A young woman returns home after the Third Eradication. Let the magic begin.

She looked across the lake at sculptures morphed from the ruins of old steel mills. Hammond, Indiana, she thought. That used to be Hammond.

Her dad had taken her fishing here as a child. Wolf Lake had its charms during her childhood despite being in the middle of old industrial parks. The bluegill always looked fat and happy, even as they flopped on the pavement with hooks in their mouths.

Now towers were rising up on the other side of the lake where Hammond used to be; long thin structures not wide enough for housing or offices, tapering into the sky like immense foils from a fencing match among giants. She couldn’t imagine what their purpose was.

She needed this fresh air. She had spent the last days in caves made from warehouses crushed by time and abandonment, the halls of forgotten factories split apart by years of winter storms, underground cities filled with denizens too sick to crawl out of tunnels once used to carry cable and electric current to a formerly vibrant city.

Photo by Jamison Riley on Unsplash

These days the remaining city was an impenetrable fortress of gleaming spires and mansions populated and worked by those who had survived The Triage.

The Triage and the city had no use for her, a Serb-Biafran from Hegewisch with a useless degree in creative writing issued by Columbia College, which no longer existed.

The images and video streams of wildly protesting crowds lingering in her memory sometimes helped heal her soul as she crawled and limped through the wreckage, knowing that so many fought against what at the time did not seem like such impossible odds.

She breathed deeply, loving the fresh air that filled her lungs, craving more, and knowing that the ruins for the next several miles would stink savagely of rust, chemical spills, and poison.

She steeled herself, determined to return to her home on South Baltimore Avenue. She hadn’t been there since the Eradication. How long now? Six months? She had long ago lost her sense of time and counting of days.

She maneuvered away from the shores of Wolf Lake into the decrepit forest of broken industry.

She negotiated fallen masonry, massive tubes from chemical plants long in slumber, wild strands of rebar jutting from concrete. Much of the destruction was new, a final entry in the journal of a fallen civilization.

Sometimes she would see large drones leveling building remnants. She’d see them in the sky and on the ground, assuming they were assigned to that one purpose.

Her brown leather gloves, covering little more than her palms now after all this time, offered her fingers little protection.

Her blue jeans, ripped at the knees, helped some with the climbing and crawling. The air was too warm and humid for anything more than a t-shirt. The backpack strapped over her shoulders and her sweater’s sleeves wrapped around her waist made her sweat uncomfortably.

She considered removing her t-shirt, knowing that any man she encountered would invariably be an animal not provoked by a lack of a shirt any more than the shirt itself, but habit prevented the thought from going any further. She had long ago snipped most of her hair to reduce the chances of her being identified immediately over a long distance as a woman.

She trudged on.

When she reached her home, it was gone. Every home had been bulldozed. There were mountains of stone and rubble where the streets used to be.

She thought about the Hegewisch branch library. She had spent hours at a time there as a little girl. It was just down the street. But there was no street. Was she lost?

As she emerged from a pile of broken metal she saw four hooded men carrying long weapons; bars, baseball bats, a chain of some kind. She hoped she wasn’t seen as she darted behind a jagged stand of bricks that had at one time helped shape a home.

But it was too late. She could hear them approach, sounding like primates on a hunt for meat, cursing and swearing and emitting guttural snarls and laughs. “Hey baby,” one of them was saying in an impish voice. “C’mere honey let me have some of what you got.”

She tried to run but tripped, and the end of the leg on her jeans became stuck on shorn metal. She could see a gash of blood emerge through a separate rip in her jeans and found herself amazed at how quickly the damage had taken hold.

The four men approached her, one swinging his chain in a pitiful show of intimidation, the other holding a piece of rebar in his hand and slapping it against his palm in what he was probably sure was a show of force that would force her to whimper and cringe.

They couldn’t know that she had been in this movie before.

When it first happened, she had been blindsided and unaware of her ability. She had simply prayed, even though she was not a person who ever prayed. She had been stripped of options though, on that day, having been approached by a man with a gun and a face full of grimacing contempt.

She had closed her eyes and willed that he go away, and a steel drum full of some horrible acid had fallen on him and eaten him away instantly, in the amount of time she could stand up, having fallen that time, too.

The same thing had happened two other times before this. But each time it was just one or two men. Not four.

And what was it, exactly, that had saved her? Was it ability? Like in some comic book movie? Or was it something else? When she tried to conjure up something in order to move it, nothing would ever happen. When she tried to levitate something, the universe simply laughed with mocking quiet.

If only, she had thought a dozen times when faced with an obstacle she wanted to move in order to get somewhere.

No, this ability seemed to be unique to situations such as this.

She never knew what to pray for, other than safety from the men, who were lesser beings than hounds, chasing her. Hounds, she thought, laughing at herself. The second and third men, together, had been attacked by a pack of wild dogs.

The fourth man had simply seized up as if from a heart attack.

She thought of all these things as the leering men approached.

I don’t know how to do this, she thought, frightened by the oncoming malice.

But she did. Because at the very instant she prayed for them to leave her alone, they began to argue and scream at one another. The man with the chain whipped it around and struck the man with the rebar, while the other two clobbered each of the two combatants from behind.

It was as if they had lost their minds like in one of those apocalypse movies where people go insane and kill each other.

She ran for where she thought the library should be. She didn’t know why but she thought it was intact, and it was. It stood alone amongst the leveled remains.

She praised her luck until she saw another man. But this one looked different. Hooded, yes, but seated, leaning against the library and staring at something in his hand. It reminded her of days gone by. And for good reason, she saw as she approached. He was holding a phone.

He was finally alerted by the crunching of her tennis shoes on the gravel. He looked up. He was filthy but handsome, his dark skin looking like he was south Asian, perhaps Indian.

He stood up quickly and shoved the phone into his corduroys. Corduroys, she thought. He must have raided a vintage store. His white shirt billowed in the wind. His black hair danced along the outskirts of a Chicago White Sox baseball cap.

She thought she was being foolish for approaching him but she did anyway.

He put one hand out, palm facing her. “Whoah there.” He looked around like a grackle that had found a morsel. “Somebody chasing you?” He was trying to smile but it was faint and failing.

“I don’t know,” she answered breathlessly, since she didn’t know the disposition of the arguing men. “Maybe. I think so still.” She nodded to her rear.

“Come on, door’s open.” He looked at the library entrance.

She followed him as if it was routine when he entered the library, astonished that she would allow herself to do so. After they were inside he rolled a sheet of corrugated steel down the door’s window and bolted the door with a wide iron bar and a chain with a massive lock attached.

“I’ve only been here a couple of days. I know I can’t stay. People will find me. People who want this place. But I’m here for now and you can stay for now too if you want. I won’t try to do anything with you.” He looked shy when he said that, and he looked away.

“You were looking at a phone.”

He nodded. “It’s on Net Two.”

“Net Two?”

“Yeah, you didn’t think they’d just take down the internet without there being something else, did you?”

“They took down the internet? Like on purpose?”

“Yeah of course. Why do you think the rioting stopped?”

“Well, I mean, I didn’t think it really stopped so much as the people just…”


She nodded. She couldn’t take her eyes off him in the strange light. He had a jawline that stretched from his ears into a finely carved square chin. His cheeks were just a little hollow but she found them adorable. His dark thin eyebrows gave way to brown almonds that seemed to shimmer in rays of sunlight that squeezed through slits above the corrugated steel. She wanted to leave. This was no way to think.

“Well,” he said. “That too. But you can’t just exterminate people all at once. You need to shut them up while they are getting laid to waste.”

“So what is Net Two?” She was frightened again. “And why can you get on it?”

“They were sweeping the southern suburbs,” he said. “Sorry. I’m a little all over the place. You weren’t asking that. Anyway my dad, he was an electrical engineer. We lived in Flossmoor. He told me about Net Two before the Eradications began. It started out as mostly an academia thing. Then more military. Government people, all that. I guess. I don’t know for sure. But it’s different. Not like the web we know. Or apps and stuff.”

“Can you show me?”

“Yeah.” He pulled out his phone.

“What happened to them?” she asked.

“Sorry who?”

“Your parents. Your dad.”

“I don’t know. I never found out.” He stopped and looked away from her.

“Sorry I shouldn’t have asked,” she said, seeing his throat tighten up.

“No no it’s okay. Normal question. I get it all the time,” he laughed slightly. “Can I ask…”

“Infected. With everyone else in our hood. The machines came through our neighborhood and were gone in an hour.”

“But you survived.”

“Some of us were immune I guess.” She looked at him hoping he’d believe her. She was the only one she knew who had survived in her neighborhood.

He didn’t look surprised. “I was in Mumbai when it happened. I worked for an app developer there. Well, actually I was flying home. Most of Mumbai got hit at the same time.”

“Oh God.” After another period of silence, she ventured, “Maybe your parents are alive?”

“My parents were crazy rich, so you would think. But they swept through our whole neighborhood. I passed all the tests, everything.” He was quiet a moment. “Maybe the time I spent in juvie.” He shrugged his shoulders. “It’s all I can think of. I mean, I can see me. Why they’d target me.” She thought she saw a tear in his eye but it was difficult to tell in this light. “But why my parents? ”

“I’ve heard they did it geographical. Like, all the south side of Chicago. South suburbs, too.”

“That’s what I’ve heard, too. Parts of Mumbai were spared. I have a heat map.” He showed his phone.

“What’s a heat map?”

“Come here I’ll show you.”

She did. His phone displayed a map. “This is Colaba. The green areas are areas that have not been exposed to the pathogen. Did you know the pathogen dies thirty minutes after being exposed to air?”

She shook her head.

“And this here. This is Churchgate. And Malabar Hill. All green. This means even some poor people were spared because they didn’t hit these areas at all. Mumbai, it’s got slums even in the rich parts of town.”

“Where did you get this map?” For some reason, she felt betrayed.

“First, your name please.”

“Royal. Royal Đorđević.” He stared at her for a moment and smiled slightly. “The map?”

“You have to know Python to operate this.” He handed her the phone.

“You mean a python? Like a snake? I know lots of snakes dude.”

“No,” he laughed. “It’s a language. A computer language. That makes it so even if the average person somehow gets this,” and he pointed to the phone, barely scraping her fingertips with his, “connected to Net Two, it won’t mean much to them.”

“God I don’t care about any of that stuff!” She was feeling angry heat in her neck. “How did you find out about this map? Ugh.”

“I don’t know how to tell you without making you even madder.”

“Try me.”

“I queried a set of nodes I remembered, then drilled down.”

She looked at him in disbelief. She didn’t know how to ask the next question, or what to ask. The world seemed to be burning down around them, and as near to each other as they were, they were miles apart.

“Is this the only map you have?” she finally asked.

“Hey I’m new at this. I found the phone on a guy a couple of days ago. It booted up weird so I thought, maybe it’s on Net Two. And there was just this black screen with a flashing cursor. I thought maybe he worked for the CIA or something.”

“Maybe he did. Where is he? The guy. What happened to him?”

“He’s on a train. Was on a train. At the Kensington station. I don’t know why I went on the train. I just, you know, did.”

“What was he doing on a train? They haven’t been running for like, a year almost.”

“Dude I don’t know. He just was, okay? Dead. Very. Dead. Like a long time dead.”

“Oh. And so you…” the thought made her a little queasy.

“Yes I rummaged through his clothes to see what I could pilfer. So sue me.” She didn’t respond, so he continued. “Phone was dead but I found a charger. That was easy enough. Electricity is still on almost everywhere. Even here.”

“But you don't’ leave the lights on for obvious reasons.”

“Yeah, I’m not ready to be fried Desi yet.”

That made her smile.

“Can we get more maps?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. We can try some query strings. Do you want to try or do you want me to do it?”

“I want to if that’s okay.”

“It’s why I gave you the phone,” he smiled.

“Okay. What do I do?”

He gave her a set of instructions for accessing the node he was on, and they tried simple queries, none of which worked.

“Stupid me. I forgot exactly the search term I used for this. Let’s try to replicate that before trying a new one.”

They tried several. None of them worked, either.

Finally, he said, “Oh I remember! Eradication Zones. That was the keyword mostly. Try Eradication, plus sign, zones. I don’t know why the plus sign is needed but I think it is.”

She started tapping. He was leaning into her, watching, and she felt a jolt charge through her as his breath fell across her ear when he spoke, “You have to close that parentheses after the word query. And the query inside that, with single quotes.” Her nerves bristled, and her heart seemed to pound as she tapped the corrections. “Yes, like that, perfect,” he said, his voice still nearer, quieter, in a near whisper.

“It worked!” she said excitedly. “That’s the map you showed me!” She looked up at him and smiled.

“Okay now just try a different city.”

“Like Chicago, right?”

“Yeah. Try it.”

“You haven’t tried it yet?”

“I tried about the part I cared about. I have family in Mumbai. And co-workers, and friends, and well you know.”


She typed in a query for Chicago. The Gold Coast was green. The north shore was green. The northern suburbs were a mix of green and red. “Evanston, Rogers Park. Green,” she said. Much of the rest was red, except for downtown.

“They haven’t found a way yet to distribute the pathogen in a targeted way. They just spare the areas with the most people of the type they want to keep.”

She looked up at him in disbelief.

“Why are you looking surprised? Everyone knows this.”

“I don’t know,” she said. And she didn’t. Everyone did know this. Overpopulation and a boiling planet were providing a level of acceptance among many. Some even called it The Great Sacrifice. “Seeing it on these maps makes it all seem so, official? I guess?”

She tapped in a few small towns she could think of by name that she had heard of from friends going to college or maybe on the news. DeKalb was red. Effingham in central Illinois was red. So was Carbondale and Peoria. She began to sob.

“The guy in the Kensington station. I think he was a somebody,” he said after letting her shake out her sorrow.

She grabbed his arm and felt her throat constrict. “I never even asked your name.”

“It’s okay,” he said gently. “I don’t think names are so important anymore.”

This is part of the MagicLand Chronicles. You can buy MagicLand, a 2023 Featured Quill Award finalist, wherever books are sold and, of course, at Amazon.