Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

Walking

by Anthony Bell


Ethereal waves of vapor rise in the distance. Although it is never cooler than one hundred seventy degrees in this region, Benjamin shivers. Inside his suit, however, it was a comfortable temperature. Still, he shivers and lowers the binoculars.

"Tomorrow, then?" his friend, Ash, says.

Benjamin nods.

"Do you think it hurts? -- lying down like that?" His voice is as far off as his eyes.

"Some believe too much in the necessity of it," Benjamin says. "I think by that time they're too worn to care."

"Do you think those that don't take the valley find other colonies?"

"No. And what colony would accept a dependent?"

"Is it just talk, or are there even other colonies out there, you think?"

Benjamin shivers once more, hating his mother for a moment, for how much he misses her. "I think," he says.

The two teenagers descend the cliff; fine dust fluffs up with each step. They wipe off their facemasks every few yards and keep walking. Benjamin looks up and squints, but not much. Only the top inch of their visors is tinted. The sky is always overcast, but nothing ever falls from the clouds as his books depict. He's more read than most, and that is because of Roxi, and he thinks of how an overcast sky is referred to as a blanket. It's ironic -- a euphemism, really -- because the world is dying and being tucked in to sleep that last slumber.

In the middle of town Benjamin and Ash stop at the square. There is a sand-filled fountain and around the rim sit a group of gatherers. They must have just returned. Small groups leave every other month or so to the caves, where the water is. The caves are a hundred miles out, and some eighty or so apart. Scouts haven't had much luck locating others.

Inside the carts there are cages that are filled with komodo dragons and other, smaller lizards. The boys nod as they walk by, unsure if their gesture is noticed because all the gatherers' heads are lowered as if in prayer. Only half of the jugs are filled with water, however, and Benjamin knows they aren't praying; and if they are, well, the futility saddens him.

"At least they caught some more dragons," Ash says. He works at the farm, where they breed and raise them for food.

"I guess," Benjamin says. He glances at the world's blanket again.

They reach the tunnel ten minutes later. The mouth resembles a mining cave with a thirty degree decline that levels out some twenty feet below the surface. Pathways branch off and lead to stairways that lead farther down, where more of the same is found and mimicked. Glowballs sit on shelves along the top of the tunnel; their visors are coated on the inside with a substance that amplifies light. Ash doesn't have to worry much because he has one fake, robotic eye, with novelties that enhance his vision in every way.

Their den is composed of two small rooms and a living room. The clay walls are cooler than outside, and with the temperature fluctuating no more than five to ten degrees underground, suits can be taken off, although sweaters and pants are donned.

Ash grabs two bottles and several dried pieces of meat and sits next to Benjamin. They eat and sip water.

"What time tomorrow, you reckon?"

"Early," Benjamin says. "He'll reach the valley in a day."

"I'll be at work."

"I'll give him your condolences."

Ash nods.

Benjamin walks to his room and takes a book from his shelf. He sits on his bed, which is an elevated slab of earth with an old mattress, a pillow, one sheet, and a blanket. There is a tag sewn into the mattress with a barcode. The date reads: 01/04/2089. The book he holds is: American History: A Remembrance. The book is faded, with dirt on the covers that he hasn't been able to remove, careful and steady as he's tried with his knife. On the front cover is the famous picture taken by Joe Rosenthal, of the five men raising the American Flag on Iwo Jima. The copyright date is 07/1994.

The year is sometime after 2300; he knows that much. They have clocks in the lower levels (and many other devices of history), but mainly board members and the scientists only are allowed that far below. Nearer the top the exact time of day and what year it is play an unimportant role in everyday living. Jobs are performed, tasks are completed, and at night one sleeps. The sky doesn't change color, and there is nothing to explore. Each day that passes, this is what happens. Time becomes relevant only when one's walking nears.

He knows that he is sixteen and his name is Benjamin. That he has been a man for six years because of necessity. He knows that the world wasn't once as it is now because his books paint a different portrait. He dreams of this long forgotten world sometimes, and is unsure how accurate the images are, but in his heart they feel right.

He opens to page 459, one he knows well. It is of a Buddhist monk self-immolating in protest of the Vietnam War. Benjamin stares at the black and white photo, the sharpness of the flames; the calm face of the man who is being consumed by a belief. He thinks of Mel, and how he will be starting something similar tomorrow. Only it is not his choice to believe.

####

It is a gross, grey sky above, and Benjamin thinks of the raindrops caught by photographers; he can almost see it happening, although it won't.

They gather on the edge of town, some thirty of them, to see Mel off. The man is thirty-eight years old, and as a common laborer, he has reached his life expectancy. He wears his suit, and as with all others, he is identifiable only by the paint upon his helmet that each individualizes first, as a child, and then afterward as often as they desire. And the fact that he stands alone, ahead of everyone, looking forward. He appears weighed down, as if a backpack strains his shoulders, but none does. He glances back toward the hills, probably imagining the smoldering ground of the valley, and then turns to face everyone. He looks at the sky and then again at everyone: people he worked with; sat with; played cards with. Expressions are impossible to discern from farther than a few yards, and Benjamin imagines how lonely Mel must feel right now, how everyone before him must have.

He wants to raise his hand and wave farewell, to tell Mel that Ash says goodbye; to make the man not feel so alone. He wants to give the man a hug, but he can't.

Mel's helmet sweeps over the crowd, resting on the markings so he remembers who came to watch him go. It is the only consolation he will have walking. Benjamin gives a short nod. Mel reciprocates and again eyes the sky, then the ground. He steps forward.

The pump of a blaster ball shotgun is heard.

Mel stops and faces Drake, the sheriff. "Don't Mel." Everyone knows that he means don't make me. Please, don't make me. Drake is not a bad person; he and the rest of the force have a tough job, but he will do his job, as others before have made him.

There is a pause for several minutes when nothing happens. Drake holds the shotgun at his hip, pointed at Mel, who stares at the ground, or his feet, or perhaps his life. It's rare that one sees another's expressions often enough, much less their face, unless they bunk together or work below, and Benjamin wonders which expression contorts Mel's face at the moment, which picture of anguish or numbness or anger in one of his books is Mel. The suit seems to fictionalize Mel, making him unreal in this instance; just a persona that offers an insulting parody of humanity. And in this way, he is no longer Mel; no more a person, but a dependent.

Mel turns and walks away, the weight of the invisible backpack hunching his shoulders, his spirit. He is a little person against a huge panorama, with smoky vapor and fire in the distance. The form shimmers as it moves farther off, and like the gas that rises from the world's wounds, it becomes wavy and something of a mystery.

As if just realizing the fact ten minutes after Mel's absence, Drake lowers the shotgun with the gentle encouragement of Galsby's touch on the barrel. Galsby is head of the council. He is missing his left hand and has a very odd limp. Benjamin has always wondered about Galsby. The man is nearly sixty, which is unheard of, and he is such a reclusive figure, but present at every walking.

Galsby and Drake walk back to the underground. Some linger in a small circle, but no one speaks. Others walk away and count how many years, months, and days they have left. Most don't, however, knowing they'll get their week notice when it comes, and choosing to worry about it then.

In the watchtower stands R-451, the humanoid robot assigned to watch the east. He stares on with vision much more enhanced than that of Ash's fake eye.

Benjamin ascends a knoll of rock and faces the direction in which Mel was forced. On the horizon there is a mohawk of fire. The clouds create a constant twilight. He raises the binoculars to his visor. Dust and rock; fire patches; fissures abound. He locates Mel, who is shuffling forward, his feet never fully leaving the ground as he progresses.

A day's walk from the town, just over the hills, is an infernal ground where the temperature rises some two thousand degrees and is localized to the valley. Many do not reach it before lying down. They instead lie down and take off their helmets, and let the heat take them.

Through the binoculars, Benjamin studies the swirls that Mel painted upon his helmet. There are four of them, each a different color: blue, yellow, white, and green. In the center of these swirls is a golden ball. That is the person of the suit, not the body inside of it. The helmet will be brought back after Mel lies down. Benjamin scans the wasteland, spotting a lizard. And then finds what he's searching for, but can't read the numbers on its back. The robot will remain within a mile of Mel at all times. After the man lies down, it will confirm his death and retrieve his helmet. The suit will be returned also, and is recycled, but only the helmet remains of the person, kept below and set on one of the many shelves in the room, amongst many other helmets.

The blanket is all that sits in the sky; that and its grey mood. The books Benjamin has read refer to birdsong, and the melodious nature of such singing. Benjamin pictures more trees than the few skeleton twigs in random spots there are, and with leaves and the cooling shadows they produce with such greenery. He wonders how fast birds would fly, and in doing so he follows fictional birds with his binoculars, far, far out. They swoop and dive and fly as one, in a flock, it's called. Then their wings catch on fire and Benjamin lowers the binoculars, missing the forgotten world all alone.

He dreams of birds sometimes, in their historic world, when they flew in great numbers. The place is so vivid and appears so real that right after waking, he catches himself questioning the ground he stands on, and loving that moment of uncertainty, the exhilarating possibility. But it must be the heat, as the expression once went. That's all. The heat and his lonely imagination.

Lowering the binoculars diffuses the daydream until it dissipates fully into the back of his mind. "Goodbye Mel."

He makes his way to the tunnel. As he passes the ruins of the buildings that are, he tries to picture what they once where, when the inhabitants of the town lived above ground. The wood is cracked and devoid of the paint that once colored it, and the brick and stone so dry that in parts the dust of its edges will wipe off with a gentle sweep of the hand. It wouldn't take much to erase the town completely.

At his den, he divests himself of his suit and throws on jeans, a sweater, and different boots. The library is on the fourth floor below. It is a large room with real, wooden bookshelves. The books may not be checked out, but are free for reading anytime in the library. K-248 mans the entrance, standing to the side and watching the interior.

Roxi used to spend most of her off time here. They were nice times, watching his mother as she sat at a table, both with a book opened before them, quiet, and yet closer than any two individuals he knew. They grew up together as Ash and he had. The books he has in his room were given by Roxi. They were handed down in her family, but she had no children and was happy to give them to Benjamin, knowing they'd be read.

He loves Roxi, and he loves his mother. But he wonders about them. They were just gone one morning, and nothing was said. His questions were ignored, and that is because most couldn't have known anything, but someone knew. It was as if the two had never existed, as if the people he asked about were simply characters in a book he'd read but which all others hadn't.

He remembers walking to Roxi's den the next morning. The door was missing and there were a few holes in the walls; there was a burnt smell. Her cupboards were empty: there was no water; no dried meat; no essentials at all. The day before he'd drawn a picture for his mother; he found it between the pages of her journal in Roxi's room. It is all he has left of her.

Benjamin walks by the shelves of the library, running a finger along the books' spines as he reads them. He finds a book on the African savanna and scans the pictures for a couple of minutes. He spends as much time reading as he does studying pictures and envisioning himself in the historic world.

He sits at a table with the book. A blue glowball provides enough light. He studies the lions and hyenas, the cheetahs and gazelles. The paper feels almost sensual to him as he understands the significance of what it is. The words and ink that make them will never be fashioned in such a way again, not in this place, and not in this time. The trees are dead. The woods are gone. The craft is forgotten.

K-248 remains motionless, though his eyes ceaselessly track every person at all times. Benjamin returns the book to the shelf and stops by his den before heading off for work.

####

An open jaw of sharp teeth darts for his leg; Ash sidesteps the komodo and clubs it on the head. The third swing kills it. With thick gauntlets, he grabs the heavy lizard by the tale and drags it from the pen. The few others inside back into a corner; their forked tongues move quickly up and down outside their mouths.

He sets the lizard on a dolly and rolls it down the path, to another area. The farm is a big place, a rectangle excavated from the bottom of the mountain that borders the town. Ash drops the lizard off at the processing department, where it will be skinned, cleaned, dried, and readied for distribution.

Don nods at Ash as he pulls the dolly out from under the lizard. He raises the fat, rectangular butcher's knife and chops off the tail of another lizard on the table before him. Ash nods back. There is never much talk at the farm, or at many of the other jobs required in their town. There is not much to talk about, and what needs to be said can be done so much more easily without words.

Ash rolls the dolly ahead of him on the well-traveled pathway. The ground is hard and solid, like the roles each person performs. He thinks of Mel; and Ralan a few weeks prior. He saw her off because he hadn't worked that day. She was a sweet woman, and forty-five. Forty-five! It was practical, however; she was a suit maker/repairer, and damned good at it. Her arthritis picked up in the last few years, and so she was deemed a burden to the town because she could no longer maintain the level of skill with which she once performed.

She was a proud woman; made it to the valley over the hill. Most don't; they give up and lie down; remove their helmet. Not Ralan. Ash sat on the rocky knoll; with his robotic eye he watched her walk the entire way, across the barren, smoldering plain, up the hill, and to the crest, until she receded on the other side. She'd glanced back -- at the place she'd grown up -- Ash was sure, but it seemed she sensed him there, watching her, and he hoped she knew she wasn't alone on her walk.

Beyond the entrance of the farm he can see dust swirling in little tornado clouds, ten feet tall at their highest. His parents had been granted the paternity license. His mother became depressed after giving birth to him. Benjamin told him it was called postpartum depression. Ash didn't care what it was called because a name couldn't clarify it for him. She killed his father with a rock; bludgeoned him while he slept. Then she taped a note to his little baby self with Ash written on it. He was twelve days old. She left in the night to the fate that met her; her helmet was never returned.

Ash figures he knows the reason she named him so, and it saddens him, but he hasn't allowed his name to be the sorrow she felt. There is always hope, even though the word feels funny on his tongue when he whispers it to himself while lying in bed, waiting for sleep; almost like it's of another language and through repetition he'll remember what it means.

The tornados swirl around, dancing upon the distance as if to mock him. He swallows his spit as well as his pride. He breathes slowly inside of his helmet. The smell of sweat hasn't bothered him since being a young, young boy, but it is cloying at the moment. He begins to cry silent tears and is thankful none are close enough to see into his visor. He pushes the dolly to the side, takes up the club, and opens the pin again. The three lizards that are left sense what is coming.

There is no set time when work is over. Clocks don't adorn the walls, though Ash knows what these devices are because Benjamin has shown him pictures in books. Work is done when it feels done for the day, and most migrate from the farm back underground around the same time. The world is never light and never dark; day and night mix together and no tell tale sign exposes in what position the sun is, if it is indeed still out there.

The farm is about a quarter of a mile away from town. Ash strolls away and sees R-451 in the east tower, as stolid as ever. He's seen one of those robots kill a man. Effortless is the only way to describe it. An exiled man had tried to return one evening. Of course it wasn't R-451 that killed him; it had to remain at its post. It informed another robot, W-87. Ash remembers exactly what he had been doing in that moment, as mundane and unworthy of recollection the thoughts and actions would have otherwise been: He'd been wiping the dust from his visor and wondering how much of the stuff he had in his lungs, and then suddenly, with a clear visor he saw the man: to his right, running with a large club in his hand, the head of a robot in the other.

The moment felt all wrong. His movements; the sense of urgency. Ash thought he could see through his visor though he was a good thirty feet away; the face was desperate. The man raised the club, but the hand of W-87 shot its way through his suit, into the man's chest, and to his spine.

The man jerked, his legs and arms kicking forward from his momentum as he was lifted off the ground. He slumped; the club dropped from limp fingers; the head of the robot made a dull clink as it hit the ground. W-87 picked up the robotic head with its free hand and never removed its arm and hand from the man's chest; it grabbed a hold of his sternum, as though it was the handle of an old suitcase on wheels, and dragged him that way to the tunnel, and wherever after that.

The two tiny trenches that the man's heels dug into the ground as he was dragged remain in Ash's mind. No one disturbed those trenches, but made a point of walking over them. About a week later the wind had brought enough sand and dirt to fill them in.

####

Benjamin swings the pickaxe. He wipes the sweat from his forehead. The coveralls he is wearing keep him warm enough and the double patches on the knees are kind to him. He swings the pickaxe again, and then wedges it behind the rock he's trying to excavate. He's been told they didn't have to do this work when it first started; they had machines for this, but of course they ran out of the resources needed to run them. He plants his feet and pulls back; the rock comes out with a stubborn languor.

We're like ants, he thinks. Always digging and building and expanding. For what reason, though? They aren't producing, at least not on the level that the people can see (no one is really sure what happens far below); each trip the gatherers bring back less water. The world is dying.

He's unsure what the room is they're making. They're five floors down (he's not quite clear how many floors there are), and they're expanding laterally. The robot working next to him, T-314, doesn't sweat. Doesn't wear overalls to stay warm. Doesn't breath heavy. Doesn't complain.

"T-314?" He speaks through a doctor's mask.

"Yes, Benjamin?" It doesn't stop swinging the pickaxe it wields, and speaks through no mask.

"How many years have you been doing this? -- you know, to get guns like that?"

"GR-Serrel, Forearm Hideaway Lasers. They are not the result of digging, Benjamin."

And doesn't have a sense of humor. Nor does it always get the reference.

Benjamin rolls the rock out of the way and shoves it to a pile for removal. The world is dying and a laugh is a hard thing to find. People don't laugh anymore. The few instances when he's tried to be funny with anyone but Ash have been returned with blank stares -- some, a disgusted look. Things have been forgotten. He tries to entertain himself at the robots expense, and sometimes it works, but most times it is almost too much effort to try.

Could he be forgetting?

Benjamin hopes not. The books talk of neighbors, those that will lend another sugar, or wave as they walk by. Acknowledgement seldom occurs between people in the tunnels, much less a wave or a five minute chat to catch up on the world. But that is because everyone knows what the responses to such questions would be. And they all think about it enough without needing to hear it from another.

Benjamin raises the doctor's mask to his forehead. The closest bathroom is five minutes along the passageway. Once there, he grabs a bottle because urine is salvaged as much as possible. Everything is. He knows there are vaults and metal rooms with heavy doors and goods inside -- every child explores; and Ash and he did their fair share, but no normal person has seen inside these places.

He sets the bottle on the shelf after urinating. A hand grasps his neck and keeps him facing forward; a knife is pressed to his nape, below his hair line.

"Do not move, please," says the female. "Don't speak."

Benjamin obeys. His heart rate is quickening and he swallows what little spit his mouth produces. His mind is blank. He can feel her thumb pressed against the external occipital protuberance (why he remembers this now, he doesn't know) at the back of his skull. He realizes how much he stinks, and would love a...a bath, in those things called tubes -- no, tubs. With a ton of water, and bubbles, and soap.

"Hey diddle diddle," the voice whispers, "the cat and the fiddle..."

At these words, Benjamin returns from his distraction. He narrows his eyes, lips parting.

"The cow jumped over the moon..."

He mouths the words, and smiles despite the knife to his neck.

"The little dog laughed to see such fun..."

"And the dish ran away with the spoon," he says, finishing the nursery rhyme. He dry swallows; the smile still on his dirty face. "Rox -- "

"Shhh, now, darling. Don't say my name."

The knife point is removed.

He turns around. Roxi lifts her doctor's mask. She wears a red bandana and a huge grin. She grabs Benjamin and holds him tight for a moment.

Six years. Is he dreaming? Surely. "Ro" -- he clamps a hand over his mouth real quick -- "I mean, how? Where? What are you doing here?"

"Not now. Not here. Where's your den?"

"Number 56, second floor of the east wing."

"I'll see you after work," she says, and then is gone.

Benjamin passes the room he was working in, and then has to backtrack a few yards after realizing this. There are eight other human workers and six more robots. He walks to his area without making eye contact, unsure how he'll react, almost unsure how he feels. The pickaxe feels light in his hands. T-314 is still working away, without a pause to cough or stretch its back.

"Hey, '314?"

"Yes, Benjamin?"

Ben grabs his biceps. "Do you think I'll ever have guns like yours?"

T-314 stops working for a moment and studies him. "It is my understanding that your biology will not support such hardware." It swings the pickaxe again and regains its former rhythm.

Benjamin laughs out loud, and a few human workers turn his way. He quiets himself and starts swinging.

####

Later, the three sit in Benjamin's room, around a single glowball.

"You still have the books I gave you," Roxi says.

"I read them all the time."

"Yeah, he does," Ash says.

Roxi studies them and is quiet for a minute. "You boys have grown so much." Her smile is a wonder to behold; her eyes even more so. "If only..." She stands up. "Never mind that. What is done is done." She takes a deep breath and exhales slowly. "You're wondering why I'm here?"

"And where you've been so long," Ash says, appearing sad, but also happy.

"The colony is called Pike. It's up in Washington -- you remember where that is, Benjamin? And where we are now?"

"Yeah; Washington used to be the evergreen state. And this used to be California" -- he looks at Ash -- "right?"

"I think so." Ash mouths the foreign word to himself, tasting the meaning on his tongue, wondering if it's real. Wondering if there will be a time when it sounds natural in his mind because he will no longer depend on it.

"Correct and correct," Roxi says, and begins to pace. "What used to be Oregon is between us."

"How did you find this place?" Benjamin says.

Roxi closes her eyes. She sees the robot reaching for her once again, then that flash of light...she opens her eyes. Looking at these two boys -- these two men, actually -- makes tears gather, but she bats them back with her lashes. They are so strong; still as alive as when they were ten. She tells them about that night...

####

Roxi wants to rip the pretentious lips right off of Galsby, who is head of the council. The dolt has never read a single book in his life and yet feels competent to argue their worth.

"They do nothing!" he says, jowls sloshing with his vehemence. "They merely create a despondent populace stuck in the past. And such people become like you, Roxi, devoid of common sense and prone to biting the hand that feeds them -- like an ill-bred dog!"

"You are a fat, ignorant pig, and know nothing that is best for the people!"

Roxi turns, but Galsby grabs her by the front of her shirt and yanks her face to his. "Now you listen here, you worthless little whore. I can make you walk whenever I choose, with no send off. Do you hear me?"

She is thirty-one years old. She has nine years until suit tenders are deemed a burden. She meets the stare of the fat pig eyes before her.

He pushes her away and waddles from the library.

There is no one at the library but K-248; it remains by the door, staring straight ahead. The soft light of the glowballs radiates off the books' spines. Between the covers is enclosed much more than words, and at this thought a marinated anger rises in her with an acidic aftertaste like bile. She visualizes the library without books along its shelves. It would be nothing more than a room, then. She pictures the light of the glowballs fading, the light of the people fading, until their hearts are as grey as the sky above.

In her den, she grabs a book from the hole she dug beneath her mattress. She runs her hands over the front cover, mouthing the title, savoring the lovely words like a good night kiss. She opens the first page and turns the book so as not to bend the paperback cover. The copyright year is 2038. She slides her index finger over the page and to the right hand corner; she loves the crisp sound that's made as her finger guides it over.

Roxi reads the first few pages of the book and then sets it to the side when the tears in her eyes prevent her from continuing. She lets them fall for a few moments, and then wipes her eyes and cheeks. She swallows her sadness.

Her face is different now, the acidic anger having welled up again. She has made a decision because she is too smart to delude herself of the inevitable.

There is a knock on her den door. Roxi slides the knife she has strapped to her ankle from its sheath, and hides it beneath crossed arms. She envisions her footsteps echoing on a tile corroder as happens in some of the thrillers she's read.

The beat of her heart doesn't increase, although the depth of each boom does. She hears it in her ears as she approaches the door, eyes on the knob.

"Roxi, hurry up! I've got something to show you."

She sighs and drops her arms. It's only Magdalena, her best friend. She scrutinizes the corridor in each direction before shutting the door.

Magdalena looks at her funny. "What's with the knife, killer?"

"You first; you sound happy."

"Okay!" She pulls a journal from her shoulder bag, opens it and hands Roxi a postcard-size piece of paper. Depicted is an island with a palm tree. The waves around the island are little squiggles. There is a sun in the upper right hand corner with five straight lines below it to represent rays of light.

"He drew it last night, after finishing the book you gave him." Magdalena is, as a person in this moment, a smile. Radiant as brides were purported to be on their wedding day when weddings existed.

"That's amazing, Maggie!"

"It makes me so happy, Roxi, that at ten he still has these feelings, that he can hope and dream and...and have an imagination, as kids should. But he's ten" -- Magdalena's smile is gone now -- "and I know that it won't last. Especially after he starts working...he'll see."

Roxi realizes how tightly she is gripping the knife. She loosens her fingers and takes a breath. It saddens her, too, and it is why she had been too scared to ever desire a lover and the possibility of children.

She puts a hand on her friend's shoulder. "The world won't take him, Maggie. Not with you as his mother." She holds her gaze so her friend knows she means these words and is not saying them to merely comfort her in this one moment.

Maggie nods. "Thank you."

Roxi hands her the picture and Magdalena places it inside the book and holds it to her chest.

There is knocking at the door. Roxi tightens her grip on the knife once again. Three more knocks follow, louder, more insistent.

"Roxi Tillburn, open this door now!" It is Galsby.

Roxi holds her ground with a clenched jaw. "Maggie." She grabs her friend's hand and hurries to her room. "They're here to make me walk."

Magdalena chuckles, unsure. "What -- what do you mean?"

Roxi tosses her mattress from her bed and grabs a very sharp machete by its sheath. She sets it over her shoulder and it hangs against her hip. She continues to pull out weapons while she talks: "The council wants to destroy the library and any books they find because they think we'll revolt because books make us miserable wretches."

Magdalena holds the journal with both hands against her lap. She opens the cover and looks at the picture her boy drew. "But they give us hope."

"They don't think so. I told that fat fucker how I felt. He means to make me walk."

Magdalena is a petite woman, barely five feet tall. Her eyes take on a hardened sheen, and she places her journal on a shelf, as careful as if it were a newborn. Her aura grows in size and stature. "You're not walking, Roxi. They can't make you."

The knocking continues at the door. The words being spoken can't be understood.

"I've got to leave, Maggie; my only chance is to find another colony."

"Give me a blaster."

Roxi smiles at her friend. She hands her one, a low kick, high damage weapon. A searing-hot, ten-inch beam is what shoots from the barrel. "Thank you; I will remember you always."

"Uh-uh, honey; I'm grabbing Benjamin and we're coming. You can't make it to another colony alone."

The door to her den is broken open. She hears the wooden lock mechanism splinter, then shatter. She walks into the living room with Magdalena behind her. The robot is lifting the door back into place to block the corridor from view.

Galsby looks at Magdalena, unaware of the blaster she holds. "Didn't know you had company, Roxi." He screws up his face for a moment, as if he is thinking. "No matter."

The robot stands to the side, head up, awaiting instruction.

"Now," Galsby says, raising a finger. "I've given a little thought to what you said earlier" -- his lip curls up -- "and I think we'll prevent any hassle and have you -- "

Magdalena takes a step and fires. The robot's head explodes. Two more shots rip through its torso and the front door. There is a loud clanking when the robot falls forward. "Don't say another word." She trains the blaster on him.

Roxi motions for the fat man to get in the corner at the other end of the room. She kicks him in his ass and he stumbles, then dive-falls to the ground; his head raps against the clay. He brings a hand to his temple. "You listen here, you dirty whores!" Spittle shoots over his lips.

Roxi stabs him in the thigh with her knife, then punches his throat. Galsby sounds like he's chocking and now both hands cover his neck.

"No," Roxi says. "You listen here: I'll leave this place. I will not be lying down, though; don't mistake me for one of the populace. I will leave, but you will regret it. Maggie?" -- she puts a hand behind her, palm up -- "hand me some of that clay on the counter, please."

Magdalena sets a ball of the grayish red stuff in her hand, and Roxi shoves it in Galsby's mouth. The man coughs what sounds like dying breaths around the clay and tries to sit up farther.

Roxi removes her knife from his leg; he quits moving and begins to moan. She wipes the blood on his pants and sheaths it. Then, in a fluid, quick move, she pulls the machete out as she stands and brings it down between Galsby's legs.

His eyes widen to the point that the skin at their corners should split. His hands are shaking and he goes to hold himself but retracts his hands when he sees the blood darkening his crotch. His body trembles.

Roxi tilts his chin up with the bloody machete. "Open your eyes."

They flutter open, but he avoids her gaze. Saliva is seeping from around the clay ball he can't force out. More spit falls over his chin, onto his chest.

"Look at me," Roxi says.

He does.

"Remember this."

He whimpers.

"Maggie, watch him while I put my suit on."

Roxi packs a backpack of essentials: weapons; food; all the water she has; and a few books. She is in her suit when she hears the door crash in the next room.

Shots; a yell; something crashes.

Roxi takes the corner low. Magdalena faces the front door from the side, having moved from the middle of the room. Another robot lies over one man where Magdalena and she had previously stood; another man lies slumped against the wall, a few feet from Galsby. The smell of charred skin is strong. Wires spark on the robot.

"Wow, Maggie."

Magdalena shrugs and shakes her head. "I kind of slipped and couldn't let go of the trigger."

There's a squishy splat sound. "Bitch."

Roxi watches as Galsby turns the blaster on Magdalena. She sees it and drops before the shot goes off. Galsby follows her with the blaster. Roxi pulls out the machete again. She raises it high. The eyes of Galsby are hungry, focusing on her friend. She dives and brings it down.

The hand falls by her face, sliced from his arm. The shot veers high and into the ceiling.

Galsby lets out a howl that Roxi stops short with a smack to his head with the handle of her machete. The second hit knocks him unconscious. She retrieves the backpack and slings it over her shoulders. Then she snatches her helmet and another blaster from one of the men; Magdalena takes the other.

Roxi's neighbor to her left, Sherry, cranes her neck outside her den.

"What is all the noise?" she says.

"Remodeling!" They hurry to Magdalena's den.

"Benjamin's not here, Roxi." Magdalena walks around the den with a blaster in each hand, appearing both dangerous and vulnerable.

"He's got to be in a rec. room, then."

Magdalena looks at the ground and shakes her head. "But there's one on each floor. We won't...there's no -- "

"We can check this floor, Maggie, but no others; there's no time for that. You have to hurry and get dressed."

No one questions why the two wear full suits and packs (they kept their blasters concealed), although they meet a few stares.

Roxi remains by the door of the rec. room while Magdalena enters. There are only a few children inside, none of them Benjamin.

"We'll check the next one up," Roxi says, feeling this is a bad idea, but unable to quit as it is. Without Maggie, she would be dead. "Come on."

As they jog through the tunnels, the perched glowballs seem brighter in Roxi's vision. She hears footsteps and spins around quickly, but no one is there. Magdalena is leading, her blaster held behind her thigh. It is now that she first gives a thought to where the closest colony is.

It is now that she realizes she has no real idea. North is how they'll have to escape, to avoid the valley. Other colonies are seldom brought up among the people; the town is their home and all they know; to most, it is existence.

Magdalena rushes into the rec. room.

An adult notices her blaster. "What are you doing?"

Magdalena's helmet moves back and forth. Her boy is not here, either. "I have to go down, Roxi. I have to find him."

"There's no time, Maggie. We'll come back for him somehow."

Magdalena shakes her head. "I can't leave him."

Roxi wants to tell her it'll be all right, that she understands how hard it will be at first, but she realizes how shallow that would sound from her. She is not a mother.

Shadows are growing on the wall of the corner they passed a minute ago. Roxi can hear the angry voices. Magdalena also knows who they will be. She looks at Roxi, who wishes she weren't so close to her friend because the face she sees behind the visor tears at her heart.

They run the last fifty yards out of the tunnel and break away north. They dart from dead building to dead building, staying low. They catch their breath behind a building close to the watchtower. The sky looms over with a dark countenance, but it doesn't bother Roxi. She is scared, for sure, but excitement balances her fear.

The evening is quiet. It is never lively on the surface, the farm being the lone work conducted above ground aside from the gatherers tasks, but it is silent almost. That cold-looking blanket; Roxi wishes she were born long ago and could just once see the starry sky as it's shown in books and sounds described by the hearts of characters. She bets it is the most wonderful sight that could ever grace the eyes.

Roxi pushes up from one knee, brushing away a pile of dust that was once steadfast cement, along with her faraway thoughts. She positions herself at the corner and aims up at the robot. It stares off into the distance and is unaware of her. A beam of light obliterates its head and the hunk of metal collapses.

Anyone looking their way would've seen the beam, but the night is still and Roxi hopes it isn't so. Around the building to their right lies the rest of their dead town, with the farm farthest back in the landscape. The watchtower overlooks a shallow ravine; the walls stand a few feet higher than a person's head. It is similar to a maze for several miles and offers their best chance of escape.

"Let's go," Roxi says.

They dart from cover and around the watchtower. Before reaching the opening Roxi is tackled. Chunks of rock at the entrance shower atop her suit and the surrounding ground. Roxi rolls over and sees the Robot and two humans after them, about fifty yards off with blasters raised. Magdalena is tugging on her after taking her down.

They rush into the maze and nothing happens for several minutes. There is breathing and the heavy dig of their feet fighting against the sandy earth to go faster. Roxi doesn't look back because it wastes time. She takes each fork and turn without hesitation, keeping as northward as possible. She focuses on the dusky path ahead, and the sound of Magdalena behind her.

She remembers the feeling most, ever after the moment, because guilt won't allow her to forget. Roxi feels the load of her backpack, shifting around; the moving weight works itself into a rhythm but it is still heavy, and begins to wear on her at this pace. But the feeling.

A fork is up ahead. To the left Roxi sees that it drops at a substantial decline; to the right the path remains level. They will have to climb if they descend, and at this point of their escape they need the most minimal amount of resistance. Although her heart tells her to continue left, she veers right.

She remembers this feeling when she hears Magdalena cry out behind her, a muffled shout of surprise as she is knocked to the ground. Roxi turns and doesn't bring the sights before her eyes -- just points -- and fires. The man's right leg is severed and seared, and he shrieks. The sound pierces through his speaker and into the gray world, thunderous in the passageway. After a minute he passes out.

He falls off of Magdalena as she scrambles for footing. She stumbles and falls back down, and it is a good thing because the beam sails just over her helmet and knocks up a wave of sand in front of Roxi. Several more blasts fire out and sand begins leaping like water from a geyser. Another man jumps from above.

She dives to the ground, picturing the man as he leapt a second ago, where he has to land. She hopes he doesn't see her. It is happening so fast, and when she hits the ground she aims upward and fires and fires and fires, bringing her shots across the horizon. She doesn't hear a scream; the last of the sand falls and so does the body.

Roxi pulls in a few ragged breaths. Magdalena is rising slowly, watching the top of the wall. Roxi is wondering as she is: where is the robot?

She assumes they must have sent it in the opposite direction to cover more ground. It is after she adjusts her backpack over her shoulders again, after she turns from her friend, ready to travel on, after she takes one more deep breath; it is then that Magdalena screams and is quieted; it is then that Roxi turns, the face behind her visor one of anguish; it is then that she herself is tossed backward, her blaster knocked from her hand.

She lands on her backpack and falls to the side; she can't get a foot under her to push up from. She takes in the dented helmet of Magdalena, her cracked visor; her slumped body. Then the robot's hand blots out her view as it reaches for her helmet. The metal fingers grow bigger as they loom over her face.

And then there is the greatest flash of light Roxi has ever seen; and a dead weight atop of her. She begins to cry inside of her helmet. For several moments she can't move; she cries with her arms splayed out, her eyes blurry but still able to take in the nasty cloud cover, and not caring one bit in this moment.

Magdalena walks over and uses her foot to shove the robot off of Roxi. There is a chunk of her visor missing in addition to the spider-webbed cracks. Though it is small, the hole worries Roxi, but the two women hold each other for a second and head off, knowing they most go. Their pace is swift throughout the night, and onward throughout the next several days.

By morning of the sixth day they are walking, with Roxi holding Magdalena's hand, pulling her onward because her boots begin to lag over the ground as if she were still treading through sand. Her head is bobbing as if her neck is tired of holding it up. Her veined visor is an alarming sight to Roxi.

After traveling for a few more hours, Magdalena's hand goes limp in Roxi's, and she falls. Roxi drags her to a boulder and leans her against it. She takes her helmet off. Magdalena's hair is a tangled mess, humid and sticking to her face. Roxi removes a glove and wipes her face clear with her bare hand. The few minutes her hand is not gloved are tormenting; her skin turns an angry red and throbs with the burn. She touches her friend's cheek, but doesn't let her tears come. Magdalena is so hot, so so hot...

"She was burning up," Roxi says, facing Benjamin and Ash. She looks around the room, moving her hands, attempting to organize her thoughts into words that won't break her down. "That tiny little hole..."

Magdalena raises her head from her chest and meets Roxi's eyes. She smiles, and Roxi smiles back, aware of the effort it takes of her friend.

Roxi holds a water bottle to her lips, but Magdalena keeps them pursed. She shakes her head. "I can't...we know I can't. It's so hot, Roxi. I'm so hot."

There are no words that come from Roxi's mouth because she feels so lost in this moment. She keeps her burning hand on her friends face and holds her gaze.

"Save my boy, Roxi..."

"They were the last words I ever heard her speak," Roxi says. "Your mom was such a good woman, Benjamin. She was my best friend and the only reason I'm alive today."

Benjamin pulls up the corner of his bed sheet and reaches through a cut in his mattress. He pulls out his mother's journal and removes the picture he drew for her. He again remembers first finding it in Roxi's room after the two disappeared. He has cherished the picture because he knew how proud of him she was. He studies Roxi a moment, and is now so proud of his mother.

"Benjamin, I made your mother a promise."

Benjamin holds her gaze.

"We have a group camped a mile from town; they'll be here tonight, and when I contact, they'll disable the robots for an hour or so. It'll be smooth; the journey will be long, but there is no fear of being pursued, and we have all the supplies we need."

"Um, Roxi?" Ash says with a shy smile, his hand raised a bit as if in class.

"You can come too, I guess," she says and winks.

Benjamin nods. It is like one of the many stories he's read. And in every story the characters must be different in the end from what they were in the beginning; it is the way of fiction. He'll walk as Roxi and his mother before him, searching for more than the limits of his current life, because embracing opportunity is, he thinks, what will keep him alive. He may not see real birds or a starry sky no matter where he goes, but perhaps, continuing to live, he'll still see them when he sleeps.

THE END


© 2012 Anthony Bell

Bio: Anthony Bell has been published in the anthologies Strange Tales of Horror by Norgus Press; Dark Things IV by Pill Hill Press; Anthology of Ichor: Gears of Damnation by Unearthed Press; and in Issue 8 of Fictionfix.net. More of his work is scheduled to appear in anthologies by Norgus Press and May December Publications, as well as online at Bosley Gravelís Calvacade of Horror.

E-mail: Anthony Bell

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.