Climbing the rusting metal staircase outside the warehouse, stepping as quietly as possible despite the cacophony of gunfire and explosions emanating from inside, Marty checked his rifle to make sure it was properly assembled and loaded. He’d grown to distrust his senses and his memory, as everything had come to seem dreamlike and fuzzy around the edges.
The lasting waking effect of each yawn seemed to be diminishing. Every time, he’d feel tired again several minutes later. He was able to fall asleep for brief periods but would wake up feeling even worse. The inability to escape the torment of his own body was rapidly approaching critical levels of strenuousness. His nerves felt as though they would soon flare up and burn out forever.
One of the stairs twisted a little and gave way under his weight. He fell forward, catching himself painfully with his elbow on the next stair.
There was a doorway at the top of the stairs. Unlike the one he’d encountered halfway along his ascent, his one was missing its door. He crept up the remaining stairs, his back pressed hard against the corrugated metal wall, and peeked cautiously around the edge of the doorway.
At one point there had been maybe a floor or a platform or a matching stairway on the other side of the wall, but it was now just a fifty-foot drop to the first level. Inside, there seemed to be a handful of scattered people all facing away from him, and a tank of some sort. He lowered himself to his belly on the platform at the top of the stairwell, cradled his gun against his shoulder, and looked through the scope.
Before he could even locate his target, he fell abruptly asleep.
Ben watched as one of Anna’s small missile turrets spun and centered on him. He defensively raised his right arm, despite its uselessness, and acquainted himself with the grim prospect of his own imminent mortality. He’d accepted it years ago, but now that it was within moments of taking place, he shuffled quickly once more through the stages of grief.
Denial was silly with an array of armed missiles pointed at you, and he’d been fruitlessly trying to bargain with her for almost a day. Anger was always a given for him, as was depression, so he could skip right past those. Normally he wasn’t big on regret, but now that it really mattered he realized there were a lot of things he felt guilty about. The way he devalued his own life, for instance, whiling away the time waiting to die, lamenting his helplessness while millions of insurgents with less training than he had fought and died defending families and strangers from oppression. Instead, he’d complied with the government that had forcibly relocated his family into a guarded colony to extort a loyal military career from him. He’d slaughtered hundreds he didn’t know because they’d threatened a few that he did. But there was nothing he could do to remedy any of that now, especially as the splattered pulp he was about to become. Which brought him back to acceptance.
There was a quiet puff as a missile rocketed toward him and unexpectedly impacted something about thirty feet above his head. A cascade of debris fell behind him, composed mostly of the tops of old storage racks that had become separated from their bottoms in the explosion. He cringed and jogged forward, but was stopped when something struck him in the back — a burning sensation more painful than anything he’d ever experienced. It moved rapidly through him, seemingly burning every cell in his body from the bottoms of his shoulder blades to his feet.
He had barely enough time to look down at himself before everything below his rib cage and most of his left arm disappeared into a fine haze. The rapidly-deteriorating particles hung in place for a moment like a poorly-focused photograph of his body, then swirled upward and away as his unsupported upper torso fell through the cloud.
His abbreviated spine connected with the floor, the exposed bottommost vertebra cracking a little, and he toppled backward, the back of his skull knocking lightly into the cement floor.
For a moment, he lay completely still, watching the red mist that had once been maybe his kidney or thigh drifting lazily to the floor, a bit of it landing like a sticky dust on his face. He tried sitting after a moment, but realized after several attempts that it wasn’t going to happen. Hesitantly, he lifted his head and examined the damage he’d taken. Everything below his chest was gone, and he was likely rapidly bleeding to death. He let his head fall again and closed his eyes.
Anna ceased fire and retracted her various armaments, and the others throughout the warehouse stopped as well. It was then that they noticed, one at a time, the remaining chunk of Ben resting atop the segment of floor that had been painted with his disintegrated organs.
Denise rushed over to him and knelt beside him, her blue waitress outfit and eventually her socks sopping up his blood. She started to ask him what happened, but couldn’t bring herself to continue speaking after getting the first few words out.
”My ears are ringing,” he said, opening his eyes. His lungs were still working, which wasn’t nearly as comforting a thought when he remembered he was still bleeding profusely and short a few crucial organs.
Denise took his remaining hand and stroked his thumb with hers. “Yeah, me too.” She sobbed a couple times and wiped away a tear with her apron, leaving a streak of blood beneath her eye.
”That’s not ringing,” shouted one of the NCR border guards nearby, raising his gun and adopting a defensive stance.
The buzzing increased until it became a roar. Through all the windows and the missing portions of the building’s walls and roof poured a swarm of hundreds of thousands of insects. Within seconds, the swarm had fully engulfed what was left of Ben.
By the time the gunfire inside had stopped, Marty was already at the bottom of the metal staircase and running for cover on the other side of a building nearby that resembled some kind of minimalist coffee machine. Whoever had been piloting the tank had spotted him up in the doorway as he’d been falling asleep on his rifle. He hadn’t even noticed the missile until it had exploded against something twenty feet in front of his face, startling him into spasmodically pulling the trigger.
He’d hit the target, though, and that was all that mattered. It wasn’t a complete disintegration, but the shot guaranteed death. They could come by and identify the remains later if they needed verification. As he began puzzling over who the “they” were, a dense fog formed in his brain and the events of the last day began to disappear from his conscious mind like a hastily-awoken-from dream, each of them slipping like drops of oil from a wet stone.
His body kept running, feet rhythmically splashing out a staccato of cascading slush as he carelessly stomped through half-frozen puddles in a straight line toward anywhere away from the place he’d come, wherever that had been. Somewhere behind him, a loud hum drowned out all sound, even his own footsteps. The sensation was transmitted from his eardrums, but discarded by his brain.
He dropped whatever it was he’d been carrying, but lacked even the presence of mind to turn and see what it was. Something heavy and unwieldy anyway so fuck it.
Cold air rushed in and out of his lungs, a sensation like tiny ice crystals puncturing microscopic lacerations into his bronchioles. His boots and pants were soaked and he could no longer feel his feet. There was a certain point of frigidity, it occurred to him somewhere in his head, beyond which one’s nerves became so numbed they could no longer sense an even greater drop in temperature.
More than he wanted to find somewhere warm, even more than his body ached to sleep, he needed to find a television. There was one in his apartment, he remembered, but his apartment wasn’t anywhere nearby. Maybe it was; he was incapable of identifying his current location. This startled and unnerved him for a moment, but then he remembered he needed to find an TV, one with a feed he could control.
Ahead was a fence with a sidewalk and a road on the other side. There were people and vehicles as well but he couldn’t really focus on them. Anything that moved when his eyes didn’t seemed beyond his ability to perceive, let alone process.
He climbed the fence when he got to it, unaware there was a gate a little more than sixty feet to his right, and fell to the sidewalk on the other side. A voice somewhere said something to him but he forgot each word immediately after it arrived in his brain. As he rose from the pavement he grunted and shook his head in arbitrary response. There were more words and possibly other voices, but they diminished and eventually subsided as he continued running in the same direction he’d been going before jumping the fence. There had to be a TV somewhere.
Seemingly weighing a hundred times more than usual, his head drooped and his eyelids dropped shut. He stumbled, tripping over some uneven pavement, and woke back up long enough to yawn.
His entire field of vision was blurry, as though his eyeballs had been wrapped in a layer or two of plastic wrap and then shoved back into his head. Given the uncomfortable way they moved around in their sockets, he wondered for a moment if someone had actually done that but dismissed it as ridiculous. The thought was soon swept aside by a more pressing concern: How was he going to watch TV with his eyes this blurry?
Panic engulfed him, followed by a feeling of abject helplessness. With no other response available from his sleep-deprived, thoroughly baffled brain, he began to sob like a child. There was a figure of some sort ahead that was probably a person, and he ran full-force toward it in hope that it actually was. After grasping at it with both his hands, clutching its clothing as tightly as he could muster with one hand while pawing wildly at it with the other, he confirmed that it was, in fact, another human when it punched him powerfully in the ribs. The sensation registered momentarily, but quickly receded.
Without fully realizing it, he’d apparently begun shouting, his voice a high, terrified bleat. “TV?” he yelped. “Get me it! Put it on.”
Understandably, the person trying desperately to free herself from his grasp asked him, repeatedly, “What the fuck?”
Without really hearing her, he continued shouting, not really hearing himself either. “The show! The show, put it on, I have to.”
As distracted as his brain was by the urgent need to locate a television, and, secondary to that, the persistent desire to sleep, he was unable to ignore the sensation and physical effect of several hundred kilovolts from the girl’s stun gun in his abdomen.