Congratulations to Douglas Jern, first place winner in the Young Adult category of the 15th Annual Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards. Here's his winning short story, "Life After Dusk."
Life After Dusk
Motes of dust swirled in the air, gleaming like gemstones in the blood-red light of the sunset. The wind whispered among the charred ruins of the once great city of Central Yard, which had been the biggest in the world before the Dusk War. Now only rubble and bones remained.
Here and there, skeins of purple mist wafted through the air. The people of old had had a word for it, and that word was ether. It was the bane of life, toxic to any living being that lacked the genetic mutations that conferred resistance. This deadly poison, which now covered vast swathes of the world, was humanity’s greatest legacy.
A steady hum broke the silence. Trailing a plume of dust, a four-wheeled electric motorcycle swerved around a street corner. Its rider was wearing a dark jumpsuit with many pockets, thick boots and a black gas mask.
Her name, such as it was, was Liv.
The bike was a civilian model of a military vehicle that had been a personal favorite of Supreme Commander Grim back in the war. Its battery was solar powered and had a range of up to 600 km on a full charge. Liv had loved the bike ever since she first laid eyes on it. There was something about it that seemed to speak to her on a fundamental level, as if she was meant to ride it. When she first sat on it, it felt like coming home.
Liv had taken to riding the bike like a fish to water. She rode whenever she had time to spare, to improve her skill and learn new maneuvers. More than anything, she rode for the sheer pleasure of it. Whenever she sat down in the saddle, the bike beneath her seemed to know exactly where she wanted to go and what she wanted it to do, as if it were a part of her.
She called the bike Slippy, as a joke – its traction was perfect.
Liv would have liked nothing more right now than to crank the accelerator and make Slippy charge homeward at top speed. But the sunlight was quickly fading, and soon night fell over the ruins. She had only Slippy’s headlights to see by, and they only reached so far. As much as she hated to, she had to take it slowly. If she crashed out here, she was dead. And then her excursion would all have been for nothing.
Liv reached back and laid a hand on the backpack strapped to Slippy’s rear, as if to reassure herself that it was still there. It was. She shuddered at the memory of what she had had to go through to get what was in the backpack. The screams and gunfire still rang in her ears. But it would all be worth it in the end. They would be saved.
She refrained from pushing Slippy to his limits and puttered along at a leisurely pace. Despite the low speed, she was far from relaxed. Every shadow she passed was pregnant with fear, populated by her mind with trolls and mutants poised to strike. Liv felt her pulse thud in her ears like padded mallets. Her face was drenched in sweat. She wished she could take off her mask, but knew it was out of the question. The purple mist, the ether, was hard enough to see in the daylight, and practically invisible at night. Removing her mask outside the Shelter would be suicide.
On her way here, she had driven through the city, weaving and swerving her way past car wrecks and fallen buildings. That was not an option in this darkness. She took a left and headed for the expressway that circled the city. There were fewer obstacles there, which would let her pick up the pace a little, but it would still be a significant detour.
At least things would be simpler once she was clear of the city; the surrounding landscape was flat and easily traversed. Before the Dusk War, huge fields of grain had stretched on for miles, covering the landscape like a golden blanket and providing the city with its daily bread. Now it was a featureless wasteland that made her heart ache just looking at it. Still, it was nothing if not easy to navigate.
After half an hour of driving slowly through the cluttered city streets with her nerves constantly on edge, Liv finally reached the expressway and drew a sigh of relief. It would be easier going from here on. The entrance ramp was completely empty, and there were only the occasional abandoned vehicle on the expressway itself.
She sped up a little, and the pitch of Slippy’s engine jumped up a notch. She was not worried about draining the battery; the solar cells that powered it were so efficient that they could reach full charge in a few hours, even with the sky fogged up with ether. She currently had 78 percent charge left. That would be more than enough to get her home, detour included.
Once she left the city, the expressway was completely empty. In the near total darkness, her way lit only by the cone of Slippy’s headlights, driving down the empty road made her feel like she was racing through a giant pipe that curved slightly to the right. The poles that separated the lanes swept by, one after the other, the patches of reflective material near their tips flashing in the light. The effect was almost hypnotic.
She thought about Tray. What was he doing right now? Probably pacing back and forth in the control room, wondering where she was. The thought made her feel ashamed. She had left without a word that morning, leaving him asleep and unaware. She had pushed Slippy by hand until she was far enough from the Shelter to start the engine unnoticed. She knew Tray would have wanted to come with her, but he still needed time to recover from his injuries. And they both knew he would never be quite the same even when he did recover. So she had gone alone, unable to wait any longer and not daring to trust Tray not to follow her. Would he forgive her? Because Liv was not sure she would have been able to, had their places been reversed. He would surely be glad to have her home again, and would be overjoyed when he saw her precious cargo. But would that justify her actions? Would things be the same between them after this?
Liv shook her head. No point thinking about it now. Focus on the task at hand. There would be plenty of time to worry about the future once she was home safe and sound. She silenced her uneasy mind and concentrated on driving.
That was when she noticed the sound. Underneath the steady hum of Slippy’s engine, she could hear a regular clicking sound, like pebbles clattering together. At first she thought there might be something wrong with Slippy and slowed down. But the clicking persisted. And it grew grow louder.
It was coming from behind her.
The hairs on her arms stood up. The sweat that drenched her body went cold. It was getting hard to breathe, even though the filter in her mask would still last another hour or so. She glanced down at the rear-view mirror on Slippy’s left handle, confirming what she already knew.
A hellhound was stalking her. Its metal claws clicked on the asphalt as it galloped down the expressway, the sensors on its faceless head blinking red. It was watching her. In Slippy’s taillights, the snow white body of the hound shone bright red. It was a civilian model, sleek and streamlined, lacking the camouflage patterning and gun mounts of its military brethren. A discreet corporate logo on the hound’s left shoulder was the only indication of its loyalty.
Liv instinctively accelerated, though she knew that it was useless; hellhounds operated on the same kind of solar-powered batteries as Slippy did, but also had a backup fusion cell for protracted operation in low-light conditions. She could not go fast enough to outrun it, not in this darkness at least, and Slippy’s battery would give out before the hellhound did.
The hound increased its pace, but it did not attack. Liv knew why: The hound was attempting to contact its masters for confirmation on what to do next, obeying the ancient commands written into its memory by the security company that had manufactured it centuries ago. A military model would have been completely autonomous, and would have killed her before she even knew it was following her. But the rules were different for the civilian models, and now this remnant from before the Dusk War tried to access communication channels that had long since shut down, calling out for a master who by now was either a rotting corpse or a puff of smoke.
Liv knew this was a temporary respite. Even the most loyal machine will eventually run out of patience. The hound would listen for its master’s voice a little while longer, until its silicon brain determined that there would be no response.
Then it would take matters into its own jaws.
Liv kept driving into the night. She had lost track of time. The hound showed no sign of attacking, nor did it relent in its pursuit. It was following her every move; she had tried swerving back and forth a few times, and the hound had zig-zagged accordingly. All the while its sensors blinked red, indicating that it was prepared to attack.
But the attack never came, even though an hour had already passed since the hound started following her. Liv was starting to suspect that the hound’s weapon systems were broken, which would not be too surprising after all these years without maintenance. But she had seen hellhounds attack before, and knew that there were other ways they could hurt you than with their stunners and needle bombs. The hound’s sharp metal claws clicked against the asphalt as if to emphasize this point. Liv shuddered at the sound. Those claws could cut deep.
They were almost out of the city by now, and the elevated expressway began to slope downward. She knew the way back to the Shelter from here; all she had to do was follow the expressway until she reached the standing stone in the field, then turn left and go off road for a few dozen miles. But she could not do that with the hellhound following her. Even if she could outpace it, driving through the field at speed in this darkness would be suicide. The ground was uneven, scarred by bomb craters and shrapnel, full of deceptive obstacles that would flip her over if she ran into them. Slippy may be reliable, but all wheels have their limits.
She had to lose the hellhound. If she could not outrun it, then she had only one option: Destroy it. Her hand went to her waist and retrieved the hammerang from her belt, and felt the subtle vibration of the throwing glove powering up. This old relic from the Dusk War, a steel hammer with a built-in homing device, was of little use against the hard shell of a hellhound, but it was all she had.
The hound was still directly behind her. Holding on to Slippy’s handlebar with her left hand, she turned around and drew her right arm back. She whispered a prayer to whatever gods might be listening, and threw.
The hammerang sailed through the air towards the hellhound. The hound let out a loud buzzing sound and leapt to the left, avoiding the projectile. Then its metal legs did a complicated dance as it rebalanced itself and resumed its pursuit. The hammerang began to arc back, homing in on the signal from Liv’s glove. As it drew near the hound once more, from behind this time, the hound leapt to the right. The hammerang zoomed handle first into Liv’s waiting hand. She tried another throw, with the same result: The hound dodged, left then right, and continued the chase. It made no attempts to attack her or neutralize the hammerang when it came flying. For now it seemed content to simply follow her.
They were down at ground level now. Liv had holstered the hammerang again. After a few throws she had concluded that hitting the hellhound was impossible. It avoided the hammer every time. So she just kept driving as fast as she dared, racking her brain for a way to shake her pursuer.
Familiar street signs and landmarks flashed by at the edge of her vision. There was the standing stone now, which meant that she had gone past the Shelter. There was nothing out this way for miles, apart from a few small villages that were just as abandoned and ruined as everything else. She thought about trying to lose the hellhound in one of them, but quickly gave up on that idea. The villages were unknown territory, and there might be trolls lurking there. She considered slamming on the brakes and taking the fight to the hound. Since the hound’s weapons were clearly not working anymore, she had the range advantage. Maybe her chances of hitting the hound would be greater on the ground. Then again, if she missed, the hound would be on her in an instant, ready to rip her to shreds with its dagger-like claws.
As she thought about her conundrum, she noticed a road sign overhead. She could not make out the writing on the sign, but saw a picture of a bridge, meaning she was already at the river. She must have been going faster than she thought.
If the river had a name, it was long forgotten. Before the Dusk War, it had been full of life, and the people of Central Yard and the nearby villages had often come here to fish, or sunbathe on the verdant river banks. Now the banks were barren, and the river itself a thick sludge of ether, flowing at a snail’s pace. Bathing there would mean certain death.
Soon enough, the bridge appeared out of the darkness. It was four lanes wide, and so long that she could not even see the towers at the midpoint from this distance. The bridge must have taken a direct bomb hit during the war; as she came closer, she could see that one of the towers had snapped in half and now hung down to the side, its support cables trailing in the river like dead snakes. A large chunk of the bridge was missing near the middle, narrowing it down to a single lane. The left side was cluttered with debris. The right was a sheer drop into the river.
This could work.
Slippy rolled out onto the bridge, steady as ever. Liv braved a glance to her right and quickly looked away. The sight of the bridge’s support pillars disappearing into the darkness below churned her stomach.
She did not need to look behind her to know the hellhound was still on her tail; the sharp click-click of metal claws on concrete was louder than ever. She readied the hammerang and prepared herself.
When she drove past a large truck lying on its side, Liv knew the time was right. As she passed by the truck, Slippy’s right-hand wheels almost protruding over the edge of the bridge, she turned around and hurled the hammerang at the hellhound.
The hellhound dodged to the left, as it had done before. But as the hammerang swung around and flew back towards Liv, the hellhound had entered the narrow section of the bridge, right next to the overturned truck. Its sensors detected the hammerang, and its computer brain told it to get out of the way. Normally it would have dodged to the right, but now its sensors declared that right was a no-go, and so the hellhound went the only way it could.
It dodged left, slamming right into the truck.
The violent collision nearly tipped the truck over on its roof. The hellhound lost its balance, and its legs jerked around in a furious dance as it tried to right itself. But before the hound could regain its balance, the hammerang smashed into its rear, knocking it into the air. It came down headfirst with a loud crash that shook the bridge.
Liv caught the hammerang and kept driving. She could hear a high-pitched whine behind her, the telltale sound of a needle bomb launching. Seconds later, the explosion came. Liv hunched her shoulders and gritted her teeth, anticipating the sharp pain of a thousand needles piercing her skin, but nothing happened. She must already be out of range.
She stopped and listened. In the distance, she could hear a faint clicking and scraping, but it came no closer. An image of the hellhound feebly scratching at the concrete with broken forelegs rose in her mind. Maybe the impact had crippled it.
But if the needle bomb just now was any indication, the impact may also have dislodged some jammed mechanism, giving the hellhound back the use of its weapons. She did not dare go back the way she had come, in case the hound still had more bombs to lob at her.
“You were supposed to fall off the bridge, you damn mutt,” she grumbled. Then she had to laugh at herself. She had singlehandedly neutralized a hellhound and lived to tell the tale. And now she was disappointed? She shook her head with a wry smile and turned her back on the distant clicking.
“Guess I’ll just have to find another way home.”
Somehow the thought was not as terrifying as it should have been. She had no idea how far it was to the next bridge across the river, if there even was one. But in her light-headed triumph at having bested the hellhound, she simply could not be bothered to worry too much. She would find a way. She always did.
Hours later, the first rays of sunlight pierced through the ether from the east. Liv crested a low hill and finally found another bridge across the river. She whooped with joy and went faster, eager to get home.
The drive had been peaceful after she had left the hellhound behind. The only other sign of life was a herd of mutant goats grazing in a nearby field. As she drove past, they looked up from the weeds they were eating to stare at her with three pairs of eyes each. All of them were hairless and their skin hung in wrinkly flaps. One of them opened its mouth, revealing a set of decaying teeth and four snakelike tongues, and brayed at her. It sounded like a piece of metal being torn into strips.
The bridge was damaged, but not destroyed. It was enough to carry her to the other side, where she stopped atop a ridge and peered into the distance. Far away, blurred by the ether, she could see the skyline of Central Yard, its towers and skyscrapers making a ragged silhouette against the dawn sky. The sight filled her with hope. She was down to her last filter now, and would run dry in a few hours. But if she was this close to the city, the Shelter was not far off. She set course for Central Yard, looking out for any familiar landmarks. As soon as she recognized the terrain, going the rest of the way would be easy.
Slippy purred obediently underneath her, as if to assure her that he would carry her to the end of the world if needed. Liv patted his metal frame. The act made her feel a little self-conscious, yet it somehow seemed like the right thing to do. Warmth radiated from the bike, and for a brief moment she thought she could feel the saddle and frame move underneath her, as if Slippy were a creature of flesh and blood rather than a machine made of steel and carbon fiber. Then the moment passed, and Slippy was just a bike again. Liv chuckled at herself and the silly fancy that had taken her.
“Almost home now, old buddy,” she said to the bike, patting it again as if to make sure that it was indeed a thing and not a living being. “Almost home.”
She arrived at the Shelter a little before noon, tired and hungry, but relieved. The sight of the treetops rising above the thick walls, the only green in a world of brown and gray, lifted her spirits so high that she felt as if she were flying. Her journey was finally at an end.
Slippy’s engine gave out as she rolled up to the main gate. She dismounted and pushed him by hand the rest of the way, returning home in the same manner in which she had left. The gate opened at her touch as the biometric scanners confirmed her identity, and she was greeted by the glorious sight of the Shelter’s courtyard. The birch trees swayed in the breeze as if waving her welcome, and the leaves of the barberry bushes fluttered like a thousand butterflies. There was life here, precious and pure. The sight almost brought tears to her eyes.
She removed her mask and made her way to the center of the Shelter, to the empty patch of soil. There she dropped her backpack to the ground. Her heart beat faster as she reached into the pack and carefully took out the cargo she had carried through the night. In her hands was a large glass jar containing a small sapling the size of her forearm. Liv opened the jar and gently removed the sapling. Then she dug a hole in the soil and planted the sapling there. It was done. Liv sighed contentedly and looked with love at the little sapling, which in time would grow into a mighty ash tree. It was the Tree of Life. The world was ready to start over now.
Liv heard a rustling from the bushes behind her and turned around. Tray was limping towards her, leaning on his crutch. He was smiling, and Liv knew he had forgiven her. She supposed he would still scold her for putting herself in danger, but she would bear it without protest. It had been worth the risk. There was no telling what the future might hold, but now at least they had one.