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Crystalline chandlers hang frozen from the street lights, their muted glow casting orange spots of death along the narrow street. In this new, scarred, traumatized world, to be seen is to be dead. Swift stealthy footsteps carry us through the grey mist of the night. We hasten, falling in and out of shadows, the light licking our pale faces as we move block to block. Monuments of my past, glare at me as I pass them. I see the rusty musty shell of a car. Its grille is fixated in a perpetual frown, its skin ruined by horrible oxidation. Its doors are gone with the exception of the passenger door, which clings to the car by a delicate colony of rusty flakes. I point this out to my comrades. A brief breeze could knock it lose, telling the night where we are. I wish we could commandeer it. Some cars still run but they are clumsy careless things. They cannot navigate most of the torn roads and their loud engines would attract the attention we fear so much. So many hunters stalk this night.
We turn a corner, heading west now. The homes that hide us from the dust-filtered, moonlight lean against one another precariously for support. I can see the rooms inside them. Some are borderline hospitable. Most are dank and cold. All are decrepit and devoid of life. Just like outer space, they are filled with potential and yet empty of all signs of fulfillment. Dinner tables lie splintered and in decay, stained framed photographs of people decorate the shabby walls. The floors and walls are bent and twisted fighting a losing battle with time and gravity.
The skyline ahead of us is given shape by the monstrous apartment complexes of downtown. The colossal grey boxes are the abode of several monsters and are avoided at all costs. However, there are rumors that if you can get past the monsters and pitfalls, you can find a stronghold in the belly of the apartment block, underground, away from the terrors of the surface. They stand unassuming, passive; but have an irrefutable aura of death, like titanic tombstones marking the entrance to a rich grave. But that errand I reserve for my dreams, it is not ours tonight.
I can tell we are getting close to the center of the city. The roads are wider and the cars huddle together in clusters. The cold mist brings tears to my eyes. Visibility has decreased since we left our last campsite. The ground is wet and slight puddles threaten to cast us off our feet and into oblivion.
This is the third night of our mission. In seventy-four hours we have traveled forty miles, resting during the afternoon heat and moving in the darkness. An admirable feat considering the conditions. We turn onto another street. This one cuts the city in half and runs north to south. We follow it for six miles, running in the shadows all of the time. For the duration of the final two miles, I can spot the spire of our destination. The hospital is impossibly tall.
We find refuge in the remains of a Central Street music shop. Sheet music covers the floor and furniture. The walls are dressed in various fascinating instruments some of which are only mildly afflicted by the elements. But music has no place under the sky. The surface belongs to the invincible talons of nightmares. We open our packs noiselessly to get food. I saved my vacuum-packed venison for tonight, knowing I would need the energy. I glance up at the hospital again. I guess the entrance to be about 150 yards away. And every single one of those yards is illuminated by the gloomy gaze of street lamps, given life by the wind turbines on the roof. The hospital seems to be sound by the looks of its exterior. The cracks on the side of the building look like frozen bolts of lightning, but they don’t look dangerous. I do not foresee the hospital falling in on us. I look through one of its thousand broken windows and behind it is an unrevealing impenetrable wall of black. At least outside the shadows are safe. Inside, neither the darkness nor the light provides protection. The sky exhales for the first time all day and a comfortable breeze sweeps down Central Street. The mist is collected is great walls and shoved South. What little cover we had is gone in twenty minutes.
We finish eating and prepare to infiltrate the hospital. The wind picks up, whipping the loose sheets of music into a vortex. I fight the urge to fall back onto the floor to avoid the paper projectiles. A single careless blunder will trigger the night to come crashing down on us. The paper cyclone strikes at my body and face in succession but I hold firm, determined not to jeopardize my partners and the mission. Luckily everyone else does the same. The wind settles and the papers retrogress from whipping projectiles to innocuous archives of notes and lyrics.
Ben signals us to join him in the shop’s back room. We fill the little room which is plagued by mold and mice. They formicate at the foreigners and scurry in great surges into the gaps in the walls. Ben stares at door, probably thinking about shutting it, but he knows as well as all of us that if it screeches he’ll have destroyed us. I hear the first words spoken in thirteen hours.
“Good evening folks,” Ben whispers through a grin, “how ya’ll doin’?”
Smiles all around. As well as the collective effort to suppress a laugh. How ironic.
“The mist has passed and taken our cover. So we need to find an alternate entrance. I don’t like the idea of running in the open. And I hate the idea of running in the open in the light even more. So this is the plan…”
The plan is to go around to the south side of the building and climb an old decrepit trash truck and get to the fire escape. The fire escape will bring us as far as the 11th floor at which point we’ll gain access through a window. He stresses taking care on the fire escape. It is old, damaged, and very temperamental. If we’re seen, or more likely heard, we will have no where to run.
We cross the street so we are on the side opposite the hospital. We move meticulously through shops which are joined by a natural tunnel created by the holes in the walls. Once we get passed the front of the hospital we cross again; quickly and quietly, using the corpses of cars for cover. We sneak around to the south side of the hospital and find the truck. Ben has done this at least six of seven times now.
Climbing the truck is nerve-wracking. One slip and the hunters will be on us in moments. Getting on the fire escape is even worse. Ben goes first, jumping onto the first rung and doing a pull-up. His boots make a slight clanking noise as they strike the bottom rung but he doesn’t stomp hard enough for the noise to carry past our paranoid ears. I am the last one to jump. I grab hold of the first rung and my skin is shocked from how cold it is. I pull myself up another couple of rungs and then lift my feet. I unfold myself and my feet come to rest lightly on the bottom rung. So far so good. I ascend the first ladder to the first platform where every one is waiting alert and focused. We walk very slowly, careful not step on the rusty platform beneath us too hard. It takes us an hour and half to climb to the 11th floor. The view is incredible. I can almost see beyond the apartments further south. To the north I can see the mall which is the closest landmark to our compound. And to the west is the rest of the city. The city is a collection of architectural epitaphs. Every building is missing pieces or cracked or leaning against an equally desperate neighbor for support. Some fires burn, but they somehow look cold. Everything is always so cold. Some buildings have power and are most likely populated by marauders, or serve as dens for hunters and other unnamable unknowable monstrosities. Someone taps my shoulder. I turn and see Ben and the others strafing through an ajar door. I follow them into the labyrinth of darkness that is the hospital.
The hallway is strewn with debris. Broken desks barricade the way and tortured lights hang suspended by their circuitry, flickering nervously. The walls are torn and scratched up, broken in some places. We are in the den, or hopefully former den, of a hunter. We check each room for drugs and supplies and threats but these rooms were cleaned out ages ago, before we started coming here for medical supplies. We get to the intersection. Ben instructs us to turn left. Same drill. We check each room in the eerie half-light with little success for drugs, hypodermic needles, gauze, bandages, and surgical equipment. I find a few needles and vials of drugs I don’t know the function of, as well as a pack of scalpels. I put all my findings into my pack and carry on. The hallway begins to widen and I find myself in a well-lit lobby. There are two glass elevators on one wall, a great desk against another and a door leading to a stairwell on yet another. I feel very exposed in the light. Anything in the hallway or looking at the window from the outside could see me. I sit on the chair behind the desk and wait for the others to show up. I count the seconds to calm my nerves. At thirty-six, Ted and Gabrielle show up. Their smiles tell me they had a successful run. At 3 minutes and 11 seconds Ben steps into the lobby. He’s always smiling but I can tell that right now it’s out of satisfaction. Jay is the only one not in the lobby. I begin to worry after a couple of minutes. After five we are all on edge. At twelve minutes we hear a colossal slam. The floor shakes; the broken lamp on the desk topples and falls toward the floor. Ben catches it coolly. Moments pass. Another slam. Muffled this time; further away. Another few seconds pass and we can here desperate wheezing emanating from the dark depths of the hallway. Jays left shoulder is soaked red, I can’t tell if his arm is still there. He sees us and screams, “the elevator! Get the elev-” he chokes on blood and looses his balance. He crashes to the floor. Half of his body is in the light of the lobby and I can see the splintered remains of his left humorous. He’s crying. But I think it’s from frustration, not pain. He hates himself for being the one caught off guard, and he hates that he’s brought trouble to us. Another slam rocks the hospital. The source can’t be more than a minute away from us. Jay, still sobbing, tears his pack from his torso and opens a compartment I didn’t know our packs had. A steel disc with red lights on it materializes from his mysterious compartment. The word DANGER is printed in orange across it and suddenly I realize it’s a bomb. He presses a few keys on the terrible device and it starts to chirp, and the lights start to flash, getting faster and faster in increments. Ben goes over to him, takes his pack and whispers something. A look of ineffable anguish is plastered on Jay’s face. I hate Ben.
A marvelous slam knocks us all on our feet. I can see a smudge at the extent of my vision coming towards us out of the blackness of the hallway. It is large and very fast. As it approaches the light bounces off its metallic skin. Everything in its path is obliterated at its feet as it crashes through indiscriminately.
“Let’s move!” shouted Ben with wet eyes, “Into the elevator!”
The hunter is on us before we can turn to the elevator. It leaps into Jay with seemingly supernatural strength reducing him to a red stain instantly and crushing the floor beneath.
The impact hurls me into the elevator.
The hunter clicks its mandibles and crashes into Gabrielle. It tears at her chest with its efficient fangs. Ted unsheathes his sword and slices at the hunter’s exoskeleton but it doesn’t even slow down. Gabrielle is dead in a second, and physically destroyed in two. Ted aims a stab at the monsters head, aiming for its huge black eyes. It catches the blade in it maw and throws Ted into Ben and then dives at the two of them. Ben takes a flare out his pocket and jams the stick of fire into the monster’s mouth. It rears and shrieks and smashes its body against the desk, reducing it to splinters and chunks of wood. Ted swears loudly, almost hysterically, and he charges at the hunter in a rage. Ben recovers his pack and presses a key, opening the elevator. He steps in and hurriedly presses a key marked ‘G’.
I hear a terrible scream and Ted’s corpse flies out of the darkness of the hallway and smashes against the glass elevator door, cracking it. I see the bomb in the corner of the room, and my eyes widen. How long do we have?
The elevator dings casually, oblivious to the context of our descent. We slowly descend back into a lesser madness. Just as the elevator starts to descend, Ted impossibly stands up and takes a strange looking device out of his pocket.
The elevator is too low for me to see into the room anymore. All I can see is Ted’s head. Two loud blasts ring in my ears accompanied by two flashes of light. Did Ted do that? The elevator accelerates. I look up through the glass roof. The 11th floor is apparent because Ted’s blood is smeared all over the glass there. Ben reaches over and puts my goggles over my eyes, and then equips his.
He sighs. The bomb explodes. The concussion waves split the walls of our glass coffin as quickly as the fire fills it.
I scream. Ben throws himself over me and I hear him wince.
The elevator stops. He rolls off of me and winces again.
“Let’s go.” He says. His voice: a robotic mixture of sorrow, and indifference. It’s not his fault though. He’s trained not to care. He smashes through the glass door and we start to sprint.
We run to the music store where we hid before. The clouds on the horizon are dyed pink by coming sun. They are beautiful. The atmosphere is very clear today or else I wouldn’t be able to appreciate these great harbingers of dawn. Nothing happens immediately following the explosion but after ten minutes or so an army of all sorts of nightmarish abominations converge on the spot. Snarling, drooling, tearing at the ground and at each other, drawn to the uncharacteristic commotion that promises a meal. I cower in the corner of the shop and hope with all my being we are not detected. With the sun’s rays, the monster army retreats to the dark dank shadows of the city. I step out from my hiding spot and feel the warmth of the sun’s light on my face. I could almost smile.
Ben sighs and says in that horrible robotic tone, “Let’s move. We have ground to cover.”
I dread the journey north. I’m tired of walking. I’m tired of hiding, I’m tired of being so cold all the time, and most of all I’m tired of being the prey. But it’s not my choice. It never is. I didn’t choose any of it. I didn’t choose to be here, I didn’t choose to get hunted and killed by murderous beasts and psychotic marauders. I didn’t choose to be a part of this new “eden” as Ben’s father calls it. With a final, inconsequential sigh, we resume our seemingly never-ending assault on the horizon.