Nia thumped the butter churn, one ear on the winding road that passed by her family’s compound. The cows had passed by an hour before, led out to the pasture by her brothers and the dogs. Now she hoped to hear the bells of the trade wagons. They were due any day now, if they hadn’t bogged down in the mud or gotten hit by raiders. That had happened before. The roads out this far weren’t safe. She paused to stretch, hands behind her head as she arched her back. That was when she heard the jingling of the bells. Wiping her hands on her apron, she ran out to greet them. With any luck, they’d have something small they’d be willing to trade for the small horde of woven straps she’d made rather than a mess of decas
“Oh for the love of-! I said coffee, you damned bucket of bolts!”
Madison kicked the console and it emitted a series of irate beeps. Then, she turned, looking down at Nia.
“Are…are you the oracle?”
Chuckling, she held out the mug.
“Oracle, is it? I don’t suppose you like chocolate milk, do you? Here.” She pressed the cool mug into Nia’s hands and strode over to another panel covered in switches, levers, and numerical displays. “And why would you be looking for an Oracle up here?”
The girl fidgeted uncertainly and her gaze dropped to the floor.
“The villagers said…”
“The villagers don’t understand what I’ve got. It’s nothing more than old tech, from before. Take this console for example. It’s a drink machine when it damn well feels like working. That one? It plays music. The rest is the power source. Now tell me, why were you looking for an Oracle?”
Nia reached into her bag and pulled out the precious books with their figures and diagrams.
“To help with these?”
Madison’s eyes went huge and she reached a hand out for them.
“Welladay, if this is what you need…then you’re in the right place. And you just landed yourself an apprenticeship.”
The silence was overbearing, the silence and the darkness. The sky was empty now. No stars shone in the infinite and the only sound left to us was our beating hearts, hers and mine. We had come this far to stop her and only I remained. The mission was a failure. She held out her hand to me. I stood and accepted it.
“We will bring about a new age, Adam. Accept that. Accept that we will bring about a new people, a new future. Embrace your fate.”
Hers was a forked tongue that told only lies, but I ate them whole. I drew her into my arms and our lips met, tasting sweet and sticky. Her mouth was still, after all, covered in crimson horror. She smiled and let the bitten heart fall from her fingers, reaching to tangle her fingers in my hair.
“I accept my fate, Eve.”
There, in her starship, I understood madness.
The attack was over in seconds, leaving nothing but desolation in its wake. There wasn’t even the crying or screaming, just the sound of broken concrete settling and the silent thrum of their craft hovering in the skies. The attack had been simultaneous around the entire world. Even beyond the cities, out into the countryside and the farthest, hidden villages. Now only two remained. Two humans: one male and one female.
“Keep them in stasis until we complete terraforming procedures and then begin the experiment again.”
He didn’t know what the package sitting in his trunk was and he didn’t need to know. Knowing was dangerous. Knowing made you suspicious when you made it to border checkpoints. Certainly, you couldn’t be too calm when you crossed or the border guards would notice. They always did. Just the right amount of innocence mixed with caution. That was the ticket. Everyone was doing something wrong, something forbidden. Just don’t look like you’re doing something big. Rolling down his window, he saluted the guards and then put his hands both back on the wheel.
“Anything to declare?”
The guard leaned in, a frown on her face but her expression otherwise masked by mirrored sunglasses.
“Trying to be a smart alec?”
“No, sir. Uh…Ma’am.”
She looked into the back seat and then nodded.
“Move on through.”
Relieved, he drove past the checkpoint. Now his curiosity could be piqued, he could pull off in the no man’s land and find out what he was carrying. After all, the true destination would be on the package.
He pulled off onto a side road and drove for a bit longer before he got out and opened the trunk. A small girl blinked up at him, her brown eyes solemn.
“Are we there, Mister?”
“I don’t rightly know what you were expecting when you came out here, but this ain’t some kind of rebel base. Just a bunch of kids trying to scrape by.”
The lanky youth that spoke kept his hands in his pockets and his gaze level on the three uniformed men. But his eyes lingered on the patches on their uniforms, studying their unit designations and ranks. Behind him, a younger girl peeked around to look up at their faces. She was dirty and thin, but there was determination in her eyes. One of the men, the commander of their small unit, stepped forward.
“We’re not looking for trouble, just for help.” He hesitated, noting still more sets of eyes watching him from the delipidated barn. The rotten building leaned to one side like an animal waiting to die. “I’ve been lead to understand that your…group…can get behind enemy lines.”
The boy who seemed to be their spokesman nodded.
“If, by that, you mean we know the ways to get around the checkpoints that bunch have set up, then yeah. But how do I know we can trust you? Last I checked, the army’d been pulled to pieces with folks on both sides.”
The man tugged at his collar, revealing his unmarked neck.
“No ink. You know they mark their soldiers.”
The girl spoke up then.
“Not the spies. Not the saboteurs. But he’s alright, Trip. His mind feels free.” Her eyes were unfocused now. “He’s seen the badness and he knows it for what it is. So do his soldiers. We can trust them.”
“You’re sure, Kally?”
The boy looked down at his younger friend and she nodded.
“Very sure. Isn’t that right, Captain Malcolm Foster?”
Captain Foster blinked. Sure, she could have gotten his rank and surname from his uniform. But first name? Then she spoke again and his jaw dropped open in disbelief.
“And don’t worry, Captain. The prisoner you’re looking for is still alive.”
Okay, just a few more and I’ll be done with this level. Awesome.
I dropped the last of the soul crystals into the chest at the foot of my bed and stretched, trying to decide what to do next.
“Warning. System power failing.”
Looking around, I tried to find the source of the voice. There shouldn’t be anyone else here. I was in my Sanctum. Other players couldn’t enter your Sanctum and I didn’t have anyone keyed to be able to contact me privately like that. I wasn’t allowed to.
“Power failure imminent. Backing up system files. Please prepare to log off the system.”
“Log off? What the hell does that mean?”
I scowled with irritation as I took a few steps towards the door. Things were starting to feel heavy, odd, almost painful.
“Log off commencing in 5…”
I grabbed the back of a chair, pain shooting through my body.
Stumbling, I fell and hit my chin on the chair as I went down.
The ground swam up to meet me as I tried to catch myself. It was like my limbs weren’t obeying me.
Everything went black then…
Slowly, oh so slowly, I rose back up out of the darkness, wondering if something had managed to somehow get inside my Sanctum and kill me. But no…this wasn’t Resurrection. What was this place? It was only just barely lit, the lights running along the floor in a dull yellowish color. The ceiling swam as I tried to sit up and that’s when I realized I was being held down. Fingers fumbling, I scrabbled at the belt until it came undone and pushed the gloves off. Only then could I pull myself off this strange bed. No, it wasn’t a bed, was it? I stumbled away and tried to figure out where I was. Nothing seemed overly familiar, but it seemed reasonable enough to just follow the lights…
Once I was outside, I shielded my eyes, trying to adjust the lights. It was bright out and there were plants everywhere. There was even a tree growing in a crack in the street. A full blown tree. I glanced up, fully expecting to see my HUD just like I had all these years. But there was nothing there. No mini-map, no health monitor. Nothing.
“Is anyone there?”
Silence greeted my words, along with a slight echo.
It rang off the buildings and came back to my ears like a curse. There should be someone somewhere, right? There had to be.
It’s been a year. I don’t know if there’s anyone else left. I found a few more of the Game, but the players…I think they died. The survival systems must have failed before the power went. How long do you think they played like that? Trying to eat virtual food and drink virtual water without ever feeling satiated. It must’ve been horrible. So, yeah. I’m alone. I don’t know how long it’s been or where I am. Most of the signs have faded and I…I just don’t remember.