The city was quiet, just like all the others. And when the morning mists receded to reveal that all they’d hidden were more mammoth, empty buildings, RJ’s heart sank a little. There was something nice about the haze, the boy thought. It was almost like he couldn’t tell how different things were. He’d been young then, but on the foggy mornings before the bunker he could remember the city being washed in that same eerie calm, that same solemn silence that now haunted the world’s empty shell.
When the jeep came to a stop in front of one of the buildings, Dax pulled his shotgun from the back seat and cocked it. “Pa, are you sure it’s even in there?” RJ asked, staring up the pallid grey stairs that led to the building’s entrance.
“Reckon it’d have to be,” said the balding man, checking to make sure the pistol he carried on his hip was loaded to the brim. “Library o’ Congress squirreled away 3D print files for every GE manufactured part from 2031 forward. But no more gabbin’, that generator had little more’n two months left in her when we set out. Way I figure, every minute wasted is a minute we risk losing the colony their clean air.” RJ was quiet as he dropped out of the car, not bringing up that when he’d woken up a few nights back the wind had blown his bandana away from his mouth and he’d been breathing unfiltered air for God only knew how long. He hadn’t felt any different since then, but it still wasn’t something he wanted his father knowing about.
RJ had never been old enough for school before the bunker, but once when he was very young, his mother had taken him to the library. It seemed so big at the time. Rows of books, hundereds on each shelf, it had astounded him that so many might even exist. But when he and his father pushed open the doors at the top of the staircase, the memory of that library became as small as the single shelf of Bibles and overworked coloring books tucked away in the bunker’s school-room.
From floor to ceiling the books were stacked so tightly that there might have been more on a single wall than there had been in the entire library RJ and his mother had visited. And each of the enormous rooms dwarfed even the sprawling common area back at the bunker. Yet for all the halls of knowlege that loomed titanic over them, there was nothing so impressive to RJ as the digital documents section.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” he whispered, scanning the sea of wide, dark rectangles that stood in even rows. In the bunker there were only two computers. One controlled the life-support machinery, and the other was in the Proctor’s quarters with the 3D printer. Each of them were so tightly guarded that RJ had only ever seen one and now he was standing in a room with forty or more. It was unthinkable.
“Watch that tonge o’ yer’s and cover the door,” his father barked, plugging the small travel-generator into one of the terminals and powering it on.
RJ did as he was told, but not without protest. “I guess you wouldn’t come and let me watch, even if I reminded you that the only other people we’ve seen since leaving were already soft and rotten.”
“Rotten means they ain’t been dead long,” Dax grunted. “Which means we ain’t the only folk to survive the Rapture.” There was a few minutes of silence, then the man hooted with delight, pulling out the plastic stick he’d brought from the bunker and forcing it into a slot on the console. “It’s here! It’s here,” he cried, his face lifting behind his mask in what was undoubtedly a smile. RJ shook his head, unable to keep from smirking behind his own bandana. It had been a trying few weeks and it felt good to know their efforts hadn’t been in vain. But the elation subsided when RJ turned his attention back to the door.
At first he wasn’t sure he’d even seen the figure peering out from behind the bookcase. But when he caught a shadow stirring in the otherwise still room, the boy could tell the fear in his stomach wasn’t leading him false.
“Pa,” RJ whispered, “Pa, someone’s out there.”
The old man wasted no time, snatching up his shotgun and hurrying toward the door. “Where?” he snarled, scanning the room.
“Th-third shelf,” said RJ, trying not to choke on the words.
“Stay here,” Dax ordered. He moved through the door and along the length of the first shelf more stealthily than his son had thought him capable. Then, after a few long seconds of disappearing from RJ’s view, there was a series of blasts the boy recognized from countless hours spent in the bunker’s shooting range. But they stopped short of the eight shots the gun carried, interrupted by a strange and unnerving buzz. Then there was the sudden, heavy slap of flesh against floor.
“Pa!” RJ shouted, running forward without a thought. When he rounded the corner he saw his father sprawled out, a hooded figure standing over him brandishing a lengthy staff that glowed with a strange, purple light at one end.
“Stop,” the figure said. His voice was booming, but more suggestive than commanding. “I do not wish to harm you.”
“But, my pa.” RJ reached a hand toward the man on the ground.
“Is just fine,” the stranger assured him. “The effects are temporary, just enough to keep him restrained for a few minutes. See for yourself.” The figure stepped aside and RJ rushed to his father’s side. Plunging two fingers into the soft dough of his neck, the boy found that his heart was still thudding along.
RJ cast a glance back toward the hooded man. He didn’t look that different from anyone back at the colony, save being a good deal cleaner and his wildly colored clothes didn’t have a single hole or tear. “Who—who are you?” RJ asked.
“Who am I?” the man said, chuckling. “I think the better question might be, who are you?”
The boy stared at him, consumed by confusion.
“What are you doing here?” the man persisted. “This city has been abandoned for over a decade now.”
RJ pointed back to the room of computers. “We needed to fix our generator,” he said. “Life support’s re-charger was wearin’ away. Pa said this library had the file we could use to print another.”
Hearing this, the hooded man’s confusion, at least, seemed to subside. “By the Bright, you’re a bunker-boy, aren’t you?”
“You ain’t?” asked RJ.
The man shook his head.
RJ’s jaw fell slack. For a moment he had no words, then they came like a flood. “Well that means the world’s safe then, don’t it? That we can come back topside? That we don’t have to spend any more time down in the–”
The man cut his rambling short. “The world is safe,” he said. “But not for long. That’s why I’m here. The Progenitors predict that the Caldera could erupt at any time now, so they’ve sent me to collect the last of Earth’s artifacts.”
RJ’s eyebrows shot upward. “Sent you to Earth?”
“How many years have you been down in that bunker?”
“I don’t remember,” admitted RJ. “But I was supposed to start school the year we left the surface.”
“Seven Stars, you must have just barely missed the Exodus!” said the man.
“He didn’t miss a thing,” came a voice from behind RJ. The two of them turned and saw that Dax had somehow crawled to where his shotgun had fallen and was levelling it toward the stranger.
The man moved quickly, flicking the purple point of his staff down at RJ’s father. But Dax was faster, and as the hooded man extended his staff forward, he sent a torrent of shot crashing into his abdomen. Yet to the surprise of everyone save the stranger, he didn’t move. Instead, the shiny farbic the hooded man wore swallowed the lead for just a second before turning it back outward and letting it rain gently to the floor.
In a panic, Dax emptied his shotgun into the hooded man to no greater end. And when he brandished his pistol, letting a shot fly toward the man’s uncovered skull, the bullet disappeared in a white flash inches from the stranger’s face. That was when the man decided he’d had enough and shot a purple beam at the weapon, sending it sailing across the room.
“You-you stay away from my boy,” Dax barked, struggling to his feet. “Git over here RJ, that man’s got witchery about ‘im.”
But RJ didn’t move. He turned toward the stranger and asked, “What’s an Exodus?”
Before he could answer, Dax was yelling again. “Don’t you listen to a word he says, boy. That man’s slept in the den of devils, held palaver with great evil. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was a demon hisself.”
“Oh, enough with that trash. I heard enough of it before we left to last me two lifetimes,” the man shouted back. He pointed to RJ, “This is your son, don’t you want him to have a future? A family of his own? He’ll have nothing here, not even in your bunker. You may not want to believe it, but the Caldera is going to blow, the Progenitors have the science to predict it. And no matter what you believe, when it erupts life on this planet will only be read about in history books. Don’t let your son be a footnote in that tragedy. There’s life out there, and a far better one than we ever scraped together on this sorry rock.”
“Pa,” RJ said. “What’s he talking about, Pa?”
“You keep quiet, boy,” Dax shouted. Then sneering back at the stranger, “Go back to your star-devils and stay your hand here. My son and I belong to the Lord.”
The man sighed. “You’ll be meeting him sooner than not if you choose to stay. Trust me, even the strongest air filter won’t withstand the ash and soot.”
“I said GO!” Dax boomed, stepping between the hooded man and his son.
The stranger studied RJ for a moment. Then with a shake of his head, started for the entrance. When the heavy door creaked shut behind him, Dax rushed to one of the tall windows overlooking the entrance, rubbed a clear space in the dust, and pressed his face against it. “Damn it,” he spat after a few minutes, “Why hasn’t he left?”
RJ stared at his father, thinking about the man he had been. He was kind once. There was a time even, the boy remembered, when he would laugh every day. A time when he would play with RJ, and kiss his mother, and would never speak of things like demons or devils. But that was before. And as Dax’s son watched him now, sneering out the window, he began to slowly step away from him.
Reemerging from the library’s main entrance, RJ nearly fainted. Just beyond their rusty jeep was a glistening conglomeration of triangles and fire hovering a man’s height off the ground. As his eyes studied it’s sharp, sleek design, the boy figured it was something like the planes that had flown before the Rapture, though this one looked far more robust.
There was a hydraulic hiss and a ramp lowered like a jaw from the vessel’s undercarriage. When it reached the ground, the stranger stepped out. “So you’ve decided to join?”
“Where are we going?” RJ asked, shaking with every step.
“With the rest of our kind,” said the man.
“Heaven?” asked the boy.
The man reached out a hand. “Boy,” he said, pulling RJ aboard. “Heaven doesn’t hold a torch.”
The mouth of the vessel closed then, and it rose high into the sky. And despite the prayers of RJ’s father, it never did return.
Originally posted as a response to a prompt by /u/limbodog on reddit.com