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Outside Looking In

Hard Choices

By Bronson FleetPublished 2 years ago 13 min read
First Place in The Mystery Box Challenge
45

Everett dove to the ground so quickly that he knocked the wind from himself. He lay there, hardly able or willing to breathe as he waited for the man with the rifle to raise the alarm.

He saw me, surely, he thought to himself.

It had been weeks, months, since he had seen another human being. In the world, as it was now, cold, barren, dying, that was truly a blessing.

There were no good people left. How could there be? He understood that fact the way a lamb understands there are no friendly wolves. In other words, the realization was instinctual, primal. Kill or be killed.

Everett knew it was best to avoid the cities. He mostly stuck to the plains and forests as he made his way aimlessly across the country. A pilgrim without a destination or purpose except survival. Sometimes though, he had little choice.

He always knew it was time to venture in when the cold reached his bones. It was always cold now, but usually, his thick military coat and army fatigues could manage it well enough that temperature could at least be ignored. But when the ice sank deep enough through his skin that his bones began to ache, it meant starvation was close at hand.

The cold had lived in his marrow for three long days now.

Shakily, he pushed himself to his knees and poked his head over the rusted car he had thrown himself behind. The man with the rifle was still there, but his eyes were not aimed at Everett. Instead, he was pacing back and forth along a narrow scaffold built atop the crumbling facade of the grocery store. Everett scanned the rest of the old building, taking in its fortifications.

A tall chain link fence lined with razor wire at its top surrounded the building’s perimeter in a semi-circle, its length terminating in front of the store’s main entrance with two fortified bunkers flanking each side of the glass entryway. Both bunkers held two men apiece, each holding long rifles with scopes. The makeshift scaffolding the man above was pacing ran around the entire building where more guards, men and women, popped into view from time to time as they made their rounds.

Everett knew that there were probably other grocery stores in the area and that almost all of them would be less guarded than this one, but, paradoxically, it was the effort these people were making to guard this one that attracted him to it.

It meant there was food here. Clean water. Something worth guarding. The other stores, he knew, had been cleaned out long ago. Minutes, days, even years after the bombs fell, it mattered little. All that mattered was that those precious stores of canned goods and preservative-filled calories were long gone. So he waited and watched for an opening. For a chink in the armor where he might slip in unnoticed, take what he needed, and slip away off toward the lonely horizon.

He had been a military man. Almost everybody had been in those days. But that was long ago. A lifetime ago. And though he had almost forgotten what it meant to be loyal to something besides sheer survival, he had not forgotten his training. How to evaluate an enemy position, break it down into areas of strength or weakness, and then infiltrate. In all the years he had done this, he had almost always found it was the human element that was the weakest part of any defense.

Concrete and mortar rarely fail, but a patrol unit? They need to sleep. They need to eat. They get complacent. In the beginning, they are vigilant, but after a while, does that hallway really need to be checked? Does that door really need to be locked? Do I really need to turn that corner? Without fail, cracks begin to form, and it is there the wise man strikes.

It was frustrating then that Everett could find no crack to exploit. The men and women patrolling did so with metronome regularity. Like machines or demons. The oddest thing of it all was their dead silence. Not one of them spoke to any other. No jokes were offered, no glances passed. It was so inhumane that a shiver went down Everett’s spine that had nothing to do with the cold.

He needed to flank around, he decided. To see if there were any weaknesses at the building’s rear. He got to his feet and prepared to move, but just then a small hum, like the sound of a fly buzzing in his ear, suddenly broke the day’s silence. He listened intently.

What in the world?

Then, suddenly, a large drone appeared from behind the grocery store. Everett, horror-stricken, moved back behind the car.

The device was clearly old military. Large enough to carry boxes of munitions across a battlefield, or missiles primed to strike an enemy fortification from miles up. It had been years since he’d seen anything like it.

The buzz grew louder, and Everett felt panic growing in his chest. He had not noticed if the drone was fitted with the military standard 5.56 belt machine gun, but he knew that even if it wasn’t, it was no good being spotted by it.

It’s just making its rounds. Nothing to worried about. It can’t know I’m here, he thought desperately, but he had a sinking feeling that that was only wishful thinking.

The man had seen me. He must’ve called the drone in for recon.

It made sense. The guard atop the grocery store probably had seen him, but only a glimpse. Not enough to be sure, so why waste precious ammunition if you could call in a drone to survey the scene from above?

The buzz grew louder still. Everett risked peaking above the edge of the car. With a jolt, he realized the drone was heading straight for him.

All of his training told him that it was best to hold his ground. Remain where he was and fight this battle one-on-one with the enemy in close quarters. Then he could make a retreat in an organized, planned manner.

He ignored his training and fled as fast as he could.

A cry went up from behind him as he weaved his way through junk cars, fallen street lights, and explosion-cratered asphalt.

“Hey! Stop! STOP!”

The crack of gunshots began to ring out behind him. He had no time to worry about that though, as the buzz of the drone was growing louder. Panic began to invade his mind, but even in this situation, Everett was not totally helpless. He looked around, trying to form a plan.

To the North, a half click straight ahead was a large forest. If he could make it there he could lose the large drone amongst the trees. He could disappear there and find some other way into the grocery.

Too far...TOO FAR! He thought, desperately.

Quickly he discounted the tree line as an option and considered turning to fight. Again, this was a losing proposition. If he were going to do that he should have done it in cover. He thought of the scopes attached to those rifles and knew that even if the guards were not trained marksmen, a 200-foot shot was not one ten people would miss forever.

Finally, his eyes turned towards a group of townhouses fifty feet to his left. They were run down and crumbling with holes in the walls where explosions had ripped away their once gleaming white facades. If he turned towards them, they would all see. The drone could pin him down there long enough for its operators to surround the buildings and flush him out. He would be trapped.

The whir of the drone’s enormous propellers were growing louder every second. Everett knew even if the thing had no gun those blades were just as dangerous. They could easily tear him to pieces without even slowing down. With that thought in mind, he turned toward the nearest townhome.

Everett could feel the wind on the back of his neck as he jumped through the townhome’s threshold. He slammed to the ground, the wind knocked from his lungs for the second time that day, then spun around as the drone pulled up harshly to avoid running into the building’s entry.

He stared at it through the opening where a door had once been. It hovered there, its large camera staring right back, then it turned and flew off into the darkened sky.

“You’re home early. Bad day at the office?”

The question came from behind him. Everett jumped up and instinctually launched himself towards it, his fist cocked back and ready for a fight.

As he flew through the air he saw it was a woman in a 1950s-style sun dress. Her rouged cheeks and red lips gave her the look of a housewife in one of those old TV shows Everett watched on reruns before the lights went out.

He tried to pull back, but his momentum carried him forward into the woman, and then straight through her.

“You’re acting odd today,” the woman said from above him as he caught his breath face down on the floor. “I’ll start some tea for you.”

The hologram moved without walking right through Everett and out of the living room. Turning his head to the side, Everett looked at the small projector built into the living room wall and cursed.

“It’s a Housemate, you fool,” he whispered to himself and then got to his knees. From the kitchen he heard the projection humming softly, and then in a robotic voice say, “ERROR, ERROR. Appliance malfunction: STOVE. Please contact customer support for troubleshooting."

Instantly, the woman reappeared in the living room. “Sir, but I am having trouble with your tea. I apologize for the inconvenience.”

Everett stood, his lungs finally filling with air once again, and said, “I’m sorry, too.” Then he picked up the broken leg of the coffee table and smashed the small projector on the wall. Instantly the holographic woman winked out of existence.

He sat back down with a thump and heaved a sad sigh. It might’ve been nice, actually, to talk to her for a while. To converse with someone, like in the old days, even if he knew it was just an imitation. To feel that old way again. Where things existed solely for the pleasure they could provide rather than out of pure necessity. He realized though that if he were going to survive, he couldn’t have a phantom woman speaking loudly and greeting his enemies at the door.

He needed to think, and then move. He started to make plans for how best to reach the woods without being seen. Nothing came to mind.

First, I need to rest, he decided, then let his head fall backward. Just for a few moments. Then, I can make my escape.

Everett closed his eyes.

It was six hours later that the buzzing returned. Everett awoke with a start and jumped to his feet.

“Shit!” He whispered urgently. The room was almost entirely dark. So dark in fact that when he stood and took a step he tripped on the coffee table and stumbled forward. He landed painfully halfway out the front door.

He cursed again and jumped up, but it was too late. The drone was there hovering ten feet above him. Everett slipped back into the house, waiting for what would come next.

The drone slowly dropped into view through the doorway, its bright light nearly blinding him. In its mechanical clasps it held a large package that had not been there the last time he had seen it.

It hovered a moment, then dropped its burden on the front step and quickly hummed away into the darkness.

Everett did not move. He held his breath, sure he had just been delivered a pipe bomb primed to explode. Minutes passed that felt like hours. Finally, Everett built the courage to move away from the parcel and back into the living room.

What game is this? He wondered.

Sitting in the dark, he pondered his options. Clearly, they were watching him still, and if they knew where to deliver him a package, then surely it would be little effort to send men with guns to eliminate him. It wasn’t a bomb then, most likely.

Well, what is it?

After an hour of debate, his curiosity overcame his sense. He rose and stepped outside, picking up the huge package with a grunt.

Carefully he opened its flaps, and his mouth fell open in shock.

Of all the things it might have been, it ought not have been this.

It was a weapon. A killer of men and women unlike any other ever created. A miracle, its engineers might’ve called it, but in truth, it was a horror. Everett had seen it before.

It was large. Fit to be carried on the shoulder. Along its side was a large computer screen that lit up when the operator put its hand on the trigger. On its screen would be displayed a GPS map of the surrounding area. All one had to do was circle an area on that screen with a finger and then pull the trigger. Instantly, sixty self-propelled “bullets” would be released. Each one would search the circled area for any sign of life, and then imbed itself into the living target's brain. After the work was done, they would return to the chamber and recharge for the next use.

It was made, he supposed, so that useless human life could be discarded of while valuable war materials like bunkers and computer hardware could be preserved. It was a weapon so powerful that war had suddenly become obsolete. Everett guessed it might’ve been the reason both sides had decided to drop the bombs, ending it altogether.

He did not understand why it had been delivered, but the truth was, whatever the reason, it was exactly what Everett needed. The men and women patrolling the store not a click away could be dead in a few minutes, and starvation would be kept at bay another day.

Everett, sick to his stomach, stood, hoisted the weapon, and strode out to the street. He turned and faced the grocery store.

“Goodbye,” he whispered. Then, with all his might, smashed the gun to the ground. He picked it up again and smashed it down again, its delicate instruments cracking and fizzling out.

Satisfied that it was destroyed, Everett turned and began walking out of town.

The buzz of the drone sounded then from high above him, moving at great speed. He was no longer afraid. He was no murderer. Not anymore at least, and if he was to die, he’d rather it be by the blade of a drone than starvation.

But the drone did not strike him. Instead, it lowered itself to eye level and blocked his path. Everett looked at it coldly, then tried to move around it but again it would not let him pass. Finally, when he had given up getting around the machine, it moved around him and began making its way to the grocery store. When he did not follow, it turned around and motioned back and forth as if urging him to come along. Everett, resigned to his fate, did so.

What do I have to lose?

It was not long before he stood in full view of the patrolling men and women, their firearms still nestled across their chests.

“Hey! Stop! STOP!” One of them shouted, and all of their weapons rose simultaneously.

Everett heard the crack of their rifles. He flinched and closed his eyes, but no bullets came. Confused but relieved, he followed as the drone led him onward to the front of the store.

Once he was past the circle of the razor wire fence, Everett, curious, moved to the bunker flanking the entryway and saw small glowing projectors at the feet of the two guards.

“Holograms?” He whispered to himself in surprise.

Just then, the front doors of the grocery slipped open, and a woman walked out to greet him.

She wore a thick jacket and military boots and trousers. She had a rifle, but it wasn’t aimed at him.

They examined each other a moment, then she said, “There ain’t many people around here like you anymore.”

Everett only looked at her, so befuddled he couldn’t speak.

“You didn’t use the gun,” she explained, a hint of admiration in her voice.

Everett’s tongue unlocked. “I…I’m not a killer. Not anymore.”

The woman smiled. “That’s good. We don’t need killers here. We need workers. Plumbers. Engineers. Harvesters for the hydroponic farms. If things are to be rebuilt, we’ll need to put killing aside for a while. Is that something you could do?”

Everett nodded. “I can work.”

The woman nodded back. “That’s good. There’s plenty of it. How about a meal, first?”

“A meal…I think I could do that as well.”

The woman waved a hand and said, “Come on then, by the looks of you there’s no time to waste,” then disappeared through the doors.

Everett smiled for the first time in as long as he could remember, then followed after her into the grocery and out of the cold.

Short Story
45

About the Creator

Bronson Fleet

Thanks for reading.

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  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

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  3. Excellent storytelling

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    The story invoked strong personal emotions

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Comments (24)

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  • K. C. Wexlarabout a year ago

    Wow! This is the best story I've read on this site yet. Congratulations - you have such talent!

  • Gabriel Huizengaabout a year ago

    This is so amazing!! Congrats on the win, it's much deserved :)

  • Awesome 👍 ❤️❄️❗❗❗💯

  • Alison McBain2 years ago

    Wow - what an amazing story! Congrats.

  • Robert Walsh2 years ago

    I loved the ending. Great job.

  • sol2 years ago

    The was quite intense. Great job.

  • Kemari Howell2 years ago

    I knew this would win, the first time I read it. Congrats :)

  • Lots of fun! A great arc in a small space. Thank you!

  • Loryne Andawey2 years ago

    I can see why this was selected for top prize. You remind us that even in the darkest of times there are still patches of light. Beautifully done.

  • Diamond B2 years ago

    Good job, congrats

  • Andrea Lawrence2 years ago

    Congrats on your win!

  • Alvin Ang2 years ago

    Goddamn, this was good. Bravo!

  • Chela2 years ago

    It wasn’t a question 😂

  • Chela2 years ago

    I enjoyed this. Nice work?

  • Kenny Penn2 years ago

    Great story, really enjoyed the read, and congratulations on your win

  • Cynthia Fields2 years ago

    What an excellent story! Captivating! Congratulations on your much-deserved win!

  • Thank you all for the kind words!

  • J. S. Wade2 years ago

    Original, compelling, creative and deserving of top honors. Awesome story. Congrats !

  • Aphotic2 years ago

    I can clearly see why this story was a winner, nice work! I especially liked the twist at the end.

  • Congratulations and excellent writing

  • JBaz2 years ago

    Well deserved win. Congratulations, awesome story.

  • Babs Iverson2 years ago

    Wonderful story!! Hearted & subscribed!!! Congratulations on the win!!!😊

  • Mark Gagnon2 years ago

    Great story! It kept my interest throughout. Congratulations on your first-place finish.

  • Jasmine S.2 years ago

    Congratulations on First Place! Well deserved. I enjoyed your entry.

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