As The Sun Rises
The sun rose hours ago. Yet, the daunting, concrete structures seem endless in the midday fog. They swallow him, turn after turn. A neverending trap of ugliness.
He kicks at the ground, high-soled white sneakers scuffing on the worn asphalt. His muscles ache, but it’s not going to slow him down; he’s determined to catch the enemy.
His heart pounds in his chest as he breathes. In. Out.
A puff of white air accompanies his breath. It’s quickly thrown behind him, like water parting a ship. Or even low-drifting clouds whipping past the flying air turbines outside the Capital. They’re all far away from a place like this. A place reminiscent of the abandoned old world.
In front of him, the fog gives way to a concrete wall, almost double his height. A glance around confirms his suspicions – this route is a dead-end.
In his next exhale, a growl escapes his throat. He wasn’t paying attention to his map. He doesn’t even need to slow down to check it; it floats in the right-hand corner of his vision. A hologram.
Yet he races forward, completely without fear, as the wall rapidly approaches him.
In a second, it’s right in front of him. He throws a foot forward and kicks at the wall. His ankle flexes, gripping his boot tightly, and his boot grips the wall in turn. This one simple kick is enough to alter his course.
He explodes upward. As he throws his hands to the sky, he does the same with his eyes.
The sky’s dark. Even in the early afternoon, the cloud coverage is immense. Somewhere up there, a drone hovers, providing him real-time coverage of all the data on his map.
His head passes the top of the wall and he can see beyond – the same eerie jungle of concrete and overgrown plants.
It’s just like people say: when humanity leaves, it’s not long before nature reclaims its place.
He plants both his hands firmly on the wall. His arm muscles contract as he propels himself up and over in one, smooth motion. He makes sure to bring in his knees so they don’t catch the wall. Like a frog, as his brother had taught him.
The thought makes him chuckle, but there’s no time for his mind to drift again. He must focus.
He begins to lose momentum and falls towards the ground on the other side. As his speed increases, he feels a rush of adrenaline course through his body. He reaches out to the asphalt with both feet.
His shoes absorb at least some of the impact as the balls of his feet connect with the hard ground. Immediately, he bends his knees in front of him and lets his torso sink towards his legs. His shoulder makes contact with the ground next as he rolls diagonally across his back.
Success. He keeps his knees bent and weight low as he rises.
“Hugo, hold the pressure on his left. I think I know how to take him.” A voice, crystal clear, sparks to life in Hugo’s right ear.
The voice of his brother, Eugene, transmitted to an earpiece in his right ear.
Hugo takes another glance at his map. To the right of Hugo’s position, Eugene’s position is visible as a blue dot. Somewhere among the concrete and overgrown vegetation, he’s racing like Hugo. They turn corners, guessing what they think might be the quickest route to their enemy, and jump obstacles in their path.
“Keep the pressure on his right,” Hugo replies between sharp breaths. He didn’t press a button, but he’s certain his earpiece picked up his voice. Wind and breath filter technologies were perfected years ago. “We’ll see how long he can keep up the pace.”
Next to the map, a digital timer counts down. 4:48, 4:47, 4:46… It’s the time the enemy has left to reach his target. Without Hugo and Eugene there to stop him, it’d be a cinch.
Hugo sprints down a concrete ramp, places a hand on the handrail to his left. For the fraction of a moment it’s on there, the metal chills his hand. At speed, he swings his legs up and over the side. It’s a bit of a drop down, but he manages to land it with one foot.
The red dot flitters on Hugo’s map. The dot of the enemy. A dead-end obscures the path he’d planned to take. So instead, he has to backtrack right by Hugo. And Hugo can catch him.
“New plan.” Hugo smirks in eagerness. “Get over here and help me fight him.”
“Don’t even think about it.” Eugune’s deadpan expression comes across in his voice.
Yet the red dot turns a corner ahead of Hugo, almost asking to be intercepted. It has nowhere else to go but to converge with Hugo’s dot.
At the same time, a boy with bleached hair comes into vision. He’s Hugo’s age, kicking at the ground in the same chunky white sneakers.
The boy tries to dart past Hugo, but Hugo won’t let him. He closes the gap between them and throws an open-handed strike at the boy’s neck.
The boy has no choice but to spin around and block it with his arm middair. His momentum keeps him moving, but he manages to regain enough control to land on both feet. Though, with an arm on the ground for support. His chest heaves in his tight-fitting gray clothing.
To make sure he doesn’t have time to escape, Hugo rushes forwards and strikes again. Then, they engage in a conversation of fluid blows, using an identical fighting style of soft but indecipherable strength. They’re evenly matched.
Almost. The boy sees an opening and snickers for a brief moment. He spins a complete 360 degrees in the air.
Hugo sees his error but it’s too late. The boy’s boot lands square in his chest, and he’s thrown far away onto his back from the tremendous force.
By the time he clambers up, the boy is nowhere to be seen. The only sign he hasn’t vanished into thin air is the red dot on Hugo’s map, speeding quickly away.
But something else on his map catches Hugo’s attention – it looks like an error, obscuring a fraction of the left of his map.
Before he has time to think about it, the red dot swings to the left. Hugo snaps into action, sprinting to the left as well. He has to remain flanking the left-hand side of the enemy if they’ll end up trapping him.
“Hope that was worth it,” Eugene says, judgment thick in his voice.
“If you caught up, it would’ve been.”
“Always have to take care of things yourself, don’t you?”
Hugo huffs, irritated at Eugene’s stab. He makes several turns, veering to the left.
The vegetation on the ground becomes harder to tread. On the walls of buildings, plants and vines weave into lattices with increased insistence.
The error obscuring his map gets larger and larger, creeping its way toward Hugo’s position. He can see now it’s not replacing the buildings with nothing, but rather with a wild holographic mess.
The buildings on his left give way to a dense overgrowth. A forest, creeping right up to the outskirts of the concrete structures.
To the side of the road ahead of him, a structure becomes visible on the map. It’s different from the other buildings.
The red dot darts back to the right.
To Hugo’s right, a street leads back into the dense suburbia. It’s the route he should take to stay close to the enemy. But he lets his curiosity get the better of him.
His map details the structure a hundred meters ahead. As he rushes towards it, he starts to hear a high-pitched noise. Like the kind of faint buzzing that’s audible when everything is completely silent.
It’s probably his ears playing tricks on him; there’s no electricity this far from civilization.
Interrupting his thoughts, something yanks his leg out from under him. He stumbles to regain his balance, then looks back to see a tree root, protruding out of the asphalt. With a scowl, he turns back and continues running.
It’s like the world’s getting him back because of his thoughts on untamed nature. On nature that doesn’t know its place. The people in the ecovillages and agricultural farms might tell him that, anyway.
As he reaches the structure, there’s no mistaking the electrical ringing in his ears. He gets a visual of the entrance. Several concrete steps down into the ground lead to a metal door. To the side of a door is an ID scanner.
The air is dead-still in the presence of the low fog.
Hugo takes a step down towards the entrance. Then another, and another, until he’s reaching for the handle before he can stop himself. He grips the cold metal handle and yanks it down. He pushes and pulls, but the door doesn’t budge. Of course, it’s locked.
“Hugo, why’ve you stopped? You’ll lose him.” Eugene’s voice in his ear startles him.
Hugo shakes his head once. As if shaking off any curiosity he has about this distraction. He trods back up the concrete steps. “Sorry. Had to take a break.”
He checks his map before breaking into a run back into the concrete jungle, careful not to trip over any more vegetation.
“A break?” Eugene scoffs. “He’s almost at the target. I’ll try to delay him a bit, but you better get back here.”
“Okay, I’m coming.”
“Show us how quick you are, speed demon.”
Hugo can hear Eugene grin as he says that. It’s not a dig, but a challenge. He knows Hugo’s capable when it comes to speed, after all.
Though, there’s a slight problem – Hugo’s map details many dead-ends in this area, a lot of which he knows he won’t be able to jump over. So he turns his vision to the rooftops.
He darts into a cramped alleyway behind an abandoned apartment building. How people used to live so bunched together, Hugo will always wonder. He exits out into a large crossroad and glances up at the rooftops of the buildings in the direction of his enemy.
Excellent. No jumps Hugo won’t be able to manage. It’s just a matter of getting up there.
He spots an entry to one of the buildings – a window without a pane of glass. With both hands, he grabs the top of the window frame, lifts his legs up, and throws them inside in a single motion. As his torso swings through, the pressure on the window frame causes it to snap off.
Hugo stumbles on the landing, a piece of wood now tightly gripped in his hands. In disdain, he tosses it to the side and takes in his surroundings.
Even the building’s interior is made of concrete. There are various decorations and ornaments from the old world, dusty and abandoned. Seemingly, they were used to hide the ugliness of the place. Make it feel more like a home.
Hugo spots the stairs immediately after and makes a dash for the top floor. Luckily, the door to the roof is unlocked. He leaps over plants as he exits to an overgrown rooftop garden. He builds up speed.
By the time he’s at the edge of the rooftop, he’s already pushed off the ground with his dominant foot. Throwing his arms forward, he uses his momentum to land on the rooftop of the next building.
Hugo jumps from one rooftop to the next, keeping a close eye on the red dot on his map. He’s gaining quickly, but tiring at a rapid pace.
It seems like not all the rooftops were used for gardening purposes. In fact, most of them appear brutish and purposeless. Simply flat, wasted surfaces.
“Great to see you’re back in the game.” Eugene’s voice echoes in Hugo’s ear again, this time with a touch of sarcasm. “Here’s the plan. There’s a car park up ahead surrounded by walls on all sides. We can force him into it and flank him together. He won’t be able to escape.”
But, by traveling on rooftops, Hugo’s able to gain on the enemy much quicker. The gap between his dot and the enemy’s drastically falls as the enemy navigates around dead-ends and man-made obstacles.
“Buddy?” Eugene warns. “You’re getting a bit too close.”
Hugo ignores him. As he lands on the roof of the next building, the dots seem to almost merge. He looks to his side and spots the blonde-haired boy running on ground level.
This is it. Hugo’s got him.
The buildings on this side of the old world are single-storey. A rarity in this abandoned city. But it’s perfect for what he’s about to do.
With a determined grunt, Hugo launches himself off the roof of the building.
The boy must hear him; he spins around to face Hugo as he falls in his direction. He dodges to the side, leaving Hugo to fall on the hard asphalt.
Hugo feels it in the balls of his feet first. Then, the sheer force of the ground making contact with him makes his entire body shudder. It’s the kind of shudder he sometimes feels from the skybus exoskeleton when it lands too hard.
But Hugo doesn’t exactly have the durability of a bus’s metal frame. As he rolls onto his shoulder, he feels a tremendous, dull pain spread across his back. He manages to rise, but clutches his shoulder in agony.
“Don’t tell me you did what I think you just did.” Eugene’s displeased inflections transmit flawlessly through Hugo’s earpiece.
“Yep.” Hugo had to respond eventually.
He takes off in the direction of the red dot, but already knows they’ve lost. The enemy’s seconds away from reaching his target. 0:34, 0:33, 0:32… And they’ve got no hope in catching him.
The red dot stops in a location where the buildings briefly fall away. He sits on the concrete ground in front of a shrine of rotting wood.
The shrine’s the size of a small house, looking oddly misplaced amongst its concrete surroundings. Hugo knows that some people living in the ecovillages would just about die if they saw the location of it. And the state of it – rotting, uncared for.
The boy in front of the shrine props himself up with his hands behind his back, panting heavily. He turns to face Hugo and reaches out his arm, a grin spreading across his face.
Hugo grabs the boy’s hand and pulls him up. He briefly catches a holographic glimmer in the air in front of the boy’s face – their earpieces project in a way only the user can observe.
The boy, Noah, gestures to the shrine behind him, puffing out his chest lightly. Clearly impressed with himself for beating them. “I won.”
“You did.” Hugo won’t let it get to him. “First time for everything.”
“Hey!” Noah nudges him hard, and they share a laugh.
Hugo winces from the laughter, reaching for his shoulder.
Noah notices, looking to him in empathy. But before Noah can say anything, Hugo’s good shoulder is shoved. With force. So forcefully he almost gets whiplash.
Hugo spins to face the perpetrator.
Eugene’s slightly taller than Hugo and Noah. He has Hugo’s dark hair, but it’s a bit shorter and thicker. He spreads his shoulders and beefs up his chest, looking Hugo dead in the eyes.
“What the hell was that?” he says. “We could’ve had him.”
“With your plan?”
“It was barely a plan.” Hugo spots Eugene’s ID tag hanging from his pants. “I didn’t know the military took in idiots.”
“Hey!” A glint of anger flashes in Eugene’s eyes. He shoots forward and grabs Hugo’s collar.
Hugo punches Eugene in the stomach and tackles him to the ground. They roll around on the concrete, throwing heavy punches and trying to gain the upper hand.
“What am I gonna do with the both of you…” Noah stands a few feet away, holding an open hand to his head in false embarrassment.
The sound of Noah’s voice prompts them to stop, separate from each other, and stand to regain their composure.
“Careful,” Eugene warns. “You let Hugo do anything stupid next round and you’ll be in the firing line too.”
“Alright, alright.” Noah changes the topic. “So the teams on the way back…”
Hugo slips his brother’s ID tag into his back pocket, shooting him a mean look. “How about Eugene’s our enemy?”
“Works for me. But I’ll win, like always.” Eugene stands, not noticing Hugo’s action. He taps a couple of times on his earpiece.
The color of the dots change on Hugo’s holographic map and the timer resets.
“This time, don’t risk injuring yourself.” Eugene glares sternly at Hugo. “Or injuring Noah. I’m so close to scrapping this run back and making you return your earpieces to me now.”
Hugo rolls his eyes. “Yes, yes, I’ll be careful.”
“I’m serious. You can’t keep doing things like this.” Eugene turns his back on Hugo. He strolls towards the shrine. “As always, the new target is the shrine on the opposite end of this dreadful place.”
And, as if right on cue, the sky breaks free of its contained, depressive atmosphere. It dampens the concrete structures of an abandoned way of life and all those who bear to traverse humanity’s untactful past.
Eugene will win this next round. After all, Noah can’t beat Eugene all by himself.