The Day the Wall Came Down

By: Jason Cline

06:37 February 22, 2058 – 107th and Main, Chicago Containment Zone

As dawn broke on the horizon, Nick Muldoon lay perfectly still in the remnants of a condominium in an area of Chicago that was once called The Core. Of course no one calls it that anymore…not since the wall went up. Now it was the CZ, the Containment Zone, two hundred and fifty-six square miles of hell on earth. Normally Nick would never scavenge in this part of the Zone, it was too close to the wall not to mention the Calumet swamp, but the only place to find the parts he needed was the Wind Transit Terminal on 107th.

The condo was on the south side of 107th, directly across from a rusty chain-link fence that marked the border of the bus yard. A ten foot diameter hole had been blown in the front of the building and the living room was in shambles. Nick lay concealed beneath the debris…watching. As morning light slowly illuminated the area, Nick came to his feet. It was time.

Pulling back the hood of his Evo manufactured armored jacket he had traded for last winter, Nick moved to the opening and paused. Closing his good eye Nick began to open his senses to the world around him. As always the first thing he noticed were the smells; dust and mold from the condo, the sickly sweet smell of a decaying corpse coming from a nearby wall where a rat or mouse had recently died, the smell of motor oil wafting over from the terminal across the street, and the ever-present hint of smoke in the air from the numerous fires that burn in the CZ. Next came the sounds; the drip of water as the icicles hanging from the roof of the condo begin to melt, the popping sound of metal heating in the sun, the low rustle of the wind as it traveled down the street scattering detritus as it blew, and the scuttling sound of a small creature in the alley nearby.

Opening his eye once more, Nick took a moment to check his equipment. A Fichetti 500 with an extended magazine on his right hip, a Cougar Fineblade strapped behind his back like a Viking scramasax, and his pride and joy; a Ranger X compound bow leaning by the exit. Nick hoisted the battered pack that had lay beside him for the last hour and put it on; it was hard shell backpack intended for hiking so it had various straps meant to spread the weight of the pack's contents evenly. Nick had found the pack in the wreckage of a sporting goods store back in '55 and it had served him well ever since. As Nick snapped the last strap in place he placed two homemade grenades in special pouches he had sewn onto the chest straps to hold them. Taking up his bow, Nick took a second to insure that the six arrows in the modified quiver had not shaken loose. Only when Nick was confident that the arrows were secure he moved cautiously out to the street.

The sun was visible now as Nick made his way across the street to the fence. Though Nick had never scavenged the Terminal before he had spoken with people who had and they told him that the fence was in bad shape. Nick turned to the east moving slowly and silently along the fence until he came to the first opening. Something large and heavy had smashed into the fence bending the top bar into an uneven U shape and providing access to the yard beyond. This section of the yard was littered with the remains of several busses that had been picked clean of any usable parts over the last two years. Several of the busses had sections of their frames exposed where enterprising scavengers with welding torches had removed sections of the armored body for their own designs. Nick paused for a full minute at the opening to the yard, searching the space beyond for any discernible threats. At least there wasn't any snow. A freak bout of warm weather two days ago had melted the few inches of snow that had fallen in mid-February. Nick didn't think the snow was gone for good, but he preferred to scavenge on clear ground where he wouldn't leave a trail a predator could follow. When he was satisfied, Nick moved slowly and deliberately through the fence and, hugging the gutted husks of the busses, made his way into the Terminal yard.

Wind Transit Terminal was a massive affair. But the nine hundred acre enclosed lot on the surface wasn't even half of the facility; two more layers existed below ground. According to Nick's research the bottom layer was used for maintenance with the layer above mostly used for storage. A massive roadway led down into the facility like a parking garage in reverse. The roadway was cracked and riddled with weeds that had grown up over the past few years. With the skeletons of the busses littering the yard and a dim amber glow coming from the underground facility it looked like an opening to some sort of vehicular Stygian pit. Nick came up short as his cover from the busses ended. Faced with a fifty yard gap between the line of busses and the next available cover Nick scanned the area again. Everything seemed clear so Nick moved quickly across the open space and disappeared into the cavernous maw of the underground facility.

As soon as he crossed below the surface Nick began to hug the left wall. Though his awakening had granted him supernatural senses, the loss of his left eye did create a blind spot that Nick was always cautious about; when possible the scavenger tried to off-set this weakness. Nick's remaining eye adjusted immediately to the dim illumination provided by the directional lighting in the ceiling. The ramp spiraled to the right and after one revolution Nick was at the second level where the remainder of the busses were housed. The ramp continued down into the earth, eventually ending at the maintenance level, but this was as far as Nick needed to go.

As Nick set foot in the massive underground garage he began to feel uneasy. The feeling was familiar to Nick though he would never be able to describe it. On some intuitive level Nick knew that danger was nearby. Buzz in the Zone was that a group of Beetles had made a hive on the maintenance level of the Terminal and Nick was inclined to believe that it was true. Nick took a deep breath to fortify himself and continued deeper into the garage, straining his senses to detect any further hint of danger.

The busses closest to the entrance all showed signs of scavenging so Nick pushed further into the garage looking for an untouched vehicle. After fifteen minutes Nick found what he was looking for. Working in near silence, Nick removed the hardpack from his back and pulled out a roll of tools from inside it. Moving slowly and cautiously Nick crawled under the bus and with a penlight clenched in his teeth he began to slowly harvest the vehicle for the parts he needed. An hour ticked by as Nick ever so slowly removed the parts, pausing every few minutes to sit in complete silence as he listened for any hint that the bugs had noticed him. As Nick began to remove the last part his luck ran out.

Two years of scavenging had taught Nick several important lessons but possibly the most important was this; when you are removing several pieces you always take time between each piece to secure the one you just removed. Nick had just returned from securing the fuel pump and was starting to work on removing the fuel filter when he sensed danger. Nick froze immediately, loosening his grip on the light in his mouth to shut it off, but it was too late. A loud (to his ears anyway) scraping sound began to fill the room as something big and chitinous made its way through the garage towards him.

Nick scrambled frantically out from under the bus and scooped up one of the home-made grenades he had attached to his pack. Pulling the pin, Nick lobbed the grenade in the direction of the noise and turned and ran for the exit; pausing only to struggle into his backpack and snatch up his bow. Behind him the grenade, know to residents of the Zone as a Bug Bomb, detonated with a loud pop as the primer from a standard incendiary grenade burst the aerosol container full of household insecticide open causing a thick fog to billow out of the ruptured can. Nick wasn't exactly sure how it worked but somehow the oxygenizing element from the incendiary grenade mixed with the aerosol in the insecticide to create a thicker cloud of smoke that you would usually get. They were difficult to come by and very, very expensive but at a time like this Nick was glad he had made the investment.

Nick ran out of the garage as the Beetle gave a hideous screech. Turning onto the ramp Nick could hear more bugs coming from below him. Taking a quick look behind him Nick saw four Beetles the size of army jeeps charging up the ramp towards him. "Shit!" the scavenger exclaimed. Pulling the second grenade off his chest he tossed it behind him chanting, "Shit, shit, shit, shit…" as he made it to the surface and dashed through the vehicle graveyard towards the broken fence. More of the horrible screeching as the Beetles hit the cloud of chemicals, but this time Nick didn't stop to look. The scavenger vaulted the broken fence and dashed off into the early morning light.

08:24 February 22, 2058 – Haymarket Nation, Chicago Containment Zone

Something big was happening, Nick could tell by how quiet the streets were. Normally there would be people on the streets at this time of day. Not many of course, even in the Nation the streets were still dangerous, but over the last year the areas around the lake had begun to return to a semblance of life. Nick entered the Nation on Lakeshore passing by the old Chicago Harbor. On any other day The Harbor would be turning a lively trade, the various stalls open and trading with scavengers, smugglers and residents alike. Now The Harbor was empty and all the stalls closed. Yes something big was defiantly going down, but right now Nick had trading to do so he wasn't really concerned with what it was.

Nick climbed a short stair and pushed open the door of one of the few bars still running in the CZ. The Box hadn't originally been a bar; in fact it was the main hall of the Chicago Yacht Club originally. A beautiful building with floor to ceiling windows that sat out in Lake Michigan where the club held parties for their members. When the Wall went up the building was abandoned. It wasn't long before an enterprising dwarf by the name of Pendleton took up residence. Within a week Pendleton had covered most of the windows with plywood and slapped a hand painted sign over the door that read 'The Box'. It didn't take long for word to spread that there was an operational bar on the Lakeshore. Now The Box did a brisk business day and night offering food and drinks for nuyen or trade.

The Box was a neutral zone where any citizen of the CZ could come to relax and try to forget the horror of their everyday lives, and as such Pendleton had a strict no weapons policy. To enforce it Pendleton hired a former Ares employee who got stuck in the Zone when the wall went up. The former company man, known only as Hughes, took his job very seriously. Patrons had to check their weapons at the door and pass through a metal detector that had been scavenged from an old office building located not far from where Nick had been earlier that morning. To keep the peace Hughes hired local muscle from the Noose to work the door and wander the floor, offering them room and board on one of the numerous yachts that were left behind when the wall came up. Most of the kitchen and wait staff was kids from the Nation and Pendleton offered a family discount to anyone who worked there. All in all the residents of the Zone respected the neutrality of The Box, and that made it an excellent place to trade.

The Ork at the door was familiar to him but Nick couldn't place his name so he merely smiled and nodded as he deposited his weapons with the young girl behind the counter. Nick pocketed his token and stepped through the metal detector handing over his hardpack for the Ork to inspect. When the Ork was satisfied that nothing in the pack was dangerous he returned it to Nick and promptly ignored him. Shouldering his pack Nick made his way into the club noticing that the crowd was much larger than he would expect for this time of day. Everyone seemed to be clustering around the bar so Nick found a comfortable chair and settled in to wait.

A waitress made her way over to Nick's table and he splurged and ordered soykaff and a reconstituted ham and cheese omelet. The UCAS food drops weren't high cuisine but after two years Nick had gotten used to the grainy eggs and ham-flavored soy chunks. The soykaff on the other hand was actually quite good, probably smuggled in from outside the Zone. The waitress returned quickly with a steaming ceramic mug and Nick settled back in his chair sipping at his 'kaff. It had been a close call that morning at the Terminal and for some reason Nick kept thinking about how different his life was now. The fresh-faced kid from Boston who followed his girl to Chicago to make a life together would hardly recognize the grizzled one-eyed refugee sitting at the table. As he sipped his soykaff, Nick thought back to his first two years in Chicago and the night that changed his life forever.

17:35 August 22, 2055 – The New Sixteen, Chicago's O-Hare Sub-Sprawl

As Nick looked at his watch for the third time in two minutes he knew that he had been stood up. It had taken him three weeks to get reservations at The New Sixteen, the newest hot spot in Chicago taking its name from a famous Chi-town eatery back in the 'teens. He should have been pissed…but instead he was just numb. It had been a month since Nick and Melissa had broken up and he had been trying everything in his power to win her back. This wasn't the first time the couple had broken up, but it looked like it would be the last. The argument was always the same, Melissa was an up-in-comer with a full ride to University of Chicago on a government scholarship and Nick was a college drop-out who had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. Melissa wanted Nick to get back into school and make something of himself, and Nick just wanted to have a good time and enjoy his twenties. Nick had managed to hold on to her until she met Brad. Brad was almost completely opposite of Nick: ambitious, wealthy and handsome in a corp-chic sort of way. Brad had some entry level position with the UCAS government and he was working with Melissa to get her an internship. Nick snorted; yeah right working with Melissa to try to get into her pants was more like it. A waiter in a traditional tuxedo approached the table and Nick gave up. "I guess my guest won't be joining me tonight. I'll just have the veal if you don't mind."

Two hours later Nick wandered into Kaleidoscope and dropped miserably into a seat at the bar. Nick had tried to call Melissa nine times over the past two hours and each time he got her voicemail. His last message was practically begging her to meet him at Kaleidoscope so they could talk. Nick waved the bartender over and ordered a whiskey sour. With nothing else to lose Nick set out to drink himself into oblivion.

Nick woke up with the mother of all hangovers the next morning. As he crawled his way into the bathroom to throw up he tried to piece together the previous night. Nick had sat at the bar in Kaleidoscope until two am but Melissa never showed. After five hours of drinking the bartender finally cut him off and put him in a cab back to his apartment near campus. Nick had somehow made it up the stairs and into his apartment but he couldn't make it all the way to his room, he collapsed on the couch and passed out. After vomiting up the contents of his stomach Nick pulled his phone out of his pocket and checked his messages…nothing. Feeling even more miserable than before Nick stumbled into his bedroom and went back to sleep.

16:07 August 23, 2055 – 7106 Cottage Gove Avenue, Chicago's University District

When Nick woke the second time his headache was gone. He was still nauseous and very, very thirsty but at least it didn't feel like someone had shoved an ice pick through his eye. As Nick settled onto the couch and clicked on the trid he was happy he didn't have work tonight. Two years ago when Nick and Melissa had been incoming freshmen, Nick had picked up a part time job at the campus bookstore to supplement his scholarship. The scholarship was gone now after Nick failed out of Engineering last spring, but he had worked his way up to Assistant Manager at the bookstore so he was making his rent if only barely. Nick clicked through the channels until he found an action flick and settled back on the couch to watch.

Three hours later the movie had ended and Nick had managed to keep down some chicken flavored soba noodles he warmed in the microwave. Nick clicked over to the nightly news. As the opening montage finished and the cameraman cut to the familiar faces of the nightly news crew Nick's screen went blank. "What the hell…" Nick muttered to himself as he checked the input cord to make sure that the link was secure. Everything on his end was secure so it must be a problem with the feed. Grumbling to himself Nick pulled on some clothes, dug out a small tool roll from his closet, and headed outside to see if he could fix the problem at the hub on the roof. Though Nick was a horrible student, he was a pretty decent electrician and this wasn't the first time he had repaired the cable hub to the building.

Nick climbed four flights of stairs and keyed his security code into the scanner by the door to the roof. When the lock buzzed, Nick pushed open the door and headed for the media hub. As Nick bent to inspect the hub something was gnawing at the back of his mind. Something wasn't quite right but Nick just couldn't put his finger on what it was. Ignoring his unease, Nick refocused on the task at hand; he tested the incoming line with a small volt-meter and found that the problem was there was no signal coming to the box. Frowning Nick patted his pockets for his com, but he had left it in the apartment. Nick's eyes opened wide…his phone…Melissa!

Nick hit the stairs at a run. Maybe she had called? Maybe Nick could talk her into meeting him for dinner tonight? He couldn't afford another trip to Sixteen but he could meet her for pizza somewhere and they could just talk. Nick shouldered his way through the door to his apartment and almost ripped the pocket of his pants pulling out his phone. Nick looked at the screen…six missed calls and four messages! "Yes!" Nick shouted punching the air with his fist.

Nick sat on his bed and played his messages. The first was from his mother saying she heard something on the news and she was calling to check on him, Nick skipped it half way through. The second was from his boss at the book store telling him that due to a sever air pollution warning he was closing the store and Nick was to stay home for the day. Nick chuckled to himself. Mr. Ikoma was a nice man but he was so out of the day-to-day operations that he didn't even realize Nick wasn't working today. The third message was from his mother again asking Nick to call her and let her know he was alright.

When the fourth message qued up Nick braced himself in anticipation of Melissa's voice. Nick let out a defeated sigh as the frantic voice of Burner spilled out of his handset. "Dude…where the fuck are you? I've tried to call you three times! You need to get over to my place quick … shit's getting real man. Get here…now!" William "Burner" Burns…one of Nick's first friends in Chicago; paranoid conspiracy theorist but talented computer programmer. Burner was at UC on scholarship and already had a sweet job lined up in Dream Town working in advanced simsense programming when he graduated in the fall. The message had been received at 18:47, Nick must not have heard his phone over the movie, but he didn't figure Burner was asleep so Nick hit the re-dial.

The phone hadn't finished the first ring before it was answered. "Nick…oh thank god man I thought you were toast. Where are you?"

"I'm in my apartment man. Sorry I didn't get back to you sooner…I had a late night last night." Nick replied.

"Just never mind that dude…you need to get over here quick. Curfew is in twenty minutes and we have to talk." Burner's voice was edged in hysteria.

"Curfew? Burner what the hell are you talking about?" Burner was a good guy but after last night Nick really wasn't in the mood to play his conspiracy games.

"Just get your ass to my house man...I'll explain everything when you get here."

Nick considered blowing Burner off, he was still a touch hung over and what with Melissa and all he really wasn't up for human contact…or in Burner's case metahuman contact. But something was still eating at Nick, a feeling that he couldn't place, so five minutes later Nick was getting into a cab headed for Burner's Westside home.

21:45 August 23, 2055 – 6654 W. Armitage Avenue, Chicago's Westside

Burner lived in a two-story three bedroom house in a nice area of Chicago's Westside bordering the railway. Nick hopped up the small step to the front door and rang the bell. "Who is it?" a suspicious voice asked from behind the door. "It's Nick Burner…who the hell else would it be?" he answered in an exasperated voice. The sounds of several locks being disengaged came from the other side of the door before it opened just wide enough for Nick to squeeze through. When Nick turned to ask his friend what that was all about he was greeted with the business end of a shotgun! Nick threw up his hands and shouted, "Whoa…damnit it's me Burner…it's Nick!"

On the other end of the shotgun was the world's skinniest ork. Truth be told Burner was quite the Cinderella story. Burner had been awarded a scholarship as the result of a programming contest when he was thirteen, now three and a half years later he was about to graduate with honors; not bad for a kid whose parents work at a slaughterhouse in Blood Town. Burner told Nick once that he had an overactive thyroid and that was why he was so skinny; it also explained why he was so jumpy. Burner jabbed at Nick with the shotgun and demanded, "What was the first thing you ever said to me?"

"How the fuck should I know!? You're the one with the eidetic memory not me!" Nick replied in a tone he often found himself using around Burner, sort of half exasperation and half annoyance.

The answer seemed to confuse the ork for a second but he quickly jabbed the shotgun at Nick again and asked, "Fine…what's was my grandmother's middle name?" The house Burner lived in used to belong to his grandmother who died almost a year ago. When she took sick in the spring of last year Burner moved in here to look after her and in the end she left him her home.

"Francesca…you happy?" Nick lowered his arm slightly, "Can I put my hands down now?" Burner lowered the shotgun and for the first time Nick noticed how truly frightened the young ork really was. Burners face was white as a sheet and his hands shook slightly. Without warning Burner lunged forward and hugged Nick. "Dude…I am so glad you're still you." Nick awkwardly patted Burner on the shoulder; even though the ork was still a teenager mentally, physically he was fully grown and even a skinny ork is thicker than most humans. Burner held Nick for a few seconds then abruptly he turned away from him and headed into the den, calling over his shoulder "Quick! Follow me…we have a situation in the Lair!"

Six months ago after Burner had hacked into the local telecom grid and spam-bombed Brad's email with ads for penis enlargement, Nick had jokingly called him an Evil Genius making the off-handed remark that all Burner needed now was a Lair. A week later Nick had been summoned to Burner's house and when he arrived, the ork was grinning from ear to ear. Burner led Nick to one of the spare bedrooms that had been redecorated to look like a villain's lair from a cheesy late-night vid. Massive monitors lined each wall with all sorts of random electronics stacked upon each other with no discernible function. A gigantic black leather chair sat in front of the monitors and when he swiveled the chair around he found a plush stuffed Hello Kitty doll sitting on the seat. Nick looked at Burner with confusion and the ork explained, "I'm allergic to cats but I have to stroke something while I hatch my diabolical plans don't I?" Over the last few months Nick and Burner had turned the Lair into a pretty wiz little man cave but obviously something had gone wrong.

As Nick entered the Lair he saw Burner bent over his Fuchi-4 punching the keys in frustration, finally he slumped in his chair and sighed. "It's no good…I can't connect." Nick shook his head, "You fried the MCPC chips again didn't you. How many times do I have to tell you, if you overclock the chips there gonna burn out. What happened to that fan I installed for you?" Nick made his way over to the deck and popped it open; everything appeared to be intact at first glance.

Burner sat forward and pushed Nick away from the deck. "It's not the deck dude it's the matrix…the whole LTG is down." Snapping the deck closed Burner called up what looked like a BBS on the main monitor. "I've been trolling this board for months just keeping tabs on things. It ant Shadowland or anything but I think some of the people on the board might be real Deckers." Behind Burner's back Nick was grinning, sometimes even he forgot that Burner was still just a teenager; a teenager who had bought into the romantic image of Deckers that the trids all portrayed. To Burner all Deckers wore cool looking leather jackets and hung out in trendy bars where they had their pick of the ladies. The only Deckers Nick had ever met were the middle-aged wage slaves from Fuchi who came into the bookstore from time to time; needless to say he wasn't as enamored with the console cowboys as Burner was.

As Burner continued scrolling through the text he had dumped from the board he said, "There is a lot of info here dude but the gist of it is this. Some time yesterday afternoon a bunch of giant insects showed up in the Shattergraves and started tearing the place apart." Nick let out a single bark of laughter. Burner swiveled in his chair and jabbed an accusing finger at Nick, "It's true dickhead!" Nick waved his hands in front of his face, "Sorry…sorry. Look Burner it's late I've had a really shitty week. I just don't have time for…" Nick trailed off as Burner called up some video from his deck.

The feed was grainy but it clearly showed a house that Nick recognized, as he watched the feed a giant ant crawled over the top of the roof and began to scuttle down the side of the house. The ant stopped at the second story window as a second ant made its way over the top of the building. Together the two ants began to chew a hole in the exterior of the house. The video cut out in a burst of static but not before a third ant could be seen coming over the top of the building.

Nick turned to look at Burner, eyes wide and asked; "Where did you get that footage?" The young ork looked away from his friend and said, "I boosted it from a video camera at the Stuffer Shack on Garfield and Halstead." Burner wouldn't meet Nick's eyes and it took him a second to figure out why. "Holy shit! That's only a few blocks from Melissa's house." Nick made a break for the door but Burner got there first, "Nick…no."

"Get out of my way Burner." Nick's voice took on a threatening tone that he had heard from himself before. Nick tried to push past Burner but the Ork pushed him back into the room. "Nick seriously. There's a curfew tonight that means no cabs on the road. How are you gonna get there dude…walk?"

Nick grit his teeth and began to pace irritably. Burner saw this as an opportunity to try to talk some sense into his friend. "What we need to do is hunker down. I got enough food here to last us a few days. Or better yet we need to get the fuck outta town." Nick snapped his fingers triumphantly, "Your bike!"

Turning to look at Burner; Nick continued, "Burner I need to use your bike." Nick moved towards the door and Burner tried to block him again but the ork was too slow.

Burner followed Nick into the hallway saying, "Nick think about this!" Nick spun around and jabbed his finger towards Burner, "I am thinking about this. I'm thinking about Melissa being attacked by those things with only Brad to count on. Pampered little fuck-head would probably shit himself and run."

Burner crossed his arms over his chest and said, "No! What you're thinking about is how you can be a hero and rescue the little bitch who first cheated on you with that pampered little fuck-head and then left you for him!"

Nick drew back his fist and took a half step forward but Burner stood his ground. After a half-second Nick's shoulders slumped and he turned away. With a small voice Nick said, "I've been trying to call her for two days Burner...no answer. What if she's dead? What if those things got her? I just need to know." Burner wrestled with his conscience for a few moments and finally relented. "Fine…take the bike. But get there and get back as quick as you can dude." Nick turned back to look at Burner with a smile, "You're the best dude."

00:13 August 24, 2055 - 312 W. 54th Place, Chicago's University District

The ride through the chaotic streets of Chicago that night was one that occasionally haunts Nick's dreams to this day. Burner's "bike" was little more than an electric scooter not even in the class of a Dodge Scoot. Nick had no idea what the top speed was but it didn't matter because he wasn't doing anywhere near it. To make matters worse Nick was running with no lights so he wouldn't give himself away to any wandering Eagle Security patrols out to enforce the curfew. Somewhere to the north of him something serious was going down, Nick could see occasional bursts of light on the horizon and he thought he could hear gunfire as well.

But bipedal threats were the least of Nick's worries. It seemed like someone had stuck a gigantic stick in an ant pile and stirred it around. Except the ant pile was Chicago and the ants were the size of a troll. And it didn't stop with ants. During his two-hour tour of terror, Nick had seen ants, roaches, wasp and even a beetle the size of a garbage truck. Each time Nick came across a bug he had to adjust his route. It took him longer but there was no way in hell he was going anywhere near those monsters!

Finally Nick pulled off of south Shields after gunning his bike to escape a trio of ants he had picked up at Malus Park and skidded to a stop in front of Melissa's house. It wasn't much, a run down two-story brick home that Melissa shared with three of her sorority sisters. The lights were out but it was after midnight so that didn't nessicarraly mean anything. Nick rushed up the stairs and raised his hand to beat on the door, but it was slightly ajar. Heart beating loudly in his chest, Nick pushed the door open and flicked on the lights.

The door opened onto a foyer with a stairwell leading up directly in front, a coat closet to your right and a living room off to your left. The living room had been ransacked, the couch was overturned and the entertainment center had been pushed over smashing the trideo unit and scattering simchips all over the floor. Nick tried to call out for Melissa but his voice caught in his throat. Nick pulled the door shut behind him and stood at the foot of the stairs staring blankly at the living room.

Suddenly Nick felt a tightness in his chest and a growing sense of unease. There was no way for him to explain it but Nick knew there was someone or something else in the house with him. Nick stood completely still and listened, focusing all his attention on trying to detect the slightest sound from the house around him. Seconds ticked by, but Nick had always been patient. Then just as he was convinced that he was alone a strange wet sort of sound that reminded Nick of suction could just barely be heard coming from upstairs. Nick slowly opened the door to the coat closet and was relieved to see that the baseball bat Melissa's sorority sister kept in the closet in case her ex-boyfriend came by was still there.

Nick took the bat and slowly made his way up the stairs. The second floor was still dark but Nick didn't dare turn on a light. Nick paused just below the top of the stairwell and listened again. The noise was coming from the bedroom to the right, behind a closed door. Nick had never been inside of Melissa's house; they broke up before she moved in, and so he had no way of knowing which bedroom was hers. As Nick crept to the bedroom door the strange sucking sound grew louder. Nick paused outside the door and gathered his courage. Slowly he turned the knob trying his best not to make a sound and inched the door open. At first he didn't see anything, but as Nick opened the door a little wider he saw a dark outline on the other side of the bed like a man bent over something on the floor. Nick took a step inside and raised the bat.

Either Nick had made some sort of noise or the figure had sensed his presence somehow because the hunched form straightened and turned toward Nick. Nick couldn't make out any features in the darkness but something glistened on the figure's torso. As the figure stepped into a beam of light cast from the street light outside, Nick took an involuntary step backwards. Whatever this thing was, it wasn't human…at least not anymore. The creature's face was a disgusting amalgamation of human and insect. Multifaceted eyes sat above a human nose, mandibles forced their way out of human lips, and two vestigial antenna sprouted from its forehead. Liquid coated the creature's chin and with a start Nick realized it was blood!

The creature charged and out of reflex Nick whipped the bat up across his body to fend off his attacker. With a loud thunk the bat connected with the creature's head staggering it, as the creature stepped back Nick was hit with a wave of sensory information all at once. Nick could smell the blood in the room along with a choking smell he could not identify but raised the bile in the back of his throat. The room seemed to brighten and Nick could pick out tiny details on the creature before him; a strange ichor oozing from its forehead where he had hit it with the bat, tiny hairs sprouting from his cheeks, a small chunk of something Nick was afraid to identify caught in the creature's teeth. The overload of stimulation caused emotions to bubble up inside him…fear…loss…but mostly anger!

Nick took a two-handed grip on his bat and with a cry of pure rage he lay into the creature before him while it was dazed. His first few blows dropped the creature to the ground but Nick continued to beat at the thing until its head was a pulpy mass and even the involuntary muscle twitches of a corpse had ended. Panting and spattered with gore, the bat slipped from Nicks suddenly nerveless fingers and he dropped to his knees. The smell hit him again and Nick managed to make it to a window before he vomited up his half-digested soba noodles.

As Nick lay with his head on the windowsill breathing in the cool night air he knew what he had to do. Slowly, emotion warring inside of him, Nick made his way over to the corpse that the creature had been feeding upon. The girl had struggled, that much was certain. The night table was tipped over and a sheet had fallen from the bed covering her upper body. Gashes and bruises covered her legs and two of her toenails had been ripped free. Nick suspected that she had kicked at her attacker even as it bore her down to the floor. The chocking smell grew stronger as Nick rounded the bed and he gagged again as he saw the girl's stomach had been ripped open and the creature had been feeding on her intestines. With a shaking hand Nick pulled the blood soaked sheet off of her body. It wasn't her!

Nick pulled back from the corpse and sat on the floor as waves of relief and exhaustion washed over him. The corpse wasn't Melissa. The dead girl was one of Melissa's room-mates, Susan or Betty or something. Nick didn't even know the girl's name and he realized sadly that now he never would. As the events of the last forty-eight hours crashed down on Nick he realized he was exhausted. Too much adrenalin and too little food had left Nick shaky and all he wanted to do was sleep. Nick struggled to his feet and retrieved the bat, he wanted a shower but he had nothing to change into so he settled for scrubbing the worst of the blood off in the bathroom sink. Then having no better place to sleep he locked himself in the bathroom and spent the night on the floor with three towels for a pillow.

08:40 - February 22, 2058 – The Box, Chicago Containment Zone

Nick's reverie was broken by cheers coming up from the crowd at the bar. Nick noticed that his food had never arrived so he made his way over to the edge of the crowd to see if he could get the bartender's attention. Gently, and sometimes not so gently, Nick pushed his way through the crowd until he made it to the bar. Everyone seemed to be straining to watch something on the trideo Pendleton had installed over the bar. There hadn't been much information coming in or out of the Zone since the walls went up so the occasional pirate broadcast that made it was a big deal to the residents.

Nick was finally able to flag down the bartender, a good-looking elf who appeared to be in his early twenties, and asked, "What's going on?" The elf looked at Nick like he was an idiot, "Whadda ya mean what's going on? Haven't you heard…there's some sort of government raid happening. An hour ago a bunch of troops landed at Oak Street Beach and offloaded all kinds of tanker trucks and gear. Right now squads of solders in chemical suits are hosing the whole city down with some sort of drek that's makin' the bugs crazy. Then the fire-teams are sweeping in and geekin' them. The whole thing's on the vid." Nick followed the elf's gaze to the trideo over the bar and he could just make out images of a battle taking place on the screen.

The image was jerky and often out of focus, it was obvious to Nick that whoever was shooting the feed wasn't a professional. The cameraman was probably someone from inside the Zone who was sending his feed to SYStem 05 and his crew who were then pushing it out over the grid. On screen the camera fixed on a trio of gunmen in heavy armor who were firing on a downed Wasp. The Wasp thrashed around for a few moments and then lay still. Another cheer came up from the crowd and Nick spotted his waitress among them. Nick spun the girl around and said, "Still waitin on my omelet." The young girl blinked tear-filled eyes and frowned, "What…"

"My omelet…I'm still waiting for it. I'd like to eat it while it's still warm…starts to taste like shit after a few minutes." Nick said. For the second time in as many minutes a member of the Box staff looked at Nick like he was an idiot. "Why the frag would you want to eat that drek?" the girl asked. She pointed at the screen, "Doncha see...it's all over. By tonight we'll be eating real food again?" Nick smiled and said, "Just bring the omelet to my table when it's done will you, and I need another cup of soykaff too if you don't mind." Nick turned his back on the disbelieving girl and returned to his table. Half way back to his table Nick noticed Rusty had entered the bar.

Rusty scanned the bar and when he spotted Nick he hurried over to his table. Dropping excitedly into a chair across from Nick the ork exclaimed "Nick your still here! I wasn't sure if I would find you or not." Nick paused as his waitress returned with a full cup of soykaff and his omelet. Nick smiled at her and dropped a five nuyen note on the tray, when she left he took a sip of his kaff and asked, "Why wouldn't I be here Rusty…we've got trade to do?" Rusty started laughing but it quickly faded as he noticed Nick hadn't joined in, "What…your fraggin with me right? You do know what's goin on right?" Nick nodded and sipped his kaff. Rusty continued, "It's over chummer…the quarantine…the bugs…all of it! No more scavenging for parts to keep the shop running, no more living in fear, it's all over."

Suddenly Nick realized why he had suddenly started thinking about Burner again after so long. Rusty reminded Nick of Burner in many ways. Not physical of course; Burner had been skinny and allergic where as Rusty was powerfully built. They didn't share similar backgrounds either, Burner was raised in a loving and supportive environment where being a ork wasn't a handicap whereas Rusty grew up on the mean streets of the Noose where he ran with a street gang and learned quickly that being an ork meant most people wouldn't give you the time of day. But they did have one important thing in common, they were believers. Nick could tell that Rusty really believed that the end was near, and Burner…well Burner had really believed in Nick.

Nick put down his soykaff and smiled at Rusty, "Tell you what. Let's sit her for a bit and see what happens. Maybe your right, maybe it is all over. And if not I still have the parts you need." Rusty smiled, "You'll see chummer one day we'll look back on February 22, 2058 as the day the wall came down."

Nick just smiled and ate his omelet while it was still warm.