I staggered through the ruined streets, my breath coming hard and fast as I panted. My legs were alight with fire, my tired muscles protesting, but I forced myself onward.
I didn’t know how much longer the patchy cloud cover would protect me.
Even as I ran, my eyes in constant motion as I scanned for any shelter, I felt the rays of the sun growing stronger as they cut apart the defending clouds. In mere minutes, I would be exposed – and then, then I wouldn’t have any time left at all.
There! Up ahead, I saw a building, large and built of heavy concrete. The windows and doors were long gone, the building little more than a hollow shell, but it was enough to shield the sight of me from eyes above. I sucked in one last breath, forced my aching lead feet to pick up the pace, and sprinted towards my potential salvation.
Only a hundred feet or so ahead. I could make it.
But then, as I sprinted through the shin-high weeds that grew up through the cracks in the asphalt, I felt warmth grace my face.
Up ahead of me, the clouds finally gave up the ghost. Sunlight, pure and unfiltered, streamed down to light patches on the ground.
“Oh no,” I muttered, with breath that I could ill afford to spare.
I couldn’t hear anything, of course, except the puffing of the air in my lungs. But then again, no one ever heard anything – at least, not until after the dust had cleared and the chunks of unidentifiable material raining down had ceased.
Dead before the poor bastard even knew it was coming.
In my mind’s eye, however, I could see it happening, could hear the click as the titanium rod detached, starting its long plunge down towards oblivion on the surface of the planet below. Thrown by a divine spear-carrier, that long pole was aimed with inhuman precision, directly towards me.
But the building was just a few more feet ahead of me. Maybe, just maybe I could make it. I didn’t know of anyone who had outrun a rod, but it certainly had to be possible.
“Rods from God,” the program had been called. At least, that was the name that I knew. Designed to target enemy combatants anywhere on the globe, the whole thing had gone sideways due to some sort of computer error, leaving the system unable to differentiate between friend and foe.
Thank god that the active software was an imperfect version; it didn’t recognize vehicles, and the heat-sensing capabilities hadn’t yet been activated.
If I could just make it back to the Crawler, I would be safe. I had spent too long searching the abandoned city for treasures, but even the huge, growling engine couldn’t move the vehicle we all called home at much more than a couple miles per hour. I could easily catch up-
-if I survived the Rods.
The building was just a few more feet in front of me. I was going to make it! But as I put on one last burst of speed, forcing bone-tired muscles to put out one last push of energy, I heard the sound behind me.
It turns out that the victim can hear the Rod coming, if only for a tiny fraction of a second. It’s a high-pitched shriek, inhuman, on the edge of perception. It’s the kind of scream that makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
And an instant later, a giant’s hand reached out from behind me and shoved me forward, sweeping me off of my feet and sending me flying through the air.
Burning, scorching heat hit me from behind, singing my hair and crisping my skin. I threw up my hands, but they weren’t enough to break my fall as I came tumbling into the building’s shell ahead of me. My ears were deafened, and little black flecks blinked in and out of existence at the corners of my vision.
But a minute later, as I laboriously lifted myself up from the dirt-covered floor, I realized that I was still alive.
A glance behind me revealed a smoldering inferno where the Rod had hit. For a moment, in the heart of the still-burning flames, I thought I saw a thin black line, still standing upright for a moment where it had embedded itself in the earth. But then, a second later, the sight was lost behind waves of blinking, charred smoke.
I cautiously checked myself over. I had definitely lost some hair, and the burns would hurt for weeks. But I was alive, and nothing seemed broken.
And here, shielded from the sky, I was safe.
For the moment.
In the corner of the building, a pile of rubble appeared climbable. From the top, perhaps I could spot the Crawler.
I’d have to brave the open sky once more to reach it, but I knew that to stay here was to wait for death.
Trapped between a slow, painful death and the sky, what choice did I have?