The world before was a different place. It’s not just the cities and town and roads, it’s not the lack of technology. Those things were effects. The cause was something deeper, something fundamental to who we were as people. Something was lost and then we lost ourselves. Everything slowed to a halt. Nothing could be relied upon. We became broken.
Jones sat on his motorcycle and looked out over the vast expanse of car roofs. They sat, glittering in the bright morning sun as his motorcycle puttered softly in neutral. The cars looked like waves frozen in steel, like some strange river that gushed and flowed through streets and highways that had been paused in time. Some cars slopped off the sides of the road or were pushed up embankments. There were wrecks spotted throughout the sea where the flow had parted to pass around the now stationary objects.
Jones held a pair of binoculars up to his eyes and peered over the outskirts of the city. He scanned low-rise buildings and parking structures, dilapidated and worn. Straining his eyes began to make his head pound and flickering black spots flashed and danced over the landscape. He grew nervous as at first he could see no sigil or banner of ownership, but then his eyes came upon a broad white flag with an orange border and saltire. Those Who Went Without. He could deal with them.
He lowered the binoculars and placed them gingerly into a saddle bag, then revved the handle of his bike and kicked it into gear. The morning was quiet except for the sound of his engine as he picked his way through the mess of stalled cars.
It had started, of all things, with a headache. A pulsing hurt inside the skull that made black spots swarm before your eyes. It was all-consuming, like a dark bitter hatred that wouldn’t let go. You couldn’t concentrate, not on work, not on conversation, not on anything. There was always the darkness behind your eyes making you hate the world. That was what so many never understood. It changed you. It remade you in its own form.
Jones waited in the shade under the flag as it hung still in the hot southern sun. It had taken longer than expected to make his way this far through the still traffic, and he sat and gathered his thoughts, trying to enjoy a drink from his canteen despite his aches and nausea.
He had been spotted he was sure, but Those Who Went Without weren’t a warring tribe by nature and they would send scouts first. He had letters of backing from allies of theirs and he felt confident that he could broker safe passage through the city. He might see if he could trade a few baubles back and forth. He was always looking for new pins for his backpack, but that was just idle barter among citizens. He had no need to visit the trade center. All he wanted was safe passage and to be on his way.
Cracks started showing sooner than anyone expected. It was like eighty percent of the world just collapsed to the ground, unable to look after itself. Those who were still capable felt like they were suddenly laden with anchors and that, after a certain point, they had to look after themselves. Those who were effected felt like they were being abandoned or ignored and that the unaffected were acting inhumanely. It was important to know both sides. How you spoke about the past gave away who you were in the present. How you spoke about others gave away who you were inside. If you wanted to drift you needed to be able to pass yourself off as anyone. You needed to be able to tell both tales.
The runners came to pick him up. They were young. The runners were always children. Everywhere was rich in children. They were curious and unabashedly forward. The scouts, who Jones still hadn’t seen, had probably picked over every part of him and his bike and, after relaying all the information they could back to those in charge of the city’s borders, had deemed him not to be a risk.
For the children runners this meant he was a pushover, someone they could parade around with bravado to seem important and fearless. As they marched Jones into the city, one boy led their group forward with his chin thrust out like he was leading the finest military force on earth and their captive. Jones smiled as he watched him, this tiny, bony leader. He was reminded of his own son, now dead in the past somewhere amidst memories cratered with headaches. It was nice to see that children hadn’t changed. It felt pleasantly normal to chuckle at their antics. Jones wondered if there was something human left in the world after all.
Their strange parade continued onward, children surrounding him as he walked his bike forward into a canyon of buildings. The city limits would be carefully walled off. Jones had seen enough towns to know this for certain. It might have looked like an open infrastructure of city streets, but there would be blockades, containers and boxcars and fencing blocking off all passages inward but a few. There would be guard stations at all ingress points. There would be sniper towers nearby. And there would be secret passages through a few buildings that snaked through maintenance corridors and alleyways that only the scouts would know about. It was a medieval castle wrought from the steel of a once massive city no longer needed.
They reached one of the entrances, a sandbagged checkpoint with a guard tower.
The cracks split into chasms. Those affected grew worse. The headaches led to lethargy. Lethargy led to illness. Hospitals overflowed, people were sick everywhere. Pale and pasty and vomiting constantly with raging headaches bashing at their skulls. It overwhelmed the system. The unaffected tried at first, they tried to hold up everyone but soon they had to cut ties and worry about keeping their own fed, clothed, alive. Currencies broke down, with a majority of the workforce incapacitated no society could keep producing enough of any supply to meet demand. Prices skyrocketed and then became meaningless as bartering took over. When trading became personal it split people into two camps. Those who weren’t effected continued to deal with each other civilly. But when the unaffected were dealing with those who were effected, things were different. Security was needed. Armed guards for the supplies. Long talks to make sure deals would be kept and were even. The population was redrawn into two new societies in every nation on earth.
Jones walked beside his motorcycle. The path had become too winding and narrow to ride a little ways after the guard tower. He had been offered a spot in a parking lot but had refused. This had aroused suspicion, but he had explained that he was passing through the town and would only have to come back to walk his bike through anyway. He hoped that his confidence came across as a sign that he expected no trouble. Those Who Went Without tended to be more understanding. He just wanted to get back on the road. He had no goal in mind, what mind he still felt was his own through the headaches. No goal but distraction and to keep running until maybe his own skin felt like home again.
So far the city holder’s trusted him and he continued through a narrow alley with compacted cars stacked on either side of him. There were no pretenses past the guard towers. It was all city-scape, reclaimed and re-purposed into a handful of villages compared to the metropolis it had once been.
Things had fractured even more as time went on. The ones effected split into their own hierarchy. Those with minor symptoms did not want to be lumped in with the full-blown cases. Those not effected split as well, arguing over how to treat the effected. Some felt they were like patients to be tended to civilly. Some felt they were drains to be contained or banished. Some felt they were prisoners to be harnessed as labor. Some felt they were cannon fodder. And some hoped for a cure.
The idea of a cure was a sick joke. The cause had barely even been worked out before everything went to hell. And what caused the cause? Nobody was able to tell when the coffee plants around the world had mutated, when trimethylpurine dione had started to permanently alter the humans who consumed it. All users were rebuilt to not simply crave caffeine but to actually require it to function. And then suddenly the plants had switched off, chemically, and eighty percent of the population no longer had what they needed to function. It turns out that letting a majority of the population become addicted to a psychoactive drug was a bad idea.
Jones finally had to leave his bike behind as the children stopped in front of a general goods store. He leaned his motorcycle up against the large display window, draped in blackout blinds, and stepped through the door, a friendly bell ringing to announce his arrival. The inside of the store had been emptied out and repainted a rich dark orange, the color of Those Who Went Without.
There were seats, thrones they could be called, lined up against the wall, an odd number of them with the center throne on a raised platform. Jones had seen this plenty of times. The lengths people went through to inflict power. He supposed it worked, but he just wanted to get to the other side of this town and on his way before his clothes felt too clammy.
But then there was the whiff of something, a familiar odor, yet so much more than that. It was a smell that brought back all of life, all of the way things used to be. He had weird memory recalls to moments laughing around a computer screen, to calling after his son that he had forgotten his lunch on his to the bus. It was an olfactory time machine to the world before and he turned and smiled.
Jones’s logical brain sprang into action and tried to stop him, suddenly recognizing what was happening, but his instincts had already given him away as he turned and breathed in the smell of freshly roasted coffee hovering in the air. It was quick, he recovered fast, but he also knew that they would have been watching him, and his face when he first smelled coffee had to have given him away.
“Tweaker!” the kids started screaming. “Tweaker! Tweaker!” they yelled like they had caught Jones out in the most embarrassing thing possible. They laughed, screamed, jumped around each other all reinforcing their own little sense of disbelief.
The adults in the room made less noise, but they responded with force. Jones’s teeth chattered together as something hit him hard and his heart was racing as he was forced onto his knees before the highest throne. He could feel a gun at his back and one of the guards gave the back of his head another thump, casually, as they walked by.
War broke out. The users attacked first. Driven mad, unable to function with any consistency, they had been rounded up by a few capable leaders and set loose like savage apes upon the bastions of the uncaffeinated. With technology fractured, the mix of weapons had been bizarre. Madmen with machine guns tried to breach make-shift defenses made out of crushed cars. Passenger planes dropped satchel bombs from open doors. Missile payloads were hurled with trebuchets.
It had never truly ended. There was never any peace declared because there was no single entity left that was large enough to declare it. Populations regressed into fiefs and kingdoms, and to this day were always defending, always watching.
Kneeling before their leaders Jones knew that he was in trouble. They had sniffed out the user’s blood in him and they would not rest until they had spilled it. The easy, almost joyful way the guards had tried to hurt him as they brought him over, the way the leaders savored and enjoyed their words as they began to pass judgement, even the cheerful screaming of the children when he had been caught out. These people were happy that he had turned out to be an enemy. He tried to speak. He tried to explain how he held no allegiances, how he carried no flag. But the aroma test was all the proof anyone in that room needed.
They were explaining how they were going to kill him to best make an example of him when Jones stopped listening. He let his eyes grow distant as he thought about his motorcycle with fondness. He had been through a lot with that bike and it was the only friend he had. But it was also only a bike and he had built it to be of use up to the end, even in a hopeless situation like this. One of the snaps on the cuff of his leather jacket’s sleeve was not there for decoration, and he casually, with no one noticing, managed to remove the safety cover and press it.
There were also two wires sewn into his left sleeve that could be connected with some effort and painful stretching of his fingers. He had to hook one end under his thumbnail and reach across his palm. He listened to the leader describing bloody torture methods and he stared into space trying to act like nothing else was going on and he finally felt his thumbnail hook onto the carefully crafted copper lead. It was going to be tricky, he realized, as he reached his thumb across. He had to duck at the right time. Too soon and they’d know something was up. Too late and he’d be in as much danger as them.
He reached his thumb further, the muscles in the base of his hand cramping up. He knew from memory how far he had to stretch and that was all he had to go on, muscle memory. When it felt like he was close he threw himself down to the ground and wedged his thumb even further.
Outside the explosives built into the frame of his motorcycle erupted, blowing the entire wall and window inward and on the ground Jones felt a wall of air move over him as his heart shuddered with the blast.
It was chaos, the ceiling dangled into the room with smoke and dust covering everything. Jones saw blood sprayed against one wall as he struggled to catch his breath. His ears were whining a high-pitched noise. The guard nearest him was no longer there but his assault rifle was, and Jones grabbed it up quickly and began firing before anyone could get to their feet. He was at the door, still firing with one hand as he stripped off his jacket to reveal a nondescript white t-shirt.
He stumbled over something and looked down to see the body of one of the children, their arm blown off. He shoved it away with his foot and walked out what was left of the door. He let the gun slip out of his hands and mixed in with the people all around who were screaming or gawking at the shattered wreck of the building. He turned around to gawk and scream with everyone else and, brushing dust off of his clothes, blended in with them and disappeared. In a few hours he was clambering out of a scout’s hole on the far edge of town.
He put the city at his back and continued walking, his eyes on the lookout for a motorcycle he might make use of.
Joseph Devon: Hailing from New Jersey, Joseph is sarcastic, caustic, abrasive, and yet a surprisingly good cook. As the eldest member of the arena’s cadre, Joseph has come to rely on discipline over flash and dozens of rewrites over bursts of creativity. He also sometimes remembers where he put his dentures. Joseph grew up fighting for attention over loud guidos and even louder New Yorkers and polished a knack for concise, striking imagery. A fan of most anything silly, Joseph also has a depth hidden under his love of talking animals that can rope in unsuspecting readers and make them think before they realize they’re reading anything of substance. Joseph is the author of the first two books of the Matthew and Epp trilogy, Probability Angels and Persistent Illusions and is hard at work on the third.