Chapter 1

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"Only one, huh?"

"Yup, that's what they said." Rutger wheezed, drowning himself in a $400 bottle of 'borrowed' scotch and wrapped tight in a blanket even in eighty-degree weather. Skin and bones didn't make for good insulation. "They." he scoffed, "Who the hell are they anyway?"

"Well..." Tomas stared off into the distance, his dry eyes fixed on the haze that streaked the dead horizon, sights blurred from lack of food and sleep. The metal orb vibrated in his hand, an unmitigated timer of fate. He saw the mad flurry of green sparks flash in the distance. His eyes fell to the counter, bright emerald alien numbers dancing as they beeped and ticked away slowly, steadily. "How do we rebuild with just one?"

"Don't ask me, Tom."

Tomas sighed, solemn and heavy. The effort it took just to sigh was too much. The beeps started to speed up; still slow, but closer together. He looked down again, watching the numbers spin away like a broken slot machine. The lights in the distance were sparking brighter now, growing nearer—like thousands of metal beads trapped in a microwave. A few screams would break through the silence here and there, along with a scattered cry or two, but neither Tomas nor Rutger were fazed by it.

"They're going fast now...."

"Yep..." Head bobbing, Rutger squinted hard at his counter. Wide-eyed, his voice cracked, joints creaking like an old man's as he craned his neck forward. "Jesus, a hundred thousand?! Are there even that many of us left? I thought we were well under fifty-thousand by now."

"Ten thousand three hundred...something." Tomas corrected, catching a quick glimpse of the numbers before a whirring sound began to replace the tick.

"What?"

"Mmhm..."

"No way." Rutger squinted at his trinket, staring harder, closer, sealing his doubt with a throaty belch. "Am I really that fucking drunk, man?"

Tomas shook his head, forcing a weak smile as he turned to look at the man who was only a semblance of his former friend now. The Rutger he knew was trapped within that frail body, an ashen-blond-haired vessel that wasted away in an ugly blue beach lounger.

"I'd ease up if I were you, Rudie. If you drink yourself to death, how will you know if you were the one? Then everything really would be fucked."

"You really think I could be?"

Tomas thought he heard a glimmer of hope in the other man's voice, but they both knew that Rudie couldn't get up from that chair even if he wanted to.

"Well, we're still here, aren't we?"

"Yeah, but..." Rudie burped, finding himself momentarily lost in a coughing fit from the irritation. "For all you know...it could be you." The idea amused him, laughter finding its way through his weakness.

"I doubt it. They think it's Judgement Day. If that's the case, it definitely won't be me."

"Bah...whatever, man." Rudie took another slug from the bottle, his shaky head staring down at the last bit of amber liquid in disappointment. Tomas could feel Rudie's eyes on him now, flicking from the bottle, to him, and then back.

"What?"

Rudie titled the bottle towards him, but Tomas shook his head.

"Come on, Tom. Just this once. What the fuck bad will it do ya?"

Tomas shook his head again. He had never touched a drink, and was vainly trying to hold onto whatever dignity he had left, even if there was no reason for it.

Rudie shrugged, but set the bottle down instead of taking that last sip. They sat in silence for a time, hearing only the hum of the distant atmosphere and the rasping of their breaths.

"You think it'll hurt?" Rudie broke the silence as the hum grew louder. The orb was vibrating so hard now that Tomas' fingers began to ache.

"Well, it sure as fuck looks like it will."

"Hm. That's why I drank." They shared a passing glance, cracking small grins at one another before turning to stare out into the crumbling wasteland, a shadow of a once vibrant society.

The skies were dark, swirls of clouds dotted with black floating masses that lacked a definite form. The rippling auras they gave off devoured the atmosphere. They called it a veil, but we called it a shroud of death—one that grew, consumed, and killed without mercy. The timer was down to three hundred and something, and soon Tomas saw it drop to the hundreds. Flashes were going off all around them.

"You think...we could've done anything to stop it?"

There came no answer this time, only silence and the deafening sound that approached.

"Rudie?"

As Tomas looked over, he saw Rudie's color was gone, grey skin stretched to its limits over gaunt cheeks and protruding bones. Deep, lifeless black sockets remained where his dull blue eyes once were, and his body slowly disintegrated, caving in on itself at an inhuman rate. He was nothing more than a hollowed out husk. Tomas peered off into the apocalyptic hell once again, thankful his friend had gone quickly.

"Damn..." Tomas shook his head, rubbing his weathered forehead with dry fingers. Now he really was alone. He looked at the bottle again, then at the leathery pallor of his hands. He grabbed the bottle and took that last swig, tilting it up to Rudie in memoriam. The scotch burned his throat, but it was nice to feel something again—something aside from fear and hunger. He didn't feel sad that Rudie was gone, but relieved. At least he wasn't suffering anymore.

Tomas felt no fear even as the counter fell below a hundred. He closed his eyes, breaking into a cold sweat as his eardrums pounded. Never before had he heard his breathing so clearly, or his heart beat so loudly, even as his ears fell on the verge of bleeding.

The timer beeped faster, ticking down like a bomb between violent clicks. Tomas could hear the vibration of the veil around him, bombarding his senses, but he didn't look. He dared not. Death would be an escape, an end to the pain.

Even at his end grew nearer, he still wondered; "What could we have done to stop it?"

BEEP

Utter silence. Everything stopped all at once. Tomas' eyes were still closed; he felt alive, but heard nothing. Was this death as we knew it? Was it really so peaceful?

BEEP BEEP

Two clicks sounded, in quick succession and louder than ever.

Tomas opened his eyes and looked down at himself. He was still starved and feeble, his sights still unclear, and his mouth parched as sandpaper—even Rudie was still fading into nothing. The green flashes had stopped, and the residual noise was faint and far away.

BEEP BEEP

The orb rattled his knuckles, giving two tickling quivers against his palm as he peered down at it.

"Two?"

The orb steadily beeped twice again. He looked up into the distance, feeling his heart jump, as though it knew what the number meant before he did. The beeps bounced off the walls of his mind like a maniac in a padded room.

"Two?!"

Tomas flung himself out of the chair, feeble legs wobbling as he leaned over the porch's edge to stare down twenty stories into a sea of decaying city and corpses.

"Hello?" he called out to nothing, hearing his voice echo back to mock him. His ribs scraped against the concrete through his hoodie, voice hoarse from dehydration.

His ears perked up at a sound so quiet he wondered if he'd heard it at all, but his eyes followed it into the depth of the city. Something pulled at him, tugging at his soul like fate with puppet strings.

He heard it again in the distance, as faint as a pulse, a ring careening through the streets and leaping from the glass of broken buildings.

beep beep

And his beeped back.

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