Nightfall was approaching, and John’s hunger was intensifying. He had no way of knowing when he had last eaten. “Was it hours, or days? The last thing I remember was a sandwich from Mr. Magulias’ Deli on 54th Ave.” he thought. Though, from the looks of him, it could have been years, “How long was I out?” Questions began to consume his thoughts, “Who was that lab guy? Why did I survive? Where are the others?” He watched quietly as the beasts moved in formation away from the city and out of sight, then took the opportunity to run toward the buildings. He was sure they hadn’t seen him, but was cautious just the same; they could have left a garrison behind. He made his way from the desert to the first outlying structures. Smashed storefronts and shops, once busy with the activity of civilians, were now empty. Nothing remained. He found a car and examined the license plate. The tax sticker read ’34, two years after the last date he could remember. Had it been that long?

“Two whole years?!” He exclaimed.

He looked around in every direction, between the stores, along the sidewalks and into the parks. Nothing green was left. Life had been pinched out of every corner. It was night and total darkness covered the area. A bit of moonlight peeked through the cloud cover illuminating his path, but beyond that there was nothing. He stood for a moment contemplating what he needed to do. He needed food and water and shelter. It occurred to him that if the Earth had been a wasteland for two years or more, there was no way for him to know for sure, basic needs might be difficult to find. His training as a marine would have to be his guide now. The first order of business would be to find a source of water; he wouldn’t survive long without it. He would then need to find bleach and iodine … if he could; the sun would do the rest. Matches would help. In his training for disaster preparedness he had learned that after a natural disaster, like an earthquake, hurricane or blizzard knocking out the power, between thirty and sixty gallons of clean drinking water could be found in water heaters. Before traveling much further he decided to find a water heater and a pharmacy. Providing that all the water hadn’t evaporated and the pharmacies hadn’t been drained of supplies, he would get what he needed first from those two locations. He didn’t want to travel far, since conserving energy was now a priority. Since he could only survive three days without water, maybe longer, if he used up his strength he would be a goner. Because eating required water for digestion, he could abstain from that temporarily until it became a necessity.

He set out in search of a water heater. The first building he came to had been used as an office, apparently an insurance company. Tattered signs detailing the benefits of Life insurance and planning for the future could be seen lining the walls. He scoured the rooms and in a closet found an old coat, his first score. It was oversized and in decent condition. He put it on and continued searching. When he came to the room that housed the water heater, it had been crushed and drained dry. Moving on he came upon a restaurant. He ran inside searching for food, but the  place had been ransacked. He found a bottle of bleach, but all that was left was salt. The bleach had totally disintegrated and the water had evaporated long ago. All the kitchen utensils were gone, but he was able to find a portion of hose. Everything of use was taken, even the chairs, presumably for firewood. He assumed the water  heater had probably been emptied as well, and it had. He continued through the buildings gathering what he could. Most of those who survived sought out weapons and food leaving few items of use behind, mostly electrical items like hair dryers and  irons which would have no benefit. He found a bag of balloons in a convenience store and shoved them in his pocket. He stumbled upon nothing of great value and then, as day began to break, exhaustively he fell to sleep. With sleep, came dreams.

“Wachichu, you see the way the wolves hunt in packs?” John’s uncle asked him.

“Yes, sir.”

“That’s family. The pack survives because they are together. Watch them.” Three  wolves had taken down a deer and were eating his belly while he was still alive. His head was tilted up toward John in a kind of plea for mercy. As he lay there dying John watched. He knew he couldn’t help the deer, but he also knew that he shouldn’t. “That is the nature of things Chichu. The deer eats the fruit. The wolf eats the deer.” The landscape of his dream shifted suddenly. He was at school on the reservation. “Chichu! Chichu! Wouldn’t wanna meetchu!! Ah Hahahahahaha!” A young boy said mockingly. John ran up to the boy and pushed him down to the ground and jumped on top of him. He watched himself beat up the boy, but the boy kept laughing. John kept punching him and a crowd of other kids encircled them. It didn’t matter how hard John hit the boy, he only laughed.

The dream transformed once again, this time with his mother, “Chichu, come and eat.”

John came and sat sullenly and said to his mother, “Don’t call me that. The kids make fun of me at school because you call me that.”

His mother looked at him with affection, “Wachichu, you cannot deny what you are. Your father loved you very much, but he’s gone. You have to decide for yourself who you’re going to be.”

He looked down as his mother spoke, then replied, “But, who am I? What am I supposed to be?”

His mother took his hand and said, “You be you. Don’t look at it as a handicap, look at it as a gift. The best of both worlds.” She said, kissing him on the forehead, his big brown eyes staring up at her.

Without warning his dream morphed once again, this time he was in basic training as a U.S. Marine. One of the other privates saw where he had scrawled “Wachichu” on his helmet and asked him what it meant. “It means “white man” in my mother’s language.” John explained, “It’s a nickname she used to call me. She was Native American and my father was white.” This time John was taller, and bigger, and nobody teased him for who he was.

“That’s cool.” The other marine said.

“It wasn’t cool when I was a kid. The boys on the reservation used to tease me. I got  into a lot of fights growing up.”

“Must’ve made you pretty damn tough.”

“I guess so. I never really thought about it. I guess I just always wanted to fit in, and never really felt like I belonged to the tribe. I wasn’t white, I wasn’t red, I was all alone.” John lamented.

“Doesn’t matter. You’re a U.S. Marine now. You’re a part of something. And you’ll never be alone again.” he said as another marine walked by them completely naked, towel in hand. They both looked at each other and chuckled, “See?”

John was startled awake from his dream, and as he was he said aloud, “But, I’m alone right now.”

They had just reached the outskirts of an abandoned airfield lined with the corpses of airplanes, cargo jets and helicopters. The group was chattering away about random nonsense when Po interrupted, “People, quiet down. I think I hear something.” An alien airship hovered toward them overhead. Silently, they all took cover and waited as it passed over them slowly. It continued into the distance and one by one they came out from behind their hiding spots.

“This is a good place to stop and eat, it’s still another full day to the bunker. We can rest here temporarily and then get back to it.” Po informed them.

Jayk came over to Po and sat down next to him, “How’s your lip?”

“How’s your head?” Po flashed him a wide grin.

“Better.” Jayk admitted rubbing the back of it.

“Does that happen frequently?” Po asked, handing Jayk a container with a chunk of green vegetable paste in the bottom of it.

“It’s been happening with more frequency lately. In fact, I honestly couldn’t tell you where I was coming from, or where I was headed.” Jayk said, looking all around, “Where are we?”

“Nowhere. We came upon the bunker a few years ago, Wax, myself and a few others, and we’ve been hiding out ever since. However, lately the alien airships have been showing up with greater regularity. Wax thought they might have planted another garden nearby, so we volunteered to go check it out.” Po slurped up some of his portion of the algae paste and continued, “Turns out he was right. Must’ve been there a while, too, because it’s pretty big.” Po and Jayk sat quietly for a few moments, “So, what’s your story? You running from something?”

“Yeah, maybe.” He mumbled absentmindedly. He took a moment to collect his thoughts, “I really couldn’t tell you. The last thing I can remember is my parents being killed by those monsters. Everything else is a blur.” He stopped again and thought, then looked at Po, “Anyway, here I am.”

“Well, Wax’ll get you situated. He’s a good judge of character.” Po said comfortingly, “Get some rest Jayk, we’ve still got a ways to go.” He patted Jayk on the back and got up to go check on the others.

Sarah awoke from a puzzle box of pain to the sound of dripping, a constant flow of liquid that seemed to sit in puddles all around them. The walls appeared to sweat and the structure of the prison was moist, almost as if it was leaking from all sides. She felt a hunger in her body unlike anything she had experienced. She realized immediately that she had never before eaten solid food. Suddenly, lights filled the cell and everyone moved toward the door. Huge pails of thick yellow mush were slopped into metal bowls and the people began devouring it hungrily. They would  scoop up generous portions into their hands and slurp it up into their mouths, spilling some of it onto themselves carelessly. The glop trickled down the sides of their faces staining their hands and the rags they wore. She was horrified and saddened, then lost control and vomited openly.

She sat alone for many moments staring at her own hands and wondering how long this horrific nightmare would last.

After some time she dragged herself over to one of the pails and placed her hand deep into it. The sludge she pulled up was vile and grotesque, but the alternative was unconscionable. Either she consumes the hideous substance and satiates her deepening hunger or starves. So she ate.

It was morning.

The creatures who held them prisoner came for them one by one and linked the chains that bound them together. They were taken outside and led to a field where the sun baked their skin and the soil blackened their hands. They worked throughout the day plowing and tilling and ripping the ground. Miles of farm stood before them and they planted the seeds as the creatures indicated.

They were changing the Earth with their own hands. It was long, backbreaking work. The sun’s radiation bleached their hair and left penetrating wrinkles carved into their skin. Most of them wore rags or nothing at all. When the day was over they were brought back into the iron prison, a maze of interlocking passageways that led to large cells that held the survivors of the stolen Earth. They were worked until they had no use left.

Sarah couldn’t believe the wretched apathy that infected the lifeless souls who surrounded her. It was as if they had given up completely. They had become broken and ruined. She sat against the wall holding her knees tightly against her body and watched them. One of the men there stared far away with lifeless eyes and muttered to himself, “Every morning we get to leave this place, and every night they bring us back.” He sat in a murky liquid that seemed to stretch toward him from all directions. Fittingly, she thought of Sisyphus. The lights went out suddenly and all was pitch black save for a dim red glow. She still didn’t know where she was or when she would leave.

The day was coming to an end, and Po and the others had finally reached the bunker. They each entered individually, making their way through the hidden entranceway and down the steps into the bowels of the underground facility. They were walking the endless corridors filled with the ambient light of fluorescent tubes when Jayk saw rooms filled with boxes of discarded electrical wires and mechanical gizmos, the use of which completely evaded him. Slowly, they came to a shadowy passageway where the group split up and went their separate ways.

“We’ll leave you here. Make yourself at home. There’s a bathroom down that way, and Wax will come find you and explain everything.” Po said congenially.

Jayk continued moving down the hall, when he thought he could just make out the sounds of grinding; metal against metal. Perhaps an ungreased machine lurked in a darkened corner of the facility, he thought. He crept cautiously toward the lifeless din as the smell of burning oil filled his nostrils.

He continued down the warm corridor until he found a doorway leading into a filthy restroom. In it he found the remnants of outer garments soiled by time and great use; dark weather-beaten leather trenches, scarves and boots thrown with disregard. A tiny faucet peered down into a large basin. Against the wall stood a mirror and Jayk found himself staring at a man he didn’t know. It was himself, to be sure, but he had become old and thin. His dreams, of late, had become brittle and fragile. The headaches had been increasing in duration and frequency and it felt as though his soul was becoming torn and the memories of someone else’s thoughts had begun crowding in and taking residence in his mind. As if he was remembering something that had happened to another person, almost an apparition; the vagueness of which was only conquered by its persistence.

He was disturbed from his thoughts by a quiet hand on his shoulder and soft serious eyes beckoning him to follow. The man was dressed in coarse clothes which appeared to fit just right. He was tall and thin and bore a faint sweet smell of sweat that seemed to consume him. “Come with me Jayk.” The thin man said, and Jayk followed.

“Where are we?” Jayk pressed him.

“You’re among friends,” the thin man replied, and continued, “I’m Wax Griffin. You’ll be safe here.” His tone was refreshing.

He led Jayk out of the washroom and down the long corridor, past rooms fitted with large glass windows. It appeared they were in some sort of underground research facility that had been abandoned centuries before and rediscovered. It was now inhabited by a group of people comprising some of the last remaining humans who avoided the creature’s occupation of Earth. As they came upon one room something remarkable stared back at him from behind metallic eyes. In the room were two men, one sat studying a small machine with images flickering across it, the other stood in front of the thing that gazed at Jayk. He had discovered the odor of grease and oil. Wires and cords ran the length of its frame as it sat perched on the edge of a table. It labored momentarily, then began to rise, but was unable. After a moment it waved at Jayk. He lingered and watched its curious eyes study him intently. It was a machine with a human form. Almost human form, because for the most part it was a network of exposed carbon filament and fiber-optic lines. The face was artificial, like a child’s doll or a mannequin. Its gesture was calming which gave Jayk pause. He had never seen such a machine, but had read about them in books. Then, it attempted a smile. Jayk put his hand to the glass and smiled back. The thin man who was escorting him put his hand on Jayk’s shoulder as they both stood watching the robot.

“We’ve been attempting to reverse engineer them for a while now, the robots, but with such little power to devote to the task we find ourselves at a disadvantage scientifically. If we could get them to work we’d have a small army at our disposal without the fear of losing any of our own people. The carbon fiber they’re made from is incredible technology! Three times the strength of steel at one-fifth the weight. Powerful and lightweight, they’d be a formidable presence against the alien menace!” His face contorted into a grimace as if the thought of their failure filled him  with grief, “Why don’t you come with me, I’ll show you around the facility; introduce you to some of the residents here.” Wax said, walking away down the hall as Jayk followed behind him. Wax directed him through the byzantine maze of corridors, hallways and stairwells showing him around.

“So, who are you to these people?” Jayk asked.

“I guess you’d call me a facility administrator. I manage the daily operations: supply runs, maintenance … in a supervisory capacity. The facility practically runs itself, though. A generator keeps us in power, although limited. We have an algae farm, water and air filtration … but our biggest concern now is the expanding alien gardens.” Wax explained to Jayk, motioning for him to follow. “Anonymity means freedom. We’re content here.” Wax admitted walking into a larger room. 

“That’s the worst thing to be.” Jayk stated firmly, as Wax smiled at such an earnest appraisal.

“Tell me, Jayk, what makes you say that?” Wax asked with genuine interest.

Jayk thought for a moment and replied, “Once when I was twelve, maybe thirteen, I remember them coming. I remember the sounds of their footsteps as they crunched the ground beneath them … of screaming and frightened gurgling filling the museum from within. The museum was my home, where my parents and several other families hid from the invaders. But, then they took my parents. They came for everyone. None of them stood a chance against the power of their electrical weapons. They blasted and crackled like lightning setting everything they touched on fire. It was that day I decided I would no longer hide, and swore vengeance against the usurpers and their plan. Now, I hunt them down. And I’ll continue to do so until I take my last breath.” Jayk said. 

Wax looked at him and smiled broadly, “I admire that.”

“Everyone, this is Jayk.” Wax said to Dade, Oso, Anya, Iri and Zara who were seated at a small table playing poker.

“We met.” Dade said, examining his hole cards. He looked up at Wax and Jayk, “So, you gonna pull up a chair and watch me bust these guys heads, or just stand there looming?”

“You’re only winning because these cards are marked!” Oso replied.

“‘Course they’re marked. How else am I s’posed to tell which ones’re the aces?” Dade fired back, “But I don’t need marked cards to beat the likes o’ you, Oso. You missed the two pair on the turn and you nearly cried out loud.” Dade smiled knowingly.

“No thanks. I don’t play poker.” Jayk said.

“This ain’t poker. It’s Texas Hold’em. Where it differs from poker is that it simulates real life, it’s the perfect blend of skill and luck. It’s a thinkin’ man’s game.” Dade explained, then quickly changed the subject. “So, Jayk, you gonna stick around?”

“I was thinking about it. As long as I’m welcome.” Jayk admitted turning to Wax.

“Well, just stay outta my way and we’ll get along just fine. You’re welcome.” Dade retorted while he dealt the river, then looked up and said satisfyingly, “I still don’t  trust you.”

“I’ll remember that.” Jayk said unmoved.

“Why couldn’t we have found a bambi? We could use a few more o’ them around here!” Dade complained loudly.

“Well, I’m sure you’re starving, you’ve been out in the wastes for a long time from the looks of you.” Wax said as he turned and began leading Jayk away.

Jayk ate hungrily. The slab of dark green concentrate was an algae paste, a nutraceutical that contained vitamins and minerals to sustain their health. It wasn’t much better than the rats and snakes he was used to in the wastes. The thin man sat at the steel table across from him as he shoveled the jelly-like meal as quickly as he could, and in between bites they spoke.

“So, how safe is this place?” Jayk questioned him.

“We come and go under cover of night. The Sky Reapers haven’t discovered our location and we take great pains to keep it that way.” The thin man answered calmly. “This is our Gibraltar.”

“Sky Reapers?”

“That’s what we call them, the invaders. Grim Reapers from outer space.” He stated directly. “Were your parents nationalists?” He asked casually.  

Jayk didn’t even look up from his meal. He knew what was meant by the question. “No, they weren’t.” 

“I only ask because you’ll find that a few of the survivors here were. They’re the last of Sovran’s people.” 

He studied Jayk intently as he offered the information. Jayk could tell he wanted to know what side his parents were on during the insurrection. He debated quietly on discussing his lineage with the thin man. After a moment of thoughtful deliberation he offered, “My family wasn’t political. I grew up in the wastes.”

“You must excuse me. Understand this, my friend, there are many spies among us. We remain constantly on guard against them. When Po and the others found you in the city they thought you might be one of them.” he bitterly discussed, “But you stood your ground and showed great courage and strength. And, you refused to take a human life when you could have. That’s admirable. We’ve had an increase in Sky Reaper airships lately, and there’s a new garden about a hundred miles from here that is threatening the safety of our location. If they get much closer, we could be discovered. We may be at risk already, which is why I sent Po and the others out to scout around and see how close it had gotten.” Wax stopped for a moment and then continued, “We may have to find a new hiding place.”

Jayk allowed the thought to roll around in his head for a bit before finally saying, “I don’t know about you, but I’m done hiding. I think it’s time we take the fight to them. I don’t have any formal training in military strategy, but I’ve read plenty of books, and I’m good with a blade. I could help train your people.”

“Yes, I believe you could. Po is one of the strongest men I know, and from what I heard you overpowered him with ease.” Wax looked away for a time, then turned back toward Jayk and said, “We could use someone like you.”