In one week, the final chapter in Chad A. Clark’s apocalyptic trilogy will be released. It’s now available for pre-order. Are you curious? Interested in checking it out and don’t want to wait? Machine Mean has for you an exclusive look at the first chapter. Enjoy, and please considering pre-ordering, via the link at the end of this piece.
The dime was what first caught her attention.
As she walked along the street, Roxie caught a flash from the corner of her eye, glancing to her right to see sunlight reflecting off the small piece of metal on the ground. She slowed and veered towards the coin, bending down to pick it up. As she did so, her feet absurdly tangled and her balance began to slip. With a mocking laugh from within, she realized that there would be no way to prevent this as she held out her hands to try and brace herself, with nothing but open air to stop her. Two pedestrians offered their help in the form of deftly stepping out of the way when she fell, grunting as her shoulder hit the ground and possibly in an unconscious attempt to escape from reality, she allowed her momentum to carry her on as she rolled between two newspaper machines.
The world erupted in bright white light.
Roxie squeezed her eyes shut, putting her arms up over her head as a blast of heat flowed over her. There seemed to be a collective outcry as the ground shook, glass breaking all around. Car horns seemed to go off all at once, only to be immediately silenced as if from some higher power and above, tendrils of darkness stretched out into the sky.
“What the fuck?” She looked at the blood on the pavement, rubbing the side of her head at the unexpected warmth. It was like an oven door had been opened next to her head.
It took a moment for her to register the screams.
Ten feet away, two people were on the ground, kneeling and shrieking in clear agony. One woman had clamped hands to her face, blood seeping through clutching fingers. The other was trying to rise to his feet, blinking with bloodshot eyes, looking like they couldn’t draw a focus, screaming as he did so.
“I can’t see! Someone please help me, I can’t see!”
And as she looked up and down the street, there was more of the same. Either prone bodies littered across the ground or people doubled over in pain and confusion. She looked up to City Hall when her breath caught at the sight of the clouds roiling up into the rapidly darkening sky. There was no denying the sight of the mushroom cloud, something she had only previously seen in documentary footage.
The muttered protest was all she could think to do as she averted her gaze from the explosion, thinking of all the people around her who had evidently lost their vision. They writhed on the ground everywhere, plunged into their own pain and confusion. An odor of something burning was in the air and all she could wonder at was how she had managed to avoid being hurt herself. How she had the luck to not be looking into the sky when the detonation had happened. There were more vibrations under her feet and part of her wondered how long it would be before the ground itself split open.
“Hey!” The voice came from behind her as a hand landed firmly on her shoulder to drag her to the ground.
“What…what the hell are you—”
“Shut up and follow me. There isn’t time!” The tall, reedy man darted off through the crowd and as she struggled to keep up, she pulled up at the sight of him pulling on a manhole cover, stepping onto the ladder below. She detected a foul odor as she stepped closer, watching him descend. He snapped at her again, his tone leaving no room for debate. “Come on, we don’t have a lot of time!”
She shook her head at the insanity that somehow, climbing into the sewer with this stranger was almost more crazy than what she had just witnessed. The crashing report of a car colliding with a signpost across the street snapped her back to reality and she stepped onto the ladder.
“Who are you, do you know what’s—” Her question died on her lips as she stepped off the ladder and found her new friend stripping off his clothes and dropping them onto the concrete next to them. “What…the hell are you doing?” she asked him.
He shrugged as he continued to undress. “You know what that was, right? That was a nuclear explosion. That means your clothes are contaminated. You got to get them off. Careful not to get them in the water, though.”
Roxie glanced at the wide, man-made stream flowing past in the trench. She wanted to protest as every instinct screamed how insane it was to simply strip in the presence of this man. Still, if what he said was true, she had to do it. Pulling her clothes off, she looked over as he stood there, down to his bare ass and glancing off to the side as if he was trying not to watch.
“All of it,” he said, almost sounding apologetic. Roxie slipped out of her underwear and added it to the pile. Reaching down, he added her clothes to his but as he turned she had a sudden thought.
“Wait!” she cried out. He paused and turned back, clearly agitated, one foot already on the ladder. “Wait, my keys are in my pants pocket.”
He snorted and shook his head. “Kid, you aren’t going to be driving anywhere anytime soon.”
“No, you don’t understand, the key-chain!”
He reached into the pockets until he found the keys and held them up, looking but clearly not understanding.
“The key-chain!” she repeated. “That’s a picture of me and my brother. Please, I can’t lose that. Please give them back.”
He let out a slow breath before nodding and tossing them to her. She had a brief, terrified vision of missing and watching them slide into the water but she managed to catch them cleanly, clutching them to her chest while he scampered up the ladder. He threw the clothes up and out, coming back down after he had disposed of them.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ve got clothes where we’re going.”
“Christ,” Roxie muttered to herself. The guy acted like he hadn’t heard, leading her down the walkway along the water. At some point, he bent down and picked an object up off the ground. She heard a clicking sound and light emerged from the flashlight he now held. After what seemed like an eternity and as the echoing sounds of explosions above began to fade, he stopped abruptly and reached for a ladder. Her mouth gaped open as he stepped down and began towards the water.
“Don’t worry, it’s only about four feet deep and the current isn’t that strong. Just keep close to the side.”
“You want me to—”
“Come on! I promise we can talk all this over but we need to get to a safer place. Please just shut up and—”
“Okay! I’m coming, for fuck’s sake. Just hold on.”
The water was surprisingly cold as she eased into it. It came nearly up to her armpits but the foothold underneath was more secure than she had been expecting and it was relatively easy to move along the wall without losing control. From above, there were occasional tremors, followed by a shower of dust. All she could cling to was the hope that at any moment she would wake up, having had the most surreal dream.
“Come on. In here.” He stopped and turned into what looked like a small alcove. She could see the top of what looked like an arch of some kind but it seemed to be a solid wall, inset somewhat from the main tunnel.
“Okay,” he said, turning to her. “This is the point you’re going to have the hardest time with and I need you to trust me. Take my hand. Now what we’re going to be doing is going underwater and swimming straight ahead. I know it sounds crazy but just close your eyes, take in a deep breath and stay with me, all right?”
Roxie barely had time to nod before the light clicked off and they were going down. The water swirled up above her as they submerged and the world took on a tinny, hollow echo. They swam forward but the wall she had expected to find before them wasn’t there. Instead, they swam through a secondary tunnel that had been obscured by the water level. She had the vague thought that she wished he had told her how far it was going to be but they were already angling up.
As they broke the surface, she coughed out the moisture that had managed to seep in, looking up into the chamber they had just entered. The water went another ten feet before reaching a dead end. The room itself was shaped like an over-sized horseshoe, with the water at the center. At the very end, another ladder took them up to the platform, at least ten feet above.
“Wait for a minute,” he said as he climbed out of the water. He moved away, out of sight for a moment before returning with a towel, holding it up for her as she climbed. He averted his gaze as she wrapped it around herself and pointed off towards one of the walls. “There’s some clothes over there you can choose from. Sorry I don’t have more but it’s better than nothing.”
Roxie wasn’t interested in clothes, though. She looked around the chamber, seeing that there was no way in or out, other than the submerged tunnel they had just swam in through.
“What is this place?” she asked.
He shrugged in response. “I don’t really know. I found it about a year ago.”
“And you…you’ve been living down here?”
He smiled for the first time. “Beats the alternative at the moment, doesn’t it?”
“So…what the hell just happened? What are we going to do down here? Where are we…” She trailed off as she began to feel her breath running short. The questions flew into her head too quickly to articulate them.
“Let’s take that slowly and start simple, okay? I’m Jeff. What’s your name?”
“Roxie. I…why did you help me?”
It was the only question she could phrase from the stew of confusion brewing within her.
“Honestly, I don’t really know. Everything happened so fast but you had been lucky enough to not be looking into the blast and I…whoa, easy there!”
Before she could speak, she threw up what was left in her stomach, feeling her eyes dropping shut and the last sensation she could mark before darkness rushed in was pitching forward into his outstretched arms.
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