"Back World" is a serial thriller about a young couple facing an apocalyptic future.
A different segment will be published each week.
October 14, 2011
The shadow of the tower was catching up to the small fleeing group. They could at first feel the shadow on their back, then could see it on the ground in front of them, stretching out longer like a black carpet marking their path.
"Left!" Devin shouted, grabbing Dina's arm and pulling perpendicular to their previous direction.
Like a school of minnows in the dark end of the pond, the three darted left in unison. However, as the tower continued to fall, its shadow not only elongated, it also broadened. They were still in the building's path, and it was coming closer. Loose pieces of stone began to rain down from the edifice, the heavy chunks making a thunking sound as they slammed into the ground.
It was going to come down to a race between the trio and the collapsing structure.
They continued racing across the park, desperately trying to outrun the tumbling tower, a race that actually lasted less than 15 seconds but seemed to the escapees as if it went on for hours.
Finally, delivered from the direct path of the falling building, they emerged from the shadow and back into the haze-filtered light of the day. Joe, more accustomed to sampling his pizzas than running, began slowing. He was sucking in deep breaths as he downshifted to a trot.
"Don't stop!" Devin hollered.
The second word was punctuated by a deep rumbling as the lower and middle portions of the tower began to impact the ground. It first struck nearest to its base, flattening a swath of the museum that had been Devin and Dina's temporary haven just minutes before. The rumble grew into a roar as more of the monument slammed into the earth.
Joe started picking up the pace, but he was winded and unable to catch up with the couple.
Less than 20 yards behind him, the rest of the tower crashed to earth. Stones and pieces of the interior continued rocketing outward in the direction that the building had fallen, shooting out of the tower's top like detritus fired from a blunderbuss.
Fragments lower down the structure began to radiate outwards as it struck the ground and disintegrated, launching shrapnel in every direction as if a bomb had gone off inside.
Rocks and medium sized missiles of stone blasted out of the sides as the tower morphed from a once-proud memorial for the soldiers of World War I to a moving, shifting pile of settling rubble.
The first few rocks reached the runners.
"We're going to make it," Dina whispered between measured breaths, continuing to run just behind her husband.
Nearly 10 feet behind her, Joe's destiny rose up and disputed her prediction.
A stone the size of a brick fired out of the side of the wrecked monument, the pressure of tons of collapsing material compressing against the ground to create nearly as much power as the rapid buildup of gases that pushes a bullet free of its cartridge and out the end of a gun's barrel. Without a single bounce or ricochet that might have shaved some energy off the speeding projectile, the stone caught Joe in the right calf, just below the knee. The stone connected with the flesh but slowed little as it sheared through muscle then bone before continuing its path. Trailing just behind the stone that was now a few feet ahead of Joe was his lower leg and foot, which had been amputated and thrown forward.
The pizza maker, one half of the mobile foundation below him suddenly missing, spun for a moment on one leg like a misshapen top, then rolled to the ground with a scream.
Devin looked over his shoulder and saw the man who had saved his life just minutes before doing a logroll across the pockmarked grass, the shotgun flying among other airborne debris from the now-settling remains of the tower.
Judging that he was reaching the outer arc of the blast zone, where pieces still reached but with less frequency and velocity, Devin slowed. Dina immediately matched him. The couple stopped and turned, assessing the destruction that had previously been at their back.
The entire grassy area in front of the museum was now covered in the stone that had once been the Liberty Memorial. Above it, a haze of grey dust rose like a thick blanket in the air, giving the illusion of smoke after an explosion. The rising grey cloud continued billowing upward.
Nearly 100 feet up, the dust parted and chose different vertical paths upon reaching resistance. The resulting change in direction neatly outlined the vague shell of the hovering alien craft responsible for the destruction.
About 20 feet away, covered in grey dust and blending in with the scene, Joe writhed and rolled, grasping for a leg that was no longer there while screaming in Italian.
The couple reversed direction, carefully picking their way through the debris field to get back to their downed compatriot.
Dina reached Joe first, grabbing his shoulders and trying to get his attention while simultaneously trying to provide some sort of comfort.
Devin immediately went to work at Joe's other end.
The screaming man's pant leg had been ripped away with its ensconced leg, exposing the ragged tendrils of skin and bleeding flesh that flapped over the two jagged white sticks where Joe's tibia and fibula had broken off.
Blood gushed out of a sheared vein, pulsing a sickening fountain of red horizontally across the man's remaining leg.
There was nothing surgical in the way the lower leg had been clipped off. It was going to require a lot of work to close, and tools that Devin didn't have.
Instead, he slid up to the man's waist, ignoring Joe's continuing screams. Devin unbuckled the man's cotton belt and yanked it from its loops, then returned to the wrecked leg. He slid the end of the belt under Joe's thigh, just above the still-intact knee, and wrapped it around before threading the end back into the square opening of the buckle. He then pulled it tight, doing his best to cut off the circulation to the missing lower limb and slowing the rapid loss of blood. Because the belt was cotton instead of leather, it was easy for Devin to poke the buckle's metal tongue through the fabric, creating a hole that would hold the makeshift tourniquet in place.
Unfortunately, because it was cotton, the dangling end of the belt was like a compacted gauze pad. It instantly began soaking up the blood when it dragged through the pool that was forming on the ground under Joe's knee. The red snaked up the belt's end like a crazy horizontal thermometer, measuring the amount of blood it sponged instead of reporting a temperature.
The field first aid in place, Devin automatically began assessing his surroundings, looking for a safe place to take Joe until they could find legitimate medical help. The nearest shelter was the uninviting lineup of shops along Grand Boulevard.
While continuing his visual reconnoiter, Devin saw the outline of the alien craft hovering above and behind the museum.
"Whatever we do, we have to make sure we don't draw its attention," Dina said, spotting the craft at almost the same time as her husband.
Joe's screams began to subside, although the pain didn't.
"You're not going to leave me, are you?" Joe asked through gritted teeth.
Devin was caught short by the question.
It would actually make sense to leave the man behind. For as long as they chose to be on the run, Joe was going to slow them down. He would never be able to move on his own if the group had to escape in a hurry, and it was going to require a lot of care just to keep the man alive until they could find medical care. He was also going to hamper efforts at stealth, because it wasn't easy to hide with a guy loping along on your shoulder. Eventually, he was also going to use up their strength and energy, because it took more to help carry someone than to walk alone.
But those issues aren't what surprised Devin.
It was the fact that the question was even asked.
Whether it was the result of his military training and the credo that you never left a battle buddy behind, or something deeper and innate in Devin's personal makeup, the idea of going on without Joe hadn't even occurred to him.
"Sorry, you're stuck with us," Dina said, reading the thought from her husband's face.
Joe closed his eyes again, unsure whether the tear that trickled down his cheek was from pain, relief, or gratitude.
"Joe, I'm going to have to carry you back to your shop," Devin said. "I'm going to need you to help me."
Devin stood up, then reached down to take Joe's arm. Dina went to the injured man's other side to help lift him.
It was difficult at first, but they finally got the man onto his one leg and balanced him there.
"Dina, we need that gun," Devin told his wife, nodding at the shotgun laying a few feet away among the stones and rubble.
He balanced the wounded man against him while his wife retrieved the weapon.
Then, she retook her place on Joe's left, wrapping his arm across her shoulder to bear some of his weight. Fortunately, while he was appreciably heavier, he was barely as tall as the artist. Devin ducked under the man's right shoulder, taking most of Joe's weight.
"We're going to carry you like this," Devin told the pizza maker. "Don't try to walk, you'll pull yourself down."
Joe continued his silent and blind communication by nodding his head.
It wasn't a happy trundle along a yellow brick road arm in arm, but after a few stumbling starts, the trio started developing a rhythm as they shambled toward the street. They were interrupted repeatedly by stones and large chunks of the destroyed tower blocking their path and making their footing dangerous. After nearly 50 yards, the three of them stopped for a momentary break, then resumed their trek toward the sidewalk where Devin had laid Joe's empty shotgun just a couple of hours before.
As they reached the deserted sidewalk, just another 100 feet from the storefronts, Devin sensed movement off to his right. Scanning the area nearby, he couldn't see anybody or anything in motion. The trio stopped again on the sidewalk, taking a moment to catch their collective breath and regain some strength.
With her hands on her hips, Dina looked heavenward and blew out a long, rejuvenating breath.
It was then that she spotted what had flashed in the corner of her husband's eye a moment ago.
Slowly floating up the street, the outline of the giant hovering alien craft showed that it was headed toward them.
"To your right, and up," Dina said.
Devin looked along the street like checking for traffic that wasn't coming, then lifted his gaze. Most of the entity was still invisible, but the dissipating dust cloud contrasted against the thing's left side, showing that it was indeed on the move.
The former soldier spun to face Joe.
"I'll be as gentle as I can, but we've got to go, now," Devin told the wounded man. He then ducked his head under the man's arm and wrapped his own arms around Joe's waist as if engaging in a slow-motion open field tackle. Pushing forward and lifting, Devin hoisted the dead weight onto his shoulder in a variation on the fireman's carry.
Joe let out a scream when Devin's arm brushed the open and bloody wound below his knee, the place where a traditional carry would have required an arm locked around the joint. Fresh blood drizzled onto Devin's shirt as he turned and used the forward momentum to keep going into the street.
"We're heading for that shop with the shattered door," Devin told his wife, who was keeping pace while continuing to carry the shotgun with one hand.
The husband and wife hurried across the roadway, zeroing in on the wrecked pizza place.As they reached the other sidewalk, Devin realized that he wasn't sure how fast it was going or what it was doing, or even if it had actually spotted the scurrying group, but he was certain of two things: the hover craft was moving faster. And it was undeniably headed in their direction.
1 - Arrival