By J. L. Harden
Chapter 1 4
Chapter 2 5
Chapter 3 7
Chapter 4 9
Chapter 5 12
Chapter 6 18
Chapter 7 22
Chapter 8 24
Chapter 9 30
Chapter 10 32
Chapter 11 35
Chapter 12 37
Chapter 13 41
Chapter 14 43
Chapter 15 46
Chapter 16 49
Chapter 17 50
I’m somewhere in the Buried City.
Somewhere below the Wasteland.
I’m in a bar, drinking what passes for beer these days. I’m in a bar because humans are fucking weird and even though it’s the literal end of the world, we still need to get a buzz on.
I’ve had ten beers.
But the beers are just chasers.
Because what I’m really drinking is something stronger. A fortified brew that tastes like gasoline. But it does the trick. Dulling the senses and memories, making me forget where I am and who I am and what I’ve done.
The beers are just for chasing away the taste. And to chase away a feeling I’m getting in my stomach. To chase away my nerves, to calm my nerves.
Because I just met a girl. An angel. An angel who has no business being in a place like this. She came up to me not even ten minutes ago. It was like she was looking for me.
She knew my name.
She was friendly.
And I didn’t ask questions. She told me her room number. She told me the door wasn’t locked.
Maybe I should’ve asked questions. Maybe I should’ve told her to get lost, to find some other mark. But like I said, this is the end of the world and I’m a lonely son of a bitch.
She left, begging me with her eyes to follow. I turned back to the bar and finished my drink.
And downed the chaser.
And now a tap on my shoulder. A guy. Tall and thin. He has a scar over his left eye and an expression on his face that says he’s all business. That he’s a consummate professional. He’s wearing a poncho, and I can’t be certain, but I think underneath the poncho he’s wearing a thermo suit. I’m thinking he must be a Merc from the nicer part of town, but I can’t be certain because this guy is dressed like he’s hiding something and I’m pretty damn drunk.
My vision is blurry.
I can’t be certain.
This guy has a beer in his hand but he’s not drinking it. Not like you’re supposed to drink a beer. He shows me a picture of a girl. He asks me if I’ve seen her and even though I can’t get her out of my mind… I lie.
I lie and I say, “I’ve never seen her before.”
And then I tell the truth. I tell the truth and I say, “I’ve never seen anyone like her before.”
The man leaves and he leaves his beer on the bar and I’m too drunk and careless and arrogant to even think this could be a problem.
I make my way to the room upstairs. She’s there. Waiting. And I’m suddenly aware of the heat.
It’s hot. Because it’s always hot.
Sweat covers our bodies.
I ask her what her name is, trying to make small talk because even though I’m drunk and my guard is lowered and my inhibitions are gone, I’m nervous.
She can tell.
And she says, “My name doesn’t matter…”
“It matters to me.”
She has her arms around me. She wears nothing but a smile. Except it’s not really a smile. It’s not real. It’s a mask.
She thinks for a second, too long. She whispers, “Ruby.”
“Like the jewel…”
“Yeah,” she says quicker. More eagerly. “Just like the jewel.”
Her skin is soft. Too soft.
Everything is soft.
She might be an angel. I might be dreaming.
She inhales sharply as I put my hands on her hips and pull her close.
I ask her where she’s from.
And she says, “Wonderland.”
I guess she’s running from an abusive husband. Maybe he’s a Wasteland Raider. Those guys are nuts. People think I’m crazy. People think me and my brother are insane. But we’ve got nothing on those guys. Raiders constantly venture above ground, out into the Wasteland, out into the scorching, deadly heat. People say the Red Giant cooks their brains. I’d have to agree with those people.
So yeah, maybe she’s running from an abusive husband or boyfriend. Or girlfriend. Then again, maybe she just wants some excitement in her life. A fling.
Maybe she just wants to know that men still find her attractive.
I can vouch for that.
And now she knows it, if she ever doubted it.
I kiss her and she shivers.
In the heat.
In this goddamn, unrelenting heat.
I ask her, “What’s wrong?”
“I’m scared,” she answers, her mask slipping away for the briefest of moments.
“Because I know secrets. I know things I’m not supposed to know.”
“What do you know?”
She places her hand at the back of my head. She grabs a fistful of my hair. She kisses me and whispers… “I know everything.”
She fell asleep in my arms, covered in sweat, cold to the touch.
Even in this heat.
I didn’t think about it. Didn’t think.
Because I wasn’t thinking.
Can you blame me?
She was a goddess and I was in heaven. Drunk and in heaven.
She was shivering. She was cold. Covered in sweat. No one is cold in this place.
Not in the Buried City.
Not in the Wasteland.
Not on Earth.
I’m still holding her in my arms and I don’t know when to let go. I don’t know how to deal with this. I don’t know how to deal with this because I don’t want to acknowledge exactly what went down.
Ruby… if that was even her real name, she was poisoned. I don’t think she knew she’d been poisoned. Not until it was too late.
I place her gently on the bed and cover her with the sheet. I stand over her with my head lowered. I don’t say a prayer because I don’t really know any. And I’m not the world’s biggest fan of religion.
So I just stand over the bed, beside the bed, standing over Ruby, as a mark of respect.
She said she was from Wonderland.
She said she knew secrets.
Maybe she was telling the truth.
And maybe this is why she’s dead.
Her skin, her hands, they were so soft. Softer than any I’ve ever felt. And now my instincts are kicking in, survival instincts I was born with and spent a lifetime honing by necessity. To survive in the Buried City, to survive in the Wasteland, hell, to survive on Earth, you need to be stronger than the next person in the food chain. And the next.
Ruby was not strong.
She was soft and smooth and pale.
Her skin had never been kissed by the Red Giant.
And she was scared. She was downright terrified.
Of who? Of what?
There’s no way she was from the Buried City. She was too clean and too nice.
Maybe she was from the Deep Canyon. I shake my head. No. There’s no way. So maybe she really was from Wonderland. But if she was, then what the hell was she doing here? Why the hell would anyone leave Wonderland?
Old timers, they talk about nights of passion. They can’t help themselves. Whenever they get together, whenever they get a sympathetic ear, they end up talking about a night, one night, during the last of the Great Wars, before the Truce, before the Arks were built. The old men talk about when they were just boys, child soldiers ordered into battle, into fierce urban warfare in ruined cities.
They didn’t think they’d survive the night. Or the next day.
The fear of dying alone is a terrifying one. So they’d share the night with a stranger, and if they were lucky enough to survive the killing, they’d never forget.
I wonder… was this the same for Ruby? Did she know she was going to die? Maybe she just didn’t want to die alone.
Then again, maybe she sought me out for protection. She knew my name. She knew where I’d be.
She found me.
It’s my damn reputation. A consequence of my actions in a past life, a consequence of my various professions, of years of being me. But if that’s the reason, if she really did seek me out for protection, then I failed her. I failed her miserably.
Before I can even think about feeling angry and sorry for myself, there’s a knock at the door.
A loud knock.
A forceful knock.
Whoever is on the other side is not going away.
I’m expecting the door to come flying off its hinges any second now. But it doesn’t. They actually give me a warning. How nice of them.
“Open up. This is Immigration and Wonderland Border Control. We know you’re in there.”
And I’m wondering how… how do they know? And I’m wondering what the hell they’re doing here at the crack of dawn.
In this part of town.
In this part of the Buried City.
Wonderland Enforcers never leave the confines of Wonderland. Not unless something big is going down.
The hairs on the back of my neck stand up and my eyes go wide. My heart races and a jolt of adrenalin shocks me wide awake. I’m not a morning person. Never have been. Never will be. But right now, I am awake. My eyes are open. And despite the large amount of alcohol I have recently consumed, my head is clear.
These guys are up to no good.
And I’ll be damned if I’m going to be framed for Ruby’s death.
These guys want to play dirty?
Then it’s time to get dirty.
It’s time to welcome them to the Buried City.
The knocking continues.
Louder and longer than I expected.
I’m guessing they’re trying to make a show to the neighbors, to whoever is around to witness this. They want everyone to know that they, the Wonderland Enforcers, they did things by the book. That they gave ample warning before they crashed the door, before they opened up. That they’re good guys.
They were hunting down a fugitive, bringing down a bad man.
A bad man who killed a nice girl.
It’s a good story. It’s airtight. It’s bulletproof.
And I don’t mind. I don’t mind being the bad guy. I’ve been the bad guy my whole life. So if they want to take their time and give me a verbal warning. Fine. It gives me a chance to say goodbye to a girl I didn’t really know.
“Open up, Hector. We know you’re in there. We’ve got a dozen witnesses saying they saw you with the girl.”
No, they don’t. They don’t got shit.
But they know my name.
They know my history.
And they’ve got a story.
I kneel down and touch Ruby’s hand. I don’t say anything. I don’t need to. I kiss her hand, her cold, soft hand. I make a promise. And I still can’t figure out what the Enforcers are doing here. The only person they answer to is the Lord of Wonderland. Or maybe the Collector. We regular folk try and buy them off with food and water. Booze and drugs. But they can’t be bought. They are untouchable because they can get all of that and more from behind the walls of Wonderland.
Which is one reason why they rarely leave.
Wonderland is a paradise, a utopia. The last stop before the Arks, before Salvation from the Red Giant. The other reason the Enforcers never leave Wonderland is because it’s just too damn hot in the Wasteland. You need to be tough to survive out here. Even with all the tech these guys have. Enforcers have the latest and greatest thermo regulator suits. These suits do an amazing job of regulating your core body temperature. But if they break, if the battery runs out, that suit will be the suit you’ll be buried in. It will become a wearable coffin.
So the question remains, what the hell are they doing here?
Who sent them?
Was it the Lord of Wonderland?
Or was it the Collector?
The knocking continues…
“Hector? It’s the Sherriff. Come on, buddy. Open up. There’s a squad of Enforcers here and more Mercs than I’ve ever seen in one place. Come quietly and you won’t be harmed.”
The Sherriff is a good woman. Well, she’s still a girl really. Young and naïve.
Full of hope and energy.
I’m not even sure how she got the top job. It’s not that she’s not capable, she’s plenty capable. She’s the best damn Sheriff this city has had in a long time. It’s just that there were other people, hard men, old and crusty men who had paid their dues and served their time.
And then the Mayor goes ahead and names little Zoe Harrison as the sheriff.
With the stroke of a pen, the nod of a head, the Mayor pissed off a lot of people. I personally think he chose Zoe so he could manipulate her, so he could groom her.
He has had no such luck.
Anyway, right now, Zoe is giving me the heads up. Giving me a run-down of what is waiting for me out in that narrow hallway of this sleazy hotel.
A squad of Wonderland Enforcers.
A bunch of desperate and hungry Mercs.
Thank you, Zoe.
I owe you one.
The door flies off the hinges and it’s time to get down to it.
I’m expecting the Enforcers to open fire. But guns are rare. Bullets are rare.
Rare and expensive.
So they send in the Mercs first and their weapons of choice are wooden batons.
One lucky bastard has a sword.
I throw these Mercs to the floor, breaking arms and hands. I stomp on their faces, making sure they stay down.
And they do. They stay down.
I’m pretty sure they’re all dead.
I can tell within seconds that the Enforcers are regretting their decision to not use deadly force, to save their bullets, to try and take me alive. But I know it won’t be long before some hero decides to draw on me and open fire.
So I keep moving.
Most of the Enforcers and the rest of the Mercs have fallen back to a lower level of the hotel. I see some of the Mercs are armed with guns. None of them are drawn. None of them are aimed at me.
Zoe is nowhere to be seen. Smart girl.
Only two idiots remain.
Two elite soldiers from Wonderland.
They die quickly. Easily.
Their guns are still in their holsters.
Two dead Enforcers.
If I wasn’t in trouble before, I sure as hell am now.
I make my escape. I leave the building.
I know the Enforcers and the Mercenaries are waiting for me. I know they have blocked off all the exits. But they don’t know all the exits. They don’t know this place like I know this place.
So I leave this seedy hotel. I leave Ruby, dead and cold, covered by a sheet.
I escape unseen.
I move quickly because I know it won’t be long before they get sick of waiting, eventually they’ll figure out that I’ve given them the slip, eventually they’ll come looking, eventually they’ll tear that building apart in a desperate search for me.
And when they don’t find me, they’ll come hunting, chasing.
So I don’t have long.
I need to keep moving. I need to speak to the only person I can trust right now. I need to talk about Wonderland Enforcers and murdered girls. I need to say these things out loud and get these crazy thoughts out of my head. Basically, I need someone to tell me that I’m not fucking insane, that the scene back in that seedy hotel room was real. That I did the right thing. That I’m fully and totally justified in getting my revenge and killing a whole lot of people in the process.
My brother lives in one of the nicer parts of the Buried City. By nice I mean the water is usually flowing, the power is usually on, and the roaches and the rats aren’t so damn big. He chooses to live in the nicer part because he can. He can afford it and no one was going to tell him otherwise. And now that we’re both essentially retired, he’s got no use for hanging out in the rougher parts. He’s got no use for fraternizing with the rougher people.
I make my way to his apartment. The door is locked but it makes no difference to me. I’ve known how to pick a lock before I could throw a punch.
My brother is awake, sitting in a chair, drink in his hand.
He was waiting for me.
Or for someone.
He turns a lamp on and I look away so as to not ruin my night vision.
“You armed?” I ask.
“Should I be?”
I look over, initially blinded by the light. He shows me a hand held gun. A relic. An antique. A treasure worth more than our lives combined. Hell, the bullets contained within the magazine alone are worth more than our lives combined.
“I’ve been seeing a lot of those things today,” I say.
“In the hands of the Enforcers no doubt.”
“Mercs don’t usually have guns.”
“I guess someone is supplying them.”
“That someone being from Wonderland.”
“Why are you awake?” I ask. “Why have you got your back to the wall?”
He puts the gun away, somewhere in the waist of his pants, somewhere near his knife. “A man came to see me yesterday.”
“He was asking about a girl. He knew I used to be a transporter. Back when we had people to transport. Thought I might have helped her.”
“Helped her? With what?”
“He wouldn’t tell me. Not at first. But it doesn’t take a genius to figure this out. She escaped from Wonderland. She stole something from the Collector.”
Ruby. She was scared. She was on the run. No wonder she was hanging out in that bar, in that part of town. No wonder she wanted me in her room. Lot of good that did her.
“What did she steal?” I ask.
“He didn’t say. But does it really matter? You steal from the Collector, or from the Lord, your life is over.”
“Why the hell would anyone steal from those guys?” I ask, thinking out loud. “Why would anyone want to escape from Wonderland? The risk, it’s not worth it. This doesn’t make any sense.”
My brother shrugs his shoulders. “Beats me.”
“No one chooses the Wasteland over Wonderland. I don’t care what you stole. I don’t care what you did. No one chooses the Wasteland.”
“You’re pretty worked up over this. Mind telling me what happened?”
“A man came to the bar last night, probably the same guy who came to see you. He was asking me about a girl. The girl.”
“What did you say?”
“I said I’ve never seen anyone like her before. I’ve never seen anyone with skin so smooth and soft. Hair like silk. She said her name was Ruby. She said she was from Wonderland. She said she knew secrets.”
“You spoke with her?”
I nod my head slowly.
“What the hell did you do?” He asks this question even though he already knows the answer.
“She was scared,” I say. “She was terrified.”
“And you slept with her?”
“She died in my arms. She’d been poisoned. Wasn’t no regular poison.”
My brother pours himself another drink. He’s drinking from a bottle of whiskey. Another antique. He doesn’t offer me one. Probably because I look like shit. And probably because he doesn’t want to waste a priceless bottle of whiskey on a dead man.
“And then the Enforcers showed up?” he asks.
“Yeah. And the Mercs. They showed up before anyone but me could’ve known she was dead.”
“She’s from Wonderland, Hector. They can track their people. That’s probably why she came here. The signal gets weaker underground. A lot weaker. Probably bought her some time.”
“Did you kill anyone?”
“Jesus. Why didn’t you cooperate?”
“They were going to frame me for her death. They were going to put it all on me.”
“How do you know that? They weren’t after you. They wanted the girl.”
“They had guns. They were out for blood.”
“Did you kill Mercs or Enforcers?”
“They’ll Exile you for this. Or worse.”
“I’ve been Exiled before. I’m not afraid.”
“That was years ago. It’s hotter now. A lot hotter. And you’re not getting any younger.”
“You really think anyone is gonna enforce an Exile on me?”
“Yes. I do. And if you don’t cooperate, if you don’t go peacefully, they’ll put people in place, in the Canyons, in this city. They’ll have guards and patrols. They’ll be armed to the teeth. They’ll punish anyone who helps you. They’ll isolate you. That’s how they do it. That’s how they win. They have more people. More guns. They have the tech. There’s no surviving this. Not unless we go to them immediately. We go to them and we explain that it was all a misunderstanding. We need to start cooperating. We need to start calling in all the favors we spent years working for.”
My younger brother, the hard man of the Buried City, has gone soft on me. That’s what retirement will do to a person. That’s what living in a nice apartment will do to a person.
Drinking priceless whiskey.
Having regular showers.
“There’s no talking my way out of this,” I say. “The Wonderland Enforcers, the Lord, the Collector, they’re out for blood. This girl, she knew something. Something big. Something that got her killed. She came to me for protection, she could’ve just as easily have found you.”
“Hector, I got a job. Came from the top. If you cooperate, we can clear your name, we can start working again. But if you refuse, I can’t help you with this.”
“A job? What kind of job? No one’s been processed in years.”
“That’s all about to change. The Shuttles are almost here. I’m taking people from the Canyons and the Buried City into Wonderland. I’m getting paid a small fortune. I’m sorry. But I can’t help you.”
“Don’t you think the timing of this is a little suspicious? They knew I’d come to you. They knew you had nothing to lose, that you’d help me. That together we’d be that much harder to stop. You had nothing to lose, so they gave you something to lose.”
“They showed me the proximity of the Shuttles. They’re getting closer. It’s nearly time.”
He has his head lowered. He can’t look me in the eye.
“I don’t need your help,” I say. “I don’t need anyone’s help.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to find out what Ruby knew. I’m going to find out what got her killed. And then, I’m going to get a whole lot of revenge.”
“You should make peace with the Red Giant.”
“I already have.”
My brother finishes his drink and stares at the empty glass.
No one says anything for a while.
And then I say, “When you go up, watch out for Raiders. Those bastards are getting desperate.”
I say this because I’m unable to say goodbye.
He nods. He knows to be careful. He knows the dangers. It’s why he’s the best at what he does.
“When I get Exiled,” I say. “Come visit me in the Wasteland.”
Before I leave, he throws me his gun. A treasure, a priceless and deadly antique. He throws me two extra magazines.
He says, “Don’t you dare waste those bullets.”
I wander the Buried City. I keep an unconscious eye out for Mercs and Enforcers, for the man in the poncho with the scar over his left eye. I feel my brother’s gun dig into my hip. A rat the size of a small dog scurries past me. It had a slice of pizza in its mouth. Lucky son of a bitch.
I realize I’m still in the nicer part of the Buried City. And I’m not going to find what I’m looking for here. I need to get back into the tunnels, back to the deep stations.
The Buried City used to be a giant underground subway station. It was one of the biggest in the world. Apart from the numerous platforms, it also contained shopping centers and offices. Restaurants and cafes. Exhibition centers and hotels. All connected. All underground. And now it is smack bang in the middle of the Wasteland. Along with the Canyons, and of course, Wonderland, it became one of the last asylums of the human race.
And like any city that has ever existed, there’s always a right side of the tracks, and a wrong side of the tracks.
I make my way to the wrong side.
The Mercenaries I killed earlier, they were only the tip of the iceberg. I know there are more. I know they are all just chomping at the bit to make a name for themselves. I know they have all been paid upfront to kill me, to kill Ruby. They’ll be given a reward for finishing the job.
Maybe even guns and ammo.
These are all the things we try and use to buy off the people, the Enforcers and watchmen from Wonderland with. I now see how stupid that is. What’s the point of trying to trade something to someone who has no use for whatever it is you’re selling, who already has a treasure chest full of whatever it is you’re selling?
It’s like trying to sell dirt to a dirt farmer.
It’s downright stupid is what it is.
What they, the Wonderlanders, what they want, just like everyone else, is two things…
First, we all want a way off this doomed rock, we all want a seat on one of the Shuttles. We all want a place aboard one of the Arks.
We all want this.
Even if we say we don’t, even if we say we’ve made peace with the Red Giant, we all want a way off. If not for ourselves, then for our friends, our family, our children.
Truth be told, this is why my brother and I had been risking our lives, transporting people through the Wasteland, delivering chosen refugees to Wonderland. On top of the transporting, we were doing favors for the Collector. For the Lord. We had been trying so hard and all in vain, trying to get in the good books of the good Lord and his right hand man, the Collector. Trying to do enough good, enough favors so we could skip the wait list, get a VIP ticket, a first class seat to an Ark of our choice.
Ark America. Ark Europe…
Turns out, this plan was a pipe dream. Turns out, this plan was pure fantasy. They haven’t processed anyone in well over five years. Our dangerous yet lucrative job as Wasteland guide and transporter had become obsolete. The work had dried up. And favors don’t mean jack shit when you go around killing Enforcers.
Anyway, the second thing people want, and will always want… need … is knowledge.
We are curious by nature, and the more things we know, the better prepared we can be and the more power and control we can have over any given situation. Over any person or enemy.
Knowledge and information can get you power.
Knowledge is a dangerous thing.
I’m convinced this is what got Ruby killed. She knew things she wasn’t supposed to know. She said she knew everything. And for knowing everything, for knowing secret things she wasn’t supposed to know, she paid the price.
She paid with her life.
So yeah, information. I need it. And I know just where to get it.
The deep tunnels are a dangerous place in a dangerous city. They’re full of dive bars and sleazy clubs. A lot of them are converted subway carriages. Trains that go nowhere except into eternal darkness. Only the worst and the best people head into the deep tunnels.
Early on, the Buried City had trouble with things and people from far away places coming out of the dark. The Mayor of the Buried City at the time had the ingenious plan to brick the tunnels up and collapse them in certain places. He wanted to seal us off from the dangers of the outside world. He even put armed patrols at these choke points just in case. But even with all these safety measures, sometimes, desperate and hungry and mutated people still get through. Sometimes, things still get through. Big things. Scary things. And that’s why only the best and the worst people come to the tunnels. That’s why you never come down here without a knife. Or a really big stick.
And here I am with a knife, a gun, and two extra mags.
No wonder I feel good about this.
The bar I’m headed for is called ‘Terminal’. It’s ten carriages long and the closer you get to the brick walls, to the edge of the Buried City, to the eternal dark, the better the bar gets.
Or worse, depending on your outlook.
Either way, the beer gets stronger, the smoke gets thicker, the music gets louder, and the girls get friendlier.
There’s a new guy guarding the entrance.
Big guy. Young. Obviously on the juice.
He’s not going to let me in.
“Bar’s full,” he says.
“All ten carriages?”
“You don’t want to go through all ten. Trust me, buddy.”
I resist the urge to say, I ain’t your buddy. I resist the urge to say, don’t you fucking know who I am?
I am Hector Ramirez. The Exiled. The survivor of the Wasteland.
I grab his throat with one hand and put my fist through his face with my other hand. His head snaps back and he falls to the ground in a heap. I step over his body and slide the door open.
Standing near the entrance is the lovely owner and operator of this prestigious establishment.
Lisa says, “Oh, Hector. I’m sorry. Did Sammy give you some trouble?”
“Kid needs to lay off the juice. Messes with his ability to think straight.”
“He’s new. He’s from the Narrow Canyon. He didn’t know no better.”
“Narrow Canyon? How’d he get so big living in the Narrow Canyon?”
“He’s not a goldfish, Hector.”
“No, he is not. And I’m guessing you’ve been feeding him well.”
“Like you said, maybe he needs to lay off the juice.”
“I’m usually right about these things.”
“You’re not here to cause trouble, are you?”
“Me? Never. I’m just looking for a friend.”
“Well, it seems you’re quite the popular fellow tonight. Had a few people asking about you.”
“Just a few?”
“More than a few.”
She motions with her head towards the back.
“Carriage ten?” I ask.
“Thanks, Lisa. You’re the best. I’ll try not to make a mess.”
I make my way towards the tenth and final carriage, towards the darkness. It’s around about the eighth carriage where I start to get maybe a little worried. It’s more crowded than usual.
I’m walking into a bottleneck. A kill box. The perfect place for an ambush.
Oh well. Nothing to do but keep going.
In the ninth carriage I start to notice people walking the opposite way, heading for the exit.
I enter the tenth carriage.
Usually the music is loud back here, usually the atmosphere is wild and crazy.
The carriage door slides shut behind me.
There is no music.
No one is drinking.
All eyes are on me.
And I say, “You all know who I am. I’m not in the business of killing Mercs.”
To my right, a mouthy little fucker by the name of Will says, “Hector, you’ve got a price on your head. A big fucking price. And we’re in the business of getting paid.”
There’s ten… maybe twelve guys in this carriage. I don’t want to fight them all. I don’t want to kill them all.
I show them the gun in the waist of my pants.
Will stumbles back.
And everyone stumbles back.
None of them are packing heat like this. They can’t afford weapons. Or ammo. And it looks like the Enforcers aren’t supplying these guys, at least not with guns.
I take my brother’s exquisite gun out and show them the barrel. I give them a good look at it.
I point the gun at Will. “Forget the price on my head. If you don’t give me some answers, there’ll be a big fucking hole in your head.”
Will has his hands up. Self-preservation is a wonderful thing. He points towards the back of the carriage, sitting at the far end of the bar is a man who has to be an Enforcer. I say he has to be because he’s the only one who’s not afraid of the gun.
The Mercs leave us alone for the time being. I know they won’t leave me alone for good. I saw the desperate look in their eyes, in Will’s eyes. They want to get paid. They need to get paid.
I know I will have to deal with them eventually.
Anyway, me and my new best friend exit the rear of the car. And now that we’re in the tunnel, moving away from the train, it’s getting darker. Somewhere ahead, a few miles maybe, is a reinforced concrete slab and a brick wall. Maybe a few other traps.
This is supposed to make everyone in the Buried City feel safe.
“You ever been down here?” I ask the Enforcer. “You ever seen the barricade fail?”
He shakes his head.
“The things that come out of the tunnels,” I say. “Out of the dark… it’ll make a grown man cry. Hell, it’ll make a grown man piss his pants.”
“Then it’s a good thing I’m packing heat,” he says, showing me a kind of gun I’ve never seen before.
“Must be nice,” I say. “Living in Wonderland. Having access to weaponry like that.”
He ignores me, ignores my small talk. I am not offended.
“You took your time getting here,” he says.
“I didn’t realize I was on a schedule.”
“Who else did you talk to?” he asks, getting straight down to business. “Where have you been? And where did you get that gun?”
“This is my gun. I’ve always had this. Had it since I was a pup.”
“We know who is packing. We track those kinds of weapons. And you, you have never owned such a fine piece of hardware.”
“How could you possibly track something like this?”
He doesn’t answer me. He doesn’t want to give away information that he’s not supposed to. But what he doesn’t realize is that while he’s bragging about his fancy gun and his people’s abilities to track weapons and keep tabs, he’s giving away good solid intel.
Giving it away for free.
Which means… he’s either dumber than he looks, or he doesn’t care what he tells me because he’s about to put two bullets in my chest and one in my skull.
“You killed Enforcers,” he says. “Good men. Good citizens of Wonderland. They were my friends. Usually the punishment is Exile. But not in this case.”
“I’m sorry about that. Really, I am. But you people gave me no choice. And what the hell were you people even doing there? Why the frame? Why the set up? What did you want with the girl?”
“You don’t get to ask the questions.”
“I’m a dead man,” I say, trying to reason with him. “You can tell me. You can tell me everything because I won’t tell anyone when I’m dead. And right now, there’s no one else around. It’s just you and me and whatever is lurking in these dark tunnels.”
“I’m just following orders.”
“That’s a lie.”
I shift my eyes to the dark. Off in the distance, I picture something there, something big. And I say, “We think they’re mutants. From the radiation. From all those fucking bombs they dropped during the Great Wars.”
“You’re not going to scare me.”
“It’s funny, isn’t it? We were fighting wars over land and food and water. And all the while we were dropping nukes. We were destroying the very things we were fighting over. We were sealing our fate. Or at the very least, we were speeding it up.”
“The Great Wars led to the Truce, which led to the building of the Arks. The wars were a necessary evil.”
“Is that what they teach you in Wonderland? Is that what they tell you?”
He slowly reaches for his fancy gun. Rapid fire. Large mag. Silenced barrel. This guy is carrying around a fortune. A treasure. And he doesn’t even realize. I see him flick the safety off…
He is sick of talking.
“There is no escape,” he says. “My partner is waiting in the bar. You are trapped.”
I smile. “That’s funny, because the way I see it, you’re trapped down here with me.”
He looks at me like I’m crazy. He looks at me and he can’t figure out why I’m smiling.
He shifts his weight, stepping back. He swallows hard. It’s right about now that he is starting to feel extremely uneasy. I tend to have that effect on people.
“You hear that?” I ask.
Again, I look off into the dark. I picture the monstrosities, the twisted abominations. I picture creatures from the depths of the Wasteland.
He doesn’t buy my bluff.
But then all of a sudden there is a noise. A loud thump. An even louder roar. A roar. Maybe there really is something coming this way.
The Enforcer turns and he raises his weapon. He’s expecting a monster, something from his imagination, from his nightmares. He’s heard the stories. Of course he has. And even though he hides his fear well, I know he is scared.
But there’s nothing there, nothing but the monsters of his mind.
The barricades do their job this time.
Anyway, while the Enforcer is distracted, I move behind him with my knife in hand. I put him in a choke hold. My forearm and bicep lock around his neck. He automatically stands up, he automatically struggles, arching his back. I slide the knife into his spine. His legs go limp. He doesn’t scream. He lets out a weird whimpering breathless sound.
I let him down gently and relieve him of his weapons.
Two extra magazines of ammunition.
If I wanted to, I could trade these items and live like a King in the Buried City. But I don’t want to live like a King. I want answers. I want revenge.
The Enforcer looks up at me, no longer hiding his fear.
He’s always been afraid.
“I’m sorry to do this to you,” I say, half lying, half telling the truth. “But I’m not ready to die. I’ve got stuff to do. And I need answers. So now, I’m going to ask you a bunch of questions. And you’re going to answer every single one of them.”
He coughs blood and spits it at me. “I’m not answering a goddamn thing.”
He whispers this through clenched teeth.
“I just paralyzed you. I can do worse.”
He tries to act tough but his eyes betray him. “I don’t know anything. I’m just a soldier. I’m just following orders. We were told to bring you in. To find out what you know. To find out who else you had talked to. And then …”
“No. Not Exile. Execute… publically… as a warning.”
“I killed maybe a handful of Mercs that you and your people don’t give a shit about. I killed two Enforcers. They attacked me first. They provoked me and I defended myself in the heat of battle. This wasn’t cold blooded. This wasn’t pre-meditated. The punishment should be Exile.”
He is shaking his head. “You don’t get it, do you? It’s not about the killing…”
“Then what’s it about?”
Again, he clams up. Because whatever it’s about is big.
Or maybe he doesn’t fully know.
Maybe this guy has been lied to…
I’m just a soldier.
“You had nothing to do with her death, did you?” I say, thinking out loud, talking to myself. “Whoever killed Ruby was no Enforcer. No butcher. She was poisoned. She was poisoned with something I’ve never seen, never even knew existed. She didn’t suffer. She was in no pain. You wouldn’t even know she was dead if you saw her. You’d have to feel for her pulse. It was almost like she’d been preserved. A beautiful work of art for the whole world to see.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” he asks. “What did she tell you?”
He asks this question like he is genuinely interested, like he really, really wants to know. He is genuinely curious. He is curious because he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know a goddamn thing.
“She didn’t tell me anything,” I say.
She didn’t get a chance. She was scared. She said she knew secrets. And those secrets got her killed. Information and knowledge that she possessed but wasn’t supposed to.
I’m slowly figuring this out.
I’m slowly realizing that this is big… that it goes all the way to the very top. That not even the Enforcers know what’s going on.
They are in the dark as well.
We all are.
“We tracked her here,” the Enforcer says as he struggles to breathe. “She made it through the tunnels, through the Long Tunnel. Don’t know how she got out.”
“Wait. Are you saying there are tunnels connecting this place to Wonderland?”
“Of course there is. How do you think we move around so freely?”
“Why the hell does no one else know about these tunnels? Do you realize how much easier it would be to transport people through an underground tunnel? Would’ve made my job a whole lot easier. It would’ve saved lives.”
“This tunnel isn’t for Wastelanders.”
“Figures. Typical Wonderland bullshit.”
“It’s not bullshit. It’s necessary. We need to secure the borders. The gates. The more gates we have to secure, the more at risk we are of being overrun. If we become overrun, the whole system breaks down. If the system breaks down, then no one is leaving Earth.”
I see blood beginning to pool underneath him. The pool is growing. “Look, you don’t have long. Who was she?”
“I… I don’t know. But I do know she was someone important. She belonged to the Collector. But it makes no difference. She was the first to leave Wonderland. Things are going to change now.”
“What do you care? You’re a dead man.”
He’s right. No point in worrying about things that won’t affect me. “How many Enforcers are in the city?”
“A lot. A small army. Too many for even you.”
And I think maybe this guy has heard of me. “Who poisoned her?”
“What do you mean?”
I hold the knife in front of his face. “Do not lie to me. Do not play dumb.”
“I was just on clean up and containment duty. Orders were passed down the line. From the top. The very top.”
“Just give me a damn name. I want a name. And I want a reason. Why was she killed?”
“What are you playing at?”
The Enforcer is genuinely confused…
“I just want the truth,” I say. “Who killed her?”
“You did! You crazy son of a bitch. You killed her, you goddamn psychopath!”
The frame is good. This guy still believes it…
“What did they tell you?” I ask. “What were your orders?”
“Like I said, we were told to bring you in. Dead or alive. Preferably alive. Find out if you talked to anyone.”
This guy knows nothing. He doesn’t know the why of it and he doesn’t know who the killer is. Hell, he thinks I’m the killer. I guess a lot of people think I’m the killer. Maybe everyone. Well, not everyone. Not whoever set this frame up.
“You killed a very important person,” he says. “A highly prized possession of the Collector. We can’t have people finding out there’s a leak coming from Wonderland. That she escaped. That she wanted to leave.”
He’s giving away more good intel. I think he knows he’s dying. And I know he’s telling the truth. He’s telling the truth because there’s no rhyme or reason in keeping secrets at this point.
“She escaped?” I ask. “Why did she escape? What did she escape from?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
I shake my head. “No. Why would anyone want to escape from Wonderland?”
He closes his eyes. “You really don’t know. No one knows.”
“Trust me, you’re better off not knowing… you’re better off. Everyone is better off.”
“Who’s the tall guy with the scar over his left eye?”
“You don’t want to know.”
“Yes. I do.”
I pick him up by his shoulders. He goes limp. I shake him. But he’s dead. His eyes roll back in his skull, white and lifeless. There’s a massive pool of blood on the ground.
I lay him down gently because there’s no point in disrespecting a dead man.
I’m better off not knowing. Everyone is better off…]
What the hell was he talking about?
I climb back up into the train carriage, back into the bar. And there’s no time to think about what the dead Enforcer just told me, because his partner, the one he warned me about, is waiting at the other end of the carriage.
The Mercs are still there as well. Still as hungry as ever.
The Enforcer throws a big and heavy bag on the floor. The bag lands with the unmistakable sound of clinking metal.
This is a big bag full of forged steel.
The Enforcer says, “Cut him up. Bring me his head. The reward just doubled.”
And now the Mercs are armed with hatchets and axes. Knives and machetes. There were even a couple of swords.
I am always surprised to see a sword. Swords look awesome, they look fabulous and intimidating and all that, but down here, in the confines of the Buried City, they are not the most practical of weapons.
Anyway, the reward just doubled. And the eyes of the Mercs go so big at the thought of all their problems going away, with the promise of riches, of food and water and booze and whatever the hell they want.
It could even be a retirement fund. Maybe even a ticket for the Shuttle, for a place on one of the Arks.
Most of these guys know me. And I think most of these guys like me, but a reward is a reward. Payment is payment.
I understand that it’s nothing personal…
Well, it’s nothing personal until the knife goes in.
So I take a deep breath, the kind of breath you take just before you’re about to dive in a pool of water.
My eyes go wide. Pupils dilate. I am razor focused.
I’m ready for the fight.
Apart from the fight at the hotel, at the scene of Ruby’s murder, it’s been years since I’ve been in a fight like this.
But I’m ready.
I move through the carriage, breaking limbs, breaking faces.
These guys are Mercs. They work for hire, for money and goods and services. Which I guess makes them professionals.
But they are not professionals.
They are anything but…
And with a knife in their hand, with any kind of edged weapon in their hand, they become predictable and pathetic. Most of them swing the weapon with their right hand. And they don’t bother protecting their head with their left. As a result, they don’t last long.
None of them put up much of a fight.
I don’t mind. It’s nice just to get the feeling back, to get moving.
I crack skulls. I crack teeth. I could use the guns that I’ve acquired to mow these guys down, but I don’t want to waste the bullets and I don’t need to.
I get my hands on a knife and things get bloody and messy. Like I said, it’s been years since I’ve been in a fight.
I’d forgotten how good it feels.
It feels good.
All the old feelings come roaring back. The muscle memory is still there. There’s an adrenalin rush that feels like lightning in my veins. And I can see why I used to be addicted to this, addicted to violence.
My brother was the one who stopped me from fighting. From killing. He saved me from myself, from a life of death. I’d been working for the gangs, for all of them, playing both sides. All sides. Even in the Buried City, there’s an underworld, a dangerous underworld full of dangerous people. I didn’t care who I played or who I crossed. I made fools of them all.
I thought I was invincible.
And then they put a price on my head.
It’s hard to live in an underground city when three different crime bosses want you dead.
My brother paid the bounty in full. Cleared my name. Saved my life. He arranged the Exile. He made sure all the bosses were happy. They were happy because they all thought I was going to die out in the Wasteland. Being Exiled is a death sentence most of the time, for most people.
But I am not most people.
I survived the Wasteland. I survived the Exile.
When I returned, I began working with my brother in the transportation business. Carting the good people of the Wasteland and from the Buried City and from the Canyons off to Wonderland, one step closer to the Arks, one step closer to salvation.
And for a while, business was booming.
Sure, we had our fair share of trouble from the Wasteland Raiders, but nothing me and my brother couldn’t handle.
Apart from helping people, it felt good to have a purpose. It felt good to be doing something with my life, working hand in hand with my brother.
The pay was good as well.
And then five years ago, the work dried up, just like everything else on Earth.
The word out of Wonderland was that the Shuttles had broken down. They had been working overtime, they had been working non-stop for decades. They needed maintenance. Apparently they were stationed at Mars, the Moon. Apparently the best engineers were working on them around the clock.
But then the story changed. The story became that the Arks had moved further and deeper into the Solar System. The return trip the Shuttles were making was taking longer.
A lot longer.
I don’t know about other people, but I get suspicious when stories change.
My brother didn’t believe it either. He knew something was wrong. He knew there was something they weren’t telling us. But there was nothing we could do.
Nothing to do but sit and wait.
Wait for the Shuttles.
Wait to be processed through Wonderland.
Wait for our number to be called.
Anyway, because the work dried up, because there was no one being processed, my brother and I were forced into early retirement. And I was once again living a wasted and directionless life. I was a man with no purpose. I was once again slipping into the underworld of the Buried City.
Well, I’ve got a purpose now…
I need to find out who killed Ruby. I need to make them pay for what they did. And maybe in the process, I’ll find some goddamn answers. Maybe I’ll find out what Ruby was running from, the reason she escaped from Wonderland.
I’m breathing hard, smiling, laughing.
I’m standing over a pile, a train carriage full of dead bodies, dead Mercs. A pile of edged weapons. Apart from the dead bodies, which in themselves are quite valuable… for their organs, their skin, teeth, and hair. And other things that I’m not even going to mention.
All these knives, machetes, hatchets.
The two swords.
This forged steel is another fortune. I guess Lisa will get a nice surprise when she cleans up this place. It’ll more than cover the cost of the damage.
I take out the rapid fire gun. I’ve never seen a gun like this, never fired one. But I want to get a feel for it. I want to see what it can do. So I aim it at the carriage door.
The windows on the door have been blacked out, so I can’t actually see anything. But I’d bet good money, I’d bet a ticket to Ark America that the Enforcer who supplied all this steel is waiting in the next carriage. He’ll be waiting right behind the door.
No need to hide or take cover.
Arrogant son of a bitch. I can’t blame him. Unlike these poor and desperate and dead fools, he doesn’t know me.
I take careful aim at the carriage door, at the blacked out window. I squeeze the trigger.
The silenced barrel reduces the noise of the gunshot significantly. It probably slows the bullet down as well. Regardless, the bullet leaves a clean little hole in the reinforced glass of the window. I hear a shout of pain. A cry of pain. A body falls to the floor. And just as I suspected, the Enforcer wasn’t taking cover.
I step through the door, sliding it open.
The Enforcer is dying from a bullet wound to his neck.
He has two hands wrapped around his own throat in a completely useless attempt to stop the bleeding.
He sees me coming. One hand reaches for his gun, but he can’t pick it up, his fingers are covered in too much blood. The weapon slips out of his hand.
I move towards him.
I see fear in his eyes.
Fear and shock.
He didn’t expect to die today. He didn’t expect any of this.
I step on his hand to make sure he doesn’t pick up the gun. I hear bones crunch under my boot.
He opens his mouth to scream. Blood pours out.
I kneel down next to him and pick up the blood covered gun. I shake my head in disbelief. I now have three guns. Three small fortunes.
“So, you need to tell me what’s going on,” I say. “Why all the desperation? Why all the steel?”
“Get the fuck away from me.”
“Look, I can end your pain. I can end your suffering. But you need to give me a name. You need to tell me who’s supplying the weapons. You need to tell me who set this whole thing up.”
“I’m not going to tell you a goddam thing.”
These guys have all been trained to say the same thing. To resist torture. To endure unfathomable and unspeakable pain.
“I know you don’t really like me much right now,” I say. “But I just want you to know this is not personal.”
I say this to try and get on his good side. It doesn’t work.
“You’re a monster,” he spits. “You’re a monster who beats people to death and kills women for no good reason.”
I take the gun. His gun. I press it against his stomach. I unload two shots at point blank range. He doubles over in the fetal position, screaming and crying for his mother.
Funny, I didn’t think Enforcers had mothers.
“You don’t die from this,” I say. “The gut shot. At least, not right away. It’ll be slow. It’ll be painful. Extremely painful. I’ve seen it, out in the Wasteland. Trust me, you don’t want to go through it.”
He is crying and screaming and eventually he says, “What… what do you want from me?”
“I want a name. I want to know what’s going on.”
“They don’t tell us anything. We’re soldiers. We’re property. We’re weapons of Wonderland.”
The other guy said the same thing.
I’m just a soldier.
Sounds like they’ve been brainwashed to follow orders and to not ask questions.
To give your life.
To sacrifice yourself.
“What were your orders?” I ask.
“To find you. Find out who you’d talked to. Kill you…”
“Because you kidnapped a girl. You helped her escape. You… tricked…” he trails off because maybe he realizes that everything he’s been told is a lie. “She was someone very important. Someone very close to the Collector. You killed her!”
“Looks like you’ve been played for a fool.”
He starts laughing. And he looks crazy with his blood covered mouth and his blood stained teeth. He’s delusional from blood loss. From pain. “You think I’m the fool? You’re the fool. You’re so dead, you don’t even realize it. You want answers? You better speak to the Mayor of the Buried City. They sent an Overseer with us. An Overseer. You’re so dead.”
I’m starting to realize everyone is in on this.
Everyone wants me dead. Just like they wanted Ruby dead.
Someone is trying to clean up their mess.
Someone is trying real hard.
Supplying the Mercs.
Sending an Overseer.
The good people of Wonderland are scared about something.
Skeletons in the closet.
I shoot the Enforcer in the head, putting him out of his misery.
I keep his gun.
I’ve got a feeling I’m going to need it.
I apologized to Lisa on the way out. Told her to keep the steel, the weapons. I gave her the names of a few people who would be very interested in all those dead bodies.
I realize that because there’s a whole lot of Enforcers walking through the alleys of the Buried City, the Mayor has to have given them the green light to administer their own form of justice. Consequence free.
The last Enforcer confirmed this theory of mine. Said I should pay him a visit.
So I decide to pay the Mayor a visit.
The Mayor’s office is heavily guarded. The entire building is. But I don’t feel like killing people who don’t deserve to be killed. So I give them the slip.
And then I’m standing in the Mayor’s office and he’s sitting behind his massive hardwood desk and he’s giving me a look that says I’m out of my goddamn mind for coming here.
He says, “You’re out of your goddamn mind for coming here, you know that? You’ve got a lot of nerve. How many people have you killed?”
I shrug my shoulders. “To be honest. I’ve lost count. A train full of Mercs. A few more at that sleazy motel when you tried to ambush me, when you tried to frame me for something I didn’t do. I’m up to four Enforcers. I know that. Been counting those bastards. The Lord is going to be pissed.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Just give me some damn answers. The killing will stop. I’ll leave the Buried City. I’ll Exile myself. You won’t never see me again. I’m not afraid of the Wasteland.”
“There’ll be no Exile. Not this time. And you don’t get to decide when it’s over. It’ll be over when you’re dead and rotting in the Wasteland. Or maybe they’ll put your body on display in the city square. A bullet in your skull, a knife in your back, your gut full of poison. Don’t you get that?”
“Speaking of poison…”
“Look, Hector, I don’t know anything. I swear. This all came out of the blue. We hadn’t heard a peep out of Wonderland in five years. Five long years. I was starting to think no one was home. I was starting to think we’d been left behind.”
“Maybe we have.”
“No, they’re just waiting like the rest of us,” he says quickly. “And besides, we’ve seen choppers flying over the ruins, we’ve seen Spider Tanks crawling through the Wasteland. But let me just ask you one question…”
“Did you kill her?”
“No. I didn’t kill her. But someone did. Someone poisoned her.”
“Poisoned?” he asks, like he doesn’t already fucking know.
“Yeah. Wasn’t ordinary poison neither. I’ve never seen anything like it. Only one place it could’ve come from. Only one place she could’ve come from.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m not the smartest guy around. My brother got the brains and the looks. But I know when something is messed up. And this right here, this whole situation… this is messed up. The girl… Ruby… she was on the run. Don’t know what she was running from. But it had to have been big and bad. Mean and scary. Why else would she leave Wonderland? Why else would she come here to this godforsaken city?”
“You’re asking too many questions, Hector. If you come quietly, if you make some promises, I can cut you a deal. I can get you a ticket out of this city and off this rock.”
“So you’re working with them?”
“What the hell do you think this is? Them? There is no them. We’re all in this together. It’s us. We’re the last people on Earth. If we don’t work together, if we don’t follow the rules, we don’t survive this.”
“The last guy I killed, an Enforcer, he said they sent an Overseer. I’ve never seen an Overseer in my life. And I’ve seen a lot of things.”
“Ark America. They can get you a place, your own bedroom, your own bathroom. That’s more than a lot of people ever get. They’ll forgive you, if you leave quietly, if you keep your mouth shut.”
“There’s no forgiveness. Not until I make this right. Not until I make these people pay for what they did to Ruby.”
“She belonged to the Collector, you know. She was a prized possession.”
“So I keep hearing. But if you ask me, it’s pretty messed up to think of people as possessions.”
“These are powerful people you’re messing with.”
“Where’s the Overseer?”
“I don’t know. I doubt he’s still here. He’s probably gone back to Wonderland.”
That’s a lie.
“Humor me,” I say. “If he was still here. Where would he be?”
“Maybe the Library. Maybe the Casino.”
“How are they moving between Wonderland and the Buried City?”
“However they want. They’ve got transportation. Like I said, they’ve still got Spider Tanks and choppers. You know that.”
“No. I mean, how would they move undetected.”
The main entrance to the Buried City is a massive train station. It’s located near the center of a once great city. A great city that now lies in ruins. Half the danger of transporting people to Wonderland was getting in and out of the ruins. Lot of nasties hiding in the rubble, in the abandoned buildings and skyscrapers. I cannot believe they were hiding a tunnel from us.
People died for crying out loud.
A lot of people.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the Mayor says.
“Yes. You do. There’s a tunnel. According to my recently deceased friend, it connects this place with Wonderland. I need you to tell me all about it.”
The Mayor lowers his head. He is sweating bullets. He is afraid.
They’re probably watching him.
The room is probably bugged.
I don’t care.
“Fine,” he says. “It’s beyond the Water Treatment Plant. They call it the Long Tunnel. But it’s locked. And you need an access code. No one knows it. At least, no one this side of the door knows it. And no one on this side of the door has a key. Not even me. Not the Sheriff. No one.”
“Any of the bosses?”
The Mayor finally tells the truth. Actually didn’t take as long as I expected. “Thanks a bunch.” I toss him the knife I took off the Enforcer that I shot in the neck. It’s made from high quality forged steel. It has a serrated edge. It is well balanced. It is worth a lot. “For your trouble,” I say.
The Mayor picks up the knife. He studies the blade. “You should get a move on.”
“They’re coming for you.”
He stabs the knife into the hardwood desk. “Everyone.”
I thought about killing the Mayor. How corrupt is he? How far gone? I decided not to. He’d helped my brother get me out of the underworld way back when, helped broker the deal. He even gave me a map of the Wasteland before I was Exiled. So yeah, for this reason, I don’t kill him.
Maybe I’m getting soft.
Anyway, the good Mayor said I’d find what I’m looking for at either the Library or the Casino.
I decide to make my way to the Great Library of the Buried City first. I do this because the Casino is run by some people that I’d rather not deal with right now. It’s run by some people who probably still want me dead and buried and Exiled.
It’s funny, here we are at the end of the world, the end of life on Earth, and people still want to gamble, people still want to risk it all for the small chance of victory, for the small chance of beating the big odds.
People gamble with everything. Everything from food and water, to tokens, even people’s lives. There’s a rumor flying around that a guy lost his ticket to Wonderland a few years ago, more than a few years ago. But then there are also the rumors of people winning. Winning big. Winning their way into Wonderland.
Maybe this is why people do it.
To win big.
On to one of the Shuttles.
Winning a home on one of the Arks.
So yeah, maybe this is why people keep gambling, keep taking their chances and risking it all. Maybe it’s why they keep putting their lives and their family’s lives up as collateral.
The weird thing is, the slot machines, they take coins, they take gold dollars and silver dollars and pounds sterling and pennies and nickels and dimes, even though these coins are worth more if they are melted down and made into something useful. If I had to take a guess, I’d say that to the people who gamble with them, the coins, they represent hope. And to the gangsters who run the Casino, these worthless coins represent control.
I picture myself walking in there right now.
I picture the fight.
I picture all the trouble.
I shake my head. I’m going to need some time to prepare myself for something like that.
So it’s off to the Library I go.
My brother and I have used the Library as a meeting place before. The Mayor knows this. I guess it could be a trap, a set up. But it would be no worse a trap than the Casino would be.
Anyway, there’s only one way to find out. I head for the Great Library, a building that contains the entire history of mankind, both real and fake, biased and unbiased. Within the pages of the books, within the dusty covers are lies and truths and stories too fantastic to be real.
Usually the place is full. Full of people who want to better themselves by reading up on the terrible history of the human race, full of people who want to escape from this world into a fictitious world with fictitious characters.
I once asked my brother why he reads so much, why he spent so much time in the Library.
“To learn everything I possibly can,” he answered. “To reject the useless and keep the useful.”
I said, “Bullshit. What’s the real reason?”
He said so he could become a better liar. “To be a good liar, you need to know the truth of things.”
I never understood what he meant by that, but then again, he was always smarter than me.
I walk to the front desk and I’m surprised to find the place isn’t entirely deserted.
The Librarian is still here.
Nice old lady. Runs the place by herself. Not sure of her name. I was always better with faces.
“Hector,” she says because she knows my name, because maybe she knows everyone’s name. “There’s someone here to see you. He’s waiting in the back. In the law stacks.”
“Friend?” I ask.
“A better friend than you deserve.”
I walk past the main common area, past rows and rows of hardwood tables adorned with reading lamps. The tables and the reading area give way to rows and rows of bookshelves. Towards the back, there’s a stairwell that leads down into a lower level basement.
The Law Library.
An entire library, an entire basement devoted to the laws of the human race, to a dying civilization.
Down in the basement there are more shelves. Some of them are moveable to save room. You can slide them together. Like a giant accordion.
Someone grabs my shoulder. There’s only one person who’d be brave enough to sneak up on me like that. Only one person who could sneak up on me like that.
My brother pulls me into a forgotten row of shelves that contain forgotten laws.
He’s holding a set of keys. “There’s a Sunspeeder with your name on it. You can make it. It’s not too late. Provided you leave right now.”
“Why the hell would I leave? I like it here. Life’s just starting to get interesting again.”
“This isn’t a joke, Hector. You’ve pissed off a lot of people. You’ve pissed off the wrong people. You need to go. You need to go right now.”
I’ve never seen my brother like this. Stressed out. Fearful. And I sure as hell don’t want to drag him into this mess.
“Who have you been talking to?” I ask.
“Does it matter? The Mayor. The Sheriff. They’re all freaking out. The city is crawling with Enforcers. It’s only a matter of time before they find you, before they all find you and back you into a corner.”
I imagine being surrounded by a bunch of elite soldiers, armed to the teeth with high-tech military grade weaponry. It sounds like a dream come true. A kind of fantasy where I get to kill a whole lot of people, completely guilt free.
“I can help you,” he says. “But we’re running out of time. The Sunspeeder is hidden in the Wasteland, at the old spot.”
My brother and I have a few secret places in the Wasteland. These places contain hidden treasure chests and caches of survival equipment. We are the only ones who know where they are buried. Some of them, most of them, you can only find with a GPS tracking device. Otherwise you could spend a lifetime looking for something buried in the Wasteland, in an endless desert, finding only dirt and sand.
The ‘old spot’ he’s referring to, is an old military style concrete bunker. I think it used to be a weapons and supply cache. Last used by the military during the Great Wars. Most of the bunker is buried, swallowed by the Wasteland. Only a small door is visible, and it’s only visible if you know where to look. And only if you know what you’re looking for.
I take the keys to the Sunspeeder and I lie. I tell him I’ll go. I’ll go all the way to the Narrow Canyon. I tell him they’ll never find me in the maze of tunnels and caves and canyon walls. This is what he wants to hear. I don’t know if he believes me or not. He can usually tell when I’m lying.
He’s about to say something, probably something about how he doesn’t believe me, but then the lights go out. And the entire Library falls into darkness. My brother takes out a flashlight with a red light filter. My brother is prepared because he’s always prepared.
Tiny emergency lights built into the floor show the way out, back the way I came in.
“They’re here,” he whispers. “I told Meryl to cut the lights when they arrived.”
“The Enforcers. The Overseer.”
“You really think they sent an Overseer?”
“Yes. I do.”
My brother is not messing around. Not that I am either. I’m in this to the end. The very end. I’m ready to kill as many of these bastards as it takes.
“Do you need your gun back?” I ask.
I open my jacket to show him my arsenal.
The rapid fire.
“Jesus Christ,” my brother whispers in absolute disbelief. “Where…” He is about to ask me where I got them. But he figures it out. He waves the question away. “I don’t want to know.”
“So, do you need yours back?” I ask.
“No. I’m good. You keep it.”
He turns away from me and starts walking deeper into the Law Library.
I have no choice but to follow him. “Where are you going?”
“There’s an exit back here.”
“I should take care of these guys first. I don’t trust them not to hurt you.”
“I can look after myself. And besides, they’re not interested in me.”
“They’ll be interested once they find out we’ve been talking.”
“They won’t find out. And they won’t find me.”
My brother shows me a small entryway, which is basically a hole in the wall. An air vent.
“Where does it lead?” I ask.
“Into the tunnels.”
“I’ll get lost in there.”
“Make sure you walk uphill. You’ll eventually come to a station. From there, you can find the outside. Trust me, you’ll feel it before you see it.”
I’d been to the stations before, the ones closest to the surface. But I’d never made my way to them from this deep. And never from the Library. This was a recipe for disaster. There was an overwhelming possibility, an overwhelming chance that I’d get lost.
Maybe I should’ve gone to the Casino after all.
“Get to the Sunspeeder,” my brother says. “Get to the Canyons. Make yourself scarce.”
I take a deep breath, I’m about to crawl through the air vent. I’m about to prepare myself for the endless dark of the subway tunnels.
Before I go, I ask, “Did you or your contacts find out anything else?”
My brother is looking over his shoulder. “Yeah. I asked around. And apparently, the poison they used, it’s not a natural poison.”
I kneel down next to the metal grate that covered the air vent. I take notice of what appear to be bite marks and claw marks. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, it’s not found in nature. Anywhere. They cooked it up in a lab. It was designed to be untraceable. Fast acting. Lethal.”
“The girls, they’re definitely from Wonderland. Word is, they belonged to the Collector.”
“I already knew that,” I say, sliding the metal grate out of the way. “Wait, did you say girls? As in, there’s more than one?”
I try and think about what this means. “Doesn’t make any sense. People. Girls. Born and raised in Wonderland. Why are they leaving? No one ever leaves.”
“I figure they were being mistreated,” my brother says. “By the Collector. Or by the Enforcers. I figure they were being raped. Abused. I don’t care who you are, Wonderland ain’t worth that.”
He’s right. Some things in life just ain’t worth the price. “I thought you said you couldn’t help me on this? I thought you got a new job.”
“I did get a new job. And I can’t help you with this. And I’m not here. I was never here. Got it?” He gives me another spare magazine for the handgun. Another fifteen bullets. Another fortune. “Go. Get out of here. Remember, walk up hill.”
I’m hearing rumors. The Collector. The Lord of Wonderland.
A goddamn Overseer.
Problem is, I’m hearing the same rumors from everyone, from reputable sources, from my brother. Which means either someone is laying down some A-grade misinformation, or the rumors are actually true.
I’m hoping it’s the former.
Someone or something enters the Law Library. My brother and I both sense it at the same time.
Whoever it is… is quiet.
They are careful.
Something small and deadly slides along the floor of the library, coming to a stop at the side of my boot. It is a goddamn grenade. I can’t tell if it’s a frag grenade or a smoke grenade or something high-tech from Wonderland.
I kick it away, back down the center aisle.
We barely have time to take cover.
A split second later it detonates.
It was a frag grenade.
It destroys book shelves and books.
Wood and paper.
Words and history.
Laws and crimes.
I don’t know if my brother is dead or alive. He could be buried under a thousand books, under the rubble and debris. He could be blown to bits.
I don’t know. But there’s nothing to do but keep moving.
If I stop, if I look for my brother, I’m as good as dead. If my brother is alive, he can look after himself. On the other hand, if he’s dead, he’s dead. And there’s nothing anyone can do anything about that now.
Move, dammit Move!
My limbs are in shock. My ears are ringing. I am completely disorientated. I get to my feet. I try convincing myself that I am ready for this fight. For this battle.
Ready for war.
And that’s what I’m expecting. I’m expecting war. I’m expecting a small army. But there’s no army.
It’s just one man.
I see him moving off in the distance, through the smoke and the dark. He’s quick and agile. Taller and thinner than I expected. He almost looks malnourished.
The Overseers are seen as these mythical, legendary beings. Stronger and smarter than the rest of us. Genetically enhanced. They were designed, created to supervise and oversee long interplanetary flights, and eventually, interstellar flights. They were designed to look after the people and carry out constant maintenance on the ships and the Arks and the Shuttles.
They were designed to be better than us, better than mankind, better than the human race.
They weren’t created to be killers.
And yet this is what I hear all the time.
Rumors about how goddamn dangerous they are.
And I don’t know, I expected him to be bigger. Not necessarily taller. He’s plenty tall. Tall enough to see eye to eye with me, and there’s not many people who do. But yeah, I expected him to not look so malnourished.
Either way, I’m not messing around with this guy, this thing. I take out my gun. And it’s funny how I’m already calling it my gun, when really, I only just relieved the dead Enforcer of it. I mean, the gun is still covered in his blood.
His life force.
The blood hasn’t even fully dried and coagulated and I’ve already taken ownership.
I flick the safety off and take careful aim.
The thin man, the Overseer is fast.
And he won’t stay still.
I waste bullets, a handful of bullets that I could’ve traded for so much booze and deep fried meat.
I move back against the far wall, I see the exit to the tunnels. It’s just a hole, a vent. It had been covered by steel mesh to keep the rats out. To keep the bigger roaches out. But this mesh had been carefully dismantled, probably by my brother, or maybe it was the Librarian. I wonder if she’s still alive. I see where the mesh has been twisted and bitten. The rats have still tried their best to get in here. You have to admire their persistence and determination.
I ignore how big these rats get. I ignore how big their teeth get. I push these images from my mind.
The Overseer moves. I see him in the corner of my eye. He throws something at me.
Why isn’t he armed with a gun? A rapid fire gun. One with a silenced barrel and an extended magazine.
I feel a sting on the back of my hand. Like something, a dog or a rat has taken a bite. And my hand goes completely numb. My fingers stop working. I drop my blood covered gun.
My whole arm goes numb and limp.
Something is wrong…
I look at the back of my hand.
There’s this dart.
It’s pierced the skin. Pierced right between the bones of my hand. It’s a needle. Something small and pointy. It’s hard to make out because it’s dark and my vision is starting to fail me.
Everything, and I mean fucking everything is hazy and blurry. Like I’ve had a gallon of fortified brew and as much beer to chase it all down with. I know I don’t have much time. I know the Overseer will be coming in for the kill. I know he will want to get nice and close to do this. He might not have a gun, but he’s definitely got a knife.
He’s definitely got weapons and poisons and hi-tech killing instruments from Wonderland.
Hell, he could probably kill me with his bare hands.
My left arm still works. So I reach under my jacket for the rapid fire gun. I hold on tight. I see the Overseer moving down the center aisle, coming right for me. He’s not even bothering to hide or duck. He’s not concerned about taking cover.
He is not afraid of me.
I unload a full magazine. I don’t aim because I can’t aim. I spray and pray. And the bullets chop the wooden shelves to pieces. Books and knowledge and wisdom and history and lies are torn to shreds.
The Overseer finally takes cover, diving behind some rubble, disappearing into the darkness and the shadows created by the emergency lights and the flash of my high-tech military grade rapid fire gun.
The entire magazine is empty in seconds.
Again, I can’t help but think about how much money I just wasted. I push the thought from my poisoned mind. It was money well spent. It has bought me some time. Just enough to slip through the exit, through the hole in the wall that leads into the subway tunnels.
I have the presence of mind to grab the gun I dropped, and my brother’s torch. Without it, I’d be blind.
I can hear my brother’s words of advice, his vague directions…
Walk up hill. You’ll feel the heat.
I wish I knew which way was up. Or down. Left or right.
But I don’t.
I can hardly think straight.
It takes me forever to realize that I’ve probably been poisoned with the same poison that ended Ruby. And that I could very well be dying.
My left arm goes numb and limp. I let go of the rapid fire. It swings faithfully back to my side as a result of the strap that’s around my neck and my shoulder.
I hunch over and I start running as best as I can.
As fast as I can.
I know the Overseer is coming for me.
I know he won’t stop.
I’m running through the darkness, running hunched over. One hand is clutched to my stomach.
One hand brushes the wall of the tunnel for support, for guidance.
I need to find some water. I need to dilute the poison in my body, or at the very least, I need to find a quiet spot to ride this out.
But what if there is no riding this out? What if this poison is as lethal as my brother said it was? As lethal as I know it is.
How long did it take to kill Ruby?
I answer my own question and I say to myself, to no one… “Then that quiet spot will be a quiet spot to die. Nice and peaceful.”
I lean forward. I keep walking because there’s nothing to do except to keep going, to keep moving. Because the alternative is to crawl into a ball and die. Walking the tunnels, lost and drugged, hallucinating… this is a great way to vanish and go missing. A great way to disappear in the dark and never find a way out. A great and efficient way to die. Maybe this is what I get for all the bad things I’ve done.
Maybe this is what I deserve for being a killer, for failing Ruby.
The shadows created by the red flashlight come to life, they dance around me. At first they are friendly, at first they are companions for this journey.
But then they turn.
They begin to stalk me and hunt me.
They realize I am not going to make it. They realize I am prey. They realize I will be a free meal very, very shortly.
I remind myself that I am hallucinating. This is not real. The monsters of shadow and darkness are not real. I don’t need to worry about them, I don’t need to be afraid of them.
What I need to fear is behind me.
A small army of Enforcers.
Behind me are heavily armed soldiers who want me dead, who have been ordered to kill me.
I turn the torch off because I don’t need it. I’ve got the wall of the tunnel for guidance. And when the red light disappears, so do the monsters. They disappear because a shadow needs a light source.
Without light, they will die. Just like everything else.
I begin breathing harder and harder. My chest, my lungs are heaving, my heart is beating faster, working overtime.
I hear something behind me.
Breathing that is not my own.
Something, someone has been stalking me for real.
Not a shadow.
“Who have you talked to?” says the Overseer.
He says this as calm as you like. He is in no rush.
Son of a bitch is toying with me.
I keep walking. I fumble for the gun my brother gave me. It’s the only one that is loaded.
“No one,” I answer.
“Stop lying. Everyone you talk to, everyone you have spoken with has died. You can stop the killing.”
I don’t know if he’s telling the truth or not.
“The Librarian,” he says. “The owner of that bar…”
“The Mayor?” I ask.
“If he does not cooperate, he will surely die as well.”
Overseers are supposed to help, to care, to maintain. They’re not supposed to be cold blooded killers.
They’re not supposed to be hunters.
They’re not supposed to be assassins.
“What the hell are you doing?” I ask. “Why am I still alive?”
“I am curious,” he says.
“I am curious as to how you are still alive. No one has ever survived that much poison, for this amount of time.”
“Why don’t you just use a knife or a bullet like everyone else?”
“Because. I am not like everyone else.”
“No. You’re different. You’re better. Or at least, you’re supposed to be better.”
“I am better.”
I have a hold of the gun. All I need to do is draw and turn and shoot. He’s right behind me. I can’t miss. I won’t miss. I picture it all in my mind, the gunshot, the flash.
And then I hear a gunshot.
“Hector! Get down.”
I hear the bullets zipping past my head, my ears. I feel the bullets flying past.
I drop to the ground.
Someone grabs me. I can’t tell if it’s the Overseer.
Their hands are soft. Smooth.
No. It can’t be. And it isn’t. I’m still hallucinating. I brush the person away, pushing them over. I get to my feet slowly. The whole world tilts on its axis. The Buried City becomes inverted and I’m walking on a ceiling of an underground subway system.
I shake my head. I get my bearings. I start jogging. There is gun fire behind me. Explosions echo and reverberate through the tunnel. Someone is packing some serious heat, it wasn’t the Overseer. I look down at the waist of my pants. My brother’s gun is still tucked away, so that means I’m not the one shooting.
It takes me a long time to figure this out. Longer than I’m proud to admit.
More gun fire.
Who the hell in the Buried City has grenades?
None of this makes sense. And I realize I could be dreaming all this up. I could be lying face down in a dark tunnel, in a dark ditch, dying, breathing my last. The gunfire stops, and when the echoes fade, there is silence.
My own breathing.
My racing heart.
I tell myself to run.
“Run, you dumb son of a bitch. Run!”
I’ve been running and walking and wandering through the dark. For what feels like an eternity. The dark is endless. And even though I’m underground, even though I’m in a labyrinth of subway tunnels, even though I’m somewhere in the Buried City, it may as well be outer goddamn space. And no matter how fast I run, no matter how fast I walk, I will never reach the light.
I will never reach the light because there is no light.
This must be what an interstellar trip into outer space, to the edge of the solar system is like.
My mind is going around in circles. And this is my fear, that I am lost. That I am walking in circles. I’m too afraid to switch the torch on. I don’t want the shadows to come to life. I don’t want them to stalk me anymore.
I keep moving.
And I keep thinking about how my brother could be dead.
There’s no way.
If the blast from the frag grenade didn’t kill me, it didn’t kill him.
But what if I’m already dead?
I try not to think about how I might already be dead. I try not to think about how I could be taking a long walk into the afterlife.
Instead, I think about what the hell is going on. And I think about where I’ve gone wrong. Maybe, just maybe, I’ve been too soft. Too complacent. Too forgiving. I didn’t believe the rumors about the Lord of Wonderland, about the Collector. I didn’t believe the Mayor, the Enforcers, I didn’t believe my own brother when he said they’d sent an Overseer to the Buried City.
I didn’t even believe Overseers existed. Not until I got into a fight with one.
A fight to the death.
It’s funny how you never feel so alive when you’re fighting to the death, when you’re trying not to die. It’s funny and sad. I shouldn’t need that kind of excitement and stress to make me feel alive.
But I do.
Death. It’s really the only thing that can make me appreciate life.
And Ruby. She made me appreciate life. She made me appreciate it like no one else ever has. But she’s dead now. She’s dead because I couldn’t save her. Couldn’t protect her. And now I’m thinking about the promise I made her. I swore to her that I’d make things right. That I’d find the bastards responsible and I’d make them pay.
But what have I accomplished?
I’ve taken out a few Mercs. I’ve taken out a few Enforcers. Soldiers who were just following orders. And the Mercs were just trying to get paid, trying to make a living.
This is not good enough. This… all of this violence and killing is accomplishing jack shit.
What I need to do is, I need to go after the source.
The people in charge.
The people Ruby was running from.
I need to go after Wonderland…
Its sounds crazy. It sounds like an impossibility, but this is what I need to do.
I need to find out what secrets Ruby knew. I need to find out what secrets got her killed.
Something is rotten in Wonderland.
And I need to find out what.
Wonderland is the last operational space station in this part of the world. For decades, for over a century, the Shuttles have been coming back here to ferry the last of us to the Arks.
As a result, every single surviving human has flocked to Wonderland. And when it became full, overcrowded, filled to capacity, people took up residence here, in the Buried City. And when the Buried City became overcrowded and riddled with crime and filth, they took up residence in the Canyons. They turned them into permanent refugee camps. And we all waited patiently for our turn, for our ticket into Wonderland, for our ticket to one of the great continental Arks. And because space was limited, because the majority of people had to wait, Wonderland, and the people in charge of Wonderland became powerful. They became Kings and Queens. Princes and Princesses.
The citizens of Wonderland became the lucky few, the wealthy elite, the first class citizens of Earth.
Wonderland is power. The power to save. The power to condemn. No one, not a single person left alive on Earth would dare go against Wonderland. Doing so would accomplish nothing, except guarantee that you lived out your remaining days in the Wasteland.
The flip side of this is that once a person gained access, once they were chosen, they would never leave.
They would never return to the Buried City, or to the Canyons.
So why would someone leave, why would anyone give up their one shot of surviving the Red Giant?
They wouldn’t. No one ever has.
And yet Ruby did.
I’ve been thinking about this non-stop. I keep thinking it over and over.
The voice in my head keeps repeating it. And so I repeat it out loud. “Why did she leave? Why did she escape? What was she running from?”
Something is rotten in Wonderland…
I shake my head. I can’t figure it out. Maybe I never will. And I’m fine with that because it makes my life easier. It means all I have to do is find out who is responsible for Ruby’s death.
And make them pay. Kill them good and proper.
And I’m pretty sure I know who’s responsible.
They’re all gonna pay.
I suddenly realize that I’ve been walking up hill, up a gentle incline. The air is getting warmer. The wall of the tunnel is getting hot. Just like my brother said it would be like. Just like I knew it would be like. I must be close to a surface subway station. I think I’m safe for the moment. Need to keep moving though. Need to keep stumbling forwards.
Towards the surface.
Towards the Wasteland.
I’ve got the keys to the Sunspeeder. That’s a start. I can make it to the Canyons. Re-group. Recover. Plan my attack.
Bastards won’t know what hit them.
The tunnel opens up. I see a platform. I see a stairway that leads up to the rest of the subway station, to the outside world.
But I stop.
On the cusp of this threshold.
I hesitate because it feels like I’m running away, it feels like I’m giving up. “I’m not running. I’m not giving up. I just need to prepare myself.”
I climb up onto the platform, climb up and out of the tunnel. I climb the stairs and it’s only now that I realize and appreciate just how deep and buried the Buried City actually is.
Because all I’m doing is climbing up.
I climb another set of stairs. The air starts to burn my nostrils and my throat and my lungs as I breathe, as I inhale. I pause on the last landing of the stairwell. The stairs open up into a vast chamber. The entrance to the station. Huge windows. I can’t help but think it looks like a church, a place of worship. Light pours in from the Red Giant, the shadows are long and I thank a higher power that these shadows are no longer coming to life.
It must be getting late.
This is a good thing, because as soon as that sun sets, I’ll need to make my move outside. Then again, maybe I should go right now. Have I put enough distance between myself and the Overseer?
Suddenly I feel eyeballs on me. I feel people watching me, stalking me.
Am I still hallucinating?
The long shadows remain still.
A gun barrel is pressed into my back.
“No sudden movements,” she says.
She has a soft voice.
Soft yet deadly.
“You move pretty quick for a dead man,” she says.
“I was moving quick because I was being chased by…”
She says, “Drop the gun.”
I didn’t even realize I was holding it, barely holding it, barely aiming it. “First, you tell me who you are and what you’re doing here. Why are you following me? And why do you have a long barreled rifle aimed at my head?”
The girl takes a step back and I turn slightly to get a look at her.
She is beautiful. She is not from here.
She lowers the barrel slightly. It’s now aimed at my chest. “The Overseer won’t stop, you know? He never rests. He never sleeps. Girls have tried to run before. Tried to escape. They never make it far. They never make it out of the Long Tunnel. They never make it past the vault door.”
“Ruby made it,” I say.
“And so did I. But I only made it because of Ruby. And because something else has been distracting the top brass, the Lord, the Collector. They’ve all been busy. Busy and distracted. It’s the only reason we were able to make it as far as we did.”
“What could possibly be so important? Why are they so distracted?”
The girl shakes her head. She hesitates. Thinking. Eventually she says, “I don’t know. But whatever it is, it’s something big. Something huge.”
Yeah, something isn’t right. And I still can’t figure it out. Not now. My mind is a mess, a haze of smoke and shadows and heat mirages. “Wait, why the hell did you escape from Wonderland? Why the hell would you want to come here?”
“You people really don’t know anything, do you?”
“Wonderland isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It isn’t what it seems.”
“What do you mean?”
“Trust me, you’re better off not knowing.”
“That’s funny. I killed an Enforcer earlier. Tortured him. He said the exact same thing. Said I’d be better off not knowing. But I think I deserve to know. I think I’ve earned the right to know.”
“You haven’t earned shit.”
“I swore an oath to Ruby… I made a promise.”
She lowers the gun some more. “Did… did Ruby tell you her name?”
“She must’ve liked you…”
I think back to when Ruby hesitated. At the time, I thought she was thinking of a fake name. But maybe she was thinking about whether or not to tell me her real name.
“She must’ve liked you a lot,” the girl continues. “We agreed, if we ever made it out, that we’d use a fake name. We’d stay underground. We agreed we wouldn’t tell anyone where we were from or what was really going on. It’s better if the people don’t know.”
“Or maybe she knew she was dying,” I offer. “So she figured she had nothing to lose.”
Yeah. Maybe. I’ll never know.
“So, Wonderland?” I ask. “What’s the deal?”
“Like I said, we promised each other we wouldn’t talk about Wonderland.”
“Because talking about Wonderland, knowing the truth about Wonderland, will get you killed.”
“I’m dead anyway. I’ve been poisoned. Ruby is dead. The Overseer will get you eventually.”
“It’s not you I’m worried about. It’s not me. It’s not any of the girls.”
“What? I’m not following.”
“If word gets out, if the truth gets out, it’ll be lights out for everyone. They will destroy the Buried City. They’ll kill everyone. They’ll burn it down and then flood it. Or maybe they’ll cut off the oxygen supply. They have their ways. They’ll be efficient about it. And then they’ll go after everyone in the Canyons. It’ll be a massacre. A slaughter. That’s why we promised to keep our mouths shut. And that’s why you’re better off not knowing. Ignorance is bliss, right? Well, living in ignorance is better than not living at all.”
She steps forward, towards me, and she has a needle in her hand. “But, you’re not dead yet.”
“What is that?”
“It’ll counteract the poison.”
“How can I trust you? How do I know it’s not more poison?”
“You don’t know. And you can’t trust me. Not yet. But I’m all you’ve got.”
She’s right. I’m slowly dying. The poison will kill me just as surely as it killed Ruby. On the other hand, if what this girl has in her hypodermic needle is more poison, it will finish me off quickly.
A quick and painless death is better than most people get.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
She thinks about it for a second. Maybe to think of a fake name, or maybe she’s deciding whether or not to tell me her real name.
Eventually she sticks me with the needle, right into my neck. And she says, “My name is Angel.”
My brother used to read me parts of this book called the Bible. He would only read bits and pieces, and I only remember bits and pieces.
A valley of death.
A garden of peace.
A fallen Angel by the name of Lucifer.
A fallen Angel of Light. The Devil.
Is Angel the Devil?
I feel a warm rush up my arm. And then I don’t feel anything else.
A few hours later I’m coming good.
I’m in the bathroom of this long abandoned subway station.
Angel is standing behind me. She’s reloading my guns.
“I just want a clean break,” she says. “I want to get away. I thought I could stay quiet, stay hidden. But I’m starting to realize the only way to escape is to kill the Overseer.”
“What about the Collector? What about the Lord?”
“They rarely leave Wonderland. And they rarely get their hands dirty. They leave it all up to the Overseer.”
We essentially want the same things.
This fallen Angel and I.
She wants a life. A new life. She wants freedom from the terror and tyranny of Wonderland.
I want revenge.
It looks like the stars have aligned.
The problem is, killing the Overseer will be no easy feat. Even with all the hardware that Angel has collected, accumulated, stolen. She has a large rucksack full of guns and ammunition. Full of other things that go bang and boom.
Again, I think about selling all of this, living like a King. But this is a fantasy.
“If we want to get the drop on them,” Angel says. “We need to keep moving. We stay here, he’ll find us.”
“I’m all ears. Where do we go? What do we do?”
“The Water Treatment Plant. That’s where will find what we’re looking for.”
She keeps telling me how we need to do this.
Every little thing. Every angle and every detail.
She’s got it all figured out.
But I keep saying, no.
It’s not bloody enough. It’s not painful enough.
She has to explain to me that they, the Overseers, they don’t bleed like we do. They don’t feel pain like we do. Not emotional. Not physical. The way to beat them, the way to torture them and exact revenge, you stop him from doing his job. If it’s no longer effective, if it’s no longer able to do its job, it will feel pain. A kind of pain.
Some version of pain.
And I say… “Like if I chopped off its legs and arms and mangled its spine…”
Angel thinks it over. “Yes. That will definitely piss it off.”
She called the Overseer an ‘it’. I guess that’s accurate. I guess it’s not really human. It may walk like a man, talk like a man. But I can assure you, it ain’t a man. Combing your hair in the morning and smiling at strangers does not make you a man.
Angel hands me my weapons.
My brother’s gun.
The Enforcer’s blood covered gun.
The rapid fire… the work of art.
I slide the hand guns down the waist of my pants and I slip the rapid fire over my shoulder and around my neck. I get comfortable and I get my mind right.
The heat is starting to rise again. I must’ve slept through the night while the poison worked its way out of my system.
“Shit, they’re here,” Angel says from the door of the bathroom.
We are being chased and hunted by a small army of Enforcers. They can track weapons. Bullets.
They can track their girls.
“How’d they get here so fast?” she asks. “We’re miles from the center of the city. Miles from anywhere.”
“They can track the weapons,” I explain.
I take out my brother’s gun, slide the magazine out. On the base of one of the bullets is the word, ‘Omega’.
Omega Camp is the official name of Wonderland.
No one uses the official name anymore. At least, no one left on Earth.
These bullets and most of these weapons would’ve been manufactured, or at the very least they would’ve been modified in house, within the walls of Wonderland.
“I don’t know how they do it,” I say. “But they can. And that’s how they found us. They can probably track you somehow.”
Angel shakes her head. “We all disabled our tracking devices. And at the very least, they shouldn’t be able to get a lock on us underground.”
Doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter because I’m feeling better. Well, not better. Not a hundred percent. But I feel like killing some people who deserve to be killed.
They’re all part of a problem. They’re all complicit. And they’re all about to pay a heavy, heavy price for their compliance.
I say, “You might wanna hang back, Angel.”
She slides an elongated briefcase out of the rucksack, out of her magical rucksack full of magical and deadly things. “Hang back? And let you have all the fun? No way. These guys have made my life a living hell since I was old enough to…”
She trails off.
I don’t ask why.
She opens the long briefcase. Contained within the briefcase are a bunch of parts which she puts together like a jigsaw puzzle. Bit by bit. Piece by piece.
And in a few short minutes, she’s got herself a sniper rifle. There’s no scope, but down here, we’re not going to need a scope.
“Do you know how to use that thing?” I ask, completely underestimating her.
“Yeah. One of these bastards taught me. He was bored. Figured he teach a pretty young girl how to fire a large and ugly weapon. The first time I fired it, the recoil nearly killed me, nearly took my head off. I cried. He laughed. Bastard.”
“Don’t be sorry. Because now I know how to use this,” she says, shouldering the sniper rifle, checking the barrel. “I now know how to kill a human being.”
I nod my head and I’m smiling. “Then let’s get to it.”
I tell her to hide behind a billboard on the upper level of the subway. A billboard that advertises the ‘Trans-continental Hyperloop’. What an age to be alive, I think to myself. Anyway, I tell Angel it’ll be warmer up there. And that she won’t be used to the heat. But she’ll have a great line of sight, a great vantage point. I tell her to use a knife to cut a hole in the billboard. Cut a few holes.
I tell her, “Don’t point the barrel through the hole. They’ll be able to see it. Hang back. Line them up. Take your time. And remember, it’ll be hot up there, even more so than right here, even though we’re literally only one level lower.”
She tells me she can handle it. She tells me she won’t let me down. She hands me two grenades and takes her rucksack and wishes me good luck.
Angel makes her way up the stairs, makes her way to her sniper’s nest.
I turn my head to the side. I can hear them walking up the dark tunnel, marching, noisy and arrogant. It’s time to start killing, time to get revenge for Ruby.
For the guy who poured me my drinks at that sleazy ass bar.
For Meryl, the sweet old librarian who knew my name even though I didn’t know hers. She knew my name because she knew everyone’s name. She kept that place open, kept it from falling into waste. She warned us, cut the power, gave us a chance to escape. I know this act of defiance and bravery cost her dearly. I know it cost Meryl her life. The Enforcers would not have hesitated putting a bullet in her brain. Her brain, within it, the knowledge and wisdom of the Library she kept alive.
Now it’s all gone. Dead and gone.
Maybe they didn’t use a bullet. Maybe they didn’t want to waste one on an old lady. Maybe they just used a knife. I’m picturing all the ways that Meryl could’ve died. And I’m getting pretty worked up. And it’s getting hard to focus.
And I need to focus.
Killing an army is hard work.
“Hector! Lay down your weapons. Get on the ground. Put your hands behind your head. And no one will get hurt.”
“Okay. Sure. I’ll do that.”
Idiots. Why are they wasting their breath? Haven’t they learnt their lesson?
The grenades that Angel gave me are not regular grenades. They’re not explosive frag grenades. One is a flash-bang grenade and the other is a smoke grenade. I pull the pins out with my teeth. I spit them on the ground and I throw the flash-bang into the subway tunnel.
The flash-bang is louder and brighter than I ever imagined. It’s the kind of brightness you’d expect from an exploding star, or a few thousand nuclear warheads detonating all at once. The flash-bang moves into a strobe light mode and all hell and chaos erupts. I see the Enforcers scatter like roaches, taking cover.
They return fire. Well, they try to. Their aim is sporadic and completely inaccurate. At the very back of their pathetic group, I think I see the Overseer. He’s standing in the background, standing in the dark tunnel.
He’s not bothering to hide or take cover. I can’t be certain, but it looks like he is smiling.
The flashing continues.
On and off.
Bright like the sun, like the Red Giant.
Like the edge of space.
The Overseer disappears. Smart move, buddy.
I throw the smoke grenade. And I unleash with the rapid fire gun. An entire magazine. I shoot where the Enforcers are taking cover, where they think they are hiding. They are wrong. They are not hidden. I stand on the platform and mow them down. I run out of bullets. I let the gun fall to my side. I take out my brother’s antique handgun.
Angel provides support from above. She’s better than I expected. She’s a crack shot, a dead eye.
The Enforcers fall in the tunnel. Dying. Choking on blood and smoke. I hold my hand up, telling Angel to stop shooting. One Enforcer is left, he is wearing a poncho. He has a scar over his left eye.
He has a bullet in his stomach.
I jump down into the tunnel and grab him by the scruff of his neck. I throw him onto the platform. “Talk.”
He says nothing. And he does nothing except crawl into a smaller and smaller ball. Blood pours out of his body.
Angel appears beside me. “Just end him.”
“He might know something. I saw him, the night Ruby died. He was asking around. He was stalking her. He was real close.”
He looks shorter than I remember. Not as thin. Then again, I was stone drunk that night. I could barely see straight.
“See that patch on his shoulder?” Angel says.
I tear the poncho away. There’s a patch that looks like a spear.
“He’s a commander,” she explains. “Bad son of a bitch. Sadistic. But trust me, he can’t tell you anything. He can’t tell you anything you need to know. The scar over his eye, it’s like an initiation. A rite of passage. It’s to let people know who he is and what he’s done. To let people know that he’s a made man.”
I slit his throat and he bleeds to death in less than a minute.
I jump back down into the tunnel.
“What are you doing?” Angel asks.
She throws the ruck sack on the ground. “Got everything we need right here. You get anymore, we won’t be able to carry it.”
“I just need some ammo for this.”
I show her the rapid fire gun. The work of art. The pure killing machine. I think I’m in love with it.
“What’s it take?” she asks. “Nine millimeters, right?”
“I don’t know. It’s not mine. And I’m no expert. I’ve just been pointing and shooting.”
I slide the empty magazine out and throw it up to her.
“Yeah, nine millimeters,” she says. “I’ve got hundreds of these.”
She throws me a magazine. And another. Heavy and full of bullets, full of little promises of death and pain and revenge.
More than revenge… retribution.
I load the gun and instantly feel a whole lot better about my current situation, about myself, about life.
I strip two corpses of their thermo suits. I try and find ones that have the least amount of blood on them, the least amount of holes. I keep looking over my shoulder as I work. I know the Overseer is lurking in the tunnel somewhere. He’s hanging back for some reason.
I don’t know why he doesn’t come and finish the job. Pump me full of poison. Torture me. Bury me in the Wasteland. I know he’s capable of doing just that. He’s capable of doing it single handedly.
But he’s not doing any of this.
Which begs the question, why is he sending Enforcers to their death?
He’s hanging back. Smiling. Laughing. He’s enjoying this. He’s having the time of his life.
And so am I.
Maybe we’re not so different.
I strip an Enforcer of his thermo suit. He’s still alive.
And he begs.
For what? I’m not sure.
He’s semi-naked and bleeding and dying and afraid.
And the only thing I can give him is a quick death.
I slit his throat. He stops begging.
For some reason, despite the fact that I’m surrounded by dead bodies, I start thinking about how Angel and I, we’re at a crossroad. I can basically see the Wasteland. Well, I can’t actually see it, but I sure as hell can feel it.
I see the tunnel that leads back down into the Buried City.
These are our two choices.
We can escape into the ruins of the above ground city. We can escape into the Wasteland. We can run. Live to fight another day. Or we can head back into the darkness of the subway tunnels, back into the depths of the Buried City, we can fight today.
We can fight right fucking now.
I take a deep breath. My heart beat slows down, the adrenalin rush of the fight subsides. My head clears. I feel like I should think these two options through. I hear my brother’s voice. The voice of reason. Know yourself, your strengths, your limitations.
Know your enemy.
Know your terrain.
Consider your origins and your options carefully.
I look around, taking my surroundings in. Studying my terrain, my battlefield. I love these abandoned subway stations. The ones closest to the surface. I love them because they are completely abandoned, completely empty. Rats don’t even come up here.
The only downside is, it’s too damn hot.
Angel is sweating and breathing hard. She’s not used to her body having to work like this, for every breath. And even though she doesn’t want to show it, show weakness, I can tell she’s hurting. And to be honest, so am I. I’m hurting bad. My brother was right, it’s hotter now. A lot hotter.
But I don’t care. I could stay up here all day. There’s no one else around to tell you what to do, or what you should be doing. No hustle and bustle of the Buried City.
And the raging heat.
It’s almost peaceful.
I lay the two thermo suits out on the ground, sizing them up, wondering if one of them will actually fit me.
“What are those for?” Angel asks.
I motion with my head to the ceiling. “They’re for the Wasteland. This suit will protect you from the sun, so we can move around during the day.”
“No, I know what they are. I mean, you’re not planning on running are you?”
“What else is there left to do?”
“I told you, we need to kill the Overseer. We don’t survive, we don’t get to live if we don’t kill the Overseer.”
“Honey, I’m not sure he can be killed.”
She points to the rucksack. “I’ve got enough heat here to bring down the walls of Wonderland. If you won’t help me, I’ll do this thing on my own.”
And I believe her. One hundred percent.
“And don’t call me Honey,” she adds.
Angel’s got the right attitude. She’s got the stomach. But if she goes in by herself, guns blazing, she won’t accomplish anything other than leaving a young and very beautiful corpse.
Come to think of it, a few well-placed bullets will take care of her beauty.
I look up at the sunlight filtering through the dusty windows of the subway station. “I figured that maybe I’ve killed enough people on Ruby’s behalf that I’m about even. Up there, in the Wasteland, we can disappear. We can start over. I’ll find you a place in the Narrow Canyon. Or the Deep Canyon. They won’t find you.”
“They will. They’ll find us both. They have their ways. And you might’ve killed a hundred Enforcers, but you haven’t killed the thing, the people responsible for Ruby’s death.”
Damn. She’s right. I know she’s right. And she won’t let me off the hook.
“The Overseer,” I whisper.
Angel lays it all down. “The Overseer. The Lord. The Collector. They work together. And together, they are invincible. Together, they are all knowing and all powerful. They own this place. The Buried City. They own Wonderland and the Canyons. They are the Kings of Earth. And unless we do something, something drastic, the tyranny won’t stop. We’ve got a chance now. A real chance. They rarely leave Wonderland, but the Overseer is here. He’s right here. He’s so goddamn close. We can take him out. We can start the rebellion.”
“What the hell are we rebelling against?” I ask.
“Lies and secrets,” she answers. “Tyranny and slavery. We’re rebelling against Wonderland.”
“You really need to tell me what the hell is going on.”
“You do this for me, you kill the Overseer, and I’ll tell you everything you need to know. He’s the muscle, he’s their ultimate weapon. He protects the Lord and the Collector. If he goes, if we kill him, they’ll have no protection. No safety.”
Rebellion. It’s a crazy and rare word. A dangerous word. People get killed just for talking about it like we are, for talking about it in dark tunnels and dark alleys, in abandoned subway stations and Buried Cities.
I can’t be sure, but I think I know what’s going on. I’m just too scared to say it out loud, too scared to even think it. I know the Shuttles are taking longer and longer to get back to Earth. I know the Arks are moving further away, deeper into space.
It’s been five long years since anyone was processed. Since anyone left this rock.
We are the last ones left.
Angel doesn’t tell me, doesn’t spell it out. She says I’m better off not knowing. Maybe we’re all better off.
What difference would it make?
I shake my head. All that matters is getting my revenge. Ruby died in my arms. I failed to protect her. And Angel is right, it doesn’t matter how many people I kill, how many Enforcers and Mercs. If I don’t kill the person responsible, it’ll all be for nothing.
So I tell Angel I’m ready to do this.
I’m ready for the hunt.
I’m ready to start the rebellion.
I’m ready to kill the Overseer of Wonderland.
Angel stuffs the thermo suits into her rucksack of goodies. I head back to the bathroom to wash the blood off my hands and off my face. Angel tells me to hurry up. She knows the Overseer won’t hang back forever. Eventually he’ll come a calling.
Better that we have the advantage.
I tell her I won’t be long. And then I’m standing in the disabled toilet of an abandoned subway station. I’m looking at myself in the mirror, staring. I barely recognize myself.
I check over my shoulder to make sure that I’m actually alone. And then I speak to Ruby, a girl I barely knew, a girl I loved.
A girl I wish I could’ve known better.
“I owe you Ruby. Don’t worry. I’ll make it right. I’ll kill them all. I’ll kill them for you.”
I fight back tears, which is weird because I’m not one for crying. But here I am, choking up.
I clear my throat and I tell myself to focus. I tell myself that I’m feeling pretty good about doing what I’m about to be doing. I’m feeling justified and righteous.
But then the self-doubt starts talking to me, nagging.
It’s almost as if this feeling, this anxiety, it’s almost as if it magically transforms into a person. A being that lives inside my head, or right next to me. His arm around my shoulder.
Self Doubt says, “What if Ruby was just using you? She didn’t like you. She wasn’t even attracted to you. She’d heard about you, just like that guy with the scar over his face had heard about you. It was just sheer luck that she’d found you first.”
I say, “Shut the hell up.”
Because that’s probably true, but either way, I screwed up. I failed.
I owe Ruby. I owe her big time.
The paralyzing personification of Self Doubt crawls off, disappearing into nothingness.
I owe Ruby.
So let’s go and make things right. I walk out of the bathroom and look longingly towards the upper levels of the subway station. Dark orange light pours in through the massive church like windows. Beyond those walls and those windows, beyond the ruins of a once great city, is the Wasteland. Beyond those walls and windows is freedom.
I turn away from it, turn towards the subway platform. I help Angel with her rucksack but she brushes me off. She’s got it. She can carry it. She can handle it.
We head for the tunnels, the darkness, we make our way back towards the Buried City.
Towards the Overseer.
As we walk through the tunnels, my mind again goes off on its own. I try to keep it focused, try to keep it under control. But it is nearly impossible.
I start thinking about the main players of this messed up situation I find myself in.
And then there’s the girls. Desperate and pretty and smooth. Delicate, yet tough as nails.
Something is rotten in Wonderland all right. It has to be rotten for someone like Ruby, for someone like Angel to run. To escape. Something big is going down. And I find myself smack bang in the middle of it all. And I can’t help but think that once the word gets out, once the genie gets out of the bottle and the cat is let out of the bag, there’ll be no going back.
Angel says there’ll be a rebellion.
She says there’ll be war.
I try not to think too much about that.
I try not to get ahead of myself.
I try and stay focused.
Because if things go about as well as they possibly can, I won’t be around to see another war, another rebellion.
And I’m fine with that.
We come to a fork in the tunnel and Angel leads the way. I ask her how she knows which tunnel to take and she says because before she escaped, she forced herself to memorize great sections of the tunnels. Not all of them. But a lot.
She knows the way to the Water Treatment Plant. She knows the way to the vault door and the Long Tunnel.
We continue to walk through the darkness, my brother’s red flashlight our only source of light. I continue to think about the main players. The people responsible for everything that’s happened… for everything that’s about to happen.
First, there’s the man in charge of it all…
No one knows his name. Well, no one that I hang out with knows his name.
Everyone just calls him the Lord of Wonderland.
He was left here, left behind on Earth, left in charge of it all, an entire planet. How something like that doesn’t go to your head is beyond me. And maybe this is what’s happened. He’s gone mad with power and privilege and arrogance. Rumor has it, he was a military man. A five star general, or an Admiral, something high ranking and highly decorated.
A veteran of the Great Wars.
The Last Wars.
So they left him here, to rule, to organize.
Over the years and decades he became known as the Lord. Over the years, he became a hermit, refusing to leave the safety of his Wonderland Palace. I can’t blame him. The powers to be, all the royalty and politicians and military people leave you here, on Earth, in the Wasteland, you might has well take advantage of every luxury afforded to you.
Hell, I’d probably do the exact same thing.
Second, is the Lord’s right hand man. He’s a guy by the name of the Collector. Again, I don’t actually know this guy’s real name… everyone just calls him the Collector because that’s what he does.
He collects people.
He collects people to come and live in Wonderland.
And from there, they can buy a ticket, a seat on one of the Shuttles headed for the continental Arks, the last refuge of the human race, the life boats of mankind.
Problem is, it’s been a damn long time since he’s collected anyone.
Five long years. Five long and hot years.
The hottest on record.
Last of all is the Overseer. A person, a thing, who up until a few hours ago, I thought was just a myth. But what I’m quickly finding out is… that not only is the Overseer real, but everything I’ve ever heard about him is real. All the rumors. All the tall tales and drunken stories in those sleazy bars and pubs and back alleys. They’re all fucking real. He’s a genetically enhanced super soldier who just might be invincible.
He might just be unkillable.
I laugh to myself because I’m about to find out real soon if this is the case. I’m going to kill an invincible super soldier. I’m going to kill a myth.
Or I am going to die trying.
It sounds like madness.
“What’s so funny?” Angel asks, looking at me sideways.
I shake my head. “Nothing is funny. Everything is funny. Life. Where are we going?”
I realize I’m not making much sense.
Angel doesn’t seem to mind.
She points ahead. “Like I said, we’re going to the Water Treatment Plant. There’s a tunnel behind the plant that leads directly to Wonderland. The Overseer, he’s bound to come through there.”
According to one of the Enforcer’s I killed, there’s a tunnel connecting Wonderland to the Buried City.
A secret tunnel.
Blocking this passageway is a door that no one on this side of the door knows the code to and no one has a key to.
Angel confirms the intel. “That’s how the girls, that’s how Ruby and I, that’s how we escaped. Ruby was able to get the access code and the key. Don’t know how she did it.”
Ruby was smart. Tough. Resourceful. More and more, I find myself wishing I could’ve had the chance to know her better. More and more, I’m realizing how much of a tragedy it was that she was murdered.
We arrive at the Water Treatment Plant and it’s lousy with Mercs waiting for me and for other marks, waiting to cash in on a big fat score. They’re so desperate and hungry they don’t even bother hiding.
They’re out in the open for all to see.
It looks like the actual workers, the engineers and the maintenance staff, the people who keep the residents of the Buried City alive and hydrated have clocked off work for the day.
They knew something big was about to go down so they got the hell out of dodge.
Or maybe they were tipped off.
Every now and then I see what I think might be an Enforcer. But it’s not. Maybe they’re better at keeping themselves hidden. Or maybe they’ve all bugged out. Maybe they’ve all run back home to Wonderland to lick their wounds and reattach their lost limbs.
Can’t blame them.
Then again, maybe I’ve killed all the Enforcers.
I guess it’s possible. I sure have killed a lot of those bastards.
Angel and myself, we’re crouched down real low, we’re on the other side of a massive reservoir of water. It’s so massive it may as well be a lake. To our backs is smooth rock. There’s no chance of anyone sneaking up on us.
In front of us, beyond the lake, is the plant. And beyond that is the vault door and the tunnel that leads to Wonderland.
We can’t see the vault door, but Angel assures me it’s there. She then explains to me that there’s protocols and contingency plans. Worst case scenario type things.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“I mean, Wonderland has the power and the position to take control of this water source if they need it. They can then do whatever they want with it. Drink it. Poison it. Use it to flood the Buried City. Whatever they want.”
She has a large night vision scope attached to her sniper rifle now. She’s given me a quick look. That’s how I can see all the Mercs and none of the Enforcers.
“I’m getting worried,” I say.
“There are no Enforcers here. Why are there no Enforcers?”
I give her the rifle so she can see what I’m talking about.
“Maybe you killed them all,” she says, scanning the plant. “Or maybe, just maybe, the Overseer realized that throwing Enforcers at you was a waste of everybody’s time.”
She hands the rifle back to me so I can have another look.
“What are you going to do?” she asks.
Angel has made me memorize the access code to Wonderland. She thinks the Overseer will have the key on him.
But I won’t even need the access code. There’s no way I’m getting anywhere near the vault door. I’m assuming it’s got some sort of failsafe activated. And it’s probably guarded by some sort of automated weapon system.
But that’s beside the point. All I have to do is go over there, make some noise, and wait.
The Overseer will show. He’ll show and then it’ll be me and him. All I need to do is take him down and then Angel and her friends can make a clean break. Angel and her friends will have a chance. And I can get my revenge and my forgiveness from Ruby’s ghost. I’ll probably die doing this, but I’ll die doing the right thing. I’ll die doing the good thing, fighting the good fight.
“Well?” Angel asks. “What are you going to do?”
“If I don’t make it back, you take that thermo suit and you get the hell out of here.”
I give her the keys to the Sunspeeder.
“There’s a Sunspeeder. It’s hidden in the Wasteland. It’s hidden someplace that’s real hard to find.” I give her the coordinates anyway. Just in case. “You’ll need a GPS tracking device to find it. Worse comes to worst, maybe you can trade the keys for something. The Sunspeeder is old, but it’s good to go.”
She takes the keys off me. “You still haven’t answered my question. What are you going to do?”
I make sure my guns are loaded and secured and I say, “I’m going to make this right.”
I start swimming towards the plant. My brother taught me to swim a long, long time ago. My younger brother, teaching me, his older brother how to swim. It was kind of embarrassing.
And I couldn’t figure it out. We live in a Buried City. In the middle of the Wasteland. The world’s oceans and lakes and rivers have all but dried up.
What’s the point?
He’d said, “The point is, so you don’t drown in a desert like a fucking moron.”
It was a fair point.
And here I am. Swimming through an underground lake.
My brother was always the smart one.
I’m putting his lessons and advice to good use. And even though on the surface the water looks calm, even though it looks down right inviting, swimming across it is a lot harder than I thought it would be. The water has a strong undertow. The water is moving and flowing and churning because it needs to be moving and flowing. Can’t have stagnate water. Still water will pool and become dirty and polluted. Flowing water is essential for life. Almost as essential as the sun.
And as I swim across, I feel the presence of something very big under the surface. A giant propeller. Giant blades, mixing and churning the water. If I go under, I’ll be chopped into mince-meat. I’ll be food for all the little fishies down there. And the big ones.
Overhead, I hear the crack of Angel’s sniper rifle. She has already started taking out the Mercs. I look up in between strokes, between breaths. She’s not actually killing any of them. She’s taking their legs, their arms.
She’s putting them down, but not killing. I don’t care who you are, that takes some serious skill. And some serious empathy. She understands that these Mercenaries are not bad people. They’re not out to kill us. They’re just desperate.
She’s a lot kinder than I’ll ever be.
By the time I reach the shore, by the time I climb up on to the metal structure of the Water Treatment Plant, the Mercs are all flailing around on the ground. There’s blood everywhere. The ones that had any sense fled with all their limbs attached and no holes in their bodies.
I walk through the treatment plant. I don’t bother hiding or stalking my way through. I know the Overseer is here somewhere, and I know he will want to face me.
He needs to. He needs to know what I know. He needs to know who I’ve talked to. He thinks he can get this information from me, by torturing me, by asking the hard way. He is sorely mistaken. I walk through a room and a bunch of doorways and turnstiles that normally would be guarded. Normally you’d need some sort of security clearance to get through.
But this ain’t normal.
And now I’m standing in front of the largest vault door I have ever seen. Bigger than the ones at the bank. And I know there is treasure on the other side. I know on the other side of this door is a tunnel, a very long tunnel that leads to Wonderland.
The keypad is next to the vault door.
There is an elaborate looking keyhole.
I never get a chance to enter the code.
Never get a chance to find out what kind of key it takes.
There is a pin-prick in the back of my neck.
A lot more.
This is how the Overseer likes to do it. Quick and clean and painless.
Not me. He won’t be so lucky. It won’t be quick and it won’t be clean and it won’t be painless. I turn around and he’s standing there with a dart gun.
He’s reloading it.
I grab the needle in my neck and throw it on the ground. “Poison won’t work on me,” I say, hoping that Angel’s serum will still be in my system, still working its magic.
The Overseer ignores me and reloads the poison dart gun. He puts it back in its holster and he checks his watch.
He looks at me.
And then back at his watch.
And he says, “Maybe you are right.”
I draw both guns in a flash. My brother’s antique, it’s got a fifteen bullet magazine, the rapid fire’s got thirty. These bullets fly towards the Overseer faster than the speed of sound, faster than the eye can see.
Little promises of pain and death and revenge.
They hit nothing but air and metal and concrete.
I let go of the rapid fire and it swings to my side. I reload my brother’s gun.
I take aim.
At darkness and shadows.
I see a glint of something.
A flash of steel.
The Overseer cuts my arm and my hand and just like that I drop the gun. I still have the rapid fire, but if I take my eyes off him to reload it, he’ll end my life. So I keep my eyes on him. I get ready for the fight.
He slashes with the knife. He’s fast.
He’s thin and he looks malnourished, but he’s got the energy and the power of a prize fighter, a gladiator, a Wasteland Raider. His arms are deceptively long. Even longer with the blade of the knife.
For a moment, we’re dancing around each other and I’m in awe of his quickness and his strength.
We stand eye to eye. Toe to toe. Face to face.
And then I decide to end it.
I move in close and he stabs me with the knife. He stabs me right in the ribs and the blade catches on bone, on my ribcage, protecting my vital organs.
I feel pain. A lot of pain. But I shrug it off. I keep moving.
I grab his neck with both hands and I twist it. I do this with force, with all the hate and emotion that I’ve been carrying around with me. I hear bones crunch. I hear sinew and tendons and ligaments snap.
I see his spine. His throat is still intact.
I drop him on the ground and kick his knife away. “You’re a fast son of a bitch, I’ll give you that. But you’re not fast enough.”
I stand over him and the blood from my knife wound drips all over his thin and once powerful limbs.
His eyes are still open. Still looking at me. I think he wants to scream in pain, but he doesn’t. He is sort of moaning and gasping on account of his throat being wrapped awkwardly around his spine.
I hear a single round, a bullet slide into the breech of a rifle.
Angel is behind me, sniper rifle at the ready. “Let me finish him off. This bastard has made my life a living hell.”
“Sure. Shoot him as many times as you want. He’s not going anywhere.”
“I heard you earlier,” he whispers.
I hold my hand up, telling Angel to hold off on the execution.
“Talking about soldiers.”
“I just want you to know… that I too am a soldier. I am following orders. I am following protocol.”
“And what were your orders?”
“To find you… study you. And… destroy you. To stop the flow of information to the outside world. To protect the interests of Omega Camp. The killing, it was not personal.”
I pick up my brother’s gun. It is loaded. The safety is off. The barrel is still warm. “My brother used to say that every day is a school day. Because every day, you can learn something new. And guess what? You’re about to learn something new. The killing… it’s always personal.”
The damn thing closes its eyes and maybe even nods its head like it agrees with me. Like it is actually learning something new.
I think about shooting him, but I don’t. I step aside and Angel puts a bullet square between his eyes and his head explodes and vaporizes.
I reload the rapid fire gun just in case.
Angel drops the gun and collapses to her knees.
She’s exhausted. Probably hasn’t slept in days. But she’s looking at me with fire in her eyes. She knows this is all just getting started.
“So what now?” she asks, getting right down to it.
I search the corpse of the Overseer for a key to the vault. I find nothing.
“I need to go and square some things away with the Mayor,” I answer. “Make things right. Make sure that he calls off the Mercs and tells the Enforcers to lay down their weapons and get the hell out of here.”
“Do you think they’ll go for that?”
“If they don’t, they’ll answer to me. And trust me, they don’t want that. They don’t have their precious Overseer, their ultimate weapon to protect them anymore. Not that he was doing a lot of protecting in the first place.”
And I can’t help but get the feeling that maybe the Overseer enjoyed the killing, the massacres.
Like he was fascinated by it.
I try not to crawl into his headspace. That way lies madness.
“He didn’t have a key on him?” Angel asks.
“Strange,” she says softly, too tired to think about the key or where it’s hidden or who possesses it. “What do you want me to do?” she asks.
“I need you to lay low. Stay here. Watch this vault door. If anything nasty comes through, you raise the alarm.”
She gives me a weak thumbs up, letting me know she understands. Her eyes are becoming distant though. She is definitely exhausted.
“And get some rest,” I say. “You’re gonna need it. Where are the rest of the girls?”
“They’re safe. For the moment. They’re hidden.”
“Nowhere is safe. Not here.”
“Trust me. I’m the only one who knows where they are.”
I nod my head.
I trust her.
He’s a slime ball. Part politician, part salesman, part reptile.
His hands are always cold and clammy. He is always smiling.
But like it or not, he runs the Buried City. He has alliances with all the major players of the underworld, all the gangs, all the families.
Everyone who had the brains to form a group and horde supplies and guns and ammo.
This is how the Mayor did it. This is how he got his power. This is why he got the top job. He was wealthy. Beyond wealthy.
But most importantly, he is connected to Wonderland.
And if we want any chance of standing up to the might of Wonderland, we need this asshole to fight for us, for the people.
I walk up to his building. His headquarters. His fortress. There is a distinct absence of security.
I make my way to his office.
Sure enough, he’s still there. He sits behind his massive hardwood desk and he is smiling like always. “Heard you ignored my advice, Hector.”
“Didn’t really have a say in the matter.”
The Sheriff is there, standing off to the side. She’s a good kid. Like I said, she’s too young for the position, but she’s tougher than she looks. And stronger. She never takes a backwards step. She’s never intimidated. The mayor made her the Sheriff because he thought he’d be able to manipulate her.
This move has backfired spectacularly.
It’s the only wrong step the Mayor has taken the whole time he’s had the top job.
“Sheriff, could you give us a minute,” the Mayor says.
“She needs to hear this,” I say.
“Trust me, there are some things, some very confidential things that I need to clear up.”
And right on cue, the radio strapped to the Sheriff’s belt squawks to life. I can’t quite make out the voice on the other end. There’s a whole bunch of static. A string of code words. Something about a missing girl. Armed to the teeth. A war chest of weapons. Packing more heat than the Red Giant.
They’ve found her.
The Sheriff speaks into the radio. “I’m on my way…”
The Sheriff leaves and gives me a reassuring look. I know I can count on her when the rebellion starts, when the war starts. She’ll be a powerful leader, a powerful ally.
As she walks past me, she whispers… “Your brother is alive.”
And I say, “I know. And that girl, the one with all the heat. She’s on our side.”
She nods and leaves the room immediately, breaking into a run. A girl on a mission.
I turn back to the Mayor.
Behind him, the wall opens up. There’s a large screen. It shows security footage of the Water Treatment Plant.
It shows me.
The Mayor looks at me, looks at my ribcage. “You’re bleeding pretty heavily. And that blood is mighty dark.”
“Yeah,” I answer, because I don’t know what else to say.
“You actually killed an Overseer,” he says in disbelief.
“No one,” he says. “And I mean… no one… has ever killed an Overseer. Not in hand to hand combat. Not in battle. It is simply unheard of.”
“Killing is easy for me. It’s probably the only thing I’m good at.”
“Apparently so. But the Overseer left his mark on you.”
“Yes, he did.”
I feel the blood pour out of my body. Feel it run down my leg.
“You’re going to need some high-tech to fix that wound,” he says.
“Look, Mayor, I don’t have a lot of time. I just need to know one thing…”
“Are you with us?”
“You know what I’m talking about.”
“I told you before, Hector. There is no us… no them. We’re all in this together. We are the last ones left, the last people on Earth.”
“If that’s the case, then why are these girls, why are they running? Why are they escaping? What are they running from?”
I’m pretty sure the Mayor is dirty. I’m pretty sure he’s in on it. He has to be. His job and his livelihood depend on it.
I let him live before, but I think that was a mistake.
I pull my brother’s gun out. I aim it at his chest. “Don’t move. Don’t call for your goons. You move, I destroy your skull.”
“Hector, you’ve got this all wrong.”
“I don’t think so. I just want you to know that I appreciate what you did for me before. I really do. But that doesn’t change the fact that you’re working with them. That you sanctioned Ruby’s death.”
“Of course I’m working with them. I’ve always worked with them. It’s the only way!”
“Why did you do it?”
He doesn’t answer me. Not at first.
I cock the hammer.
“I had no choice. Like I said, she was a prized possession. But it’s more than that…”
“What do you mean?”
He shakes his head because he doesn’t want to say it out loud. Because he’s under direct orders not to…
If he speaks… he dies.
He’ll die slowly. Painfully.
Maybe I should shoot him. Get it over and done with. I’d be doing him a favor.
“If people knew,” he whispers. “If people knew the truth… they’d tear each other apart. This… this city. The refugee camps in the Canyons. There would be chaos. There is beauty in the lie… there is peace. As long as people live in hope…”
I hear the door shut behind me and someone else is in the room.
They are quiet.
And the person, they say, “Stop talking, Mayor. Or we will renegotiate the terms of our deal.”
The Mayor shuts his mouth and raises his hands. He apologizes. Over and over, he apologizes.
I’m afraid to turn around. I rarely get scared.
But I force myself to face the monster behind me. I turn and unload with my brother’s gun. The bullets smash into the door of the Mayor’s office.
Light from the outside hallway pours in through the bullet holes.
I expect security guards and Enforcers and Mercs and goons to come rushing in. But no one does.
No one comes rushing in. No one comes to help.
The reason for this is simple.
There is a man in the room.
He looks thin and malnourished.
He is tall. At least seven foot. He sees eye to eye with me. And there’s not many people down here that do.
He also has a scar over his left eye.
This is a badge of honor, a rite of passage, an initiation. This scar lets everyone know who he is and what he’s done.
This is the son of a bitch who had tracked Ruby to that bar. The son of a bitch who was pretending to drink that beer, asking me if I’d seen Ruby.
Did he poison her? Is he the one?
He is an Overseer.
Another ultimate weapon.
A genetically enhanced super soldier.
There is an Overseer in the room.
Another goddamn Overseer.
How many are there?
He has dodged the bullets.
He is thin and he looks malnourished and he’s just as fast as the other bastard I killed. I don’t get a chance to reload, I don’t get a chance to reach for another gun.
I am prepared to die. I was expecting to die this whole time. But expecting it and experiencing it are two amazingly different things. The Overseer is close enough to me he can use his knife. He slides it into my body, right next to the other knife wound.
This knife, it also catches on the bones, on my ribs. But the knife smashes through, piercing vital organs.
The pain takes my breath away.
The Overseer has delivered a death blow but his face remains emotionless. “You are defeated?”
He says this like he’s disappointed.
I fall to my knees and the Overseer is standing over me. All seven foot of him. He just pulled off a move, a series of moves that I can barely even comprehend. He dodged bullets, delivered a deathblow. He did this all in one explosive moment. But he’s not sweating. He’s barely even breathing.
“Do it,” I whisper, satisfied that I did right by Ruby. That I did all I could do. All anyone could ever hope to do. I say, “I’m ready.”
I say this even though I’m not sure that I am. “And could you make it quick? I don’t have all day.”
“You are strong,” the Overseer says.
“Don’t try and sweet talk me. Just do it already.”
“Kill me. You better kill me quick and good or I will haunt you for the rest of your days.”
“Hector, we are not going to kill you.”
“Then what the hell are you going to do?”
“We are going to make you better.”
He kneels down next to me and he puts me in a choke hold. He cuts off the air to my lungs. The hot, hot air. “You are too valuable to waste,” he says.
And my world goes dark. Dark like the outer solar system, dark like the last refuge of the human race.
And I’m ready for death.
But he’s not going to kill me. They’re not going to kill me.
“Put him in the Enhancement Program. Hunter Killer division.”
He says this to I’m not sure who.
And the Mayor says, repeats, “We are the last ones left. There is no us. No them. There will be no rebellion. There will be no war. There will be no exodus because there is no place left to go.”
“You sold us out,” I whisper, choking.
“No. I am saving you. I am saving everyone.”
The Overseer tightens his grip around my throat. And I realize I have failed Angel and I have failed Ruby. I couldn’t protect either of them. I couldn’t save Ruby and I couldn’t avenge her.
Did I even the score? I killed dozens of Mercs, Enforcers. I killed them good. I even killed an Overseer. But there’s more than one. Just exactly how many more of these genetically enhanced bastards are still running loose is anyone’s guess.
Worst of all, I didn’t get the people who were responsible because they are too good, too advanced. They have the tech, the weaponry. They have armies and Overseers. And most importantly, more important than any weapon, or assassin, more important than any army… they have Wonderland. They can hide behind those beautiful walls. And behind those walls, they have the only way off this doomed rock called Earth. They have the only means to escape the Red Giant.
I reach for a gun in the waist of my pants.
I’m still fighting, still struggling.
But I lose consciousness.
And then I lose hope.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Also by J. L. Harden
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Copyright © 2015 by J. L. Harden
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.
All rights are reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without the written permission of the author.
We are the last ones left on Earth. We live in the Wasteland. We live underground. Hidden from the Red Giant. Some of us live in Wonderland. These are the lucky few, the wealthy elite. But regardless of where we live, we all want the same thing. Because we are all waiting. Waiting to leave. Waiting to escape this doomed rockâ€¦ Life is simpleâ€¦ there is only one thing to doâ€¦ Survive. Survive the Wasteland. Survive the Sun. Wasteland Wonderland is a thrilling Post-Apocalyptic Sci-Fi adventure. It is a short novella, approximately 26,000 words in length.