The grass shifted as the wind whipped against it.
The mountaintops reached out towards the sky. Perhaps to petition for a delay in the pending downfall that would inevitably come, or perhaps raising their hands high in acceptance of the inevitable.
The streams poured out in their own rhythmic time, having mixed with the toxic rain, having nothing else to do besides follow the twists the earth provided.
All was still, except for the pounding rain.
A low roar could be faintly heard. Then, a truck was seen traversing the seldom-covered tracks along the ground. Naming them tracks was a bit of a stretch. The fact of the matter was, this was a seldom traversed area, as it was outside of the chiral network. That means no porter was able to use roads and bridges, ladders and ropes even if other porters had laid them there. The United Cities of America (UCA) was still in its infancy. Most of the infrastructure had yet to be built, and people only just now began to realize that the dream of the UCA may yet come true.
Our porter flashed down the road, his steady hands on the wheel. Among the other gadgets in the vehicle was the monitor in the center of the dashboard. It recorded the likes of all registered porters in the UCA. A like was the main form of currency in the UCA, but was used more of a way of reputation-boosting than anything else. This was the UCA’s way of incentivizing the porters. The more likes you got, the higher you rose on the scoreboard. The higher on the scoreboard, the more clients requested you by name. If you wanted to make a reputation for yourself, the board was the way it got done. Some even thought that if you could get enough likes, you could meet the president of the UCA. The rumor was, one porter named Sam Strand had already met her.
The porter made it to their destination without incident. Since it was raining, there was always a chance of Beached Things (BTs) roaming in the area. BTs, creatures half-way between life and death, were a constant threat in the new world. A “gift” created by the latest Stranding. The UCA had created a tool called an Odradek, which will identify if a BT is near. The Odradek required a Bridge Baby (BB) to be used properly, a mysterious invention created by the UCA as well. These tools were helpful, but the fact remained, if a BT were to notice you, the only thing you could do is duck, be as quiet as possible, and pray.
Timefall beat on the truck, and had been for hours. Timefall accelerated the internal clock of anything that it touched. A seed of grass, hit by a few drops of timefall, would bloom into a stalk, then wilt, it’s full lifetime played out in a matter of seconds.
The lights of the truck began flashing, and then the truck moaned its last. The timefall had done its work.
The porter got out, and hiked the rest of the way to his home in Lake Knot.
. . .
He reached Bridges, the unit of the UCA which handled all deliveries. Almost nobody left their homes anymore, given the risk of timefall, BTs, and raiders. Therefore, porters had become exalted in the new world. A good porter could get a reputation quickly, gain a following, and become someone of importance in Bridges, and even the UCA.
The porter called up the terminal, and took the lift down to their private room. They ate a meal of Monster and Cryptobiotes, a small life form that was the main source of protein for most in the UCA, and laid down in their bed for the night. The timefall continued to beat down on the city just outside.
Few things still stood as they were prior to the Stranding. Timefall ate away at all things, advancing them by years in a matter of minutes. As a consequence, not much could withstand the constant storms that frequented the new world.
Therefore, it became necessary to build structures with the strongest materials. Mostly metals, sometimes brick, and even then, the upkeep cost was almost as much as the initial cost of construction.
That’s why the Lake Knot City Church of the Great Deliverer was such a sight to behold. It was decreed a historic landmark just as the last of the framework began to lose its fidelity, and it was all but collapsing in on itself. As such, the painstaking restoration was a goliath of a task, and maintaining the fragile structure was even worse. However, the result is that it remained the only building in the area (maybe the UCA, and maybe the world, for that matter) that wasn’t made of metal and stone. It appeared a wholly alien in comparison with the surrounding landscape. A neo-gothic style with bright-red brick, intricate patterns of circles, swirls and crosses on nearly every square inch of its surface.
Mass was every Sunday at ten o’clock. Many attended not out of religious duty, but to break away from the mundane weekly cycle, and to take in the glorious structure for a few hours once a week. That didn’t stop the ministers from treating everyone as if they were one of the flock.
Most did not attend in physical form, but used a holographic projection of themselves. This was the normal form of visitation. In fact, even if a porter were to drop off a package just outside someone’s door, they would still only thank them via hologram.
The porter was one of the few who came in physical form. Almost no one would make the journey every week. Sometimes, on Easter or Christmas, a few would show up, but doing so usually meant hiring a porter to deliver them, and there were only a few who had enough wealth or fortitude for that.
The porter stopped in the doorframe of the building, and took a deep breath.
It was Monday morning. The porter woke in the private room. He used the toilet, took a shower, dressed, ate a meal of Cryptobiotes and Monster, and headed out to the garage.
There was only one delivery today. As was most of the deliveries he liked to take, this one was off the chiral network, and it would take hours to reach. However, it was the best way to get likes. You could get a few dozen likes by completing several short deliveries in the area, or a few hundred likes by taking the hard ones.
This was the farthest job he’d taken. It was to a man even farther west than the Distribution Center North of Edge Knot City. The man had apparently had run out of his last T-shirt and was now requesting a fresh new set of clean, white ones.
He took the elevator to the garage, and checked the terminal in preparation for the delivery.
It was a difficult thing to prepare for the journey. One had to first check the integrity of the equipment that you had. Boots, for one, was something a porter couldn’t afford to have give out on them. If you had to start running from a BT – this was only a last resort, and usually only happened moments before you were taken – the last thing you needed was some old pair of worn-out boots slowing you down. You also had to check the terrain and choose a route. Sometimes the roads were well-maintained and led you close to the destination, so you could make it most of the way in a truck and only have to walk a mile or two in the final stretch. Other times, you had to hike over mountaintops in heavy timesnow. In that case, you had to decide where to use your ladders and ropes to make the journey as fluid as possible. Some porters thought mapping out your journey and choosing the right equipment was the most exciting part of the job. Others thought it tedious. The latter called the former minmaxers, a term for those who made the most use out of the least resources, and was meant to be derogatory. The former was not offended.
The porter checked the available materials. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough to fabricate a truck.
However, if there was one that another porter had shared, he would definitely use it. It may not get him the whole way across, but at least it would take him part of the way, until the path became traversable only by foot.
He checked the terminal. To his surprise, one long-range truck had been left by a person with the handle rocksalt999. He must be a really nice guy, the porter thought.
The porter called up the truck, and loaded the packages. He made his way through the garage toward the truck. All of the sudden, he threw a punch and his fist rammed into the truck door. Hit the button too quick, he thought, and patiently maneuvered his hand to the handle, gently opening the door.
Starting the engine, the vehicle came to life, a loud roar coming from the guts of the machine. He checked the scoreboard in the center of the dashboard. He was currently the fifteenth porter in the UCA with the most likes. A few more jobs could boost him into the top ten.
The truck crawled up the ramp of the Bridges building, and the porter made his way onto the highway.
. . .
The delivery went well, but had taken much longer then expected. The timefall hadn’t stopped all day, and had destroyed his truck a few miles before he could drop off the packages. Now he was headed back to Lake Knot on foot. His hood was up, his suit his only defense against the rain.
It was already dark, and the timefall only made it worse. When timefall is around, BTs are not far behind.
He stepped a few feet forward, and looked as the ground fell away from him. There lay before him a steep cliff at least twenty meters down.
He pulled out his rope and threw it down.
Hand under hand, he repelled down the steep cliff. His left foot found a step in the rock. His left hand went under his right. His right foot found a step. His right hand went under his left. His left foot found a step, and then it lost it. And he tumbled down the rest of the way.
. . .
His eyes opened. Sound returned to his ears. He became aware of the blood on his forehead.
He stood up, dizzy. He wiped away the blood and blinked.
He took the canteen from his belt and took a swig of Monster as he surveyed the area.
Against his back, the steep cliff went on for miles in either direction. In front of him, a river went on, following the same parallel line as the cliff. There was no easy path forward. The timefall continued to beat at him.
He made his way forward to the river and scanned it. Two meters. Too deep to cross. He looked across. Too wide for a ladder.
Pondering the path forward, his Odradek came out of its hiding place and began to spin, the light a dull white. A BT was nearby.
The porter hunched down and quickly slowed his breathing. He sent out a ping from his Odradek. It pointed to his right. He slowed his breath, turned to the left, and began to crawl away.
His Odradek changed direction, pointing directly in front him. The light changed to a deep orange. The Odradek spun faster. Two BTs. He was caught in the middle.
The porter crouched as low as he could. The timefall began to pour down heavier, beating down on man, BT, rock, and river. His Odradek changed direction one more time and spun in the direction away from the river, and the color shifted to a bright orange.
The porter put his hand on his mouth, and stopped breathing.
Ten seconds. Twenty. Thirty.
The porter started getting dizzy.
Forty. Fifty. Sixty.
It was getting difficult to think clearly. The Odradek still spun, now changing directions rapidly between three BTs, the light now a dark, pulsating red.
The porter’s knees buckled, and he collapsed on the ground. He looked up at the sky, the timefall beating down on his face, and raised both his hands in surrender. Everything fell silent. He listened to the gentle drops hitting forehead, cheek, and lip, every drop erasing hours of life. He lowered his hands, dropped his head to the ground, and closed his eyes.
. . .
His eyes opened slowly, and when they did, they spotted a faint blue light reflecting off of the right arm of his suit. Was he imaging things?
He turned, and his mouth fell open. A majestic bridge, untouched and without decay, laid from one side of the river to the other. The deep blue lights of the bridge spread out in every direction, even overtaking the light from his Odradek, the danger of the red replacing the safety of the blue. It was a bridge unlike any other the porter had ever seen. It was impossible that it could be here, he thought. Not only was it off the chiral network, but it was larger and seemed more solid than any other he had seen. It made the others seem flimsy and transparent in comparison.
He rose slowly to his feet and wondered at the glory of the bridge that lay before him. His salvation. His deliverer.
Unable to move on his own, his feet moved of their own accord, the adrenaline pumping through them. They hauled his body across the bridge, picking up speed as they went.
Beginning to realize that he might have a chance to escape, he began taking over for his body, moving his legs in the rhythmic motion of a run. One step. Then another. then another. He was over the bridge in just a few seconds. He could hear the BTs behind him. He felt a dark clammy hand touch his shoulder, then his cheek. He pushed harder and found strength that he thought had left him.
Step after step, he kept on, the BTs still behind him, calling to him.
At first, he thought it was his imagination, but as the seconds passed, he was sure: the timefall was become lessening. Instead of pouring from the sky like a waterfall, it now flowed like the steady trickle of a stream.
He could feel less and less pressure from the hands of the BTs after every step he took.
Finally, after what seemed like miles, he could no longer sense the BTs, and the air was dry. He slowed to a walk, and kept moving.
. . .
A few miles later, he found an abandoned truck, still in decent condition. He got in, started the engine, and drove off, back toward Lake Knot. On the way back, his eyes remained steady and resolved. He didn’t glance at the dashboard once.