"Back World" is a serial thriller about a young couple facing an apocalyptic future.
A new episode will be published each week.
1 - Arrival
"Thank you so much," Dina said.
"That's quite alright," the man said. "Now, will you be paying with cash or credit card?"
Dina and Devin looked at each other, unsure what their host was talking about.
"Excuse me?" Devin finally asked.
"Admission is $12 per person," the man said. "I'm hoping you have cash, because the credit card machine is probably down without the electricity."
"You do realize what's going on outside, don't you?" Devin asked while reaching for his wallet and taking out a twenty and four ones.
"I heard the booms," the man said, taking the money in mid stride and continuing toward a cash register perched on a nearby countertop covered with brochures and a display of novelty pens. "In fact, that's why the place is empty. We didn't have a lot of visitors this morning, but the few we had went scurrying out when the booms started. Even my boss ran away. A pig of a man, really. Which is why I have to collect this. When he comes back, the first thing he'll do is check and make sure the till matches."
Through the thick granite walls, another boom sounded, this one just slightly less powerful than the one that exploded just as the door closed. Nothing sounded against the entryway this time.
Devin took a moment to reconnoiter the room, looking simultaneously for sniper positions (a military euphemism for "hiding places") and for possible defensive weapons, although he wasn't sure what anyone could hold in their hands that could defend against whatever or whoever was dropping bombs on Kansas City.
He spotted a couple of World War I era rifles enclosed in a glass case behind a plaque that identified the relics as Springfield M1917 American Enfields.
"Those work?" Devin asked the museum attendant, nodding toward the guns.
"The Springfields? Fine specimens," the man replied, launching into a spiel that had obviously been given often to tour groups. "The one on the right was actually used on the battlefield in Bellau Wood. The other is from the factory in Springfield, Massachusetts. Never been fired. They were the primary weapons used by American forces early in World War I, with tremendous relia-"
"Do they shoot?" Devin asked again, raising his voice slightly.
"Shoot?" the man said. "Heavens, no. None of the firearms in the building actually work anymore. Our insurance company would never allow it. They've all been, well, neutered so to speak. Even the bullets on display have had the powder removed."
Devin spotted several knives behind glass around the room.
"I know these are still operational," Devin said, grabbing a nearby chair and hurling it through the glass of the nearest display of long bayonets.
"What do you think you're doing?" the museum attendant screamed. "These are priceless artifacts that belong to the museum! You can't do that!"
Devin plucked three of the steel bayonets from among the shards of broken glass, handing one to Dina, then offering another to the attendant handle-first.
The man stepped away as if Devin was trying to present a live copperhead.
Two more bombs exploded outside, the volume receding another miniscule amount compared to the last blast.
"What's your name?" Devin asked in a voice more demanding than he had intended.
"I'm Myron Dietrich, assistant museum curator," the attendant said, tempted to extend his hand for a traditional handshake, but still too afraid of the sharp objects clutched in each of the interloper's hands.
"I'm Dina," Mrs. Petty said, trying to calm the nervous clerk. "This is my husband, Devin."
"Myron, I don't think you understand what's happening out there," Devin said, bypassing pleasantries. "Those booms you hear are explosions, more powerful than I've ever seen, and I've seen more than a lot. Buildings are being wiped out, whole blocks demolished. People are dying out there. We might have been among them, if you hadn't unlocked that door. I guess that makes you a hero, just like some of the people I'm sure are mentioned on these walls. We're grateful, but polite ran out about 12 bombs ago, which is how many I've counted so far."
As if on cue, another explosion erupted, this one notably further away.
Myron found himself caught between the courage-summoning power of the word "hero" and the courage-crushing weight of bombs that were still destroying a swath of the only city he had ever called home.
"What do you want me to do?" Myron finally said.
"You know this place," Devin said. "We need to get an overview of what's happening out there. How do I get to the top of the tower?"
"The Liberty Memorial Tower? Oh, I'm afraid you have to buy another ticket for that," Myron said.
Devin and Dina again exchanged looks, trying to figure out if their host was shell shocked or just stupid.
"Is there a way to get to the top from in here?" Devin asked.
"No, you have to go back outside and up the steps. There's a door at the base which leads to the elevator. There's also a spiral staircase that can get you to the top, but visitors aren't allowed to use it anymore," Myron said. "Insurance, you understand."
Devin didn't like the idea of exposing himself to whoever might be doing the BDA, or bomb damage assessments, but he knew that the high ground was the best place to find out what was going on.
"Okay," Devin said to Dina. "I'm going up. I need you to make sure that when I get back and pound on the door, you're there to let me back in."
"You know, the last time I let you go off to war by yourself, I didn't see you for a year," Dina said with the hint of a smile, an out of place but welcome apparition. "I'm not falling for that again. I'm going with you."
The soldier in him wanted to argue. The scared civilian in him wanted the company. The husband in him wanted her by his side.
Devin turned to Myron.
"If we go out this door, will you let us back in?" he asked the assistant curator.
"Of course," Myron said, almost offended at the question. "Your ticket is good for all day. I'll even wait at the door for you."
Devin laid the extra bayonet on the counter, then hurried back to the museum entrance with Dina trotting along next to him and Myron trailing a few steps behind.
Devin put his weight behind the push bar and slowly eased the door open before stepping into a hazy sunlight.
The grassy area in front of the monument was devoid of people, the carpet of green now pockmarked and pitted like a lunar surface.
An explosion rocked the west side of the city, followed by another, both too far away to scatter any more debris on the Memorial grounds but still close enough to be terrifying.
The couple took only a moment to ensure they were alone, then raced to the massive arrangement of stairs, taking them two at a time to reach the base of the 21-story tower.
They quickly stepped inside the single doorway and headed for the gated elevator, where Devin pushed the lone button for the top. Nothing happened.
"Electric's out," Dina said, giving voice to the obvious.
"Then I want my money back," Devin said with a grin.
The pair abandoned the elevator cage and found the door to the spiral stairwell. Once the door shut behind them, it was like a tomb. Since the stairs were not supposed to be accessible to the public, nobody bothered to install emergency lighting.
Devin led the way, feeling along the wall with his right hand while using his feet to feel along the riser and landing of each step. His left hand gripped his wife's hand, which he had taken without realizing.
Above them, a scraping sound drew their eyes upward in the darkness.
"Hello?" Devin yelled without slowing his cautious yet rapid ascent. His greeting was answered by more silence, then the concussion of an explosion he believed was off to the west, although he couldn't be precisely sure of which compass point he was facing while spiraling skyward.
"If we're going to do more of this, one of us needs to take up smoking," Dina said.
"Why? Not winded enough to suit you?" Devin asked.
"No," Dina replied. "If we did, at least one of us would have a working lighter."
"I promise, when this is all over, one of us will take up an unhealthy vice," Devin said. "Just in case."
The couple reached the top within six minutes, a trip that ordinarily would have taken 15. Their journey was accompanied by the sound of four more booms.
They crept from the shadows into the hazy day again, this time 200 feet above the museum.
Earlier in the day, when the couple was running, the explosions were always at their back. For the first time, they got a chance to stare the devastation right in the face.
The downtown skyline, once a jagged picture postcard of tall and taller buildings, had been leveled, with the highest point in what was once the most congested section of the city now reduced to less than two stories. Much of the highway system that laced above and through the downtown area had been flatted, with elevated sections toppled onto their sides like grey Hot Wheels track after a child had grown bored. Cars were scattered around the rubble like so many discarded toys. A wall of smoke sliced through the middle of the downtown district like an embedded meat cleaver, tracing the exact path where the bombs had exploded.
While taking in the horrific scene, a fusillade of explosions sounded from the west.
Devin and Dina looked toward the Missouri River, where the bombs had now increased from a light summer drizzle to a seemingly endless downpour of destruction. The first few flared on the bridges, which wobbled in ways reminiscent of old video taken of California suspension bridges twirling with the harmonics of an earthquake. But these weren't suspension bridges, and the rigid concrete wasn't supposed to contort like that.
Gaps began appearing in the bridges as the understructure failed, leaking chunks of asphalt, cement, and automobiles into the water below.
"Look at the approaches," Devin said, pointing to the bridges' entrances. Thousands and thousands of pedestrians had jammed into the roadways trying to flee the approaching explosions. Now with the bridges destroyed, they were trapped at the water's edge, just as Devin had predicted when the first few bombs had fallen.
While the couple watched in horror, the fusillade of explosions now ripped up and down the river's edge.
"No!" Dina screamed, watching helplessly as thousands of frantic people were systematically obliterated by the white flashes and cascading booms.
"Look!" Devin said, pointing just a little bit east of where the concussions continued to bloom and blow skyward.
For the first time, they could see the source of the bombs being mercilessly launched at the snared population.
The former Afghanistan soldier tried to spin through his mental Rolodex of wartime training to put a label on what he was seeing, but it was beyond anything his experience or imagination could comprehend. It wasn't a land vehicle, but it wasn't exactly an aircraft, either. The closest he could come to categorizing it was as an enormous hovercraft, based close to the ground but still reaching at least 50 feet into the sky like an inverted round smokestack. The object was nearly invisible in places, and the outlines could only be seen clearly where smoke rose behind and around it, providing a contrasting backdrop.
It was unlike anything he had seen in war or peacetime.
Whatever it was, Devin knew one thing instinctively:
It didn't belong on this planet.