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.
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.
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.
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?”
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.
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…
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?”
“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.
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?”
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.
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?”
“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.