Read They Who Fell Online

Authors: Kevin Kneupper

They Who Fell

Table of Contents

They Who Fell

Copyright © 2014 by Kevin Kneupper. All rights reserved.

First Kindle Edition: July 2014


Cover and Formatting:
Streetlight Graphics


No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to locales, events, business establishments, or actual persons—living or dead—is entirely coincidental.


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To the girl with the gum on her butt.


on’t speak. It’s important not to speak.” Jana listened attentively to Sam as he rattled off instructions. She tried to project calm and poise—the image in her head of the ideal servant. Her face complied, but her eyes betrayed her. It was the eyes that always screamed fear.

“Unless spoken to,” Peter piped in helpfully.

“Unless spoken to,” agreed Sam, “and even then, say as little as possible.” There wasn’t much time, now. Everyone moved with a sense of urgency around the kitchen, knowing they had but minutes to finish the preparations for the next course. Pots clanged, ovens roared with flame, and dishes were loaded with delicacies tailored with care to the whims of the individual diners, insomuch as they could be predicted. The servants rushed about under Sam’s watchful eye; one here arranging little globs of meat into careful patterns on the plates, another there holding forks to the air and inspecting for splotches that might have been missed in the wash.

“Less is more,” advised Peter. “Definitely more,” said Sam. Platitudes, to be sure, but sometimes they anchor the mind. The novice needs a safe harbor, a place to return to in the event of panic and uncertainty. They all knew this was Jana’s first time. No matter how much she’d insisted she was old enough and ready enough, it put them all on edge. They’d have sheltered her longer if they could have. But needs must, and what they needed now was a replacement server.

“Do whatever you’re told. You get told to jump, you jump. You get told to dance, you dance.” Sam was trying to cover every contingency. Jana had heard this all before, recurring whispers in the dark since as long as she could remember.

“Do it fast,” added Peter. Their voices acquired an insistent edge as the seconds inched by, closer and closer to the moment they all knew was coming.

“No delays. You can’t delay. And don’t react to the conversation. They’ll see. They want to pretend like you’re not there,” Sam said. “Usually,” Peter interrupted.

“Usually,” Sam continued. “It’s better when they pretend. You want to be in the background. A prop.” A tall order for Jana.

It wasn’t her looks that were the problem. She was pretty, in a girl-next-door kind of way, but not so much so that it would be a distraction. And it certainly wasn’t her demeanor. She was quiet, bordering on mousey. Most of the younger ones were, if they’d been brought up after the Fall. No, the problem was that Jana had never served before. She’d be new to the diners, someone they’d never seen and someone whose novelty might attract their interest. In times of order and restraint, unwanted attention is a mere nuisance. But in times of disorder and lawlessness, attention can be a dangerous thing.

“Seen and not heard,” said Peter.

“Not even seen. Not even noticed,” said Sam.

It was always possible. Sometimes even probable, depending on the mood of the room. But the divide between advice and aspirations was beginning to blur. Whether any of them drew the attention of the diners was a matter of chance. Sometimes they’d be absorbed in conversation or reminiscences, too interested in each other to bother with a servile nothing scurrying about in the background. And sometimes they’d be bored. Anything could happen when they were bored.

“Don’t stay longer than you have to. Serve the food. Stay ‘til it’s done,” said Sam.

“But then leave,” said Peter. “Leave as soon as it’s polite to. Quietly.”

Noise was never wise. Plates can clink, forks can clank, and—god help you—glass can break. This seemed the least of the risks, but it had to be said. Jana wasn’t likely to stay, and she certainly could be trusted not to speak out of turn. But there’s always nerves. Shaky fingers couldn’t be controlled, and they’d all had them before. The only thing to do was hope—hope nothing dropped, and pray you didn’t falter. Silently, of course. Prayer was the worst thing you could do.

“Quietly. Professionally. No matter what happens,” said Sam. Jana had practiced, to be sure. She’d memorized the ritual of serving a course. Which seat to go to, which diner would be where, and what to do in a thousand contingencies. She’d been working at it for months. But there’s nothing like the real thing, and the pressure just isn’t the same. The sense of unease in the room rose as their time drew nearer. It was down to moments, now, and Sam gave Jana his last bit of advice as the servers exited the kitchen in a solemn, careful procession of foodstuffs and libations: “And whatever you do—whatever you do—don’t look them in the eyes.”

Jana gave a last, wistful glance into the kitchen as its door swung shut. It was a haven of safety in many ways, if only for the cloak of anonymity it provided. Blame for problems with the food tended to fall on the servers as messengers. There were fewer opportunities for error. And, of course, you weren’t being watched. The servers plodded through the halls in silence, focused intently on their tasks. There wasn’t much to look at in any event. The interiors were bare and blackened, scorched by flame, and the idea of brightening them with decor for the servants’ benefit was considered frivolous. Jana pursed her lips, running the injunctions of the other servers through her head as she walked. It helped distract from thoughts of what could happen, or what had happened to servers during meals past.

A din from the distance grew louder as they approached the entryway to the dining chamber, rising until the doors opened and it became a scattered cacophony of laughter, stories, and chit-chat. To Jana’s ears, it was indistinguishable from the familiar sound of the servants supping among themselves—except for the palpable tension she felt, and the periodic fluttering of wings.


here’s movement. I can’t tell how many. At most, three. Still grounded.” The voice crackled over the walkie-talkie, breaking a bored silence that had overtaken the room. William Holt hadn’t been a hunter before the Fall, otherwise he might have been used to the tedious monotony he felt while awaiting his prey. He might even have enjoyed it. This sport, though, was different. A hunter at least waits in comfort, safe in his blind with only the anticipation of the kill to distract him from his thoughts. But ducks or deer or fish can’t strike at their pursuer. Miss your shot and they simply flee, leaving you to your patient vigil. Holt, on the other hand, was hunting a predator. His nerves never quite turned off, no matter how quiet things seemed to be. He always had to be on edge, ready to react at a moment’s notice. The periodic messages from Faye, the spotter, made his stomach ball just a bit in anticipation every time something came through.

“Three’s too many,” Holt radioed back. “Hell, two’s too many. If we can’t confirm the number, we pass.” He’d grown cautious over years of fighting. He wasn’t always like that—a tall, brawny, dark-haired former policeman, he’d been a rule-breaker coming out of the academy. Like most of his classmates, he wanted to take on the bad guys. He was good, they were evil, and stodgy older cops who’d given up their ideals to push paper weren’t going to stand in his way. It was all a fantasy, but the young can be forgiven for thinking they’ll conquer the world. Policing turned out not to bear much resemblance to war, if one could call it that. They did, as a matter of pride. But this was less a war and more a small tit after a long series of tats. He’d ended up having a lot in common with the criminals he’d chased—confronting a vastly more powerful foe, the best he could reasonably hope for was to act, flee, and avoid getting caught.

Next to Holt sat Scott Daxton, better known to the members of their cell as Dax. A pudgy, bespectacled, and out-of-shape geek, Dax was an unlikely choice for what amounted to an assassination. But beggars can’t be choosers, and there weren’t many people left to fill the role. No one was really sure how many had survived, but the consensus was that it was in the tens of millions at most. And even among those that remained, the fighting spirit was dwindling. Most people had concluded that things were hopeless. The major cities were rubble, and it was too dangerous to congregate in larger groups. The orgy of violence immediately after the Fall had wiped out most anyone who had a desire to resist. And while comparatively few people had actually been killed directly, billions had starved or succumbed to disease once the world’s governments imploded. Holt took who he could, and it wasn’t that Dax was useless. He knew how to access what was left of the Internet, he was great with technology, and he had connections. In any kind of combat, though, he’d just be a liability.

Dax fidgeted, anxious to end the wait. “We oughta try at some point. It’s been days. It’ll never be perfect. If it doesn’t work, we get underground and we’re gone.” The subways and sewers were the only truly safe means of movement. This had once been a thriving city, and its residents had once considered themselves the center of the universe—or at least the parts of it they knew of. The few that remained knew better, now. What was left of New York City was mostly a husk. Buildings had collapsed, had been ransacked, or had simply been abandoned. The only permanently inhabited structure for miles around was the Perch.

Its inhabitants didn’t call it that, but the nickname had spread quickly, spat from the mouths of those dispossessed of their homes. A dark, towering structure, the Perch loomed over what remained of the city. Black spires jutted upward from its sides, poking at the skies in defiance and giving it the look of a gnarled, metallic cactus. Lights could be seen sporadically at points, but it wasn’t clear from the exterior how much was living space and how much was dedicated to some other purpose. Construction had begun shortly after the Fall, once its residents accepted that things were never going back to the way they’d used to be. After a few years the thing was done, blighting the skyline and signaling the end of the city as its people had known it.

The area immediately around the Perch was mostly debris. Any nearby buildings had been scavenged for useful materials during its construction, and what wasn’t needed was simply left in piles on the ground. A few miles or so away, many of the buildings still stood, but they were in questionable condition. Most were too dangerous to live in, but a few people still tried, even then. Holt and his cell encountered them from time to time while they moved through the city’s remains. People can be stubborn, and reluctant to accept that their lives have changed for good. Some still dreamed that one day things might return to normal, and that they’d be left to rebuild as they saw fit. Others just couldn’t conceive of a life lived someplace else. Their friends, families, and jobs all in the past, they preferred to try to survive in their homes rather than crawling about in a forest someplace and learning an entirely new way of living.

A new voice came across the airwaves—Dustin Thane, the one they’d tapped to deliver the final blow. “We can do two. Knock one down and he’s mine. Y’all just have to keep the other one off me long enough for us to kill him and bail.”

Thane wanted to fight, always. His hair was bleached blonde, cropped short, and his face was covered in a dark stubble that never seemed to cross the line from scruff to beard. He was an attack dog, spoiling for battle and the rush of adrenaline that came with it, and he’d probably have ended up in prison if it weren’t for the Fall. He was the type who had trouble restraining himself, and always chose to escalate a confrontation rather than be the one to back down. Holt had his hands full trying to manage him. Thane had gotten better about things, and the cell hadn’t been together for very long, which gave Holt reason to hope. And finding someone willing to fight these days was harder and harder, after all. But this wasn’t meant to be a grand, glorious battle. It wasn’t even meant to be a fair fight. Valor was a fine enough thing, but it was discretion that got you home safely.

“No. It’s one, or it’s a no-go,” Holt radioed back.

“I don’t usually agree with Thane,” said Dax, “but we have to try at some point. We lugged these all the way up here. They’re heavy. It’d be a huge pain in the ass to carry them back out again.” Dax gestured to a thick metal footlocker at the center of the room. Inside were several Stinger missiles, along with their launcher. They were small, shoulder-fired, and designed such that they could be used by a single person. They weren’t nearly as heavy as Dax implied, but in the end it’s all relative. He’d been covered in sweat carrying the footlocker up here, and he didn’t relish thoughts of repeating the task.

“No. It’s my call. Thane can only handle one of them. We’d have to ground them both, and even if we did they wouldn’t stay down for long. This is all about patience, and only taking the easy shots. We’re here to fight dirty. Besides,” Holt said with a smirk, “it’s not the worst thing in the world if you have to exercise some more.”

Dax’s face reddened as he turned his focus back to his laptop, and to coded messages from other cells around the world. He knew he wasn’t cut out for battle. He didn’t have the experience, didn’t have the athleticism, and didn’t have the talent for it. But inside he still fantasized about being one of them. A reckless warrior like Thane, or a decisive leader like Holt. He looked up to them both, despite the teasing, and did whatever he could to get close to the action. Mostly that meant a supporting role, helping with the planning and watching the Internet for news or for anything that might help them somehow. The enemy was generally oblivious to human technology. It either didn’t interest them, or just wasn’t one of their natural talents. They’d learned enough to strike at power plants and datacenters, but they were always a few steps behind, and it didn’t look like they’d ever shut things down entirely.

Holt waited in silence, staring at the Perch out of the broken windows of the abandoned building they were hiding in. He’d never been close to it. He could have tried, if he’d been inclined to. There were people inside. The Vichies. Sometimes they still let more in. But you had to make a trade that he’d never been interested in making. You could get access to relative comfort and relative safety, and you wouldn’t be on your own. But you wouldn’t be free, and you’d have to check your dignity at the door.

Almost an hour passed before the next update from Faye. “This might be it, boys. There’s one standing at the edges, facing west. Looks like he’s all alone.”

Holt picked up the walkie-talkie to radio back. “Watch him. If he—”

“He’s in the air! He’s in the air! Heading straight down the alley!” Faye’s voice was flush with excitement. She was alone in a sniper’s nest, and had been for days. She was patient enough, but she’d been itching for something to happen to break up the monotony.

“Everyone get ready. If I get a shot, I’m taking it,” Holt replied. “Faye, watch for where he drops. I want Thane moving in ASAP. Otherwise we’re on silent.”

Dax scanned the skies with a pair of binoculars, while Holt prepped the launcher. They’d get one shot, with a narrow window. They had to hit him in just the right place, or he’d go to ground too far away for Thane to reach him in time. And while a Stinger could take out an airplane, it wouldn’t do more than stun one of them. Someone would have to be up close and personal to deliver the killing blow. Get there too late, and the target would have recovered—and he wouldn’t be in the mood for mercy.

“There! There! I can see him!” Dax gestured excitedly, pointing at a small, black dot weaving through the air between them and the Perch. “An angel.”

You could call them that, although many called them demons instead. That might be just as apt a description, given how they’d acted since the Fall. To the survivors of the carnage they’d inflicted, the only real difference between angels and demons was where they’d landed when they fell. It certainly looked like an angel. Feathered wings spread wide, it glided towards them, heading towards the street of surviving buildings that Holt had selected as their point of ambush.

“I see him.” Holt swung the launcher over his shoulder, steadying it and pointing it outwards through the window. He looked again for the target, caught it with his eyes, and lined up the sight. He waited a few more seconds. Just a little closer, and they had a better chance. He kept the angel in the sight for another moment, listened for the beeping noise that indicated he had a lock, and fired. A small cloud of smoke billowed into the air around them, traces of the trail that spewed from behind the missile as it honed in on the target. Following the heat signature, the missile adjusted, tracking the angel as it flew. The angel bobbed up and down in the air, either hearing the burst of sound from the missile’s launch or seeing its smoke as it approached. But it was too late for evasion. The missile hit, and the angel was engulfed in flames as a ball of fire lit up the air in between the row of buildings. The angel fell, again, sending up a plume of asphalt as it crashed into the streets below.

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