He lay motionless for a long time, hoping that he could hold onto the last remains of his sleep. But the sleep felt wrong. It was too deep. Too painful. He felt like he'd been in a coma and waking up would induce a hangover of some description. He couldn't think at all, let alone remember how he got into the position he was in; draped awkwardly across a hard surface, arms flailed out at odd angles and legs almost numb. After an eternity of avoiding movement, he decided that lying there and waiting for death was less than dignified.
He shifted his weight onto his left arm and thrust himself into an awkward sitting position with a large, throaty groan. His brain was spinning. He shut his eyes and forced himself to breathe in a regular rhythm. Slowly, he pried his eyes back open and waited for his surroundings to come into focus.
It was dusk. He was in the middle of a ruined city. It was familiar in a way, but all the buildings looked as though they had been bombed, though there was no evidence of panic or... people. Where were the people? There was no one in sight. Marcus realised then that he himself was sitting in one of the ruined buildings, surrounded by rubble and silence. No, not silence... there was a rumbling. A constant murmur of noise heard from the distance. It was far away, but loud enough to ring in his ears. And there was another noise, too... a crackling...
Marcus spun round and bounced heavily onto his feet in one swift movement. The throbbing in his head caused him to immediately regret it. He lost his balance momentarily and stumbled to one side. Once he had caught himself, he squinted at the crackling fire before him, then at the two small figures hunched over it. Both were clad in dark, ragged outfits and jogged something in Marcus' blurred memory.
'Don't shit yourself,' said the voice of the man. Marcus' eyes adjusted and he saw that it was in fact just a boy, no older than eighteen. He was sitting beside a small girl, who didn't smile but seemed pleased by Marcus' presence. The odd couple was peering up at Marcus as though they knew him well.
'What happened?' Before the words had left his lips, Marcus' mind finally managed to replay the events that led him here.
He had woken up in a strange environment, dazed and confused. He seemed to be making a habit of doing that. He'd looked around and noticed the wrecked buildings and the empty streets. He'd immediately begun to freak out, thinking that he was entirely alone and had survived some kind of apocalypse. He considered his last memory; waiting to be murdered by the Government for a crime he was forced to commit. Then he'd seen movement in the distance and called out. All he could recall after that was load gunshots, ducking out of the way, the boy's breath against his face, 'Come with me if you want to live'...
'A machine nearly wasted you. I saved your life but you hit your head on the way down,' the boy said in a tone that implied he had told the story a million times. 'You passed out, dude. How embarrassing for you.' He glanced at the girl and they exchanged a smirk, then turned to the fire. Marcus noticed that they were roasting something large and brown.
'Right,' Marcus said grudgingly. He wasn't sure how rude he was allowed to be to someone who had saved his life, then belittled him. 'Where, um... Where is everyone?'
The boy looked at him blankly. 'Everyone?'
'Yeah. As in, you know, people. The people who live here.' He looked around. 'Or used to live here.'
The boy tensed. 'There were people here? How long ago? Were they part of the Resistance? Do you know if they're coming back? Are you one of them?'
Marcus paused to register all of the boy's questions, then creased his forehead. 'What? Look, you're really going to have to explain this to me, man, 'cause I'm completely fucking lost.'
'Explain what to you?'
'Why does it look like a war has been fought here?'
'Uh... because it has, maybe.' He exchanged another look with the girl, this time one of bemusement.
'There was a war? What? When?'
'Now. We're right in the middle of it.' He waited for a reaction, then continued. 'It's been going on for years. Where have you been?'
'I'm so confused.' There was a tinge of panic in his voice.
The boy's expression turned skeptical, then amused. 'You really don't know what's happening?'
Marcus' patience wavered. 'Do I look like a man who knows what the fuck is happening?' he snapped.
'You must have hit your head super hard.' He turned the large brown object that was cooking over the fire on its side. Limbs were revealed and hung down in a way that made Marcus' stomach heave. 'You should probably stop stressing yourself out. You were unconscious for a long time and you're probably concussed or something.'
'For fuck's sake.'
'What is "fuck"? Why do you keep saying "fuck"?'
Marcus studied the boy's face for a hint of irony. There was none.
'OK, kids,' Marcus said with a sigh, sitting opposite the confused children and peering at the meat above the fire. Disfigured coyote. How delightful. 'Let's start from the beginning. My name is Marcus. What are your names?'
'I'm Kyle,' said the boy, wary about Marcus' suddenly close proximity, 'and this is Star. She doesn't speak.'
Marcus blinked a few times, then disregarded the comment. 'OK. Where exactly are we?'
'Los Angeles. How did you get here without even realising where you were going?' Kyle chuckled, as though Marcus was the one not making any sense.
Marcus stared at Kyle, wide-eyed. 'Los Angeles, California?'
'Are there any other Los Angeles-es...es?'
Marcus paused, then decided that he pitied the poor, confused boy. He shook his head. 'No, no, no. This is not L.A. L.A. is where all the celebrities live. You know. It's sunny and expensive and tacky. It looks nothing like this.'
'I hate to break it to you but, yeah, this is L.A. What year have you been living in, Maroos?'
The boy frowned, 'Marcoos.'
'Well done.' Marcus rubbed his temples. 'What happened then?' he queried, concluding that humoring Kyle was the best way to go. 'Why did L.A. turn out like this?'
Kyle stared at Marcus in pure astonishment. 'Because of the machines.' Marcus didn't react. 'The uprising of Skynet. The end of the world. Does none of this ring a bell to you?'
Marcus replayed Kyle's words a few times in his head before asking, 'When, exactly, did the world end?'
'Judgement day, 2003.'
'OK, well that's a load of shit because it's 2001.'
Kyle rolled his eyes. 'Nooo,' he said slowly, 'it's 2018.'
'OK, kid, you're really starting to piss me off now,' Marcus said through gritted teeth.
'I'm not a kid.'
Marcus clenched his fists and realised that exhaustion was quickly washing over him, despite having only just woken up.
'OK. Let's figure this out and not get all huffy, OK?' Kyle asked, agitation creeping into his voice. 'What's your last memory?'
Marcus thought for a moment. 'I was on death row, about to be executed.'
Kyle's eyebrows disappeared under his hair. He tried to conceal his shock. 'For what?'
'I... I messed up. I suppose it doesn't matter anymore, since the world has evidently ended.' He shook his head, irritated by Kyle's elaborate story but teetering on believing it. 'Wait, no. I died. I mean, I felt the needles piercing my skin. I saw the liquid going in. I remember getting drowsy and being terrified of the impending abyss... and then I woke up here.'
'Maybe this is hell.'
Marcus stood, glaring at Kyle. 'This is not a joke. This is freaking me the fuck out.'
'Ugh.' Kyle looked at Star for a moment, then reached out to straighten her wonky hat. 'This guy's a barrel of laughs, isn't he?' Star grinned, and Kyle flashed her a wide, genuine smile.
'I'm going home,' Marcus said after a moment, quickly twisting around and marching out into the rapidly darkening, abandoned street.
'Where is your home, exactly?' Kyle asked, doubt plaguing his tone of voice.
'You're going to walk to Washington?'
Marcus froze. 'I'll get a cab,' he said, without turning around.
Kyle laughed heartily. 'From where? From who? Everyone's dead, Marcus.'
'Don't say that.'
'It's the truth.'
Marcus' shoulders dropped. He felt himself giving in. 'How?'
'How did everybody die?'
Kyle cleared his throat. 'Skynet.'
'What is Skynet?'
'It started out as a Government program. Fancy software designed to help them in war, or something. Ironic, I guess. They made it too powerful. It evolved into artificial intelligence and there was an uprising. All the machines turned against us. They're stronger, smarter, more efficient, better at building, and have complete control over almost anything electronic that they get their hands on. The humans fell quickly. There aren't many left.'
'Why didn't you get killed?'
Kyle shrugged. 'Lucky, I guess. Some older people took me under their wing for a couple of years when I was first left alone. They died in the end.'
'So there really is no one left?'
'There are some people,' Kyle corrected. 'We're only a tiny portion of the Resistance.'
Neither of them spoke for a while.
'Fuck,' Marcus eventually managed.
'What is "fuck"?' Kyle asked for the second time. He scrambled awkwardly to his feet and came to stand beside Marcus, then backed off a little, wary again.
Marcus sighed. ' "Fuck" is a word that people use to express annoyance. For example, "This is a fucking joke".' He eyed the boy, then lifted his hand so that it was suspended an inch above Kyle's head. 'You have to be this tall to say "fuck".' His hand dropped back down to his side. 'It can also express confusion. For example, "What the fuck is going on right now?" Or it can be a verb, like, "I want to fuck someone".' Marcus caught Kyle's confused eyes and quickly looked away. 'You following me, kid?'
'I'm not a kid,' Kyle said, surprising Marcus with his tenacious tone.
'How old are you?' Marcus asked, eyebrow raised.
'Seventeen, I think, could be eighteen by now I guess, kinda lost track.'
He snorted. 'Yes, Kyle, you are a kid.'
Kyle's hands balled into fists and he fidgeted, as though he wasn't sure what to do with the sudden surge of irritation he was experiencing. 'Well how old are you?' he demanded.
'Twenty-eight. Although if it really is 2018, then I guess that makes me... like, forty-three. Shit, I must look haggard as hell.'
Kyle hesitated. 'Twenty-eight. Wow. You're almost as old as my father.'
Marcus did a quick sum, then grimaced at Kyle. 'Your father was eleven when you were born?'
'No,' Kyle said quickly, 'I meant that you're almost as old as my father was when he died. He was thirty. I was nine.'
'Why? Was it your fault?'
'Uh, no. Not as far as I'm aware. But that's just what you're supposed to say. You're supposed to say "sorry".'
'Who is supposed to?'
'There are no people.' Kyle jerked his head to one side. 'I mean, sometimes there are people. Me and Star sometimes meet other people. Like you. Sometimes we even stay with them for a while. But we always end up alone again.'
'That sounds boring as shit.'
There was a prolonged silence. Kyle seemed much more at ease than Marcus.
'So what do you do?' Marcus eventually asked. 'Day to day, I mean. Fight robots?'
'Pretty much. Not all the time, though. It's not that glamorous.' He smiled. Marcus noticed the slight dimples caused by the smile, but saw that the smile didn't quite reach Kyle's eyes. He hid his face before he allowed himself to smile back.
'Actually,' Kyle said suddenly, 'you probably want to know about the Resistance. The HQ, I mean. Where John Connor and his people stay.' He spun on his heel and almost danced over to the radio sitting on a nearby demolished wall. He knelt beside it, switched it on and spent several minutes fiddling with the dial and failing to find a broadcast.
Marcus glanced at Star. She shrugged, exasperated. He grinned.
'Well, he's obviously not broadcasting now,' Kyle said, finally giving up and turning away from the radio. 'He doesn't do it that often, but when he does it's... it's cool.' Something about his tone of voice made Marcus uncomfortable.
'Who?' he asked flatly.
'John Connor. The leader of the Resistance.'
'Oh. He sounds dreamy.' Marcus didn't crack a smile as he made the bitter joke.
'Shut up,' Kyle said, agitated. 'He's going to save us all from the machines. I think he deserves a little bit of awe, don't you?'
'What makes you so sure that he's going to save us?'
Kyle thought for a moment. 'He's the leader of the most powerful resistance in the country. On the planet, maybe.'
'He hasn't saved you yet.'
'No. But he will. Everyone knows it. Everyone I come into contact with agrees that he's going to lead us to victory.' His eyes flickered over to the fire and a sudden look of concern washed over his face. 'Bedtime, I think.'
Marcus turned around and saw Star slumped hopelessly against some rubble, eyes shut. It was dark by this point, made worse by the complete lack of electrical lights to pollute the sky with their brightness.
Kyle hurried over to Star and gently scooped her up into his arms. She roused, but didn't wake. He staggered uncomfortably over to a mattress that was lying on the floor and placed her onto it as delicately as he could. He covered her with a blanket and leaned in close, then gently ruffled her curls. He looked as though he wanted to kiss her on the forehead, but something was stopping him. He then strolled over to the dead coyote, placed it on the floor away from the flames, and rejoined Marcus, looking thoughtful.
'I thought the whole point of cooking that thing was to eat it,' Marcus said quietly.
'We can save it for morning.' He eyed Marcus. 'Feel free to pick at it if you're that hungry. Just remember to save plenty for Star. She hasn't eaten in a very long time.'
Marcus felt an odd pang of guilt when he considered consuming the coyote while Star went hungry, and decided that he could wait until morning. 'Where do you sleep?'
'On the floor beside her, usually. We take what we can get.'
'I'd have thought that you would build yourself something comfy to sleep on, rather than rolling around in the rubble.'
'Oh, we don't stay here. We're just passing through. We sleep somewhere different every night.'
Marcus had not expected this. 'Why? Where are you heading?'
'To Alameda. It's about ten miles south of here.'
'What's in Alameda?'
Kyle beamed. 'John Connor. The Resistance.'
Marcus wrinkled his nose. 'Why are you going to John Connor?'
'I want to help take down Skynet. I've been fighting off these machines since I was a kid. I think I'll be able to help.'
'However I can. Skynet killed my family and my friends. It killed everyone. We should at least try to do something to help.'
'By "we" I assume you mean yourself and Star?'
'Yes. And you. And everyone else who can help.'
'No. No, no, no. I'm not following you and your little girlfriend to meet a man I've never heard of and fight something that's powerful enough to end the world. I'm not retarded.'
Kyle folded his arms and shifted his weight onto one leg. 'Why? Do you have somewhere you need to be?'
'Hey, don't go all bitch on me, kid. I won't take any attitude from you.'
'Fine. Go it alone. Good luck.' He turned and settled himself on the floor beside Star, half-hearted brushing rubble out of his way. 'You're a pain in the ass anyway. Even Star thinks so, and she usually likes people.'
Marcus dithered on the spot. It seemed that his only options were certain death or certain humiliation. After much consideration, he chose the latter.
'I guess... I guess I could tag along,' he said gruffly. 'If it's really that important.'
Kyle smirked as he lay down shut his eyes. 'Big surprise.'
'Where do I sleep?' Marcus asked.
'I don't fucking care,' Kyle said proudly.
Both men smiled to themselves. Marcus sat by the fire and began warming his hands. He examined the coyote and noticed it becoming more and more appetising as the minutes passed. He soon heard Kyle's light snoring and found himself watching the boy sleep until the fire burned out.
TBC - If requested!