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The World Never Ended

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The world never ended. When floods came, many survived. The sufferers shuffled about from place to place, some finding shelter, others not. When fire came, some survived. It blazed over continents fueled by primal fear, justice and revenge. Fire has no conscious. When radiation came, few survived. The survivors were not a chosen people. They lived in the correct geographical locations with mountain ranges and northerly winds and had access to a little infrastructure to support a small, terrified wallow of survivors.

Years passed, the pockets of humanity dwindled. Some starved and died, others fought and died, and others fell to indiscriminate forces: massive storms, poisonous air, and not a little stupidity.

But the world never ended.

***


Refuge, the final city. Hardy. Tenacious. Resilient. The city winks, a last twinkling on a massive spherical cemetery.

Though neighborhoods are quite, some brave the toxic air and hurry along narrow streets. They walk with a purpose, a fierce determination, their eyes covered with reflective lenses, blessed with clean air by filtered respirators.

They walk from rusted steel hovels and rusted steel communes to rusted steel workshops, schools and rusted steel warehouses. A lucky few are headed down, down to Zone 2 or Zone 3 — 2 for study, 3 for sanitation, energy production, food and water distribution.

Above ground in Zone 1, in Refuge's north-east side, three masked figures skulk along dark alleys without speaking. Their hearts beat heavy. Filtered air whiffs a rotten tinge. Duffle bags carry small spore bombs, and they handle them gingerly. They hurry away from the great steel warehouses. They paint a line south-west towards the heart of the city, towards the markets, brothels and cantinas.

Near the city center there's a cramped, smokey room. Patrons, never fully relaxed but close to it, remove their masks and watch a tiny stage and listen to the feminine crooning of the beautiful Astira Lockhart. They are silent, mesmerized by her sultry seduction, her titillating high notes and oozing, suggestive low tones. They drink fungal wine, bitter and pungent, and they puff psychoactive fungal smoke from steel pipes, an earthy musk.

"Another drink?"

James Braxton keeps his eyes on the singing wonder and checks his pockets, empty. "Just one more," he says. The thick brown liquid froths and he takes a drink and moans despite himself. If only every night could be this good. He wipes foam from his short beard with a sleeve. A long breath, a short comfortable sigh, then he downs the wine in gulps.

He rises, picks up his mask from under his chair and turns casually to exit. He mills with the crowd as he backs towards the door, eyes attentive to the aged proprietor and the broad shouldered bouncer. Timing is everything.

Mask in hand, he waits. A man walks between him and the bouncer. James steps in his way forcing him into the bouncer. As the man apologizes drunkenly, James slips around and snaps his mask in place. With a quick motion, he spins the steel wheel of the hatch, pulls it open and hops into the exit chamber.

"Hey," the bouncer calls, but it's too late. James spins the wheel to the second door. The redundant system won't allow both doors to be open at once. He saunters into the street.

The wind blows, and when the door opens and the masked bouncer's head appears. James has vanished.

Pleased with himself, leaning round the corner of a dark ally, he turns and startles. Three shadows in the night, close enough to touch. They look at him through black, reflective lenses and he looks at them, his eyes equally masked.

They stare at one another for a long while and James sees the bag, sees their defensive posture and the way they glance from him to the cantina. His jaw is set, his hands shiver. He shakes his head, pleading, and they nod, point to him, then throw a thumb in the opposite direction.

For a long moment he stands and glares. One figure has a knife and another has a pipe and James has nothing, is more than a little drunk, is more than a little high. His shoulders fall, and he turns and rushes homeward.

Time stretches, the sound of the cantina, the crooning and the cheers feel so melancholy. From a quarter mile away, James hears the boom! His breath escapes him and he struggles to remain standing. A few more dead. What's a few more? The world has gone to hell, and all he can think about is a theory, a dream of escaping to someplace... different.

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