle into position.  As enemy soldiers began bursting forth from the mist, screaming their own battle cries, Kurtis began firing his rifle at whatever was moving. 

It was hard to keep the rifle steady, as it would slip and spin through the mud from the recoil of each shot he fired.  A few of his shots hit their target, and the unfortunate soldiers on the other end fell to the ground.  More soldiers kept running through the cloud that prevented anyone from seeing more than fifty feet ahead of them.  They were able to get so close, in fact, that by the time Kurtis could see them, they were well within shooting range and Kurtis spared no time in unleashing bullets as fast they could be fired. 

Suddenly he began to hear a noise that was noticeably different from the screams of agony and the bang of gunfire.  It was a dog’s barking, loud and vicious, and Kurtis paused his barrage against enemy personnel to scan the cloud thoroughly.  The barking was growing louder and louder as the dog ran towards Kurtis’ position.  And then it appeared, low and wicked fast. 

It was a bulldog, with a heavy spiked collar.  Fangs barred and huge muscles rippling with every stride it took, Kurtis suddenly became very afraid. 

Steadying his aim, he fired a three round burst which missed high.  He now only had another second or two before the dog closed the distance to him.  Taking aim again, he pulled the trigger on his rifle, but all he heard was a harmless click.  “Fuck!” he yelled as he tossed the weapon aside.  He didn’t have time to check if it was jammed or empty, he had barely enough time to reach for his combat knife attached to his belt and push himself to his knees. 

The blade was six inches long, curved and serrated.  He looked up as the dog leapt at him from a few feet away, leading with his deadly fangs.  Kurtis would only have one shot, and he would have to outright kill the beast before it made contact with him, otherwise it would rip him apart in half a second. 

Kurtis held his breath, and focused all his energy on striking at the perfect moment to send his blade deep into the dog’s head.  The dog was within arm’s reach now, and Kurtis swung.  He was late by just the slightest of margins, and his blade struck the top of the dog’s head, but bounced upwards instead of penetrating deeply, leaving the dog quite alive and even angrier than before. 

As Kurtis continued with his swing, the blade pierced downwards into the midsection of the beast, likely a fatal wound, but not one that would save him.  Kurtis’ eyes flicked down to stare into the face of the beast, whose eyes were fixed on his throat. 

The dog crashed into him, knocking him backwards.  Kurtis felt the giant teeth rip through his throat and begin tearing away at the flesh and muscle.  It was excruciating, but what was worse was that he could no longer breathe.  Try as he might to suck air into his lungs, all he was doing was drawing in blood.  As his vision began to fade, he felt warm blood squirting from his neck and mouth, landing on his face and that of the dog.  And then he passed into darkness. 

Tick.

Tick.

Tick.

Kurtis’ eyes blinked opened.  He was lying in his bed, alive and intact, and on his bedside table his clock was ticking smoothly.  His heart rate was calm, and his breathing was soft and despite the intensity of his dream, he had not broken a sweat through the night.  The dream was still clear as day in his memory, just as his dreams always were.  Except for the one from the previous day.  Try as he might, still had no grasp of what had transpired as he slept away, and it was beginning to irk him. 

Next to the clock was the revolver he had taken from the thugs the night before.  Kurtis hardly performed any physical activity, and as a result his whole body was aching from the few minutes of action.  Worst of all were his fists, which shot fiery blasts of pain up his wrists whenever he moved his fingers. 

As Kurtis replayed the encounter over in his mind, he remembered perhaps the oddest part of the whole affair; the old man who had spoken barely more than a couple of words to him after the altercation.  His suggestion of learning combat skills through Kurtis’ dreams seemed oddly plausible, as once more he had dreamt exclusively of a raging battle.  But how could he have known? 

When he spoke, the old man had done so with the demeanor of someone who knew precisely what he was talking about, not a fanatic laughingly crying delusions. 

Going through his morning rituals, Kurtis kept asking himself over and over whether it was even possible to learn skills such as those just by dreaming them.  It was highly unlikely, he knew, but something about the concept just seemed to make sense to him on a level of reasoning he normally couldn’t access. 

On top of all that, there were the claims made by Robby about the Clockmaker abducting and likely executing dissidents.  Julia had never taken action of her rebellious beliefs, though, but could she have somehow attracted the ire of the Clockmaker?  She was quite vocal in her support for political change, maybe the wrong ears had overheard her venting her frustrations, and that was all it took. 

The clock struck seven, and again Kurtis walked calmly from his building to the transport station.  The fanatic that he had somehow aggravated the previous day was nowhere to be found along his walk, which put a slight smile on Kurtis’ face.  It had been a very strange 24 hours, but since waking up this morning, life had shown all the signs of normalcy. 

The entire trip to work was perfectly normal for Kurtis, and when he sat down at his desk, Mr. Quick was sitting next to him once again, deep into his reading.

“Mr. Quick,” Kurtis started, looking around to make sure none of the other employees were within earshot.  He trusted Mr. Quick to not cause trouble where he didn’t have to, but as his question was rather sensitive, he didn’t want anyone else to hear it.  “What are your thoughts on the Clockmaker?”

The old librarian turned his thin, wiry neck to look over at Kurtis, calmly setting his book down.  He wore thick glasses before his wrinkled forehead which extended up to the top of his balding head.  “I think he has won a thousand wars for us, and will win another thousand,” he answered, repeating the propaganda slogan that was on everyone’s tongue within Amalin.  “Why?” he asked, his eyes fixed and piercing through Kurtis. 

After checking around once more to be absolutely sure that none of his co-workers were listening, Kurtis leaned in and spoke in a hushed voice.  As quickly as he could, Kurtis told his employer of his encounter last night, being at the Wall of the Lost, the fight, and then what the leader of the thugs had said to him.  He left out the bit about the old man as he figured that might cause Mr. Quick to feel he was the target of a ruse of some sort, or dismiss the entire incident to continue with his reading. 

Mr. Quick chuckled lightly, “I never figured you for a fighter, Kurtis.  You’ve always seemed so calm and non-violent.”

Kurtis didn’t’ want this to be the focus of their conversation.  He likely only had a few more exchanges before the old man lost interest.  “Neither had I,” he concurred quickly, “but do you think it’s true?  The part about the Clockmaker taking those who don’t support him off the street?”

“Kurtis, you’ve had a long night.  I understand that.  If you want to take the day off, go ahead.  This is one of the most elaborate stories I’ve heard, and you definitely put in the effort.”

Kurtis blinked stupidly.  “No, sir, I was not making that up.  I wasn’t trying to get a day off, that really happened to me.  I’m looking for advice, not a rest.”

Mr. Quick looked quite surprised, and still slightly suspicious that Kurtis was telling the truth.  “You were really in a fight with a bunch of criminals last night?  And you beat five of them single-handedly?”

“Six,” Kurtis corrected, “and yes.  That’s another thing entirely though, but if you had any idea how I managed that I would appreciate hearing it.  I need to know what you think of this Clockmaker deal.”

“Kurtis,” Mr. Quick sighed, “I don’t know what you expect me to say.  If I said that I thought the Clockmaker was a bloodthirsty tyrant, and that it’s highly likely he took this Julia from you, what would you do then?”

“I don’t know,” Kurtis replied initially, “I think I’d…” Kurtis paused for a second as he thought it out.  “I’d still try to find her.  I’d go to the Workshop and ask them where she is, I’d crawl through their dungeons if I had to.”

“You would go to the Workshop, and declare yourself to be a collaborator with a person you believe to have been abducted by the Clockmaker himself, in the hopes that they just turn her over to you as if nothing happened?”

“I’m not a collaborator!” Kurtis cried in protest, “I’ve never done anything against Amalin.”

“But that’s not how they would see you.  Whatever Julia’s done you would be implicated in it as well.  As long as you stand by her, her crimes will stand with you.  Do you understand?”

Kurtis nodded.

“And what would you do if I told you that the Clockmaker was a great man, and that he would never harm one of his citizens?”

“I might not believe you, and I might but either way I think I would keep searching.”

“You would tell that story to anyone who listened?  You would admit to all ears that you think the Clockmaker is a vile man that abducts and tortures people?  How do you see that ending?”

“Not well,” Kurtis admitted meekly.  “So then what do I do?”

“You go home, Kurtis.  If you weren’t trying to get a day off, I’ll give you one anyway.”  Kurtis opened his mouth to object to this order, but Mr. Quick cut him off, “You need rest, son, and if you don’t get it you’ll do something rash that will ruin the rest of your life.  Just go home, sleep, eat, and do whatever else you need to get these thoughts out of your head.”

Kurtis didn’t fully agree with Mr. Quick, but he lowered his eyes and nodded anyway.  He would do what he said.  Julia had been gone for years; he could bear a few more days without her.  “Alright,” he said simply, and stood up slowly to leave.

As he was walking away, Mr. Quick called out to Kurtis, “And Kurtis,” he started, as Kurtis wheeled around to face him, “there are many mysteries in the world, make sure you know which one you’re chasing.”

 

 

 

Chapter 4

 

The small screen in Kurtis’ room was flickering with the faces of two news casters displayed on it.  The volume was low and there was a lot of static coming from the speakers, so Kurtis couldn’t tell what they were talking about.  Not that he cared to, the information that came out of the television was almost always trivial and largely useless.  Kurtis might have listened if they were talking about the foreign states going to war, or reports on the availability of food, but it was never such important events. 

Lying in bed, with his blankets flung about him, Kurtis wondered what he was going to do.  Mr. Quick wanted him to stop his hunt and move on with his life, but Kurtis knew that there was nothing for him there.  His only path was to find the life he once had, any other end and he would be lost in his fading memories for the rest of his life.  He just didn’t know where to look now. 

It was his second day off work, sometime between dawn and midday, and Kurtis had barely moved all day.  The ticking of the clock was flat out irritating him now, but he still laid there motionless.  The blinds were drawn and sunlight shone through the window, landing gently on Kurtis’ torso, warming him lightly. 

Earlier in the day, he had been able to hear his neighbours going through their morning rituals, but that died off rather soon as they all left for work and for hours Kurtis was alone in total silence. 

Finally it reached a point where he couldn’t bear it any longer.  With a loud groan, Kurtis pushed himself to his feet, slung his coat around his shoulders, and walked out his door.  Without any idea where he was going or what he would do when he arrived there, he put one foot in front of the other and strode down the stairs and out the front doors of Tower 144. 

Kurtis turned to his left, then at the next intersection to his right.  He continued this simple pattern for what seemed like an endless march, at the end of which he found himself completely lost.  Although he had lived in Amalin all his life, there were still many parts of the city where he had never visited, and many more that he had been only once, leaving him with no working memories of the area. 

Now he found himself surrounded by large buildings, walls of rusting iron that towered up a hundred feet or more.  It wasn’t quite the Lower City, where if he didn’t find his way soon he was sure to be attacked, but he still felt uneasy.  The revolver he had won two nights earlier was safe on his night table, and he wasn’t confident that he would be able to put on another performance like that likely saved his life that night.

Kurtis slowed his pace to give himself time to think.  There were a few people around, and the sun was still high in the sky, but he was able to focus on his goal.  Mr. Quick was unlikely to help him any further, and it would become exponentially riskier to ask additional people for their advice.  It felt to him that he had only been given one opportunity to ask for help, and he had wasted it rashly.

There was also the issue of him possibly being wanted for murder, though it seemed an unlikely situation, as there was very little to connect him to those killings and the government would care little for the lives of underworld thugs.  Still, it was just another reason why he couldn’t ask for help from those he didn’t absolutely trust.

“And where are you going on this lovely afternoon?”  A familiar voice asked. 

Kurtis looked up to see the same old man that had made an appearance two nights earlier, sitting against a wall up ahead.  His mouth opened to say something, but words didn’t come out.  For a few seconds, he was frozen in surprise and disbelief. 

The old man smiled back at him when he read the shock written on Kurtis’ face.  “Don’t be alarmed boy, I’m just asking a question.”

“Sorry, umm…” Kurtis replied quickly, trying to figure out himself what exactly it was he was doing.  “Just going for a walk I guess.”  Kurtis stopped just in front of the old man, and found that he had a much friendlier appearance than he remembered.  Though he still had those piercing blue eyes and an overall noble air to him, he felt less stern.

“A walk where?” the old man asked, staring with those eyes straight through Kurtis

“Nowhere in particular,” Kurtis answered. 

“Just clearing your head?”

“Yes,” Kurtis nodded.

“Killing does that to some people.  Others can handle it, but some just are never the same afterwards…” the old man was beginning a tangent as Kurtis cut him off.

“No, it’s not that.  It’s something else.  Killing those men almost made me…” he paused as he searched for the right way to describe it, “… at home.”

The old man squinted his eyes and lifted his chin at Kurtis, then slowly nodded once, as if he understood completely what Kurtis meant. 

“What did you mean, by the way, when you said I learnt to fight in a dream?” Kurtis asked, still standing over his subject.

“Did you learn it in this life?”

Kurtis shook his head.

“Well then what’s left?”

It wasn’t an answer Kurtis had expected, and it left him more confused than before he had asked the question.  Kurtis wracked his brain for a couple seconds trying to understand it, then gave up and changed the subject.  “Do you know what happens to people who are convicted of crimes?  Where they’re taken?”

The old man laughed lightly, “So you are worried about that night.  I don’t think you have much to worry about…”

“No,” Kurtis interrupted once again, “it’s somebody else, somebody that I’m looking for.  I think she might have been taken by the Clockmaker.”

“Did she have a trial?”

“No, she just disappeared.”

The old man shook his head sadly, “How long ago?”

“A couple of years, I can’t remember exactly.”

“Son,” the old man started grimly, “she’s gone.  She won’t come back.  You’ll never hold her again, and you’ll never hear her voice again.  Hold on to what memories you have, and continue with your life.”

“I refuse to believe that,” Kurtis replied adamantly.  “Until it’s proven beyond a doubt that she’s dead, I’ll keep looking.  Now where are prisoners taken?”

“Son, I’m telling you, you’ll do no good with this search.  You’ll find things about Amalin, and things about yourself that you never wanted to know, but you’ll never get any closer to her.”

“I don’t care what I find, unless it’s her.”

“You remind me of myself at your age,” the old man stated, catching Kurtis slightly off-guard.  “Now look at me.”

“What happened?” Kurtis asked, intrigued greatly.

Reminiscing, the old man answered simply, “I found what I was looking for.”

Kurtis took a moment to consider this.  “Before that,” he started cautiously, “would you have listened to a stranger who told you give up what you’ve spent the past years doing?”

The old man laughed at that, “Never.”

“And do you regret seeing it through to the end?”

“Every day,” the old man answered, with a pang of sadness echoing in his voice.  “And not at all,” he finished with his tone turning angry.  “There’s nothing I can do to convince you to stop, is there?”

Kurtis shook his head firmly. 

The old man sighed, “It pains me to see another walk this path, but if I can’t stop you, I feel I should help you.  I made a lot of mistakes in my day, and there was a lot of agony that could’ve been avoided.”

“Thank you,” Kurtis said, “so do you know where the Clockmaker sends his prisoners?”

“Yes,” the old man began hesitantly, still somewhat unsure of whether or not he should be helping Kurtis.  “They’re sent to the farms.”

“And what are those?”

“It’s where they grow our food.  All the fruits and vegetables for a whole city have to be grown somewhere.”

“I know that,” Kurtis replied aggressively, feeling that his intelligence had been put under question by the last remark.  “I just… never knew where they were.  Or that they used prisoners.  I haven’t seen any in Amalin.”

“Well of course they’re not inside the city.  These farms are huge, together they likely take up as much ground as the city itself.  And it would be pretty hard to grow crops with a network of pipes and sewers beneath them.  No, the farms are outside the city walls.”

“In the wastelands?”

“Precisely.  They use prisoners to work on these fields because no person would willingly do so.  The farms are constantly attacked by raiders and predators alike.  Not to mention they serve as an early warning target for large-scale military attacks.”

“Why would they grow crops in the wastelands though?  There’s barely any sign of life out there, and the dirt itself is toxic.”

“It took them a long time, but they eventually found a way to make the fields ripe again, if only in very small patches.  I never found out how exactly, but it became clear that if we were to survive, we couldn’t survive on scraps, we would have to produce the food ourselves.”

“Okay, then this is where I need to go,” Kurtis declared.

“What do you mean?”  The old man asked slightly puzzled.  “There are a dozen of these farms encircling the city.  We can’t have our entire food supply compromised by a single raider party, now can we?”

“So which one do we start with?”

The old man snorted with laughter, “It’s suicidal enough to try and reach one of these without an armed convoy protecting you, but I can guarantee you that you will die before you reach three.  You’ve got to pick one, reach it as quickly as possible, and come back just as fast.  Even then you’ll likely die face down in the mud, with a beast chewing on your legs or a raider picking through your pockets.”

Kurtis was unfazed by the grim warning, “Which one, then, do they send their political enemies?  The dissidents and whatnot?”

“You mean the ones without trial?  I told you already, they don’t send those guys anywhere, not that I know of at least.  If you didn’t hear a sentence passed, then they’re gone.”

Kurtis scoffed angrily and turned to walk away.

“But you said she was a woman right?” 

“Yes,” Kurtis answered.

“There’s one of these farms that’s for women only.  They like to keep them separate.  If whoever you wanna find is on a farm, then she’ll be there.”

“And where is it?”

“North-East of the city.  When you get out of the city, just find the road that leads from the city gate, and you’ll be on the right track.” 

Kurtis knew he wouldn’t be able to just walk out the front doors of Amalin, as they’re kept shut except for soldiers and other government employees.  There was really no reason why a normal person would want to leave the city, and according to the Clockmaker, anybody doing so was likely a spy reporting back to his superiors.

“You know a way out of the city?” the old man asked Kurtis.

“Not off the top of my head.  One of those men I killed said he knew how to lead people through the sewers.  I figure there are others in the Lower City that can guide me past the walls.”

“I can spare you the Lower City, son.  If you’re willing to wade through shit up to your knees I know the way through the sewers.”

Kurtis considered the offer for just a moment.  For some reason he had always pictured the sewers as dry and free to walk through.  It took him by surprise that they would be filled with excrement, but he was still willing to make the journey.  “Thank you,” he replied.

“But as soon as you get passed the city walls you’ll be on your own.  A weak old man like me won’t survive a day in the wastelands.”

Kurtis understood.  The wastelands were no place for him, and Kurtis wanted to keep a brisk pace as he treaded through the emptiness. “I need to stop at my apartment first and grab some things.”

“Good idea, bring a spare pair of pants and shoes, you’ll want to get rid of the ones you wear through the sewer as soon as possible.”  As he spoke, the old man reached out his arm for Kurtis to help him up.  Once he was on his feet, the pair began walking side by side.

“I’m not sure of the way back home though,” Kurtis said, “can you lead the way to Aberdeen Square?”

The old man nodded and instructed Kurtis on when to turn until they had reached the Square. 

I’m Kurtis by the way.”

“Jack.”

“Nice to meet you,” Kurtis replied.  Unable to think of anything else to say, the two men walked all the way back to Kurtis’ apartment in silence. 

When they arrived at the base of Tower 144, Kurtis ran up the steps and Jack stayed outside.  “I haven’t been in a home in thirty years, why start now?” he said in response to Kurtis’ invitation inside. 

Kurtis scrambled up the dim stairway, and moved into his room.  The first thing he grabbed was his revolver, with only 2 shots left, and stuffed it into his beltline, pulling his shirt overtop to conceal it.  Next he grabbed a small bag from his closet and stuffed a change of clothes into it, as well as his second pair of shoes.  Finally, he stepped silently into the kitchen, trying desperately not to alert any of his neighbours that may be at home to his presence.  Rummaging through the drawers, he grabbed the largest, most menacing knife he could find and placed it gently in his bag, and then threw in a couple small food items on top.

Back in his room, Kurtis’ attention was caught by his clock.  It was precisely 1:20 in the afternoon, and the sun had moved directly over top of Tower 144.  For a few seconds, Kurtis was caught mesmerized by the spinning hands of the clock.  He simply stared deep into it for moment, lost in thought, and then just as suddenly as he was drawn into his trance, he was snapped out of it.

Looking around one final time, Kurtis concluded that he had packed everything he needed.  As he walked back down the stairs he could feel his palms start sweating and his hair stand on edge.  He was actually doing this.  He was going to rescue Julia.  There was still time to back up and abandon his quest, but not a single fibre within him wanted to do such a thing.  Kurtis was completely committed to seeing his mission through to the end.

It took a few deep breaths for Kurtis to steady himself, and he did so just as he was walking out of his building.  Jack was sitting on the lowest step of leading to the tower, and pushed himself to his feet as soon as Kurtis began hopping down the steps. 

Neither of them said a word to one another, Kurtis simply nodded and Jack returned the motion.  The pair began walking towards the Northeastern wall, trying to get as far as possible while above ground, and spend minimal time trudging through the sewers.

Soon the pair of them had left the districts which Kurtis was familiar with, but Jack always seemed confident that he knew where he was going.   They were an odd couple by any standard, and once in a while would draw an intrigued stare from others on the street. 

Suddenly Jack stopped, “We’re here,” he announced, moving to a nearby manhole.  Ahead of them the massive wall loomed ominously, standing taller than any building save for the Workshop, which was well out of view.  They were so close in fact that Kurtis could seem small forms moving back and forth on the very top of the wall, keeping guard for the city.

“We’re only a few hundred feet from the wall,” informed Jack, “but just a little too far to hold your breath the whole way.”  With that quip he stiffly bent over and began trying to pull the manhole cover aside, but wasn’t able to do so until Kurtis reached down to help him.

Jack went down the hole first, “Don’t slip,” he gave Kurtis as a final piece of advice before he disappeared into the opening. 

Kurtis waited a few more seconds before following Jack down the rusty iron rods that formed a ladder.  Immediately upon entering the hole the stench hit him like a truck.  It was unbearable to the point that Kurtis had almost let go of the steps, which would have sent him crashing down onto Jack, and then into the river of excrement below.  Taking a moment to compose himself, and acclimatize as much as possible to the horrible odour, Kurtis continued on his way down.

When he was ten feet below the opening, he heard wet slap and a grunt from below him signaling that Jack had finished the descent.  It was a few more feet before Kurtis felt his foot sink into the quagmire of warm, dark goo.  Wincing as he dropped from the ladder, Kurtis was plunged up to his thighs in the waste. 

“Can you see?”  Jack asked.

At first Kurtis was in complete darkness, but after a couple seconds his sight began to slowly return to him.  Kurtis could only make out the faintest of figures around him, but Kurtis was thankful, for being able to see any level of detail would likely have disgusted him further.  He was able to see Jack’s outline, and could tell where the massive pipes ended.

“Yes,” he answered, clutching his sleeve to his face, in order to stave off the stench.

“It won’t get any better,” Jack said matter-of-factly, and began walking.

The going was much slower now, but neither man complained about their current predicament.  Kurtis stayed as close as possible to Jack, hardly ever falling more than two feet behind the old man.  A couple times there was an intersection with another pipe, and Jack would mention to be careful as the flow rate would change and the danger of slipping would increase.  Fortunately, both men managed to keep their balance and avoid getting covered head to toe in the foul slime. 

Their path was relatively straight, once in a while the pipe would have a slight change of direction, but it wasn’t enough that Kurtis had to worry that they were getting lost.  Having to spend a handful of minutes down here was bad enough, never mind backtracking or wandering lost for hours on end.  It occurred to Kurtis that if they had entered earlier along in the sewer network it would have been a realistic possibility to end up so hopelessly lost as to spend days in the darkness down there, and that the quickest form of death would be of thirst, unless Kurtis decided to use his revolver against himself. 

“Now, when you get outside,” Jack started, “and you’re walking around the wastelands and all that, there’s gonna be three kinds of creatures that might figure you for a tasty meal.”

Kurtis continued to walk in silence, though he was listening intently to what the old man was saying.

“There’s gonna be dogs, just a little bigger than you’re used to.  And with sharper teeth.  Then there’s gonna be cats, except a lot bigger than you’re used to.  Both those guys stand as high as your waist, and they’re longer than you are tall.”

“And the third?”  Kurtis asked, somewhat fearful to hear the answer.

“The kind that slithers.”

“What do you mean?” 

“I mean snakes, boy.  I guess there aren’t any of those guys living in the middle of a city, and nobody in their right mind keeps snakes as pets.”  Jack paused for a second, then asked Kurtis, “Have you ever seen a snake?” with a tone that indicated he had just realized the possibility of somebody from Amalin living their whole lives without encountering one.

Kurtis shook his head.

“Well they won’t look like much at first, just a long tube of sorts, no arms, no legs.  Until they open their mouth, that is, then you’ll see the wickedest fangs you’ll ever see.  They can’t move that fast across long distances, but if you get too close they’ll be around your throat before you can blink.  And most of them have poison in their bite, so if you even get nicked it’ll be the end of you.”  Jack seemed to have finished his speech, before adding, “Not that you’ll walk away if a cat or dog gets their teeth on you.  Even if you kill it before it tears you apart, there’s toxins and bacteria and all sorts of other nasty stuff in their bites too.”

Kurtis nodded his understanding as the two men continued in silence.  The final sentence of Jack’s warning reminded Kurtis of the dream he had a few days ago, and still no emotional response was elicited within him.  Once again he saw the dog charging towards him, pouncing, and ripping with his powerful jaw, but Kurtis remained calm and steady.

After what seemed like ages to Kurtis, a small crack of light appeared off in the distance.  Enthused by being so close to the end of this hell, both men quickened their pace.  The pipe ended with a grate meant to prevent passage in and out of the city, though it had been rent open, allowing a man to easily climb over. 

As soon as he got within arm’s reach of the grate, Kurtis vaulted himself over and out of the pipe, only to find himself in a pool of sewage that had poured from the pipe.  He didn’t care at all though, the air was fresher than he had ever known it to be, and as he waded to dry land, he was thankful for even the most unremarkable of dirt fields. 

Jack stood behind the grate, poking his head out to get a few good breaths before turning back. 

“How are you going to get back into the city?”  Jack asked, with a hint of worry in his voice.

“I’m not sure.” Kurtis realized at that moment that he had forgotten to bring any form of identity with him, so he would not be allowed to go through the city gates, and would likely be shot if he tried.  The sewers were his only option once again, though it would be riskier without a guide familiar to the network of pipes, and once he emerged he would have to travel across the city wearing shit-covered clothes.  “I’ll figure something out if I survive that long,” he replied jokingly.

The two men stared at each other in mutual respect.  For a few moments they remained silent and both reflected on their circumstances individually.

“Jack,” Kurtis started, as he wrestled his shoes and pants off, “what was it, that you threw away your life for?  What were you searching for?”

Jack lowered his head and released a deep sigh.  “That’s a long story, and a sad one too,” he answered, much to Kurtis’ disappointment.  Jack must have seen the look on Kurtis’ face, as he added, “If you manage to come back alive, I’ll tell you then.”

Kurtis nodded, pulling his revolver from his belt and making sure it was still dry and functional.  “I’ll see you soon, then,” Kurtis said, tucking his weapon back into his waistline. 

“The road’s a little ways to your left,” Jack instructed, turning back into the tunnel, “and good luck.”

 

 

Chapter 5

 

Kurtis was now alone.  Jack had long since walked back through the pipe into the city, leaving Kurtis where the two had parted.  The pipe had taken him a little ways past the wall, just far enough that he was unlikely to be spotted by the sentries patrolling along the top.  Now that there weren’t any buildings in front of it, the wall looked larger than Kurtis had ever imagined it to be.   

The sun was setting slowly now, and Kurtis was waiting for darkness to move away from the wall.  It would be hard to find him if he was sitting still, but if he began moving it would be quite easy to pick him out in a still and barren landscape.  There were no trees for cover, and at its current angle the sun would cast a long shadow, which would make it impossible to cross unnoticed. 

Kurtis wasn’t sure what they would do if they saw him, they might just let him go on his way, though it was much more likely that they would figure him for a spy escaping to report his secrets to his master, and would desperately hunt him down.  Or maybe they had an expert sniper on the wall, and would barely have to lift a finger to end his run. 

And so he waited, sitting alone and in silence.  It was definitely not the ideal location, on the banks of a pool of sewage, but Kurtis endured the odour, as it was still better than when he was in the pipe. 

As then sun lowered and the sky turned bright red, Kurtis pulled out a small bit of the food he had packed and ate it quickly.  He was still hungry, but he had a very limited supply and wanted to save the rest for another time.  He had forgotten to bring water, and as he was already growing thirsty, he knew he would end up regretting it deeply. 

Finally the sun lowered past the horizon, and the world was cast into darkness.  Kurtis stood up slowly, his joints stiff from sitting still for so long, and slung his bag over his shoulder.  Looking over his shoulder towards the great wall, which was hard to differentiate from the night sky, Kurtis began walking into the emptiness ahead of him.

All Jack had told him of the way to the farm was that it was along the Northeastern road, but he had failed to say how long of a walk it would be.  Kurtis had never exercised much, and was desperately hoping that it wouldn’t be an exceptionally long journey. 

After only an hour on the road, the moon was bright in the night sky, lighting Kurtis’ path in the absence of any street lamps.  It was quite fortunate that it wasn’t a cloudy night, as Kurtis would have been quite susceptible to getting lost in the featureless expanse. 

Soon enough the black walls of Amalin were no longer visible behind him, and Kurtis felt as if he were the only man left alive.  There were no other sounds save those from his footsteps.  No animals called to the moon, and no wind rustled the branches of trees that had long since withered and died.  And still Kurtis marched on, putting one foot in front of the other and never allowing himself to step.

Before the night was halfway done, Kurtis’ feet were blistered and sore, his calves were aching and he was prone to stumbling when he caught the slightest rut in the dirt road.  His mouth was dry and his throat parched, but he would not risk drinking from the small puddles that appeared every so often. 

One thing that Kurtis had never expected was the drastic drop in temperature.  Inside Amalin it was always warm, even at the darkest of times, but with nothing to retain the heat built up over the day, the warmth quickly disappeared.  Kurtis now had no other option but to keep walking, if he lay down to sleep, he would likely freeze to death before the sun rose again.  The only thing keeping him warm was his own motion, though it was just barely enough, as he felt the cold growing deep within him. 

Kurtis was relieved when the sky finally turned from black to a navy blue, signaling that the sun would soon crest the horizon and fill the world with warmth once again.  As Kurtis continued to walk, the sky grew a paler blue, until finally a crack of yellow could be seen to the East, and Kurtis experienced his first true dawn.

Within Amalin, the rising sun was always obscured by steel towers and thick clouds of smoke, and by the time the sun had climbed over those constructs and could be seen in the sky, it was well past dawn.  But out here, there were no such obstacles, and Kurtis stood in amazement as the fiery red orb pulled itself ever so slowly from the edge of the world.  It burned brighter than Kurtis had ever imagined, lighting the whole sky with a blazing orange colour.  And was it ever big, it looked a thousand times larger than it did when it sat behind the clouds in the middle of the day. 

For just a minute Kurtis stopped moving.  He stopped thinking about Julia, about Jack, or about the farm, and just stood in complete awe of the beauty that was displayed in front of him. 

And then just as it had begun, the spectacle began to fade away as the sun continued its steady ascent turning from red back to the same yellow that Kurtis had always known.  It was over all too soon for Kurtis, who would have been content to stand and watch the sunrise for hours. 

Kurtis decided that now was a good time to take a break from his marching.  He sat down on the side of the road, and pulled a few food items from his bag.  His stomach was aching painfully from hunger, but he still did not over-indulge himself and left a good amount of supplies in his bag. 

The minutes ticked away in complete silence, as Kurtis slowly chewed a piece of bread with some cold meat on top.  He hadn’t heard a single sound other than his footsteps for over twelve hours now, but it didn’t bother him.  He had never been the most social person, even when he was surrounded by other people.  Never had he initiated a conversation he could have avoided, and other than when he visited the Wall of the Lost, he returned directly home from his work. 

Despite the physical toll it had taken on him, Kurtis overall enjoyed his first foray beyond the black walls of Amalin.  It was remarkably peaceful, and Kurtis had never seen the night sky so clearly.  The stars had been shining bright and the moon hung peacefully in the darkness.  On some level Kurtis was desperately hoping that it would take him at least one more night to reach the farm, no matter how miserable that would make him.

Just as he finished his small meal and slung his bag back over his shoulder, Kurtis noticed something intriguing a good distance from the road.  Something shiny had flashed at him as he stood up, and now he could see an odd shape which previously had been hidden amongst the banks and knolls that covered the wastelands. 

Kurtis’ first thought was to check all around him.  He drew his revolver and scanned in every direction to make sure nobody had set a trap and was waiting to pounce on him.  After a few seconds, he concluded that there was nowhere in his immediate vicinity where a person could be hiding, but nevertheless he kept his weapon ready. 

The second question he had to answer was the inherent risk of leaving the road.  If anything happened to make him lose his direction, whether it be an encounter with one of the creatures Jack had mentioned or a host of other possibilities, Kurtis would have a very hard time finding his way back to the road.  It was unmarked, and at some points stood several feet below its banks, making it easy to miss even from a short distance. 

Despite all this, Kurtis’ curiosity was piqued such that he could not turn away.  In his entire walk so far he had seen a single tree, which had long since died, and now there was something besides endless dirt and water before him. 

Cautiously, he took his first step off the road and began walking across the endless maze of craters and trenches that made up the wastelands.  He was very careful to avoid stepping in the pools that had formed over the years, for not only had he used his only change of shoes after emerging from the sewer pipe, but he had a strange suspicion that there were contaminants and harmful agents that he didn’t want to have even touch his skin. 

He was trying to keep his revolver pointed directly at the mysterious object as much as possible, but as he was focusing quite intently on his footsteps, and occasionally had to leap nimbly across a larger puddle, he found himself off-guard and an easy target for an ambush.

As he approached his target, he was able to make out its shape a little more clearly, but still could not tell exactly what it was.  It seemed to be just a round lump on the ground, and Kurtis began thinking he had just wasted his time coming out to see a tree trunk or another useless object of the sort.

Coming with a few feet of the object now, Kurtis realized that it was not at all just random object, but rather something quite significant.  The first thing that alerted him to such a possibility was the stench that overtook him as he walked closer.  Within ten feet, the smell was so foul that he wished he was back in the sewers.  Taking a few more steps, it became clear that what he was approaching was a human corpse, half-buried face down in the mud. 

Covering his mouth with his sleeve to avoid gagging, Kurtis knelt down next to the body to examine it.  Whoever it had been, he was wearing metal body armour as well as a metal helmet.  The entirety of the corpse was covered in mud, but it looked like the armour’s colour was solid black, which would likely make him a soldier of Amalin.  Kurtis had only seen soldiers up close on a couple of occasions, but it had been enough for him to be able to recognize one, even in such an unfavourable position. 

One thing that immediately caught Kurtis’ attention was a series of bullet holes in the back of the armour.  They were scattered across the back plate, with rust forming in circles around the holes.  The edges of the holes were bent inwards towards the body, meaning that the soldier was shot from behind.  

Now Kurtis felt terribly exposed, and greatly regretted walking out here.  Dropping as low as he could, with his revolver poised and turning to check every direction around him.  This soldier was killed by people from outside the walls of Amalin, which Kurtis had not expected to encounter so close to the city itself.  The soldier’s weapon had been taken from him, as had his boots and whatever once hung off his belt.

Seconds past agonizingly slow, with Kurtis breathing deep and peering intently across the landscape, looking for any signs of approaching danger.  After a couple moments, Kurtis began to ease up and trust that he was actually alone.  He kicked the dirt around the body a couple times to see if there was anything useful buried in the mud, but came up empty-handed.

With a sigh he turned back towards the road, walking with the same gait and occasional leaps that had brought him there.  He was no more than ten feet from the road when he heard a distant noise and his heart sank into his stomach.  It was just a small snap, and for a few seconds after there was complete silence.

Kurtis hesitantly took another step towards the road, hoping against hope that whatever he had heard was some trivial event that he was grossly overreacting to.  But then he heard it again, the same sound, just louder and closer this time.

Off in the distance, Kurtis could see a dust cloud starting to form, growing larger with each passing second.  There were more loud sounds, now low cracks that echoed through the emptiness.  Kurtis could tell the sounds were an engine backfiring, which meant there was a vehicle approaching. 

It was coming from a direction perpendicular to the road, and so was unlikely to be anybody from Amalin, since soldiers only travelled along the roads to and from the farms.  Kurtis’ mind raced as he now could see a small black shape bouncing along within the cloud of dust.  There wasn’t anywhere for him to hide, and the raiders that would soon be on him would doubtlessly be much better armed than he was. 

There was only a few more seconds before the vehicle would be close enough that its occupants would be able to see him, and then there would be no escape.  Without any other option, Kurtis dove face-down into a rather large crater, trying to stay away from the water that had pooled at the bottom. 

Now Kurtis could hear not just the backfire of the engine, but the low, constant, growl of its engine as it raced closer.  Kurtis had no time to think about anything, and for a moment everything else in his life disappeared from his mind.  All he was focused on was listening to the angry roar of the vehicle as it drew closer and closer.

The ground started vibrating as the vehicle came within a couple dozen feet of Kurtis.  And then all too suddenly the roaring stopped, and the dirt went still once again.  Kurtis could hear voices now, and footsteps as the men exited their vehicle. 

Against better judgement, Kurtis craned his neck and peeked over the top of the small embankment which was blocking him from the view of the other men.  There were three of them, and they had arrived in a kind of truck that Kurtis had never seen before.  It had massive wheels, with thick tread, and a skeleton of a body.  All the exterior paneling had been stripped from the vehicle, leaving only the metal frame.  There were no doors and the engine was in plain view. 

The men themselves looked like hardened survivors of an even harder land.  Their skin was tanned a deep brown, and they each had grizzled and scarred faces.  Their clothes could only be described as black leather rags, and they were all wearing heavy combat boots. 

“Where is this fucker?”  Kurtis heard one of the men cry out angrily.  This man seemed to be the leader of the group.  He had been the first one out of the vehicle and he was carrying a tommy gun with a cylindrical barrel in one hand, by far the deadliest weapon any of them had. 

“Does it look like I know?” Another man replied, angrily.  “He could be anywhere between the black hell and the farms.”  This man was carrying a shotgun slung across his back. 

“The old man said he’d be right here,” the first man countered. 

“When did we start taking orders from a useless old man anyhow?”  The third man asked while leaning against the vehicle, not letting Kurtis see what was in his hands. 

“Since you took his fucking money,” the first man snapped back.

“Well look around,” the second man started, “there ain’t a soul around.  I don’t care what the old man paid us, he told us to come here and shoot anyone we found.  And we didn’t find nobody.  That means our job’s done as I see it.”

“The old man knew where to find us,” the first man answered in a commanding tone.  “If we take his money and don’t do what he asks, he’ll get angry, and he’ll bring those metalheads down on us.  We’ll drive up to the farm, and then back to the black hell.  If we don’t find nobody on the road, we’ll turn back.”

The second man grumbled something about wasting fuel, but then turned back to the vehicle in agreement. 

“Who the hell is this guy anyway?”  The third guy asked, stepping back into the vehicle.  “That somebody from the black hell would ask us to kill him?”

“No idea,” the first man answered grimly, “But remember, don’t take him lightly.  He’s not supposed to look like much, but according to the old man he took out six guys on his own…”  The voice continued speaking, but Kurtis was no longer paying attention.  He was their target, they had been sent here to kill him.  But by who?  Jack fit the role of old man, but he had no money to pay these raiders…

Kurtis stopped his current train of thought as he realized that all three men now had their attention diverted and two of them had their backs to him.  This was Kurtis’ only opportunity to take them by surprise, and if he let them get away, he would likely be found by them later on in his walk. 

Quickly checking to make sure his revolver had been kept dry, Kurtis leapt to his feet.  He had only had two shots left in his gun, and he would have to make them count.  As he stood up, he could see the eyes of the third man bulge as he was sitting in the truck, while the other two remained oblivious. 

Fingers tingling with adrenaline, Kurtis fired his first shot at the man carrying the Tommy gun, and scored a clean hit to the back of his head.  The raider dropped without making a sound, and splashed face first into a puddle.  The gunshot had alerted the second man to Kurtis’ presence, but before he could draw his shotgun, Kurtis had hit him square in the face with his second and final shot. 

As the second man crashed into the mud, the last raider leapt from the vehicle wielding a large machete.  Kurtis sent a silent prayer to the heavens that he was not carrying a firearm as the first two were, and began charging the man.

The raider swung an overhand blow as Kurtis came within arms’ reach, but Kurtis rolled his shoulder and barely dodged the swipe.  And then Kurtis had his arms wrapped around the man’s torso, and drove him down into another puddle.  As the pair of men hit the small pool, the murky water splashed everywhere, stinging Kurtis’ eyes.

The other man was less fortunate, as immediately upon impact, Kurtis rolled him over and held him face-down in the puddle.  The raider screamed and thrashed with all his might, but Kurtis would not let go.  The man shook violently for a few more seconds, and then as his life-force began to fade, his efforts became weaker and weaker, until they stopped entirely. 

Kurtis rolled off the drowned raider, breathing deep sighs of relief as his heart beat violently in his chest.  It was a short fight, but intense nonetheless.  And just like by the Wall of the Lost, Kurtis felt his mind clear and his conscience put itself to ease as he surveyed the resulting scene.  His palms were sweaty and he could still feel the adrenaline pumping through his veins, but that was all because of the physical aspect of the encounter.  Mentally he was stable and calm. 

After a few more breaths, he stood up and walked over to the first raider he had killed.  He pulled the Tommy gun from the limp hand, and slung it over his back.  Then he rolled the body over and rummaged through the pockets, finding nothing of use.  The second raider had just as little on him, and his shotgun had fallen into a puddle next to the body, and with his eyes still stinging and his skin turning red where it had been splashed, Kurtis did not want to get himself wet again.

In the truck, Kurtis found two more magazines for the Tommy gun, and promptly stuffed them in his bag.  The keys were still in the ignition, and although Kurtis had never driven before, he only hesitated for a second before jumping into the driver’s seat and starting the engine. 

Gleefully he kicked the gas the pedal, sending the truck lurching forward.  Immediately pulling his foot back, the truck stopped moving as suddenly as it had started, throwing Kurtis forward into the steering wheel.  There was only a small stretch of ground between the truck and the main road, but navigating it was one of the most challenging things Kurtis had done.  It was completely beyond him how the raiders managed to cruise across the jagged and scarred landscape so smoothly, and he could barely move the truck at a walking pace without fearing that he would flip it over.

When Kurtis reached the smooth road and straightened the vehicle out, he pushed the pedal down as far as it would go and the truck shot forward.  In a matter of seconds he had already covered what would have taken him hours to walk. 

There was no windshield on the truck, and soon Kurtis’ eyes were watering and he had to blink furiously as he drove.  Luckily the ground was damp and there was not much dust or airborne sand being whipped across his face. 

Once in a while there would be a pothole in the road, but rather than avoiding it, Kurtis would steer directly into it and receive a jarring shock as he was bounced upwards.  Coming back down on the stiff seat would hurt for a few seconds, but Kurtis didn’t care.

With his dark hair streaming behind him in the wind, a slight smile began to take form across Kurtis’ face.  It was exhilarating to say the least, and for the first time in a very long time, Kurtis was enjoying himself.  The sun was shining nice and warm, he was alone and free from all the chaos and stress that came every second within Amalin, and as he drove along the brown wastes that extended before him became beautiful in a way he didn’t quite understand.  At first he had considered the landscape ugly and scarred, but now he appreciated every trench and puddle, and the way that he could see for miles and miles without actually seeing anything at all. 

For just a small window of time, Kurtis was actually happy, the only time he could remember feeling this way since Julia had disappeared.  Too long he had moped about in self-pity and wishful thinking, but now he was living in the moment and having a blast.

Kurtis hit a section of the road with a slight downhill, and as the truck sped up Kurtis pushed the gas pedal as hard as he could.  It was unbelievable to him how fast he was going, and he let out a scream of exhilaration as the wind rushed past him, almost tearing his shirt off. 

The drive went by all too fast for Kurtis, and within a couple hours, after the sun had fallen and the night had taken over, he saw bright lights on the horizon.  It started as just one beam that shone across the wasteland, but as Kurtis drew closer, the light split into multiple sources, spreading out across a small area that he knew was the farm.  Kurtis turned the vehicle sharply off the road, and started bouncing along on the uneven terrain a lot more easily than he had earlier.  The guards of the farm would likely be watching the front approach, particularly the road, and Kurtis didn’t want to get caught before he even managed to get inside. 

When he had gotten around to the backside of the farm, he dismounted from the truck, grabbing his new found submachine gun and his bag.  He was tempted to begin walking towards the farm right away, but he knew that it was better to wait for night and the cover of darkness.  They would still have security watching the back of the farm, even if there wasn’t an obvious approach route, because of the possibility of a raider attack. 

As he was checking his bag to make sure he still had the extra magazines for his tommy gun, Kurtis noticed his arms, where they had been splashed during his fight with the raiders and was shocked by what he saw.  The skin on each arm was still bright red, and the skin had become swollen and dry.  It itched as he brushed against the bag itself, but he held himself back from scratching it.

Walking across the trenches and craters had been enough of a task during the daytime, but without any source of light, it was near impossible.  Kurtis stumbled and tripped with every step as he tried to make his way across, his feet landing in knee-high puddles multiple times. 

The going was slow, but Kurtis eventually reached the fence that separated the farm from the wastelands.  First he tried to push himself under, hoping that the damp ground would give way, but he had no such luck.  As he didn’t think to bring anything capable of cutting through the wiring on the fence, his only option was to climb the ten foot high fence, complete with barbed wire at the top. 

There was a guard tower a little ways down the fence to each side, but Kurtis was far enough away from either of them that he should be safe.  Slowly he grabbed a fistful of wire and pulled himself up, shoving his feet in between the metal links. 

He managed to reach the top of the fence relatively unscathed, but he still had to get himself over the barbed wire.  There were three strands of barbed wire, each one a couple inches above the previous one and drawn tight.  Very carefully, Kurtis found two sections on the topmost wire where he could fit his hands, and then slowly pulled himself up.   He swung one foot up and caught the wire with the toe of his boot. 

Using only his two hands and one foot, he managed to pull the rest of his body up and over the wire, scraping his chest and thighs against a couple barbs, but clearing the top of the fence.  The barbed wire sagged as he put all of his weight onto it, and the barbs began digging into his hands, causing a blood to trickle down his clenched fists.  As soon as he had his center of gravity across the fence, he pushed himself off the fence and fell with a soft thud on the ground. 

Looking around frantically to see if he had alerted any of the guards, Kurtis cautiously made his way to his feet, holding his tommy gun at the ready with both hands.  When he felt safe, he continued moving into the farm.  At the moment, he was in an orchard for apple trees, but could see the lights from the cellblocks up ahead.  Kurtis still didn’t have a plan on exactly how he was going to find Julia, or what he would do after; he just kept focused on getting to the cellblocks. 

Kurtis was moving swiftly now, but keeping a low profile and two hands on his weapon.  Suddenly an alarm when off, deafening as it signaled an intruder’s presence to all the guard staff.  Kurtis dropped to the ground, looking around him.  On each side of the orchard, he could see shadowy figures moving frantically back and forth.  Then they started moving into the orchard, surrounding him. 

There was no time to plan an escape, Kurtis just began running.  He wasn’t thinking about where he was going, or if he was running in the direction of his truck, he was just trying to get away from the guards that were hunting him. 

In a full sprint, Kurtis ran straight through branches of the apple trees, ducking between rows when he saw a flashlight or heard voices ahead of him.  He crashed through another row only to see the guards closer to him than before and immediately tried to backtrack. 

When he turned back around, though, there was a guard standing ten feet away with a rifle pointed straight at Kurtis.  Another guard appeared next to him, and then more and more until Kurtis was completely surrounded.  Kurtis still had both hands on his submachine gun, and all the guards were screaming at him to drop it. 

Kurtis took a deep breath, weighing his options.  The apple trees provided some cover, and if he jumped quickly enough they might not be able to track him with their flashlights.  Kurtis’ knuckles were white as he gripped his weapon.  There was now a dozen guards all screaming at him to surrender, with more crashing through the orchard towards him.

Very slowly, Kurtis dropped his submachine gun and calmly raised his hands.  As soon as he did he felt strong hands grabbing hold of him and forcing him to the ground.  A black hood was thrown over his head, and Kurtis was led away.

 

 

Chapter 6

 

Chains clinked together as Kurtis sat limply in a dark cell.  He had been passing in and out of consciousness and so had no idea how long he had been down here.  The air was thick and damp and with every breath Kurtis could taste the rusting iron that his cell was made of.

The only light by which he could see his surroundings was at the end of the hallway.  It flickered every now and then, plunging Kurtis and his neighbours into darkness.  It had taken him a while to realize other people were down here with him, for nobody ever spoke, but as his ears adjusted and became more sensitive to the lack of any noticeable sounds he was able to pick up their breathing and weak whimpering.

And so the hours passed.  Kurtis’ shoulders ached from having his arms strung up for so long.  His wrists were scraped raw by the shackles and small streams of blood were trickling down his arms.  To make matters worse, his arms were still swollen and red from the toxic water that had splashed, and every drop of blood burnt the whole way down.

There was a dripping sound that came and went, but when he could hear it, it was remarkably consistent and rhythmic, and when Kurtis closed his eyes he was taken back to his bedroom, half-expecting to be woken from a dream.

All in all, Kurtis knew he should be regretful of his incredibly rash and empty-headed decision to break into the farm, it had failed miserably, and he was caught within seconds of crossing the fence.  Oddly enough, though, he could not bring himself to repent his decision.  What he regretted more was his execution of his break-in.  He should’ve planned it better, brought something to cut fence or scouted the farm from a distance, and then he might have Julia in his arms right now.

Suddenly there was a loud clang that rang through the hallway as a metal door was slammed open.  Kurtis could hear heavy footsteps as well as the soft clinking of chains.  There was also a dull scraping sound from a body being dragged across the cold metal floor. 

The footsteps grew closer to Kurtis cell, and then two guards came into view in front of his cell.  Between them there was a limp body, handcuffed and being held at the arms by both men.  One guard muttered something to the other that Kurtis didn’t quite catch.  The second guard released his hold on the prisoner, and moved forward to open the door to Kurtis’ cell. 

The guard was staring at Kurtis the entire time, and in return Kurtis let his head drop and avoided eye contact.  Once he had opened the cell door, the other guard tossed the body into the cell a few feet from Kurtis.  She was pale and had thin blonde hair that had been dirtied and messed about by whatever ordeal she had just been through.  With not the slightest regard for her well-being, the guards violently threw her against the opposite wall and secured her chains. 

As they left, the guards lucked back at Kurtis and chuckled between them.  The footsteps walked back down the hall, and slammed the door shut with another sudden clang.  With that, the veritable dungeon that Kurtis found himself in fell into silence once again. 

The girl across from Kurtis was breathing weakly, barely enough for him to her, but he could see her chest raising and lowering ever so slightly.  Her head was hanging down and so he wasn’t able to see her face.  There were abrasions on her arms and forehead that were red and raw though didn’t appear to be actively bleeding. 

Without anything to do to help her, nor anything to say, Kurtis drifted off into sleep once again. 

Kurtis was thundering down a staircase, rifle in his hands and gas mask covering his face.  There was a symphony of noises all around him – gunshots, alarms, screams and occasional blasts that shook the whole complex – but Kurtis paid them no attention.  He knew his objective, and he knew where he had to go, it was now only a matter of getting there. 

Wisps of smoke coupled with his burdensome mask made it almost impossible for Kurtis to see where he was going, but even so his strides were still quick and his navigating was confident.  Turning this way and that, Kurtis made his way deeper and deeper into the bowels of the complex.

There was a large metal door that was propped slightly open.  Kurtis delivered a heavy kick and it swung inward to reveal a dark hallway.  The only light was directly above him, and the shadows grew darker and longer as the hallway went on.

Kurtis marched down the hall slowly, his heavy footsteps echoing as they fell.  On both side of the hallway there were small cells with iron bars and heavy locks keeping their prisoners trapped.  As he walked past, all of the unfortunate inhabitants raised their heads towards him with a flicker of hope in their eyes, and when he didn’t meet their gaze they quickly slumped back down. 

Passing by a few more cells, Kurtis stopped and turned when he had arrived at the one he wanted.  It was just like any other, two prisoners chained to the walls within, and yet Kurtis knew that this was the one he wanted.

There was key ring on his belt, which he instinctively grabbed, but had no recollection of how it got there.  The key slid sweetly into the lock, and with a ringing click the cell door swung open.  The other keys on his key ring opened the shackles that hung from the walls and secured the prisoners in their places. 

Quickly he freed the first prisoner, a woman that as she lifted her head he recognized as the woman that had been brought into his own cell before he had begun dreaming.  With that realization he look quickly around the cell and could tell that it was the same one he had been chained into.  The woman stood up slowly, unsure of exactly what was happening to her.  Kurtis didn’t say a word to her, turning his attention to the second prisoner on the other side of the room.

As he moved to the second prisoner he was wondering whether it was himself sitting there lifelessly.  He unlocked the chains but the body just sat there.  Crouching down, he lifted the man’s head to see that it was not himself, just a stranger that he didn’t recognize.  He checked the man’s pulse, but there was none, and as he showed on other signs of life Kurtis left him there and turned back to the woman.

She was scared; Kurtis could see it plain as day across her face.  It was probably just as much to do with him, wearing heavy black combat gear, and black mask over his face and a powerful rifle between his arms, as it was with the battle raging throughout the rest of the farm. 

He offered her his hand, and after a second of hesitation she stepped forward and accepted it.  Kurtis then lead her from the cell, down the hall and up the stairs, and through the labyrinth of corridors and steps that had led him to her. 

The sounds of battle were growing louder now, and the gunshots seemed to be ringing from just around the corner rather than through the walls and ceilings.  Kurtis slowed his pace and brought his rifle to the ready, and began turning corners with the utmost caution. 

Kurtis was in the main hall now, and the doors to the outside world were within reach.  The girl broke from him and began running before he had a chance to scan the whole room, her bare feet slapping loudly against the cold floor.  Kurtis didn’t think, he just started chasing her.  Just when his arms were about to wrap around her and drag her to safety, he spotted a form moving in the corner of his eye.  There was a bright flash and then a loud bang…

Tick

Tick

Tick

Kurtis lazily opened his eyes, blinking a couple times and looking to his clock.  For an instant he was shocked when all he saw was darkness, but then he looked forward and saw the pale woman standing over him.  She had been flicking his forehead to wake him up and was poised to do it once more until Kurtis put his hands up to protect himself.

“Get up then,” she ordered.

Kurtis looked around the cell.  Her chains were lying on the floor unfastened and the cell door was open.  Looking to his own shackles, he saw that they had been unlocked and he shook his wrists free of their binds. “How did…” he started, unable to finish because of the flood of questions he wanted to ask all at once.

The woman looked back to the cell door, then to her own chains.  “I don’t know,” she answered.  “When I came around I wasn’t locked in, I guess the guards forgot to turn the key.”

Kurtis shook his head.  “No, I saw them lock you in with my own eyes.”  He began to stand up, kicking the chains against the wall.  “And I know I was locked in.  Look at my wrists,” he said, displaying his bloody and bruised arms.”

“Listen, I’m not asking how, I’m just gonna thank my stars and make use of it,” she sounded irritated with Kurtis’ skepticism.  “I figured I might have you to thank for this, and I was gonna offer to work with you, but it sounds like you’re not coming then.”  She turned to the cell door poked her head out into the hallway.

“No, I’ll come, I just… It just seems too good to be true.”

“You think it’s a trap?  For what?  They’ve already got us in here, there’s not much worse they can do to us.”

“Kill us?” Kurtis offered, “Say that we were in the middle of a violent breakout and shoot us as soon as we turn the corner?”

“If they wanted to kill us, they’d put a black bag on our heads and walk us out past the fence and shoot us there.  They wouldn’t do something like this, it would be too much work to clean the blood off their walls.”

Kurtis accepted her argument, and as he couldn’t think of another reason why their situation might have been set up by the guards, he followed her in silence out of the cell.

“What are you even doing here?”  She whispered back to him as she was moving stealthily along the hallway.  “They’ve never kept a man in here before.”

“I was looking for someone,” he answered, “and I got caught.”

She gave him a friendly smile back as they approached the door at the end of the hall.  “She must be pretty.”

Kurtis nodded, “And then some.”

This door too was left ajar, but Kurtis didn’t question it.  Rather, he followed the woman up the staircase, both treading softly.  “And what were you doing down here?” he asked.

“Oh I just get angry sometimes,” she answered sweetly.

“That’s it?  You just get angry and they lock you in the dungeon?”

“Well it’s not that simple, but I don’t really remember what happens when I get angry.  I just kind of wake up after and people tell me all the horrible things I’ve done.  I didn’t believe them at first, but then I started waking up with bloody fists and broken fingers and it started to fit.  Then one time I woke up and they told me I had killed some people, so they sent me here.”  She said it all very calmly, almost sweetly, showing no signs of regret or disappointment with herself. 

“And when you get angry in here they send you down to those cells?”

She nodded.  It was all very odd to Kurtis, on the outside she seemed rather nice and the exact opposite kind of person Kurtis would have expected to meet in the darkest of cells.  She had been somewhat forceful when he had first woken up, but that was understandable as she was desperate to leave and Kurtis was thankful that she had bothered waiting for him to wake up. 

“What’s your name?”  Kurtis asked, suddenly realizing he had not asked her yet.

“Rachel,” she said, turning back with a friendly smile.  “And you?”

“Kurtis.”

“Pleased to meet you, Kurtis.”  Rachel offered her hand out for a shake.  It was an odd gesture at a time of such high tension, but nonetheless Kurtis accepted. 

With a flick of his eyes, Kurtis indicated that they should keep going.  Rachel was leading, as Kurtis had never walked these halls before, though with every corner they turned he recognized the next hallway from his dream and felt somewhat confident that they were going the right way. 

“By the way, do you know a girl named Julia?  Red hair?”  Kurtis asked.

“No, I don’t.  But we’re going past the administrations office, if you’re quick about it you can find her file.”

“Okay, thank you.”

“But if you want to go find her, I’m not going to go with you,” Rachel warned.  “I’ll wait for a few minutes in the office with you, but after that I’m leaving for good.”

“That’s fine.”  Kurtis had already received enough help from her and would have never expected her to wander through the cellblocks with him when she was so close to freedom. 

They were nearing the central foyer where Kurtis had been gunned down in his earlier dream.  It was unsettling to say the least, and as Rachel led the pair of them down the final hallway Kurtis’ heart started pounding heavily in his chest and his fingers started twitching in anticipation. 

The hallways that had once seemed bright compared to his prison cell now carried an ominous tone.  Floodlights shone through the occasional window, casting long shadows the length of the corridor.  The dark metal walls gleamed hauntingly in the faint light, instilling a deep sense of discomfort within Kurtis. 

As far as Kurtis could tell, there was not another living creature in this part of the building.  Not once had they heard so much as a whisper or a footstep.  The slight sound of their own feet padding stealthily against the hard metal floor filled the night air, echoing longingly down the empty halls. 

The open room where Kurtis had already died once tonight was now in view.  They were at the far end of the last corridor before the hall opened up into a large central room where several more hallways intersected. 

Just before they were about to step into the open, Rachel stopped moving.  At first Kurtis was confused and was wondering if she too sensed danger, but then she turned and pointed to a door.  There was a small name plate which read ‘Administration’ and immediately Kurtis understood and moved towards the door.

The door was unlocked and swung inwards with the slightest of touches. 

“Do they not lock doors around here?”  Kurtis asked.

“I’ve never found an open door until today,” Rachel answered.  “They’re pretty thorough here.  Cells are locked, offices are locked, and there’s normally guards patrolling the halls just in case.”

Kurtis looked back at her, raising his eyebrows skeptically.

“Maybe we just got lucky.”

“Nobody gets this lucky,” Kurtis stated as he stepped into the office. 

“So you still think we’re being set up?”  Rachel whispered back as she followed him into the small room.

“I don’t know.  But it seems that somebody is opening doors for us.  Now where would these files be?”

Rachel pointed to some filing cabinets along the back wall of the room.  There were several desks between Kurtis and it, covered with odd papers with information that Kurtis couldn’t quite understand, opened files that had been thoroughly read through and then strewn about, black and white photos which were creased and yellowing, and half-empty mugs of coffee that had likely been sitting there for hours.  The room itself felt a couple sizes too small for all of its desks, chairs and cabinets, and Kurtis shuddered of spending his days working in here, cramped, sweating and with several other men just as miserable as he was. 

There were several small windows along the outside wall, with blinds half-drawn and the floodlights from the rest of the farm casting streaked shadows from the floor up to the ceiling.  Kurtis peeked outside as he walked to the back of the room, but only saw dark walls and darker windows on the building across from him. 

The first drawer of the file cabinet jerked open with a creak after a firm tug.  Inside was a plethora of crisp brown file folders, each containing several sheets of thin white paper clipped together.  They were organized alphabetically by last name, this drawer contain A through B.

What was her last name?  Kurtis asked himself, shocked that he could forget such a crucial detail.  It was something with an M.  Montrose…  Mont-something…   Or maybe Miller… Millson?  He shook his head in frustration.  None of those names sounded right.  Desperately searching through all of his memories, he couldn’t find a single one that referenced her last name. 

Was her name even Julia?  The disturbing thought seeded itself in Kurtis’ mind before he could flatly refute it.  Of course it was, he reassured himself unconvincingly.  Her name was Julia.  Julia… but as hard as he tried, Kurtis couldn’t remember her last name.

Instead of fruitlessly racking his fading memories, he decided instead to just pull out the drawer containing files starting with M.  Kurtis quickly flicked through, taking just enough time to read the label of each file.  None of the names seemed familiar to him, and then he found a file named Julia Mulver.  His heart fluttering in his throat, he ripped the folder from the drawer and splayed it out on the nearest surface.  And just as quick as his hopes and shot through the roof, they were resoundingly crushed.  The picture in the file showed a dark-haired woman that must have been twenty years older than him. 

Defeated, Kurtis slid the file back into drawer.  There was no other Julia in that drawer.  “She’s not here,” he admitted to Rachel.  He likely could have gone through every drawer, prying out every file named Julia, but he would not make Rachel wait as he did that.  That in of itself would normally not have swayed Kurtis, as he felt confident enough on his own.  What made him give up was that he just didn’t feel Julia here.  His whole trip across the wastelands, he felt he was getting closer, he felt deep down in his gut that Julia was just around the corner.  But now he just felt lost.  He felt alone and farther away from his home than he had ever been.  It had all climaxed when he had opened that file only to find himself staring at a person he did not recognize. 

Rachel nodded and then as an afterthought she moved over to the file cabinet herself.  “Just to be safe,” she muttered as she reached into a drawer and drew out her own file.  She ripped all the papers once, then twice, and again a third time, while taking the black and white photo and stuffing it into her sock.  “If they don’t know I’ve been here, they won’t know I’ve left,” she explained, turning back to the door. 

“What’s that, over there?”  Kurtis asked, indicating a metal locker sitting in the corner of the room. 

“No idea, check it out if you want,” Rachel replied, silently opening the door and poking her head out. 

Kurtis walked over to the locker and tried the door.  Once again, he found it unlocked.  Inside he found the Tommy gun he had taken from the raiders, complete with the spare magazines.  His revolver was sitting on the upper shelf, though no ammunition for that weapon was in sight.

Walking back towards the door where Rachel was standing, Kurtis held out the revolver for her to take.  Before he reached her, though, she gave a muffled cry and shut the door as quickly as she could without making a sound.  When she turned to face Kurtis, there was wild panic in her eyes. 

“They’re coming,” she hissed at him.

“Guards?” Kurtis asked dumbly, standing in place as she dove under a desk.   He received no reply from her and moved to follow her under a desk, but just as he started to move the handle of the door turned. 

“It’s open,” a deep voice said, surprised.

Kurtis flung himself against the wall just next to the door, tossing the revolver into a nearby trash can and placing both hands on his submachine gun. 

“Check inside,” a second voice instructed. 

The door swung open with a wailing creak.  Kurtis had chosen the correct side of the door to stand on, and as the two men entered the room, he remained out of view.  He could hear the heavy boots of the men slowly make their way into the room.  They were headed towards Rachel’s hiding place, and very slowly Kurtis brought his weapon level, ready to kick the door away and start firing the second she was found. 

The footsteps continued to the far corner of the room, where the filing cabinet was.  Kurtis was taking deep breaths as he listened as best as he could to the two men.  There was silence now, and Kurtis had no idea what was going on.  Maybe they had found Rachel, and she had motioned them to where he was hiding. 

Kurtis tightened his grip on his submachine gun.  Maybe they had found the papers Rachel had torn to bits, and were looking around for an explanation. 

“Hey,” one of the men called suddenly, “the locker’s open.”

Kurtis rolled his head back.  How could he have been so careless?  Heavy footsteps pounded their way over to his side of the room to where the locker was located.  Then more silence. 

From this angle, the door wasn’t completely shielding Kurtis.  Turning to his side, he could see the wide shoulders of one of the men staring at the empty locker.  Would they know that there was a submachine gun and a revolver missing?  Even if they didn’t, Kurtis would likely be spotted as they turned back to leave the room.

“Fucking office workers,” one guard lamented.  “They think they’re so smart, but they can’t remember to lock a single door.” 

The other one chuckled.  “The captain would have the keys, right?”

The first one nodded as he turned towards the door.  “Imagine what would happen if an inmate got in here?”

“What could they do?  Most of them can’t even read.”  The pair walked right past Kurtis, allowing him to see both men’s faces clearly.  Both were heavy-set men, with large, dumb faces.  They both had very short hair and a beard that hadn’t been shaved in a couple days.  Whether it was because he was melded into the darkness, or they were distracted with their conversation, neither man noticed Kurtis hiding behind the door.

“Imagine what would happen to us,” the first one reiterated, to which the second one released a sigh of acknowledgement.

They were just at the door now.  Just a few more steps and Kurtis would be safe.  They were in the doorway now.  So close…

“Holy shit,” one the guards exclaimed.

“What is it?”

“Look at this.”  The footsteps came back into the room.  The two men moved right in front of the door that was hiding Kurtis.  There was a shuffling noise. 

“Fuck man, is that loaded?”  Kurtis knew they had found the revolver.  There were a couple clicks as the first guard inspected the cylinder.

“Nope.”

There was more silence.  Presumably the guards were looking around the room, and Kurtis held his breath.  He could hear his heart beating now, thumping loudly in his chest.  Could they hear it? 

“Well let’s get this back to the captain.  We might get promoted for this.  I’m sick of working the night shift.”

“These office guys might get fired if we take it back.  And the captain will probably want to keep that gun for himself.  Let’s just take it and keep quiet.”  The guards stepped out of the room, closing the door behind them.

Kurtis let his head fall back against the wall in relief.  He could hear Rachel clawing her way out from under the desk.  One hand emerged and pulled the rest of her up to her feet.  “What the fuck was that?” she hissed angrily. 

“I’m sorry, I didn’t have anywhere to put it.  I needed both hands on this thing,” he explained showing the Tommy gun. 

She shook her head in frustration, and once again scouted the hallway.  “Okay, they’re gone,” she said, sneaking out into the hall and moving towards the main doors.

“No,” Kurtis whispered, grabbing her arm, “we can’t go that way.”  His dream was clear to him; if they stepped out into the foyer they’d reveal themselves.  He didn’t quite know how to explain it to her though. 

“What do you mean?”

“We can’t go anywhere from those doors.  We’ll be out in the wastelands.  They’ll see that we’ve left in a day, and they’ll have found us before we can get anywhere.  We won’t make it back to Amalin, and we won’t survive out in the wastes.”

“Suit yourself,” she said, pulling her arm free and continuing down the hall.

Kurtis chased her silently.  “There’s another way.  This is a farm right?  They deliver food to Amalin?”

Rachel turned back to face him and nodded.

“How do they deliver the food to the city?”

“Trucks.”

“Where?”

Rachel had caught on to his plan, and more importantly she seemed to agree with it.  “Out back,” she said, turning to lead the way.   

 

 

Chapter 7

 

The engine rumbled and the truck bounced up and down as it careened down the dirt road.  Buried under a mountain of apples, Kurtis and Rachel were sore and aching from lying on a hard metal truck bed for over a day but kept still nonetheless.  An unexpected bonus to their escape plan was that they had a nearly unlimited supply of fresh food, which after countless hours locked in a lonely dungeon Kurtis could not have been more thankful for. 

The truck hit a particularly nasty bump in the road, sending Kurtis and Rachel airborne.  Apples filled the empty space where they’re bodies had been, and when they landed they were only partially covered. 

“Okay, I think we’re far enough from the farm,” Kurtis said, sitting up to look out the back opening of the truck.

“Far enough for what?” Rachel asked hesitantly.

“Well it won’t help if we get all the way back to Amalin, only to be found when they’re unloading the truck.  We can’t stay here, that’s for sure?”

“So you want to jump?  We’re going pretty fast, one of us would likely break something, and then we’d really be fucked.”

Kurtis shook his head.  “Even if we make it out in one piece, we’ll still be on the wrong side of the city walls.  This truck is our only way past into the city, unless you wanna crawl through pitch black sewers and hope we find a way out before we starve.”

Rachel’s eyes widened at his alternative suggestion, but she remained silent. 

Kurtis brushed the last few apples covering him aside, and then waded through the pile of fruit towards the tailgate of the truck.  He felt around the gate trying to find the latch.  Without any knowledge or trucks or where they’re components are located, it was a lot harder for him to find it while blindly slapping his hand around the outside of the tailgate. 

Growing quickly impatient, Kurtis decided against his initial sense to lean out over the back of the gate, in order to easily spot the latch.  As he leaned out the whirring of the wheels became much louder and closer, and the speed at which the ground was speeding past was much faster than it appeared lying on the truck bed looking out at the rear view. 

The truck hit a bump, which sent Kurtis flying.  Rachel gave a quick shriek which she immediately muffled with both hands over her mouth.  Kurtis landed on top of the tailgate, making contact at his stomach.  He was farther out of the truck than he had ever wanted to be, and the wind and gotten knocked out of his lungs by the impact.  The entire upper half of his body was hanging off the end of the truck, and another bump would throw him right off.  His arms flailed as he tried to reach back and grab hold of anything he could, but it was only when he felt Rachel’s hand grab hold of his ankle that he was able to steady himself and then crawl backwards into the truck.

His ordeal hadn’t been all for naught though, as he had managed to glimpse the location of the latch.  “Hold on,” he instructed to Rachel, grabbing onto one of the metal robs that was supporting the roof of the truck.  He flicked the latch open, unleashing an avalanche of bright red apples onto the dusty brown road. 

Kurtis barely managed to keep himself from being carried out of the truck by the wave of apples, but after the first few seconds Kurtis steadied himself.  Rachel had been to keep herself securely in the back of the truck, holding on to a piece of the metal framework with each hand. 

The truck kept rolling along the road for a few more seconds, then suddenly the brakes were applied and the truck screeched to a halt.  Kurtis readied his tommy gun as he heard the doors for the cab open and slam shut.  Two men were talking to each other in panicked voices, but Kurtis couldn’t make out the words.  He followed their voices and footsteps from the cab along to the rear of the truck, their curses becoming louder as they progressed.

When the two men reached the rear of the truck, neither of them noticed Kurtis or Rachel right away.  They were focused on the huge streak of apples that they had left on the road, and began inspecting the tailgate and its latch.  Both of them were fat and squat, a complete opposite of the rest of the prison staff.  One was old with grey wisps on the side of a mostly bald head, while the other was a bit younger, with a moustache and thick brown hair. 

The younger driver noticed Kurtis first, sitting calmly in the back with his submachine pointed directly at him.  Instantly the driver threw his arms up in surrender, taking a step back as he left his partner obliviously toying with the latch. 

Kurtis had to clear his throat so that the second driver would notice him.  When he did, he followed the same motions his partner had previously made, throwing his hands up and silently stepping back.  An apple squished beneath the older driver’s foot as Kurtis pushed himself out of the truck and stepped towards the two men. 

The sun was high, shining brightly and reflecting off the barrel of his gun.  There were only the slightest wisps of clouds covering the vibrant blue sky and a gentle breeze was a welcome sensation on Kurtis’ skin.  Rachel slid off the back of the truck behind him and went to the cab.

“Keys are in here,” she called back to Kurtis.

“Okay,” he replied, “Is there a manifest or paperwork in there?”

“Yup, delivery from Camp 12, apples, looks good.”

Kurtis turned back to the drivers.  “We’re going to need your uniforms,” he said bluntly.

The two men looked to one another uneasily and hesitated to follow Kurtis’ instructions.  Kurtis raised his tommy gun up to his shoulder and looked down the sights at the older man.  Quickly both men began undressing, leaving their black uniforms in the dirt when they were finished.

“You’ve got enough food here to get you safely back to the farm, yes?”  Kurtis asked.  Both men nodded, looking back at the long trail of apples, some still intact and others burst into splotches of fruity pulp.  “Then get going.”

The two men turned cautiously, suspecting that Kurtis might shoot them as soon as they turn their backs to him.  But once they had changed direction and were still alive and unhurt, they picked up their pace and began running as fast as their thick legs would carry them. 

When the drivers were a safe distance away, Kurtis stripped his own clothes off and quickly dressed in the discarded uniforms.  They were the same uniforms that the guards at the farm had worn, just with less decals and an insignia that was less fanciful.  As he buttoned up the shirt, he noticed that he felt oddly comfortable in the uniform.  He smoothed down the front and brushed off the dust, silently lamenting that it was a couple sizes too big.  At least there was a belt with the pants, so they wouldn’t be constantly falling off his waist. 

Wearing the uniform made him feel respectable.  It had been a long time since he had felt this way, that he was someone worthy of another’s respect, and more importantly of his own respect.  He felt good about himself wearing the black garb, whereas until now he had moped about in a blend of self-pity and a few other depressing emotions.  He knew without needing a mirror that he was handsome, but it was something more than that.  It was a sense of nobility, of some sense of regality and destiny that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. 

Kurtis picked up the second uniform and closed the tailgate before walking to the cab of the truck.  Rachel was sitting in the passenger’s seat, humming while she sifted through the contents of the glove box.  There was a rifle between her legs sitting with its nose to the floor of the truck.  Kurtis tossed the balled up uniform at her, and for just a second she stared at it in confusion, before leaving the cab to change.

“You look and I’ll take your eyes out,” she warned.

Kurtis said nothing in reply, though his eyes widened in startlement.  As he waited for Rachel to return, he checked over the clipboard with a few sheets of paper to make sure it was all in order.  The paperwork quickly bored him, though, and he found his attention wandering to the black rifle that was leaning against the passenger seat.  His own tommy gun was sitting in his lap, but compared to the rifle it just seemed weak and flimsy. 

Kurtis was reaching for the rifle when Rachel came back and climbed into the cab.  “Want to trade?” she offered, seeing Kurtis’ interest in her new rifle. 

“It’s okay,” said Kurtis, turning the keys and starting up the truck as Rachel slammed her door shut.

The engine coughed and whirred and the whole truck shook as it started.  Kurtis applied the gas and the truck began rumbling along the dirt road.  It was a much different experience than driver the light vehicle he had taken from the raiders; this one was slower and heavier, and instead of bouncing around upon hitting a pothole, this truck gave a violent jarring that Kurtis tried to avoid as much as possible.  Instead of being fun and exhilarating, Kurtis found it lethargic and menial trying to avoid all the bumps and holes. 

Rachel spent most of the drive staring out the window, watching the endless wastes pass them by.  Kurtis had so many questions that he wanted to ask her, where she was from, what she would do now and why she had stayed with him through their entire escape, but he just couldn’t find the words. 

They sat in silence for hours, the truck chugging along without incident.  A black line appeared on the horizon, slowly growing as they drew closer.  When Rachel spotted it she became uneasy, fidgeting nervously in her seat.  Kurtis remained calm as the thin black line transformed itself into the massive walls of Amalin.

The gate itself came into view, and as it did Kurtis could see sweat trickling down Rachel’s forehead, her fingers twitching and scratching her arms and legs constantly.  Kurtis himself took a deep breath as they drew closer and closer.  Would the guards know they weren’t the actual drivers?  Had the farm warned the city of their escape?

Kurtis put a hand on Rachel’s knee, “I need you to be calm.”

She nodded quickly, but showed no signs of relaxation.

“It’s going to be fine.  We’ll get through, and then we’ll be safe.  We’ll be free.”

When she nodded this time, it was with understanding and agreement with what Kurtis had said.  She scratched her legs one final time, releasing a sigh, and then held herself still. 

The truck pulled up to the gate and a guard stepped forward.  “Where’s Jay?  And Dan?” he asked, looking over both Kurtis and Rachel.

Kurtis had to think quickly.  “There’s a bug going around the farm, some of the staff got it, a lot of the inmates got it.”

The guard studied him for a moment.  “Papers?” he asked suddenly.  Kurtis handed him the clipboard.

Humming without a tune the guard flipped through the papers.  “Alright, pull up to the gate then wait for my signal to go through.  The loading bays will be on your right.”  He turned and walked to the small gatehouse.  He picked up a radio and began talking on it while looking straight at Kurtis.  Second passed without anything happening, Kurtis and Rachel watching the guard as he stared right back at them. 

With a loud creak, the gate cracked open, and then continued on its way with a dull groan.  The guard waved them through, and Kurtis obliged, inching the truck through the gate, and then turning towards the unloading area.  It was a lot harder than he had expected to back the truck up in line with the loading bays, but after a couple tries he managed to get it close enough. 

Hopping out of the truck, Kurtis and Rachel moved quickly towards the main road, where their escape would be concluded. 

“Hey,” a voice called back as they were about to break into a sprint. 

Kurtis turned back around, submachine gun held in one hand.  It was the same guard that he had just talked to.

“Where do you think you’re going?” he asked angrily.

“We’re hungry, going to get us some fo-“

“No you don’t,” the guard said adamantly.  Kurtis glanced quickly back at Rachel.  She had her rifle in in both hands and was staring with a cold glare back at the guard.  Kurtis could feel his knuckles turning white as they gripped his tommy gun tight.

“We’ve got to unload this truck.  You didn’t think you’d get off that easy, did you?”

Kurtis gave a short laugh, “I guess we did.” 

The guard shook his head as he led Kurtis and Rachel through a small door, up a couple steps, and around to where Kurtis had parked the truck.  He pulled open a sliding door to reveal that back of the truck where only a small amount of apples remained.

“Is that it?” he asked in stupefaction.

“A lot of inmates sick means not a lot of apples,” Kurtis pointed out.

The guard nodded, “I guess, but if it were me I’d work those dogs ‘til they puke.”

“Then we’d have a lot of contaminated apples.  A lot more people would get sick in the city itself.”

“S’pose you got a point there.  Anyhow just grab a bin over there and start filling it with apples.  Put ‘em over there when you’re done, and the food manager guys will come get them later.”

Kurtis began shoveling apples into his bin, not saying a word and trying to avoid eye contact.  It was easy work, and soon enough they had emptied the truck.  The guard walked back to his post when they had placed the last of the bins in the correct pile, and then Kurtis and Rachel were free to leave.

They both left their respective guns in the truck, and then looking around one last time they walked out of the facility in a brisk pace.  Within a minute they were back in the public section of the city, and with no more than a wave and a goodbye they parted ways. 

Kurtis went straight to his apartment.  He was desperately hungry for something other than apples, and he needed a shower almost as badly.  Afterwards he would have to go in to work, even though it was already a few hours into the work day.  Mr. Quick had only given him a day or two off, and it was likely well past a week now. 

The transport station was a lot less crowded than he was used to during his normal commute times.  One constant was the flickering lights, plunging the entire station into darkness every once in a while.  Kurtis’ train arrived quickly enough, and before long Kurtis was marching the final stretch towards Tower 144. 

Swinging open the door and bounding up the staircase, Kurtis’ mouth was drooling with the thought of all the food he was about to devour in a single sitting.  He crossed the hallway to his apartment, and pushed open the door, only to find a person he didn’t recognize sitting on his bed.

“Hey what the fuck?” the man shouted, looking up at Kurtis.

“What are you doing here?”  Kurtis asked.

“This is my place.  What the fuck are you doing?”

“No this is my apartment.  I’ve lived here for six years.  This is my bed, my room, my shower’s in there.”  He looked to his bedside table.  The clock was still sitting there, ticking away, but the picture was gone.  The picture! his mind cried out.

“What are you talking about?”

Kurtis shook his head, “Where is the picture?” he screamed.  “Where the fuck is it?”

“What picture?”

“There was a picture, right there,” Kurtis said, pointing to the nightstand with the clock.

“Listen I don’t know what you’re on about,” the man said standing up.  “Were you here yesterday?”

“No but-” Kurtis stammered, trying to plead his case.

“How about the day before?”

“NO I was -“

“Then get the fuck out of my apartment.  I don’t know what you want, but I’m not giving you anything.  Get out before I call the soldiers on you.”

“Listen,” Kurtis said, pausing to take a deep breath.  “Ask my neighbours, then I’m not going to call the soldiers, I’m going to throw you out myself.”

The man scoffed at Kurtis.  He was a lot bigger, his arms thicker and he had a grizzly face that would intimidate most other men.  “Ya, let’s ask them,” he said, thundering out of the room. 

Kurtis followed him down the hall to the next room over.  It was Katie Mccormick’s apartment, a sweet woman twice his age.  They had gotten on rather well, whenever Kurtis had been unable to avoid her.  The big man pounded a meaty fist on her door, and Kurtis could hear Katie scurrying towards the door.

She opened the door without noticing Kurtis, “Rick, hey what’s -“

“Who the fuck is this?” Rick interrupted angrily.

Katie looked past the hulking figure and after a second’s delay her face lit up as she recognized Kurtis.  “Kurtis!” she gasped.  “What… where have you been?  I haven’t seen you in six months.”

Kurtis’ face scrunched up.  It hadn’t been that long, he had talked to her only a week before he had left for the wastelands, which made it at most two since he had seen her.  “What…” he managed to say, before all other comprehensible thoughts left his mind.

“Rick here was given your place five months ago, after nobody had seen you for a month.  We called the housing department, and they came and made sure that you really hadn’t been here in a month, and they had no record of anything happening to you.  We thought you had been… you know… lost.”  She was referencing the Wall of the Lost, and the people that had suddenly disappeared.

“You see?  Asshole,” Rick growled, started back towards Kurtis’ old apartment.  “If I see you again, I’ll kill you.”

Katie and Kurtis stood in silence as they watched Rick walk back down the hall.  When he had disappeared into his room, Katie clutched Kurtis’ arm.  “Listen, when they went through your room, they asked me if there was anything I’d like to keep.  This seemed like something you might have wanted to hold on to.”  She handed him the hand-drawn picture of Julia, still in its frame.

Kurtis was speechless.  A lump grew in his throat as he looked at the sketch.  He could still remember the day he drew it, better than any memory he had of her.   “Thank you,” he finally managed to croak out, tears welling in his eyes. 

Katie stood in her doorway as she stroked Kurtis’ forearm, a look of deep understanding across her face.  She didn’t say anything, she just watched as Kurtis stared longingly into the picture.

Kurtis looked up.  “I… I don’t…” he started, but was so overwhelmed he couldn’t put the words together.  “Thank you, thank you so much.” 

Katie simply nodded, looking up at him.  “Kurtis, if you ever need anything…”

“Thank you, but really, you’ve done so much already,” Kurtis replied, brushing a finger over the glass picture frame.  “I can’t ask any more from you.  I should go now.”

“Okay, good luck Kurtis.  I hope everything works out for you.”  Katie slowly closed her door, with a final clack that left Kurtis standing in the hallway alone. 

He made his way down the stairs and out the doors.  He was still clutching the picture in both hands, staring every so deep into the sketch.  Never had she seemed so beautiful, so elegant, and so alive.  Kurtis sighed. 

What was he going to do now?  He couldn’t eat a picture, and it wouldn’t shelter him from rain. He should go to work, if for no other reason than to hear Mr. Quick’s advice.  He would know what to do.

The trip to work seemed longer than it ever had, but Kurtis kept looking at the picture whenever he had the chance. He arrived at the steps to the library while the sun was still high, and Mr. Quick would still be in there.  Climbing the steps he began feeling quite anxious.  What if Mr. Quick couldn’t help?  What if…

There were so many dreadful possibilities that Kurtis didn’t even want to think about it.  He walked through the library doors and immediately saw Mr. Quick’s balding head buried deep in a thick book.  Taking a few more steps, the old man finally looked up and an odd look crossed his face.  Kurtis couldn’t quite put his finger on it but it seemed like a mix of surprise and satisfaction. 

“Kurtis,” he announced loudly, “I thought I gave you a day off, not half a year.”

“I’ve only been gone a week, and most of that-

“Shh, this is a library after all.  Come, let’s talk in my office.”  Mr. Quick stood up and started walking through the rows upon rows of bookshelves with Kurtis following close behind.  The old man was humming a tune as he went, though Kurtis did not recognise it.

Mr. Quick opened a creaky wooden door at the back of the library.  Kurtis had never actually known this room existed, as he spent almost all of his time at the front desk.  What was even stranger to him was the wood.  The door, the desk, the shelves, all of it was made from wood. 

“I think I have something of yours,” Mr. Quick started, before Kurtis could ask about the wooden furniture. 

“What is it?” 

Both men sat down in chairs placed on opposite sides of the desk.  Mr. Quick opened a drawer, reached in, and placed Kurtis’ revolver on the desk.

 

 

Clockmaker Ch 1+2

24 Apr

Tick.
Tick.
Tick.
Kurtis burst from beneath his bed sheets in a cold sweat.  He had been dreaming, but could not remember what it had been about.  Beads of cold sweat trickled slowly down his forehead, his heart was pounding against his chest, and his breathing was heavy and fast.  Whatever had happened to him in the dreamworld, it hadn’t been a pleasant experience and Kurtis was thankful that he had no memory of it.
The clock on his night table was still ticking away loudly, designed and produced by the Clockmaker himself, though Kurtis secretly doubted that the leader of one of the few remaining bastions of human civilization was still fiddling with cogs and gears all day.  There were plenty of more important things to do, with the threat of war hanging like clouds over iron city of Amalin.  The Clockmaker of course had ministers and advisors to help share the load of his responsibilities, but it still seemed absurd that the self-proclaimed savior of mankind does the work that any gutter rat could do.
Kurtis still had a bit of spare time before he had to leave for work, and although he would have greatly enjoyed to curl back under his sheets and drift away for just a little while longer, he had been shaken wide awake by whatever his sleeping mind had conjured, and as he tossed aside his bedding he felt that they were soaked through and cold from a night of feverish sweating.  Kurtis regularly dreamt, but never before had he woken in such a terrified state.  Most nights, he would have the same dream, of being a soldier in a war that had never happened.  And though he saw before his eyes all the horrors or war, all the killing and dying sprawled out on an endless field of mud and shattered trees, he was calm.  Kurtis would rise those mornings with his mind at ease and with a noticeable clarity to his thoughts.
As his eyes moved past his clock, he focused on the small picture frame sitting just behind it.  Held within the glass case was a drawing he had made of Julia, as despite his best efforts he had never found a picture of her, and so had to sketch her face from memory.  It had taken him a hundred tries to get her eyes to match the beautiful orbs that he had lost himself in countless times, and a hundred more attempts to curve her slight cheeks and sharp lips into their perfect shape.
Standing up, Kurtis moved towards the window of his small room and drew back the blinds. The rising sun had not yet crested the horizon, but the sky had turned from the deep black of night to a royal blue in anticipation of daybreak.  Below him, the city was already hard at work, pedestrians milled about on the strees, lunging and hopping between the dirty metal cars and trucks that pushed slowly through the crowds while coughing out thick clouds of black smoke.  Further on, there were massive smokestacks from the factory district that shot into the sky, pumping their own streams of smoke into the sky.  And then barely within view to his left stood the Workshop, the capital of Amalin, where the Clockmaker spent all of his days, along with most government workers.  It was easily the largest structure in the city, dwarfing even the greatest of factory plants and living quarters.  The main shape was a dome, but there were a couple towers that stood straight and tall.  To say it was imposing would not do it justice, as it was designed not only to be the seat of authority within Amalin, but also to be the last line of defence for its citizens in the case of an invasion by one of the other cities that existed beyond the wastelands which encircled the iron city.
After staring out the window for a few more minutes, Kurtis took a shower, then dressed himself sat quietly on his bed while he waited for a few more minutes to lapse before he left for work.  He never ate any food in the morning, as he received very limited rations and he much preferred to eat in once in the afternoon and then once more upon returning from work.  The room he lived in was small, and almost everything was made of metal, including the walls, floor, and his bed frame. It had rained a lot the last few years, such that the few fields that could nurture crops around the city were constantly flooded and food had grown scarcer and scarcer. The damp weather had also left its mark on the city itself, as the lower end buildings had become notoriously leaky, and the insides had streaks of rust along every wall, with Kurtis’ room being no exception.  His bedroom was his only private place, as he shared a cooking area and washrooms with several other tenants on his floor of Tower 144, his residential building.
Kurtis stared straight at his clock as it slowly ticked towards 7:00 am, and just as the second hand stood up towards the painted 12, so too did Kurtis.  It only took him three steps to reach his door from his bed, and from there he marched steadily past the kitchen and down the staircase that was littered with trash and had taken a yellow-brown glow to it.  At some levels on the way down, the light was not working, but the clocks always were.  Say what one might about the Clockmaker, Kurtis had never seen a clock malfunction in the slightest.
On the street, Kurtis stepped into the masses of other poor souls making their daily trek to work.  A delivery truck that had once been white sputtered past and the people that were walking through the middle of the street quickly jumped aside like water in a stream gently flowing around a rock.  And then just as quickly as they had gotten out of the way, people swarmed back into the streets when the truck had passed by.
Kurtis rounded a street corner, and as he began approaching a transport station, he began to hear the cries of a zealot above the usual drabbling of a crowd.  A few more steps and he was able to recognize the man shouting praises for the Clockmaker and the inhabitants of the Workshop.  It was a grizzly man who stood a head taller than the crowd, with a thick, messy beard and tangled hair drawn back behind his ears.  “The Clockmaker has won a thousand wars for Amalin, and destroyed a million enemies,” he shouted to the passerbys.  “No god has done so much for man and demanded so little.  He gives us all safety, food, and allows us to love.  He has stopped the horrors that mankind brought upon itself under guidance from our old leaders.  Even now, he is working to undo all of our wrongs and save humanity from itself.   I give a million praises to our salvation made human, and so should all of you…”
As Kurtis approached the zealot, he tried to pay him no attention, but he could feel the dark eyes find him through the crowd, and then the shouting suddenly stopped midsentence.  Kurtis somehow knew he had attracted the ire of the religious crier, and so lowered his head even further and continued walking, hoping the man’s eyes would go away and he would continue preaching for the Clockmaker.
But Kurtis felt no relief as he continued to walk.  He was now within a few feet of the crier, and he could feel his glare piercing right through him.  Kurtis began to feel very small and naked within the crowd, that somehow those eyes were not only exposing him to the zealot, but to everyone around him, and Kurtis tried desperately to shrink out of sight.  The eyes didn’t break focus though, and Kurtis desperately began to try and divert his attention to something else, but nothing could shake the haunting sensation of being completely undone by those dark eyes.
Finally Kurits could bear it no longer, and just as he was passing the bearded man, he peeked out of one eye and looked right back into those dark orbs.  As soon as he did, the fanatic’s face turned bright red with a hateful rage, and he began screaming with all his might.  “My brothers!  We have a dark presence amongst us!” he cried, pointing directly at Kurtis.  “This man seeks to subvert and destroy all that we have achieved together!”  A few heads turned towards Kurtis, but when they saw that he was an average citizen, they continued with their own business.
The zealot was unphased by the lack of a response, though, and continued screaming at Kurtis, “We have given him nothing but love and good fortune, and yet he strives to betray us all.  He loathes the Clockmaker and all of those hard at work to protect us.”
Kurtis was relieved to see that the fanatic was getting almost no response from the crowd, and soon he would be out of sight and likely out of memory soon after that.  From behind he could already hear the man begin his transition back into his standard preaching.  “But fear not, for one black-hearted man cannot stand against the Clockmaker and the might of Amalin.  He will be struck down and removed from existence.  The Clockmaker will be victorious just as he has been a thousand times over.”  And then just as Kurtis was moving beyond earshot of the man, he heard something that he considered quite humorous, “The Clockmaker controls the clocks, and so the Clockmaker controls time itself.  Such power can never be defeated.”
Kurtis chuckled as he considered the claim for a few seconds and found it absurd from every approach.  Clocks simply measure and keep track of time, saying they have any control over it would be akin to saying a measuring tape controls distances.
Stepping gingerly down the stairs to the transport station deep underground, Kurtis quickly glanced behind him to make sure that nobody in the crowd had taken inspiration from the fanatic and was now in pursuit of him.  Feeling safe, he continued on to the platform and awaited his train.  The station was dark, and the lights were flickering, but nobody paid them any attention.  For a few seconds at a time, the station would occasionally be put into complete darkness, but still nobody paniced, as it had been a common occurance for years now.
The train arrived on time, just as it always did, dirty and rusty with dim headlights and choking out vapours into the poorly ventilated station.  Kurtis stepped through the small doorways, pushing past the stream of people getting off, and then stood silently as the doors closed and the train sped away.  As Kurtis swayed back and forth with the movement of the train, he couldn’t help but shake his uneasy mindset as a result of both the dream and the fanatic.  If one had occurred without the other, Kurits likely would have simply just dismissed it as a trivial event, but two uncomfortable incidents before he had even arrived at work was too much to overlook.  It was hard to fathom that they were connected in some manner, and as best as Kurtis tried to relate one to the other, he was left with more quesitons than answers.
So deep in thought was Kurtis that he almost forgot to get off the train when it came to his stop.  Quickly hopping through the train doors as they began to close, he made his through the station and out into the street just a few buildings down from the Metropolitan Library, where Kurtis worked.
Just like every other day, there was nobody else in the library besides Kurtis and a handful of other employees.  They hadn’t had a patron for several years now, and Kurtis never really understood why they bothered to keep the ancient library open.  No new books had come in for as long as Kurtis had worked there, in fact he was quite sure that nobody in Amalin had even written a book within the last decade.  The shelves were filled with dusty leather-bound tomes, so old that they creaked and cracked like old floorboards on the rare occasions that somebody pulled them down.
Kurtis sat down behind the front desk, where he was meant to greet and assist any visitors to the library.  Beside him was Mr. Quick, the manager of the library and Kurtis’ boss, quietely reading a book with a plain red cover.  Kurtis had never learnt Mr. Quick’s first name, nor had he ever spoken to him much since he had begun working here.  Mr. Quick was satisfied with his position at the library, and spent much of his time reading various books that piqued his interest.  From the few things that he did say, Kurtis had realized that he was quite a smart and learned man, and rather enigmatic in his willingness to share wisdom.
Not being one for books, Kurtis spent most of his work hours sitting in silence at his desk.  There were a few other employees spaced throughout the library, but most were doing nothing more than he was. As the seconds slowly ticked away into minutes, Kurtis began to push the sense of uneasiness he had developed over the course of the morning out of his mind.  Maybe today would be a normal day after all, he thought to himself, but little did he know the day had only just begun.

 

 

 

Chapter 2

Kurtis watched the second hand slowly tick around its final lap of the clock face.  As it passed by the black twelve to signal five o’clock, Kurtis silently stood up and walked out of the library.  Striding down the front steps and into the sea of people wandering below, Kurtis felt himself being pulled in the opposite direction of the transport station which would take him back home.  He knew where his feet were taking him, but didn’t know why exactly he was taking this path.  It had been a number of months since he had gone this way, and as he thought about it more he knew it was something he needed to do.
The sun was just reaching down to touch the top of city skyline, which was comprised of countless black towers.  Soon enough the sun would be gone, and the Iron City was known to be an unfriendly place when lights were off.  All of the streetlights had been decomissioned due to lack of available energy to light the thousands that dotted the city streets, and so they stood as ancient relics, rusting away until people would no longer remember what they were and would likely scrap them for their metal.
Despite knowing the danger, Kurtis persevered, turning off one of the main roads and onto a smaller deserted sidestreet.  Ahead on his right, there was a homeless man sitting quitely, his knees held against his chest and his head hanging down.  Long grey curls fell to his shoulders and he had a short grey beard.
As Kurtis approached, the old man lifted his head and stared directly at Kurtis.  Initially, Kurtis feared that the man would go into a fit of rage just as the fanatic had earlier that day, but when he met the man’s stare, he was stunned.  It wasn’t that he recognized the man, or that he said anything delirious, it was those eyes.  Their colour was the purest blue Kurtis had ever witnessed, and they held a quiet yet powerful dignity behind them.  The man had a poweful jawline, which he held strong and noble.  Kurtis would have expected such a man to be a high-class governement official or an industry magnate of some sort, not be found here.
Kurtis continued walking, holding the man’s glare with his own.  Both men remained completely silent, and after only a few seconds the engagement was over, and Kurtis continued walking down the sidestreet.  It was an odd encounter to say the least, but nothing had come of it and Kurtis had other issues on his mind, and so his train of thought quickly moved on.
He turned again, onto a smaller and even darker street, at the end of which was one of the Deadman’s Stairs, a long, steep staircase of hard stone that led one from the Upper City to the Lower City.  Many men had slipped and fallen to their death on the unforgiving steps, and they were particularly vicious when slick with rain.
Halfway down the steps, Kurtis became enshrouded by thick fog, which always accumulated in the Lower City when the sun had gone.  To say that it was dark would be an understatement, as the sun had all but disappeared now, and Kurtis had to make sure every single step was well-placed so as to avoid a long tumble to his fate.  Each step carried the possibility of being a killer, but Kurtis continued steadily with his descent until he finally reached the bottom of the massive stairway.
After a few more turns and dark streets, Kurtis had arrived at his destination, and he stood silently in front of it.  The Wall of the Lost it was called, and once it had just been a non-descript building but in recent years it had become a thing of infamy within the city of Amalin.  It had begun slowly, with a few people fixing posters of missing loved ones, and over time it grew to where the posters covered a massive area.  The building was abandoned, but its roof had a large overhang, which protected the posters from the rain and allowed them to remain fixed for years.
The wall itself was massive, fifty feet high and a hundred long, and posters covered it from end to end, and went so high that Kurtis could no longer read the names.  All of the posters were hand-drawn, just like the one Kurtis had made for Julia, as if there were no more cameras in existence.  Initially Kurtis had considered it odd that none of these missing people had had a picture taken of them, or that such a picture was available, but as he searched his own small apartment, he realized how easily even the most important things can be lost.
For a long time he stayed in front of the wall, slowly moving from one end to the other, trying to remember where exactly he had placed the image of Julia.  It wasn’t that he just wanted to see her face again, as he had the same drawing back in his apartment.  When he was here, in front of this wall, he felt as if there was still hope.  Just seeing the poster would remind him that there was still hope.  She had disappeared, yes, but no trace of her had ever been found.  It was still possible that she would come running from the mists of the wastelands or be released from the hidden prison cells beneath the city or a hundred other options that would see her returned to Kurtis.  When he looked at that picture on his night table, though, it was as if he had given up, and was only remembering her through the good times they had while she was still alive and well.
Eventually he found it, and when he did he sat down on the ground and stared up solemnly.  It had been months since he had come here, and he always found it quite an intense experience to make the pilgrimmage. He could no longer remember how long it had been since she had been taken from him, nor had he any memory of the day when she did not come back from work.
All he had left, in fact, were just wisps of memories, not entire days or weeks, but just seconds, stroking her hair, holding her hand, her laughter sweet as chocolate.  There was nothing left of the big moments though, when they had met, their first date.  Everyday he berated himself for having let such important memories slip from his mind.
The seconds slowly ticked away into minutes, and those into hours.  It was now well into the night, and Kurtis hadn’t moved an inch since he had sat down.  The only light he had was the moon, crescent and occasionally blocked out as dark clouds passed in front of it.  The poster was barely visible anymore, and yet Kurtis still sat and stared up at it.
Behind him, Kurtis began to hear footsteps.  Not just one set though, but multiple people walking together.  He turned his quickly to see a group of young men approaching.  Standing up quickly, his heart began pounding in his chest and his palms turned sweaty.
Amalin’s undercity was feared because of thugs that wandered the streets during the night, and Kurtis knew that these men approaching had grave intentions.  Silently the men stepped forward from the fog, and slowed their walking pace as they approached him.
By their appearance, Kurtis could tell that his fears had come true.  There were six of them, and all had tough faces, which could have been taken as both ugly and handsome at the same time.  Two had facial scars, and another had a large one streaking up his forearm.  They were dressed in dirty, loose-fitting clothes, and each had a matching patch on their right sleeve.
Kurtis could have easily ran away before they had seen him, but for some unknown reason he stood where he was sitting just a moment before, directly beneath Julia’s poster.
The gang stopped a few feet from Kurtis, who still had not taken a step backwards.  For what seemed like ages, each party stood silently, glaring angrily at one another.  Kurtis had not been in a fight since his boyhood, but something told him that was about to change.
After what was in reality only a couple of seconds, one of the gang members called out to him.  “Who the fuck are you?” he asked stiffly.
Kurtis could see that one of the men was holding a revolver in his hand, holding it behind his leg but intentionally just within Kurtis’ sight.  Such a weapon was a rare commodity in Amalin, particularly in the Lower City where poverty was rampant.  These must be one the more prominent gangs for them to be so armed.  “Just a visitor,” Kurtis replied calmly, nodding towards the Wall of the Lost.
“Oh yeah?” the man called back, stepping towards the wall and looking up at all the posters.  “And which one’s yours?”
Kurtis wasn’t fooled by the mock sincerity the man was displaying, but decided he should probably play along.  “Her,” he answered simply, pointing to Julia’s poster.
“Ah, she’s pretty,” he said with a grin from ear to ear.  Behind him his cronies chuckled.  “Was she a sweet little girl?”
“She is fiesty, actually, and quite the temper.”  It was true, Julia would quite easily be sent into screaming fits.  Politics generally go to her the easiest, as she hated living in Amalin and blamed the Clockmaker everyday for her unending misery.  “But still sweet when she wanted to be,” Kurtis continued, even though he knew the thug had no interest in what he had to say, it was soothing for him to talk about her to somebody else.
The man laughed darkly, “Think she’s still alive do you?”  Kurtis held himself still, waiting for him to finish speaking.  Maybe he knew something about her.  At this point any information he could get would be a relief.  Even if she had died years ago, Kurtis still wanted to know her fate with all his heart.  “That’s almost as sad as all these other stories up here,” he said waving his arm at all the posters along the wall.  “Breaks my heart,” he finished with no amount of empathy in his voice.  “Every day poor souls like you come here to cry their eyes out and get my streets all wet with their tears.  But none of them ever face the truth: what’s gone is gone.  When the Clockmaker gets his greey little hands on somebody, he never lets go.”
Kurtis was confused by the last line, “The Clockmaker…” he started, but was cut off before he could finish his question.
“Now, on to business,” the man said ominously, turning to face Kurtis and all of the men taking a couple steps forward.  “I’m Robby, and we’re the Mordocks.  Now these here are my streets, and this here is my wall.  I don’t let anybody just use them, you know, how would I make any money that way?”
Kurtis stood still once again, not speaking, flinching, or backing up.  As the man approached even closer, Kurtis realized he stood a few inches taller than any of them, but that seemed not to phase them at all.  It was six to one after all, Kurtis told himself, and they’d likely seen a hundred encounters like this, while this was just his first.
“Not talkative anymore?  That’s alright, I can do the talking.”  Robby began walking around to Kurtis backside, as the others fanned out to encircle him.  Kurtis still stood just as was, turning his head to keep his eyes on Robby for as long as possible.  “Now there’s a toll to pay to use my streets, and to look at my wall, and to cry in my territory.  I just hate it when people cry on my turf, so that there’s gonna cost you.”
“I have no money,” Kurtis replied defiantly.
“Really?” Robby asked rhetorically.  “What do you think of that, Crissy?”
The man carrying the revolver replied angrily, almost screaming, “I think we should fuck him.”
Robby nodded, “Sounds good to me, fuck him up real hard, where the girl he fucked can watch.”
With that, the four men who hadn’t spoken stepped forward in unison.  They were each armed with a club, iron pipe, or another blunt weapon.  Now it was time for Kurtis to take a couple steps back, but he was still facing the thugs, not turning and running.
The first attacker jumped at Kurtis, swinging a his black club at Kurtis’ head.  With a deftness he had never known he had, Kurtis stepped aside from the blow and punched upwards catching the attacker in his throat.  The man crumpled to the ground, gasping loudly as he struggled to keep breathing.
It had happened so fast that Kurtis was in disbelief just as much as the five other ruffians.  Until now, they had looked confident and arragont in their handling of him, but in one quick instant Kurtis could see doubt creeping into their eyes.  The three attackers quickly glanced back to Robby for his instructions.
“Kill the fucker!” he screamed, livid with rage, and the three men turned their focus back to Kurtis, growling loudly as the stepped closer.
All three attacked at once, and it wasn’t so easy for Kurtis to find openings to strike.  Dodging each blow as they were thrown at him, he was backpedalling with his arms held up, praying that he did not catch a rut and trip backwards.  He was turning gradually as he backed up, and eventually he managed to isolate one the thugs on his own while the other two were stuck behind him.  Ducking under another vicious swing, he landed a powerful punch to the man’s gut.  As the man fell to his knees in pain, Kurtis grabbed the back of his head with both hands, and brought his right knee up to connect square with the thug’s face.  There was a crunch, as Kurtis felt facial bones crack and burst inward, and when he released the man, he fell silently on his side and lay motionless.
There was a grunt from behind him, and he knew right away that Robby was trying to blindside him.  Kurtis ducked quickly, and felt Robby’s club brush through his hair, but it did not connect with the back of his head.  As Kurtis stood up straight, Robby was stumbling forward and would have been an easy target, but the two other unnamed gang members were pressing the attack and Kurtis had to focus on them.
One of them came swinging high, and Kurtis caught the man’s forearm with his left hand, and delivered three blows in quick succession to the side of the man’s face.  He fell to the ground moaning and clutching himself in pain.
From the corner of his eye, Kurtis saw Crissy raising the revolver and pointing it right at him.  And from his other side the next attacker was lunging at him.  As Crissy brought the revolver level, he blinked, signalling that he was about to shoot, and Kurtis dropped to the ground as he could, landing on his hands and knees.
There was a bang as the gun was fired, and from above him Kurtis heard a soft thud and the thug jumping at him was hit by the errant shot.  Kurtis had no idea if the shot was fatal, and he had no time to check, as he bolted to his feet and began spriting the ten feet or so to Crissy.
The kickback from the shot had sent Crissy’s arm and hand soaring up high, and with each step Kurtis took towards the gun-bearer he could Crissy fighting harder and harder to bring the gun back to level and get a second shot.  If he managed to, there was no way for Kurtis to avoid this shot, he was in full tilt straight ahead and would be at point blank range.
Just as the gun was brought back to shoulder height, Kurtis dove at Crissy from over three feet away and just barely managed to get underneath his outstretched arm.  Wrapping his arms around Crissy’s midsection, Kurtis tackled him to the ground.  With one hand, he smashed his head against the hard asphalt, and with his other hand he grabbed the revolver from Crissy’s weak grasp.
In one fluid motion, Kurtis stood up, shot Crissy straight in the chest, and then pointed the revolver straight at Robby.  The last thug standing threw his arms up in the air, surrendering to Kurtis.
“Don’t kill me, please,” he whimpered.
Kurtis cocked his head to the side, “And why shouldn’t I?  I’d be doing Amalin a favour, taking out scum like you.”  Kurtis had never been so cold-hearted in all days.  He had always considered himself a compassionate individual, but he was very seriously considering murdering this young man right here.  Never had he been a violent person either, and yet he had just killed one man, and likely several more.  The strangest thing to him, though, was that he felt absolutely no remorse.  It was just like in his dreams, where he was a soldier in the midst of a terrible war, and he felt calm and at peace with everything in the world, as if he were curled up in his childhood bed.
Both men were breathing heavily as Robby stepped backwards, his eyes darting around looking for a way out, but Kurtis allowed him none.  “I can tell you what happened to her, if you promise to let me live.”
A dozen thoughts all crashed together in Kurtis’ head.  “What do you mean?” he asked angrily, “You know where she is?”
Robby shook his head, “No, but I know what happened to her.  You said she angry, right?  She was angry at the Clockmaker, wasn’t she?”
Kurtis was blown away by the last question.  It was definitely true, but how could this thug have known?  “Go on,” he instructed.
“I’ve seen a thousand of you, people come here every day to see the posters.  And every day I come have a chat with them.  I’m a curious man, and every one of these faces here had something against the Clockmaker.  Sure, they would call it by different names, ‘passionate’, ‘rebellious’, but it all comes down to the same thing.  They didn’t like the Clockmaker, and the Clockmaker didn’t like that.”
Kurtis was in disbelief.  “You lie,” he asserted strongly, “The Clockmaker protects us, he’s won a thousand wars, and saved our lives a thousand more times.  Why would harm Julia?  She disliked him but she was not going to do anything about it, she wasn’t crazy.”
“I have no idea what he had against your girl, but do you really believe he’s won all those wars for us?  I don’t remember going to war recently, and he’s only a man, he can’t be old enough to have even won more fought one or two.  Listen, when the world went to shit, and all the old nations tore themselves apart, the Clockmaker saw an opportunity. And he took it.  You don’t have to be a genius to figure it out.  The only wars he fights are against those who want him gone.  There’s nobody else beyond the wastelands, there hasn’t been for years.  We’re all that’s left of humanity, and he will do anything to keep power.”
“How do you know all this?”  Kurtis asked angrily.  “Last I checked gutter rats like you aren’t what I would call politically savvy.”
“When someone thinks they’re about to disappear, as they say, they come to me to get them out of Amalin.  I know a way through the sewers that leads to the wastelands.  I can’t say what happens to them after that, but I know that they’re scared shitless of the Clockmaker.  He’s not the guardian angel you take him for.”
It was a lot to process for Kurtis, and the more he thought about it, the angrier he became.  Thinking was causing the peace of mind he had just achieved the melt away, which only agitated him more.  All his life he had been told that the Clockmaker was the most noble of all men, that he had dedicated his entire life to protecting Amalin from the dangers beyond the wastelands.  He had been a humble tradesman when he was thrust into leading the last remaing bastion of human civilization from the ashes, and accepted it as his duty, not for any personal gain.
Without warning, Kurtis shot Robby straight through the forehead, a perfect shot from twenty paces.  As soon as he did, the world began to make more sense to him.  It was less confusing, less frustrating, and he was on the verge of smiling as he tucked the revolver into his pocket and began to slowly walk back towards Deadman’s Stairs.
“Impressive,” a gruff voice called out to him, and Kurtis whirled around, drawing the revolver and aiming it all in one quick motion.  “Six against one, and you walk away unscathed.  Where did you learn to do that?”  There was a form leaning against a building up ahead, and as Kurtis approached with the revolver pointed straight at whoever was standing there.
“Who’s there?” he called out, and just as he did, he recognized the homeless man he had passed in the alley earlier that night.
“You don’t look like a soldier, boy,” the old man continued, ignoring Kurtis request for a name.  “How did you learn to do that?”
Kurtis lowered the weapon and took a few steps closer.  “I don’t know,” he answered honestly.  “I’ve never fought before.  I’ve never done anything at all like that before.”
The old man sighed as he began walking down the street towards Kurtis.  As he passed by, he muttered something that Kurtis barely caught, “A dream, perhaps.”
As Kurtis was trying to wrap his head around what was just said, the old man disappeared into the fog.  Kurtis shrugged and decided that he best get home for the night.

Escape

21 Mar

It was raining.  Jacob barely noticed though, as he ran down the sidewalk, his black sneakers sucking in water with every step he took.  There were puddles every few feet along the cracked and uneven sidewalk, shimmering black pools that on any other day he would have very careful stepped around or across, but today he took no heed and barreled right through.  As a result, his jeans were thoroughly soaked below the knee and with every step he took he could feel the wet slap against the back of his calves.  His sweatshirt was equally drenched, he could feel the chill wind pass right through he fabric and embrace his shoulders.  Tiny droplets were intercepted by his face, as he crashed into them and felt them burst across his skin.  Once in a while one would catch him in the eye, and he would go into a momentary frenzy of blinking and facial convulsions, but it would pass just as quickly, and he would never let it interrupt his stride. 

The water streamed down his face, faster and more powerfully than it had ever done before, more than all the times he had clutched himself in the corner of his bedroom and wept for what had seemed like entire days, all the times he had sat naked in his bathtub with a razor blade in his hands, trying to summon a tidbit of strength.  It was stronger than when his mother had died, and he could not move though the wake had finished hours earlier, and across the cemetery a man stood waiting next to a small bulldozer, waiting for him to leave so the grave could be filled.  Most of all, it was stronger than when she had left, and Jacob had sat by the door for days on end staring and the wooden slab, hoping with all his worldly powers that the door would open and she would walk in.  He wouldn’t have cared to hear her apology or her reasoning, he wouldn’t have yelled at her about breaking his heart, he would have simply ran to her and wrapped his arms around her.

The memory was pushed from his mind as soon as soon as it appeared.  You can’t think about that now, he told himself, pushing his legs harder and faster even though they were already aching with every step against the slick cement.  You can’t think about anything, he commanded himself, They’re coming.  His heart was beating in his chest, and his lungs were screaming for air, but with every ounce of willpower he had within him he forced his body to keep moving, his arms pumping and his legs pushing him forward. 

You’re close now, the voice in his head told him, and it was true.  There were only a few small houses between him and his apartment building now, a three story block that stuck out among the the worn-down houses that lined his street.  The white paint, or stucco, or whatever it was covering the outside of the building had started to crack and peel long before he had moved in, and the years had not been kind to it.  Huge chunks of the material and fallen off, particularly around the base of the structure, where it merged into the lopsided driveway. 

Fumbling for his keys, Jacob leapt up the small set of stairs to the front door of the building.  His hands were wet and there was barely any light, but he chose the right key, and slid it perfectly into the lock on his first try.  Pushing open the door, he looked back down the way he had come for a quick second, and saw nothing.  He sighed with relief, and started into the building, but just as he did a set of headlights rounded the corner at the end of his street.  Fuck, he panicked, They’re here

The headlights blinded him as he looked closer, trying to see if he could identify the vehicle, but he had no such luck, and although it was just as likely to be one of his neighbors returning from a late night at the office, or a parent driving their child to a late night engagement, he knew he couldn’t take that chance, and continued his mad dash through the door and up the stairs. 

 There were lights in front of him, white and hot.  Even with his held shut tight, the lights were still painfully bright.  He held himself very still though, as he detected movement on the edges of the light.  They’ve taken me, he thought to himself, feeling his emotions start to rise, No, he replied calmly back, abducted.   That thought brought him a sort of peace, even though he was nowhere he had ever been before, and there was still something flickering just beyond his sightline.  Jacob was lying down, though he wouldn’t dare move himself around to see what he was lying, and something told him that even if he tried to move, he wouldn’t be able to.

Finally, a figure stepped in front of the lights, and muttered something he couldn’t understand.  Whatever this thing was, it had a low, rumbling voice.  It spoke softly at first, and for just a few seconds, then paused, clearly expecting an answer.  Jacob decided it was best to keep silent, until he could figure what was happening to him.

The figure grew angry at his lack of a reply, and his voice grew louder and more forceful.  It would repeat the same format of speaking, muttering something quick, then holding still as he awaited something in return.  After a few attempts, it gave up, and backed away until it had faded into the darkness, leaving Jacob with nothing but the bright lights again. 

The stairs were easy, he had climbed them thousands of times before, and even though his legs were screaming out in pain, he managed the three flights to his top-floor apartment.  He crashed through the door, and went straight for the windows.  He peered out one side, and after a few seconds of seeing nothing, he bolted to the other side of his apartment to look out onto the street which he had come from.  The vehicle he had seen from the front door was just in front of the building now, and to Jacob’s horror it was slowing down.  The brake lights flared obnoxiously in the dark night, and then they were suddenly extinguished.  The interior of the car lit up as four men immediately opened their respective doors and jumped out.  They raced to the front of his apartment building, and then the doorbell rang.  On the intercom, there was a strong voice demanding entry, but Jacob did not oblige them.  He thought of telling them to go away, or of asking them who they were, or saying a dozen other things, but he knew he had no time.

He grabbed the phone from the kitchen table, and dialed the number from memory.  Half his phone bill was calls to this number, and he rushed off to the bathroom as the call phone began connecting.  It rang once, twice, and then a third time, and with each ring the horrible thoughts in his head grew exponentially, and he could fill all his pores fill with sweat.  Finally it clicked, and he let out a sigh of relief, “Doctor Addison…” he started to say, but then he was cut off by the answering machine.  Of course Addison wasn’t there, it was well past midnight, how could he have been so stupid. 

Jacob screamed and threw the phone into the wall, where it shattered and left a fist-sized hole.  He turned to the medicine cabinet and flung open the door with such force that the entire unit shifted in the wall.  Furiously grasping at the dozens of small orange capsules that lined the shelves, he grew anxious and frustrated with each incorrect guess.  Where is it, where is it, he kept repeating in his head, examining each capsule individually, and tossing it aside when he decided it wasn’t the one he wanted.  He reached the last capsule, half filled with small white pills, and when he read the label and was disappointed, he tore the entire medicine cabinet from the wall in a shower of plaster and dust.  “WHERE THE FUCK IS IT?” he screamed. 

Dr. Addison sat across the room, in an unremarkable brown armchair.  Jacob sat on a couch across from him.  The silence was growing around him, wrapping itself around Jacob and weighing even his thoughts down.  Jacob didn’t wish to speak, as he truly didn’t know why he was here.  She had made him come, saying it would do him good, and begrudgingly he had accepted.  Dr. Addison wore a neutral expression on his face, and was sitting as still as Jacob was.  Neither of them broke the silence for what seemed like an eternity, and finally Jacob could bear it no more, he started laughing.  It was so absurd to him, that he would pay two hundred dollars to sit ten feet from this man and stare at his combed beard for an hour. 

Dr. Addison smiled, and asked him what was so funny.  Jacob dodged the question, and the man sat up in his chair.  “Have you ever been to therapy before?” he asked him blankly, indicating no preference for any answer Jacob would give. 

“Yes,” he answered, “just once.”

“Very well,” Dr. Addison had said, and he moved on, which Jacob was thankful for.  He didn’t want that to be the first thing he told the man.  But as the psychiatrist started rambling on about something Jacob had little interest in, he could not help but relive that memory.  It was the year his parents had thrown him out of the house, and he had dropped out of high school temporarily as a result.  His girlfriend of over a year had confessed her infidelities to him, and while he had rather far from sobriety.  In his drunken stupor, he began walking down a country right through the night, daring oncoming cars to smash into him and send him flying into the ditch.  The police had arrived all too soon though, and they began asking him questions.  In retrospect, he had been the instigator, and these two men were legitimately nice to him, but he wanted nothing to do but scream and break something.  He chose to break them, but before he could get within arm’s reach, one of them had shot him with their Tasers, and he collapsed to the ground in a fit of bodily convulsions, and passed out soon after.

When he woke, he was in a white room, on a thin mattress and under white sheets.  Sunlight was streaming in through a small barred window, and after a hearty pounding on the door, a woman dressed all in white calm to unlock him.  She had one of the most stupid smiles he had ever seen on her face, and was glowing with pure happiness.  Resisting a sudden urge to attack her, he sat back down, and waited in silence for a doctor to come talk to him.  Eventually one did, but he could hardly listen, too deep in his own thoughts, and soon after two days of sitting in that white room, his mother had shown up, only to drop him off at his shitty place group home, not the family house. 

Dr. Addison had asked him something, but he didn’t hear.  “I’m sorry what?” he asked quickly.

“Have you ever tried anti-depressants?” the man asked calmly once again, and Jacob decided he was starting to like the man, he appreciated the fact that he wasn’t trying to put forward a happy demeanor for no reason, nor was he trying to push his methods on Jacob. 

“No,” Jacob replied, and then Addison asked him about drug use, to which Jacob hesistantly admitted his history of various substances.  Once again though, the man sat there calmly, not judging him for all the times he had skipped class to get high, all the times he’d taken a pill so that he could feel happy for once that week. 

Jacob coughed up some dust as he left the bathroom, not bothering to clean up the mess nor turn off the light.  There was a crash down below, and he knew that whoever had been outside had just gotten inside the lobby.  There were now only three quick flights of stairs and a door between Jacob and them, and they clearly weren’t going to be slowed down by a door. 

Just as quickly as he had always been, Jacob began pulling out the drawers in the kitchen.  Cutlery crashed to the ground, and once he had to dodge a large knife which would have fallen straight into his right foot.  What the fuck are you doing? he asked himself angrily, You would never put it here, check somewhere else

With that, Jacob left the kitchen and ran to his bedroom.  It was a horrible mess, but he had never cared.  It was only for those few short months with her that he had ever bothered to clean or vacuum the place, and even though it had barely been more than a few weeks, the room had already gone back to a state of catastrophe.  Going straight to his desk, he immediately began throwing everything on it across the room.  Not here, not here he cried.  And then purely by accident he found something that made him freeze.  It was a framed picture of the two of them together, him holding her from behind while standing in a field on a sunny day.  He picked it up, and stared at it longingly, completely forgetting about his search.  The picture was so happy, it was so perfect.  Why had she left?  She had never given him a reason, she had left for work one day, and never came back.  He called her friends, and they wouldn’t tell him anything and when he had showed up without warning at her work and demanded to see her, they had to get security to remove him from the building. 

The lights were no less bright, but Jacob felt more powerful, he had more control now.  He stood, and looked back at the small chair he had been sitting on.  The figure moved back in front of the light, and it spoke again, but in a different voice.  Jacob could understand it now, but only barely.  It was asking about her, he realized after a few seconds.   Why would it want to know about her?  He couldn’t make sense of it, but he replied nonetheless, telling the shadowy figure that he hadn’t seen her in weeks, and that he didn’t expect to ever again.  The figure kept talking, unmoved by what he had said.  It asked how long they had been together, to which Jacob replied ten months.  He couldn’t remember exactly, but he figured it was close enough for whatever they wanted.  “Did you love her?” the thing asked next, and the question took Jacob aback for a second.

“Yes,” he replied, and it was true.  Jacob had loved her, and she had loved him, or so she had said.  “Do you know where she is?” he asked, hoping against hope that this was some kind of test done by her.  That that was all she wanted to hear, and then she would come running out to him.  The figure stood silent for a moment, and Jacob took another glance around him to see if his dream was taking shape, but she wasn’t anywhere to be seen.  He couldn’t see any door to the room, and after a few seconds he turned back to face the figure.

“Yes.”

There was a loud noise that caught him off guard.  It likely approached gradually, but Jacob was so enthralled with the picture in his hands that he had completely shut off the outside world.  Suddenly a blinding light flashed through the window, and Jacob tried to look out and see what it was.  It was coming from high above his apartment, and the noise was deafening. 

Jacob dropped the picture to the floor, and shut the blinds on the window.  The light still peaked through the cracks in the blinds, but it was no longer blinding.  What are you going to do? and to that he truly had no answer.  He stepped quickly back out into the kitchen, and his eyes went straight to the knives.  For me or them?  He grabbed the biggest one he had, with a blade a foot long.  Tapping it against the counter, he made up his mind and turned to face the sink.  He positioned the blade against his wrist and pushed hard.  The knife was dull and the blade straight, so it drew no blood yet.  Slice he ordered, knowing that all he had to do was give the knife a tug sideways.  The blade was digging into his wrist now, and a small trickle of blood appeared.  It was not enough to kill him, but as the first drip hit the basin, he had a change of heart.  Fuck you, he dropped the blade in the sink and ran back to his bedroom. 

There was a pounding at his door.  A voice yelled for him to open it, but ran right past it.  As he entered the bedroom, there was more pounding and yelling, growing louder and more forceful with each instance.  The picture was lying on the ground where he had dropped it, the glass frame broken.  Jacob turned off the lights and slowly approached the picture. 

Jacob walked slowly down the sidewalk.  The bus wouldn’t be here for another twenty minutes, he might as well take his time.  It was winter now, and it was easier to stay warm if he was moving and not standing at the bus stop.  Playfully he let out a deep breath, aimed upwards so he could watch the steam float away.  He let out a second breath at the corner of his pointed backwards and felt it roll across his cheek into the night air. 

He rounded the corner to the bus stop, wandering what collection of people he would be standing beside for the next quarter hour.  Instead of the usual mix of foul-smelling old people, loud and arrogant teenagers, and suit-wearing businessmen, there was only a single girl there, about his age.  She had her arms crossed in front of her, whether she was on guard or cold Jacob couldn’t tell.  He flashed a quick smile as he walked up to the stop.  As soon as he had stopped moving, he looked back at her, and she asked for the time.  Jacob checked his phone and answered, adding in a joke about how the bus schedule was terrible, to which she laughed.  They conversed for the length of their wait, and when the bus arrived, Jacob allowed her to step on first, and then took the seat opposite from hers.  They kept talking, and she laughed at a few more of his jokes.  When she finally stood up for her stop, a couple before his own, Jacob awkwardly asked her for a coffee.  The question caught her off guard, and she looked towards the doors of the bus before answering.  “No, sorry…” she continued on with an excuse, but Jacob didn’t bother listening.  He sat back down and missed his stop, making him walk an extra five minutes to his apartment. 

The picture was clutched firmly in his hands, and Jacob was sitting in the same corner he always ran to when he needed to escape from real life.  He stared deeply into the picture, running his finger over her blonde hair as he had done so many times when she was sitting with him. 

Jacob was screaming now.  He picked up the metal chair and threw it at the lights.  Several of them burst, allowing Jacob to get a look at the figure standing in front of him.  It was a man, probably fifty years old.  He had grey hair which was receding back along the top of his head.  Jacob kept screaming.  The words coming out of his mouth were in no specific order, and he could barely create the thoughts before they flew out in assault of this old man. 

As he continued to scream, he could feel the tears welling in his eyes, and could feel the sobs start to grab and clutch at his throat, turning his voice raspy, and slowing down his pace to take deep breaths and calm himself.  The man had told him something, something important that had sent him into this frenzy, but now he could not remember what it was.  It was about her, as most of his yelling was about how he loved her so much and she had been the greatest thing to happen to him his entire life.  But for the life of him, he could not remember what the old man had just told him moments ago.

Jacob heard the front door burst open.  There was more shouting and heavy footsteps started spreading out across his apartment.  After only a few seconds, somebody kicked in his bedroom door, and light flooded into his sanctuary of darkness.  There were a number of men standing in the doorway, and they were focused on him.  Slowly, they began spreading out around the room, forming an arc around him.

One stepped forward, “Will you come with us?” he asked.

Jacob stood up, and looked around him slowly, taking a look time to scan every man inside the room with him.  Then he looked back at the man who had spoken to him.   “Yes,” he said softly, and in that moment, Jacob remembered exactly what he had done to her. 

 

Mother Mechanical

21 Mar

Everything’s grey.  That was the first thing Milas Moore noticed as he looked out his window one morning.  The sky’s grey.  He could hear a few raindrops landing as he looked upwards.  There were no cloud formations, no blue peeking out on the horizon.  It was simply grey everywhere, and Milas could not even tell where the sun was, hiding behind the iron shield protecting over the world.  The buildings are grey.  In the distance, there were three high rise apartment buildings, likely built thirty years ago, that stood proud and tall after decades of abuse from man and Mother Earth alike.  Sometimes he would see light coming from the windows which speckled the sides of those behemoths, or sometimes the sun would reflect off the face of one building or another and stand as a beacon, but today they were simply sleek grey with the dark windows dotting their exterior.  Around the apartment buildings, dark roofs from small two-story houses covered the landscape like dead leaves fallen from once-mighty trees.  The trees are grey.  It was March, and it had been months since any of them had some colour.   All of them were just trunks, darkened by the rain.  They grew crookedly, with bursts of off-shooting branches occurring at random, and making no concerted effort to accomplish anything.  The branches just hung there, limp and useless, as they had for so many months.

Milas would have called the view beautiful, had it not been for the trees.  They were ugly and savage, and would spring up uninvited from behind a cozy a little house in order block everything behind from view.  The houses were not upscale by any means, but Milas would without hesitation argue for their aesthetic merits.  They were small, but there was something about the way the red bricks tenaciously held their colour, or how the rust had streaked down the off-white plaster that made Milas truly appreciate his view.  It’s just those fucking trees.

Walking down the street, on his way to work, Milas was happy.  He passed strangers on the sidewalk, none of whom he knew, but they were so perfect, so cold, so unwavering in their emotional lock.  They bit their tongues, shut their jaws and kept their eyes fixed three feet ahead of them.  Milas examined everyone he walked past, and they never so much as flicked their eyes towards him.  Milas could only wish to be one of them; he wished it with all his heart.  Their faces were so calculated, so programmed and sublime.  They were sleek and efficient, and he was wasteful in every way he could think of.

Even from this perspective, everything was grey to him.  The sidewalk was grey, and covered in grey sand that was spread to help give traction on ice, which had melted a little while ago.  Soon the street cleaners would come and take all the grey sand away, leaving the grey sidewalk alone with the grey road.  Such an elegant solution, Milas thought.

And then an overweight girl appeared, not obese, just round.  And Milas hated her.  Every sentiment he could control, he directed it at this unknowing target in the form of pure uncut hatred.  How dare she be that way.  How dare she not seek to epitomize the human ideal of beauty.  She was walking without assumption, and just trying to keep her head low, but Milas could not help but single her out.   Who the fuck does she think she is.

She passed, and just as she did, so did all the anger in Milas.  He was not surprised by his outburst though, nor was he apologetic.  She deserves it, he told himself.  She’s not smooth, she’s not efficient.  But just as those judgements passed through his mind, they were turned inward.  You’re not made of steel, you don’t gleam when polished.  You’re still human.

It was still raining softly, and every drop made Milas uncomfortable.  It was a downpour of imperfections waiting to take hold on him.  He wanted to run, to escape the storm, to be dry forever, but he kept telling himself that that would be improper.  That it would only put him further from those he yearned to be amongst, and closer to that horrible bitch.  Milas must simply accept that it is raining, that for some reason beyond his understanding, it was an ecological imperative that this section of the world be sprinkled with water.  He tolerated it, as he forced himself to, but it made his joints ache, his skin itch, and made all of motions awkward with a notable lack of fluidity.  Milas hated himself for this, he shouldn’t react at all.  He should recalculate his situation, and put the rain out of the equation.  That’s what everyone else does.

Milas got to where he was walking, a bus stop, where he waited in shelter from the rain, but still aching and miserable to his core.  You should feel no misery, he chided, no pain, no ache.  He stood there for some time, as more people gathered around him, standing perfectly still as they too waited for something that would soon be coming for them.  Milas could only wonder about what was going through their minds, were they thinking about the others standing next to him, just as he was, or were they doing something more meaningful with they mental energy.  Were they calculating something, or preparing for something else.   Milas carefully looked at each one of them, standing there so perfectly still and emotionless.  Yes, he thought, they must be doing something better than me.  That’s what makes them better than me.

Milas pushed these thoughts from his mind.  His bus arrived, and it took him to his work.  He put his head down and worked.  He was efficient in his work, but so was everyone else.  He was quick and calculating, but so everyone else.  He never said anything, but neither did anybody else.   You’re becoming one of them, he told himself, just keep working, just keep your eyes down and your mind where it should be. 

And so hours passed without event.  Milas was proud of himself.  For a full day, he never let himself get distracted; he never let himself stray from his work with an errant train of thought.  His superiors took no notice of him, but that’s exactly how it was supposed to be.  The nail that stands out gets hammered, he told himself, and they are very good at hammering wayward nails.

After a full day of consistent work, Milas left, feeling only the slightest tang of pride and excitement for how he was progressing, even if he was still behind everyone else.  You’re getting there, he told himself, as he stood straight and without a sound at the bus stop, once more surrounded by unfamiliar, yet heroic faces.  As he pushed himself to stand stiller and stay quieter than he had ever before, Milas’ respect kept growing for these people around him.  They are true warriors, he thought, they stand tall against whatever nature throws at them.

Milas walked home, at a brisk pace, each step fell perfectly in line with the previous, and they were each sewn together seamlessly into the most fluid walk Milas had ever achieved.  He did not let himself feel proud though, he did gave himself an emotionless recognition of a great feat conquered, and then put it into the archives of his mind.  Upon entering his home, Milas walked to his bathroom and stripped himself of his clothes.  Turning to face the mirror, he had to fight every urge within himself to keep from shouting in excitement.

There it is, he proclaimed,  It’s happening.  His skin had developed an inhuman sheen to it, and although it was faint now, Milas knew it was only a matter of time before he would become one of them.  He stood naked in front of the mirror for a little while longer, and while at first he was excited to see the glossiness of his skin, he was now taking note of his body in a way he had never done so before.  It was efficient, in a way he had never realized.  In the same way that ferocious beasts of prey had massive muscles and razor sharp teeth to optimize their killing capabilities, Milas’ body had become optimized for what he needed.  He was slim, with no body fat, and traces of muscular tissue, though not overly so that one would assume he had wasted time exercising.  The body is only required to be good enough so that it does not impede or distract the mind, nor would it discourage reproduction.

Milas stood in judgement of himself for a few minutes more, until he had decided objectively that he was acceptable.  He then ate a balanced meal for dinner, and went to sleep promptly.

Milas woke the following day to be greeted by a world as grey as the one he had left the day before.  He peered out his window, at the grey sky, the grey buildings, and the grey trees.  The trees were still as awful as they were the day before, but Milas countered his inherent disgust for them by arguing that they were ecological imperatives, that without trees life would not be possible in the world.  And so he tolerated them.  Despite their poor aesthetic presentation, they were still effective and efficient at accomplishing their given task, which made it so Milas could not logically propose their lack of existence to himself.  They just need to less random, Milas thought to himself, more controlled and straightforward in their accomplishing of their given tasks.  It would be rather easy to develop an algorithm for trees, which would dictate at which point their branches split and developed leaves so as to maximize their solar intake.  But that was not Milas’ task, and he decided such a project should be carried out by those whose task it was to improve upon the trees.

Milas looked past the trees, and where just the previous day he would have said the rest of his view – the buildings, the sky, the roads – were beautiful, today he could no longer agree with that judgement.  He no longer saw the buildings and the road aesthetically.   They had been built for the sole purpose of providing support to people, and had never been designed with beauty as a factor, and so Milas no longer judged them by that standard.  They accomplished what they were designed for, the buildings provided shelter to countless people, and the roads allowed people to get where they wanted faster.  Beautiful was no longer part of the equation to Milas, and as he ran that realization through his mind a couple times, he could no longer understand what beauty was.  It was a subjective way of judging the objective.  Beauty had no use in realistic terms, and yet it had been such an important concept in his life up to now.  Every time he saw something new, it would be first and foremost be judged by its beauty, but now Milas saw how vain and archaic this was, that nothing should ever be judged by its appearance, only by its use.

It was time to go to work, and so Milas walked himself down the street with unprecedented consistency to his steps, and a lack of attention given to his passerbys.   Just as they walked past him without so much as noticing, keeping their faces locked in a cold blank state, so too did Milas.  He matched them with every bit of efficiency he could muster, never wasting energy to turn his head or flick his eyes away from where they needed to be.  The rain drops simply bounced off of him, without getting any particular notice other than the affirmation that it was indeed raining.

Milas stood at the bus stop without so much as giving the other people around him a thought.  They stood motionless, and so did he, and that was all there was to it.  To move or speak or even think unnecessarily would be a waste, and so Milas never did any of those horrible things.  The worst crime is inefficiency, he quickly realized, and from then on every act of inefficiency was treated as an ideological transgression.  He got on the bus and sat at the closest possible seat to the door.  He arrived at work and set himself deep into his tasks, never thinking a wayward thought about what others might be thinking or doing, and at the end of the work day, he brought himself back home, never thinking of what others were doing, but giving himself a quick acknowledgement of a day efficiently spent.

It was while walking back from the bus stop to his home that he saw her again, the same rounded, curvy girl that had walked past him the day before.  Yesterday, she had been less than optimal but his original quarry with her was that she was subjectively unattractive, which no longer was an effective method of judgement for Milas.  Today, he looked up her with utter disgust.  She was barbaric.  She was a heathen.  She was un-eternal.  She was a rapist.  Everything about her stood in defiance of the great principle of efficiency, and she was a blight on the world.

Milas knew what he had to do.  Just as antibodies within him purge his system of cancerous cells, and antivirus programs delete harmful programs from a computer, Milas must be the antivirus of society.  She was simply an inefficient program, and through her existence she was preventing the entire world of running at maximum efficiency.  It was his task to eliminate this cancerous cell before it grew to be an even greater leech on the body of society, before she required more medical attention that the average person, and in all probability end up taking more from society than she would give back.  She may be smart, and she may, in all possibility, make a meaningful intellectual contribution to society, but such distant and unknowable possibilities only added a very small positive to her already negative equation.  She could just as equally be below average intelligence, and then she would be a burden on society in more than one way.

Milas quickly did the math, and although she was only slightly imperfect from a physical efficiency standard, it was too much.  Such blatant disregard for the supreme ideology of efficiency pointed towards rebelliousness or a lack of intelligence necessary to calculate the perfect balance of human life, both of which are horribly and unacceptably inefficient.  The result came back to Milas before even second had passed, and although there were still much room for her to prove her worth, she was still below average, and would still, by sheer mathematical probability, never be as efficient as society required her to be.

And so Milas acted as an antivirus for society.  He analyzed the subject, and determined her to be a risk to society, though not a direct harmful threat, but it made little difference.  In order to run at maximum efficiency, every risk needs to be neutralized, as destroying a potential threat in error is much more efficient than not destroying it, and allowing it to grow and metastasize upon the inner organs or society.

The girl walked past Milas on his left, but before she had gotten more than a foot behind him, Milas did what he had never done before, but which he had reasoned to be the best course of action.  He took one step out of line with his right foot, and planted it behind her.  He turned around quickly and placed his hands of the sides of her head.  Before she could even react, Milas gave her head a quick jerk and snapped her neck.  It worked as planned, and she simply fell to the ground, dead.  She didn’t bother Milas with any struggling or asking of useless questions.  She simply ceased existing, allowing society to move forward without her as a burden.

Milas thought no more of it, and continued on his way home.   He went straight to the mirror, and was satisfied with what he saw.  His skin was now grey, tinted the colour of metal, but still highly polished and smooth.  There were no wasteful emotions to be seen across his face, and his body was perfect.  He was in as good of physical condition as one would hope to be, without wasting bodily energy and time trying to improve a rather unimportant part of society.  It would be much better if he concentrated that much harder on his work, or was required to intake that much fewer calories in order to maintain a healthy nutritional standard.

Milas Moore was a finely tuned machine, working at the epitome of efficiency for society.  He gave all that he could, and did whatever he was tasked with, but took no more than he absolutely needed.  That is how civilizations are built, he told himself, when every member of society contributes more than they take away.  There was no room for emotional weakness when trying to become the most powerful engine of human creation and progression that had ever been realized.

Milas ate his dinner, and went to sleep.  He woke and decided that in order to maintain optimal efficiency, he need to examine himself quickly every day to make sure he was not defective.  He once again stood in front of the mirror, and quickly ran over his body.  It was going well, and Milas was impressed with what he saw, until he looked down at his feet.  There, on his right ankle, was a brown spot, where there should have been more glossy metallic silver.  He didn’t know what to make of this, but it did concern him.  Milas quickly made some calculations, and decided that as long as such a thing was not compromising his efficiency, then it was better not to waste thoughts on it.

Milas went to work that day, same as the previous day, and returned with a silent acknowledgement of time and energy well spent.  He was walking home from the bus, and noticed  slight ache in his right ankle, a joint pain that he felt with every step.  Upon arriving home, Milas inspected his ankle once again, and much to his horror, the brown spot was spreading.  It was up to his right knee and had jumped to his left leg as well.

Milas did not eat dinner, and had a less than optimal sleep, partly out of worry for what was happening to him, and partly because his aching legs prevented it.  He woke up the following morning barely able to move his legs or bend his knees.  He could quite easily see that the brown scourge had moved up to his torso, as well as creeping from his hands up his arms.  Around his ankles, where this horrible thing had started, Milas’ skin had turned red and orange, and the flesh had started to peel away.  Milas lifted his bed covers, and found small flakes of his skin covering his mattress.  He picked at his legs, and a huge chunk of skin and flesh simply fell away from his leg.  I’m rusting, he realized, but he did not panic.  Milas simply recalculated his existence with the new evidence before him, and the answer was quite obvious to him.

Limping and hobbling in pain, Milas walked out of his home while leaving a note on the front door “Empty home – take if satisfactory.”  Milas slowly walked the short distance around behind his house, to where the trash bins were.  It was still four days before they were to be emptied, he knew, but it would not do for him to waste any more resources.  He pulled himself into the largest bin, and lay down on top of all the material waste.  This is where you belong, he told himself, you are now a wasteful human.  He was unsure whether he would starve, die of thirst, be ground to a pulp by the waste processing plant, or whether the rust would simply kill him, but Milas had completed his task.  He had given what he could to society, and then removed himself when he had become obsolete.  He was not happy, he was not proud, he was simply never going to trouble the world any more, and that’s all he ever wanted.

And that is how Milas Moore, the last human being, turned to metal.

Hello world!

21 Mar

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