Splitting Atoms

By David Lindsay


Snap!

Gunfire. My eyes flew open and I flipped the safety on my rifle, already nestled against my chest underneath a makeshift bandolier. The room was a dull grey heap of ruin like a soot-filled sarcophagus, nothing but scattered rubble and peeling walls under a collapsing ceiling. I didn’t move a muscle as I stared at the boarded up window and listened for another shot.

Snap!

I lurched and scrambled backward against the wall, craning my neck to peek through the gaps between the boards. The gunfire was getting closer. I was on the second floor so I had to stand up halfway to see the street. There was nothing outside but dimly lit streets under a twilight sky. Crouching like this made my legs hurt and I swore under my breath. Sounds like a six-shooter.

Snap!

I started moving to the other side of the room toward the sound. I slipped my rifle out of the chest strap and held it properly as I ran. There was an opening in the wall from an old artillery shell which had tunneled through the entire building like a rabbit hole. I ducked under exposed pipes and carefully advanced into the next apartment, my eyes frantically darting to every dark corner. Each room was more empty and barren than the last. Finally I reached the bathroom at the edge of the building and locked the door behind me.

The boards on the bathroom windows had a perfectly sized gap allowing a wide range of vision while still providing protection. I sat on the toilet and rested my weapon on the bottom board aiming down at the street, waiting for the sound of another gunshot. A man’s voice pierced the silence and my barrel smacked against the wood with a startled jolt.

“Here! Over here!” The speaker was too close for comfort, on the street just below my window. I was shocked that I didn’t see him approach the building. I turned back and forth scanning the darkness for his companions. I finally spotted a hooded woman bolting down the street in a panicked sprint. Her thick tattered clothes seemed to be weighing her down but she moved surprisingly fast.  “Hurry!” The man screamed again.

Then I saw them. Several decrepit humanoid figures chased the woman. They resembled exhumed corpses with no skin, a sickening mess of rotting muscle and bare bone. Body parts were sloughing off in chunks and an unnatural green glow faintly surrounded them. Their faces were a contorted assemblage of jagged teeth and vaguely human features. Skinless. The sounds were the worst part. Skinless like to hiss, click, and screech in a way that makes your blood run cold.

I aimed at a Skinless down the iron sights and bit my lip. The fleeing woman ran straight for my building and I could hear the thud of her approaching footsteps. I counted four Skinless stumbling toward their prey with a clumsy quickness. The audible shrieks from the creatures rattled my concentration and made my hands shake. I held my breath and started to squeeze the trigger. No. My ammo is too precious. I exhaled, retracted my gun, and stuck a trembling hand into my backpack.

I pulled out my gas mask and strapped it on. The cracked visor obscured part of my vision but I was used to it. I could feel a rumble beneath my feet as the stranger below pulled open the thick metal sliding door that led into my building. I walked softly as I picked up my rifle and quietly exited the bathroom.  There was one staircase that led downstairs but I crept past it and into the next room. The ancient artillery shells had left several gaping holes in the floor. I picked one and lowered myself onto a crumbling wooden dresser downstairs.

A thick shroud of dust filled the air and suffocated my senses. My mask helped me breathe but there were few openings to the outside air so it created a stuffy gas chamber of dust and debris. I could hear the pounding of feet in the next room and the metal door slide shut with a resounding roar. I approached the wooden frame that led into the entrance hall where the intruders stood. I don’t have much time. I need to make my move now. A chill ran down my spine as I raised my gun and stepped forward into the foyer.

There were only two of them, a man and a woman. They were frantically piling furniture in front of the iron door with an air of frenzied panic.  I stood in the doorway and studied them for a moment since they didn’t notice me. The woman’s clothes were beyond destroyed, she was wrapped in a thick hooded shawl with work boots on her feet and not much else. I could hardly make out her features behind the veil of dust. I turned my head to examine her male companion and my heart stopped.

The man wore an alien-looking jumpsuit in pristine condition. Thick metal plates covered vital areas of his chest and a jagged steel spine ran down his back. The metallic vertebrae split into four small bands that ran along his arms and legs to connect with heavy gauntlets and boots. Polished black chrome and pulsating blue lights looked jarring in contrast to the anemic world surrounding him.  I had never seen an Exosuit before, only heard stories about the superhuman powers they granted. Strength, speed, cunning, the list goes on and on.

Is he from Archis? The legendary city of Archis was told to be a sprawling metropolis that somehow survived the Great War.  There were rumors abound but I didn’t know a soul who believed them. I never thought such a place could truly exist. I imagined colossal towers and bustling spotless streets.

The sounds of the Skinless screaming made me snap back to reality. Decomposing hands groped through openings in the windows and tore chunks out of the wood. Their mangled faces peeked through holes in the walls as they chewed on the plaster and uttered a threatening hiss. My breathing shuddered and my hands were unsteady as I lifted my weapon and pointed it at the male stranger.

“Hands up,” I shouted as loudly as I could over the commotion but my voice cracked. “Put your hands up now!”

The woman turned and gasped loudly when she saw me. She backed up a few steps into a corner and timidly raised both hands. The Exosuit man let go of the rubble he was pushing and simply froze. Just put ‘em up man. Please. I was terrified of him. I kept the woman in my peripherals and took a few careful steps in his direction.

I shouted again, even more loudly this time, “Put your fucking hands up and get on your knees. Now!” He finally complied and I felt a wave of relief. My hands shook a little bit less. I walked up right behind him and pressed the end of my rifle to the back of his head. Exosuits stop at the neck so I got a close look at his face. His body was muscular and bulky but his finely combed hair was turning grey, and he had an impossibly clean-shaven face which gave him a youthful boyish look. I hollered again with as much aggression and authority as I could muster, “Where is the gun?”

A loud crash sounded through the room and the woman shrieked. A Skinless arm had burst through the window where she was standing. She started to sob uncontrollably and whimpered like a dying dog.

The Exosuit stranger spoke, “Please, let us go. The Skinless are-“ I struck his skull with the butt of my rifle and cut him off.

My voice was a threatening growl. “I don’t care ‘bout no Skinless. They’re dumb as dirt.” I shut my mouth for a long moment so the intruders could bask in the oppressive clamor of Skinless wheezing and clawing through the wood. The woman had quieted down but she was still weeping and leaning against the wall. I raised my voice and bellowed once more, “Now give me the damn gun. I ain’t playin’ around.”

Another crash resonated through the room and I was showered with wooden splinters that stung my skin. The Skinless had cleaved apart the window boards and one stuck its torso into the building, struggling to wrestle its entire body inside. I turned my rifle away from the man’s head and took aim at the creature. I tapped the trigger two times with my finger and both shots met their mark. Green blood splattered the wall and the Skinless went limp, slumping back into the breach.

Footsteps pounded the floor as something ran toward me from behind. Another Skinless? I swiveled my head and saw the woman sprinting toward me with her arm extended. She had something in her hand, it was far away and shrouded with dust but I immediately knew what it was. I was staring down the barrel of a revolver. Shit.

A flash of light and a deafening pop. The bullet slammed into my shoulder and carried my body with it. My back crashed against the wooden floor and I stared at the ceiling in a state of catatonic shock. The sound of footsteps kept ringing out as the woman maintained her speed. I felt a boot plow into the side of my head and my vision went black.

Darkness.

Searing pain.

I’m still alive.

My eyes shot open. I was lying on my back in the same spot. Sunlight glared through the walls and windows with a disorienting potency. My breathing was quick and frantic as I glanced around the room to find my bearings. A crude bandage made of tattered cloth was wrapped around my torso and steeped in blood. There were few signs of Skinless apart from the claw marks and shredded wooden fragments littering the ground. I tried to sit up and prop my back against a heap of debris, but a jolt of pain shot through my shoulder making me reel and lie back down. I grunted with despair.

“Oh you’re finally awake.” The man’s voice broke through the stillness. My heart skipped a beat and I quickly patted my chest looking for a knife. My rifle was nowhere to be found. The interloper stood over me and peered down. Exosuits looked even more complex and frightening in the daylight. His chiseled face stretched into a smile. “How are you feeling?”

My knives were gone. I let my arms go limp and fall back to the floor. I wildly searched my brain for the right words to say. After a long silence I finally spoke, barely more than a whisper, “You let me live.”

The man said nothing, just kept staring down at me and beaming that charming smile. After a moment he walked away. I stared at the rotting ceiling and my mind kept racing.  What the fuck?

His face reappeared above me. He crouched down and peeled back the bandage on my chest, revealing a bloody mess. “Hold still. This will hurt.” He poured something on my wound and I moaned in agony. It burned like boiling water but I recognized the smell of alcohol. It was an extremely rare luxury that I had not seen in a long time. “Do you need help sitting up?”

I lay quietly and let the wave of anguish wash over me before I replied, “Yes. Please.” As he grabbed my arms and helped prop me up I spied the woman who shot me. She was huddled against the wall in a sort of fetal position staring daggers in my direction. I met her eyes for a moment but her gaze was so full of hate and fury that I quickly turned away. She had a full head of dark hair with bronze skin and almond eyes. Her body was covered with filth and she lacked the immaculate sterile look of her Exosuit companion.

The man crouched down again to meet me at eye level and flashed another friendly grin. He extended his hand to me. “My name is Dr. Gresham. And you are?”

I opened my mouth to offer a pseudonym but something stopped me. Maybe it was the warm cordial way the man spoke to me, or because he let me live, or maybe it was that he reminded me of my father. Maybe it was the hundred pounds of technologically-advanced Exosuit humming and staring me in the face. Whatever it was, I felt something well up inside of me that I had not experienced in many years. Trust.

“Quinn.” Saying the word made me feel uneasy. It had been so long since I shared my real named with another person that it didn’t feel like my own. I grasped Gresham’s outstretched hand and gave it a firm shake. The whole thing was unnatural but I reveled in these strange feelings of peace and comradery.

“What a lovely name.” Gresham stood upright and motioned toward the threadbare woman. “Celia was beautifully named as well, but she cannot even spell it. It is such a pity. Can you write your name, Quinn?”

I was aware that my illiteracy was a weakness and I bowed my head in shame. I preferred not to share my faults with other people but somehow this Dr. Gresham was different. “No,” I muttered.

Gresham chuckled. “No need to be embarrassed.” We made eye contact and I saw something change in his face. His broad smile slowly collapsed as Gresham’s train of thought shifted. He turned his head toward his partner. “Celia, would you mind fetching the bag? I am going to have a chat with our friend here.”

The woman kept staring forward with that icy expression and noiselessly rose to her feet. She walked straight to the sliding metal door and slipped through a gap into the sunlit world outside. Gresham fixed his gaze to mine. I realized that I was no longer wearing my gas mask.

“So you are wondering why I spared your life.” The friendly grin was gone but I detected warmth in his voice. “I know how life is for you out here. Wastelanders are a thick-skinned lot. I don’t blame you for putting a gun to my neck.” Gresham crouched down again to meet me at eye level and the volume of his voice lowered slightly. “But where I come from we do not shoot or rob other people. Maybe that is why I need your help.”

The metal door crashed open with a metallic scream and I was blinded but barely seemed to notice. Gresham’s words were still ringing through my head. Help? Celia stepped into the room silhouetted by the sun’s glare. As she approached I saw an unblemished bag dangling from one shoulder and my rifle from the other. She set the knapsack down near Dr. Gresham’s feet and retreated back into her corner.

The Doctor widened his lips into another smile and declared earnestly, “You are a survivor Quinn. I have Celia protecting me but she is not enough. I want to hire you.”

I almost burst out laughing and shook my head. Exosuit has a bitch guarding him? But these people had my rifle. I could see my precious weapon out of the corner of my eye. “What do I have to do?”

Gresham gave me a serious look and spoke quietly. “I need to pass safely through the Craterlands. I am headed to a Red Star outpost.”

I snorted and chortled with tears of laughter streaming down my face. With one hand I slicked back my hair and regained my composure. “The Craterlands? You’re outta your fucking mind. I wouldn’t do it for a pile of rounds.”

Gresham reached into the backpack and removed a small green box. He carefully handed it to me and his smile broadened. “This is military grade ammunition from Archis. I’ll give you half now and the other half when I reach my destination.”

My hands quivered as I opened the lid and peered inside. There must be thirty rounds in there. I couldn’t read the symbols on the sides of the box but I knew a proper 7.62 round when I saw one. I spoke timidly. “So you’ll give me back my gun if I help you?”

“You can decline the proposition and leave with your rifle. I am only offering you the shells. Celia, give him the weapon.” Gresham barked the orders fiercely and the woman seemed to boil with anger. Begrudgingly she stepped forward and hurled my rifle at the ground by my feet. I grasped it in my hands and clenched it against my chest like a mother with a newly born infant.

“Thank you,” I said sincerely and bowed my head at Dr. Gresham. The floor was starting to hurt my ass but I sat motionless for a while longer as I considered the offer. I ain’t never seen that much ammo in one place. How much is in that bag? Finally I spoke. “Okay. I’ll help you. But I got three conditions.”

Gresham wrung his hands excitedly. “Brilliant. What are they?”

“You teach me how to read.” I looked down at the floor sheepishly while I said it. But Gresham responded immediately.

“Done. What else?”

I looked at Celia and nodded at her, “She needs to shave her head and wrap her tits like a normal broad. I ain’t traveling with no girl lookin’ like that.”

Celia’s menacing scowl intensified and she bared her teeth at me like a savage beast. But Dr. Gresham spoke quickly once again. “Yes, we can arrange that. And the last condition?”

I hesitated before opening my mouth. Is it foolish? Will they lie? For some reason I believed every word that came out of Gresham’s mouth so I felt compelled to seek answers. “Tell me why a Doctor from Archis is going to the Red Star Army. What do you want with those Commie bastards? Aren’t they your enemies?”

Gresham’s eyes narrowed for a moment, then he beamed and put a hand on my shoulder in a friendly gesture of good faith. “They are going to help me destroy Archis.”