The Heat-Ray

No one would have believed in the middle of an already bleak Antipodean winter that cylinders of heat would one day be passed out to individuals as a last refuge against atomic chill. Silver cannisters cold to the touch but containing propellants and gases that, upon contact with the eerie airs, would spontaneously ignite, providing up to six hours of warmth, and light for twice as long. The telegraph poles glowed and a strange red oil covering the roads made even walking difficult. It was around this time, or maybe a few weeks before, that I saw my first mugging. A desperate-looking urchin, fingernails gritty and chipped, just walked up to a middle-aged woman and struck her cleanly in the face with his raised palm. The woman, whose dog began then to bark erratically at her attacker, fell swiftly to the ground and I knew without looking, from the sound of the frozen snap of her forehead against the concrete gutter, that she was already dead. My companions and I decided then to scatter, the better to avoid the roaming patrols, the deadly blue vans, crawling through the paint-thick red blood in search of strays. The attacks continued to increase in both number and viciousness. Bodies left in the streets to rot became unremarkable, as were the number of fever-addled dogs hawking up thick wads of mucus on the footpaths. I myself experienced a moment of pure, bowel-loosening fear when one steely night, having spoken with my superior via a PVC-muted dial-up line, I was making my way to the subterranean complex, and chanced upon a small fracas featuring what looked like three small children and a mannequin. Upon closer inspection the three children turned out to be wiry youths and the mannequin their so-called leader, and the fracas, such as it was, turned out to be nothing more than an attempt on the gang’s part to saw a frozen horse in half. Detecting my efforts to remain invisible in the shadows, one of the youths set upon me with her saw, carving a rent in the air before my face. Then, judging my strength insufficient to repel her advances, she swiftly grabbed hold of my left arm and pulled me towards the radiant courtyard, the better to dismember me, I supposed, in the same grisly manner as that horse. If it weren’t for the tell-tale drone of a patrol and its subsequent appearance at the end of the lane, I dare say my face would be mincemeat by now. Instead, upon the abrupt disappearance of the gang from the scene of their nocturnal slaughter, I myself was forced to enter one of the shattered houses lining the lane, and there to spend the rest of the night, while the awful keening kept up outside. By morning the PVC-line had been discovered, just as I had feared. Approaching the location of the small fusebox wherein I had hastily assembled and then secreted its bulging wire innards and devices, I detected a none-too-small commotion emanating from its vicinity. Fearing the worst, I entered another irradiated building and, climbing its dessicated stairwell I was able to see, through the blasted space where once was a window, the gruesome scene below me. Three blue patrollers and a small army of drones were in the process of sniffing the surrounding walls, cobblestones and wreckage for traces of the communications device’s creator, cross-checking a loaded spring against the destruction’s baseline data. It would take them some minutes to become aware of my own presence in this off-limits zone, I calculated, but even that small margin would allow me precious little time to reach the complex alive. What I needed was a diversion. Presently, a siren commenced its rising action, barely pausing in its denoument before being triggered again, I now realised, by one of the few remaining clone dogs, staggering down a parallel lane. Being sure to cover my skin against the UV probes, I somehow made my way down the stairs again, picking up a limb-sized piece of wood before exiting the premises via the tradesman’s entrance. Timing my exit to coincide with the clone’s deathly pirouettes along the lane, I hurled my diversionary projectile skyward and, with two bounds, escaped via a waist-high retaining wall onto the relatively safe, though ghoulish, high street. The presence there of soldiers and of childrens’ armies, if only in ghostly terms, seemed somehow to provide a barrier of relief against whatever it was that drove the blue vans and excited the dying dogs. From beneath an upturned box I pulled one spray can, disrupting the gentle decay of a bed of last autumn’s leaves in order to recover its twin. Listening to the faint chiming of the half-empty cans, I quickly retired to my crow’s nest on the common, knowing full well that the safety it afforded me might momentarily evaporate, or disappear. When the heat-ray was switched on later that day, I knew the end would not last very long. In fact, I almost sighed with relief as the devastation engines detonated their molecular devices throughout the city. Their sheer brilliance set off depth charges in my head that not even my superiors, in their shallow graves, could counter-attack or alleviate. As the last shreds of sky were erased by the bludgeons of radiant heat, I thought to myself that now might be a good time to smoke my last cigar. Pulling the small lead-lined tin from my overcoat pocket, I quickly located the missile in the dark and put its tip between my scabbed lips. As the arc of the heat ray cut its incendiary path to my eyrie, I held my head high, not pausing or even botthering to inhale as the sheer power of the incredible device fused the cigar to my melting face, now a mere shadow on the dirty wall of oblivion.

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