by Jesse Krenzel
Hunger was the relentless enemy, the demon that stripped away all pride and pretense, and drove people to do whatever they must. But while half the world starved, David Lathrop survived. On his knees, scraping away soil baked hard by the fiery crash of an alien space probe, he’d found hope. Not bad for a guy who’d prepared tax returns before everything went to hell.
He clawed more brittle cinders away from the glowing alien energy pod, smeared with the blood seeping from his raw fingers. How this fragile remnant of alien technology had survived the fiery crash didn’t matter. It would change everything. He’d never be hungry again, and neither would Amber. She’d take him back for the children’s sake, if not for her own, all because of this crazy, beautiful egg-shaped ampule of alien goop. And it was almost his.
When the alien ship had crashed outside Des Moines a few years before, the government labeled it a harmless robotic space probe. No cause for concern, they’d said when they sealed the 10-acre crash site behind a tall concrete wall. Signs warned trespassers that they’d be shot, but authorities were busy elsewhere. The food riots had begun. Cities became ash heaps and most everyone forgot about the novelty behind the wall: but not the ultra-rich—the collectors. They never went hungry, and they always snapped up every shred of alien debris that made its way onto the black market. The sheer beauty of this energy pod would drive the collectors into a bidding frenzy. And who knew what its glowing contents might be worth?
Too bad his mentor, Garcia, hadn’t lived to see this. Garcia would have appreciated it. The tunnel under the wall had been his idea; so was stealing Lathrop’s share of the debris they’d recovered in the first few weeks.
The cloud of dust rising from the mold-covered ground triggered a dry coughing fit. The spasm wracked his withered chest and sent bolts of pain through his joints. When it stopped, he wiped spittle off the pod with a dirty sleeve. The lazy movement of the ice-blue plasma within its transparent shell reminded him of warm honey. If not for his dosimetry badge, he’d have thought the thing was radioactive.
He tugged the curved surface with care and felt the stubborn soil finally release his prize. Light-headed and trembling, a frightening thought came. Maybe this is all a dream. Maybe I’ll wake up in the back seat of my old car-shelter on Third Avenue with a gang of street thugs hammering on the windshield. But the burning pain in his throat reassured him that this was no dream.
He tried to pull himself together. He needed his wits. It would be tricky leaving the Zone this late. When Garcia had first partnered with him, he’d warned that scavengers who leave the Zone late, sometimes never leave at all. Lathrop knew for himself that things got strange here after dark, in the weird jungle of alien foliage that had grown up around the crash. At sunset, he’d seen odd movement within the brush and the tree-like things hung with veils of twisted vines. Leaves began to quake and quiver on their own in the dead still air. No telling what they might do now, near full dark.
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