The End of All Things – Chapter 3 – Picking Up the Pieces

The End of All Things – Chapter 3 – Picking Up the Pieces

Two weeks ago, in a moment of uncharacteristic sentimentality, Liam Barrows drove down Pennsylvania Avenue on his way to visit a friend. Usually, he hated the traffic and heavy crowds. But that night, as the sun sank below the horizon, he discovered a certain charm in the old buildings juxtaposed beside the modern technology of the highway.

He vividly recalled his friend waiting in the driveway when he pulled up, a six-pack tucked under each arm. They grilled fresh steaks with only salt rubbed across the surface and, in the quiet moments, he could still smell them. At three in the morning, Liam had abandoned the beer fridge, just a few sips short of full drunk, and stumbled into the backyard to watch the moon while it hung bright in the sky.

Now he kicked a stray clump of melted brick away from his path as he trudged down the abandoned stretch of highway, trying to ignore both the beat of the hot sun against the back of his neck and the empty spaces where buildings used to stand. The only remaining structures higher than man height were piles of rubble. They stretched from horizon to horizon, as far as Liam could see. Even the White House was just a pile of dust, swirling across the remains of its foundation.

He paused to wipe the sweat from his brow before it could drag plaster and grit into his eyes. He tried not to think about where the particles came from. He tried not to think about much these days. After a morning spent sifting through the rubble for survivors, he was ready for a hot shower, a cold beer and a long nap. Not that he was going to get any of them. It didn’t matter how much he longed for the small house at the end of the awkward driveway with the weird attic; he’d never go back to it. If it even still existed. Life didn’t work the way it used to, and wouldn’t for a long time.

At least they found survivors. He tried to focus on that, on the momentary joy of helping trapped people step back into the sun and realize they weren’t alone. Bleak as the world had become, it wasn’t devoid of hope. Even a cynical bastard like him had learned to appreciate that during the last forty-eight hours.

Three days ago, he watched a metallic serpent slither across the sky, a rain of fire following in its wake. And the last thing he wanted to remember was the panic, screams and explosions it left behind. It was hard enough to forget the faces of his men as they huddled behind armored vehicles, waiting for their chance to strike. Or the way every caliber of bullet seemed to bounce off the weapon’s metal hide. It was better if it all blurred into a haze of chaos; that made it easier to focus on the moment.

He paused on the threshold of the checkpoint and ducked beneath the shadow of a canvas awning while he waited for the officer on duty to check his ID and wave him past. He would have liked to consider the small city of tents a bright spot amidst the chaos and destruction, but it wouldn’t last. This may be a relief effort, but there was no safety here. If… No, when that thing came back, there could be no sign of human habitation, or all their efforts would be undone.

Where the city’s survivors would go, and what would be waiting for them when they arrived, weren’t Liam’s problems. He kept his head down as he made his way past the largest canvas structures, trying not to mark the tear-streaked faces of mothers and children, though it didn’t help him mute their voices.

“Please,” a woman screeched, choking on a sob. “I need someone to help me find my daughter! You must have someone checking that area-”

Her panic gave way to a quieter voice outside a smaller tent. “We haven’t eaten in two days. We thought we were the last… We were afraid to go out and look for supplies…”


Liam jumped. Swallowing the sudden pounding sensation in his throat, he spun and offered a sharp salute to his superior.

“Just the man I was looking for. This way.” The colonel motioned with two fingers and Liam fell into step behind him.

It was a relief to step into the cramped tent that served as Colonel Spencer’s office. Liam had experienced his fair share of conversations in dilapidated tents, bent over tattered card tables littered with old reports. It was comfortable in a worn socks kind of way.

“How did it go out there this morning?” the colonel asked as he settled into a rickety folding chair and pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. He held the pack out to Liam, who pulled one of the cigarettes free, though he waited until the colonel lit it before he set it against his lips.

“Better than anyone expected.” Liam savored the first drag of the cigarette. The gentle burn in the back of his throat distracted him from the rest of his discomforts.

“We had a warning. Slim though it was, it was more than most cities got.”

Liam only grunted. Under most circumstances, it might have been inappropriate, but Colonel Spencer had been his equal a short three days before, and the two of them knew each other well enough that Liam wasn’t worried about offending him. “I suppose a partial evacuation is better than nothing.”

“People were already scared. I hate to praise panic, but a higher than usual number of houses were empty when that thing descended from the sky.” The colonel reclined in his chair as much as possible and tapped his finger against the table. “You been in contact with your folks?”

Liam exhaled a small grey cloud, wishing he could use it to conceal his face. He managed to keep most of his emotions contained, but the agitated shift of his jaw was probably enough to give him away. “They lived up in New York.”

Colonel Spencer winced.

“It’s not as bad as that,” Liam insisted. “We hadn’t talked much in the last three or four years. They were never all that thrilled about my choice to enlist.”

“Might have been better to do it while it was still a choice,” the colonel mused, inhaling a deep drag from his cigarette. “Listen, lots of people seem to be clinging to the delusion that this is local. That all they have to do is travel far enough south or west and all their problems will disappear. But there’s no starting again. Before our connection got spotty, we had reports from every major city on the East Coast, not to mention a wide swath of Europe.”

“Jesus,” Liam muttered. “After all the time people spent preaching about the end of days, I never thought I’d live to see it.”

“Except this is no Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. As far as we can tell, there’s only one of those things. One goddamn weapon of alien origin. And no sign of its keepers.”

“Maybe it’s like all those old doomsday movies. They want to clear the planet of its current owners so they can move in and take control.”

Colonel Spencer snorted. “There’s plenty of speculation, Barrows. Hell, a few of our superiors are convinced the Russians built that thing.”

Liam almost choked. “From what?” he demanded around a coughing fit that made his eyes water.

“Hell if I know,” the colonel replied with a shrug. “Thing is, no one really knows what’s going on. Against all odds, that thing hasn’t knocked our satellites out of the sky. So our communication networks still function. It’s the ground equipment that isn’t fairing well. Not to mention there’s some evidence using those networks attracts the damn thing. That’s why we’ve restricted communications to the area surrounding the city. We don’t want that dragon coming back before we’ve finished our relief efforts.”

“Surely it’s moved on by now?” If the dragon really had hit every major city on the East Coast, it must be on its way to California, razing every urban center it found along the way.

“No one knows how fast it can move, or how concentrated the population has to be to draw its attention. Filtering into the countryside and choking the hotels and airbnbs of every small town is a charming idea. But if that thing wants to wipe us out, it’s nothing more than a temporary reprieve. And how anyone thinks those small towns are going to suddenly maintain a larger population is beyond me.”

In other words, humanity was in trouble. And if they didn’t get their shit together quickly, it wasn’t going to be pretty. “Sounds like we have to stay one step ahead if we want to end up on top.”

“Amen,” the colonel agreed. Absently, he shuffled several papers across the rickety table until he found the one he wanted. “Establishing a reliable form of communication with the other pockets of survivors is a priority. Finding a safe place to move everyone is another. But that isn’t what I wanted to talk to you about. Command is putting together a specialized task force, and I want to recommend you as its leader.”

Liam glanced down at the report through the thick haze of smoke generated by his and the colonel’s cigarettes. A cursory scan revealed little of note; it was mostly just a list of names. Several were crossed out, a sure sign someone was trying to track casualties.

“And would this task force be on its way to another confrontation with that mysterious weapon?”

Colonel Spencer barked a laugh. “You volunteering?”

Their gazes locked, and Liam silently dared the other man to challenge him again. He wasn’t about to hop on the back of a truck headed for doom, but he wouldn’t mind another shot at that dragon. It had killed a fair number of his friends. And with the world in such dire straits, there’d be no point holding back on all the secret and experimental weapons they had been developing prior to the attack. Better to use them before the labs and warehouses housing them fell; that was Liam’s opinion.

Finally, Colonel Spencer cracked, raspy laugher bubbling from the depths of his throat. “No, my friend, you’re too valuable to throw in that fire. This is something else. Rumor has it they were working on an experiment in Prague, one that might prove useful in the future if it survived the attack.”

“A weapon?” Liam demanded. He couldn’t imagine anything else they’d consider high-priority at the moment.

“We’re not sure,” Colonel Spencer admitted with a soft sigh. “You remember, oh, about twenty years ago now? Maybe twenty-three?” He shook his head. “Anyway, there was a huge uproar when they managed to clone a human for the first time.”

“Hell, I don’t know. I think I remember some kind of fuss about it, but I must have been about twelve at the time. Wasn’t she not entirely human? There was another rumble a year or so ago when she got some prestigious science award.”

Colonel Spencer shuffled several more papers before producing a text-heavy packet he pushed across the table. “The girl’s name is Gaia; she’s the work of Professor Leon Roth.”

“Now there’s a name I recognize,” Liam grumbled as he skimmed the text. Nothing jumped out as particularly important. Most of it was science jargon he wasn’t familiar with. “Wasn’t he trying to communicate with aliens or some shit?”

“He thought he might have the means but, as far as we know, he never actually tried. He and his team recovered some kind of ancient computer from an archeological dig off the Pacific Coast a couple decades back. Somehow, even though it’s thousands of years old, it’s supposed to be a more powerful and complex computer than any we’ve ever managed to build. But no one could turn it on.”

“I remember now.” Liam flicked his wrist to indicate the man didn’t have to relay all the details. “They cloned Gaia from the remains of the woman they found in the tomb so that she could unlock the array for them. What does this have to do with our dragon invader?”

“Well, if Doctor Roth was right, that array might be the only machine on Earth capable of locating and contacting the dragon’s masters.”

“Wasn’t Prague the first city it hit?”

Colonel Spencer nodded.

Liam muttered a curse. “That doesn’t bode well.”

“But it’s also too strong a connection to ignore. It’s a risky situation, to say the least. We’ve had no news out of Prague, and air travel is about the stupidest thing anyone can do right now. But our counterparts in Europe are rallying their resource for an attempt at recovery. And if Doctor Roth was right, this might be the one mission worth risking our necks for right now.”

Liam scanned the document again. Now that he knew what he was looking for, it was easier to pick out the relevant facts. And he could read between the lines; the tattered remains of the U.S. government wanted to claim that array for themselves. He also knew Colonel Spencer felt the same way he did about this whole mess; it was time for humanity to discard their stubborn ties to country borders and work together for once.

“So this special task force is looking for what, exactly?”

“The array is obviously the top priority,” the colonel replied, smashing the fading remains of his cigarette into an overflowing ashtray near the table’s edge. “Doctor Roth, if he’s still alive. And the girl, Gaia, as well. Obviously anyone who worked on the project would be valuable, but it seems Gaia and Roth had the most experience with the device. If we’re going to do this, it would be nice not to spend months re-learning how to use the damn thing.”

Liam grunted. The riskiest part of the endeavor would be sharing the sky with the dragon. If it could level a city in a matter of hours, it would tear through an aircraft in seconds.

But if humanity’s hope lay buried somewhere in the rubble beneath Prague, then that was exactly where he should be spending his effort.

“I’ll do it,” he declared, smashing the butt of his cigarette into the ashtray. “When do I leave?”

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