1. Rifle

2052, October 13th
Collapse + 3 years

Winnie sprinted down an icy road, until she slipped and fell. Her face struck concrete. She clambered up. A blood smear covered the ground. Wiping her lip, her mitten came away red. Her mouth tasted like copper, but her lips were so numb she felt no pain.

Her eyes started to water. Her vision blurred. The only sound was the town siren. Its intermittent honking seemed to echo as speaker boxes set through the town sounded at different intervals.

She wasn’t supposed to be out here. When the sirens started ringing, she was supposed to turn around and head back to school. It was the closest shelter, but she had to get home. The idea of hiding in the school basement with the other students and teachers was unbearable to her, knowing that her mother would be at home alone.

There was no one else on the streets anymore. The town looked deserted. The Lakirans were coming. With any luck, they would fly by and think this was another abandoned ghost town.

But there would be Winnie. They would capture her, and they would read her mind, and they would know that her family was here, and her friends, and her classmates. They would capture everyone because of her.

She hid the blood on the ground under snow and took off running again. Her backpack waggled as she moved, threatening to pull her off balance. The snow seemed deeper with every step, and every footprint was another bit of evidence that people lived here.

Her street came into view. To her relief, others were still moving about. Lights were still on. If the Lakirans came now, it would not be her fault. Her mother was standing outside Mrs. Ellis’s house across the street from their own. Beside her were two members of the town’s watch helping people get inside. Their rifles were slung over their shoulders. If they were telling everyone to go to the shelters, then that meant they expected fighting.

“Eun-Yeong?” Her mother ran toward her. They met in the street. “Eun-Yeong, you should be at school. What happened to your face?”

“I’m okay.” Winnie wiped her mouth again. Blood had been pouring from her split lip. She hadn’t noticed.

“Come with me.” Her mother pulled her toward the shelter.

“Wait.” Winnie took off toward their own house, and her mother ran after her. Inside, she hurried to her room. Under her bed was a hunting rifle. Everyone thirteen years old or older had one. Winnie had gotten hers on her birthday two months ago along with a three hour lesson on safety. Even now, after going to the watch each week for practice, she wasn’t supposed to use the rifle. If someone from outside the town appeared, or a starved animal came, she was to get help, never to fight. But it was still hers, and if a Lakiran came near her or her mother, she would use it.

Her mother caught up. “What are you doing? Put that away.”

“No. It’s mine.”

“You’re not fighting, Eun-Yeong. We’re going to the shelter.”

“I know. I’m taking it.”

“Eun-Yeong, put it down.”

Clutching the rifle to her chest, Winnie ran around her mother and back into the snow. Across the street, the watchmen glanced at Winnie and her weapon, but they didn’t say anything as she passed them into the house. They had rifles too. It wouldn’t make a difference.

If the people coming were wanderers looking for handouts, or one of those war bands from down south the town had heard so much about, the rifles might have helped.

But this was the Lakiran army. The town’s rifles would be like slingshots against tanks. Lakiran soldiers wore gleaming armor. They lived in cities that floated in the air as though built on clouds. Their ships projected energy fields that caused bullets to veer away.

All of this was thanks to one advantage. Their assemblers could make food. That’s all.

LakiraLabs—the company the empire had been before the Collapse—had only just come out with the Food Ready machines when society decided to end. It was a helpful edge to have while the world’s crops froze during a multiyear winter.

Winnie stepped down the stairs. A single LED lantern sat on a crate of bottled water in the center of the cellar. Dozens of people were huddled up against walls and corners. They wore winter clothes and had blankets wrapped about them. Most were women. Some clutched children too young to be in school. One child was an infant. He mewled and cried as his mother tried to keep him warm.

Winnie settled with her mother by some others. She found a crate of supplies all town shelters were supposed to stock and took out a box of rifle rounds. Her mother tried again to pull the rifle away, but she wouldn’t let go. Hye-jun took the box, but not before Winnie got a handful of ammunition. Obeying an unspoken rule, no one in the shelter spoke, so her mother didn’t argue the point. Instead, she wiped blood from Winnie’s chin.

The last people on the block trickled in. The militiaman who’d been at the door came down.

“Is everyone here? Anyone missing?”

Everyone stared back at him.

“Stay here until the all-clear.” He headed up the cellar stairs and closed the door. Mrs. Ellis crouched forward and turned off the lantern.

They sat in the dark.

The only noises were the whipping wind and the shivered mewling of the infant. People sniffed as noses ran. Hye-jun held Winnie close. Winnie gripped her rifle. If the Lakiran’s came down here, she would fight. She’d never shot anything in her life, but she wasn’t going to let them take her or her mother to one of their detention camps.

She’d heard about them. Refugees fleeing from the east told stories. The Lakirans would come, they would conquer, and they would drag half the people away. The soldiers would say they were taking them as a precaution until strife settled down, but the people never returned. She’d heard those people were sent overseas to camps where they were put to work sorting garbage lines for assembler reclamation.

Winnie didn’t plan to be one of those people. If the Lakiran’s came, she would fight like any one else on the watch. She would never give in.

She didn’t know how long they sat in the shelter. It was pitch black, and there was no way to tell time, but it must have been hours. Her mother’s grip on her never relaxed.

Then came the first distant gunshot. Just one, then another after it. Soon they all came, as though a dam had broken. It could only be the rifles of the town watch. Winnie had once seen a traveler with a Lakiran military weapon—an object only vaguely resembling a rifle. Instead of bullets, it used narrow cylindrical darts that the traveler called flechettes. Equipped with batteries and an array of repulse nodes along the barrel, the gun hardly whispered when he fired it.

How many flechettes were flying up there for every bullet the watch fired? There might be one Lakiran, or a thousand. Winnie imagined hundreds of soldiers dressed in chrome and white armor. They didn’t skulk through the snow like the town watch, but drifted in on floating platforms, hardly visible from the ground. They cast down their flechettes as though throwing lightning upon mortals. Their guns made slight clicks, nothing more. The watch fired back into the sky, barely knowing where to shoot.

It couldn’t be like that though. Rumors were always overblown. It wasn’t that bad. It couldn’t be.

The sounds of bullets continued. They’d settle for a time, then a burst would happen. An explosion caused the shelter to tremble. She had no idea what it was.

Eventually there was silence.

An eternity passed. The town watch might have repelled whoever it was. If the Lakirans won, she’d hear tanks rumbling by and marching boots, right?

There came voices—two people talking conversationally. The fighting had to be over.

The voices neared the cellar door. Just as Winnie realized that they weren’t speaking English, light streamed in through the cracks of the door’s frame. The door tore open, and the light blinded Winnie. It came from a ship floating in the sky. It seemed fixed in place, as though the top of a structure, but she knew that underneath it was nothing but empty air. Figures stood in the doorway. The light behind them obscured their features, but their silhouettes were bulky, as though dressed in spacesuits.

A voice boomed out. “Everyone inside, come out one at a time with your hands above your head.” The speaker’s voice was amplified. They spoke sternly, but rote, as though they’d been repeating the line all day.

The baby started crying again. Everyone else was frozen in place. Winnie’s fingers had long since gone numb around her rifle. Her mother’s grip was nearly choking her.

“Everyone come out now,” the voice boomed. “This is your final warning.”

“Wait,” yelled a woman closer to the stairs. She staggered up the steps clutching the banister and holding her other hand up to shield her eyes. “We’re coming. We’re coming.”

At the top of the steps, the soldiers by the stairs yanked her out of view. One by one, people in the cellar moved to leave. Each climbed the stairs with wobbly legs.

Winnie couldn’t move. This was the moment when she was supposed to fight back, but she now realized what would happen. They wouldn’t come down for her. They’d fire their flechettes from up above, and tear her and her mother to pieces.

Her legs were jelly. If her mother weren’t clutching her, she would sink to the ground and curl up. She’d promised herself she would fight, but that part of her had vanished. There was nothing left in her with the strength to lift her rifle. But she couldn’t bring herself to drop it.

Soon, only Winnie and Hye-jun remained. Someone came down the stairs. With the light reflecting off the chrome of his armor, he looked like a being from another world come to take them away. He held a weapon, just like the one the traveler had carried months before, and it was trained on them.

Winnie’s rifle shook wildly in her hands.

“Put it down now,” the soldier said.

Her mother squeezed her. Bit by bit, Winnie’s fingers unfolded. The gun clattered to the ground.

The number of people in the town was small—about four hundred including infants and the elderly. Whenever the watch held a town meeting, they had used the old school gym, and the town hardly filled the bleachers.

Yet they vastly outnumbered the Lakirans. The invaders gathered everyone in the parking lot outside the town mall. Hundreds of civilians and watchmen huddled together for warmth. Only six soldiers watched over them from a floating platform like the one that had shone its light into the cellar.

Winnie could see it better now. It was shaped like a triangular saucer with a balcony around the rim from where the soldiers stood watch. Its center was covered, presumably where the pilot sat, though it didn’t look like a moveable ship. The platform was fixed in place as if invisible poles supported it.

No soldiers were in the parking lot with the townsfolk. There didn’t have to be. As soon as they’d collected everyone, a dozen drones the size of beach balls floated down from the saucer platform—tetrahedrons, their edges rounded. They spaced themselves around the crowd like numbers on a clock, then locked in place above their heads as securely as the platform. The Lakirans didn’t explain what they were for, but when a member of the watch later crept near the drones’ perimeter, an invisible force shoved him back. Winnie felt a gust of wind against her face.

The cold had sunk into her. It was three in the morning. Her eyes drooped. Her cut lip cracked open every time she moved her mouth. She couldn’t stop shivering. Whenever the soldiers did anything, a knot in her stomach would swell as she worried what they would do next. The most frightening of all was a man who stood upon the floating platform studying the townsfolk. He wasn’t dressed in armored fatigues like the soldiers, but rather a white coat with a hood and two rows of shiny buttons down the front. It looked warm, but clearly a uniform of its own.

Everyone had heard about the white coats. They were called exemplars, and could read minds, or so everyone said. They were the ones that decided who the soldiers carted off.

Another man stepped into view on the platform. His coat didn’t reflect any uniform. When he spoke, his amplified voice boomed out over the parking lot.

“Greetings, people of Norfolk. I know you’re cold and tired, so I’ll make this quick. As I’m sure you’re already aware, we’re from the Lakiran Empire, based in South America. We serve Her Majesty the Queen of Lakira, Victoria Palladino. The empire is now fourteen million strong. We live in first world conditions, enjoying technologies and luxuries that didn’t even exist before the Collapse. We’re not just surviving. We’re thriving. We’re innovating. We’re moving into the future, and now we’ve come to help bring the rest of the world along with us.

“The first step is to establish peace and security. I know you don’t see it that way now. You have a nice little place here, and you probably see us as invaders, which might be why you attacked. If you’d have let us, we would have had this conversation without anyone getting hurt, but we don’t blame you for fighting. There are some bad rumors going around about us. And there are sure as hell a ton of bad apples out there. Just a few hundred miles south of you is a warlord calling himself Magellen, like the explorer. He’s a real nasty piece of work. Built up a whole civilization by raiding settlements such as yourselves for food and slaves. We just came here from liberating that place last week. We set the slaves free. Maybe you’ve heard of that New Day cult out east in the breadbasket. They’ve been putting towns to the torch. Killed a lot of people. Started a whole bunch of wildfires. It was hell putting those out, but we did, and we’ve stopped the cult from hurting anyone else.

“I know you guys don’t want us here, but sooner or later, someone was going to come. You should be damn glad it was us. All we’re doing is restoring order to the world and shutting down all the dictators who have popped up. After today, you’ll go on living just the way you were, only now you’ll benefit from the protection of the Lakiran army. And once we can, we’ll start connecting you to the rest of the civilized world. We’ll get you food and medical supplies. We’ll help you rebuild your education and healthcare system. All we’re asking of you is your cooperation.

“Work with us. Help us root out trouble and keep the peace. Someday soon, you’ll rejoin us in the first world.”

A soldier leaned over and said something in the man’s ear.

“I’m getting the all-clear. Our men are going to move you into the mall now. Should be warmer in there. We’re going to process you. Get you into our system. Then we’re going to ask you a few security questions. Be honest and forthright. We may need to transfer some of you to a more secure location for the time being. If we do so, we’ll bring you back home just as soon as we’ve stabilized the region. That’s all. So come along, everyone. You must be freezing. Let’s get you inside. Get this done, and you can all go to bed.”

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