tagNon-EroticZero Sum

Zero Sum

bymykaltrent©

It was dark outside.

But it was always dark.

The ever-present black clouds rolled forebodingly across the charred sky, the same way they did every second of every minute of every day.

It was approaching nightfall now. The faint glow of the sun was fading, sinking down over the jagged horizon. The smoldering, skeletal remains of buildings cast twisted, misshapen shadows across the landscape. Office buildings, libraries, schools, gas stations, grocery stores, even homes, all destroyed. The shadows were the only things left of the beautiful civilization we'd worked so hard to build, and now it was as if the whole world had just broken and turned grey.

The temperature was dropping quickly. You could feel it deep inside you, squeezing your heart.

Then the alarms began to sound.

The sirens, the shrill voices of the screaming dead, wailed out of the speakers and reverberated through the wreckage. It was a warning. A sign.

Down below, a small group of people huddled in the frost of a drainage culvert. Men, women, but only a few children.

Children didn't last long.

They might even have been the last people on earth. Who knew? This was humanity in the very hour of its twilight.

The alarms shook the small throng from fitful sleep, and put the buzz of adrenaline in their blood. Could this be it? Was this truly the beginning of the end? Everyone was thinking it, but nobody had the will to say it. In fact, nobody spoke at all.

Among the small group were two people who sat away from the rest. One looked like he might have been in his later fifties, but he was probably much younger than that. People aged quickly in those days, and they wore their sorrow in lines on their faces.

In his lap, lay a boy in his late teens. He was skeletal,

[dying]

with skin that stretched over his jutting bones like canvas. The older man held the boy to his chest, cradling him in his arms. They might have been father and son.

The boy was shaking violently with fever, and his chest was heaving with slow, labored breaths.

[dying]

It was the smoke, the man thought. He's always had asthma as a kid, and now he just couldn't breathe the smoke any longer.

[dying]

That word that no one said anymore had been clawing its way to the front of his mind for a few days now. He traced his fingers across the boy's tear-streaked face. His eyes were closed, as they usually were these days, and his face was hot to the touch.

[dying]

There was no other version of the truth.

He registered a hand on his shoulder.

"When he... Passes,

[dies]

you know what we have to do."

"You're not going to touch him. You're not going to lay a finger on him."

"We need something-"

"You don't need my boy."

"We've got to have something!"

"Not him."

[and that's final]

"Then what are we going to do? How do you expect us to-- Oh, Jesus..."

It was the sirens again. Twice, now, they'd sounded. And they almost seemed louder this time. All at once, it was as if reality had come crashing down upon them, like all the rubble of their forgotten lives.

Two sirens. Two consecutive sirens. The warning, and then...

[dead]

They didn't know whether to feel like the weight of the world had been lifted, or like it had been cast down upon them threefold. But the silence between the people persisted, as each began to deal with his own inevitability, completely alone.

After a few seconds, it all seemed to sink in.

This was it.

[dying]

What do you do, knowing you're balanced on the brink of death? Resting on the very cusp of destruction, where you know you'll die in a hail of fire, stone, blood and flesh?

"Looks like you're not going to have time after all," the man said calmly, and he turned back to the boy. So this is what it was like to be a condemned man, he thought. To wait at the gates of hell, with nothing to do but sit and ponder your own fate.

[could I have been a better person?]

We did this, he thought. Humanity had been it's own downfall, this self perpetuating downward spiral. All this is a consequence brought on by our own hand.

[if you believe in that sort of thing]

And we'll never get away. We'll never get to take the easy way.

He told himself it didn't matter. They would be alright. That they'd find a better place in this twilight. But the longing that he felt, staring down into the face of the one reason he'd stayed alive made it just too much to comprehend. Too monumental to wrap his mind around. He numbly stroked at the boy's sunken cheek with a finger,

[so hot]

searching for a handle on the moment, something, anything to grasp onto.

[did you ever really find what you hoped to find?]

He tried to remember what the boy looked like before. He had fewer bones back then.

[that place that is still and at peace?]

His boy, his baby boy.

After a moment, his eyes fluttered open, and he gazed up at him with exhausted fear worn into every crease of his features.

"That was two." His voice was hoarse from disuse. It was more a question than a statement.

[don't tell him]

"No."

"They're going to do it."

[don't you fucking tell him]

"No. That's just the sirens. It doesn't mean anything."

They were silent for a long time. The man gently brushed some ash from the boy's hair.

"Am I dying?"

[yes]

"Don't think about that right now."

High above their heads, a deafening roar issued from the clouds. A dozen pairs of eyes turned simultaneously towards the sky. So this was it then. This is how it was all going to end. To the man and the boy, it didn't seem real enough yet.

But all around them, people were screaming and running. The got to their knees and crossed themselves. They pushed sharp glass into their wrists. They took their knives and slit their own throats. Suicides, mercy killings. Parents killed their own children, husbands killed wives. And they ran, God, they ran. Scattering away like pathetic little ants, scrabbling and clawing at the last vestiges of their pathetic little lives. Dropping like flies, like the mindless lemmings they'd become. But while the world cringed away in anticipation, writhing in fear, the man and the boy remained still.

"What was that?"

[hell is coming up to take us]

He gently lifted the boy's body up off the ground, holding him tightly to his chest. Tears stung his eyes and blurred his vision.

"Don't worry about that right now. Look up there, baby." He gestured towards the faint glow in the sky. "Watch the sun."

[as it crawls across the final time]

The boy just shuddered in response, turning his glazed eyes upward, and the light began to grow.

[people are screaming]

"Come here..." The man closed his eyes, pressed lips to the boy's forehead, and began to whisper into his ear. "They're starting to open up the sky."

[so loud]

The boy began to shake more violently. His breath became ragged, erratic.

[the fever is taking him]

He spoke, the only words his slipping mind could form. "Do you remember the time we..."

[shame on us]

"They're starting to reach down through."

"All the times we..."

He was speaking, but it didn't make any sense. The nerve endings in his brain had been set aflame by fever, and it terrified him.

"If only we had a little more time.

[doomed from the start]

But soon it'll all be said and done."

[will we even feel the concussion, when it hits?]

Tears fell.

"The light... It's so bright!"

"We will be together soon. You, and me..."

[may God have mercy on our dirty little hearts]

"The black is really white, if you believe it--"

"Shh, baby. Be still..." Sobs wracked the man's body now. He was beyond maintaining the illusion of control. "Close your eyes.

[in this hour of our twilight]

Don't look."

"No, the light!"

[shame on us]

The boy's emaciated

[dying]

form pressed into his chest. His shivering had reached a new height.

"I guess I just wanted to mention..."

[for all we have done]

"As the lights start to fade..."

[he's slowing down]

"You are the reason--"

[dying]

"That I am not afraid."

[all we are worth]

"We'll be together soon."

[just zeros and ones]

"If we be anything at all."

And as the cacophony of deafening thunder and piercing human screams

[this is what my death will sound like]

rose to a powerful climax, the boy felt his body begin to slip away from him. His eyes flew wide open, for one final time, and reflected all the terror of his dying world like two perfect mirrors.

"The sky is filled with light! Can you see it? Oh! Can you see it? It feels like- li- l-!"



And all the world was still.

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