Nine lay under a low, make shift ceiling. It was made of sticks, newspapers, and other unrecognizable debris. He waited and watched as Two fiddled with the gadgets in his chest. Two had one arm doing the operating, and the other arm following along in a giant book. Nine was trying not to squirm, and he gripped his thighs to stay calm.
Two was working a little too fast for Nine. He was hoping Two would slow down his pacing and thought process when performing surgery. But no, it seemed that slowing down was something that agitated Two.
Finally Two produced a cylinder that glowed an off white. It was about the size of a coffee mug. He placed the cylinder inside Nine and flicked a switch.
His chest, throat and head immediately felt different. Clearer. Nine tried to say something but a faint, throaty cough came out instead. He tried again.
“What…” he started to say.
“What about what, boy?” asked Two, amused.
“What…happened…here?” asked Nine with difficulty. He looked down at his mechanical insides and quickly zipped himself up.
The old man was scratching his head, trying to decide where to start. “Well son, it all started when the machines, wait no, hang on. Ok, so, it all started when the man who was in charge…um wait, there’s more to the story. Well, do you remember microwaves? Of course you don’t.”
“I know what…they are.” pointed out Nine.
“Ok, good, good, that’s a start.” Two was beginning to shift uncomfortably, not because he was sitting on a hard stone floor. “Sorry kid, we really don’t communicate a lot. Small talk. Lots and lots of small talk. We’re good at that.”
Nine pulled himself up to a sitting position and tried to cross his legs, sensing that it would be much more comfortable. When he got his legs fixed in the right position, he looked back at Two who was watching him with delight.
“It’s like…” started Two, looking like he was about to trail off, “It’s like a new baby bird hatching out of an egg.”
The image of a new baby bird hatching waded through Nine’s mind, pushing aside the broken windows, overcast skies, and surprised corpses. It was a sunny day. The quietness faded as comforting sounds filled his head. Birds, crickets, frogs, hornets, all making noises that did not clash at all, but danced together in a warm and welcoming way. Two noticed the glaze in Nine’s goggles and sat back, allowing him to enjoy his first daydream.
A few minutes went by and Nine watched the scene with a yearning. Eventually he blinked a few times to wake himself up, and asked, “Memories?”
Two shook his head, “No…information.”
Nine nodded. They both sat there for a minute.
“So,” started Nine, “um, what do you mean ‘we’? Do you have friends?”
Two began to laugh out loud, but then he silenced it with a cough. “Friends? Friends…well kid, in this day and age it’s not about friends anymore.”
“Oh.” Said Nine. He was trying to exercise patience but he was finding it hard to do. He wanted all the answers now. Then he decided to actually say that to him. “I want to know everything that happened, now.” He bit his lip. Two frowned at him with his big, flat eye lids. That sounded mean. Regret. Empathy. Compassion. “Ok, I mean, please go on.”
“I’ll tell you as much as I know, which sadly is not much. I’m still trying to put the pieces together, Nine. I’ll explain everything but then I will take you back to the others and drop you off there. Don’t expect answers from them. Nine, they ain’t a democracy.”
Just then Two and Nine heard a loud crashing sound outside their tent. Nine, completely rattled, turned to Two for what he should do. Two hopped to his feet and looked around, in control and almost primal.
He looked at Nine, “Hey kid, look at me. Look at me! You don’t come outta here, ever till all is quiet again. You hear me, Nine?”
Nine was trembling. What? The destruction is not over? He was fearful but also disappointed in himself for believing things could be ok after everything he had seen. Two reached over and grabbed him by the shoulders. Nine looked down at the ground. The crashing continued outside. It was getting closer and louder.
“Nine, look at me!!” Nine pulled his eyes away from the floor to meet Two’s. “Nine, listen. When this is over, and I mean ALL OVER, you…you are gonna leave this tent, you’re gonna head down that alley, the one where” crash! “the one where I found you. Head west down that alley. Keep going till you find a” crash! “find a small green door. It’s rusted and” crash! “and ugly and you’re gonna open it, see,” crash! “follow the tunnel down for two miles” crash! “be quiet when you do it!” crash! “and…take this here gizmo with you.” Two started to reach for the machine that was resting in the corner of the room, but before his hands could get to it, the tent shook. Two fell onto his stomach and moaned, while Nine backed up into another corner, terrified.
“Kid!” yelled Two, getting to his feet again, “you stay in here! I’ll take care of this here problem!” He grabbed a tribal spear that had been lying on the floor and turned to face the door, which was really a cotton tea towel.
Suddenly the tea towel was torn away from the shelter. Standing there looking down at them was a tall beast. Two legs, no arms. A giant head, hard and prepared for battle. The thing was entirely skeletal. No skin or organs, just white bone. Its eyes were endless black holes that looked like they could suck you in. It did not look familiar to Nine, but the way it acted reminded him of a wolf, Nine wasn’t sure. It had long, sharp fangs that went down to its knees. It was growling at Two who was only becoming more enraged and ready to fight. They glared at each other.
“Oh yeah, and um, Nine.” Said Two quietly as the tension rose, “Um, yeah don’t let him have the key.”
Nine wrapped his arms tightly around his legs as he watched Two scream and jump onto the Thing’s snout. He yelled and screamed, probably hoping to use noise to intimidate the animal, and he drove his spear deep into its black eye. The thing threw its head back and roared. Nine watched in horror and imagined what sort of terrible consequences he would have to see now. It swung its big head back and forth, making whooshing sounds that made Nine feel nautious.
Two held on tightly and kept on screaming. He was trying to pull his spear back out but it was not budging. Amid the roaring and the screaming, Nine could hear the faintest sound of something squishy under the spear.
As the Thing swayed and cried, Nine decided he was tired of being a cheerleader. He got up slowly and went for the tea towel laying on the ground. He was forming a plan but it would be imperative for the Thing to also have the brains of a dog.
Nine rolled the cloth up into a long twist. Good! It was even longer than he had planned. He tied one end securely to one of the beams that was holding up the tent. He made his way with the rest of the rope behind the Thing and around the front again. Nine looked around for a stick or a twig he could throw. The Thing was nodding its head now and holding its bottom teeth out, hoping to catch Two in its jaws. Nine looked up and tried not to panic or allow fear to paralyze him again.
The perfect twig was a short distance away. Nine would have to let go of the rope. He could do it. The Thing did not seem able to concentrate on more than one thing at a time. He ran to pick up the stick then came back and gripped the rope.
“Hey, Idiot!” called Nine. The Thing stopped nodding and looked at Nine, insulted. “Fetch!!” He threw the stick as far as he could. It whipped through the air while the Thing rolled its head around to watch.
Oh please! Oh please!
Nothing happened, and the Thing went back to trying to eat Two.
Two was trying to communicate to Nine some words of encouragement, or possibly discouragement, but he was not able to get a word out with all the bumping. His own “acks” and “oofs” were interrupting him.
Nine was not going to give up yet. He ran back into the tent and retrieved the key. He yelled again; this time louder, and both the Thing and Two stopped.
“Noooo! Not that!” cried Two.
“Fetch!!” cried Nine. He rolled the metal bowl with as much force as he could muster. It shot down the street, bumping and swerving but never stopping.
The animal dropped Two in a second and turned to run after the key. When Two hit the ground, Nine picked up the blanket and tightened it, forcing the Thing to land with a thud.
Nine stood over the twitching animal. It was not quite unconscious, but it was stunned.
Two stood up and dusted himself off. He looked at Nine and stared. “You crazy kid!” then without talking the two of them worked together to bind the Thing’s feet as tightly as they could.
Then still feeling some panic, the men ran in the direction the bowl had gone. Nine kept looking behind him but Two pressed on ahead. Together they ran, Nine tiring out but Two energetic despite everything. When they arrived to where the key had landed, they both dropped to their knees, panting.
They panted and panted as Nine picked it up and turned it over to make sure it was okay. Excitement. Pride. He realized he could relax his mechanical muscles, and for the first time he cracked a smile. A new daydream was starting to form in his mind but he stopped it. He wanted to apologize to Two for putting the key in danger so he turned around. Only to see the Thing’s skeletal legs, one with a tea towel still wrapped around it. Where was Two? Nine gulped and looked up. Two was inside the jaws of the animal. Two yelped, “Nine, get that thing away from here! Go!”
Having used every last bit of adrenaline, Nine did not know what else to do besides obey. So he ran. And he ran. Then he found a staircase going into the ground so he threw himself down into it. He jumped into a dark chasm, with what looked like train tracks according to Nine’s brain. He rolled under a low ceiling, and lay on his back trying not to pant too loudly. He clutched the bowl to his chest.
Footsteps echoed in the subway station. Nine had half a mind to jump back onto the platform and challenge the creature to another round. He heard the footsteps make a careful tour of the underground. It sniffed and growled as it hunted. Nine waited.
Soon the Thing started to makes its way back out of the station. As the footsteps faded, Nine heard Two’s familiar voice reminding him where to find the others.