by Helmuth W. Mommers
Translated by Richard Kunzmann
He had prepared everything. It would be time soon. An odd fever had seized him, the way it always does when he is on the point of taking this trip. It did not matter how short the journey was. Out of this world, into another. Away from here. His finger quivered visibly over the ENTER key. A slight touch would be enough to begin the download.
One last time he made sure everything was in place: accumulator fully charged, system operational, data-cube inserted, file called up. He was online. He did not even have to turn his head to follow the wires running into the player – he could sense them on his scalp.
The gadget humming on his hip was barely audible, but still, he held his breath and concentrated on listening, with his eyes pinched shut. There was nothing to hear, nothing to see that was suspicious, no one to observe him going about his affairs, no danger of being discovered.
The prep-indicator blinked invitingly: >READY FOR DOWNLOAD<.
His finger settled on the key.
A noise startled him. A tinny sound, followed by scratching and scraping. It roused him. He pressed his forehead and nose against the sooty window and wiped at it with a threadbare sleeve when he could not make out anything. His breathing came spasmodically and scratched painfully in his throat as he went on rubbing at the glass. Eventually a dull streak appeared through which he could spy the outside world without having to leave the safety of his shack. After this he would have to blacken out the glass again, so as not to leave any tell-tale signs of his presence. He was meticulous when it came to that. He wanted to live awhile, yet.
Outside everything was as it had always been: mountains of scrap wherever the eye turned. An ideal hide-out. Not a place for a survivor. Only for rats and other vermin.
Perhaps it had been a rat. Perhaps it had knocked over something in its search for food – it may even be, if he was in luck, that the creature had fallen into a trap and become food itself. The thought caused his mouth to water. Barbequed rat, a feast for him. Yet it was more likely that he was getting his hopes up for no reason. The bloody critters where getting sharper by the day. Lately the bait had been disappearing without his traps being set off. Where they mutating?
He would have to go see. Before it got dark. But then he heard something else: a tapping sound. Bated silence, then that noise again. It was as though someone was working his way into unknown territory. In his direction!
That was no rat. It was something bigger, something heavier. Man or beast – whatever the difference might be.
Very slowly he ducked away from the peephole he had made and grabbed the shotgun leaning against the “wall” near the “door”, which was nothing more than a faded tarpaulin that covered the entrance to a shack buried deep inside scrap. His so-called door was in turn concealed behind a dented sheet of tin propped up against the outside of the camouflaged shanty.
Carefully he went down on his knees, put the weapon down next to him and stretched out on the floor. Again he strained to listen. Weak sounds of metal scraping over metal, a creaking, a grating, followed by a meaningful silence and more noise.
As quietly as he could he crawled out underneath the tarpaulin and squeezed himself into the gap behind the tin sheet. Inch by inch he moved his head forward. Looked.
The scenery was as usual: gutted car wrecks towering a few floors high and next to them air-conditioners, fridges, washing machines, televisions and computers, all jumbled together, as though they had been tossed all over the yard by a giant crapshooter’s hand. Further to the right were entangled mountains of building materials: pipes, beams, reinforcement steel and aluminum profile frames, as though it had rained Mikado Sticks. Some of them extended towards the sky like reproving fingers, lit a ghostly red by the setting sun – or the eldritch reflection of the nearby burning city.
All that was missing was the wind that struck up its lament every morning, its melody of death. As pure as the end of days.
In its place something howled in the distance – dog … wolf? More of its kind answered … or joined in. Was it the same pack that had roamed through the smoldering ruins a few days ago? There where survivors still believed themselves to be safe. Where the smoke of a fire could not betray them because it hung so pervasively in the air. Where cellars and camp stores still held supplies, around which a merciless war had flared up – a free for all, a symbol of the apocalypse.
In the flickering glow he thought he could make out movement. His gaze fixed on a point in the middle of the scrap pile. There it was again: a shadow moving forward. And that treacherous noise, the squeaking of metal over metal. The anticipatory quiet that followed. It was not an animal either. An animal would sniff the air, fix on its prey as it stalked closer and only pause when its quarry moved. He had stayed hidden, however, still behind the protective tin sheet. Or was it an animal? Had it already come to animals behaving like humans – or the other way around?
Had something scented him?
The shadow moved again and he with it. With the shotgun clamped under one arm he took a few hunched steps out into the open, cover to cover. When he froze he could feel his heart pounding. He barely managed to stifle a coughing fit with one hand. He was breathing hard. No doubt he was ill, most likely terminally. He was convinced he did not have long to live.
And yet he would fight to hold onto every minute he had! The hope of a better world in which he would find comfort kept him alive.
A sharp pain shot up his calf. Instinctively he whirled around and fell to his side as he lost his balance. He saw the rat which had bitten into him, and the rat saw him. They stared at each other with open hostility, man and animal, red-rimmed eyes both, each waiting for a reaction. He had raised the gun’s butt to strike, but did not go through with it; too great was his fear that he would reveal his position with the noisy blow. The rat seemed to realize this and bit again.
He barely managed to suppress a cry of pain. He laid the gun down and tried to grab the rat by hand. Eat or be eaten! He could not manage to catch it, however. On the fourth attempt it managed to escape with a mouthful of his flesh.
Now he pressed a hand to the wound so that no more blood would drip to the ground – blood which would draw the creatures en masse. With his free hand he tore loose a strip of cloth and wrapped it around the wound. He would have to turn around immediately and wash it out, threatening shadow or not.
One hand on the floor, the other supported on the gun, he scrambled up into a squat. The earth crunched faintly under his heels when he turned around and his eyes landed on a foreign shape. Slowly, his eyes travelled upwards to a grotesque face staring at him out of bloody eyes. Its maw hung open; froth bubbled at the corners of its lips; two rows of yellow teeth with gaps between them like embrasures. It was from these jaws that a throaty growl and thick miasma of decay sprung simultaneously.
>DOWNLOADING< … signalled the indicator.
“Oh please, not before breakfast!” his mother tore him back into reality. To emphasize her point, she pressed the STOP key and pushed the player aside.
The boy wanted to protest, but for that it was too late. With little effort his mother had pulled the cables from his skull.
“And get this stuff cleaned up, why don’t you?” She pointed at the boxes, manuals and wrapping paper, which lay strewn over the table. “You can take in your horror stories later. Now its time for your meal!” She handed him a plate with a slice of birthday cake. “What was it this time? The Chainsaw Killer or Armageddon?”
His little sister giggled until he stabbed her with a warning glance.
“The Last Days of Mankind,” he grumbled, more to himself than the others and thought: Cool film, I should show the guys…
“I’m afraid our last days may soon be on us,” his father said, “the way we’re going on.” He pointed at the holo-wall, where a reporter was chattering away in front of thousands of demonstrators. “We’re heading straight for our own doom.” He turned up the volume; now the whole family was engrossed in the scene.
“…that in case of aggressions they would not hesitate to make use of every means at their disposal. When asked if this includes the use of chemical and biological weapons, the government spokesman replied that he could not categorically exclude their use. This was a “holy war” and therefore the cause sanctified their means…”
“I missed the beginning,” said mother. “What’s …”
“Shhht!” Father waved impatiently. “Later … I recorded everything.”
In the corners of the room camcorders blinked.
“One shouldn’t always see the worst,” mother mused, “otherwise you might as well shoot yourself right now.”
“But we should take in any case it seriously. I suggest we stock up on supplies.”
Mother only nodded.
None of this bothered the boy; he already lived in horrifying worlds. The girl made large eyes. She was still too young to fully understand what was happening.
On his way out of the kitchen his mother handed him the obligatory lunch snack. The boy let it disappear into his school bag in such a way that his mother could not see the player hidden inside.
Hardly out of the house and view he leaned back against a wall and slid down it, pinched a pocket mirror between his knees and began to plug in.
A moment later the display blinked:
When the download hit him at full force it happened at the most inopportune moment. He fell over as if he had been floored by a powerful blow, helpless to protect himself from the wretch facing him.
Although he was still staring at the creature’s mask, his gaze was turned inward. He saw himself as a fourteen year old, experienced for the nth time how he, so well-protected in the circle of his family, had sought refuge in his gruesome worlds – perverse, taking into account what he would face one day.
Of all the films it had to be The Last Days of Mankind, he thought bitterly. As though he could not wait for them to come.
Something dribbled on his face when that mask came closer. Saliva. Hunger breathed at him. A stench of decay enveloped him.
Was this it? No way back into the past, only forwards – into a future he no longer had?
When the claws with their broken and dirt-smeared nails clutched at his throat and pressed, his body began to thrash uncontrollably at the dearth of air. Then there was a sudden bang and he lost consciousness.
When he came to, he believed himself buried, so how dark and moist it was, so musty it smelled. But no, he lay under the creature which had attacked him. After he had maneuvered it off himself with difficulty, it fell to the side and rolled onto its back. That was when he saw the torso which had been torn open, the blood. Then he spotted the shotgun which had still been in his hand and from which a shot must have come without his conscious assistance.
He got up and stood swaying over the body a moment. What to do with it? He could not dispose of it. Perhaps it was best to leave it to the scavengers … drag it further away so that the rats and dogs and cats and whatever else was out hunting – humans even – did not stray into the immediate vicinity of his hide-out.
If possible, he should not leave any traces of blood. He would have to change, wash his clothes. Then go on. What else?
Thirty steps away he dropped the corpse. The night would not pass without its being gnawed down to the bones and even these would be scattered all over by morning. He decided to undress it. It was more difficult than he thought. The body was sown with pussy pimples and suppurating sores into which the creature’s rags had eaten. He did his best, though it took a good deal of willpower.
He could burn the rags, but again there was the danger that a fire would attract unwanted guests. And it would be a pity about the gasoline. They had to go, of that he was certain; he could not just leave them lying around in the area, as blood-drenched as they were. So where to with them? His gaze fell on the heap of discarded tires, fridges and washing machines – that was the answer. He took off his shoes, which would have left a bloody trail, and made his way forward barefoot.
Back in his shelter, he could hear the first loud harbingers of the starving hordes. Soon there would be open battles over the carcass.
He pulled the tin sheet across the entrance, hooked it shut. Safe is safe, he thought. Then he switched on the light bulb, and quickly covered the clean slit he had rubbed into the window. The light would not hold for long. He would have to recharge the batteries.
First he had to wash. He undressed himself, carefully putting each item aside on a plastic plane. Then he dipped his hands into a dish full of soapy water. He removed all traces of blood then washed his face. When he looked up to dry it he saw himself in the mirror, lit one-sidedly by the pale light from the bulb.
The face that stared back at him did not differ that much from that of the creature he had just killed. The only exception was that it was not covered in grime. Like the creature he bared his teeth and saw they were the same yellow stumps. When he sniffed the air, the same revolting stench hit him.
No, he did not have long to live. He was rotting from the inside out and disintegrating from the outside in. It was just a question of time.
It was valuable.
The light bulb began to flicker.
As naked as he was, he clambered into the saddle of a dilapidated bicycle and began peddling the squeaking peddles with ever increasing speed. The dynamo began to hum like a swarm of angry hornets and the light bulb started to glow with new life. His breathing was ragged; he puffed like an old steam train. His jerking body threw a ghostly shadow against the walls.
A ghost rider, he thought, flying out of hell!
The din of the horde fighting outside over the carcass could now be heard clearly. It would drown out any noise that came from his lair.
The needle on the battery’s indicator trembled on maximum. “I”m coming!” he squawked like a crow. “Wait for me!”
He slid of the bicycle, dug around in an old shoe-box, taking out one cube after the other and reading their inscriptions. “18th Birthday” said one, “Graduation” the other, “Wedding”. He hesitated a moment, then decided.
“I”m coming, Eve!” he coughed as he plugged the cables into his skull with shaking hands. “Give me a minute!”
His fingers flew over the player’s keyboard, then he stared at the display with tearful eyes.
When the >READY FOR DOWNLOAD< icon lit up, he did not hesitate a second to flee this world.
Helmuth W. Mommers, born in Vienna in 1943, was as illustrator, writer, translator, editor and literary agent one of the first allrounders of the German speaking science fiction community. For family reasons he moved to Switzerland in 1966, had a successful career as a business man and lived for many years on Mallorca. After a break of 35 years he returned into the science fiction scene with a vengeance, founded the German science fiction magazine Nova (the sister magazine of InterNova) in collaboration with Ronald M. Hahn and Michael K. Iwoleit in 2002, edited the anthology series Visionen and published dozens of new short stories some of which were translated into ten languages. His latest achievement is the founding of the Villa Fantastica in Vienna, a specialized library for science fiction and fantastic literature. His homepage is at www.helmuthmommers.de . More information about his library can be found at www.villafantastica.com