A Prelude

by Conor Engelbrecht

Adrian looked over his shoulder; the police cruiser was trailing quite far behind now but that was no reason to get sloppy. He pulled his gun, a 9 mil that must have been older than God, free from his jeans and disabled the safety.

"Keep going," he said when the driver looked across at him. "If we manage to get out of their sight, drop into a side road."

The driver, Kellerman, nodded, and focused his attention back on the tarred road through the windshield, before slamming his foot on the accelerator and speeding over the next rise.

As Adrian rose in his seat and his head struck the car's ceiling with a thud, he thought, 'How the hell did I get myself into all of this? I mean, yesterday was a normal day. This morning was normal. What in God's name happened?'

He looked into the rearview mirror and saw that the cop car had fallen out of sight. He signaled Kellerman, who yanked hard on the wheel. The car, a dilapidated Chevy, screeched around the corner and into the side street, tires kicking up clouds of smoke.

"This thing ain't gonna hold up much longer," said Kellerman. "It's reached the end of its rope, boss."

Adrian nodded, hardly paying his crony any attention. Instead, he stared at the opening onto the highway, waiting, his pistol's barrel resting on his left wrist. The fingers of his right hand curled around the gun butt, and his knuckles had whitened from his grip.

"Get out a gun, Aaron," he said, watching the roadway. "Get out a gun and hope that they slow down."

Aaron Kellerman, retrenched mechanic, did as Adrian ordered and pulled a sawn-off shotgun from under his seat. He pumped a handful of shells into it and aimed it at the roadway.

The shriek of the police cruiser's sirens had begun to draw near, and the red and blue lights shone on the roadway in front of the old Chevy.

"Get out of the car," said Adrian, opening his door and stepping out onto the grass-infested road. It was dark, and he could see nothing but the faint red and blue lights. "The windshield will get in the way." He cocked the weapon and added, "Is there enough battery to keep the headlights on?"

"Should be," replied Aaron. "You want me to put them on?"

Adrian nodded, and half shut his eyes the moment the lights flicked on, drenching the road in yellow light. The bright light spilled out onto the main roadway; the police had to have seen it.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Aaron step out of the car, his shotgun loaded and ready, but the thing Adrian saw and disliked was how the man's hands shook.

Tires squealed out on the old highway, and the old police cruiser appeared in the road opening, turned to face Adrian and his amigo. It stopped, and two men climbed out, both armed with repeating pistols.

Adrian could see them clearly: two men in tattered shirts and faded jeans, belts criss-crossing over their crotches, extra weapons tucked into slits in the leather. One of them had a square of violet fabric sewn onto his shoulder: unfamiliar with this tribe of migrants, Adrian did not know what it indicated.

The man without the patch stared into the bright lights of the car. He flipped off the safety of his long pistol and leveled it at the headlights.

"I can't see 'em, boss,' he said, his voice thick and oily. "You want I should take out the lights?"

Patch-man, the leader of the two, shook his head. "Then we'll all be in darkness, cully. Use your head." He cocked his own gun and aimed at the car's windshield. He pulled the trigger.

The gun roared in his hand, once, and a single bullet slammed into the chipped glass. With a crash, the windshield shattered, sending tiny shards of glass spilling across the tarmac.

In the darkness behind the headlamps, Adrian watched the two migrants. He aimed his gun directly at the leader, and shut his eyes. He nodded, and Aaron targeted the lesser of the harriers.

"I am not a murderer," whispered Adrian. "I kill to preserve my own life. I would not extinguish the life of an innocent. I am a free man. This I choose. This is how I wish to live my life. Die!" The last word he shouted, and pulled the trigger on his gun as his voice died away.

The man with the patch turned his head rapidly, staring into the darkness, and stumbled forward when Adrian's bullet kicked into his chest. He fell to the ground, and his pistol spilled from his hand.

Aaron pulled the trigger on his shotgun, sending a hail of pellets into the lesser migrant, who tripped over his own feet and landed on his back, his gun firing up into the dark sky.

Adrian lowered his gun and walked forward, into the Chevy's beams of light, motioning for Aaron to follow.

"They were followers of the Light," said Kellerman, pointing at the maze of flickering lights in the sky. "It is their God and master, and they follow its will."

Adrian smiled in the darkness, and almost lost his footing as he stepped in a puddle of blood. He quickly regained his balance.

"The Light is a superstition," he said, riffling through the dead migrants' belongings. "There's no Gods up there, much as anyone would like to believe it. All that's up there is a forest of metal, and machines, and men much worse than this."

Aaron shrugged. "What interesting notions you have, Weale. I've always wondered where you gets your wild stories from."

"I've been up there, Aaron," said Adrian, looking up at his crony. "They call it the Overworld; like the Underworld, but obviously much better." He laughed. "Everyone up there reckons that this place is a wasteland. They're right as hell. Just vagrants and bastards left down here, like us."

He stood up, and walked out onto the abandoned roadway. "Will the car go?"

"No," said Aaron. "Like I said, it's run its rope."

Adrian shut his eyes, felt the pitted butt of his gun, the chipped trigger. He took in a gasp of breath and turned. "A bit like you then," he said, and pulled the trigger.

Aaron Kellerman fell to the ground, a red stain spreading across his graying shirt. He tried to say something, but choked on a mouthful of blood, before lying still.

"I am not a murderer," whispered Adrian. He took the shotgun from Aaron's dying fingers, and pumped the remaining shells into the dead man's chest. "I am not a murderer."

Adrian Weale looked up at the flickering lights in the sky, and spat on the road. A line was visible on the edge of the dark expanse: day would come soon, and would be brutal. He needed a place to lay by, and soon.

Adrian came to the abandoned convenience store with little more than an hour to spare before daylight, and he was glad to find the cover: anyone in direct sunlight would develop skin cancer, or possibly die within hours due to heat stroke. The sun was a major killer; had been ever since the Overworld had gone up.

Above the convenience store's doorway was a dark sign, once neon. Ii was too dark for Adrian to read the old name, but he did not truly care for it. He entered through the shattered glass doors, his pistol held ready.

"Hello?" he called, stepping over a collapsed, rusting shelf. A small light flickered in a socket on the wall, casting intermittent shadows over the tableau of counter and shelves, plunging the store into darkness every few seconds.

A scraping sound reached his ears, and Adrian dropped behind a wire shelf. He peered through the rods of metal, at the dark figure that stood behind the counter. It held a long rod, perhaps a rifle, and a spark of red light near where its mouth was.

"Who's there?" asked Adrian. "Behind the counter, who are you?"

The red light disappeared " snuffed out " and the figure cleared the counter in a single bound, walking towards the light on the wall. It banged its fist against the bulb, and the light held steady.

Adrian could clearly see the figure: a man, not extremely tall or well-built. Tendrils of dirty hair clung to his head, radiating outward from a central crown. To Adrian, it looked as though the man was wearing a bowl on his head. He had bloodshot eyes, and his lips were dry and cracked.

As it happened, the rod was not a rifle but a length of metal piping, and the man threw it aside when he saw Adrian's gun.

"I meant you no harm!" he shouted. "Please, do not shoot me! I am here to protect the others!"

Adrian looked at the man over his gun. "What's your name, migrant?"

"I am no migrant! My name is Roderick!"

"You mentioned others," said Adrian. "Who are these others, and where are they?"

The man, Roderick, walked around behind the counter and motioned for Adrian to follow. He did, and saw a trapdoor behind the plastic counter.

"How many of you are there?" asked Adrian.

"Two dozen! I beg of you, I am the only man under fifty among us and the only one over ten! Please, don't kill me!"

'Half a dozen, if that,' thought Adrian, staring at the dark square in the floor. "Bring them up here," he snapped. When Roderick hesitated, Adrian raised the gun slightly, and the dirty man whistled sharply.

Two people climbed up out of the floor; one of them a boy of about ten, and the other a woman with white hair and a face that looked as though it had been ploughed by a drunken farmer.

"Where are the others?" asked Adrian. "You said there were two dozen, so why do I only see two?"

The boy opened his mouth, but the old woman clamped one of her arthritic hands over it. She smiled, revealing yellowed stumps of teeth, and said, "The others are out foraging. They will return before the Light comes to cleanse us."

"You'd best pray that they do," said Adrian. "What do you know of the Overworld? And the cycles of the moon?"

Roderick shrugged, and the boy looked puzzled, but the old woman said, "Is it Great Daddy Silver of which you speak? And the Great Sky Darkness? Aye, it is, I see it in your face. What business have you chasing such legends?"

"I once lived up there," said Adrian, "on the Overworld, which you name Great Sky Darkness. It is a city of great metal buildings and billions of folk. I had escaped the moon, which you call Great Daddy Silver. And now I find myself here."

"We heard your gunfire," said the boy. "Who did you shoot?"

Adrian looked at the boy in surprise. The three folk had taken seats on the old counter, and were eating scraps of half-rotted food. Despite Adrian's fearful appearance, they seemed to have relaxed.

"When I escaped the Overworld, I met a man named Aaron Kellerman. He lived many miles, that's trails to you, north of here. When I took him away with me, two of his folk pursued us. Banditos, you see? We stopped along a trail away from here, and a fight broke out."

Roderick nodded. "Aye, you say the truth. I heard three shots; one was your friend going down and the others you killing your attackers, aye?"

Adrian hesitated. No need for them to know the whole of the truth. "That's right enough. We shot them down, but one lived after. Aaron went down, and I finished the job," he said, holding the 9mm loosely, pointing it at the ceiling.

"It be's safe for you to put that gun away, man," said Roderick. "We ain't gonna attack you. Nor are the others, when they return."

Adrian shrugged, and tucked the gun into his jeans pocket. "What are your names?" he asked, taking a crumpled paper box out of his other pocket. He slid a white cylinder out of it, and lit the end.

"Me name's Lewis," said the boy, touching his brow.

The old woman brushed her hair out of her face and said, "I'm Tabitha. Be those smokes you carry, mister?"

Adrian nodded, blowing a stream of smoke out of his mouth. "Yeah, they are." He tossed the box to old woman. "There're only one or two left, and they're a bit stale, but they're good enough."

Tabitha thanked Adrian, and handed the box to Roderick. He lit one of the cylinders, and handed it to the old woman.

"And what's your name?" asked Roderick, lighting his own cigarette. "You know ours, so it's only fair that we learn yours, stranger."

Adrian inhaled sharply; the smoke burned, but not a lot. He dropped the smoldering cigarette to the floor and ground it out with his boot heel. "My name's Weale. Adrian Weale, but I prefer to be just one. Either or."

"Well then, Weale," said Roderick, breaking the filter off his smoke, "you'd best get below here. The Light approaches fast, and its cleansing powers will find you unworthy of continuing."

Adrian shrugged. "I have no doubt of that," he said. "But I'd prefer to stay up here, if it's fine by you and yours. Come the next nightfall I'll be away on my heels again."

"Why?" asked Lewis, turning Adrian's lighter over in his hands. "What're you running away from?"

"Men," said Adrian. "The men of the moon, Great Daddy Silver's servants, they follow me. I am their enemy, and was their prisoner. I do not wish to become their prisoner once more. So I run. I take help where I can find it, and I run."

Tabitha held Lewis close to her. "He is a man of hard caliber," she whispered. "Do not question him greatly. I'd not see us killed."

"Relax, matron," said Adrian. "Hard caliber I may be, but I am no murderer." He choked on his words slightly, but pressed on. "You and yours are safe from me, lest you try and do me harm. Then..." He cocked an imaginary pistol and shrugged.

Roderick and Tabitha exchanged glances over Lewis's head, veiling them as best they could, but failing. Adrian's hand crept towards his pocket.

"The Light comes," said Roderick, suddenly. "It comes, and the others have not yet returned. They will fall victim to its cleansing."

Adrian shrugged. "Not my problem," he said. "If you have food, I would eat and be refreshed. If you have enough to spare, that is."

"Aye, Adrian," said Roderick. "We have food, and you may eat well. The others will not be returning." He hung his head. "Still, they all have lived good lives. What children there are we kept down below, so we will not die out."

Adrian nodded. "How many children are there?"

"About three others," said Lewis. "I am the oldest; ten years old, I be." He said this with obvious pride, but a strange sadness as well.

Roderick slid down into the cellar, and retuned carrying a rectangle covered in faded papers. He handed it to Adrian, who peeled the paper away.

"Chocolate," he said, taking a small bite. "I've not had chocolate in many years." He polished it off in three large bites. "How long until day?"

"A few minutes," said Tabitha. "If you would use a piss-pot, we has one down below. It's empty. There's a shit-pit in the back, but it stinks to the Great Sky Darkness. There's no wiping; say sorry."

Adrian shrugged. "I'm not needing either of them right now, thank you all the same." He looked out of the broken windows. The sky was traced with tendrils of light, and he could see the great grey bulk of the Overworld, and all its revolving stabilizers.

"Your friends are coming," said Adrian. "They are not far away; only a dozen yards, strides to you, I assume. The sky lightens, but they will live from it."

Roderick nodded, and Tabitha hugged Lewis tightly. The pair of them clambered off the counter, and down into the dark cellar.

"When are you leaving again?" asked Roderick, looking at the black rectangle of the gun butt sticking out of Adrian's pocket.

Adrian shrugged, and pulled the pistol out. "When the Overworld next passes overhead, I would say. That's about seven hours, but I can't say for sure." He checked the cartridge in his gun; only seven shots left.

"You'd not be planning on killing me, now would you?" asked Roderick, picking up a length of metal and weighting it in his palm. "'cos if you were, I'd be forced to defend myself, and the others."

Adrian nodded. "I have no intention of harming you, rest assured. What happens to those of yours who are caught by the light?"

"They take ill," said Roderick. "Their skin becomes rife with sores and roses blossom. Pain grabs them and squeezes life from their bodies. Sometimes it be's long, many cleansings long. Sometimes it's short; less than a single cleansing."

Adrian nodded; a perfect explanation. These types usually put it down to the will of the Light. What was going on here?

"I'd be sorry to see you die of that," he said, raising the gun. "Put the metal down and sit on the counter, Roderick."

"You said you would not harm us, man. Surely your word carries weight, despite your position," said Roderick, tightening his grasp on the length of metal.

"That was before I discovered you were in contact with men of the Overworld, or perhaps the moon. It makes no difference to me," said Adrian, sighting down the barrel. "I have travelled far and killed many. I'll not see myself captured because of an uneducated country bumpkin."

Roderick swallowed; his Adam's apple bobbing in his throat. "Then kill me," he whispered. "Kill me and be damned. You know my secret. So kill me!"

"I am not a murderer," said Adrian, the 9 mil's barrel weaving in the air. "But like I said, if you try and harm me..." He pulled the trigger. Roderick jarred, and crumpled to the ground.

Adrian sighed. Only six shots left now. There were five people downstairs, and an uncertain number approaching. He could not risk the sunlight, not without cover, and he'd left the car miles away.

A hissing sound from outside caught his attention, and he turned to face to door. Two men in white coats walked through, machine guns slung over their shoulders. They each wore and armband on their right arm; a scrap of black fabric adorned with a tiger swallowing a shimmering globe.

Overworld Nationalists. Perfect.

Adrian raised the pistol and fired it twice in quick succession. The two men fell to the ground, their white coats stained red, leaving red streaks on the wall as they slid down.

Four shots.

Another man raced in, his machine gun raised. He took in the scene; the dead vagrant on the counter, his two fallen comrades, and last of all Adrian's smoking gun barrel. He had less than a second to register this before a bullet struck him squarely between the eyes.

Three shots now.

Adrian walked out of the doorway, into the long grass. Four other Nationalists stood beside a curious pod-shaped contraption, two armed with machine guns. One of them held a long-barreled pistol and the last had a .22 Luger.

"Mister Weale," said the Luger's owner. "We are from the Nationalist government of the Overworld. We have orders to return you to the prison block. You will come with us."

Adrian laughed, and shot down the two machine gun toting men.

One shot.

The man with the long-barreled gun took aim, but went down with a smoking hole in his throat, leaving Adrian facing the last surviving Nationalist. With an empty cartridge.

"Don't I know you from somewhere?" asked Adrian, throwing his gun aside.

The man shrugged, and holstered his Luger. He pulled off his armband and unbuttoned his coat, allowing it to fall to the ground. Underneath, he wore a black shirt and pants. "I am John Bodkin, agent of the Overworld Resistance. We are a group of people opposed to Herr Von Beck's highly unethical laws and statutes. I was instructed to ensure that you be kept alive."

Adrian shrugged. "I don't care much for the Resistance," he said. "I'm a Lunar man, through and through. Whether or not Von Beck is crazy has nothing to do with me." His hands went to his back pocket.

"Adrian," said Bodkin. "Please, Adrian. You are one of the only men who is immune to Von Beck's mind-altering drugs. We need you on our side."

"Only because I was a needle-freak before I ended up in the crossbar hotel," replied Adrian, wrapping his fingers around a cylinder in his back pocket. "The years of scoring gave me immunity. Ross too, now that I think of it. There was another guy, Julian, who didn't pop the needles, but he was immune too." Adrian wandered off into the world of memory for a few seconds before returning to his current situation.

He pulled a shining object from his pocket and raised it to neck height. It was a knife.

"Mister Weale," said Bodkin, pulling his Luger out once more. "Put the knife down. The Overworld needs you. If we can bring down the station, maybe we can repopulate Earth. Restore the life that once held sway here."

Adrian shrugged. "Like I said to the boys in the building, not my problem. Sorry, Mister Bodkin, but I ain't going back up there. Not now, not ever."

He ran the knife along his throat, and a fountain of red blood spewed out. It covered the grass, spattered the white overcoats of the dead Nationalists.

Adrian staggered back and forwards a few steps, his skin growing steadily paler, until at last he stopped and fell into a crumpled heap on the ground, his blood still seeping out into the soil.

Standing in front of the fallen man, John Bodkin holstered his Luger and buttoned up his overcoat, doing his best to brush off the dirt. He tossed Adrian's lifeless body into the pod and clambered in after it.

A few seconds later, the pod lifted off the ground, kicking up a small cloud of dirt.

From his position beside Roderick's dead body in the abandoned convenience store, Lewis watched the pod soar away. And then the Light came, dousing everything in brilliant yellow light.

The boy stared out the window at the fallen bodies, and back at Roderick. He thought of Mister Weale, and his utter hardness. He knew the man wouldn't have let anyone kill him.

Just the thought of all those guns made his excited. He was just a boy, after all. He smiled, and settled back to wait.

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