Human Element: Chapter 1

I am excited to (officially) announce Human Element. Coming very soon. 

 

 

But first, the blurb.

They said the Neuroweb would change the world…They had no idea how right they were.

After wandering around the desolate suburbs of Cincinnati for nearly a year, Aaran has legitimate reason to believe he is the last free-thinking human alive. It has been months since he has interacted with someone who wasn’t trying to kill or convert him, and the growing agony of nomadic isolation is taking a toll on his already weary mind.

Aaran’s days all look the same: find food, evade capture, and search for a dry, offline place to rest his head each night.

Rinse and repeat.

After a close call with a Sentinel—an AI-controlled soldier for the Nebula—Aaran unexpectedly finds himself in the company of Hadas, a beautiful yet dangerous woman. A shaky alliance is formed between the two as they fight to survive. Together, they search for answers to keep them going in such a godforsaken world.

 

Chapter 1:

Aaran meandered up the driveway toward the small mansion sitting a hundred yards off the road. It was Halloween—or at least, according to his watch it was—which also meant that it was his birthday. Being born on Halloween, he’d always thought, was a bad omen; a sign that he was destined to live a cursed life.

So far, that theory proved true.

He forced the depressing thoughts from his head when he quickly spotted the electrical box hanging from the brick on the side of the house. Using needle-nosed pliers, Aaran cut the tamper padlock seal and popped the door open. His fingers quickly found the master breaker switch, and he flipped it to the left. Instantly, the LED bulbs glowing on the other side of the kitchen windows went dark.

With a deep sigh, Aaran checked his watch while he walked back around to the front and approached the oversized mahogany door. With one hand grasping his CZ Scorpion, he reached for the door with his other. He squeezed down on the latch and eased the front door open. Cautiously stepping inside, he raised his carbine and swung it from left to right, searching for threats he suspected were not there.

The house was empty. If it hadn’t been, he would have already known.

Vibrant reds, lively greens, and the occasional jolly fat man adorned the walls. A span of synthetic garland twisted around the stairwell banister and another stretched across the wide mantle over the river stone fireplace. Mistletoe hung above both entrances to the impressive living room. Expensive Italian furniture, luxurious drapes, and an abundance of picture frames showcasing the gleeful, former occupants, set the picturesque stage for the towering Douglas Fir prominently displayed in front of the window.

Aaran glanced over at the tree and envisioned what it might have looked like in its prime. The eight-foot evergreen no doubt would have had thick, plush branches that were more than wide enough to hide two families’ worth of presents. The iconic Christmas symbol had easily set the family back more than a hundred dollars when they’d tied it to the roof of the soccer-mom’s minivan. But that had been almost a year ago, and the tree had traded in its lush green appearance for a sickly brown one.

Aaran’s gaze rested on the pile of gifts sitting beneath the craggily branches. The presents were blanketed in dead needles and several snapped branches were still twisted in the hooks of the heavier ornaments. The temptation to open each one of the neatly-wrapped gifts on the floor always lingered, but Aaran refrained. He cringed at the thought of some stranger walking into his house and opening the gifts intended for him and his family. He couldn’t bring himself to do the same thing to someone else, even if the presents contained items that might be valuable to him on the road. He felt it would be disrespecting the dead.

Well, they weren’t dead—technically—but they might as well be.

The pathetic sight was not uncommon. Each house Aaran visited demonstrated different shades of the same traditions: a dead Christmas tree, unopened gifts, and no sign of life anywhere. Aaran let his eyes linger a while longer on the depressing reminder of his world before turning to the kitchen.

He detached his suppressed CZ Scorpion from the single point sling around his neck and set it on the island in the middle of the kitchen. He walked over to the pantry doors and opened them, marveling at the small grocery store inside. Fortunately, the pantries in most houses also shared similarities; they were almost always full. Though he had always assumed that finding food and supplies at the end of the world would be a little more challenging, he wasn’t complaining. It wasn’t like there were a whole lot of people contending for the food. He hadn’t laid eyes on another person since July—not a free-thinking one anyway. And while the absence of competition for food greatly benefited his physical nourishment, the lack of human interaction over the last ten months had taken a toll on his psyche.

The pantry was bigger than a jail cell, and was packed with just about every brand-name snack Aaran could think of. Filled pantries were a common theme in most houses, but the quality of the snacks improved the closer Aaran got to one of the priciest suburbs of Cincinnati.

After stuffing a few bags of chips, several packs of cookies, and half a dozen cans of chunky soup into his backpack, Aaran continued to the fridge. Though the light didn’t come on, the contents inside were still cold. He debated if it was close enough to five o’clock to reach for that pale ale in the back, but a quick glance at his watch forced his hand to the left, reaching for a can of Mountain Dew instead. It wasn’t even 10:30 A.M. and he needed to drink something that wouldn’t exacerbate the weight of his tired eyes. Plus, he knew his mother would have given him a disapproving scowl if she saw him grab the other can.

Cracking open the soda, Aaran took several large gulps, downing the contents of the can within a few seconds. It was lacking carbonation, but the citrusy flavor never got old. The caffeine would gradually wake him up, which he desperately needed.

The previous night had been restless at best. Aaran had set up camp in the lobby of a car detail shop when his night had been interrupted by the Webbers—a nickname Aaran had given to those with the Neuroweb even before the takeover had occurred. As they went up and down Montgomery Road, they emptied the various buildings of anything useful to them. It wasn’t uncommon to see Webbers raiding houses and businesses, but Aaran had never been so close to the action before. He wondered what all they were taking, but assumed it was mostly food. They were still human after all and needed to eat.

Even though their focus had been on the buildings a few hundred yards away, Aaran couldn’t fall asleep until an hour after they were gone. So, with just a two-hour nap under his belt at the tail end of an exhausting day of travel, he found himself reaching for a few more of the green-and-yellow cans in the fridge, stuffing them into his backpack.

When he moved onto the freezer, Aaran retrieved a Thermos canister from his backpack and unscrewed the lid before filling it up with ice cubes. After returning the canister to a mesh pocket on the side of his pack, he continued exploring the freezer. As was usually the case, the contents inside didn’t really interest him. On occasion, he would find a pint of ice cream to indulge his sweet tooth and replenish the calories he so quickly burned off every day. But as time went on, the smooth, creamy texture the frozen dessert once offered was overpowered by freezer burn, making it less and less desirable. Hard pass, he thought, unwilling to waste his time on a pint of ice cream boasting its eggnog flavor.

Aaran closed the door and walked back to the island. Sitting next to his Scorpion was a nearly empty crate of water. He snatched the remaining bottles and tossed them into his pack, which was now a good fifteen pounds heavier than when he’d first walked in. Satisfied with his haul, he grabbed his carbine and walked out of the kitchen to explore the rest of the house.

There wasn’t much else in the house worth taking. Not that it wasn’t filled with stuff he would have liked to have, just that he couldn’t justify the additional weight of bringing it with him. There were two priorities for Aaran whenever he scavenged a house: sustenance and firepower. Everything else for the most part, was pointless. Except for a few bottles of pills, a small medical kit, and some lightweight forms of entertainment, if he couldn’t eat it, drink it, shoot it, or wear it, it didn’t have a spot in his pack.

Aaran had a strong desire to crash in the massive house for a couple of days. He had been on the move without any significant downtime for the last three weeks and was exhausted from the previous night, despite the caffeine jolt. He could use some time to recover. However, he had made it a point never to stay inside a modern house for more than an hour or two. Though he always flipped the breaker off before entering, there was no guarantee that someone or something wasn’t watching or listening to him. From toasters to ceiling fans, washing machines to showers, most newer houses were brimming with Nebula-integrated technology that allowed the occupants to control the house with their minds. Though he had no evidence to back up the claim, he was convinced that same technology could easily alert nearby soldiers—or Sentinels, as one man had called them—of his presence in the house. Aaran had already had a couple of close calls with Sentinels in the past while out on the road. He didn’t need to tempt fate by staying in a house filled with hundreds of potential “rats” snooping on him. As far as he knew, the Nebula, and anyone connected to it, had no idea he was still alive, and he aimed to keep it that way.

But when he stepped down the stairs into the astronomically large basement, his immediate departure was delayed. Aaran discovered an incredible game room. Right smack in the middle of the room was a beautiful pool table. He glanced down at his watch. It had only been a half hour, so he granted himself a sixty-minute break to smack the cue ball around and toss a few darts. Aaran was a pro at both games. Since Armageddon had arrived, he was 152 and oh. Still undefeated, he declared proudly in his head.

With his hour of luxury nearly up, Aaran racked the billiard balls and tossed the pool cue onto the green tabletop, ready for the next nomadic player passing through. He picked up his pack and slid his arms through the shoulder straps before he reattached the Scorpion to the sling, letting it hang from his neck. The sling was cumbersome to wear with the backpack, but it beat having to carry the weight of the nine-millimeter carbine in his arms all the time. Double checking that his Glock 19 was still securely inside its holster, Aaran shut the door and walked back up to the main level.

He checked his surroundings as best as he could from the sidelights of the front door before stepping back outside. He walked around to the side of the house and returned to the breaker box. After batting the half-open door to the side, Aaran flipped the master switch back on and watched as the juice hit the lights inside. Turning the power off was just a precaution he always took before entering a Nebula-connected house, but turning it back on was a courtesy for any other free-thinking souls who might find themselves looking in the fridge a little closer to 5:00 P.M. He knew that he wouldn’t want a lukewarm beer and figured they would appreciate the thoughtful gesture, even if they had no idea about it.

Halfway down the driveway, Aaran glanced over his shoulder and stared at the dead Christmas tree in the window. With the power back on, it almost looked as if it was on fire with the layers upon layers of twinkling lights wrapped around it. With how dry the tree was, it might actually be on fire before long.

“Happy Merry Halloween,” he said sardonically as he stepped back onto the road.

It was chilly outside, but not bitterly cold. In his mind, it was the perfect trick-or-treating weather, but unlike last year and the many years before that, there would be no children roaming the streets tonight. The only monsters and goblins that would be out were the ones ready to kill—or worse, convert—free thinkers without batting an eye.

The latter thought sent a shudder down his spine.

Aaran continued to hike down the long and secluded stretch of road that was smothered by half-naked trees. Only the road itself and the occasional mailbox gave away that civilization was nearby. In the summertime, most of the houses would be concealed from the road by the thick foliage just off the shoulder of the asphalt. If it hadn’t been for the driveways leading back to the multi-million-dollar homes, Aaran never would have known they were there.

He spent much of the day going in and out of randomly selected houses along the winding path, hoping to find more treats than tricks. And while he did discover a few useful items, of the eight houses he checked, only two had gun safes inside and both had already been scavenged.

Aaran noticed that the further away he got from the country, the more difficult it was to find guns and ammo. And by the time he had reached Montgomery, every safe he found looked the same as the two he had found earlier; open and empty. But never pried or hacked open. It was as if the combination or keys had been used.

While it was a frustrating sight, Aaran wasn’t exactly stretched thin in that department. In addition to the Glock 19, which had been his father’s pistol, Aaran had a Mossberg shorty in his backpack that he had bought just last Thanksgiving. Dubbed the “JIC” or “Just in case” gun, Aaran felt at peace knowing he had it should he ever need something with a bit more oomph. The incredibly short twelve-gauge had never come out of the pack, and he hoped that never changed.

The suppressed CZ Scorpion on the other hand, he had “borrowed” from a friend. Lawrence Cunningham was a sheriff’s deputy in Clinton County, and he’d happened to be Aaran’s neighbor. Over the years, Aaran’s father had become good friends with the aging police officer, and it was not uncommon for Aaran, his younger brother Henry, and their father to go watch football over at Lawrence’s house on Sunday afternoons. It was also not uncommon for them to squeeze off a few rounds from his ever-growing arsenal of guns during halftime. Aaran would never forget the first time Lawrence had pulled the Czechoslovakian beauty out of the safe. It was love at first shot.

A few days after the purge, Aaran made his way across the field and over to Lawrence’s house. Unwilling to sleep in his own house after the grisly discovery, he stayed at Lawrence’s place, waiting for him to come home.

He never did.

After a month, Aaran surmised that Lawrence was either dead or had been connected against his will, so he helped himself to the gun. He grabbed the CZ Scorpion, along with a Dead Air Armament Wolf-9SD suppressor. Lawrence had several rifle safes filled with various battle rifles, carbines, and tactical shotguns. An entire shelf in one was dedicated to his suppressor collection. So, Aaran hadn’t felt too bad for taking just one. However, in the event that Lawrence ever returned, Aaran left an IOU… should they meet again.

Aaran had seven loaded Scorpion magazines, each one filled with thirty rounds of police-grade hollow points. He had eight Glock 19 mags filled with the same stuff. His Mossberg was loaded with double-aught buck, and he had a few extra boxes in his pack, along with two boxes of one-ounce slugs. Seeing as he had yet to fire a single shot the entire time he had been aimlessly wandering around the greater Cincinnati area, it wasn’t imperative that he find more guns and ammo just yet—but that never stopped him from looking.

Stepping out of the largest house he had walked through yet with little to show for his effort, Aaran was greeted by a descending sun. The temperature had dropped considerably since he’d gone inside, and the breeze was picking up. It would be dark within an hour, so Aaran decided it was time to find a place to call home for the night.

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