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Call me William if you would, okay? Good. Now that we have all of the formal pleasantries that our modern society so desperately demands that we need to have out of the way, I would like for you to sit back for a while and allow me to tell you a tale of no importance. No, no, I believe that I am somewhat incorrect in my phrasing of that statement; my tale does have some importance to it, no matter how insignificant it may be in your mind. The year is currently 2021, and as I sit in the HQ of the rouge planet Freeburg’s armed forces, writing memoirs that already feel outdated, the events of the past six years seem as if they occurred six lifetimes ago. Anyways, that is enough of my ramblings (at least, for now); let me tell you of the tale of how life as we knew it on Earth ended not with a bang, but with a series of unfortunate and atrocious acts. Let me tell you the tale of Network Down.
The downfall of humanity began in the small city of Fairfield, Ohio, back in the late summer and early fall of 2014; I had been a tenth grader then, attending Fairfield Senior High School and enjoying all of the benefits that it had to offer (namely, the social life; everything else pretty much sucked). I befriended James Lynn not long after the school year had started; he seemed as if he had been in need of a friend and I, being somewhat of a social pariah myself, found it quite easy to fill that role. He and I were in the same Spanish class together, which gave us ample time to bond when our teacher had her back turned to the class (which was quite often). Even though he was a full grade ahead of me, the two of us were soon made inseparable.
James confided a great many personal secret to me in the short amount of time that we knew each other: some good, most of them bad; however, nothing ever came close to the tale that he told me one day concerning him and a fellow Spanish classmate of ours, Amanda Robertson. We were sitting in the large school cafeteria before first period, just goofing around and talking about subjects that did not have any relevance to our real lives. However, James suddenly looked up from the table and straight into my eyes; I shall never forget the look that he gave me right then, that of a haunted, scared little child in a sixteen-year-old’s body. “Hey William,” he said, his voice dead serious. “Can I tell you something important? There is something that I really need to get off of my chest.”
“Sure,” I said, unsure of where our conversation was heading to.
I soon found out; James proceeded to tell me of his time spent as a councilor-in-training during the annual summer camp at the local YMCA; apparently, he fell head-over-heels in love with her, and ended up confronting her about his untainted feelings that he held towards her. After he found himself bluntly dismissed, he confronted her once again, this time with fury in his heart; the two of them had not spoken since the incident occurred. The issue turned out to be that he felt himself growing distant from his other best friend (as well as Amanda’s brother), Daniel Robertson. Daniel had been in my own grade, and although we did not interact all that much, he had always seemed like a friendly and outgoing person to me.
After the school day had ended, I approached Daniel in the hopes of finding out why exactly he had stopped talking to James. He stood by the glass windows in the cafeteria, seemingly waiting for his parents to arrive and pick him up; he stared out at the world before him, lost in his own mind. I tapped him on the shoulder; he turned around slowly and surely, as if he had already known who stood behind him.
Daniel smiled instantly. “Hi! William, isn’t it?” he asked, indicating my name.
“Yes,” I replied, feeling relieved. Maybe this wouldn’t be so difficult, after all. “I’m a friend of James Lynn.”
Daniel’s face returned to a look of thoughtfulness. “Is this about him, then? I figured that this day would come, sooner or later.”
I did not, as of then, have any clue as to what Daniel had meant with his odd and cryptic statement, so I ignored it; if only I had decided otherwise. “Yes, it is about him. I was wondering if you have any particular reason as to why you have stopped talking to him.”
Daniel’s face turned away from mine; whether or not it was out of shame or something else, I did not know. “There are things that you would not understand, William; I am worried about him and his safety, but when I told him as much, he got upset and told me that I was wrong. If he did not wish to hear what I had to say, I would respect his decision; and that is what I am continuing to do to this day.”
“What do you mean, ‘you were worried’? What is there to worry about?” I asked.
Daniel shook his head. “I don’t know, not exactly; I have just had a really bad feeling about him; that is all.”
The two of us continued to talk, first about James and then about life in general. His mother called to inform him that due to her having to work late, he and Amanda would have to find someplace to wait until she could arrive to pick them up. I invited the two of them to walk with me to the Jungle Jim’s International Supermarket next door to our school, where I typically waited for my own father to arrive and pick me up; they readily agreed, and so we headed off in the direction of the store.
As we walked, I wondered what a person such as James ever saw in a girl such as Amanda; her blunt, tomboyish attitude did not match with his quiet, reserved attitude at all; it appeared to me that she and I would be much better suited for one another. However, I did not detect any signs of hostility emitting from her, such as those that James had described; on the contrary, she appeared to be quite outgoing and friendly. I was mystified by this oddity; how could an honest and open person such as James characterize a girl such as Amanda so foully? I did not know.
As we entered the Jungle Jim’s parking lot, we all noticed an extremely odd sight; two pickup trucks were speeding out of the parking lot at a ridiculous amount of speed, driving away from what appeared to be a pile of dirty, used clothing. However, as we cautiously approached the scene, a fact became apparent to me; the pile of clothes that the trucks had left behind was, in fact, a human being. Daniel and I broke out in a run towards the body, hoping that our worst fears were not about to be realized. Unfortunately, they were; the body was that of James, clinging on to life’s cycle by only a couple of threads. He had been beaten into an almost unrecognizable state of being; his arms appeared to be out of their sockets; a large, straight bleeding cut protruded from his forehead.
I fell to my knees and felt for a pulse; after a considerable amount of time spent searching, I realized that I could not find one. “Call an ambulance!” I shouted at Amanda; she had been standing back a distance, watching the scene unfold in horror. After a few more moments of shock, Amanda managed to fumble her phone out of her pocket and dialed 911. I turned back to James. “Com’on, man, wake up!” I shouted. “James, wake up! James!”
James ended up surviving that whole ordeal. He spent quite a while in the hospital receiving treatment for his wounds; during that period of time, he entered into a relationship with a longtime friend of his, named Marissa. I only knew her on the most basic of levels; as a matter of fact, I could not recall a moment in time in which I had ever conversed with her in earnest. She had always appeared quite fake to me; the amount of guys that she had dated through the few short years that his life had been composed of was immense, given the fact that none of her relationships had ever lasted over two weeks. However, I did not wish to interfere with their lives, and so I left well enough alone. Or, so I thought at the time.
James resumed his coming to school not long before Fairfield’s annual Fall Homecoming had been scheduled to occur; unsurprisingly, James asked Marissa to go to the dance with him. I debated long and hard over whether or not I should go; after all, I had never been one to date anyone else—it just was not my idea of a good time, which was all. However, after discussing the matter over closely with Amanda and Daniel—both of whom had turned out to be great friends, after all—we decided that the three of us would go together and chill out, for a lack of anything else more productive to do. So I went out, bought a fresher looking set of clothes, and called it a done deal.
The three of us met up at the dance on that fateful 3rd of October, 2014, outside of the gym entrance doorway; I arrived first, and stood patiently as the crowd of partygoers began to thicken. Not long before the school opened its doors, a long limo pulled out in front of the crowd, obviously intending to make a grand entrance. A junior student whom I vaguely recognized stepped out of the side of the car, followed by none other than Marissa herself. It was around this time that I noticed James, half-hidden in the darkness near the school’s office entrance, staring and seething at his apparent ex-girlfriend and her escort.
I could tell that all of James’s plans had apparently just fallen apart in an instant. The question was: why? From what I had understood, she had been more than eager to accept his asking her out, not vice versa; why, then, would she leave him for some random dude in a limo? I did not know. Amanda and Daniel arrived not long after; they were just as shocked as I happened to be. I was torn between what I should do; did I dare attempt to talk with James when he was in such a fragile state of mind, or did I leave well enough alone in the fleeting hope that everything would eventually turn out for the best? In the end, my conscience and my mind came up with a compromise; I decided to have fun with Amanda and Daniel while still keeping a close eye on James.
As it turned out, the dance itself was not nearly as enjoyable as others had made it out to be; the music turned out to be quite shitty, and my fellow classmates appeared to be more interested in fucking each other with their clothes on than they were with the act of actually dancing. Amanda, Daniel and I sat at a table in the back of the gym, somewhat removed from the deafening noise and idiotic chaos. We noticed that James sat alone at a nearby table, staring off into the deepest depths of his mind. Looking back on it, I wonder what he must have been pondering over just then; had he been planning his indifferent endgame, even in such an early state of his own insanity? Did he realize right then that in just a couple of days, his already too-short of a life would come to a sudden and inevitable end? I would like to think not; but in the end, it is one of those things that I shall never be entirely sure of.
James stood up suddenly and walked upstairs to the gym exit, heading in the direction of the cafeteria; I stood up and started to follow him, motioning for Amanda and Daniel to join me. James had found a seat on the side of the cafeteria opposite to the large glass windows; he was once again staring off into nothing in particular. At least, that is what he appeared to be doing at first; upon closer inspection, I realized that he was in the midst of watching Marissa take part in a particularly intense session of making out with the Limo Dude.
James stood up and began to walk over towards Marissa; I started to follow in an attempt to prevent any wrongdoing that might occur, but Daniel grabbed my arm and held me back. “No, don’t,” he said. “We must not interfere with what is about to transpire—at least, not yet.” And so we let James continue on with his course of actions. Surprisingly, he did not say a word to the odd-matched couple; instead he just stood in place and glared at them for a moment before storming out the school doors. “Now we must follow,” Daniel said quietly.
The three of us exited the building and silently followed James across the campus from a reasonable distance. He stopped to make a brief phone call to someone before walking around to the side of the gym complex, heading in the general direction of the tennis courts. Once there, he stopped and appeared to resume his quiet and angry stewing. Amanda, Daniel, and I stood thirty feet away, concealed in the darkness that was the night. All of the sudden the temperature appeared to drop ten whole degrees, leaving all of us shivering to the bone. I noticed that a man had appeared out of seemingly nowhere, and was conversing with James about an unknown topic; no matter how hard we tried, we could not hear anything beyond the muttering of their voices. However, I could tell that the topic of discussion belonged to the type of a serious nature, as both of their faces had an unflinching look to them.
The mysterious stranger passed along something dark and shiny to James, who quickly concealed it inside his coat pocket. A car horn blared on the other side of the tennis courts, and as James turned to see who it was, the stranger appeared to vanish into thin air. I swear to whatever God you may or may not believe in, I witnessed it with my own eyes; one minute he stood there by the tennis courts, a dark grin set upon his face, and the next minute he was gone.
I turned back to Amanda and Daniel; only the former appeared to be as thoroughly shocked by what we had seen as I had been. Daniel appeared to be worried; about what, I could not tell. I snapped my fingers in front of his face, bringing him out of his self-induced trance.
“Did that just actually happen?” Amanda asked, bewildered.
I nodded. “We all saw it happen, didn’t we?” I asked, more a statement of fact than a question.
“I don’t know what we just saw, but I have a feeling that it wasn’t good,” Amanda replied.
Daniel remained silent during the course of my and Amanda’s relieving of shock, although he appeared to be quite aware of everything all the while. Finally, after the mystery had subsided somewhat, we all went back inside the cafeteria and sat at one of the tables.
“Who do you think that man was?” I asked Daniel in the hopes that he might have had better insight to the situation; I did not yet understand what had given me this impression.
Daniel shook his head. “That was no man,” he said. “Whatever that being happened to be, it contained no humanity within.”
Amanda looked at her brother in complete shock. “Daniel, how could you know such a thing?” she asked.
Daniel took her small hands into his and stared into her eyes, determined. “I am not like other people, Amanda, you must know that by now.” She nodded in confirmation. “I have this sense about me, this power… for the longest of times, I did not understand how to control it in the slightest. All of the ‘incidents’ that used to occur in our house… they were all because of me. Me and my power. But over time, I have found that I have, at least to a certain extent, some control over this power; I’m sure that with some training with "like-minded individuals" someday (and yes, there are others similar to me, as rare as they may be; I have done my research), I could get a total control over it.
“But I digress; my point is, one benefit of having this power is the fact that I can reach out and understand other people—not only their general personalities, but some of their thoughts, their intentions, some of their very being… and when I reached out to that particular being, I found only darkness. He may have been human once upon a time, but because of whoever or whatever has influenced him throughout his years, everything decent has been wiped clean from him. And now, it appears that that darkness has set upon James, as well.”
I sat across the table from the two of them, staring at Daniel in stunned belief. As insane as Daniel’s claims should have seemed to me, I could not help but believe him through the firm conviction in which he laid them out before Amanda and myself. It appeared that Amanda believed her brother’s claims as well, as she nodded intently. “So what do we do now?” she asked, scared.
“We need to try and stop James from doing whatever he is planning on doing!” Daniel said.
I decided to speak up for the first time. “How do you know for sure that he is going to try and do something?”
“That man handed him something, and although I don’t have a clue what it is, it can’t be anything good,” Daniel said. “I’m afraid that he might try to hurt either himself or someone else, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was someone that we all already know.” I knew who he was referring to immediately: Marissa.
However, Amanda did not seem to be concerned with the idea of her friend being hurt as much as she seemed to be about the idea of James hurting himself; she teared up at the notion of the idea, although she tried her best to hide it from Daniel and myself. That turned out to be the first time that I viewed her as beautiful; someone who tried to hide her true self from so many, when it was in fact something that should have been admired. I tried to brush those odd, weird thoughts out of my head, not wanting to feel that way about a friend as close as Amanda. “Should we try to confront him?” I asked, trying my best to be helpful to the situation.
Daniel nodded solemnly. “Leave that to me; if anyone that knows him has the ability to prevent him from doing whatever it is he is about to do, it would be me.”
Amanda appeared nervous at the thought of her younger brother dealing with a task as unknown as the one that we were then facing. “Are you sure?” she asked. “There could be other ways, you know… alerting the police or the school councilors or something like that.”
Daniel shook his head. “No, that would only endanger the situation even more; no, I feel that it is currently in our best interests to deal with him on a personal level, so that he doesn’t decide to go out and do anything rash. If something like that were to happen, all of our lives will be in danger; and at that point, I do not know what else I could do.”
The rest of the weekend passed by in a painfully slow manner; I could not find the energy to do anything even remotely productive, and yet sleep evaded me at all times. I could not stop worrying about James and Daniel and whatever disastrous events might have been looming just over the horizon; like Daniel, I did not have a good feeling about events that were soon to occur. After some debate, I decided that I would stay home on that following Monday, not knowing what the situation would be like as of then. I feigned sickness to my father and, surprisingly enough, he gave into my act; in all honesty, I did feel rather sick, and so pulling off my act turned out to be an easy feat.
Around ten-thirty in the morning, the home phone rang; the "Caller ID" claimed that it was from “FAIRFIELD CITY SCHOOLS”. I assumed that some busybody from the school office had decided to call and see how sick I actually was, so I decided to let whoever it was leave a message. After the usual recorded message played out into the empty silence, the message began to play: “This is a recorded alert from the Fairfield City School District; at approximately nine thirty-four AM, the Fairfield police were alerted to reports of ‘shots fired’ at the Fairfield Senior High School. At this time, the status of all students is unknown, but we insist that all parents of high school students please come to Jungle Jim’s International Supermarket to confirm that your child is all right.” And so the message repeated two more times before dying out.
My blood turned colder than ice, as I immediately had no doubt as to who was responsible for the shooting: James. I texted both Amanda and Daniel, asking if they were okay; there were no replies in turn. I wished that I could find out anything about the situation at my school, but it appeared as if all information was unobtainable to me while I was in my current situation. So, being the not-so-levelheaded person that I happened to be at that particular moment in time, I decided to walk to Jungle Jim’s myself and find out what I could about the disaster from firsthand sources.
I lived in a set of apartments set directly opposite to the high school and Jungle Jim’s, so my walk was a decidedly short one. When I arrived at the store, I found that disgruntled students and teachers had filled the parking lot; it appeared that the teachers had been doing a terrible job at keeping the students under their control, as all of my classmates appeared to be doing a fine job of doing whatever in the hell they pleased. I ignored most of them, instead searching only for Daniel or Amanda; finally, after ten minutes of what appeared to be fruitless searching, I ran into Daniel over by the store entrance. He appeared to be quite out of it; he looked at me helplessly, as if he had run out of options.
“It’s all my fault, William,” Daniel said quietly. “I tried to stop him, but he… he wouldn’t listen…” he trailed off.
“So it was James then?” I asked. “Is he okay? And where’s Amanda?”
Daniel shook his head. “He’s dead, William; I don’t know what happened exactly, but he is dead; I can feel it.”
I was stunned; James, dead? How could that be? And yet, I knew that I could not let that deter me. “Where is Amanda?” I asked again, worried.
“I don’t know,” Daniel replied, the uncertainty bleeding through his voice. “I can feel that she is alright, but I don’t know where she is right now… I wish I did.” Tears were forming in his eyes, and I could not blame him; while we had both lost a good friend, he had the uncertainty about his own sister to deal with as well. Not that I did not share some of that uncertainty; I had grown closer to Amanda than I had to almost anyone else in my life, and I could not bear the thought of any harm coming to her.
Eventually, everything was sorted out; Amanda had been holed up with the police for hours, all of which were more than curious as to what had transpired with James Lynn in the final hour or so of his life. As it happened, James had decided to take our second period Spanish classroom hostage, where he had killed one of our classmates before killing himself. That was as much as I could get out of her; everything else remained unsafely inside her mind.
The city canceled school for the entire district for a whole week, in order to give its students ample time to grieve—as well as a chance for them to rectify the mess that was the Fairfield Senior High School. However, they never quite got the chance to do that; on that Thursday, only four days after the shooting, a large mob of disgruntled and self-righteous citizens got together late at night to burn down not only the high school, but all of the buildings on Route 4—including my and my father’s apartment building. We escaped with all of our major possessions and watched as our home city burned to the ground. Jungle Jim’s appeared to collapse from the inside, breathing out a fiery inferno as it did so; the high school, which had been built with brick and mortar and stood a whole three stories high, took longer to burn; the rest of the buildings went down easily, the flames engulfing their very structures.
When it was all over, my father drove us to my aunt’s house in the neighboring city of Hamilton; seeing as our home had just been destroyed, we desperately needed a place to stay. Amanda and Daniel moved to Hamilton as well, and it was there that Amanda and I officially became a couple; not surprising, given the circumstances. I truly felt a love for her, something that I did not believe time or Fate could erode at all—as a matter of fact, I still love her to this very day. However, what none of us could have predicted was the fact that dark forces were conspiring against us even then, planning to tear not only us, but the entire world apart—and when they finally did, none of us were prepared for the horrors to come.
My and Amanda's relationship remained steady until Cameron Daniels arrived into our lives a few months after the shooting.
Cameron had been some dude from West Virginia whom Daniel had met online and befriended; apparently, Cameron had been abused by his parents and bullied by his classmates. All of that was fine—at least, until Cameron decided to run away and come to Hamilton to live with Daniel and Amanda. I remember the first time that I met the guy, on the same day that he had arrived in Hamilton. I went over to Amanda’s house to see her, and was introduced to him in turn.
“William,” Daniel said as I got situated on the couch next to Amanda, “this is Cameron, the dude whom I’ve been telling you all about. Cameron, this is William.”
“Nice to meet you,” Cameron said quietly, yet positively.
“Same here,” I replied, trying my best to act friendly. I could tell that there was something unusual about the guy, but I could not place what, exactly—it felt as if some sort of energy was radiating from him, spreading out to all four of us in the room. Our conversation turned out to be a short, yet lively one, which ended only after Amanda whispered in my ear that we would have a much more lively time in private than we would around Daniel and his friend. Unashamedly, I agreed with her.
After we had done our thing, I sat back and stared off into nothing, my mind blank.
“So, what do you think of him?” Amanda asked.
“Huh?” I said, regaining focus.
“Cameron; are you a fan of him, or no?” she asked.
“I don’t know… there is something odd about him that I just can’t place,” I replied.
“He has the same type of power that Daniel has, only he has more control over it,” she said.
“Oh,” I replied simply. “Well, that clears up things a little.”
“Yeah, he is so cool!” Amanda said with enthusiasm.
I scowled at this. Was he catching her interest, after all I had done to try and keep myself interesting? “What do you mean?” I asked, some of my dismay leaking into my voice.
“He just has such a fascinating ability about him, that’s all,” Amanda replied, realizing my discontent.
I left soon after that back to my own house; however, on my walk back home, I discovered a large crowd of people milling outside of a local bar, each and every one of them attempting to look inside. I stopped at the person nearest to me and asked what in the hell was going on.
“Haven’t you heard?” the man asked in a fearful voice. “New York City, Washington DC, Chicago… they’re all gone. We’ve been nuked.”
I froze in that moment, feeling more fear than I had ever felt in my then-too-short of a life. Amanda and Daniel’s parents had both been in New York City; had they been two of the millions to have perished? “When did this happen?” I asked.
The man shrugged. “Less than ten minutes ago, I’d say.”
I ran back towards Amanda’s house, fearing the worst; my fears were realized, as it turned out—Amanda, Daniel, and Cameron had left it deserted. I pulled out my cell and attempted to reach them; the phone buzzed a “Busy” signal, which I took to mean as the cell towers were no longer in service. I did not know what to do then; and I really did not know what to do when, less than two minutes later, I heard screams coming from behind me. I turned around, only to find that a large mob of what appeared to be made up of thugs and criminals was making their way down the street, systematically ransacking every house they came upon. And killing every person that stood in their way.
I ran in the opposite direction back towards my house, hoping to find some degree of safety there; chaos appeared to be erupting everywhere in the streets, which made my position quite dangerous. I ran through back alleyways, trying to avoid anyone from the mob who might have decided to venture out on their own. However, less than half a mile away from my house, in a dark alley behind a clothing store, I froze as a man stepped out of nowhere, blocking my way. His face bore a grin of insanity, while his bloody hands bore a baseball bat.
“Where do you think you’re going, little one?” the man asked sardonically. “You didn’t think that you would make it out of this fiasco alive, did you?” The grin widened.
I looked to each side of me. On my right, there appeared to be only a pile of cardboard boxes. However, on my left side sat a pile of thin plywood sticks; the man appeared to have not noticed them as of yet. “Don’t, please,” I said, trying my best to fake a fearful tone of voice while backing up towards the pile—faking it was not a hard job.
“Oh, yes, I must do my best with you,” the man said with a sadistic laugh. He raised his bat into the air and began to swing down; I grabbed a piece of wood up and intercepted him in midair. With the advantage of surprise on my side, I took a swing at his stomach, knocking the wind out of him and sending him spiraling backwards into the pile of boxes. That did not keep him down for long; the man stood back up, his hate for me blazing in his eyes. “You’re going to die for sure now, you little fucker,” he spat out at me.
I responded only by leaping at him again, this time swinging the stick down at his head; he blocked the blow, and followed it up with a bash of his bat to my ribs. I cried out in pain as I hit the wall, the stick flying out of my hand and landing ten feet away. “Don’t have any weapons with you now, do you?” the man taunted at me. “I’m going to enjoy killing you slowly, with as much pain that I can give as possible.”
The main raised the bat and swung it down towards my legs… only to freeze mid-swing. I looked to my right; Daniel and Amanda stood there and watched in amazement as Cameron held the man still with what appeared to be some type of invisible force. Carefully, Cameron lifted the man into the air, and then flung his body against the neighboring building. The man hit it and crumpled, falling to the hard ground below.
“Thanks, you saved my life!” I exclaimed as Cameron helped me to my feet. “How did you know that I was here?”
“Daniel felt that you were in trouble, and we were still nearby,” Cameron replied nobly.
For the first time, I remembered the fact that they had left their home. “Say, where are you guys headed to, anyways?” I asked.
“West,” Daniel spoke up for the first time; I could see that he was not taking his parent’s deaths well. “We have nothing left here, and there is a Calling out there; Cameron and I both feel it, as if there is someone out there that needs us.”
Cameron chimed in. “Yeah, so the three of us are heading that way. Would you care to join us?”
I thought about the offer seriously for a moment; Amanda was my girlfriend, so it would only make sense to stick with her. However, I soon remembered that I had other loyalties that lay elsewhere. “I… I can’t. My dad and my aunt, they’re still at home, and they need me.”
“William, please,” Amanda pleaded, taking her hands into mine. “We need you; I need you.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, tears forming in my eyes. “Is there any way you guys could come with me and help get my family to safety?”
Cameron shook his head. “There’s no time. I’m sorry, William,” he said.
I held Amanda close and kissed her then, fearfully not knowing whether or not I would ever see her again. She appeared to feel the same way, as our last shared moment of being together felt as if it lasted a blissful eternity; and then it was over. Without another word, the three of them walked out of the alleyway, leaving me alone with my thoughts and my aching heart. After composing myself somewhat, I finished my own journey back to my house, not running into any more loonies along the way.
Immediately, I could tell that something was not right; the house door stood wide open, as if my aunt had forgotten to close it. As I approached the doorway cautiously, I heard a low buzzing noise coming from somewhere inside. “Dad?” I called out to the house, “Janet?” I heard no reply to my calls. I entered the building; I saw my dad laying sideways on the couch, apparently taking one of the mid-day naps that he was well-known for. I laughed, walked over to him, and shook him to wake him up; as he turned around, I recoiled in horror at the knife that had been plunged into his heart, surrounded by a large dose of crimson.
Stifling a scream, I backed away slowly from the grotesque sight of my dead father; then, with some difficulty, I turned and ran into the kitchen. My aunt lay sprawled across the floor, an electronic cutting knife lodged into her neck; it appeared as if it had been stabbed into her multiple times beforehand. This time I could not help screaming; the sight had been too horrifying for my already-overloaded brain to even begin to comprehend. I ran out of the house, not wishing to see any more of the carnage that had destroyed my family in a matter of minutes. What else could I have done? I had lost my family, my girlfriend, and my best friend, all in a matter of minutes. It did not seem fair! I was trapped in a city without any help or hope; at that time, I felt as if I were nearer to death than I had ever been before in my life.
Fortunately, I did not die; instead, I learned how to survive in the new and twisted version of Hamilton that I was stuck in. It took a while, and did not occur without some mishaps; for example, when learning how to fight with a sleek metal pole that I had obtained, I ended up losing a great many fights. However, after many beatings and bruises I found myself with a reputation for having one of the most dangerous fighting styles in the entire city. Few dared to oppose me, and those who did typically ended up getting hurt. All in all, I found that defending myself was quite easy—at least, in most situations; I could not win every single battle, which I found to be acceptable. Living with some pain was better than being dead with none.
Daily life consisted of venturing out into the city to find food, supplies, and anything else I felt essential for leisure or trade; on any given day, the difficulty of finding any of that varied wildly, depending largely on what the varied populace of the city wanted. Not that many of us remained; the majority of the city either fled or died after the initial riots, the refugees seeking somewhere “safer” or “more stable”. I laughed at the thought of that; in this new version of America, I did not believe that those words could be applied to any city at all, not anymore. Those of us who remained in the city were either toughened survivors like myself, criminals and murderers, as well as various people who sought to profit from our neediness. All of that was fine by me; I desired only to live by my own terms and desires, without any interference from those who wished to cause harm to me.
And so it continued this way for around a month or so; fighting, as well as killing in self-defense when needed, became easier for me. However, I soon tired on the uncertain life of a scavenger that I had been living; so, when I heard rumors going around that a large rebel army was gathering in downtown Cincinnati to resist those responsible for crippling America, I decided immediately that I would take my chances and join them if possible—revenge for losing my family seemed like an apt motivation to do such a thing. And so I gathered what few belongings that I owned at that point and set out on the road to Cincinnati. Surprisingly, I did not run into many people on the road to the city; it seemed that those who did not situate themselves in suburban areas did not situate themselves at all.
My life changed the night before I finally reached Cincinnati; I had decided to stop for the evening and dish out something to eat before allowing sleep to blissfully take me away for four or so hours. However, as I sought food inside an abandoned corner store, I heard something small crash down onto the floor behind me. I turned around; a couple of cans of soup had fallen to the ground. “Hello?” I called out cautiously, “Is there anyone here?” A small mewling sound replied. I rounded the corner; standing there in the aisle way was what appeared to be some sort of grotesque giant spider, its shiny eyes staring up at me in hate and in hunger. The beast immediately leaped into the air; I raised my weapon and swung at it, breaking off its jump in midair.
The spider fell to the side, but was quick to regain its footing, running straight at me with its fangs bared. I attempted to impale it, but its fighting methods were beyond anything that I had faced before. It jumped onto the ceiling and tried to take me from above; as it jumped at me I shoved my weapon though its head, killing it with a scream of fury. It thrashed around for a minute, trying to remove its impalement; finally with one last moan, it died.
I collapsed onto the floor, terrified and exhausted. What in the hell had I just fought? I thought back to the being that had coerced James into killing himself, and wondered if the spider had anything to do with that. After all, there was no way any bug could grow that big; whatever in the hell else that had been, it had to have had some sort of supernatural influence. These were the thoughts that plagued me as I drifted into an uneasy sleep there in the store aisle by the carcass of the giant spider; and these were the same thoughts that plagued me the next morning, as I made my way into downtown Cincinnati. Nothing would ever be the same again.
“Sounds like you ran into the Arachnid’s part of town,” Ryan said humorously to me as I got settled into his recruiting office. “You were lucky; we’ve had several recruits-to-be come through that section of town missing arms and legs. And worse, as a matter of fact.”
“What do you mean, ‘the Arachnid’s part of town’?” I asked, not fully comprehending what the Commander was trying to tell me.
“You mean, you don’t know?” Ryan asked, his tone turning more serious this time. The world’s game rules have changed, William; the impossible has, unfortunate as it may be, become possible.” He sighed and put his elbows on his desk, covering his eyes in exasperation. “And it is all because of him.” He pointed to the wall behind me. I turned around.
Staring back at me was the face of the being who had given James the gun; although the photo had been taken at a distance, I had no doubt that it was the very same being. “Who is he?” I asked, my voice uneven.
“Ah, so you have seen him somewhere before, have you?” Ryan asked, not answering my question.
“Yes,” I replied, “I was involved with the incident at Fairfield; it was his doing. I saw him. Now, who is he?”
“It is unfortunate that you had to go through such a travesty, William. Now, to answer your question; the official name that he has been passing around to everyone is Richard Flagston; here in our little ragtag army, however, we like to call him the Dark Man. Unnatural beasts don’t deserve natural names,” Ryan said.
“What do you know about him? Or is that classified?” I asked.
Ryan laughed. “Don’t worry, literally nothing is classified with us! The Dark Man’s army is consisted solely of monsters and human criminals; we would be able to pick out his spies before they could get anywhere near our information.” A pause. “We do not know anything of his origin or his past, only that three months before the disaster at Fairfield, he first appeared in a small town in Maine, where he apparently caused an entire squadron of police to execute all of their prisoners one-by-one, and then caused a shootout between the rouge police and the townspeople; there were only five survivors.”
Ryan let that sink into my conscience. Only five survivors? What kind of beast was this Dark Man? “Does he have any type of motivation?” I asked.
Ryan shrugged. “Hell if I know; no one’s been able to ask him. Personally, I imagine that he has some sort of mad ulterior motive or something, like world domination.”
“Well, he certainly seems to be doing a good job of getting it,” I commented. “So, how is he involved with the nuclear strikes?”
“We believe that he somehow managed to get into the minds of the leaders of several countries that have despised the West for a long time, and forced them to launch attacks against us before blowing up their own countries. The Dark Man has done a phenomenal job of fucking up everything for us royally; now, it is our sole goal to stop him.”
“And how do we do that?” I asked, skeptical.
“We have reason to believe that he and his forces have been gathering around the remains of Washington DC to mount some sort of major offensive against us. We are anticipating the arrival of the five people whom we believe have the ability to lead us into battle and, with some luck, defeat the Dark Man.”
I was intrigued. “Who are these five people?”
“Their names are Michael Freeburg, Barney Axton, Kelly Coleman, Cameron Daniels, and Daniel Robertson. You know the latter two already, I believe?”
“Y-yes,” I managed, shocked to hear their names once again. “Are they traveling with anyone else?”
“I don’t know,” Ryan replied. “However, I do know that I am going to place you at the location of their estimated arrival point; I imagine allowing them to see a familiar face will brighten up everyone’s day.”
Our conversation continued on, but I did not pay much attention to it; my mind went other places, and for good reason. How did Daniel and Cameron come upon others who had abilities similar to them? I thought back to the conversation that we had had in the alleyway, right before they had exited out of my life for the first time; Daniel had mentioned a “calling” that he and Cameron had both heard, coming from somewhere in the West. Could that have been Michael Freeburg or one of the others using their powers to call out to them? I did not know. However, the one thing that bore onto my mind more than anything else was this: where in the hell did Amanda play into all of this?
“What’re we supposed to be looking for here, anyways?” John, one of my fellow guards, asked me as we stood guarding an old wooden doorway.
I shrugged; when Ryan had told me that I would be guarding the entrance from which Daniel and the others would enter through, I did not expect that entrance to be an inconspicuous wooden door at the back of the former US Bank arena, where the rebel army had officially claimed as its home base. “In a world like this, who knows?”
John laughed. “True, true.”
“Enough of that,” Joshua Cuddyer, the army’s leader and my commander, said quietly to the both of us. “They shall be coming through this door, and soon. I am sure of it.”
And so we waited, guns at the ready in case the wrong person—or being—came through the door. After around thirty minutes, we began to hear screaming coming from somewhere on the other side of the door. “Get ready,” Joshua said, aiming the gun squarely at the door; we all did likewise. The door slammed open, followed by five people falling flat onto the ground.
“Close the door!” a female voice shouted; although I did not know who it was, I obeyed the command. The group of people looked up; among them, I saw Daniel and Cameron’s faces, and immediately lowered my gun.
Joshua did not seem to notice my action. “Who are you?” he asked the apparent leader of the group, a shaggy middle-aged man wearing a cowboy hat.
“I am Michael Freeburg, and this is my ka-tet,” the leader, Michael, said.
“And can you prove this?” Joshua said, not letting down his defenses any.
Michael nodded, and handed over a massive wooden revolver; Joshua examined it, his eyes lighting up as he did so. “Indeed you are Michael Freeburg,” Joshua said, handing Michael back his gun and helping him to his feet. “Welcome to Cincinnati!”
The greetings continued, but I did not notice; I was too busy focusing on my former best friend and his companion, both of whom were looking at me with a mix of amazement and something else that I could not pick up on. We all left the doorway together, still staying silent to one another; only after I volunteered to take Daniel and Cameron to their quarters and we were alone did I finally speak to the two of them.
“I can’t believe it! How’d you guys get back here?” I asked.
Daniel shook his head. “It's a long story, and I’m sure you’ll hear of it later.”
And then I remembered. “Where is Amanda?” I asked.
Daniel and Cameron looked at each other for a moment, sharing some look of sadness that I did not like. “Daniel? Cameron? Where is she? Is she alright?”
Daniel shook his head, trying his best to keep his act together. “No, William; she’s dead. We were attacked by bandits around a week and a half after we left Hamilton, and… she didn’t make it.”
I walked away from the both of them, unable to take the news lightly. I had loved her, our bond made stronger by the fact that we knew what had really caused James to do the horrible deed that he had done; and now she was gone. Just like that. I cried, and ignored Daniel’s repeated attempts to comfort me; I did not desire to be comforted. I wished only to grieve for Amanda, and refused to let anyone else try and stop me from doing so. I left them in their quarters, not wishing to see any more of either of them, and went off into the soldier’s communal bunks, wishing only to be alone. For once in that crowded base, I found that wish to have been granted.
A few days later, announcements were made that all of the fighting members of the army had to meet in the main arena for a briefing from Michael Freeburg; needless to say, I did not wish to hear what he had to say. If not for him, Amanda might have still been alive. However, orders were orders, and so I joined the other seven thousand or so people in the sparsely crowded arena; to be honest, I was surprised. I had not realized that our ragtag army had grown to such a massive size, to the point to where we could actually be considered a formidable fighting force.
Once we were all seated, Michael stood and made his speech; I found that I got the gist of it. After giving us complements on how fine a force we were, he politely informed us that we would be starting a long march from Cincinnati to Washington DC to fight supernatural monsters exactly five hours after the end of his speech; you know, all of those lovely things that a soldier just loves to hear. He then delved into what our specific units would be doing once we reached the battle; as it turned out, I would be right on the lines, bashing the brains out of beasts with my metal pole (they had tried to keep me from having that as my weapon of choice, but I would have none of it; guns were too loud and too complicated when compared to a simple melee weapon); for that I was happy. Who knew? I could die and end up somewhere in the afterlife with Amanda. Doubtful, but as they say, the road to hell is paved with hopes and dreams.
The march took a total of around five days; for the longest time, I held onto the hope that our leaders had gotten bad intel and the march was all for nothing. Yet, as we crested a massive hill, I realized that my hopes were futile; standing in the massive field in front of me were monsters and thugs as far as the eye could see, with the Dark Man standing in front, grinning his evil grin.
The Dark Man looked past myself and the rest of the front-line soldiers, straight at Michael Freeburg. “Ah, Michael, so nice of you to join us! You have led your cattle to slaughter; now let us eat steak!” the Dark Man shouted; with that, his army screamed a war cry in unison and ran towards us in fury.
The battle lasted just over two hours; at first, it appeared as if we really had been led to our deaths. I fought the best that I could, but found myself almost overwhelmed by the sheer might of the Dark Man’s forces. However, as the fight raged on, I noticed that we were slowly, but surely, making a considerable dent in the Dark Man’s army. Finally, after the bloody conflict came to its end, I saw that our forces had come out victorious; that did not come without many casualties, however. Among the dead I recognized many friends and acquaintances, most of which were too young to die. I searched for Daniel, but could not find him anywhere; however, I caught up with Michael as he helped some troops clean up the grotesque mess.
“Mr. Freeburg, sir… is Daniel Robertson alright?” I asked.
Michael turned around. “Yes, son, he is; he is just getting his bearings together, that’s all.”
“When will I be able to see him?” I inquired.
Michael shook his head. “The Dark Man escaped, so he, myself, and the others must go and find him. To finish him for good.” And with that, Michael left me alone with my thoughts and my worries. Little did I realize that I would not see Daniel again for another two and a half years.
In the two and a half years between the time of that fateful battle and Daniel’s eventual return to Fairfield, mankind made technological advances at a rate never before seen in human history. Most of the advancements made were those involved in the act of space travel and living; starships that could travel at the speed of light were operational just a little over a year after our army’s triumph; the first habitable moon colony was constructed in half of that time. There were multiple reasons given for these advancements, of course; as a matter of fact, quite a few of them sounded legitimate. However, there was only one true reason as to why humans were so eager to see those new advances in space technology: we wanted a quick escape in case anything like Network Down (as we had taken to calling the war, after a necklace that Cameron Daniels had constantly worn everywhere) ever occurred again.
On a personal level, I travelled from Washington DC back to Fairfield as soon as I had been dismissed from the ragtag army. There had been little need for it, considering the fact that the majority of known thugs and monsters in the nation had either died or been taken prisoner during the battle. Joshua Cuddyer and some professional lawyer named Daniel Harris decided to stay near the city and attempt to reform some sort of national government; I wished them the best of luck, as I had little care for government on a national level. I just wanted to get back home and fix things on a local level; and so that was exactly what I tried to do. God may damn me because of what came of it, but I sure as hell tried to give it my best.
At first, it was not that difficult; many former citizens of the city who had been displaced to Hamilton came back once they caught wind of the fact that I needed help in rebuilding the city. At first, myself and the others started by building adequate housing in the remains of the suburban districts; from there we constructed a basic city government, hired a trustworthy law enforcement squad, and built a couple of buildings for official business to be conducted in. Schools were a bit more difficult to work out; the general consensus among all of the school-aged citizens was that education in a post-apocalyptic version of Fairfield did not rank high on the list of priorities. However, after a considerable amount of time spent convincing kids to the contrary, we were able to start up the education system again and rebuilt the schools that had burned down—that was, except for the high school. We had some issues there.
As it turned out, some odd cult-like fanatic group that had dubbed themselves the Crimson Dawn had built a decent-sized complex in the ruins of the high school, and refused to move an inch off of the ground. I did not understand it; the Crimson Dawn’s members consisted of middle-to-elderly aged men and women, who all kept to themselves and kept their beliefs a secret from everyone else in the city. Their leader, a man by the name of Francis Joseph, was the only member to interact with us “outsiders”, and that was mostly to tell us to back the hell off and stay out of their business. Over time, however, rumors began to spread that the Crimson Dawn were worshippers of the Dark Man or someone of his stature who had decided to take his ways in religious terms instead of the typical violent terms. I halfway believed in these theories; why else would they have been so secretive about their beliefs besides the fact that they were surrounded by men and women who despised the Dark Man and everything that he stood for?
On one particular day, I stood in the front yard of my newly constructed shack, which had been built close to the location of my and my father’s old apartment; I could not help myself from following the ghosts of my past. I stared down the hill at the Crimson Dawn’s compound; to be honest, the place creeped the shit out of me. It had been constructed completely out of metal, and looked more like a military complex than anything else. As a matter of fact, I wondered if that wasn’t part of their whole scheme; I made a mental note to talk with the town council about that.
I heard a stick snap from somewhere behind me; seeing as I had never lost my wartime senses, I spun around immediately, ready to face whatever awaited me. However, I was not ready for the sight that I saw: standing there was Daniel Robertson, older and weary but still the same dude that I admired more than anyone else. He had finally returned home.
At first, I thought that there would be a lot of catching up to do; after all, a lot should have happened in the two and a half years that we had been separated from one another. However, he refused to open up about anything that had occurred after the battle at Washington, including the fates of any of his companions. He seemed to be only interested in my life, and, strangely enough, anything about the Crimson Dawn that I knew. I let him in on everything that I knew about them, including my severe disliking towards their whole group. He seemed suspicious of them as well; as a matter of fact, I believe that he held some sort of meeting with Francis Joseph, although I did not find out what the details of that meeting were.
Soon after that mysterious meeting, the opposition and violence began between us and the Crimson Dawn. It started out innocently enough at first—at least, if you could call the cult leaving dead goats in the yards of citizens with threatening notes and warnings that someone called the Dark King would rise again soon innocent—but they progressively got worse, to the point to where all-out brawls between us and the cult were a daily occurrence. Daniel aided in those fights, as they signaled yet another shift from peace and order to violence and chaos; he seemed to think that it was his duty to fix everything that he possibly could, and to play the pivotal role of peacekeeper.
Unfortunately, he did not have skill or power enough to resist the Crimson Dawn’s repeated attacks on our society and our very way of life; so, he did the only thing that a not-fully-trained possessor of supernatural powers beyond any natural human’s understanding could do: he mentally called out to the long-lost Michael Freeburg for help. However, he did not appear to get any reply; we continued to fight our own battles, without any interference from a supreme representation of the Light such as Michael.
It was at around this time that I first heard rumors that Joshua Cuddyer, who had ultimately been unable to set up a stable national government in Washington, had started preparations for a mass voyage to a planet known only as Planet X, a massive life-sustaining planet situated beyond previously known boundaries of our solar system. He had sent out a call to all of those who wished passage off of the planet in search of a new and better life on Planet X. Virtually nothing had been known about the planet besides the fact that it could sustain life and had an abundance of both land and water; and yet, many of the people from the former army appeared to be signing up for the voyage by the masses.
At first, I found myself to be quite skeptical of the whole idea; voyaging to a completely unknown planet, without any guarantee of survival or safe return, did not seem like the brightest idea in the world. It was not, however, off of my list of potential courses-of-action; although I did not have the same sort of power that Daniel possessed, I could sense that something in the world was changing once again, and not for the betterment of society. As it turned out, I soon found out how fucked we all really were; that was the night on which the Dark King rose to power once again.
I never actually witnessed the horrible events that took place in Fairfield on that dark and fateful night; Daniel had informed me that Michael Freeburg was on his way, which apparently meant that all hell was about to break loose. He told me to go and travel back to Washington and catch a ride to Planet X; “It is too late for everything anymore, William,” he had said. I remember vividly the last time that I saw him, rushing off to prepare an attack on the Crimson Dawn’s compound; he has since gone missing, and no one on either planet appears to know where he has gone to.
From what I pieced together from unreliable information from after the fact, Daniel reached the compound too late to prevent the Crimson Dawn from performing some kind of sacrifice which in turn resurrected their long-weakened monster of a leader, the Dark King. The descriptions of this beast vary wildly, but one characteristic has been dead-on with every single tale that I have heard; the Dark King is a gigantic figure, covered in charcoal-gray scales. Apparently Michael Freeburg took on the Dark King and was either injured or killed in the process; details vary too rapidly to be sure of anything.
However, I have no doubt about what happened next; the Dark King took total control of the entire country, publicly executing anyone who did not pledge total allegiance to him and his evil reign. He attempted to destroy our starships as we left the atmosphere, but we managed to make it to light speed without incident; we then spent the next four days waiting in silence and in fear, not knowing what Planet X would be like; I certainly know that I did not expect what we ended up finding there: a total lack of intelligent life.
Joshua named the planet Freeburg, in Michael Freeburg’s memory. It was not as difficult a struggle to set up civilization for ourselves, seeing as it took us only a matter of months to construct enough housing for everyone that had come along for the journey. The Dark King has sent multiple forces to try and invade us, but as of this writing, we have been able to fend off every single one of them. Survival is not easy, but none of us ever thought that it would be; it is what it is, and we try to make the best out of each and every day.
At night I often gaze up at the stars, wondering which one is Earth and where Daniel is; is he even still alive at this point, on a planet that has been corrupted by the Dark King’s evil? I believe that he is. Someday, years from now, our generation or our children’s generation will return to Earth, and fight to restore it to its inner goodness. I know it to be true; and my hope is that Daniel Robertson will be there by our side, leading the fight to down the Dark King and save humanity from the total damnation that we have been plunged into. Daniel Robertson is our only hope, the only person that will be able to save us; without him, humanity shall die out, leaving the Dark King to do what he wishes with the rest of the universe. And when that happens, all will truly be lost.
I must quit writing now; I’m getting a report that says that yet another task force has been sent to destroy us all. It will not be an easy fight; it never is. But in the end, we shall triumph. In the end, I believe that our perseverance shall pay off, that we shall finally bring the Dark King’s Network of evil down; and if nothing else, I can take comfort in that thought. I bid you well, until next time; maybe I shall meet you when the universe has seen the Light once again, and humanity stands strong. This will happen, one day; when Fate shines our way, no one, not even the Dark Man, shall be able to stop us. I am sure of it.