You are 17 years old. You are just under six feet tall, well-muscled from years of exertion, not as heavyset as the older men but lean, with broad shoulders and fast legs. You wear a pair of decade-old jeans with thigh-length shorts underneath, a drab olive T-shirt, and a camouflaged field jacket. The jacket has little flags on the shoulders that you don’t recognize, three stripes of black, red and yellow, and you’ve rolled the sleeves in the damp heat. You don’t remember the day your father took you from your little house in Oklahoma to join up with the caravan on the reopened frontier, but you know it happened because Father tells you that’s why Mother isn’t here anymore; she wouldn’t come. You miss Mother sometimes; when you were younger, you tried to replace her with your friends’ mothers, but recently you’ve found that young women make you feel much better. You think they’re probably what you’ve been yearning for all along; they fill the void Mother left in your soul, as long as you can get a new one every few weeks. There’s been no shortage of young women ever since Father let you join the raiding parties.

The raids are the best part of your life, even better than the women. You’re young, but you’ve proven your skill with rifle and wheel. Recently, you earned Shotgun in a second-wave pickup. It’s owned by Captain Rogers, a man from your hometown. Since it’s his truck, he stands in the bed, wielding the 50-cal. His younger brother Aron is Wheelman, and you sit in the passenger seat with an AR-15 older than yourself. The three of you are tight-knit: you eat and sleep together, you travel together, you fight together.

Today is a big raid. The caravan has been preparing for this two months, gathering ammunition and fuel and plotting the attack. You are in a place called Virginia, which you understand to be east of Oklahoma. You had to travel across a vast mountain range to get here, and you fought your way through several towns to avoid leaving the Interstate. This side of the mountains is under the control of the Government, the Chief says; he rallied the caravan to make the crossing with stories of a bounty of gas, bullets, and food for the taking. The city of Richmond has been shielded from raids by the mountains: now the Government outposts there are burning in your wake, and the city sits like a ripe apple on the plain.

But you are not yet in Richmond. Today, you ride into a lesser town to replenish supplies and clear the way for the big assault. The name is in some language you don’t understand and can’t read; you don’t much care, as the city will be gone by next morning anyway.

You ride at sunrise, after giving the incantations of battle towards the rising sun:

Bless, oh King, our daily toil. Give us courage to take victory, grant us glory that we may glorify you with honors and sacrifices and sanctified earth. Guide our bullets against the hollow-men, that your kingdom come and your will be done, as on Earth as it is in Heaven. Amen.

You are attacking from the west, and the horizon turns blood-red ahead of you as you charge over the Interstate past the rolling hills. The State Patrol with their armored cars and heavy weapons were routed last night; the Interstate is yours. Ahead, you see the Burbs, a city’s first defense. Once, you suppose, they were some kind of vast work camp or prison, thousands of little, nearly identical houses spread out across sprawling acres and all fenced off from the narrow streets. Now they are hives of death, their original inhabitants long since retreated downtown, and they are home to feral gangs of starving, cannibalistic savages. Your pickups own the plain and the Interstate, but to venture far into the Burbs means certain death. The caravan stays on the fortified Interstate, cutting through the Burbs like a river of concrete. The city’s defenders have positioned fireteams with rifles and RPGs near the highway in preparation for your assault; your job as Shotgun is to spot shooters and kill them first as your truck barrels down the road towards downtown, and to dismount and fight as infantry if necessary. The air is warm and the sky is clear; you feel hot in your soul as you rocket along at 80 miles per hour. You hear a war-whoop from the next truck over and you take up the call, shrieking into the wind. Then the combat begins, and your existence reduces to a blissful trance of action.

Searching. Hot asphalt and roaring engine. Movement—bang—dead. Again, movement—bang—dead. Searching. Chug-chug-chug goes the 50-cal behind you; a window to your left is blown to pieces along with the entire floor, bodies fall from the rubble. Movement—bang—dead. Then fear: the sound of an RPG firing, an angry shout, you see a truck down the line launched off the ground, flaming. The line keeps going. Movement—bang—dead. You’re past the suburbs now; great cubes of glass, four and five stories tall, rise around you. Still killing anything that moves. The line begins to slow and counter-fire stops. The enemy is fleeing. The first wave gives chase as the rear forms up in empty intersections. Soon, you are dismounted, joining a dozen other Shotguns in entering one of the big shiny buildings where people live. You think of the sorry inhabitants, stacked like ants, living one atop another in little glass cubes, and you feel a great surge of disgust.

This is the easy part. No one has guns; very few offer any resistance. The killing continues: men are shot on sight while women of the correct age are beaten to the ground and sent back down to the surface with the runner-boys. What few children are found are sent down with their mothers; most will die in the coming days, while some will rise above their fathers and survive. Women who fight are marked; they are prized for their good genes. Every room is searched: food, electronics, clothing, blankets; anything useful is taken by the runner-boys. You are amazed at how few things of use are in the apartments; even the food is inedible. You try to take a bite out of a loaf of bread; you spit it out, it’s sticky and sickly sweet. The real loot, you know, will come from the police station and army garrison. Then you are at the top, and you look down, coming off your fighting high. You see your tribe’s pickups gathered below in a defensive formation around the block; you see teams on the tops of other buildings down the road; in the distance you see the first wave wheeling to and fro, chasing down groups of survivors. You hear the cheering of fighters, the laughter of runner-boys, and the ever-present wailing of city-dwellers.

Then it’s time to go down and start on the next building. You descend floor-by-floor with your friends, setting fires as you go. The water has already been cut off at the bottom; there are no sprinklers. By the time you reach the ground, the upper levels are fully ablaze. By nightfall, the city will be full of glowing torches, announcing the victory of your people. There will be wild songs and dances among the bonfires, whole deer will be roasted in their embrace, and primal joy will bless your caravan.


You awake with a start. Looking around, you can’t see why; perhaps some dream already vanished from memory. The night is illuminated gloriously by a host of stars. You lie beside your truck in the deep mottled black of a hill. Around you is your caravan, dozens of trucks plus support vehicles; hundreds of strong men of fighting age. You look down the hill at your people, a patchwork of smoldering campfires scattered among the muddy pickups.

Then the night lights up red and orange from a great ball of fire, the hill shakes, heat washes your face as the camp suddenly springs to life. The realization makes your stomach sink: the stories of demons watching over the hollow-men are true. Then another fireball further up the hill. You are already in your truck, having thrown your blanket in the back, and Aron is revving the engine as Captain Philips racks the 50-cal. You’re off up the hill and down the other side; you hear a third strike behind you. Orders from the Chief come over the radio: scatter to the Burbs, hide for the night, and regroup in the morning.

You hear one more fireball hit the hill, then the night is silent. You are back among the Burbs now; you drive for about five minutes before pulling into a random house. Aron drives over the plastic fence and hides the truck under a rotting awning. There is a swimming pool in the backyard, overflowing and teeming with insects and small animals.

Inside has already been ransacked, abandoned, and ransacked again. The walls are mostly glass and there is no fireplace, so the house will be uninhabitable in either heat or cold, but the roof is intact and insulated so you will be hidden from the demon’s peering eyes.

You and your truckmates settle in for the night. There is no idle chatter, nor is there sleep; all are thinking of the four fireballs and the men whose lives they claimed. The common unspoken fear is that the Chief has been killed. Without him, the caravan will doubtless fracture and all the work and preparation of the past months will be undone.

Your mind is suddenly consumed with the notion that Father lies dead in the field, his guts strewn across the bloody grass. You know his pickup was downhill from you; you can’t shake the feeling that the brief words exchanged last night were to be your last. They are clear as sky and plain in your memory: his congratulation on a battle well fought, his admonition not to overindulge in women. He’d handed you a small mug of moonshine, and you’d both drank to the victory. Then he was gone, reveling around the campfire with his fireteam. Father has been the single constant since Mother left, always driving you to build your body and mind and skill, and thought of life without him is miserable; it sticks in your gut and weighs on you with tremendous dread.

Your thoughts are interrupted by the faint sound of voices outside. Your eyes dart up; they meet first the Captain’s and then Aron’s. They hear it, too. A number of voices, maybe four or five, in the direction of the backyard. You all have the same thought: ferals looking for loot and meat. Quickly but quietly, you all rise and pick up your rifles. Filing towards the back of the house, you can hear the voices arguing over something, somebody saying we should leave, someone else saying this is our chance. You shoulder your rifle and creep towards the large window facing the backyard, and you see them: five small figures, all shorter than yourself, crouched around one of your pickup’s wheels. You can see two rifles among them; the others have odd pieces of metal and wood in their hands. You glance at the captain; he motions to kill the two with guns. An instant later, the house erupts with gunfire, shattering the glass wall. It only lasts for half a second before two of the five outside drop to the ground. The other three shout in terror; two stand frozen, but the one nearest you raises her piece of broken-off rebar and charges you, yelling obscenities; you sidestep her wild strike and slam the butt of your rifle into the back of her head as she passes you. She hits the ground with a thud, groaning. The other two drop their weapons and raise their arms, stuttering pleas for mercy; as you look closer, you can see they are both men, but so small and misshapen that they look like women. The captain fires two shots as both drop dead.

You turn to the girl at your feet, struggling to her hands and knees and whimpering softly from the pain of your blow. The other two are going through the bodies’ clothing, looking for ammunition or anything else useful. She is so small, you think; her form is slender and delicate-looking even in the dark. The moonlight is glinting off her hair, revealing light blonde, almost white. Then she looks up at you, and the mess of hair covering her face falls away, and you are struck with a strange joy as you take her in; eyes green-grey gleam intensely in the moonlight, and you can see something deep and wonderful glistening behind them; her face is pale like her hair, with wide features, but the shape of her jaw and her cheekbones indicate some mysterious lineage, unlike the ordinary city-dweller. She’s not sultry and whorish like so many of the girls who pass through the camp, but there is a strange and fearsome beauty in her, and as you sit in a momentary trance, something deep inside tells you that this girl is urgently important.

Out of the corner of your eye, you see Aron raise his rifle towards her, and a primal fear jolts down your spine; you shout and step over her, shielding her still-stunned figure. You say she’s yours. Aron shrugs and lowers the weapon, stepping back towards the house. The captain follows, giving you a doubtful look as he passes by. There will be no using her tonight, he mutters darkly, for tonight is a night evil and watchfulness.

The night drags on. There is nothing to do but sit and wait for the liberation of dawn; still, no one can sleep. You sit on the carpeted floor alongside your new prize; the other two men are huddled together, talking in low tones of what will be done if the Chief is dead. The girl is crying softly, and you simply watch, soaking in her image, wondering what about it captured your mind when the others saw nothing more than another starving urbanite girl. Finally, she looks up at you, and again you are taken by her eyes, and to your surprise you feel a profound pity at the tear-streaks on her cheeks and the sorrow on her face. But there is strength also in her face. You ask her name. Evelyn, she says. Evelyn, a common urban name, vulgar to free men. You call her Eve. With nothing better to do, you ask and listen to her story. She tells you that she escaped with her family from the city after police and soldiers began breaking into houses to kill and rape. Her father was killed in the escape; her mother was taken by ferals. She has been wandering the Burbs with a gang of scavengers for several months, on the brink of starvation but fearful of entering the wilderness due to stories of barbarians and wild animals. You tell her the stories are true; you and your tribe are the barbarians, but she need not fear the wild animals, as they are your frequent dinner. At this, she smiles faintly for the first time, and on an impulse from within, you reach out to stroke her hair and hold her face tenderly in your hand. She leans into you, eyes locked with yours, and you feel a new peace and comfort unlike any other.

The sun finally dawns, painting the streets orange as you watch the stars fade slowly. It’s time to go. Wordlessly, your team loads up the truck; Eve sits in the bed under the watchful eye of the Captain. You’re slower going back than coming; there’s no hurry to know the names of the dead. Demons are cruel and random in their killing, as anyone can be struck down in a moment and without warning, no matter his strength and aim.

You arrive at the rendezvous point as the sun clears the horizon. Already, other trucks are assembling in the agreed upon valley; you dare not return to the killing grounds, the demon may yet be hovering there over the corpses. There will be no holy burial for the fallen today. You see sullen faces among even the young boys; the devil’s lightning has blunted the spirit of victory.

The roll is called. The missing names come in threes: Captain, Wheelman, Shotgun. Everyone breathes relief when the Chief speaks his own name. You wait for Father’s name; four trucks are missing before it comes. Then you hear it. Silence. It is repeated twice, as is custom, and then the names of his truckmates are called. All dead.

Aron puts his arm around you as you sink slowly to the ground beside the wheel of your truck, but you hunger for Father’s arm and voice and breath. Aron holds you for a minute, then moves on to comfort the other mourning sons and fathers and brothers as you bury face in your folded arms. You can’t cry; you can’t remember the last time you cried, but you want the release of tears more than anything. Pressure builds behind your face, a void like you’ve never felt in your chest, a feeling like you’ve forgotten something deadly important that sits right on the edge of memory. Misery hardens like clay in the pit of your stomach, and the purpose and direction which have always brought you joy are gone.

Then another hand touches yours. It’s small, much smaller than Aron’s, and soft and cool and delicate on your skin. The touch makes your spine tingle, and you breathe deeply. You look up and there sits Eve, small among the men and fighting vehicles, and her face is framed by a halo of shining hair in the morning sunlight. Those fascinating green-grey eyes are consumed with a strange compassion like you’ve never seen before, a uniquely feminine compassion, a deep sadness mixed with fear and adoration. And to your astonishment, in that moment, her hand in yours, you no longer want to cry. The sorrow remains, but the despair and gloom are gone. You see yourself from the outside for a moment, and you see that you are your father, you have his eyes and his frame, and this girl is your mother, or rather she fills your mother’s place in your soul, only better, she’s what your mother could have been just as you are what your father was. Then it’s just her golden face before you, receiving your emotion and repeating it, amplifying it, and the effect is healing and exalting, and you unexpectedly find that you would die to protect this girl, this treasure dearer than all the rifles on the Great Plain, if only she keeps her eyes locked with yours as you fade, and you know that you and she share some holy and wonderful fate, and you love her.


For all installments of “Progress,” click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1