There was only one thing going through the Val’s head, the pattern pounded over and over like a beating drum.
Keep going, keep going.
With each step Val’s muscles begged him to stop, insisting that the weight of his body would tear them at any moment. His stomach agreed with his muscles, the hunger pangs were transforming from nauseating to painful to both at the same time.
Val had heard stories of people surviving in the wild of the wastelands alone, but there were many more of people who never returned. No matter the outcome, each story had two very clear lessons that inhabitants of the wastelands obeyed if they wanted to stay alive. The first was to never go out into the wild of the wastelands without supplies or a companion. The second was a clause to the first; if you’re out in the wild alone, don’t let your will burn out because your body is following close behind. Val had violated the first rule, all he was carrying were the clothes he was wearing; and he was close to violating the second rule, the urge to quit was morphing into a physical sensation, like a creature crawling up the back of his neck into his brain, coaxing him to submit to gravity.
Easing himself down against a large rock, Val promised himself he would rest only for an instant before continuing but the moment his back hit the rock the idea of stopping for good and letting the ground devour him at that very spot became comforting. Death would come without a struggle and would even be kind enough to take him from under the shroud of delirium.
Val slid down to the ground with his back pressed against the flat side of the rock and was reminded of the broken bones in his right arm as a lightning bolt of pain shot up into his shoulder. It only lasted an instant, but the pain was sharp and raw, cutting to the core of his body. As the pain faded it was replaced with a dull throbbing that matched the heartbeat in his ears.
Taking care to place his right arm in a position where it would stay stationary, Val brought the back of his left hand up to his forehead to wipe the sweat from his brow only to find that it was completely dry and caked with salt and grime.
Val’s brain fought against his muscles and stomach, claiming that somewhere nearby there was salvation to be found.
Keep going, keep going! You can’t stay here, you’ll die. There’s nothing out here. Nobody will find you. You must keep moving!
His brain won over his muscles and stomach and, convinced that he should keep going, tried to get up. But his body wouldn’t move. It was a weakness he’d never felt before, his body just wouldn’t respond. He strained, bringing himself just inches above the ground but was overcome with the feeling of having to vomit and collapsed back down with his back against the rock.
With no more strength in his body, Val was sucked into the peacefulness of the forest and for a period of time he could not discern he passed in and out of consciousness in euphoria. The breeze pushed the leaves of the trees against each other creating a rustling that sounded like lapping waves. The sound lulled Val away from his body, leaving his fears away as if they were a part of his flesh and not his mind. Pain from his broken arm would jolt him back and return the fear, then as the pain subsided the rustling of the leaves pulled him away again.
When Val woke the sun had gone down completely and there was a light coming through the trees. At first it looked like the first hint of sun peering over the horizon but the light was white instead of yellow and as Val perked up he also heard crunching footsteps.
All the possible scenarios playing in Val’s mind involved something terrible waiting behind the light and as the light carved out swooping arcs in the darkness, his muscles and stomach were ignored and he started to his feet, preparing to move.
Val shifted as quietly as he could but in the ditch he had been resting was a pile of dead branches and they crackled as he lifted himself up. The light turned and stopped, centering on Val’s torso. Val froze, the white light coming through the trees in a perfect circle and the sound of heavy footsteps coming closer.
A bang rang out through the forest, cutting through the sound of the leaves swaying overhead, and something flew by Val’s ear. His body took over and in a single motion Val stood up, pivoted, and bolted out sideways from the rock. Val’s arm was screaming out in protest but he kept running. Another bang rang out and, losing his footing, Val hit the ground with his shoulder and tumbled down a slope into a patch of dead trees. Val tried to get up again but found that the low branches on the trees had caught his clothing. The more he struggled, the more the sharp ends of the branches dug into his skin and snagged the fibers of his shirt.
Val writhed but could not break free. The light reached the crest of the slope above him and Val’s heart sank. Looking down at him was a figure dressed in a pitch-black suit of armor made from thousands of metal plates sparkling in the moonlight. The light was coming from the figure’s shoulder, aimed down the slope at Val. Steam was pouring from the respirator covering the figure’s mouth. There was no doubt that it was a crawler. It stood for a moment at the top of the ridge knowing Val was helpless to move, taking pleasure in his helplessness.
The crawler started its descent down the slope, its suit grinding and clanking as it moved. Val’s brain started racing out of control searching for any possible escape route.
Just as the crawler made it down the first crest of the slope, there was an explosion of light accompanied by a sound like a tree trunk snapping in half and a wave of hot air. The light only lasted an instant but it took a long moment for Val’s eyes to readjust to the darkness. Val looked back up the slope but the crawler was no longer there. Finding that the branches around him had broken and he had been set free, Val didn’t stick around to figure out what had happened. He stood up and ran through the dense patch of dead trees further down the slope.
Another bang rang out and Val was hit in the back with what felt like a rock and was brought hard to the ground. Val tried getting back up again but he knew he had already been given his chance; he had failed, and he knew what was coming next. The footsteps caught up with Val and the figure stood over him holding a light to his face. The light turned off and when Val’s eyes adjusted there was a gun pointed directly at his forehead.
Val closed his eyes and waited for the bang, but it didn’t come.
Instead he felt two large hands slide underneath his back and lift him up. He didn’t dare look at the thing carrying him so he kept his eyes closed. Val was carried in silence except for the soft breathing of his carrier and the sound of the leaves and branches crunching under his carrier’s feet. When the carrier spoke, Val knew it couldn’t be a crawler even though its voice was deep and hoarse.
“What’s your name, boy?”
Val didn’t respond and his carrier grunted but didn’t pursue the question. After a few minutes, the tone of his carrier’s footsteps changed, stepping from dirt onto what sounded like concrete and Val started to see faint lights through his eyelids. There was also the growing sound of excited voices, some of which sounded like children. The voices sounded kind but Val decided to keep his eyes closed. The voices started to ask questions.
“Who is he?”
“Is he a crawler?”
“Come on, look at the size of him, he’s not a crawler.”
Val felt his carrier’s weight shift.
“He’s just a kid, give him space! It looks like he’s got a broken arm. I’m taking him to the infirmary.”
“How did he survive out there?”
“How long do you think he was walking?”
Val could feel his carrier’s voice vibrate with every word.
”It looks like he was out there for a few days at least, but it could have easily been weeks.”
There was a long pause until Val’s carrier spoke again.
“He had a crawler following him, if I didn’t intervene it would have only taken another minute and he would have been dead.”
A door creaked open and closed and the sound of the rustling leaves faded. The tone of the footsteps changed again, this time it sounded like they were walking on wood.
Someone spoke to Val’s carrier.
“Do you think he came from another shelter?”
The carrier sighed and Val felt a narrow stream of breath flow over his own arm.
“It would make sense and I can’t really see where else he could have come from, surviving in the wild alone like that is a feat even for a few weeks. If he was out there without a shelter it would be a miracle. I’ll try to get some information from him but don’t expect anything tonight.”
“It would probably also be more reliable after he’s had a meal or two. Look at his arms, there’s no meat on him!”
The carrier let out a soft but hearty laugh and there was another burst of air as the waves of laughter shook the arms underneath Val.
“You’re all skin and bones yourself!”
Val felt his carrier’s weight shift again.
“It’s only because you don’t share any of the blubber you’ve got.”
The carrier went through another bout of laughter and then came to a stop.
“Alright, that’s enough. Let me get his arm patched up and make sure he’s settled.”
Another door creaked open and shut and Val was put down on something soft. The smell of chemicals stung Val’s nose and the clack of footsteps was replaced with the steady beeping of machinery. Val waited for his carrier to leave but from the silence and occasional stream of breath, Val could tell that his carrier was just standing there watching him.
“You can open your eyes now, boy. I know you’re awake. Come on, open your eyes.”
Val waited a moment and then cracked open his eyes to look at the man who carried him in. The man’s appearance matched his voice perfectly. He was large with long brown hair reaching down past his ears and a beard which covered his whole mouth. His brown eyes matched the color of his hair and although they looked tired, they were smiling. The man’s appearance put Val at ease and he felt his muscles relax, unaware that they had been tense in the first place.
Val’s gaze shifted from the man to the room they were in. Val was lying on a narrow bed next to a counter with some medical instruments lying on it. The place looked like it had been cobbled together; some of the furniture, the flooring, and the ceiling lamp looked like they belonged in a bedoom, not an infirmary.
The man was relieved that Val had opened his eyes and his shoulders slackened slightly. He sighed and the bristles of his mustache ruffled in his breath.
“Now, what’s your name?”
Val opened his mouth to answer but there was a sharp pain in his throat and only a hoarse cough came out. The man moved frantically to one of the counters and returned with a glass of water. Val gulped the whole glass down and when he reached the bottom, almost felt completely revitalized. However, the pain in Val’s arm returned with full force and an overwhelming sensation of dizziness and nausea came over him. Val tried to speak without cringing or making his voice tremble.
“I’m Val.” He said, trying not to speak without cringing or making his voice tremble. Val decided not to tell him the whole story until he knew he was safe and would be able to get the whole thing out at once. The man waited for a moment and decided that this was good enough.
“Well, good to meet you, Val; I’m Remi. You’re welcome to stay here as long as you want although I’m not sure you have any other choice.” He looked at the floor then back at Val. “I shot you with a tranquilizer in the forest. It was hard for me to see if you were a bandit or a thief. It’s clear now that you’re not but the damage is already done. However, aside from being a little sore and falling asleep in a few minutes you should be perfectly fine.” Remi looked at Val’s broken arm which Val had been cradling with his unbroken one.
“We’ll fix up your arm in a cast but I think I’m going to wait until you’re asleep so it’s less painful. Is that alright?”
Val nodded but didn’t say anything, already feeling the effects of the tranquilizer dulling the world around him.
Remi gave Val a nod in return and walked to the door. Standing in the threshold he looked back at Val, “If you need anything, just let us know.” He said and walked through the doorway into the hallway.
Out in the hallway Val could see through the glass door that Remi was approached by another man. The tone of their voices confirmed that they were having an argument even though they were speaking in whispers. The man who approached Remi spoke first.
“We heard the crackling. You didn’t use it, did you? Please tell me you didn’t use it.”
Val assumed the other man was talking about the thing that produced the flash of light and the blast of hot air when the crawler had disappeared in the forest.
Remi responded. “I did, there was no other way. I told you, Taj, this boy was just moments from being killed.”
The whispers of the other voice became harsher. “If there are any more around, they could have heard it! You know how important it is. You should know it better than any of us!”
“Are you suggesting that I should have let this boy die?”
“If it means that you wouldn’t have compromised the whole shelter, yes. And look at the situation we’re in now, if they find out we have weapons we could be forced to completely relocate again.”
“Come on, Taj, are you serious? Tell me you wouldn’t have saved him if you were in the same situation I was in. I know you, and you wouldn’t have let him die. Just think about it for a moment, you know it too. Whatever happens now we can deal with it, we’ve done it before.”
“You’re right…it’s already done…but you need to be more careful…”
“…I couldn’t just watch and do nothing…”
“…where’s the body?”
“…still out by the forest where…”
At this point the depths of sleep took complete control of Val like the pull of a wave and he was only able to hear a few more words of the conversation before he fell into deep sleep.
Though, as soon as Val closed his eyes, he started to dream. He was at the top of a mountain overlooking a stretch of open field and as soon as he looked down he could see that his legs were knee-deep in snow and ice. His legs still felt completely warm; in fact, he felt no sensation of cold anywhere on his body. As Val looked out over the flat stretch of land far below he knew he was looking for something, although he wasn’t quite sure what it was.
Val finally spotted a city in the distance; its buildings rose like enormous stalagmites out of the ground, glittering like ice the in sun. Something about the city didn’t belong. Something about it wasn’t right.
Then Val heard a sound he thought was his ears ringing but soon realized that it was coming from behind him. It was singing, screaming, and roaring all at the same time. By the time he had turned around to look at it, it had already passed him and was sailing over the open field towards the city. The sound was coming from a silver pointed cylinder glinting in the sun and trailing a tail of gray smoke. Getting closer to the city it jerked, climbed, dove, and spiraled over the field as if it had a life of its own. Val saw the cylinder glint a final time before crashing into the base of one of the taller buildings. For a few moments there was complete silence as the building dropped, faltered for a moment, and then toppled sideways into the other buildings of the city. Then a terrible cacophony of scraping metal, shattering glass, and crumbling concrete hit Val all at once, knocking him back on his heels.
When the sound of the crashing buildings faded, Val thought he heard the sound of shrieking voices but when he looked up he saw that it was the sound of hundreds more of the pointed cylinders plummeting to the city. As they landed, vibrations shook the ground and Val felt his bones rattling in his skin.