Soulhazard, vol.3by Ivan Popov / Fantasy / Science Fiction
Copyright 2017 Ivan Popov
Cover background image courtesy of JoakimOlofsson at DeviantArt
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Table of contents
A shot in the dark
In their hands
Put in writing
Extra: Culture of the Survivors
About the series
About the author
Other works from this author
Connect with Ivan Popov
A shot in the dark
Jack stared at the distant glow with a horrified fascination. His perch on the top of the brick office building gave him a great view of the city center, and he'd been stuck there for the last several hours, watching what he thought was an unexplainable, but probably extremely dangerous phenomenon.
The dark clouds that had covered the sky with the coming of the evening had finished their downpour and were now simply making the departure of sunlight that much faster. Jack had found refuge from the rain in the lower stories of the building, creeping through the mostly empty rooms and rummaging in the leftover debris of fifteen years of looting. Now, however, all thoughts of salvaging had dissipated.
As his feet slowly got colder he saw another flash of light from the distant building that was the focus of his observation. The high-rise with a partially destroyed rooftop had drawn his attention as it suddenly lit up at sundown. It looked like a normal building with the lights on, except that it was in the middle of heavy Taint and there was no electricity there. The only possible explanation chilled Jack to the bone.
He had little time to think what to do as, several minutes later, the whole thing flashed angrily and a thunder-like scream was heard that rattled the city. Then it all went dark again. At that time he grabbed one of the signal flares that were to be used in case of danger and got ready to light it up.
Never endanger! The guards' rule flashed in his mind. What am I to gain from this? He thought. I'm already here, close enough to see the thing. The closest friends are half an hour away, in the darkness maybe more. The thing is an hour away, but that's if you walk. How fast do crazies move? Do they walk, or ride on Tainted cars along the streets that they practically own? Will they see the flare and come looking?
His mind went into stupor at the image of him disappearing in a flash of light. The safest thing to do was to stay put and observe. The flare went back into the pack at his side.
Another flash followed and then the building was alight again, this time with a duller glow that seemingly came off its whole surface. Seconds later a tiny figure flew out of one of the higher windows and plunged down between the buildings and out of sight. The weak sound of breaking glass reached Jack after the fact.
They are fighting there! He thought. Were the Haven guards there, or was he observing some feud that was to wipe out a clan of crazies? It was now too dark to see any more details, but the bluish glow persisted. As the night progressed it became more visible and ran up and down the high-rise in waves that gave Jack shivers. He imagined the glow spreading from building to building, coming closer and closer. What is that? A spell? A plague to kill their enemies? Entertainment? The last option was the most chilling. Are they celebrating the victory after they threw the leader of the opposition out the window?
The horrific fantasies continued rolling through his mind and became nightmares that made him wake up shuddering every hour or two. He didn't notice when the far building had stopped glowing, and had just enough strength to spare to acknowledge the fact before falling asleep again.
The rain woke him gently, but as he regained consciousness the pains of spending the night propped on a cold, half ruined wall started getting to him. He started shivering madly, his body now requiring heat that was just not there.
Simple survival rules, Jack. What have you been thinking, sleeping in the open? He paused and stared out over the foggy city. I'm talking to myself now. Is this also a guard thing?
It was getting lighter by the minute and the Question was probably not far away. Jack looked over the edge of the roof and at the adjacent buildings to make sure there was no one there before doing some stretching exercises to get his blood flowing. The shivers started to slowly go away. He straightened up and stood there, waiting for the moment of nausea. It was no good surviving the night out in Taintland only to think the wrong words and end up as the next unbreakable window. Not that there are many windows left on this particular block, he observed. Mental predetermination, come on!
He sat down, closed his eyes and started to repeat the word 'not' in his head. It was no good for him saying it out loud, as it was the usual custom. He usually considered himself lucky if he didn't puke. Having breakfast before the Question was unthinkable.
Not, not, not, not, not. The litany went on for several minutes, then his stomach twisted angrily and Jack swayed on the spot, slapping his hands down on the cold, wet concrete in order to not topple from the sickening feeling. NOT! he screamed mentally, drowning the words of the Question with it.
The concrete roof shuddered and Jack looked around in fright. The whole building gave a jolt and then sighed.
"Not." The voice was weak, diluted in the creak of the wooden window frames and the cracking of the bricks, but it was still there. Then a cry came from below, making Jack jump and reach for his gun.
"No, why did I have to go?" Screamed the invisible person, high pitched, rough and tearful. "Why?" It then broke into sobs and became a bit more human.
Jack stole carefully down the stairs. There was no one under the roof, and no other sound was heard but the crying. The building had stopped rumbling at last. He looked out of a broken window. No one on the street too.
Another couple of stories down he thought he'd reached the source of the sound. It came from an empty room that he had searched on his way up. He tried to remember what was inside as he crept along the wall, the cold metal of the gun a weight in his hands. The sobs had now abated a little and another word came from the broken doorframe that he had just reached.
"Rain!" The voice almost made Jack jump away, it was so rough and pained. He stopped and tried not to breath too loud. He was too close, he had to do something fast or the person or people in the room would hear him.
"He asked... rain!" It was almost a roar, guttural and raw. "He knew!" Then a fit of coughing overcame the speaker and Jack decided that it was probably the right time to act. He tried to jump around the corner and point the gun at the creature in the room but he overdid the jump and hit the other beam of the doorframe with his left shoulder. His hands jerked and the gun went off into wall on the right, the shot deafening in the confined space of the room.
As he tried to correct his aim he realized the only person in the room was a small girl kneeling in the center of the floor. She stared at him with a frown. His jaw dropped.
"Why?" The girl said, her voice so deep on the vowel that it sounded like an animal growling. Jack nearly shot her.
"What are you?" he managed, while fumbling with the safety of the gun. He wasn't going to shoot a child, even if she was devil's incarnate.
She was now staring at his wet clothes. "Rain!" Her finger shot out and pointed at him. "I need rain!" She jumped up, almost fell down again and then half-ran past him out into the corridor and down the stairs. Jack followed her closely.
They emerged from the building into the dim morning light and spattering rain that the wind draped in waves over the street. Jack got his pack down and rummaged for the thin plastic raincoat that he'd gotten as part of his guard gear. The girl just stood there, her arms outstretched and her face turned towards the sky, the waves of rain drops running through her and soaking the ragged shirt and pants that she wore. Jack shook his head and cast the nylon over her, holding the other end above his own head. The raincoat hung between them like a tent, the water running down on both sides.
"You should get inside. You're not dressed for this weather." He tried stating the obvious as an ice breaker. The girl just stood there and watched him with interest. Her brown eyes studied his clothing and gear and he got progressively more aware of the rain that ran down the back of his neck.
Jack pointed back at the building. "Come on. I have some food too." He made to move towards the entrance.
"You are human?" The question surprised him and he stopped and looked back at her.
"Uh, yeah. Aren't you?" Would she tell me if she wasn't?
"I am if you are." Her answer didn't do anything to improve his mood.
"Right..." This keeps getting stranger. "Let's eat and then you'll tell me where you were hiding when I came yesterday."
This time she followed him, but slipped out from under the raincoat and tasted the rain, sticking her tongue out. A blissful smile spread across her face.
"I love rain now. I wonder how long it will last."
Jack was going to ask what she meant, but decided it wasn't worth it. There were more important things to know.
"Okay," he said as they sat down on top of the drier side of the raincoat in the entrance of the building. "Are there other survivors with you? Where were you hiding?"
"Survivors?" She seemed to taste the word. The R's roller out of her throat like the rumble of a car engine. "I hope most of them survived, but I cannot be sure. And I wasn't hiding." She pointed at him again as he took a travel ration out of the pack. "You were."
"What? I wasn't hiding, I came to find who was crying."
"And you nearly shot me." Her smile became mischievous.
"Uh..." The way they had met now came back to Jack. He looked down and busied himself with the ration. "I didn't mean to. I'm sorry. Your voice..." He cleared his drying throat. "It scared me a little."
"Yes." She tried coughing to clear her throat, but made a grimace. "It still hurts. But it's way better than yesterday. Being Bound probably helped."
"What do you mean? Were you a prisoner?" He passed her a piece of dried meat. The girl smelled the food and then chewed on it with a thoughtful expression.
"No. I was this building."
"What do you..." Jack blanched. "You were Taint?" He tried to keep the disgust from his voice but failed. The girl raised an eyebrow.
"Isn't this word used as a bad thing?" She asked. "Anyway, it helped my throat a little, so I'm grateful. It, and that is to say I, helped you too."
"How did you help me if you were Taint?" Jack moved away a bit and left her sitting on the nylon alone. "You've been spying on the observa..." He clamped his mouth. The less you say to crazies, the less they can use against you. This was Fricks' instruction for dealing with people who went around becoming Taint on purpose.
"I made sure that you were sleeping on the warmest spot of the roof. You... felt nice." She chewed on the dried meat some more. "Next time bring a blanket though."
"I have a blanket! And what do you mean I felt nice?" Jack felt that things were getting out of hand.
"Well, you were inside me, and I could feel you move around and touch stuff..."
Jack waved his hands madly to make her stop. She looked at his deeply blushing face in amusement.
"So," he tried summoning some of his previous fear and disgust, but it wouldn't come, "you admit you're a Crazy then?"
She frowned. "I'm Ossa. It's not nice calling people crazy you know."
"I mean like a... a persuasion." Jack stuttered.
"Well," she swallowed the last of the meat, made a face and started massaging her throat, "I could call you a poor soul, which I can see you are, but I am not doing it. See, they teach us that people like you can take offense at that."
"They? Who's 'they'?" Jack grasped at the opportunity to get some real information out of the Crazy girl.
"The elders of course. I have to get back now. I have to help the Gathering. Thanks for the food!" She stood up.
"You're not going anywhere, girl." The voice of Fricks came as a surprise to Jack and he whipped around to see the whole guard squad arrayed at the entrance. Several of them were pointing their weapons at the girl.
"You," continued the old cop, "are coming with us."