“So, where to today, Nick?”
“Back into the city. Want anything?”
“Just make it back” Felix chuckled. Nick and Felix embraced briefly. It might be the last time they ever saw each other. Nick climbed the ladder, heaved the trapdoor open, and went out into the world.
Nick always timed his outings for early morning. That would leave him a good 72 hours between the first light of the sun peeping over the horizon and the last glimpses of it disappearing. Hunters were more active during the night.
Nick checked his rifle and compass one last time before beginning his journey across the desert. Felix seemed to have been excited when he found it and presented in excitedly to the phlegmatic twenty- year old. It had grown on Nick, especially after one of the books he’d found had a grainy black and white photo of a boy no older than sixteen, crouching in what looked like a trench with a new one the spitting image of the one Nick was carrying.
As Nick ran, he checked off landmarks he’d mapped in his mind and on the old manuscript he carried with him. The gigantic arm with its torch lay in the dunes at the same place it had yesterday, and the day before that. His Geiger counter began clicking into life if he headed too far East. The coastline in the distance to the South had chunks torn out of it that looked a little too mechanical to have been carved by the ocean.
No sign of any Hunters. Repetition on Nick’s part had left him familiar with their ships’ search patterns, and how best to avoid them. Felix had offered Nick some stolen Hunter tech he’d manage to reverse engineer, but Nick didn’t trust it. What little came over Felix’s old HAM Radio painted a grim picture of Hunters descending on other settlements as if they knew exactly where to look.
After a few hours, Nick made it to the ruined city. Nick still marvelled at it. He’d gone back to the bunker with stories of it, only to be brushed aside as crazy. Others seemed to believe him but were terrified to hear about it. Felix had explained. Most of the hundreds of people who lived in the bunker had been born there, when the air above was still toxic, and most would die there.
Most who’d ventured outside never returned. Nick often wondered, out loud to Felix or to himself, what life must have been like before they descended from the sky. Were they the ones responsible for all of this destruction? Is that why they were so afraid of these Hunters? Felix had cautioned Nick to curb his insatiable curiosity and had tried to teach him what he could, from the few dusty old books he’d stopped the others from burning to keep warm. What few the old man had had only left Nick with more questions. Even as Nick walked, rifle raised, through the dust and tarmac of the ancient city, they echoed loud in his head. Who had lived here? How had they managed to build such an amazing place? What happened to the city? The people who’d lived there? Everyone else?
Nick made his way through the streets as quietly and cautiously as he could. He knew exactly where he was going. Down the first street he usually made it to from the desert, halfway down this one, through this alley, and down the stairs. That place, so chock-full of books Nick couldn’t have read all of them if he sat in that room for years upon years. How the albeit tattered books had survived whatever had happened to the city was a mystery, its answer likely hidden amongst their pages.
He froze. Something was out of place. He fixed his eyes on the far side of the street. A shimmer. Stealth tech. Dropping quickly behind one of the rusted hulks dotting the street, Nick caught his breath, looking above him. No airborne scanners? Must not be a scout, then. Nick sat against the old rusted car, his hands tight on his rifle. The street was quiet as a tomb, leaving Nick’s heart the only sound in his ears. No movement. They must not have spotted him. He got up slowly. Something was off. Nick looked down again. It couldn’t be. Clear as day in the centuries of dust at his feet. Two sets. Two sets of footprints. Hunters walked on 2 feet? The tracks looked human, as if left by someone with large feet, and a slight limp on the right. They appeared where the shimmer started and going…straight down the stairs. Nick cursed inwardly. He always made sure to cover his tracks leading away, but realised he’d never bothered to do the same inside, with all of the sand that had blown in.
With each step muffled by the layer of sand in the street, Nick followed the tracks, careful not to let his boot scrape and give away what little element of surprise he had left. Nick fought to control his breathing as he inched painstakingly slowly down the stairs. He made it into the room with no sign of the Hunter. Its tracks intermingled with his, endlessly crisscrossing the room. It must have been here for a while, and was surely lying in wait for him. Nick swallowed. This would be the closest anyone in the bunker had come to seeing a Hunter and living to tell about it.
Nick didn’t exactly have to share the space like his room in the bunker so he saw little point on returning anything to its previous position, so books were strewn across the shelves, tables, and floor. Nick looked to his left. The book of poems he’d been reading the last time he was here was gone. The one about paradise, how a snake tricked a man and a woman into betraying some ancient deity’s trust. It was, gone, vanished.
As the panic gripped Nick he heard the hum of an electromagnet and his rifle, his precious rifle sprang to life and wrested itself from his grasp as if turning against him. After the hum, Nick heard a series of clicks right behind him. Afraid to turn, he listened as the clicks quickened, then slowed, almost as a radio being tuned, then….
“Hello. I have been waiting for you”.