by Mike Ripley
The screams still echo through the center of town as I look toward the sky. Day is about to break. I’m hidden amongst the trash that hasn’t been tended to for over a week, and my body is beginning to hurt. I’ve been in the middle of the smell for so long that it isn’t noticeable anymore. My wife, Anu, and second child, Mora, are still with me. Both are asleep at the moment. My name is Am. My world crumbled ten days ago.
With morning comes more soldiers, or whatever they consider themselves. They have had their way with us since they arrived. We can’t stand up to their weapons. We don’t know how to fight them. They subdue us within seconds with their chains, and kill many of us before we ever have a chance to see them. Our numbers decrease every day. Most of my friends have disappeared, and we have no idea where they’ve gone.
On Wednesday of last week, they entered my home. My oldest child, Toma, was outside when I heard him scream. He was fighting against these alien men, but to no avail. Before I knew what was going on, they carried him down the street, and we haven’t seen him since.
At first, I chased after Toma, and tried to free him from these super beings. They swatted me away, and swore they’d return for the rest of us. “Stop,” I yelled after them. I had found a pipe amid the debris to fight with, but their sharp instruments put a quick end to our battle. Anu found me bloodied, and unconscious. She dragged me out of the roadway, and thus began our days of living amongst the trash.
Tonight I plan to organize the few men I know are still at large in the area. I have seen both Benu and Angst in recent hours. They will know where the others are. They are the most creative men I know, and are surely up to something already. It is getting light, however, and we have to sleep. Tonight we’ll fight back.
Our town is small to mid-size. We are at the center of our county, about fifty miles from the nearest large city. Two weeks ago there were over two thousand people living here. Today the only ones left are those that hide as we do. I believe there might still be several hundred of us left. Fortunately, there are many hiding places.
I run the local medical supply house, or rather, did run it. I went there several nights ago, and found it totally looted by the bastards. They like my medicine, and there will be little left for our hospital. There’s probably no one alive there anyway. I’ll check that out tonight. I mentioned Benu and Angst. They are local artists of sorts. Benu has painted for almost everybody in town, and Angst designed the park our children play in. I did it again; played in.
I’ve lost a child. Everything else I try to think of is blotted out by that fact. I let him be ripped away. Every minute I want to scream, and it takes so much strength to hold insanity away. I try to sleep, but wake every ten seconds, knowing I’ve failed my family.
Mora tugs on my shirt. Hunger is a new type of pain for her, and it has been strong over the past couple of days. Night has fallen again, and Anu is ready to go with me to find a new place to hide, and seek other townspeople. I think Angst will stay close to Talbut Street, so the three of us will make our way there tonight. No sense in moving too fast, and taking unnecessary risks. Our goal is to find food, to get to Talbut Street. Nothing else is important.
“Are you ready?” I ask Anu.
“Yes, I know we must move. Come now Mora. Hold my hand.” Anu talks Mora into leaving. She doesn’t want to go out into the night.
“I want to eat, Mom. Can’t Dad just get us food again?”
“We’ll find food, but we have to move. It isn’t safe here any longer. We have to find friends.” Anu holds tight to Mora’s hand, as she leads her into the street. They follow me. They both believe I will keep them from harm. I have an overwhelming fear that harm is exactly where I’ll lead them. Toma’s screams still echo in my head.
There are alleyways behind many of the homes and buildings in our town. About three blocks from our trash-bin hiding place, I saw a familiar mark to the right side of the back door of a former eatery. This mark has appeared over the past few nights, and I’m not sure whether to trust my instincts.
“Anu, stay here and watch for me at that door.” I leave Anu and Mora between a large bush and a fence. They are in darkness, and I believe they will be safe. I focus on the door at the other side of the alleyway. I stare at the mark. It has no meaning in our language that I can decipher. I am, however, about to find out if I am right, that we can find others there, friendly others.
The door opens easily, and just inside, I see a glimmer of light. The last thing that I want to do is make noise, so I say nothing. Before going in, I look across toward the bush. I can’t see Anu or Mora, but I know they are there. They are safe.
“Come in quick.” The voice catches me as I’m looking outside. I’m startled and fall backwards into the alley. There is sound to my right. I’ve disturbed somebody, and now I can clearly make out footsteps. An arm reaches through the door, and pulls me inside. The light is gone. I am in darkness, and no longer have contact with whoever pulled me in. I know that I have left Anu and Mora outside, that there is danger in those footsteps. I try to get back to the door.
“Down… stay down,” the voice whispers. “They will pass. We are safe here.”
I hear the footsteps outside, but they don’t slow near the door. They’ve gone by us. I prepare for screams again from the only two loved ones I have left in the world. I hear only footsteps, much to my relief, and they eventually fade away into the somber quiet of the town.
“I’m not alone,” I tell my company. Then I realize I don’t know for sure if this company is friendly. “Who are you?”
“I have thought to ask you the same thing.” The words are spoken this time, no longer a whisper. “You were hiding, so I trust you are one of us. Who else is with you?”
“There are more men,” I lie.
“Where are they?”
“They are just outside, watching the door. I was elected to check this place out because we saw the markings. Do they mean what I think they mean?”
“If you’re asking if they were put there to attract townspeople, the answer is yes. My name is Masha. We have food and water here. This used to be an eatery, but the owners were taken away. The Assaulters must not have searched the place because they left the food and drink. Tell your men to come in and eat. We have work to do.”
“How do I know you are who you say? I need to be sure before I bring others in. Do you know Benu or Angst? If you belong here, you would know them. Tell me, do you know them?”
“Benu was here last night,” Masha replies. There is noticeable relief in her voice. “He ventured out to find others. He’s the one who devised the symbols to be put near the doorways. They have ten men on Talbut, and they are ready to stand.”
Masha’s mention of Talbut eases my mind. “I have to get my wife and child. I have no men with me. You have to understand that I couldn’t…”
“I understand.” Masha cuts me off.
The alleyway is empty again. I motion for Anu, and watch for movement elsewhere. Anu and Mora come into the light. They ease across the street, looking both ways, each step a little faster than the one before. Finally, they reach the door, and enter the safety of our new hiding place.
“Am, where are you?” cries Anu softly.
“I’m right here,” I say, taking her in my arms while I feel for Mora. I hold them both, forgetting for a moment that Masha is in the room.
“Anu, Masha is with us. They have food here.”
“Good,” I hear Mora say eagerly.
“Come with me.” Masha tries to lead us, but the darkness is total.
“I saw light when I first opened the door,” I say.
“That was from the center room,” replies Masha. “I opened it to come out to you. It has no windows, so we can use light, and we’ll be there soon. Beyond it, there is a room we use to observe the alleyway. I was there when I saw you approach. I went through the center room to come to you. Here, I’m at the door. Use the light.” Masha opens the door, and we see her for the first time.
“I know her, mama,” says Mora.
“Yes, you do,” responds Masha. “I am the teacher.”
We enter the center room and close the door. This room is well lit, and we see four other people that are sitting around a table. They are studying maps, and they all stop to greet us. Masha introduces us, and I join the men at the table. Anu and Mora follow Masha to the promised food.
“Look, we’re probably not nearly enough for any real resistance,” says a man named Jam, who appears to be the leader. “From my ventures the past few nights, I’d say there aren’t more than two hundred people left. My fear is that they are nearly finished, and about to leave. Then we’ll never know where they took everybody.”
“They have killed everybody,” says Ton.
“No, why would they do that?” asks Jam. “Some are dead. From what I saw, some of the strong ones are dead. Everybody else has been taken away. Open resistance was met with murder, but no one could stand up to the Assaulters.”
I jump in. “That’s the second time I’ve heard the term ‘Assaulters’. Do you know who they are?”
“No, no one knows. All we know is they have stormed our town, and the town of Chese as well. One man traveled from there two nights ago, and told us that the same thing had happened. They are stronger than we are, have better weapons than we do, and a vessel of some sort that the man from Chese has seen. He said that they were taking our people to the vessel.” Jam knows far more than I, but still has no idea how to fight them.
“I know my way around here very well,” I tell him. “I have lived here all my life.”
“We know,” says Jam. “You run the pharmacy.”
Anu appears with a tray of food. It is the best sight I’ve seen in days. “How’s Mora?” I ask.
“She’s eating everything. I’ll have to stop her.” Anu leaves the tray with me, and I start to eat after offering to share with the others.
“Where is this vessel?” I ask.
“Roughly two miles from here,” says Jam. “Tal was just looking at the map.”
“We think it’s here,” says Tal. He points to a location on the map I am familiar with.
“I can get there,” I say. “I played there as a kid, and it wouldn’t be the first time I had to sneak in and out of that area.”
“Eat up, then,” says Jam. “We’ll go together in fifteen minutes.”
Anu doesn’t want me to go. It will be the first time we’ve been apart for more than an hour since it all began. I have gone after food alone, but have not left them otherwise. “You will be with Masha,” I tell Anu. “Mora is comfortable here. She’ll be asleep soon, with her belly full. I’ll be all right. You know I know that area like the back of my hand. I have to go.”
“Don’t leave us, Am. I mean, go for now, but come back. Never leave us.”
I know what she means. I’ll never leave them. The fears I have, the echoes I hear, the screams; she hears them too.
Jam and I leave through the back door, and into the alleyway. We reach the edge of town within five minutes, and begin our journey through the countryside. There is a trampled path at least thirty feet across leading through the field. We stay clear of it. It is completely bare, like a road. It didn’t exist ten days ago.
We stay close to the edge of the new path. “Get down,” whispers Jam excitedly.
I lie flat on my stomach watching what appear to be four or five Assaulters as they drag two women away from town down the center of the path. I recognize one of the women as Anu’s sister, Rea. They both scream as the Assaulters pull them along. When they try to stand, they are knocked to the ground and pulled over stumps and ruts. Their clothes are being ripped, their bodies torn, and their spirits crushed. Jam and I listen as the screams turn to whimpers.
I have taken all I can stand. I rise, and step toward the path. Jam takes my legs out with a single blow below the knees. He is on top of me now, with his hand over my mouth; he issues a stern warning, “We cannot help them. If you go, you will be taken, and your wife and child will be left without you. Is that what you want? Those women are gone.”
“She’s Anu’s sister.”
“She is gone. I’m sorry, but you must let her go.”
I’m afraid of what I am becoming. It occurs to me that Rea is just one more scream added to the thunder that echoes in my head each second. I find that I can do what Jam says. I let her go.
It’s a two-hour journey to the area where we expect to find the vessel. It can be done in half that time when one isn’t concerned about being caught, but we don’t have that luxury tonight. I have started to hear new screams in my head. They are faint, but I’m sure I’ll never be rid of them. As we walk further, I realize the screams are getting louder. With each step, I’m more convinced the screams are not in my head. They are coming from the direction in which we are walking.
They are real.
Even though I am hidden by trees and the tall weeds between them, and could not be seen from any angle. I feel exposed. The sound of this many people screaming in unison can’t be compared to anything I’ve ever heard before. It is the sound of humanity coming to an end. It disorients, and exposes your soul. I feel the Assaulters know I am in the weeds, that I am hiding.
I fall over into the brush, and hold my ears. The wailing will not stop. I look at Jam. He is crying. He’s on his knees, looking at the ground. I move toward him and try to talk. “We’ve got to see.”
It’s no use. He can’t hear me, and I’m afraid to yell. I drop down next to him, and bury my head. Thirty minutes pass before we look at each other.
Jam touches my shoulder, and motions forward. I know we have to move. There is no getting used to the din caused by the echo of screams. As we move forward toward a small clearing by a lone willow tree, we suddenly see the vessel. It’s huge, large enough to hold all of our townspeople. From the sound, I’m afraid it already does.
We watch as the vessel pulls away. What we can see and hear indicates that our friends are stacked high within the belly of the vessel, and that they know they are leaving. The screams are not weakening. They are growing louder, even as the vessel gets further away. More people are being lead to the boarding area, as another vessel moves to let the first pass. When it docks it will load more victims.
We are heading back to town. It will be nearly daylight when we arrive at the shelter, but Jam tells me that, so far, it has been a safe place during the day. The Assaulters have entered the building in the past, but not the center room.
“What do you think we should do?” I ask.
“I’ve been thinking about that. I don’t think we can stop them. They’re apparently not here to kill us. They are here to collect us.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that they want us alive. I don’t think they want our town either.”
“What do they want from us?” I don’t know if Jam has an answer, but I ask anyway.
“I don’t know, maybe food,” he replies.
Jam and I avoid the real issue. As we walk, we both think about what action we should take. We left a group that thought we were forming a resistance. We are coming back with what is possibly a whole new approach. We will not resist.
I finally get the nerve to bring it up. “Look, I don’t want to get back there, and not have this worked out. I think we need to lay low. If we lay low, and survive long enough without getting caught, they may leave.”
“I know. I’ve thought of that too. How do we tell the others? We’ve all lost people. We have to tell them to let go, to forget about them, to move on.”
“Why does what you’re saying sound so possible to me? This is the same feeling I got back there, listening to the screams. I’m guilty of not fixing this, of not protecting my family, of not making it go away. I’ll always be guilty.”
Jam feels exactly the way I do, but he is trying to think of something to make it work. But he thinks of nothing. We have no control.
“You know they won’t bring them back,” Jam finally says. “We will never see our people again, and if we allow ourselves or the rest of our group to be caught, it will happen to us too. Whatever is happening is going to last forever. Our way of life is gone, or at least it’s changing. I don’t think they can really take that away. Our ways will survive.”
“I’m sure they’re not counting on that,” I add. “They had better kill every last one of us, or we will survive. Our kind will survive. Our ways will always exist.”
As we approach the edge of town, I begin to believe they do understand.
“They are killing everybody, Jam. Look out. Go down there.” I see an opening to a backyard, and push Jam through it. We were surely seen, but the commotion on the street has distracted the Assaulters. “Get down,” I yell.
There has been an uprising on the street. There must be a number of groups popping up, just like us. They don’t understand what is going on, but they’ve decided to fight. We are witnessing the results of that decision, and our inclination to stay low and survive appears to be the only way out. They are being slaughtered, without mercy. There is a one-sidedness to this battle akin to our stepping on ants that enter our homes. It is not a fight. It is just death.
Grown men scream now. That’s why the screams are so loud. They are coming not only from women and children. The men scream with the same fear, the same confusion, the same loss of control. I again cover my ears, and want only to get far from here. I grab Jam and move him away.
“Our options are in this order,” I say to Jam as we hurry away. “Best case, we survive until they leave, second we die, and last, they take us away.”
Our minds are made up. We must present the news to our group… our family. We head back, careful to take the exact route we left by. The alleyway is around the next corner. We have to face everybody soon now, and tell them what we saw.
We hear new screams coming from the street. We stick to the alleyway, and find the door that leads to our hideout. Jam goes first, and notices the door is ajar. We hurry inside, go to the center room, and find the door open. The room is empty. The screams in the street suddenly sound far too familiar. I hear Mora.
From a front window, I see our people being bound. One body is on the ground, and not moving. From the clothing, I can tell it belonged to Angst. Benu is alive and about to be taken away with the others. Jam has decided what to do, and I have grabbed a spear, and prepared myself to follow him. We will go into the street to save our families, to save our manhood, to die.
The Assaulters must have thought that the home was empty, because Jam has caught one of them by surprise. I can tell by the look on this Assaulter’s light skinned face that he has been startled. It’s the first look of fear I have seen from them. Jam shoves his spear into a stunned eye, and drives the Assaulter to the ground with a blood-curdling scream that let’s the world know he has defeated his enemy.
There is an explosion, and Jam’s body shatters. Nobody has touched him, but he is thrown ten feet through the air, and lies motionless on the ground, as though a mighty hand has struck him down. On the road, at the source of the explosion, a man stands pointing a long tube in our direction. I see Anu now, she is trying to reach for me, to warn me, but I see her struck by the one who’s been binding them. I hear somebody behind me, twirl around, and see the rod just before it strikes my head.
* * *
“Am, Am can you hear me?” I hear Anu faintly, as I realize I’m being pulled along the new path that Jam and I were on only an hour ago. Anu wants to know if I’m alive. I see her looking at me. Mora is walking ahead of her. Her arms, like those of the others, are tied behind her back, and she is wailing. I manage to make eye contact with Anu, and see her being struck again by an Assaulter. She falls to the ground. I struggle to stand, to end being dragged along; I try to get to her. I cannot. More than ever, I have no control, and can’t help my family.
I have been on this path, and know where we are going. The others have no idea. The wailing and screaming stops momentarily as the vessel comes into view and the others get their first look at the monstrous ship. The noise starts again as the realization hits that we will soon be aboard, and pulling away from our land.
Inside the ship, we are stacked on top of each other. I can’t find Anu or Mora, and yelling doesn’t help. Everybody is yelling, and you can’t hear the words leaving your own mouth. We are in hell. It has suddenly hit me that this must indeed be hell. I have heard of such things. It has happened.
I look up to see my sky for the last time.