The explosion caught him completely unaware. He was in Covenant Square, marketing his stuff while wandering around the stalls bordering the esplanade below Scrapbridge. This time he was carrying some grade A material, really cool stuff he could surely trade with some of the stand owners who wanted to lend him a hand and spare a couple shells: dried lizarcock meat, a pair of almost-new boots he had found near a drainpipe, a rare magazine issue with a big Z on its cover, a brand new rifle butt that could be used to fix an old weapon, a hanger with a pair of big pink plush dice, and two (not one, but two!) knuckle dusters he had got at a great price thanks to a friend.
And the sunglasses. But he had kept the sunglasses for himself, because they were cool as hell with those round smoked glasses and the thin silver frame that gave him a really badass attitude, as if he was one of the scavengers who arrived to the Bridge with their caravans to sell every single item you could dream of… Maybe if he could get his hands on one of those quirky black top hats they wore, he would look even better. Those bastards were a bunch of wackos, for sure, but they were stylish and Leo thought they were cool as fuck. And Mary Jo also fell for them, judging by the looks she gave them when they came around the settlement, so if he started to look like one of them, maybe she would notice him a little bit. Awwww… Busty Mary Jo, with that carefree joy and her naughty smile, the way she laughed hanging from the arm of the good clients who left good tips at her fast food joint… He stopped walking for an instant and let his imagination fly wild, coming to the conclusion that he wouldn’t sell the lizarcock meat to those filthy sharks at Covenant Square, but he would keep it as a present for Mary Jo. Maybe she would make him a good sandwich with one of the fillets, or perhaps she would buy him a Cienfuegos shot on the house and sit near him to thank him personally. He started walking again with a wide smile in his face, looking for someone interested in his stuff, while in his mind he started persuading himself that the day was going to end much, much better than it had begun.
Bastard could not be more mistaken.
The whistling started far away, almost inaudible. Only a couple of mangy stray dogs stiffed their ears, sensing imminent danger, while looking to an undetermined spot in the sky, but no one gave shit about them. Then the humming got louder and higher-pitched, but in the bustling square with all the tradesmen shouting their goods, people haggling, mothers shouting to their children at the top of their lungs, drunkards yelling insults and death threats to anyone who got close enough, and a group of sluts laughing out loud in the shadow provided by a wide overhang, only a few people noticed the sound. A dog barked. A boy used his hand to cover his eyes and raised his face to the sky. A homeless man, lucid thanks to the alcohol he had ingested, pointed to the clouds and started shouting like a madman “I told you, assholes! They’re coming! They are here, you shitheads, I warned you and now we are all going to die!”, but no one paid him more attention than to the dog barking on the other side of the square. Walking away from the last stall from which he was invited to leave as poor as he was before, Leo made his way to a high wall seeking some shade from the sun and took one of his last smokes out of the backpack. The drunken beggar started crawling on the floor, maddened as a cornered rat at the end of a tunnel, and with a clawy hand he held fast to Leo’s trousers, who panicked and hopped back releasing his leg with a kick to the human waste sobbing at his feet.
“Judgment day, man…”, babbled that human-shaped figure covered in rags, his face full of pustules and more recent wounds, three unstable teeth in his mouth and nails black and sharp as blades. “I fucking warned you, I told you…”, he went on with his chatter. Leo said nothing, but in his face appeared a gesture of revulsion and moved a step farther. He wanted no business with that junkie, surely drunk in the best scenario and stoned high in the worst. But that piece of shit kept crawling after him, stretching his arms and babbling nonsense. “I told the Council, I told them! They called me drunkard, idiot and parna… paroi… parino… fucking crazy… They kicked me out! You see what’s happening now, man? We are all going to die for those dipshits…”. Leo took a better look at that human byproduct, specially his eyes and his hair, sparse but of a distinctive color… Billy? Billy Nicesight? The south tower watcher? He told the Council… Why did they fire that guy from the Citizen Watch? He had read about it in the Scrapbridge Gazette, yeah, it was after a huge binge drinking night while on duty. He almost fell from the watchtower, puked all over his shift replacement at dawn and scared the shit out of half the settlement with his stories about metallic flying objects soaring over the Bridge, circling above as if watching us. That was it. They kicked him out for good. Good Ancients, the bastard had wasted himself (well, even more than before, that is) really fast in the last month.
– “Don’t you fucking hear it?”, sobbed Billy from the floor, snug in a knee-chest position.
Leo sharpened his hearing, out of pure instinct. Fuck, yes! He did hear it. He did now. A humming, whistling sound, like a bullet coming closer and passing right by your ear, but far more… “serious”. Like if someone had thrown a heavy water barrel at full speed, instead of a bullet. It came from above. More people in the square started to raise their heads, and conversations were wearing off or just fell silent. He came out of the overhang he was under and looked to the sky. Whatever it was it was coming closer really quick, but he was unable to pinpoint the source of the sound or what the fuck was making it. With the buzzing now clearly audible for everyone, most people run to seek shelter behind the stalls, among the houses, or under any structure that seemed safe enough. At the very last second Leo could determine the direction the object was coming from and turned his head, but the thing had used the sun as cover so no one could see it approaching. Looking on its direction he barely had time to see an undulating wave, like the heat moving the air above the gas burners in buxom Mary Jo’s joint, before the sun hurt his eyes even behind his brand new smoked sunglasses and made him turn his eyes away while closing hard his eyelids.
He opened them again right on time to see half Scrapbridge blowing away. Something hit he north pillar, right in the middle of the Titgrab quarter. The deflagration was so brutal that many whole houses were launched into the air, shacks in the upper levels were wiped out, pedestrian bridges were cast away like fucking tree leaves and everything directly attached to the pillar was utterly and immediately vanished in the blink of an eye. Then the shock wave hit Covenant Square, pulling kids away and taking elder people down to the ground. Heat. An infernal, sticky heat weave. Leo closed his eyes to avoid the grit carried by that heat wall and, as soon as he opened them back, he returned to that reality of shouting, yelling, running, madness and astonishment. Not knowing really why or what for, Leo started running towards the bridge. He crossed the square almost without touching the ground and went into the Promenade, the riverside walkway besides the Cleavage that led back to the Scrapbridge elevators. The Titgrab quarter was completely gone, he realized after taking several quick looks when it was safe to do it without risking hitting something or running into any of the petrified citizens that were staring to their former home without fully understanding what had just happened. Only some shacks of the upper level, near the Gross Way, held together over the chasm in a precarious balance. But Facesmack, the side-by-side quarter that shared the protection of the same Scrapbridge pillar, was in flames. A fiery wildfire raged up its several levels from the bottom of the Cleavage riverbed, fueled by all the wooden shacks, laundry hanging all over the place, the garbage heaps, and dozens of rats that had caught fire and run amok trying to escape that inferno but spreading it in the process. Chaos was absolute, and he could see people in flames jumping from the upper levels out of total desperation. There were pieces of lodges, ladders and walkways scattered in a wide area in front of him, as well as other remains more… human which he preferred not to look at too closely. There were more people running by his side, back to the city. But when they reached the first elevator, which was luckily at ground level and with its doors open, something made him stop.
A squeaking noise, a mournful groan made by something about to snap. That feeling in the belly. Metal straining beyond any safety point. He looked to his right and saw the bad shape in which the north pillar was. Concrete in its base had crumbled like dry sand, leaving the reinforcement metallic armor inside it at plain sight. But those iron bars were not going to be enough to support on their own all the weight of the pillar, all three levels of Scrapbridge above them and everything else on top, on the Gross Way. Leo knew what was coming. He shuddered and felt panic. “Don’t go up!” yelled to his companions, crowding in the elevator with the idea of going up and help in whatever way they could. Stupid men and women of good will. He tried to grab some of them to drag them out of the elevator, but they pushed him out with looks of disdain, in the belief that was cowardice what was refraining him from going up. The grid fell and the elevator started its slow ascension, while Leo remained on the riverbed shouting at them to come down, to go back. That they were all going to die. He walked away from the bridge, walking backwards, repeating in a low voice “Come down…”, sobbing and wiping his face of remains of ash, dirt, dust… and blood, he realized in horror. Around him there were still remnants of his former home falling down, wooden planks, scorched clothes, a slab of concrete here and there. He got farther away for his own safety, but he hadn’t walked a dozen paces away when the inevitable occurred.
With the squeal of a deadly wounded animal, the north pillar collapsed on itself. It dragged the remnants of the Titgrab and Facesmack quarters in its fall, still burning, along with all the people who could have survived the horrific explosion and subsequent wildfire. The Gross Way, with the houses of all those cool and rich guys who lived up there, sank in right after it and fell hard on the Cleavage, or more exactly over the Armpit quarter, the only one that had remained more or less protected from the flames. But now it was crashed under the weight of tons of concrete and steel, burying houses, business, people and livestock alike in a rain of destruction. He was almost thankful for the unending metallic grinding that accompanied the whole process, drowning out any other sound, as it would have been much worst to hear the yelling, begging and screaming of the victims. But he did see the elevator, the one he was going to go up in, lose its cable grip, draw a funny circle in the air and fall like a stone against the ground. He thought he had seen the faces of all people inside it praying for a miracle, but of course that was impossible from that distance. He cried. His legs failed him, he felt weak, and sat down on the ground, holding his head in his hands. And with a final roar, all came to an end. The cloud of dust, sand and embers slowly came to rest on the ground and over the pile of rubble and twisted steel in which a third of the Bridge had been turned, up to the Promenade, completely vanishing three quarters in a single, brutal, ruthless blow perfectly planned and executed. He was overwhelmed. Above horror, fear and helplessness, astonishment made its way. Who? Why? How?