"Back World" is a serial thriller about a young couple facing an apocalyptic future.
A new episode will be published each week.
1 - Arrival
June 29, 2012
The four humans bolted for the entrance to the alley. Just as they reached the main street, the craft overhead turned slightly. A split second later, the insurance office on the other side of the hardware store erupted, shooting shards of brick into the sky.
"Across the street!" Devin shouted over the deluge of building materials that were beginning to fall onto the pavement up the street.
The group, now moving as one, stepped into the graveyard of abandoned vehicles, heading toward the other side of the street. Before they managed more than four steps, the dress shop across the way exploded, the concrete walls from the front crashing inward, through the clothing-adorned mannequins and display racks, and blowing out the back wall with enough force to make the adjacent buildings vibrate from the force.
Without another command, the group banged left, returning to the sidewalk littered with glass that only this morning had been the display windows of this particular slice of the shopping district. Two stores down, a lineup of canvas awnings provided shade over the walkway stretching all the way to the next intersection.
The group raced for the covered section of sidewalk, an almost instinctive decision, as if the awnings would somehow hide them from being targeted by the electronic being above. Or perhaps magically provide protection, like a cloth shield. Once in the shadow of the coverings, Devin began looking for real shelter.
“We’re going to duck into one of these stores,” Devin said.
“Yeah, but which one?” Celia asked, her breath coming in labored gasps.
Three storefronts down, they had their answer.
“In here,” Devin said, stepping up and over the bottom frame that had previously held the eight-foot plate glass panels. As they went inside, they also walked over a tattered and faded paper banner – “Going Out Of Business.”
“I know this place,” the bearded man said, heading through the empty pane. “Was a TV repair shop for 20 years. Closed up about six months ago.”
“Not surprising,” Dina said, looking around the narrow, dark store. “We live in the age of disposable electronics.”
“It didn’t close for lack of business,” the man said once inside, lowering his voice but still sounding offended at the notion that the world had moved on. “The owner up and died. Good guy. Used to let me sleep in the basement from time to time, when his wife wasn’t around to bitch about it. From what I hear, the place has been tied up in probate.”
“That would explain why it’s still full of old TV’s,” Dina said as she crept along with the rest of her companions, noticing for the first time that the dirty display floor was crowded with dusty console televisions and 26-inch tube TV’s.
Devin continued heading toward the back of the shop. “A lucky break for us.”
“What do you mean?” Celia asked just before she bumped into an old Zenith.
“I’ll tell you when we get downstairs. You said this place has a basement, right?” Devin asked, again addressing the newest addition to their party.
The scruffy man nodded twice, then pointed toward the back with his chin.
“There are stairs in the back, past the counter. There’s another a set of steps from the outside. Those are the ones I used to use from time to time.”
The group reached the counter at the back of the shop. Once there, they pushed through a swinging half door and into the back room, which was nearly as long as the front part of the store. Along the left wall was a work bench populated with the partially dissembled guts from a variety of devices, including a couple of 1930’s-vintage floor model radios.
“Makes a little more sense now,” Devin said, eyeing the workbench. “Looks like the owner specialized in restoring antique electronics.”
The group found an open doorway leading to a set of stairs. The steps angled downward into an ocean of impenetrable darkness. Devin pulled out the lighter he had retrieved from the veterans museum, what seemed like a year ago, and brought forth a flame that gave the foursome enough light to see each other but not much more.
The basement was a maze of partially dissected televisions and other old electrical pieces stacked on top of each other that had been harvested for their parts. One wall was a bank of dead TV’s forming a dark mosaic of blank screens.
After leading them toward what would be the front of the building, Devin stopped and sat on an ancient RCA combination console TV and stereo.
“Okay, we’re down the rabbit hole,” Celia piped up after bumping into a teetering tower of 13-inch portable televisions. “Why is being trapped in another dark and scary place a good thing?”
Devin let the lighter go out to conserve butane. The result was to make an already creepy space downright spooky, as if the group was in an underground mausoleum filled with the cadavers of dead appliances.
“If I’m right, they can’t ‘see’ in the traditional sense,” Devin began. “I suspect they pick up our body’s electrical signal. If that’s true, I’m hoping all the tubes, wires, and electonic gear over our heads will screen us. Like camouflage netting.”
“It doesn’t matter,” piped up the newcomer. “They know we’re here. They’ll be down when they’re ready to collect us.”
“If they have any sense of smell, we won’t be hard to find,” Celia said, another floating voice in the darkness. “When was the last time you had a conversation with a bar of soap, stinky?”
“Not as recently as you last French-kissed a tray of lasagna, tubby,” the man fired back.
"You know, I don't think we caught your name," Dina said to the stranger, trying to defuse and distract.
There was an extended pause in the darkness, then the man spoke.
"I'm not supposed to say."
Another beat of silence ensued.
"Stinky works for me," Celia said.
"I guess that makes your nom de plume 'Dyke,'" the man shot back.
Devin rose from his perch on the console TV to intercept Celia, who was raising her baseball bat while moving in the direction of the homeless man's voice. He was astounded and annoyed that, in the midst of death and demolition from above, two humans were about to get into a schoolyard scrap over name-calling.
Just as he grabbed her meaty upper arm, he saw a flicker of light off to his right.
Devin, Celia, Dina, and the trash can wrangler turned toward the beacon in the ocean of blackness.
It was the lighted screen from a lone 13-inch portable TV, sitting on top of a 25-inch Quasar with color and volume sliders that had been snapped off. The rectangle of brightness was about the size of a sheet of notebook paper, with the squiggly white pops of flashing movement known as "snow" or static.
Grabbing the shotgun with both hands, Devin took a step toward the glowing yet silent set.
Before his second cautious footstep forward, the basement suddenly exploded in light and sound.
From every wall and corner, television sets large and small sprang to life. Disembodied cathode ray tubes that had long since been dissected from their wood and plastic TV housings and left in haphazard piles of parts were alive with light, some for the first time in decades. Those televisions discarded but still intact added the harsh cacophony of white noise at maximum volume from their long-dormant mono speakers.
All of the Zeniths, Magnavoxes, Sonys and GE's had one thing in common:
None of them were plugged in.
The group huddled closer but were each looking outward at the crowd of electronics surrounding them, looking for who or what had turned the sets on. Celia brought her baseball bat to her shoulder, while Devin readied the reloaded shotgun, waiting for a viable target or a genuine threat.
All at once, the speakers in the televisions went silent again, although their collective screens continued to bathe the basement in a spooky shade of flickering pale blue.
"How can these TV's come on when there's no electricity," Dina whispered to her husband.
"They have electricity, it's just not coming through wires," the stranger whispered back.
Seemingly in response to Dina's question, all of the screens went dark. Not off, but black, as if a television program was about to come on. The screens then filled with grids of random white letters, numbers, and symbols, each rapidly changing. Then, one by one, the letters disappeared from different sections of the grid, until a single horizontal stream of letters and symbols bisected the screens.
Like letters spinning and changing on an airport departure board, the line finally resolved into a single, recognizable sentence.
"It's time for you to join the others," the line read.
Each member of the group read the sentence simultaneously, although each read it from a different screen.
"Does it want us to surrender?" Dina asked.
"Or it's passing final judgement," Devin replied. "Telling us we're about to die like the rest."
"Fuck that," Celia said to no one in particular, then curled both hands tightly around the Louisville Slugger and swung at the nearest screen, a 20-inch Sony. The glass broke but didn't shatter. Instead, purple and white sparks cascaded out of the breach left by Celia's bat.
The rest of the screens in the basement didn't waver or change, leaving the chilling line glowing from a hundred different places in the darkness. When the last of the sparks and falling pieces of glass had scattered on the concrete floor, silence returned, save for the heavy breaths of exhausted satisfaction coming from the tattooed, bat-wielding aggressor.
Along the wall of the basement, next to the staircase they had come down earlier, a low and intermittent ringing sound began. With each successive ring, the sound grew louder and more insistent.
After the eighth ring, the TV's returned to their snowy state, the white screens lighting the basement enough for the group to see that the ringing came from an old 1970's vintage rotary Princess telephone sitting on a cluttered work bench. There was no wire leading from the phone's pink base to a phone jack, and the coiled wire that usually connected the base to the handset had been removed.
Devin broke away from the huddle and headed slowly to the bench. Once there, he picked up the receiver, which silenced the ringing. He then held the handset to his ear.
The basement returned to darkness as the screens again went blank. The ominous line then reappeared.
"It's time for you to join the others."
After a few seconds, the line disappeared, only to be replaced by a new one. It contained just two words.
Devin looked at the group, but didn't need to see their faces to know their consensus.
He offered a one word reply into the mouthpiece of the phone, as terse as the question itself.
"No," he said, then slammed the handset back onto the base, causing the ancient metal bells inside the Princess phone to chime against each other.
The line disappeared from the screens, and the basement was black once again.
His shotgun at the ready, Devin felt his way back to the group.
"Good answer," Celia said in a low voice.
"No, it wasn't," the homeless man said behind him.
Suddenly, all the television screens in the basement sprang to life again. But this time, they radiated neither snow nor words, but a single beam of color. Only it was unlike any color any of them had ever seen; a hue that seemed to have life, depth, dimension, but no proximity to any mix of colors found on Earth. There wasn't even a base of reference any of the foursome could suggest that would describe it.
The beam seemed to have movement within its colored light, a slow and rhythmic shifting that the four humans found soothing, relaxing.
Behind him, Devin heard the rattle of a wooden baseball bat bouncing against the concrete floor as Celia fell asleep on her feet. He wanted to turn around a shake her awake, but his own consciousness was slipping through his fingers like milk poured from a plastic jug. Before he could open his mouth in protest, he heard the metallic clatter at his feet as the double-barreled shotgun slipped from his hands and joined the bat on the floor. He too was asleep while still standing.
They all were.