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Gold Key Short Story by Alex

2/1/2013
THE EMPTY MEN
by Alexander
 
 
Part 1: Pudding
 
Dreams, of fire, of unbearable noise, of the cracking ground, and the black tide sweeping all beneath it.  Broham shot up, immediately alert for unseen danger.  He glanced around the cramped, concrete room.  His nerves slowed and he calmed, remembering where he was.  Courtney was asleep beside him still snoring softly.  Her dreams must not be plagued by memories of the end.  He envied her. Broham grumbled a curse.  It had been weeks since the dream.  He had dared to hope it would not come again.  It always made him uneasy, and today uneasy was the last thing he wanted to feel.
The bed beckoned and the thought of sleep tempted him sorely.  After the previous night he was exhausted, but there would be time.  He hoped to have some form of a breakfast ready before Courtney awoke.  It had been four years, and today was their anniversary.  He wanted to surprise her.
Broham swung out of bed, the sound of his bare feet silent on the fluffy, carpeted floor.  He stood shakily, his eyes still cloudy with sleep.  The old pain lanced his right leg.  He cursed as the bad leg crumpled and he toppled to the padded floor.  Courtney was dreaming of her family again, of her little brother and two sisters, and overwhelming happiness filled her.  A soft thud intruded into her subconscious mind.  Slowly, as if swimming through molasses, she began to regain consciousness.  Then it all came back like a face slap.  Her brother and sisters were dead.  The Tide had taken some from all and all from most.
She laboriously propped herself up on one elbow, rubbing the sleep from her eyes with a shaky fist.  She put her grief aside as she remembered the day.  Face flowing into a smile, she noticed Broham was not sleeping beside her.  Courtney wriggled to the edge of the tempurpedic bed and glanced at the floor – the only other place he would be this early.  Broham was sitting up, his loose blue pajamas twisted tight.  There was a look of profound frustration on his face.  It was almost funny, almost.  But a look of agonized shame in his eyes checked her mirth.
Courtney softly swung out of bed in one fluent motion.  She knelt beside Broham, and smiled down at him.  Broham scowled back, but the agony was no longer as apparent in his eyes.  Courtney stood, clasped Broham’s rough hand and hauled him to his feet.  He stood shakily at his full height of five foot three.  Courtney towered over him at five foot ten.
“Happy anniversary.”
“Happy anniversary.”
They kissed, connecting, and bringing light in the dark days after the end.  It had not been swift and painless, all gone in the blink of an eye, but long and drawn out with much suffering.  It came from below the ground.  It was death if it touched you.  It flowed over the surface like boiling hot magma.  It was black, streaked with blood, roiling.  It swept all life beneath it.
They knew no way to destroy it, only ways to slow it.  Best was to freeze it with liquid nitrogen.  But this only gave you time to contain it and escape.  It would thaw and melt its way out.  Then it would come for you again.  It killed with no distinction.  It fought in the bodies of those it killed, driving them like vehicles.  When you killed a host body, it seeped out and took yours.  Slowly eating away your body it burned a hole in your skin and filled your veins.  Entering muscles through your bloodstream it gained control.  It was a horrible agonizing death that could happen in the span of a minute or days.  People were ignorant as to why it required the bodies.
The armies took everyone they could.  Those who died rose again and fought on the opposing side.  The smart ones hid underground.  As if tired of its old home the tide abhorred to go beneath the earth and seldom went below.  Courtney and Broham had both lost people close to them.  This would be the end they too would suffer.  There was no hope but false hope.  The tide could take their lives, but it would not take their sanity.  They could take strength in each other, and through this they survived.  They lived for the present.
Broham limped across the room to the stove.  The pain had left his leg.  An old injury, it never stayed long but it would never heal.  He put a shiny pot on the stove and turned on the heat.  Courtney looked on with curiosity as he reached far back into the cupboard above the stove.  He rummaged through the assorted foods and goods.  He found what he was looking for, a special can he had found.  It was big with a faded yellow label on which Pu..ing..nilla were just decipherable.  As he opened it he shielded it from Courtney’s prying eyes with his back.  He emptied the thick whitish contents of the can into the pot.  He turned to Courtney with a grin,  “guess what I got.”
“Oatmeal?”
“No, not today, we always have oatmeal.  I got, pudding!  Or at least I’m pretty sure it’s pudding.”
“Really?”  She paused.  “Do you have any idea how to cook it sweetie?” Courtney asked doubtfully.
Broham was insulted, he knew that he was a terrible cook, but still he craved appreciation.  He chose not to reply, and went back to the cooker.  Then he turned once more to Courtney, “This is really straightforward, and I swear this will not turn out like my, what were those yellow and white things?”
“Fried eggs.”
“Right, well this just needs to be heated up briefly, no flipping over or what not.”?“Briefly?”
“Briefly.”
She studied his face as she had many times before.  He had ratty short blond hair, dark eyes, and haggard features.  He was smiling now.  He had white teeth, three of which were missing.  He walked over to the bed.  With a grunt he pulled something out from his pillow, walked over to her, and presented Courtney with a dirty, cardboard box, tied with red thread. She accepted it.  The box tinkled slightly.  It was heavy for its size. He sank down on the new, pink, fluffy couch and put his feet up on the coffee table. He patted the spot beside him, and grinned up at her.  She dropped down beside him.  He handed her the package and a knife.  She sliced it open and lifted out a hefty, matt black, double-barreled pistol from a bed of .33 caliber bullets and double row clips. Broham was grinning now.
“Do you like it?”
“Like it?” Courtney laughed, “It’s beautiful, I love it.”
“I found it for you in Warehouse 20, last time I visited.”
Suddenly the silence of the shelter was broken by three loud screeches from a speaker in the corner.
“God dammit, not now.”  Broham said.  They knew what the tones meant.  They sat in quiet anticipation for the message.  “Sector #3, human life has been detected on the surface near Constitution Plaza.  Locate it.  Bring them below.  Make sure they are accounted for.”
Sometimes they wondered if people were still in command – or if now it was just the machines.  Still, they never questioned.  The message was not descriptive but they knew what it meant.  Their carefree attitude was gone.  The smiles left their faces as Courtney and Broham got up and began gathering their supplies.
They helped each other into loose, full body, black rubber suits.  Courtney pulled a bin from under the bed, and heaved out the two cylinders of nitrogen.  Broham attached the two dispersal tubes while she held the cylinders.  Broham watched her body move, he loved how she moved.  If the world was still as it had been, she could have been a successful dancer.  Broham helped her put on her cylinder and synched the straps around her shoulders, letting his hands linger.  He hefted his own onto his shoulders.  Broham made sure her suit was secure.  It had been a mission like this that had taken his brother. Fitted properly the suits could keep out the tide long enough to freeze it off.
Passing her the new present and a heavy saber, Broham took his shotgun, a wakizashi and a colt .45 semiautomatic.  The weapons could not kill the tide.  They only could open the host bodies to freeze the tide.  When in a body the tide could not be frozen.  Then there was also always the chance that the wanderers did not want to go below.
Courtney pulled on her mask.  Tan face and soft black hair replaced by a black, mouthless face.  Her penetrating green eyes shone through the clear glass eye plates.
The greatest discovery made in the war for the world, was that the tide resisted going beneath the surface.  In the beginning, shelters had been built under all the major cities. Those lucky enough not to be inducted into the military – women, children, the mentally ill, the sick and the old – were enlisted as workers.  It was a nearly impossible task and most did not survive the brutal labor.  When the tunnels were finally completed the survivors holed up in them like ants.  Eventually the army was left without leadership and those still alive deserted to the tunnels.  Life was livable for a while.
Then the supplies began to run out, and the will to live clouded judgment.  The starving civilians surfaced in search of food.  Millions died as the tide gorged itself on the new flesh, the war dead nearly expended.  Those who survived the first year of famine learned two important things, extreme caution, and that there was no hope.
Courtney pushed opened the well-oiled, heavy titanium door and stepped out into the dimly lit tunnel.  It was damp.  Dampness screwed with the geothermal generators that powered the tunnels.  At least it was never damp outside – it was never even wet outside.  The hall stretched off in both directions as far as they could see, gloomy, with many doors like their own lining it.  Once there had also been people like them behind those doors.  Now only the doors were left.  Courtney walked towards the exit to the subway tunnels, Broham close on her heels.  The pudding boiled, forgotten.  They did not talk. They did not look back.
 
 
Part 2: The Broken City
 
Broham and Courtney stood in the black tunnel.  Broham switched on his light. One after the other Murphy and Hutchins heaved themselves up through the grate.  They stood together, the full population of Sector#3.  Only four now, remembering 600 only a few short years ago.  Broham began to walk.  The others followed in single file.  Suddenly a faint noise echoed down the tunnel.  They tensed, and drew their weapons, standing in a tightly nit circle, gun barrels facing outward.  No more noise came.  They relaxed, laughing inwardly at their foolishness, and glanced about sheepishly.  Even though no more than their eyes could be seen through the masks, it was a reflex.  Nothing would or could get them down here; they knew that, so they continued walking.  Broham led, his light slicing through the darkness.  The sound of their steel-toed boots was the only sound in the world.
Small shafts of sunlight illuminated the dusty air of North Station.  It was deadly silent.  Broham switched off the light as he turned the corner into the station.  In one fluid motion, Courtney swung up from the tracks, onto the filmy mosaics.  She helped Broham up; he was too short to climb.
They crept through the dead station to the dead escalator and climbed to the surface.  Momentarily blinded by the blaring sun, Courtney shielded her eyes as she looked around the brightly illuminated, once bustling, North Station.  It was completely deserted.  It was dead and broken.  Windows were shattered.  Floors were littered with faded vacant clothing and shoes, all crisping in the sun.  Now all that was left of the people, after the tide had consumed them.  Scorch marks marred the walls.
Outside the station it was quiet as the tunnels.  The spires of the city towered around them, like silver knives stabbing into the belly of the eternally blue sky.  Boston was a broken city.  They walked out and towards Seaside Park.  The park, built on the mud banks where once the ocean had pounded, was lifeless.  Grass grew, brown and withered.  Blackened trees rose up from the cracked earth like jagged teeth.  There was no water for them.  Water was a treasure in a world where rain had not fallen for over a century.
It was a short walk and they arrived at the coordinates in under an hour.  Constitution Plaza, once the home of the U.S.S. Constitution, an ancient warship.  If only it truly had iron sides as an old tale suggested.  The tide had burned most of the small ship away.  What remained were three skinny black masts rising up from charred beams, like bony fingers to rip out the heart of the gloating sky.  An old wharf once, at some time it became the New Boston Heritage Museum.  Courtney brought her brother and sisters there, back in the days before the end.  Sam was bored to death while Ella and Susan feigned interest.  It had been so long she hardly remembered their faces.  Cheaply built it had not survived the war.  Now only a pile of rubble remained, an adequate representation of human history she thought.  A rusted steel fence surrounded the area, barring off entrance.  Barbed wire circled the top.  The gate was locked and chained, there had to be another way in.
Broham walked along the fence and finally waved the others over.  Kneeling at the base he found a clumsily cut hole.  People had definitely come through here, and fairly recently judging by the scuffles in the dirt.  One by one they crawled through the hole.  The group stood on the other side, and looked around, the ground was scorched, not a good sign.  The people they had come for were dead.  Scorch marks were a tell tale sign of the tide’s passage, and in a place like this there was no escape.  Unfortunately they had to be accounted for.  The small group made their way warily around the edge of the plaza between the rubble and the ocean.
“ This place must be at least a square mile, its go'nna take for ever just to cover the perimeter not to mention the ground we’ll miss in the center. Why don’t we just climb up the damn pile so we can have a look around and return home before night fall.” Courtney suggested.  This was met with overall approval and the little band headed up the pile.
 
 
Part 3:  Rain
 
The summit was closer than it had looked from below.  They collapsed, panting, after the hard climb in the boiling sun.  Finding shade under a large chunk of concrete they rested awhile.  Courtney stood leaning to gaze out over the grey ocean.  Then her body went stiff as a board.  The others were on their feet in an instant.  Broham shook her, “Courtney what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
She relaxed into his arms, “ Get moving we got to go.”
“Why?”
In reply Courtney just pointed.  They stared transfixed, following the aim of her finger.  There were about twenty of them, walking in one milling mass.  They were heading towards the fence along the opposite side of the pile.  The empty were always an alarming sight.  Courtney and Broham began to climb down, gravel clattered away from their feet the other two close behind them.  Then they started running fast.  To reach the fence before the empty was the difference between life and death.  They ran like hell.
It was too late.  The empty had already arrived and were moving about trying to find a way back to the city.  This would usually be a good situation since the empty on the wrong side of the fence.  Except now they were trapped with them.  Broham cursed himself for not bringing wire cutters.  The empty ones could sense them, and slowly they turned.  Standing together Murphy and Hutchkins opened fire.  Courtney and Broham hosed nitrogen at the oozing bodies.  They switched jobs.  But there were too many, and the nitrogen and bullets were gone all too fast.  Eight empty remained and the frozen tide was already thawing out.  The empty came shambling towards them, black ooze flowing and smoking around their feet.  They must be dead now too.  They felt nothing.  Even fear was gone.  They closed their eyes and held ground.
The only sound was the on-rushing tide.  It owned them, held them in bondage. Closing.  Heat building. Then it stopped.  Replaced by a terrible hissing screaming, and small pattering.  The heat was gone.  Eyes open now.  Water was falling from the sky.  They had heard of this phenomenon, but never even hoped to experience it.  The tide was hardening, cracking, steaming, and breaking beneath the rain.  It extinguished the fires that burned within the tide.
It had been so obvious, the solution, staring them in the face.  The weakness of fire was water.  They removed their masks and reveled in the cool wetness.  The rain fell washing away the fear, the uncertainty, and the grief.  Now there was hope.