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The World Strikes Midnight: An Eternal Lifeline Prequel Short Story (2)

2046 A.D. - Two Days Before Sebastian Woke Up…


“Well, what do you think of Eden Village?” Dr. Jacobson rushed from one end of his crowded cabin to the next, grabbing bandages and replacing on Sebastian’s forehead some cold rags, whose contents evaporated in the warm summer air. “A lot nicer than Langford, eh?”


Irene’s eyes refused to close. Every waking second was spent keeping track of Sebastian’s movements. Any out-of-place breath, twitch, and snore shook her and sprang her into action. Of course, even though Dr. Jacobson reassured her time and time again of the boy’s wellbeing, she refused to take it as the truth——not after what happened three days ago. “Welp, I know I ain’t felt like this in a long time. Phew, I know I wanted t’see the sun again, but that thing’s puttin’ a worse beating on me than a farmer on an old team of mules. I don’t remember it ever being this hot.” She wiped her brow.


Dr. Jacobson unraveled the bandage on Sebastian’s arm and discarded the bloodied strips of cloth. Irene scooted in, the scrutiny in her eyes sharper than a blade. “Now, don’t get too carried away, y’hear? That boy’s in a lot of pain.”


He let a low laugh out and dropped the final strand into a bucket, inspecting his patient. “Ma’am…” he took his damp cloth and wiped away the blood as a blanket of silence muffled the room.


Irene nearly fell over waiting for his response, but she caught herself and leaned back and almost gave up hope of getting an answer.


Before long, the man turned around and a smile stretched beneath his mask, its exterior adopting the contours on his lips and weary cheeks. “Looks like his arm’s all healed up, if you want to give it a look.”


“Huh?” Irene stumbled over to the bed with widened eyes. She half-thought the man was pulling her leg, but seeing the truth for herself was a whole other story. “Well I’ll be…” she reached out, hesitating before the man nodded for her to continue.


Her wrinkled hand stretched out before it found refuge on Sebastian’s sickly face. He was hot to the touch, but the fact that he was still alive was enough to keep her from worrying too much. That was all she needed to know. “Where was this kind of stuff before the war? It’s incredible.” She leaned back. “Must be pretty hard being a doctor these days, especially without many customers….”


“Well, I’m sure you’ll be glad to know I don’t do it for the money, ma’am. Just to help others. Although…I get you. I started med school about twenty years ago——thought I’d make a difference in this world. But, as the decades raged on, I sat and watched the dreams I fought for burn away. You don’t know how much it means for me to help your boy out. I feel young and hopeful again doing what I love.”


“He ain’t my boy,” mumbled Irene.


Dr. Jacobson turned from Sebastian again and raised an eyebrow. “Hm? Really? What is he, then? Grandson…great grandson?” That last part was whispered and meant for only its speaker, but Irene had always prided herself in her excellent hearing.


“Hey now, I thought you doctors knew better than to make wild guesses about people’s health.” Irene squinted.


“Science is all about wild guesses, haven’t you heard?” After a moment of laughter from Dr. Jacobson, he shook his head and sighed, “You keep that scowl, and those wrinkles’ll catch up to you before you know it.” He grinned and swatted the air. “Ah, don’t take it too personally. We’ve gotta laugh. I always say our humor’s the only thing we can carry with us in life. Everything else is too heavy.”


Irene cracked a smile and settled into her seat, raising her eyebrows and managing a chuckle. “I like you. Everyone else here’s so damn stuck up.” After a few breaths and a moment of closing her eyes, Irene nodded. “He’s my nephew. His papa and mama left him with me b’fore the war got ugly. That brat and me have been partners in crime ever since.”


“Which side of the family?” Dr. Jacobson placed a salvaged stethoscope against Sebastian’s chest and searched it, eventually propping the boy up in a way rougher than standard practice would advise. He seemed to notice Irene’s irritation with that and then shot her a soft glance. “Sorry about that. He’ll be fine. There’s only damage to the arm, but I just wanna check his other vitals while I’m at it.”


“Well, I don’t know much about being a doctor, but I’d say it’s vital to keep him alive, eh? So, go easy on him, will ya?” Irene messed with her thumbs and sunk into her chair, keeping her back from the window. After Dr. Jacobson nodded at her, she inhaled. “His papa was my brother. Same name, too, but I called him Bash.”


“Any other family?”


“No one alive, unfortunately. My papa and mama died long ago——and Sebastian’s mama…well I can just guess she’s dead, too. Poor woman. I always liked her.”


“Can’t say I know where my folks are, either. Sorry to hear all that, ma’am. You’re braver than me. I’d be tearing up by now…talking about family.”


“Ain’t no use crying about it now,” said Irene. “Just gotta smile.”


“Good idea. I’ll have to keep that in mind.” Dr. Jacobson winked and put his instruments to the side, finally taking a moment to rest his tired eyes. “Just how many Sebastians in your family are there, anyway? Surely there can’t be any more? I heard some families are pretty dead-set on passing a name down, though.” The doctor smirked and let out a puff of air.


“You say that as a joke, you fool, but yes, there’s more,” Irene beamed. “It’s a name we Lindloffs are proud of. For as long as I can remember, that’s what I’ve known. My papa, my grandpa, his daddy, and his…and so on——all Sebastians.”


“How on earth do you tell ‘em apart?” Dr. Jacobson’s eyes shot open and then settled as a tear pushed its way out of Irene’s resting eyelids. “Hmm…” he murmured just for himself to hear. “No use crying, eh?” With a renewed smile, he pressed on. “What was it like for you before the war, anyway? You seem like someone who’s lived one hell of a life.”


What, ‘cause I’m old?” Irene’s brows creased and then eased as she managed a chuckle. “It’s been a good life, for the most part. Can’t say I’d complain. We’re the last generation who got to see the world in all its beauty, after all.” She rested a few moments and picked back up, “You really wanna hear about my life?”


“If it’s not too much a pain. You go on ahead, and I’ll make some tea. You don’t mind that, do you?” Dr. Jacobson dragged himself to one of his crowded counters and pushed a bunch of the clutter to the side, a few of the items crashing into the already messy floor.

“As long as it ain’t radioactive or nothin’. I thought I heard a rumor about you doctors. Heard y’all are up to no good,” said Irene.


The man let out a broken laugh and went about filling his tea pot. “Nah, don’t you worry. I won’t do anything to the tea. It’s only the coffee that’s like that.”


After a shared laugh, Irene nodded. “Alright, then, let me get to tellin’ you that story. Gosh…has it already been fifty years? Well, anyway, it might take me a bit to get everything in order.


“Back when I was young——younger than that one——” she pointed at Sebastian. “…my brother and I were on our own. Papa had died from a heart disease when we were kids, and my mama died giving birth to me. Bash and I had to run and hide so we didn’t get caught or separated. He used to be so happy and…well, annoying, but y’know, in a brother way, but something changed with him when Papa left us.”


***


2000 A.D. - 46 years ago


The Sun blanketed the stones below, spreading its warmth across the greyed field. A breeze carried dead leaves all about, casting them out of sight. With every step the two took, an infinitely loud crunch broke through nature’s deafening hums.


“C’mon, now, hurry up and say goodbye,” Sebastian stretched, keeping his eyes on the outskirts of the cemetery. “Looks like some people are pouring in, and I ain’t in a social mood.”


“Oh, hush up, Bash. They’re here for the same reason we are. They ain’t gonna bother you, and we ain’t gonna bother them. Quit being a baby and say hi to papa with me.”


Sebastian folded his arms and kept his eyes far off, turning his shoulders away from his sister. “I hate when other people get here. It feels like they’re watching me.” He shivered.

Irene pulled Sebastian’s arm and toppled him over until he was right next to a headstone marked, ‘Sebastian V. Lindloff - July 23rd, 1960—November 8th, 1999’. “They ain’t looking at you, you dummy. Heck, they wouldn’t be looking at you if you were buried here with the biggest darn headstone in the world. They’re looking for their family, and that’s all…just like we are.”


“Hey, is that a threat?” Sebastian rubbed his elbow and shot her a glance.


“Just hush up and say hi to papa,” Irene pulled out a fresh bouquet of flowers and placed them alongside the headstone with a satisfied smile. “C’mon, now. Give him a hug and tell him much you’ve missed him.” Irene draped her arms over the stone and rested there for a few awkward moments as Sebastian’s eyes tried to assess his surroundings.


“Irene…this is embarrassing…” he shook her back, but she didn’t budge. “Ireneee…they’re looking. Cut it out!” He whispered, but the girl kept on. “Irene——”


His hand retracted as he heard a few sniffles coming from the girl grew into louder ones. The girl’s back shook, and her arms were losing their grip on the stone’s base. “What’re we gonna do now, Bash? I don’t wanna…get taken away. Papa said we wouldn’t get separated——he said we’d always be together. All three of us.”


Sebastian felt his cheeks grow red as his eyes began to burn. His throat grew heavy, as if he were swallowing little cotton balls without any water. “Irene…” he froze, his hands shaking. “Th-they ain’t gonna go after us.”


“How do you know?” Said Irene in between heaves.


“Because if they do, I’ll kill ‘em,” Sebastian murmured. “If they so much as lay a hand on you, I’ll fuckin’ kill——”


Irene’s hand whipped across and swept the sureness off Sebastian’s hardened face. His eyes widened, and after that, all the words he could produce were incoherent whispers. Rubbing his face, he finally snapped back into reality. “What the hell was that for?”


Irene’s reddened eyes glared back at Sebastian, cutting though any facade he could produce. Dried trails of tears where dust collected on the girl’s face etched their way down her cheeks, running away from the fury burning in her eyes. “Take that back! Take it back, now!”


“Huh?” Sebastian murmured, feeling his chest grow heavy. “Irene——”


Irene leapt toward Sebastian and wrapped her arms around him, burying her face into his shoulder. “Take it back, Bash! You ain’t gonna kill no one! ‘Cause…‘cause if you do, we really won’t be able to see each other ever again. Do you want that, you big dummy?”

The two spent the next few moments in silence.


“Alright…” Sebastian whispered with a short laugh. That laugh grew until the other people in the cemetery were sure to have heard him. Irene’s eyes cut at him, and Sebastian went on. “I promise I won’t kill no one. As long as you promise not to hit me no more! ‘Cause, dammit, that hurt!” Sebastian rubbed his cheek. “I was joking anyhow…. I’m gonna be eighteen in two and a half years. When it gets to that time, I can take care of ya without them getting involved. We won’t have to run no more.”


“Really? You promise?” Irene whispered.


“I promise,” said Sebastian.


***


“Eventually, though, things got better when Bash turned eighteen. We didn’t have to hide no more.


“Not much happened between that and about seven years ago,” Irene turned to Dr. Jacobson. “When Bash turned eighteen, he took legal custody over me. We went back to papa’s place. It was a damn wreck——all run-down and pitiful. There were rats crawling around, and there weren’t nothing worth salvaging. Still makes me sick thinking no one thought to take care of that place.”


“Sounds like a rough couple of years you had there. I’m terribly sorry,” Dr. Jacobson sipped his tea, which prompted Irene to do the same.


Irene picked up her mug and flinched after a gulp of her drink. “Yeah, change ‘rough couple of years’ to decades, and you’d be spot on. We managed, barely, but we were never too miserable to go on. We always knew how to make life worth it, and that’s all I really needed.


“But, life ain’t gonna stay the same for no one, and we weren’t an exception to that.”


***


2039 A.D. - 7 Years Before Eden


“As I stand here right now, I am reporting from one of the largest combat sites in the world. If you listen closely, you can hear the continuous shelling out in the distance. This is not a place you want to be. It is unfortunate that I have to say this, but it is looking like this will be the bloodiest battle in modern human history. We are receiving historic numbers of casualties, and it appears we’ve only started——”


The TV went black.


“Hey, what’d you do that for?” Irene glanced at her brother, who stumbled from the TV to his recliner.


“You really wanna hear that shit?” Sebastian shook and took another swig of his whisky, slurring every word. “It ain’t got nothing to do with us. Ain’t no use worrying over spilled milk, anyhow.”


“You mean spilled blood?” Irene snatched the remote and turned it back on, her eyes once again glued to the horrors on the screen.


“Milk, blood——it’s the same thing to those fuckers playing their pawns. Ten men die, an’ they can send in twenty more to replace ‘em. Nothin’ new,” Sebastian murmured.


“What if it gets worse and——y’know, comes to us?” Said Irene. “What’ll you do then, y’old drunkard?”


Sebastian let out a chilling chuckle and set his bottle to the side, missing the table and spilling his drink onto the carpet. “Shit…I’ll tell ya’ what I’d do. That would be nothin’. If they want my dead body, they can have it. Hell, they can take it.”


“So you’d do nothin’? Is that what I’m hearing? Not even for yer son…or yer wife?” Irene grabbed Sebastian’s beer bottle and threw it in the trash, ignoring her brother’s attempts to salvage the last few drops.


“I’m as good as dead to ‘em, anyway,” said Sebastian. “They’ve been one year strong without me——why not…”——he paused and counted for a few moments as his words slurred on and tried to gain traction——“…er, why not one more?”


Irene glared back at her brother and shook her head. All those years ago, he was the one who looked after her. Now, he was just a shell of his old self.


“Ain’t no use thinking ‘bout that now, I reckon,” Irene whispered and walked past her brother, who had fallen asleep moments after Irene threw his bottle of whiskey away.

Several hours passed, the Sun had set, and Irene crept into the living room after a short nap. The TV’s screensaver was bouncing about its edges, gently illuminating the still and silent room. Irene heard a dribble in the kitchen and shook her head. “Must’ve left the sink running, y’old fool.”


Sebastian was sprawled out about the recliner and snoring almost loudly enough to drown out the sink’s splatting of water. It had been a long time since she’d seen him sober, and no matter how much she tried, she could never find him sane enough to have an actual talk with him. Temptation brewed within her, and that temptation took lead, causing her to stretch her arm out and shake Sebastian’s shoulder.


“Bash, wake up,” she whispered, soon adding a bit more force to her grasp. “Bash, dammit, wake up!”


Just as Irene did that, Sebastian jerked awake, bolting up from his chair and grabbing Irene’s arm with almost enough force to pull it out of place.


Irene seized up and tried to escape the man’s grasp, but he remained steadfast, shouting a few unintelligible obscenities into her reclining face. Buckling form terror, Irene fell back and somehow slipped out of Sebastian’s hands, hitting the ground with bone-rattling force.


Sebastian collapsed toward Irene and glared at her, his face drenched in sweat and eyes glazed over with an almost inhuman film. His hair was all over the place, tufts stretching for the heavens and even the hell through which he was putting Irene. His breaths were heavy, broken, and almost impossible, and with every heave, his body trembled.

After his near-attack on his sister, Sebastian hesitated and squinted, leaning in a bit farther until his unfocused eyes closed in on his target. “Irene?”


“Bash…what the hell’s gotten into you?” Irene backed away, massaging her arm.

Sebastian trembled, looking down at his hand and then back to his sister. He assessed the terror enlacing her eyes and then gulped, feeling this heart sink into the depths of his stomach. “I…I don’t know what just happened. Irene…what the hell’s wrong with me?” His eyes burned with tears that had not been shed in ages, and as he tried to lean back, his body locked up and stopped him. “I thought it’d get better by now.”


“What’d get better, Bash? What? You ain’t making no sense….”


Sebastian’s eyes zeroed in on Irene again, and although he was seeing two of the woman, he made an effort to keep them trained on her. Rather than the predatory and almost inhuman way he was watching her before, this time it was fear-filled. His breathing relaxed a bit, but his body was still drenched in sweat, and despite all he did to relax himself, his arms shook more than ever.


“I wasn’t in my right mind earlier. I lied about the news, too,” Sebastian pressed his face into his crossed arms. “Something terrible’s gonna happen. We ain’t gonna be around here much longer.”


“Whaddaya mean?” Irene grasped her brother’s shoulder just before retracting her hand.


“About a year ago, I’d been posted up in the Langford Research Facility. I was one of their chief researchers, y’know? The military had given me a few new assignments to research. Was doing my daily job and such——this time on the night watch, although I’m too old for that shit. Dreadful thing t’do in the winter. I’d much rather been inside with my buddies crunching numbers than that shit, but I had no choice. Everyone had to do it once.” He let out a low laugh and calmed down when he saw that what he said barely convinced a smirk to form on Irene’s worried face. “Right, anyway, it was probably ‘bout 0200 hours——that’s two o’clock in the morning to you——”


“Aw hell, Bash, I know what it means, you dummy. C’mon now, what happened?” Irene searched Sebastian’s face in hopes that she would find a glint of light in it, but all that reflected back were a pair of dull eyes.


“S-something rustled in the distance. Thought it was lack of sleep or something, but I knew I’d have my ass chewed off if I didn’t check it out, so I started gettin’ ready. I was a bit sluggish gettin’ to my senses, and before I knew it, the thing came up closer.”


“What thing?” Irene’s head snapped toward Sebastian after almost sinking into the sea of carpet beneath her. “Was it a mountain lion? Wolf? …’possum?”


“Irene, I ain’t kiddin’ here. And it weren’t no damn ‘possum, either——no ‘possum I’d ever seen. It was massive. Its creeping turned into crawling and then into runnin’. Before I knew it, the damn thing crashed through the wall, and that was it. I heard yelling, screaming, crunching, crashing…splatting——mind you, I ain’t never seen combat before this. I was terrified. The shooting started, and though I couldn’t make it all out, I heard some people yellin’ that their guns wouldn’t work…terrifyingly enough. ‘Cause of that, the thing just barreled through ‘em.


“I started feeling a horrible pressure building up around me. My legs couldn’t take it, and I fell over to the ground. I started throwing up, and soon after, it felt like someone was stabbing my head over and over.” Sebastian stopped, realizing just then that he was repeating the same motions he had been describing, and fell backward, staring at the ceiling. “I woke up the next day, and everything had been destroyed. I was mostly unharmed——knew the thing didn’t attack me, thank the Lord. But that didn’t change nothin’. I was still lying in a hospital bed, and no one would tell me nothin’. But, you know me. I asked around for a few weeks and finally pieced together what happened.”

Irene moved toward her brother, helping him after he struggled to sit up. “Well, what was it?”


“It was something we were researching for the army——a Hellhound. We designed ‘em to be invulnerable to gunshots and high velocity weapons…but some of ‘em in the base didn’t know that. We were gonna use it as a weapon for future wars, but we lost control of them and hat to put them down. And the worst part is that we don’t know where the plans went. Hell, we don’t even know how to stop them——only the higher-ups do. They silenced us and sent us home. Had no use for us after that.


“And worst of all…” Sebastian stopped and glared at Irene, weakly holding onto her shoulders, “…I think they’re being used now. I ain’t completely sure, but when we were watching the news earlier, I heard a familiar noise behind that anchor on the screen. I was too damn drunk to think anything of it then, but now…it’s so clear.”


“You can’t be serious,” said Irene with an incredulous grin. “Hellhounds? Ain’t that a bit fictitious?”


“Now, I understand where you’re coming from, but trust me. I’m telling the truth. There’s a lot of things from fiction that aren’t as fictitious as you’d think,” Sebastian got to his feet and helped Irene up, reassuring her of his wellbeing.


“What else did you do?” Asked Irene. Before long, she raised her voice and grabbed Sebastian’s arm after the man’s stoic stance remained unbroken by her pressure. “What else, dammit?”


“It’s some technology…no, substance. We don’t really know what it is. All we know is that it reacts really well to radioactive materials and other dangerous shit like you ain’t never seen before…and it’s what those hellhounds were made with. Some have been able to manipulate it, but only up to a certain point. Dammit, it was all new to us——we hardly had any time to know what it was…let alone find out how to stop it. They even covered that up.”


“Who’s they?” Irene shouted.


“Contractors…corporations…militias. D.C.’s been outsourcing a lot of our research crew and infantry this past decade. Not sure why, and I didn’t ask why, either. I wish I did, but I don’t reckon I’d have gotten a straight answer out of ‘em. Even some higher-ups didn’t know what the deal was. The only thing I figured out for sure was the name, Re.Li.C.——Revitalization of Lifeline Corporation. Couldn’t tell you what that means, but it sounds important. I’ve tried to do some research on it, but nothing’s popped up. Nothing registered. But, it wasn’t like I could demand them for information. They instructed us to research without question, and I had to listen.”


“What’d you do?” Irene whispered. “What else did they tell you to research?”

Sebastian’s face suddenly grew pale as his frame grew weak. It had been happening for a while, but he finally gave in. “I-I can’t say,”


“Bash, there ain’t no one here stopping you from saying it. I won’t tell a soul——I swear on——I swear on Papa’s grave!”


“It ain’t that,” said Sebastian. “I just can’t say it. Something in me won’t let me talk about it. When I try to remember, it hurts, and I lose myself. H-here, can we just change the subject for a bit, please? I’m feeling sick. I’ll tell ya more in the morn’.”


“Um, yeah,” Irene reached out to assist her brother, but he had already gotten too far from her and plopped down on his recliner. “You want the TV on, Bash?”


She took Sebastian’s silent nod and went with it, pressing the worn-out power button on the remote. A deafening noise popped up on the screen and caused Irene to jump.


“The situation seems to be getting worse. We were instructed to take cover in this old metro station, and as I speak, thousands are engaged in combat outside. Gah——” The man on the TV stopped, pressing his hands against his temples. He was the same one who had been on the news hours ago. This time, he was more roughed up and appeared to be underground. His shirt was caked with dirt and blood, his hair matted with the same stuff. Behind him was a blackness so rich that even the light from the camera crew could not penetrate its veil.


“Is something the matter?” The screen changed to a man and woman in a studio watching their colleague with great intensity. “Frasier, is everything all right with you?”


Frasier pressed on and faced the camera again, this time looking more pale than before. “I’m sorry about that. I got a sudden headache. I’ll be fine. Now, as we go through this station——huh? What’s that?” Irene saw him face his crew behind the camera and make a few under-the-breath comments.


He and his crew spoke for about half a minute as the two news pundits in the studio exchanged looks. They were tongue-tied, and although their patience seemed to last for a while, even they were inclined to intervene. “Frasier,” the woman interrupted, “While you all get the situation under control, we’re going to switch off of you for a while. We understand these are hard times out there, so we’ll give you all the time you need. Just give us a call when you want to get back on——”


“Agh! What the fuck——?” A loud grumble tore through the scene as several people ran away from the camera. Blood splatted against the torn-up ground behind them, and a shadow began to eclipse the remaining light in the station. Before Irene could register it, that shadow bolted past the camera and eviscerated the people running away, only before the footage was cut and brought back to the pundits.


Their eyes reflected the same fear Irene was feeling. They could not blink, talk, or even move.


Irene, reflecting the same terror the pundits were wearing, almost got lost in a trance, but that was only before Sebastian interjected.


“Oh my God.”

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