IT’s Saturday again! This week, we have Rebecca Frohling with us, published playwriter of the The Family Fruitcake. So, without further ado, let’s see what Rebecca has for us today.
Rebecca’s Prompt: The silence woke her
On the third day, Sana slept. Even she could not hold off exhaustion for so long.
The silence woke her. Somehow, that was more terrifying than anything that had come before.
Rising carefully, she winced as the rubble beneath displaced itself from her ribs. Not the most ideal place for a nap, but there wasn’t much choice. She picked up the ax; it slipped neatly into the grooves in her palms, worn there by several days of white-knuckled grip. Dried blood decorated the blade. There didn’t seem much point to cleaning it anymore.
Her gaze tensed, searching, beyond the broken fourth wall. The other three still stood, which by now was unusual; but then, this used to be an army supply house. Munitions. None of those left, which was a pity. But the building was exceptionally solid. And surrounded by an electric fence. That helped.
That’s when it hit her. The main reason- and there were many reasons- why the silence filled her with terror.
The constant buzzing that had echoed in her ears for the past three days, ever since she’d taken the building as a defensive base, was gone.
The electric fence was turned off.
For how long? It couldn’t have been too much time. Sana surveyed the landscape. Mountains far in the distance. Too far for any danger to come from there. And flatlands stretching out between for miles in every direction, making it easy to see any approaching enemy. Another reason to choose this place to make a stand.
The world stood still. Empty.
Where had they all gone?
Maybe they’re really gone, she thought. Maybe they’re all dead. But she wasn’t foolish enough to believe it. She hadn’t survived this long on false hope.
It was amazing she’d survived at all. So many times she’d come close; so many times she’d almost fallen to the claws, the teeth, the hunger… But then something had just clicked inside, some forgotten adrenaline or whatever. She really didn’t know what it was. There was a lot she didn’t know. Or didn’t remember. Like the Blast, for one thing. And what came before it. The memories just didn’t want to fill themselves in. Probably shock. The longer she stayed alive, the more would come back to her. She hoped.
Whatever was in that forgotten past, it must have involved army training… or martial arts… or something similar. Had to be. She was just too good. As though she’d been made for this. For survival.
If only the others had been so lucky. Of course, if you looked at it a certain way, most of them had. Most of them had died. Quickly. That was good. Better than the alternative. The rest were alive, yes, but… changed. Different, in another way she couldn’t explain. But they definitely were not human, anymore.
And then there was her. She wasn’t dead; and she wasn’t the alternative. She didn’t know what she was. Besides alive. That was a plus. And, alone. Which was not.
Sana shook herself and turned with a grimace. Standing there, letting her mind wander. If she wanted to keep surviving, that sure was a hell of a crappy way to make certain of it. The canvas backpack, her other constant companion, slipped onto one shoulder and sat there patiently, pouch hanging open, while she rooted in it for supplies. Damn it. Getting low. Food was like sleep; she wasn’t eating much but it did become necessary at times. In that way it was a good thing she didn’t have more mouths to worry about feeding. A good thing she hadn’t run into any more survivors.
It was a conditioned response by this point; she spun, ax gleaming, swinging a wide circle with her full strength, holding only the very end of the handle in order to keep away from the enemy as much as possible, yet still get in a stroke solid enough that even they wouldn’t be getting up any time soon.
Or at least, they wouldn’t be if they were full-sized.
The ax continued its back-swing without impediment, almost spinning her around with it as she struggled to compensate for the unfamiliar lack of resistance. With an effort, Sana pulled the weapon back and held it loosely. Though not too loose.
“What—who are you?”
The boy smiled, and gave a little wave. “Denny. I’m fourth. Remember?”
“Uh…” She looked at him, amazed. He wasn’t a cute kid, more average-looking. Short black hair in an unflattering bowl cut. But it wasn’t the superficial details she noticed so much; those things didn’t matter anymore, if they ever had. What struck her was that he didn’t appear scared. Or hurt. Not a scratch anywhere that she could see. He wore a plain white T-shirt. Plain. No dirt. That wasn’t possible with kids at the best of times. In the worst of times, it was practically a miracle.
“I’m 23.” Sana put out a hand, forcing herself out of her own thoughts. “Uh, it’s nice to meet you, Denny.”
He looked at the hand, then back up at her. “I know. 23’s a low level. But you’re doing really good. They’ll move you up soon.”
The boy was already turning away, toward the hole in the wall through which he had presumably entered. “Come on. We’re running late.”
“Late? What are you talking about?”
Denny didn’t seem to hear. Sana wondered if maybe the kid wasn’t quite all there, autistic or special or one of those things, or maybe if the Blast had just affected him this way. He wouldn’t be alone; the Blast had affected them all, in one way or another. But he would be the first, at least that she’d encountered, to have no apparent physical scars.
He also wasn’t stopping. All the way to the fence by now, he put up a hand and began to scale it without hesitation. Instinctively, Sana moved after him. She wasn’t certain it was the best move. Like it or not, one of the reasons she’d survived thus far was because she was alone. Nobody to protect; nobody to shove aside in the face of danger. Nobody to waste precious time on making sure they were safe.
But she couldn’t leave him. He was just a kid.
Gritting her teeth, she slung the ax into the barely-used holster on her back and started to climb the fence after him. Kid was some kind of monkey; it was a decent-sized fence, but he was already nearly down the other side.
“Come on!” The boy said again, jumping the last few feet to the turf. He seemed excited. “We’re almost there!”
“Almost where?!” After so much time spent in near constant motion, Sana was no slouch when it came to moving fast. Even so, she was having trouble keeping up.
The words brought Denny, already about 20 feet away, to a stop. He turned and looked at her with wide eyes.
“You don’t remember??”
“Remember what?” She grunted as she hauled herself over the top, legs at an awkward angle as they maneuvered the three widely-spaced strings of barbed wire.
He considered this.
“I don’t think…” The boy shook his head. “No. It’s not my job to tell you.”
“Great.” Sana couldn’t help heaving a sigh. Patience was not one of her strengths. “So I’m just following you… to this place that you can’t tell me about?”
He shrugged, and smiled. “It’s ok. You’ll remember when you get there.”
“I will, huh?” Following the kid’s lead, she jumped the last few feet. Her ankle turned beneath her, and she fell with a cry.
“What happened?” Denny looked curious, but stayed where he was.
“My ankle.” Sana clutched at it, wincing. “Just twisted it. Damn, that hurts.”
He seemed to find this amusing. “Hurts?!”
“Yes, hurts!” She clenched her jaw. “You know, pain? Like the kind that…ow… throbs?”
“No.” He was laughing now, which definitely wasn’t helping. “No, I don’t.”
“The hell do you mean? Everyone gets hurt sometime.”
Sana squinted at him. He hadn’t stopped laughing; but the words had sounded quite serious.
“Why would I get hurt?” Denny continued. “We don’t get hurt. You’re not hurt either.”
It was her turn to laugh, albeit sarcastically. “Uh… ha. Yeah, I think my ankle would disagree with you.”
“Stand on it.”
She shook her head. “Not gonna happen.”
“Try it.” He wasn’t laughing now.
It was weird. The kid was wrong; of course he was. She could feel the pain shooting through her foot. But, somehow, the more she concentrated, the softer the hurt came. Perhaps… perhaps she could stand, after all. At the very least, she could humor him.
“Fine.” Sana grabbed the fence for support and, with some effort, managed to stand. Gingerly, she shifted her weight to the injured foot.
It didn’t hurt. In fact, it took her weight better than the other foot. It was as if she hadn’t twisted it at all.
“What the….” She looked at Denny. “How did you know?”
The boy smiled. “Come on. If we don’t get there soon, he’ll come for us.”
“He?” A minute ago, she would have dismissed the statement. Now the words filled her with trepidation.
“Yeah. The Tech.”
A thrill of horror shocked through her spine. The term was familiar, though she had no idea why. Kid must be getting to her.
Nothing should have happened. It was a normal-length blink, not fast enough for anything about the scene to change. Definitely not anything unusual.
Nothing should have happened. But something did.
A man was standing behind Denny. Not directly behind; about ten feet from him. Which was a stupid thing to focus on. What mattered was how he had got there. The first of two questions for which she had no answer.
The second was why he also seemed familiar.
“Still too long, Denny.” The man pulled back a lab coat sleeve and frowned at his watch. “Going to have to step it up.”
Denny looked, if anything, thrilled. “Ok. I’ll do better next time.”
“Yeah.” The lab coat sounded bored. “You always do. We’ll get it one of these days.”
“Who the hell are you?” Sana finally managed to sputter. It wasn’t polite, but she’d been past being polite for quite a while. Besides which the ax now back in her automatic grip made decorum rather pointless.
The man seemed surprised; surprise that turned quickly to disgust. “Oh, son of a- You mean, she doesn’t remember?”
This last was directed at Denny. He shook his head. “No.”
“Crap.” The lab coat looked back at Sana. “Guess it had to be our turn sometime.”
“Our turn?” Suddenly, she felt very tired, despite having had the best night’s rest she’d had since the Blast. The fence sagged back against her weight.
In response, the man pulled out a tablet from an inside pocket and made a note.
“Test No. 7,824. Level 23 appears to be experiencing some form of amnesia. At first observation, symptoms similar to those experienced by the other levels. Not initially clear as to the cause, or how extensive the memory loss. Further tests required.”
“Tests?” Her grip tightened, though it was taking more strength, and focus, to do so. “What do you mean?”
He ignored her. “I’m going to take you back now, Denny. Your job here is done.”
At the last sentence, Denny’s eyes closed; his head fell forward. The boy collapsed.
The man caught him easily, and hefted him over one shoulder. Sana gaped. It was about all she could do. Her muscles seemed to have finally given out. The lab coat eyed her a moment; then sighed, and put the boy back down, laying him gently in the grass.
“Ok, ok, I’ll go over the briefing. Again.” He sounded bored, and somewhat put upon; he cleared his throat.
“Ahem. Greetings, recruit. I’m Lab Tech Neil Harman, and I’ll be running your tests… As you know, a series of simultaneous nuclear explosions, a/k/a the Blast, destroyed the planet that we knew, killing millions of souls, ravaging the Earth, et cetera, et cetera.” The tech paused; his lips moved silently, reviewing the oft-repeated speech. “Filler… filler… you don’t need to know that part… Ok, so one of the survivors was Dr. Tan, an expert in human enhancement.”
A grin crossed his face. “Ha. Enhancement. That never gets old… well, anyway, most people not immediately killed in the Blast were affected by the radiation. Sort of your garden-variety zombies. The rest of the survivors came together to try and get through as best they could.
Dr. Tan came up with a plan, and it was a pretty good one. At least, nobody came up with anything better… We scavenged certain supplies; got generators going. Then she used her expertise to give us all some help. A little something extra. It’s technical, but pretty much our brains got jacked up: electrodes, nanites, special meds, you name it, the whole shebang. We needed less sleep, less meals; got a lot more strength. So. We have selected from our ranks the best of the best, labeled from Level 0 to 25. You will be sent out to the infested areas, i.e., mostly cities with a formerly high population. Training first; got to practice your skills. Get rid of a few zombie pockets here and there in the process, so it’s all good. This will lead up to a decisive maneuver, in which you Levels will be sent out for real. No breaks. No rest. Not until they’re gone. Wipe out the enemy once and for all. Yadayadayada.”
Neil waved an ending gesture. “That’s pretty much it. You get the idea.”
“What??” Sana stared at him. “…No, I don’t!”
He grimaced. “What don’t you get? I just told you—look. You’ve got your ax, right? You’re good with it. So, come at me.”
“You say that a lot.” Out came the tablet. “Level 23… repeating phrases…”
“No, I just—you want me to attack you?!”
“I want you to try to attack me.” Neil tucked away the tablet once more and folded his hands in front of him.
“I… but…” Sana looked down at the ax. Her grip hadn’t slackened; but it was all she could do to maintain it.
“You can’t, can you?” The man nodded. “It’s because I’m here. Fail-safe measure. Just in case the test subjects go-“ he spun a finger around one ear. “Can’t have them attacking the techs. Or the retrieval specialists. Those are the kids. You testers have each got one assigned to you. They’re of a higher level, kind of creates a balance or something, at least that’s what they say though I’m not sure I believe it. Not that anyone cares what I think.
“Anyway. We’re wasting time. Got to keep the tests moving.” He knelt and picked up the boy with a grunt. “You did good on this run, memory loss or no. It’s kind of a weird thing, how that’s been happening a lot lately… but not to worry. Probably just exhaustion; happens to the best of us. Which you are. So, we’ll just get you back, rested up; then get you out here for the next test.”
“Next test?” She felt like an idiot, how she kept repeating things, but it was so ridiculous. So unbelievable. But her body, now beyond her control, had reacted to the word rest, with a sort of reverse enthusiasm; all the energy was leaving, and quickly. The ax fell from her fingers and landed with a soft thud.
“Yup.” Neil smiled in a way he clearly thought was reassuring. “Things are going better and better. Another 100 years or so, I’d guess we’ll be just about ready.”
“100 years?” She couldn’t muster strength to match her astonishment. Her tongue felt thick.
“I know, right?” The tech rolled his eyes again. “They tell you the enhancement comes with extended life, they don’t mention how that tends to draaaaaaaag. But, hey. What’s one more century?”
“Yup. Just about 300 years now since the Blast. Most boring-ass centuries I’ve ever been through, let me tell you. Especially the last one. But, you’ve got to keep focused on the end goal. It helps.” Neil began to walk toward her. “And now let’s get you back.”
“Don’t…” Sana wanted to say don’t touch me. Her lips wouldn’t move.
“Hey, this wasn’t my idea. You’re the one who decided not to follow Denny.” He scowled. “Now I’ve got to carry you both back. I haven’t even stretched. Enhancement better work against strained muscles, otherwise Dr. Tan’ll be hearing from me.”
He stopped directly in front of her, the lapel of his coat brushing her frozen face. “Now, I’m going to say the words. You’re conditioned for them, so you’ll fall asleep nice and gentle; then you’ll wake up in the lab and we’ll go from there, right?”
Sana tried to shut her ears. It couldn’t be true. He couldn’t take her. Fear bubbled up inside her. She didn’t want to hear the words. The fear didn’t want to let her hear the words.
Something else did.
Something else won.
“I’m going to take you back now, Sana. Your job here is-“
Rebecca Frohling is not an evil soul-sucking demon. She has a distinct lack of fangs, talons, and scales. She has never once attempted to drag innocent villagers to the pitch-black reaches of the never-ending pits. And there is definitely none of that “worship of the Dark, the black despair that rots all hope, destroys beauty and love, and tears sanity from the mind to the music of anguished screams” nonsense going on here.
Just so we’re clear.
She is, however, a very busy writer of plays and short stories. You can find her published play The Family Fruitcake at http://www.histage.com. You can also read her blog at http://caffeinatedchipmunk.weebly.com, or find her every day on Twitter when she should be writing instead. Her husband and three kids put up with her shenanigans, for which they deserve a medal, but they’ll settle for a hug. Right, guys?