I found myself screaming in the hotel room the day the explosions went off.
There were three explosions, and none of them were anywhere near me. They were near others. Human beings were lying dead in the street saying goodbye to loved ones who shrugged over them, and I was still the only one screaming.
Or maybe I wasn’t the only one screaming. It’s not like it mattered either way. When Lucy took control of people’s emotional center, the only way to resist was through closing up our ears to the noise. If Lucy’s song couldn’t pierce through my 1st Gen R1G5 Headphones, then someone screaming next to me certainly wouldn’t. Shoot, I could barely hear myself. Barely.
That would all change when I could finally get my hands on the 2nd Gen. Alan scribbled hurriedly on a piece of paper the first time he saw someone wearing a 2nd Gen set. It was down on Market Street, which we never walked on during the day, and at a distance. But he was certain that it was a 2nd Gen set. It had the same blue steel color ear cups with two brass antennas sticking up like wings on the back.
The headband had two parts, though, unlike the 1st Gen. The secondary headband went over the top of the skull just like a normal set of headphones we might have worn a few years ago, but the much larger main band looped tightly around the back and connected to the spinal jack. The 1st Gen only had a thin cable going to the jack, which limited the amount of information that could be transferred directly into the nervous system to help the body know how to suppress the sounds.
That’s why it made sense that the 2nd Gen-wearing loner was walking on Market Street, and why I didn’t ignore Alan when he told me about it.
It’s also why I was screaming.
Market Street was a series of craters quickly emptying of the few remaining bodies with enough parts to climb out of the rubble. I had barely heard the sound of the explosions that I so deeply felt vibrate through me, and I didn’t know whether to feel sorrow or rage at the poor souls who felt and heard the explosions but still didn’t care about it. They wouldn’t care unless Lucy told them to.
My cries flew out through the shattered glass window on the third floor of the hotel and swam over the shattered ground below. My throat became gross and low as the scream entered my gut. Snot and sweat and tears dripped over my lips while I gagged on a breath of choking hot air. My voice was a hand reaching deeper into myself.
We had come too close to death this time. Far too close. But that wasn’t why I was screaming.
Alan had already run down to the site of the explosion, trying to help the mindless drones dig themselves out from under some fallen structure, but I still couldn’t move. All that I was good for was hearing myself scream, and then being annoyed at it.
I saw Alan leap out of the hotel’s front door and over a flaming line of metal and rubber, the remnants of a car caught in the second explosion. He shoved a man drunk with Lucy out of the way, and then another, as he made his way to where the Market Street bank had once stood untouched. A beam of sunlight cut through the ash and haze to illuminate a jagged hole in the bank’s thick cement wall. Alan disappeared through it out of some forgotten sense of duty.
I leaned on my hands and shifted the weight off of my knees to my hip. It seemed like I sat there for an hour watching as Alan dragged the bodies of people who didn’t even realize they were in pain out to safety. Each time he came back out with another person in his arms or carried on his shoulder and laid them down as gently as he could on the sidewalk. Each time he looked up at me through the empty window frame to show me that he was alright, then he patted the person down as if he was searching for wounds, and went back inside.
After he went back inside the fifth time to find someone new to “rescue”, though they would never appreciate the act, I caught a familiar steel blue and brass come around the corner. Not the same shape as what Alan and I were wearing, but a 2nd Gen headset. The very same one Alan had seen again just a few days earlier.
The owner was younger than I expected. Probably about 25, which didn’t make sense. They had short hair and a tall, thin build, which, given the state of the world, did make sense. They must have felt the explosions, too, and decided it was worth the risk to head out and try to find some supplies or food in all the chaos.
I wiped the snot off my face while shuffling backwards into the shadows, hoping not to be seen by this stranger. Clearly, they must have had some rich parent and come up from the Oakwood area. There was no way a kid that age could have enough money to buy a 2nd Gen, and he was too skinny to have stolen it off of someone else.
I watched them crouch down beside a burnt out van and look above and around in a skittish way. They weren’t comfortable here, that was clear, and must have known that it was only a matter of time before someone else would show up. Someone with enough resistance to Lucy’s song that they would be dangerous.
Those Feelers, as I called them in my own mind, were more feared than Lucy at this point. We could deal with Lucy, who had no power over us as long as we wore our 1st Gens, and we didn’t care about her bottom feeders who likewise didn’t care about us (or anyone else). Feelers were still stupid with Lucy, but some piece of their mind never quite let go. They still… felt something, and it was never pleasant or amicable. Not to those of us who had had the money to own a headset.
The fancy kid was still bent over as they ran across the street to another hiding spot. They were just a few yards away from the front door of a small corner store, and looking hungry to see what was inside. A person, if you could call them that, stood up from where Alan had sat them down, and slumped over to that same door. On some instinct they knew that inside the store was medicine that might help their pain, but they only barely seemed interested.
Eventually, the walker turned, suddenly disinterested in the store, and continued to slog down the sidewalk past the fancy kid. I could see the empty jack at the base of its skull where a headset used to be plugged in. A headset that had probably been removed during a fight with a Feeler.
The sluggard was no danger at all, but the kid knew better than to risk being seen by the creature that had enough resistance to Lucy to be able to think about medicine for a moment. You never know which of these creatures might try to unplug your jack and tear your headset off, or worse, your head. Fancy kid stayed low and hidden from view. So did I.
Not a moment later, Alan had appeared again in the hole in the wall, this time empty-handed. There were no more poor souls to be saved from that building, it seemed. He looked up towards the sun that peaked through the haze, and then turned looking for me in the dark window.
I lunged forward, cutting myself on a shard of glass that was still firmly embedded in the frame, so that Alan could see me clearly. I pointed, finger dripping with blood and not caring, directly at fancy kid who still had not noticed Alan or myself. Alan crouched slightly with surprise as he followed my finger, hoping not to see a Feeler too close to him. When he found my target I could tell he was grinning, even from so far away.
Five seconds later a gunshot rang out through the air. Then a second one.
Fancy kid slumped over in the street, a bleeding wound in the side of his upper chest, just below the armpit. Alan looked up at me, and I back to him. His arms flew up into the air with a pump of victory, his hand still gripped the pistol. There were two fewer bullets in the chamber.
I would finally get my hands on a 2nd Gen R1G5 headset. I found myself screaming in the hotel room, thrilled that soon I wouldn’t have to hear that sound ever again.