A featureless grey sky loomed above the decrepit masses of red steel. Ash rained down like snow. Gore crows circled silently above the gutted park, embraced by the falling sheets of poisonous dust. The quiet was broken only by the crashing of waves in the distance. Otherwise, silence reigned in a place that hadn’t known silence in a hundred years.

There, surrounded by the dead, a boy stumbled to the ground amid the countless bones that littered the sooty pavement. Panting, he turned and looked behind him for any sign of his pursuers. His blue eyes- sharp as ice- gleamed from under the shadow of his drawn cowl. He carried a revolving-bolt crossbow; high quality, pre-Collapse. A pack stocked with bolts was slung across his back.

The boy waited a moment more to make certain he wasn’t followed. Nothing moved. He was alone with the crows. He stood to leave, but stopped suddenly and cocked his head at the ground. Leaning forward, he plucked something from the ashes. It was an audio-log, still warm to the touch from laying in the ash. He held it to his ear, and a man’s voice crackled into existence and said,

// …okay… this is Cullen Fry, 23rd of April, 2043 //

We stopped for the night in what used to be an amusement park- a pretty famous one before the Pulse. Funny, lookin’ at it now… it seems so pointless. And fragile. Is this really all people will have to remember us by?

// 24th, April, 2043 //

The doc says we can’t leave yet. He says the palls are still toxic. I don’t really want to get on with our little trek- and I definitely don’t want to die in a pall, but I can’t stay here much longer. This place gives me the creeps. I’ll give the guy one more day. If he won’t go after that… (audio disturbance) …him and everyone else- I’m leavin’. The Colony won’t wait for us forever.

// End of Transmission //

The boy lowered the device. The freckles around his nose plunged downward as he frowned, looking both confused and thoughtful. Rolling the file between his fingers, he gazed at it as if willing it to reveal its secrets. After a moment, he tossed it away. So… it’s April, he thought.

A distant clang sounded from somewhere in the maze of rubble, and a murder of crows rose cawing from the east. The boy’s head swiveled toward the noise, and he sank into a feral half-crouch. He darted behind an overturned car and peered around it. Even as he watched, a small reconnaissance drone hovered into view from behind a heap of metal, scanning the area with its artificial eye. It stopped abruptly, and its eye flicked toward him, then it turned on him and emitted a warning screech before fleeing from sight.

“Aw, crap…” the boy snarled. They’ve found me. He crouched behind the car and drew his crossbow just as the drone returned, leading a squad of paramilitary fighters. They carried rifles and wore body armor with enclosed filtration helmets. Several had grenade belts strapped on, and the captain- a huge man with a robotic arm, rested a machine gun across his shoulders. The drone shrieked again and lased the boy with a homing beacon for the soldiers.

“It’s him!” the captain shouted.

The boy didn’t hesitate, he cocked the crossbow and emptied its magazine at the soldiers. Four dropped dead, and another stumbled back with a bolt protruding from his shoulder. He didn’t give them a chance to retaliate; he sprinted at the nearest fighter, hunting knife drawn, and unseamed the man before he could fire. Then he grabbed the corpse before it fell and used it as a shield as he snatched up the soldier’s weapon and pummeled the remaining fighters with a torrent of superheated bullets. The soldiers fired back, but they were disoriented and inaccurate. By the time the receiver clicked on the boy’s gun, only one fighter remained- the captain. The boy dropped the gun and the body as the enormous man lowered his weapon and spooled up its seven barrels.

The boy dove to the side, sliding under a rotted out car frame just as the machine gun fired. A maelstrom of lightning-like rounds shredded the car and the ground where he had just been. Rolling upright, the boy drew a combat hatchet from the sheath at his waist and hurled it at the captain. The axe sheared through the man’s magnetic shields and buried itself in his chest with a crack. The captain screamed once, then toppled backward and slammed into the pavement.

“Tourists.” The boy scoffed, turning to leave the mass graveyard he had just added to. And then he strode out of the crumbling remains of the old mankind’s frivolity. Behind him, the gore crows began to descend.

The day started off just like any other. I relaxed into a leather barber’s chair and was draped with a shaving towel. I love the smell of that towel- it smells like me; a comfort among the putrid masses of advisers, lieutenants, politicians and other nobodies I have to deal with on a daily basis. Peasants. But I digress…

My little private barber took longer than usual to perfectly align my mustache with the contours of my nose. Unacceptable. I thought. Well, I had better look exceptionally good today, for all the time he’s wasted. But to the contrary, when I stood and looked into the mirror, I looked worse than usual. I mean, that is- I didn’t look as good as I normally do. The mustache was all wrong; it wasn’t one, but, in fact, several hairs out of place, and he had missed a patch of stubble at the corner of my mouth. I hadn’t time for the barber to fix it, so I resigned myself to a day of humiliation after making a mental note to have the idiot lashed.

I strode down the halls of the Reich to the chamber of war council, pretending to read the endless files that various assistants passed me. One said something about a lack of sanitation in a place called Ravensbruck, but that was about all I could read before the file was washed further down the angular black stream of letters. After ‘finishing’ a file, I would usually pass it to a servant on my left. But today, there was no one to pass it on to. I had to carry the files myself- all the way the war room. Apparently, the file person’s wife was in labor or some such. Who cares? Fifty lashes.

As I entered the chamber, everyone present stood and raised their arms above their heads with the usual salute of, “Heil, mein Fuhrer!” That was nothing new, everyone always saluted me. The only difference this time was that there was a new officer there with only one arm- the wrong arm to salute with. I would have punished him for the error if he’d had both arms, but what else could he have used? So I let that one slide- I’m generous like that.

That meeting was particularly boring, and particularly full of squabbling. Who needs bullets; who needs food; our troops in Africa just realized that Africa sucks. I felt like screaming, “Don’t you imbeciles understand that I can’t achieve world domination if we keep sweating the small stuff?” But those war advisers are pretty emotional, and they usually function worse after constructive criticism. So I listened and nodded and shook hands, and kept the genius to myself, as usual.

The day after that was the day everything changed. I was informed that at some point I had agreed to a meeting with the ‘extra special’ war advisers. I swear I never appointed this many people to positions of power. If ever we lose this war (like that’s ever gonna happen, but if we do), it will be because my men are all bloody useless officers! The drive was awful, long and bumpy- and there was this incessant squeaking under the vehicle. My mechanic was getting sloppy; fifty lashes.

The location to meet was an unimpressive bunker in the woods of France. I hate France. Mostly because it doesn’t belong to me anymore. Confound those Americans. The one-armed man was there when we pulled into the compound. I didn’t remember his name. I don’t bother with names; they’re just one more thing to pretend to care about. I remember now that he looked unsettled, like he might have been sick, but I didn’t think anything of it at the time. He was the last one to enter the compound before the steel doors slid shut.

As we clustered around the oak table in the deepest corner of that concrete tomb, I saw the one-armed man slide a briefcase under the table. That, I thought odd, but again I had no time to dwell on it. As the proceedings droned into existence, he was joined by some other nobody, who blocked my view of the one armed man. They exchanged a terse greeting, and then were silent. We were talking about Russia, I think; about the harsh weather there. Why does anyone care about our enemies poor fortunes? I remember thinking. That was a good thing for us. That’s when I noticed that the one-armed man was gone. That troubled me, but I didn’t know quite why.

…And then the bomb went off.

It felt as if steel prongs were driven into my eardrums, and my mustache smelled of burnt hair.

I didn’t come to for several hours. When I did, I was informed by a nurse that the attempt on my life was indeed the machination of the one-armed man and his collaborates. They plan to take Berlin in the absence of my leadership. They call this plan ‘Operation Valkyrie”, as if giving it a cool name will make it any more successful. They say that I am ‘mad’ and ‘power hungry’, and that the only way to end this war is to seek peace with the Allies. Hippies.

Oh, I am not pleased. An attempt on my life is high treason. They obviously don’t care, and I don’t care that they don’t care. Justice will be done, and then some once I find these conspirators. And when I do, you can bet your britches they’re going to get more than fifty lashes…

Love you, Mother

Sincerely, your Fuhrer