Its eyes bore into him. Francis backed away, terrified. He swung the spiked metal pole franticly at it. It shrieked gutturally at him. He thrust and the thing’s eyes widened horribly. He had pierced the thing’s neck. It screamed wetly, red pooling in the wound as Francis pulled the pole out and the creature collapsed.
It looked so human now. It still had blackened gums and sharpened teeth. And bluish-grey tinged skin, but in its stillness he saw human life.
He didn’t know what he was looking at but it horrified him. The sight of it lying there, pooling blood, made him sick.
He ran, as fast as he could.
There were trees everywhere. He tried to appreciate the smell of the breeze blowing through the fresh wood. All he could smell was death and rotting decay. He stopped running to retch.
Now all he could smell was vomit.
He walked on, away from the pile of puke, until the smell faded away. He rested against a tree and smelled the leaves again. They smelled different than he remembered. He supposed it was his time trapped underground, but for some reason they didn’t just smell sweeter than memory. The smell was so strong it was overpowering, sickening.
Francis breathed deeply and tried not to focus on the smell. At least it was better than the subway tunnels. In the days he’d crawled around down there, all he had smelled was particulate concrete, dirt and death. Had it been days? Maybe it was weeks.
He didn’t know how long he had survived off of drips of water falling from the ceiling, and rats he killed with the pole spike. He had been hungry and thirsty for days before he was willing to try either.
All of the subway platforms he had come across had rubble blocking their stairways to the surface. After days of walking down endless tunnels, he’d started to think he’d never escape, that he’d die down there. He’d been so thankful when he’d found the one access hatch that he could open. And it had opened up into this nightmare.
The instant he’d crawled out, that thing had been standing over him. He had panicked.
He needed to get away from thoughts of that thing. He stood up, pushed against the tree and stumbled on. He didn’t know why he had been stuck in those tunnels, and he didn’t know for how long. Once he found some people, and got back to civilisation, he’d find out. All that mattered until then was survival, not dwelling on things he couldn’t change or understand.
Francis tried hunting that afternoon, but found he was too inexperienced at trapping small rodents to be able to do it effectively in a place where they could escape in any direction. It had been easier in the tunnels. Eventually he gave up. He started foraging and discovered a tree covered in a fruit he didn’t recognise. He knew it was a mistake to eat something he’d never seen before, but he was too hungry to care. It was quite bitter and too soft, but it was definitely better than eating rat meat again.
He tried to sleep that night under the stars and leaves, but his dreams were haunted. The grass was softer than the train tunnels, but for some reason up here he couldn’t sleep. He felt exposed on all sides. He drifted in and out until daybreak, shivering and clutching the spiked pole reflexively.
When there was enough light to see by, Francis decided to go without sleep and just move on. In the new dawn light, he saw what his tired eyed hadn’t seen at dusk, and that the night had shrouded from him. Not far away, the trees just ended.
Wary of what might be lurking out there, Francis approached the tree line carefully. Peering from behind one of the last trees, he looked out and was struck dumb, uncomprehending. A street lay there. Broken pavement slanted against the last of the trees, as if they had forced their way up through it.
The road’s bitumen seemed to be the only part of the street undamaged, a dark river surrounded by urban decay. Rusted lumps that once might have been cars, dotted the street’s sides. Brick and plaster mounds sat across from him, barely recognisable as the remains of buildings.
Francis walked dazedly into the street, shocked, no longer dwelling on possible unseen observers, unable to think much at all. There, a few hundred meters downhill, lay the sea.
Some buildings thrust up out of the ocean, while others clearly had fallen, rotted slowly away at their bases by the slow movements of the sea. Even those standing seemed ready to fall at any moment. Water lapped gently at the bottom of the hill, slowly moving up his dark river towards him. Now that he noticed it, it was all he could hear.
The world was gone, and he didn’t understand how.
Francis sat in the middle of the street, staring out into the abyssal ocean for hours, silently contemplating the submerged city, and listening to the waves lap at the bitumen.
After hours of sitting and staring, Francis became hungry again. He ignored his hunger. He ignored everything. There was no civilisation to get back to. He had no end goal anymore. He wasn’t sure survival for its own sake was enough, especially when the odds of long term survival seemed hopeless.
So he sat and watched to sea wash away the world.
Eventually the sun started to set behind him, colouring his sunken world in red-orange. The moon slowly became more and more visible, shining through the dusk.
The sky changed to a dark pink-purple, the stars came out one at a time, and Francis heard the sound of footsteps behind him. At first he didn’t understand what he was hearing. The sound seemed so foreign to this landscape, he couldn’t imagine this place had seen footsteps in years.
At least human footsteps. He remembered the creature.
He’d defended himself from that creature less than a day from here.
Terrified, he scooped up the spiked pole and ducked behind a heaping mass of rust that used to be a car. He clutched the cold metal and shivered.
The sound of footsteps got closer and with it the same sounds the creature he’d killed had made. The guttural, grunting conversation of three distinct voices filled the empty air, echoing through the dead city.
The nightmare landscape swelled and collapsed with Francis’ heartbeat. He was too scared. They were coming down the street. He could hear them getting closer and closer. He was breathing so loudly. They had to hear it, even over their grunting conversation. Their footsteps echoed close-by.
He imagined their mouths, their ashen skin. He didn’t know what they were, but they were a part of this nightmare. They must have had a part in shaping it. What had they done? He wouldn’t let them do it to him.
Their footsteps were on top of him.
Francis wheeled from behind the rust-heap, plunging forward with the spiked pole. He turned and thrust, turned and thrust, again and again. He was so tense and so terrified that he continued plunging for several minutes until he realised everything but him had been completely still for some time.
Francis stood in a pool of red. He stood there for a moment, wide eyed, breathing heavily. Then, casting aside the metal pole violently, he fled towards the tree line.
Crashing through the brush, ignoring scrapes, he ran until his lungs burned, until his throat burned, until he couldn’t run. Then he sank down in an exhausted heap, and tried not to think.
Night closed around him and he remained where he lay. He prayed for sleep, and sweet unconsciousness. He was so exhausted it overcame him quickly.
He dreamed of blood, and teeth and stabbing steel. He awoke shaking, and shrieking. He lay there for some time waiting to sleep again, but it wouldn’t come.
After some time, minutes or hours he wasn’t sure, lights appeared overhead.
They were distant at first, just stars a bit brighter than others. Then they became brighter, and nearer. He thought his mind must have been playing tricks on him. After thinking about it for a moment, he wondered why of all the things he’d seen in the previous few days, this was the one he was assuming was hallucinated.
But as it circled lower, and flashed intermittently, blinding him, over and over, he couldn’t reconcile it with the rest of the reality he had found. Nothing could fly so low, so steadily and silently, and there was no one left in the world to fly it.
And then the voice came.
From the direction of the lights came the same guttural cries he’d heard from those creatures.
And there was anger in this voice.
Standing there, staring up at the blinding lights uncomprehending and frozen in fear, Francis felt his feet leave the ground.
He floated for a moment in the beam of light, and then suddenly shot skywards. All light went out as he hit a metal surface hard, and passed out.
Hours later, Francis’ mind blurred back into consciousness. The room he was in was brightly lit, his eyes took a moment to adjust. The walls were all white, and he couldn’t tell what they were made of. The light seemed to come from everywhere at once, the walls, the ceiling, even the floor.
He tried to move and found that he was strapped to the chair he was sitting in. The chair, the light and Francis were the only things in the room.
A voice came from every direction at once. It was the strange, rough, throaty cries that the creatures made.
Realising he’d been relatively calm for those first few moments, Francis was scared out of his wits. He thrashed against his restraints, trying to break free. To get away from the creatures and this trap they held him in.
He pulled with all his strength, but he quickly realised that his strength was slipping away. He jerked at the straps as his muscles turned to water. His vision blurred and he fell into unconsciousness again.
Francis woke again in the same room, tied to the same chair by the same straps. Nothing had changed.
Except this time, the voice that sounded from every direction spoke in English.
“You have been analysed. We understand our error. Do you understand us?”
Francis’ head was still foggy, but his fear was settling down. They must have given him something. He shook his head and tried to focus on the words he’d heard. One thought dominated his mind. The creatures were intelligent.
“Do you understand?” The voice rang through the tiny room again.
Francis was afraid to answer. He was also afraid not to.
“Yes.” His voice quavered.
“You have killed four.” It was not a question. The voice was as deep-throated as ever, yet somehow completely unemotional, analytical.
The images of sharp metal spitting grey flesh ran through Francis’ mind. Bile rose in his throat.
“Yes.” He didn’t think of the consequences of this admittance. He only knew it was the truth.
“You will face justice.” When the cold, throated voice rang through the room, a thought came to Francis. The voice wasn’t unemotional. The emotion in it was deliberately restrained. The voice cared.
Darkness overcame him again.
He awoke later to find a bed where the chair had been and the straps gone entirely. A toilet had also appeared in the corner. He slept and woke at irregular intervals over the next few days. Food appeared sometimes, though it was nothing he recognised. It was impossible to tell how long he had spent between those blank white walls, with their bright, white lights.
Finally, after he thought he had gone entirely mad, he awoke to find himself strapped to a new chair in a new room. He sat at a table with an identical table to his left, and a monster sitting free in a chair behind it. There was a raised platform before him with five monsters sitting behind it, staring down at him in judgment. He could hear a crowd of them hissing and whispering behind him. This room was as starkly white and strangely lit as the other.
After a moment of panic at his new surroundings and being surrounded by these creatures, Francis realised what the room he sat in was. It was a courtroom.
“Francis Park.” The judge in the center of the table spoke, hissing and spitting in his alien language. A similar voice spoke from the ceiling in English, translating as he spoke. “You are accused. You have killed four. We have heard the evidence against you. We would hear your defense.”
The voice was cold, calmly calculated, and harsh. Though that could have been the guttural inflections. Francis had had days to think on the events of those two nights. At first he had been horrified to learn that he had killed four intelligent creatures. But thinking back on that blighted, sea-swallowed landscape, he had begun to realise that their intelligence meant that the destruction he found was not the cause of some mindless force. It was them.
“I didn’t know…” He hadn’t spoken in days. His voice caught in his throat. He swallowed and tried again. “I didn’t know what you were, that you were intelligent. I thought you were monsters.”
More hisses and whispers came from the crowd at his back. It cut off as the center judge opened his mouth, lips curling back from dagger-sharp teeth.
“Understandable. But not much of a defense.” His voice seemed more harsh, more dead. But facing the almost certain death these creatures would pronounce for him, gave him the courage to say the words he needed to say.
“May I ask something?” Francis readied all of his courage, strapped there to that alien chair.
“Ask.” Francis tried to breathe as a room of creatures stared at him.
“How many of my kind have you killed?” The room fell silent. Not the respectful silence of a courtroom, but the absolute silence of offence. Francis was not sure any of the creatures breathed.
“A matter of perspective. Billions, by your count.” The center judge’s voice held no mercy. Francis now knew for sure, he would soon join those billions. He wasn’t sure why they were conducting this trial. Unless they tried each member of humanity and found them all guilty of something.
“Do not confuse him.” The judge to the far left spoke down the table. “He should know.” This judge’ voice was identical to all the others, but he seemed more compassionate. At least until he went on. “Those billions dead are more attributable to their own mistakes than to us. We here have killed none.
“We have analysed you. We understand your confusion. But no one has seen your like in eons. We have killed no one.”
“But your kind-“ Francis knew it was them. They had done this to the world.
“Our kind came from yours. You see us as invaders. We know. We are not. We are Humans, tens of thousands of years from your time. You are here by an accident of our technology. It will not occur again.”
It was impossible. Francis tried to reject the thought, but it made sense. Societies had fallen and others had risen. Technology had advanced and humankind had changed.
“Do you have any further defense?” The center judge sounded frustrated, tired of explaining things to the simple primitive. Francis realised that is what he was to them.
He also realised that he had none. The horror of his actions struck him again. Images of the creatures dying, gasping, and blood pooling beneath them flooded his mind. He started shaking again and nearly vomited.
“No,” was all he could whisper.
The five judges bore down on him. His mind seemed to detach and he once again knew he was moments from death. He almost relished the thought. After the things he had seen, and the horrible things he had seen himself do, he didn’t know how he could live out the day.
“You are found guilty of the murder of four. No integration with our society is possible. You would have no function. You are too dangerous. You are to be held indefinitely. Until something can be done with you.”
The last word punctuated the room with a crack. It was the gavel coming down. The trial was over. Only after this realisation came the realisation of what had been said. Francis had been certain he was going to die.
“Not death?” He croaked.
“We do not kill.” That was from one of the other judges, one who hadn’t spoken yet. It was the last thing he heard as he drifted back into unconsciousness.
Days past, weeks; Francis couldn’t tell. He was back in his cell with the white walls, the white bed, and the ever-present white light.
He ate less and moved less from day to day. He felt like he was going insane and decided that this was the real punishment for his crimes. What he did was all he could think about. Sometimes he thought that the punishment of being driven completely insane fit his crime perfectly. He cried himself to sleep on the few occasions he actually managed to sleep.
He was on the brink of a nervous breakdown when a voice echoed through the room for the first time since his trial. It had a more ghost-like quality that any other voice he had heard in this strange time.
“Goodbye, Francis Park,” is what it said.
The white of the room consumed everything and Francis felt himself being jerked of balance to the left. He left his feet and slid along the subway car floor. The pole he had been holding to keep himself upright, wrenched out of place and clattered along the subway car ahead of him.
Francis pulled himself to his feet as the subway doors opened onto the platform. He pushed through the crowded car, through the doors and past the people jammed onto the platform.
He shoved past people as he climbed the stairs out of the subway station. He needed air.
Finally out of the station, Francis stood on the sidewalk panting desperately. He was back in his own time.
And he remembered everything.
The killing, the running, the waiting and the trial. Before that too, his time in the subway tunnels. He hadn’t known how he’d got there. He didn’t know if that was the eventual dehydration or the effect of accidentally being ripped from the subway car and into that ruin, but for some reason he remembered now. He’d been so confused and scared the whole time. His mind hadn’t worked at all.
Francis crouched on the sidewalk, still unable to breathe. People stared as they passed him by and he stared back. Everything was so loud. So loud, and bright, and hot. But he was back with normal people. Finally, normal people in a normal society, with normal skin and normal teeth.
But remembering on the differences drew his attention to the similarities. He saw the creatures in the shape of every passerby. He saw the dead again. He imagined this street full of dead, mutilated bodies, the gutters filled with blood. He imagined the fragment of subway pole back in his hands. He tried to shut it out, shut his eyes hard, wishing the images away.
He broke down, falling to his knees, right there in the street. No one would believe where he had been and what he had done. He needed to find a way to rid himself of the images of grey corpses and flows of red blood that were running through his head. But no one would believe him if he told them. He didn’t know what to do.
Francis started to weep, rocking back and forth, trying to breathe. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.