In Your Nature

By: Matthew Simmons (Scifiteki)

Part Two

He didn’t see another one of the things for quite a while, as he walked through the deserted suburbs. They must have been a scout group, or something. The rest of the streets and houses were just as deserted as before, broken glass littered on the windswept asphalt. He tried looking in a few more houses that looked promising, but to no avail. In fact, most of them were totally emptied, as if no one had ever even lived in them. The few that still contained traces of habitation tended to show the same pattern, meals left cold on tables, computers still turned on but blackened.

To his slight annoyance, his shirt and shorts had been splattered with blood from the things, leaving a disconcerting pattern of splotches over his clothes. He tried to scrape some of it off, but it had already stained. After a while, it occurred to him that he probably had ichor on his face too, so he dashed into one of the empty houses to clean himself off.

The face that stared back at him from the other side of the mirror was a strange, almost frightening one. His once-flat and combed brown hair was a tangled mess, streaked with yellow. His face was lined with streaks of crusty yellow, which he tried to scrape off. But the most disconcerting thing was his eyes, wild and piercing. Those were not the eyes he remembered. I’ve changed, he realised. Changed at some deep, fundamental level. But is it a change for the better, or the worse?

Some time later, as he paced through the boring, empty streets, he heard the sound of running feet in the distance and the familiar warbling, off around the corner behind a row of houses. Quickly, he looked around himself, evaluating his options. He could stand here and wait for them to come, but that struck him as foolish. Presumably, the weapons he had seen so far, the staves, were not all there was in their arsenal. Anything could be approaching from around that corner.

A row of rosebushes in front of one of the houses caught his attention. The shrubs were tall and thick, enough to hide his presence, but with enough spaces to give him a reasonably good view of the street. A perfect place to hide. No sense in diving in unprepared, after all. Quickly taking one last look at the street, he ran over to the bush and leapt lightly over the bushes. Then he stared out at street, tightly grasping the staff he’d taken from the dead creatures at the house.

He waited for a fair while, looking out at the empty street, listening to the warbling come ever closer. The rosebush afforded him a fairly good view of the street, without compromising his position, but he couldn’t see much further than a few metres down the street. He nearly stood in frustration just to see why they were taking so long, when the things came into view.

His fears were well justified. Five of the spindly, armoured aliens and a sixth, unfamiliar one came into view. This one seemed similar to the others, except its armour covered its entire body, and a gauzy, nearly opaque helmet hid its head. In its hands it held a long-barrelled gun which appeared to cover one its arms all the way up to the elbow.

The creatures were walking down the street slowly, in a tight circle formation, with the gunner alien standing in the middle. The aliens were looking around the street in all directions, as if they were looking for something, their staves held ready to strike. Were they looking for him? He considered it unlikely, as he had given the others at the house no chance to warn anyone. It was still possible, however. Best just to stay well hidden, just in case.

The creatures were about halfway across his vision when a completely unexpected shout rang across the street.

"Hey, bastards! Looking for me?"

Greg nearly stood up in surprise. Who was that? He hadn’t said anything, and last time he’d looked, the street was completely deserted, save him and the aliens. Nevertheless, there had been that shout, a loud, angry, high-pitched exclamation. Desperately, he looked around at the street, but the source was nowhere he could see. The things were just as surprised as him, as they wheeled around to face back down the street, looking at something further down beyond his field of vision.

The gunner alien squawked something, but it was a little too late. With a soft hissing noise, something silver and black shot through the air and embedded itself in its helmet. Thick yellow blood almost immediately spurted out of the cracks, and as the creature fell back clawing at its face, he could see the leather hilt of a knife protruding from the shattered glass.

The rest of the aliens warbled excitedly, and stood around in what seemed to be flustered consternation for a moment, then made up their minds and started to stride as one down the street, their staves held high. They focused on something or someone he could not see, no matter how hard he tried, all the time chittering excitedly. With a sigh of consternation, he decided that the only way he was going to see what was going on down the other end of the street was stand.

As he stood, something wholly unexpected came into view. There, standing at the other end of the street, was a man, the second person he’d seen in what seemed like far too long. The man was dressed in the tattered remnants of a business suit, smeared with blood and dirt, and across his chest was a strap with knives of every shape and description. He was staring intently at the advancing creatures, a savage smile in his face. His hands, down at his sides, twirled almost absent-mindedly two vicious-looking knives.

The aliens seemed to have totally ignored Greg’s sudden appearance, as had the man, each side furiously concentrating on each other. The things took a few more steps towards him, then arrayed themselves in a line, facing him. The knife-wielding man just stood there, his eyes wild, staring at them. Then one of the aliens swung downwards, energy crackling on the end of its staff.

A ball of swirling yellow and red energy seemed to almost spring out of the staff and shoot towards the unconcerned man. He just stood there, regarding the projectile with almost careless abandon as it flew with agonising slowness towards him. Then, with the careful, yet effortless timing of one who had done something a million times before, he stepped to the side and let the missile fly onwards down the street. Then the aliens let fly with another projectile, and then another, and then another.

The man dodged each one, stepping to the side again and again, his face fixed in a determined smile. With sudden realisation, Greg realised that the knife-wielder could not keep this up for long. Eventually, one of the bolts was going to strike home, in fact, the thirty-fourth one, if he kept up the same pattern of movement. He couldn’t say where this sudden flash of insight came from, but it felt right. The man was going to die… Unless he intervened.

He jumped over the bushes, making sure he kept his footfalls light. It wouldn’t do for them to notice him too soon, would it? Carefully, but swiftly, he brought himself up behind the creatures standing in the middle of the line. They were keeping up their barrage of energy, apparently oblivious to his presence. The man seemed to be coping well with their intense fire, swiftly sidestepping each projectile as it came. He was on the edge, though. The missiles came just a little closer each time, just grazing his faded suit. They would hit, soon. Not if Greg had anything to say about it.

He drew up his staff, admired it’s bloodstained metallic length for a moment, then swiftly looped it around the middle creature’s neck. Before it could even move, he brought his knee up into the small of its back, keeping his hold around the alien’s throat tight all the time. His knee drove into the small of the thing’s spinal cord, breaking it clean. Then he relinquished the hold and the creature fell forwards, toppling over without a sound.

The others were concentrating so furiously on their target that they didn’t even pay attention to the passing of one of their own number. Neither did the knife-wielder, it seemed. Greg smirked. Maybe he should give them a louder signal. Quickly sweeping the staff up, he brought the heavy crystalline mass straight into the face of the alien to his right. The crystal smashed into its face with a satisfying crack, and it reeled back, squealing. Not stopping, he swung the staff backward, doing the same thing to the thing to his left. This time, the end of the staff caught the creature on the forehead, and it fell neatly to the ground, unconscious.

That got their attention. The two aliens on either end of the line stopped and turned to face him, looking what he could only describe as quizzical. The knife-wielder noticed him too, but seemed less surprised. He just grinned enthusiastically, and swept his eyes from one of the remaining aliens to the other. Then, apparently having made up his mind, he brought the two knives in his hands up, and with what seemed almost disappointment, let them fly towards the creatures.

The knives moved in a blur, and then the last remains of the once-solid line toppled over, knives buried to the hilt in their chests. The man looked at him almost curiously, as he cracked his knuckles.

"I could have killed them by myself, you know." He said, impetuousness coming through in his voice.

"You were just sitting there. I thought…" said Greg, disconcerted by the man’s seeming disrespect for the effort he had made for him.

"It doesn’t matter," the man said, cutting him off. "My name’s Steve. Yours?"

"Greg."

"Well, nice to meet you, Greg." The man who had introduced himself as Steve said, as he walked over to the dead bodies of the aliens, and casually pulled his knives out of their dead bodies. "You’re pretty handy with that staff, there. Where’d you get it from?"

"It’s, well… It’s a long story." Greg said, uncomfortably.

Steve laughed, a deep, throaty laugh. " I thought it might be. It’s not every day you get involved with a fight between a bunch of strange creatures and a ragged man with knives." He gritted his teeth, and then yanked out the last knife, buried deep in the thing’s glass helmet, and gave it a quick wipe before sliding it into one of the holsters across his chest. " I tell you what, why don’t you tell me over lunch? There’s an abandoned grillers down the road with a working gas cylinder, and I make a mean hamburger."

And with that, he turned and began to walk back down the way he came, brushing past Greg and barely acknowledging his existence. He just stared at the knife-wielder’s back for a moment, unsure whether to feel shock or confusion. Who was this young man, walking the streets liked he owned them? Then, after a moment’s hesitation, he hurried after the man.

"So, I’m gonna assume you’re not from around here, right?" said Steve as Greg reached his side.

"Yes. I… I, uh, I drove here. What’s going on? Why are all the houses like this? What were those things back there?"

"Woah, woah, slow down, man. One question at a time, right? I can only answer one of those questions, anyway. These houses…" he waved at the hollow, darkened buildings. "… Are empty because all their occupants have been taken away. To the city centre." There was a bitter edge to his voice when he said this, and Greg decided not to push the issue any further. After that, the knife-wielder lapsed into quiet, his face twisted in a grimace of frustration, his eyes far-off.

Greg took the time to study his companion a little closer. He wasn’t very tall, like Greg, but was quite a lot thinner. His hair, a short, sandy shock of blond, was just as messy and unkept as Greg’s was, perhaps more. His face was thin, pointed, and his eyes were a startlingly clear-cut icy blue. He seemed familiar, but Greg couldn’t quite place it. The knife belt, looped over one shoulder and across his chest, contained an astonishing variety of knives, long, short, serrated, smooth, and just about every shape imaginable. The holder itself was made of old, faded leather, with a series of loops across the front and back for the knives. The belt must be pretty tight, Greg thought, otherwise he’d be jangling like a key chain.

Steve’s face relaxed out of his reverie, and he pointed up at a closed-up shop across the road, its front window smashed in. A neon sign above the entrance proudly promoted "Big Joe’s Good Eatin’", now unlit.

‘That’s the place, there. Come in and grab a table, and I’ll go make us some hamburgers."

Greg looked at the knife-wielder doubtfully, but he was already bounding through the shattered glass window, into the darkness beyond, leaving him standing there speechless. Shrugging, he followed him up into the restaurant, carefully avoiding the broken glass on the window.

The inside of the restaurant was cold and dark, the tables and chairs subsumed by pools of inky blackness. He tried, experimentally, to turn the lights back on, but the switch didn’t respond. Disappointed, he turned and sat down at one of the tables closer to the window and tried to remember where he had seen the knife-wielder, Steve, before. He was almost certain he had seen his picture before, somewhere. But how? He hadn’t seen anyone apart from a few of his friends in the last few months, except for…

Sudden, terrible realisation smashed into him with all the force of a steam train. He knew exactly where he’d seen the knife wielder before. Not so long ago, in fact. His face was that of the other half of those photos, back in the house where the creatures had forced him to choose, too late to save a woman’s life. It had been his face staring out of those happy photos, holding a baby in his arms, his head on the shoulder of a woman who’s dead body now adorned the dusty floor of their attic.

Guilt washed into him, surging like the tides of an angry sea. Not only was he forced to live with the guilt of having let her die, but now he had to face her husband, who probably didn’t even know she was dead. Punishment upon punishment. Briefly, he considered standing and running away from the restaurant, out the broken shards of the window, down the street and into the unknown arms of whatever waited for him at The Watchers. He dismissed the thought just as quickly. He couldn’t run from everything, and he needed answers.

Before he could think any more, the knife-wielder’s voice broke his worried thoughts.

"And… Here we go." He said, bursting out of the kitchen holding two plates with excruciatingly tasty-looking burgers on them, and the delicious smell of cooking meat wafted in with him. "Two beef burgers with tomato sauce. Enjoy."

The knife-wielder placed the plate in front of him, and for a moment Greg forgot all his worries, just staring at the burger in its unmitigated beauty. He hadn’t realised just how hungry he was until now. His mouth nearly poured over just looking at the burger. Quickly and nearly ferociously, his hand shot out and grabbed the burger.

The knife-wielder seemed to be amused by his frantic eating as he wolfed down the burger, savouring its sweet taste.

"Let me guess. You haven’t had a decent meal in ages, right?" he said, laughing. Greg just nodded, as he desperately stuffed the last remnants of the meat and bread into his mouth. To his famished stomach, the burger was ambrosia. He’d never had a tastier meal in his life.

"Oh, ah, yes… That’s a very nice burger, you make there." He said, swallowing the last crumbs. "Do you do that sort of thing for a living?"

The knife-wielder just laughed, again. "Well, that wasn’t exactly the best burger I’ve ever made in my life, but, yes. I was a cook, before."

"Before what?"

The knife-wielder raised an eyebrow. Greg found it impossible to think of him as ‘Steve’. The word raised connotations and guilt that he was unwilling to face. "You really aren’t from around here, are you? How’d you know to fight them, then?"

Greg was lost for words. "I, ah, well… I don’t know, actually. I just… It’s hard to explain. I can just fight, I don’t even know why."

The knife-wielder smiled. "I know how you feel." He pulled out one of the knives from its side scabbard, admiring the light that glimmered off its razor sharp edges. "Before a few days ago, I didn’t know how to do anything with a knife except cut vegetables with it. It’s funny, that way. Then, the things came, and, well…" he left the subject hanging.

Greg pressed harder. "When did the aliens first come? Where did they come from?"

"Well, let’s see…" The knife-wielder sat back thoughtfully, sliding the knife back into its holster. "It can’t have been more than a day or so ago. Then again, I haven’t got much I in the way of sleep since then. It tends to interfere with your sense of time, you know?

"Anyway, I was working at a restaurant like this, closer into the city centre. A little more upmarket than this, though. So, I was slaving away in my little kitchen, when the explosions first start. Big, loud ringing things, nearly shaking my little metal workplace apart.

"So these things keep coming, and I decide to look outside. Predicably, there’s people running all over the place, shouting like the world was coming to an end. Which, in a sort of peculiar way, I suppose it was. There’s all these fires everywhere, and I could hear the sirens off in the distance.

"So, understandably, I run off and jump in my car and start driving home, to check if the wife and kid are all right. And as I’m driving through the streets, trying to avoid all these people running everywhere, and watching all these explosions off in the distance, trying to figure out what’s going on, and then all of a sudden this, oh, I don’t know how to describe it. I think it was a ship, but it looked more like a giant piece of obsidian that had just been cut out of the rock.

"Anyway, this thing just drops out of the sky and lands right on the road in front of me. And as I’m backing slowly away from it the back of the thing opens up and starts disgorging all sorts of weird things, like something out of a crazy dream. So, I decided to drive off, and then…"

The knife-wielder regarded his last remaining piece of burger for one minute contemplatively, then quickly swallowed it. "Anyway, I just drove like a madman, out to the city limits. It was pretty quiet there, because most people had already fled the city, and the creatures, whatever they were, seemed to be more interested in the Watchers than anything else.

"So, I waited out there for a few hours, until it got dark, and then drove back into the city. Well, not really, just to here, actually. I wanted to see if there was anyone I knew still here. So, I got here, and it was just like this."

"Totally empty?"

"Yup. Not a single soul in sight. I took a little look around, and found that someone had scrawled a note on one of the walls out the back. Something about ‘taking us to the towers’, or something. Then, while I’m standing there, in the kitchen, which was where the note was, and guess what happens?"

"What?"

"A whole bunch of those alien bastards showed up at the restaurant. Not just a few, either. An entire troop, or something like that. Burst in through all the doors like they knew I was there, too. I think they probably did.

"So, I was standing there, with all these things closing in on me, and then the darnedest thing happens. I just happen to look over the knife rack, and I suddenly think, ‘hey, I could get a couple of them with those!’ Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not a very violent man. The most I’ve ever used a knife for before is cutting vegetables.

"But suddenly it all makes sense! All I have to do is grab that knife, and, Wham! No more nasties. I can’t really remember what happened, after that. To tell you the truth, I’m not really sure. All I know is, a minute later I’m standing outside this restaurant with gore all over my hands and this funny knife belt thing attached to me."

Greg watched him talk on with an odd feeling of both sinking realisation and happiness. Whatever was wrong with him was wrong with this man, too. He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not, though. After all, he knew exactly how dangerous he could be to other people. What would two of him be like? He didn’t want to think too hard about it.

The man talked on and on, talking about his adventures through the night, describing his various fights with a mixture of clinical detachment and amazement. Greg waited patiently until he was nearing the end of the story, and then asked:

"So, what were you doing when I met you?"

The knife-wielders eyes hardened. "I was going to look for my wife. But then I met that troop there, and I wasn’t sure that she would have made it. Grace is a resourceful woman, but I don’t think she could have lasted long." He paused, his eyes softening. "You didn’t happen to see a woman on your way here, did you?"

"Well, I… Ah, yes. I did. But she was already… Uh, she was…" The lie tasted bitter on his tongue. "Already dead."

The man’s face collapsed, but no tears were forthcoming. He just looked down at the table, sorrow heavy in his eyes. "Yes, I should have expected that, I suppose."

The heavy guilt came again, smashing against the walls of his mind. "If it’s any comfort to you, I found her killer, the alien, I mean."

"Really? What did you do to it?"

"I killed it. Slowly."

The knife-wielder gritted his teeth. "Good. I want to make sure that every one of those bastards suffers his fate."

Greg coughed. "So, what do you intend to do now?"

"Well, I guess I don’t have much else to do, do I?" Said the man cynically. "I have to go to the Watchers. They might have killed my wife, but my friends and family are still in the creature’s grasp."

He smiled, a half-happy smile born of angry thoughts. "I don’t suppose you would like to join me, would you?"

"I’d be glad to. It’s not like I have anywhere better to go, and I’d like some answers to this mystery."

"Good, then," the knife-wielder stood. "We’d better start now, eh? It’s a long walk to the Watchers, and I don’t think it’ll be an uneventful one."

They strode out of the diner a few minutes later, the knife-wielder stepping confidently through the remains of the shattered glass window, and Greg pushing through the creaking door. They had only stayed in the diner so that the knife-wielder could clean up the plates and put them away. The plumbing was out, of course, but he tried anyway. When Greg asked him why, the knife-wielder just muttered something about owing it to the people who had been taken away. Personally, he wanted to be out of the diner and on their way as soon as possible. The alien things could be back at any moment.

The knife-wielder had pressed him further about how he’d go to First Landing, and how he’d killed the aliens, but Greg merely dodged the questions and changed the subject. As much as he wanted to tell the knife-wielder about the truth, about how he’d been able to cut down the alien nothing more than his bare hands and a thought, but how he’d had no idea how, he held back. The guilt from letting the knife-wielder’s wife die still laid heavily in his mind. The knife-wielder pressed harder about where he’d learned to fight like he did, and so Greg made up a story about having once been in the Guard. The strange thing was, it seemed true. He couldn’t explain it, but there it was. And he’d never even been to a self-defence course in his life.

His companion, however, seemed totally at ease with his newfound abilities, like they were just something he’d picked up one day and decided to do. The fact that he could slaughter without even thinking about it seemed not to bother him unduly. It was strange, though. Although, beyond the photos he’d seen, the man’s face was totally unfamiliar to him, he felt like he’d known this man for a long time. Again, he couldn’t explain the feeling; it just sat in his mind, immovable.

As they stepped out onto the road, the knife-wielder turned. "You know, it’s funny, but, I..." He seemed lost for words. "We haven’t met before, have we?"

Greg smiled at him, a wan smile that covered his lies. "No, I don’t think so." He said, shrugging. "I would have remembered it, if we had."

The knife-wielder shrugged in response. "If you say so..." he turned again, and started to walk down the street. "Come on, hurry up. We need to be at the Watchers before dark, and it’s already after midday."

Greg stared at the knife-wielder’s back, concerned. But I have met you before, he thought. But where, where? Then he broke into a jog in order to catch up to the swiftly receding figure.

They walked down the empty streets for a little while; both lost in the silence of contemplation. Greg occasionally looked up at the towers, tall and menacing, standing over the streets like an ominous monster. Once, he would have drawn comfort from those towers, solid and reassuring, but no longer. They now symbolised everything he feared, the creatures, their prisoners, and most of all, himself. He had become one of those towers; he realised in an odd moment of introspection. But what was the tower made of, and what sky was it reaching to? The questions alone disturbed him.

After a while, they simultaneously broke into a light jog, their feet pacing against the cool concrete of the empty streets. He couldn’t explain, even to himself, why they’d done it. It just seemed like the right thing to do at the time, like so many things these days. Had he not previously run as far as he had, he would have been amazed at his newfound stamina. His companion, without the dubious benefit of such experience, was astounded, and kept glancing down at his swinging arms with a bemused smile.

They jogged for what must have been a little more than an hour, through the empty streets. No more creatures came to challenge them, of which Greg was thankful. He was quite happy for as few fights between them and the Watchers. Besides, he had no doubt that they would find all the fights they wanted at the Watchers. Still, it was strange that there were no more aliens out on the streets, but he tried not to worry about it too much. His companion on the other hand, seemed a little more disappointed at the lack of action. He kept fiddling with the knives on his belt, and looking occasionally agitated and bored.

Finally, Greg broke the silence, as much to distract the knife-wielder as much as anything.

"I don’t suppose you have any idea of what we’re going to do when we get to the Watchers, do you?" he asked, between steady breaths.

"Oh, not really," said the knife-wielder blithely. "I was think we could just waltz in and start killing, and all that. I seem pretty good at that." He paused for a moment, before adding, "Oh, yes, and you too, of course."

Greg raised his eyebrows in consternation. "I don’t think that’s the best plan there is,"

"Oh, probably not," the knife-wielder announced, unconcerned. "But it’s simple, and it uses what we seem to be best at." The lines on his face hardened, his eyes steel. "Don’t get me wrong, Greg. I’m going to make sure every last one of those fuckers pays for what they did to my family, what they did to my wife."

Guilt stabbed again at Greg’s heart, and he turned away for a moment. An uncomfortable silence rested between them for a moment, broken only by the soft patter of their feet on the ground. Then he asked, cautiously:

"Doesn’t it bother you, though?"

The knife-wielder looked at him quizzically. "Does what bother me?"

"The killing, I mean. Does that bother you?"

The knife-wielder shrugged. "Not really. They killed my wife and took my child. Should I be bothered?" The knife-wielder looked at his doubting expression with something bordering on irritation. "Besides, they’re just aliens. Who cares?"

Greg paused for a moment, thinking. "It’s just that..." he grasped for the right words to convey his feelings, but they would not come. "It’s not, I ... not right. Shouldn’t we at least think about the creatures themselves?"

The knife-wielder looked him straight in the eyes, his own cold and empty. "No."

They ran the rest of the way in total silence.