“I hate coming back to the States,” Milton mumbled, his voice crackling through his red and black gas mask. “Too many bad memories.” He kicked a burnt children’s toy out of his path with a rubberized boot.
“When was the last time you were back?” Huxley asked. The burly weapons engineer led the three-man team from the front geared with a flashlight, a bulletproof shield, and a shoulder-mounted rifle linked to a targeting system in his helmet.
“Two years?” Milton replied, barely able to believe that it had been so long. “I came back twice right after it happened, but took a year off when my son was born.”
Moore, the medical officer bringing up the rear of the group, was a rookie. “Geeze,” he remarked. The untested man wasn‘t used to the constant flow of oxygen in his gas mask that made his voice come out squeaky and high-pitched. He instinctively brought his hand up to his mouth to clear his throat and nearly knocked one of his air tubes loose. “Where were you guys when it happened?”
“The Rapture?” Milton replied as he followed Huxley through a shattered glass door and scannned the area for movement. Nothing registered on the display inside his high-tech helmet. “I was tailgating at a football game when it all happened,” he chuckled. “Not too many people near me were taken so we didn’t actually know what was going on.”
“Shit,” Huxley laughed, checking an electronic map attached to his arm before moving through the burned out room. “I was hungover from Saturday night when it happened. Didn’t wake up until early Monday morning. Everyone was gone. My wife, my kids, my neighbors, just about everyone I knew was religious.”
“Wow,” was all that the rookie could muster. Moore had just been recruited a month ago when Bach, the team’s previous medical officer, was transfered to a defensive team based out of Aachen, the capital of The New Republic.
“We’re getting close, stay tight.” Huxley held up a fist and the three man team stopped against a charred wall. “Should be just around the corner.”
Moore inched closer to the blackened door when a loud noise stopped him in his tracks. Huxley and Milton scanned with their lights, checking the pitch darkness for any signs of movement. They found nothing. A rattling came from overhead that made the group collectively hold their breath.
“Angels?” Moore squeaked. The fear in his voice made the man nearly choke on his own words.
“No, sir,” Huxley whispered behind his gas mask like a trained professional. He tightened his grip on his shield and another noise, much closer this time, made him jump.
“The Damned,” Milton stated. He could sense the cowards approaching. He knew it was them. After the Rapture, anyone who stayed behind in the States and didn’t answer the call of The New Republic was considered anathema. Chancellor Merkel made that clear the day she formed The New Republic from the ashes of Europe.
“What do we do?” Moore’s shaky voice echoed off the dark walls. Huxley aimed his light down a burned corridor and caught a flicker of movement.
“We kill anything that gets in our way,” Milton calmly replied. His shoulder-mounted rifle was ready to draw blood.
“B-But…” Moore stammered, “those are people! People just like us!” His blabbering was unacceptably loud. Milton turned and cuffed him on the side of the head with his fist, promptly silencing the man’s discontent.
“Look,” the veteran explained. “We’re all damned. Everyone left behind after the Rapture doesn’t have anywhere to go but down. According to the Chancellor, we only have to endure seven years before the world ends. That only gives us five left in this shit hole.” Huxley fired an illuminating tracer round down the decrepit hallway with a grunt. “I don’t know what happens if you die before everyone’s time is up, but I’m not going to find out.”
Huxley fired another tracer round that hit a Damned squarely in the chest, knocking the wretch to his knees. Huxley’s face instantly shifted from stoic professionalism to bloodthirsty glee. “We kill!” he bellowed, planting his shield in the ground and opening fire.
In an instant, the Damned exploded into action in the hallway, charging toward the team. Their sorrowful, pathetic screams filled the air as Huxley and Milton cut them down. Most of them wore little clothing, if anything at all, on their frail and emaciated bodies. Radiation burns disfigured their faces and some of them sported grotesque mutations and unholy protrusions. None of it mattered. Against the shoulder-mounted rifles that fired in response to measured brainwaves rather than trigger pulls, the Damned didn’t stand a chance.
Within moments, a pile of bloody corpses surrounded the team and all was quiet once again. Moore gagged and coughed behind his mask, turning and burying his head in his arms.
“Don’t puke!” Milton yelled at him. “There’s nowhere for it to go in your suit.” He patted the rookie on the back and helped him settle down. “Nothing we can do about it now, Moore,” he said.
“Let’s move,” Huxley commanded as he pushed open the charred door. Another pitch black corridor presented itself. The stench of death assaulted the team through their masks.
“Ugh,” Milton groaned, “are you sure we aren’t in Hell already?” The vile odor invaded their rubber suits and sent Moore into another bout of violent coughing. Thankfully, the man was able to keep his rations in his stomach where they belonged.
The team scurried down the hallway as quickly as they could. All the while, the smell grew stronger. “What died in here?” Milton wondered aloud.
Huxley laughed. “Besides a few dozen Damned? Probably a lot.” The big man shook his head and signaled for the group to form up at the end of the hallway. Only one more door to breach.
“I’m picking up something,” Milton whispered with his eyes glued to the scanner on his arm. “We’ve got company.”
“Damned?” Moore questioned, almost hopefully. The other option was not something he was ready to face.
Milton shook his head, and the group tensed. “Damned don’t show up on the scanner, Moore,” he said, pointing to the two green blips on the screen. “They’re angels. Luckily, there aren’t that many.”
“Protocol says we head back to the extraction point,” Moore practically begged.
“To Hell with protocol,” Huxley growled. “And to Hell with all of us.” He lifted a heavy boot up to the door and slammed into it, crashing through the deteriorated wood with ease.
Milton followed right behind Huxley’s big shield, locking onto the nearest angel and firing. Bullets filled the air like lead fireworks. The nearest angel, a hulking celestial beast covered in shimmering bronze armor, absorbed the bullets as easily he would the gentle rays of the sun. Then the angel charged, drawing its massive sword in the process.
Moore let out a girlish shriek and dove back into the corridor they had come from, running for his life. Huxley yelled something incoherently vulgar and stood up from his crouch, slamming the edge of his bullet-proof shield into the angel’s jaw as it neared. The two crashed to the ground in a flurry of blows.
Milton didn’t have time to help. The second angel, a smaller female creature, came at him from the side with a golden dagger held high above her head. Streams of curly blonde hair flowed behind her, and the glow of Milton’s flashlight reflected brilliantly off her breastplate.
Bullet upon bullet ripped through the female angel as Milton fired his automatic rifle. He could see the hits, visible punctures in the angel’s bronze armor and pure white clothing, but the creature did not slow. She brought her dagger straight down at Milton’s head and loosed a piercing scream. Milton leapt a step backward and rolled onto his side, kicking his legs out in front of him and tripping the angel.
In a flash, Milton was on top of the struggling creature with his own knife in his hand. He stretched out an arm, pinning the angel’s dagger hand to the grime-encrusted floor, and turned his shoulders to line up a shot. The rifle blasted and the fire from the muzzle set the angel’s white garments aflame. A quick burst of three shots ripped through her head and turned the delicate white skin to gooey pulp. Still, the heavenly creature did not go limp.
Milton watched as the remaining parts of her face contorted into a pained expression. He didn’t know if the angel was capable of feeling pain, but she certainly looked like she could. With his knife clutched tightly in his right hand, Milton slid the blade under the straps of the angel’s bronze armor, right above her shoulder. She shrieked and howled, her voice full of strange notes and pitches that betrayed her terror.
She knew what would happen.
With a smile, Milton pulled the blade up sharply and severed the leather strap that secured the armor in place. As quickly as he could, Milton released his grip on the angel’s arm and cut the strap on the opposite side of the creature’s head. In the blink of an eye, the angel vanished.
Milton rose to his feet and watched as Huxley fought to rip the leather strap from the male angel’s left shoulder. The brawny engineer was pinned under the angel’s larger figure, but the long sword the angel wielded was useless in a grapple. With an exasperated push, Huxley hooked his hand under the strap and ripped it free, instantaneously sending the angel back to God knows where.
“Shit,” the weapon-specialist coughed as he got to his feet. His rubber suit was torn in several places and the filter on his gas mask had been crushed between his chest and his shield when he had hit the ground.
“You alright?” Milton asked as he kicked one of the empty bronze breastplates across the room.
“I’ll make it,” Huxley replied. He grabbed a pair of syringes from a pouch on his ankle and pulled the caps off. Without a sound, he jabbed both of the needles into his leg and pushed the anti-radiation medication into his body. He tossed the empty cartridges aside and cracked his neck. “Never gets old, watching them disappear like that.”
Huxley was right. Milton didn’t know why they vanished when their armor was removed, but he didn’t particularly care. The method worked, and bullets didn’t seem to do much. Watching an angel vanish made Milton feel more like a man again—like a human being fighting for his race against an angry and vengeful God.
“Here it is,” Milton said with a voice full of awe. He walked to a glass case that was so encrusted with grime and soot that it was entirely opaque. Huxley strode across the room to him with a small hammer in his hand. He placed the pointed hammer head against one of the glass corners and pressed a button. A gentle hum emanated from the hammer, building into a loud screech when the glass finally shattered.
“A Gutenberg Bible…” Milton couldn’t believe it was still intact. After two years of angels, the Damned, plagues, natural disasters, and all manner of events that were loosely described as Tribulation, the small museum case had preserved the five-hundred-year-old book.
“Maybe Chancellor Merkel can buy her way upstairs if she finds enough of these,” Huxley remarked with overt derision.
“You mean if we can find enough,” Milton corrected with a laugh. He took a Kevlar pouch from a pocket on the outside of his suit and carefully tucked the Bible away. “Target acquired,” he radioed to the support helicopter waiting outside. “We lost Moore.”
“Is he dead?” the static-filled voice replied. The radiation partially garbled their wireless communications.
“Probably by now,” Milton informed the pilot. “He ran off when shit hit the fan. He’s likely being torn to pieces by the Damned.”
“Understood,” the pilot stated. “Get back to the extraction point, and let’s leave this forsaken place.” The radio clicked off and Huxley nodded to indicate that he had heard the entire exchange.
The way that people devalued human life still bothered Milton, but not as much as he thought it should. If they were all sentenced to Hell, what was the point of living? That’s how most people thought. Milton thought of his infant son, born after the Rapture. He loved his child fiercely. He would give his life for his son without a thought. But what life would his son ever know? According to Chancellor Merkel, the Tribulation was only supposed to last five more years. What then? Would his son be sent down to the bowels of Hell with the rest of humanity? I should’ve listened to my wife, he thought. A hint of bile crept up the back of his throat. We should’ve had an abortion.
“You coming?” Huxley’s gruff voice brought Milton back into reality. “Our ticket home doesn’t last forever.” The stocky man bent down and grabbed a golden dagger from the floor and slipped it into a pocket on the inside of his torn suit.
Adding theft to the long list of murders and other sins, Milton scoffed inaudibly. But who am I to judge? I’m just as evil. We’ve both earned Satan’s company.
The two men crept through the dark hallways of the ruined museum as silently as they could. Huxley stepped over a pile of Damned corpses and waited a moment for Milton to scan the next area. “You know, I always thought God was supposed to help people.” He kicked one of the bodies sharply in the head. “This sure doesn’t look like help.”
Milton let out a long sigh and tried to block out images of his son that kept flooding his mind. “You know it doesn’t work that way, Huxley,” he absentmindedly remarked. “For straight is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. Not enough room for guys like us.” Is there room for him? Room for my son?
“Shit,” Huxley tossed his broken mask to the ground and ran a gloved hand through his black hair. “Maybe Hell won’t be so bad. Maybe I’ll be like a great Viking warlord, running from town to town with a band of warriors pillaging the countryside.”
Milton double checked his scanner and moved past Huxley to take up the lead. He wanted to be back in Europe as soon as possible. “Huxley…” he could barely speak, “what if you’re the one in the village? What if you become the one that has to suffer at the hands of warlords every single day for eternity?”
The two moved in silence until they reached the museum’s once-great rotunda. They could hear the helicopter blades chopping the air outside like a morbid metronome. Beneath the rumbling noise of their transport, Milton could make out a faint human cry. Huxley heard it as well and stopped. Without the electronics of his helmet, the weapon’s specialist had to rip his rifle from his suit and use it the old-fashioned way. He slung his shield around his back with a grin and peered into the darkness.
“Moore?” Huxley whispered, pointing his flashlight down a large corridor.
“Could be,” Milton responded. “Scanner hasn’t picked anything up. It might be worth checking out.” Despite his military instincts telling him to cut his losses and head to the helicopter, Milton couldn’t bring himself to abandon another human being. Compassion was a dangerous trait that he had never learned to discard.
Huxley shrugged and followed Milton’s lead. The cries became louder as they stalked down the side of the blackened hallway. They were mournful sounds, undeniably human, and they reminded Milton of women crying at a funeral.
The two men stopped outside of a closed set of double doors that guarded the museum’s natural history wing. The sorrowful wails echoed from the walls and filled the empty building with preternatural eeriness.
“You first.” Huxley held out his hand with a sly grin.
Milton steeled his nerves and pushed the door open quietly. There were several Damned in the next room, gathered around in a circle and grieving. At the back of the group, Moore swayed from leg to leg like a stumbling drunkard. He held his mask by his side, and tears streamed down his face as he joined in the mourning of the Damned.
“What the Hell are you doing here, Moore?” Milton spat through his teeth, trying to keep his voice low. He grabbed Moore by the shoulder and pulled him into the hallway. “Have you lost your mind?” Milton yelled at the rookie, shaking him violently in the process.
Moore’s eyes were glazed over, and his face was flushed with blood. “I killed one of them…” he sputtered, gazing down at his empty hands.
“Let’s go,” Huxley bellowed. His voice sounded deep and alien without the distortion of his gas mask. Huxley started off toward the museum rotunda without waiting for either man to follow.
“We’ve all killed,” Milton said, pulling Moore’s gaze back to his own. “We’ve all done horrible things. We have to deal with it and move on. We can’t look back, even for the ones we put in the ground.” Moore’s face didn’t show any sign of recognition. He turned away and opened the door again.
“I killed one of them,” Moore repeated. His hand fumbled at his side before finally latching onto his sidearm.
Milton let the door swing shut. He started walking after Huxley and was less than ten feet from the room of Damned when a shot rang out. He winced, but he didn’t turn back. If that was Moore’s choice, he couldn’t blame him. Was living through Tribulation really worth it? Was human life worth anything at all?
Then a second shot echoed through the museum, followed by three others in rapid succession. The Damned screamed and Moore screamed back, firing another seven shots as he let his rage consume him. Pushing the scene from his mind, Milton trudged onward and met Huxley at the door.
“He’s gone,” Huxley stated without remorse. A final shot rang out, and then everything was quiet.
“We’ll get another medical officer when we get back to Aachen.” Milton let out a pain-filled sigh and checked his scanner for signs of angels. “All clear,” he said. “Let’s go home.”
The helicopter lifted off from the ground with a reassuring crescendo. Milton watched from the window as the museum became smaller and smaller beneath him. “In five years, we’ll all be dead anyway,” he admitted.
The helicopter made one stop at an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic before continuing on to Aachen, the best defended city on Earth. When they had left Aachen, the monstrous cathedral and high-tech defenses had inspired him with hope. He had thought that he could win, that The New Republic could survive, and that Chancellor Merkel would figure out a way to end the Tribulation. Now, seeing the tall battlements from his perch in the helicopter only filled him with doubt.
As the vehicle landed in the cathedral courtyard, Milton couldn’t help but feel abandoned. Despite his inner turmoil, he dutifully delivered the Gutenberg Bible to Chancellor Merkel, collected a hefty reward of food and supplies, and walked back toward his home on the outskirts of the city.
For a moment, Milton stopped outside a bar a block from his waiting family. He heard sounds of laughter coming from inside and saw a group of men drinking themselves into oblivion. Was that what life had become? Was there any other way to avoid the harsh realities of Tribulation? Moore found another way. He smirked at the thought. The longer he contemplated Moore’s choice, the clearer he understood it.
There’s no other way out, he sadly realized, slumping down on the stairs in front of his home. He could hear his son crying inside. His wife’s soothing voice floated down from the upstairs window as she sang a gentle lullaby. After a while, the baby’s cries quieted and left Milton alone with only his thoughts and his tears… and the pistol at his side. He removed the weapon from its holster and clutched it in his lap, desperate for answers.
Milton’s hands shook relentlessly as he peered down the unforgiving steel barrel. He thought of Moore and all the others he had known before the Rapture. Everyone was dead—or Damned.
Dear God, he feebly prayed. His finger brushed against the cold, unforgiving metal trigger.
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