Part 1 - Old Friends, New Friends

"It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?"
-- Fred Rogers

Chapter 1

We like to say that the basic requirements for survival are water, food, fire, and shelter. Take care of those needs and chances of survival blossom. But there is an often over-looked course of action that is required prior to the pursuit of material needs. Security.

Actually, personal security is one of the first "rules" of evolution. We are hard-wired with "fight or flight" responses and our reactions give us a chance among the wolves. A new life slips into the world struggling to survive, gasping for breath and hungry, entirely at the mercy of an indifferent universe. It follows that security is of primary concern for new organisms.

And so, often an organism must fight to survive before it can even fully consider why.

New York City, late 24th Century

August in New York City is never very much fun, but that year, 2399, suffered through the worst heat wave in a hundred and twenty-seven years. Electric grids could not keep up with the wholesale consumption of energy that drove air conditioners and coolers and reefers and all manner of devices that kept food and people fresh. When the grid came down, it fell like so many dominoes and millions of people on the east coast were left on their own to deal with the heat. Lawn chairs came out and water sprinklers were set up for the children. The elderly fanned themselves on their front porches and watched as neighborhoods transformed. Without the ubiquitous television broadcasts, people ventured outside and connected with their neighbors again. Not everyone, of course, but enough to make a difference for a while.

During that time, Clarkson Hidalgo's life would drastically change.

When he was sixteen, Clarkson inherited a small house in Queens from his grandfather. He moved in and lived there for the duration. Clarkson did not complete high school but his lack of education was never a problem mainly because his father worked for municipal maintenance and when Clarkson was old enough to apply, his old man gave him a leg up - helped him get a job - and Clarkson started out as an assistant to an assistant.

He kept the job, kept the house, and eventually found a girl he could tolerate, and he married her. On Thursday nights, he had the bowling league, and during football season he hosted game-watching parties. His wife, Gwendolyn, gossiped with the other neighborhood wives while watching over a nine-year-old girl and a fourteen-year-old boy.

Hidalgo was a tolerant man and admonished his son when necessary but otherwise never raised a hand to either of his children. He worked for city municipal but had Mondays off. His usual arrangement with Gwen was to take the children to the park for a few hours so she could accomplish the weekly shopping or house-cleaning without anyone underfoot.

Due to the power shortage, however, on that particular morning, Gwen decided to sleep in. Most stores were closed and it was too hot for housework. To insure she had a proper break, Mr. Hidalgo took the kids to the park.

Clarkson had never seen the park as crowded on a Monday morning. With the city practically shut down, many people had the same idea which was to get out and away from their steamy homes and take the kids to the park because they were already bouncing off the walls and driving the adults crazy.

Park visitors in various states of undress lounged on the grass, sun-bathing. A couple of guys played catch with a baseball and gloves and Clarkson's kids watched them for a while until drifting off to the playground where they climbed a metal framework and hung upside-down scratching underneath their arms and making monkey sounds. The elder Hidalgo watched and wiped the sweat from his brow. Beneath the metal framework was an anti-grav safety feature designed to "catch" anyone who fell. The children climbed and dropped on purpose over and over in a compulsive circle of sensation just like the kids standing in line for the giant slide at the water park. Hidalgo's children scrambled with ease among the dangling rungs and suspended ladders.

So many people off from work today, thought Hidalgo as he watched a mixed group of boys and girls playing volleyball. Beyond the volleyball pit, a broad sidewalk wound through trees that bordered a six-acre open playground. A vendor sold Bloopie Pies from a portable booth. Hidalgo was thinking about buying a pie for him and the kids when he saw a clown on stilts striding towards the jungle gym.

Anna Louise, Hidalgo's daughter, followed her father's gaze. The smile dropped from her face and she released her grip and dropped. Bouncing up, she ran to Clarkson, pointing back over her shoulder.

The boy was nick-named Ripper, but his real name was Robert. He stood atop the metal framework, ten feet above the ground, hands on hips and laughing as he watched his sister. The clown walked past, winked at Ripper, and set up a balloon bending animal shop in the middle of all the action. In minutes, he was surrounded by children.

Anna Louise did not like clowns and ran back to the metal frame dome where she scrambled up to stand beside her brother. Ripper stood with his hands held out. "Top of the world, ma! Top of the world!"

Clarkson swelled with pride: it was the same thing he said when he felt good. Top of the world, ma! Clarkson got up and walked over. "Stay here," he told Ripper. "And watch your sister."

"Where are you going?"

Clarkson jerked a thumb toward the Bloopie Pie vendor. "I'm going to get us a pie."

"I want Orange Blitz!" shouted Anna.

"No yelling!" yelled Ripper.

Clarkson turned and walked toward the pie vendor's monstrous red and white striped pushcart. The pie salesman was a middle-aged Turk wearing a stained, vaguely white wife-beater and an apron at his waist. The apron was, like the shirt, impressively stained, but one could still read the imprinted pithy phrase. Kiss the Cook, it read.

Clarkson held up one finger as he approached.

"What size?" the Turk replied. "We got baby small and kiddy small, we got regular small and we got medium. Then there's the medium special, the medium rare, all-meat, extra meat, and no meat. You don't look like a no meat type, so I won't tell you about the veggie pies. Me? I like sweet pies. I also got large, extra large and giant. You buy the giant, I gotta close the cart and go home because you just bought ever-ting." He laughed. "Now whatcha want anyway?"

"Uhh…" Clarkson scanned the hand-printed menu displayed over his head, just under the canopy.

"I make you sausage with scrambled eggs mixed with potatos, salsa, and ricotta."

"Easy on the salsa. My kids are going to eat it too."

"I got donuts. With sprinkles. Want two of those?"

"Sure. Make it three."

As the cook went to work at his little grill, Clarkson turned his back and watched Ripper dangle above another little girl approximately Ripper's age. She pretended to ignore him. Even though Anna Louise was four and a half years younger than her brother, she instinctively recognized the dance between sexes and was amused by it. She watched her brother's actions as if she watched one of her mother's favorite soap dramas. Clarkson looked past the playground to where the broad walkway came out of the trees, perhaps a quarter of a mile from where he stood - not so far that he could not see details.

There was a whiffle ball game near the trees and all the players appeared to be elderly men. A thin crowd watched the event and several people reposed in canvas lawn chairs with umbrellas shading themselves from the morning sun as they cheered on their favorite players. Two skaters glided up the sidewalk and disappeared into the shade under the trees. Someone ran past headed the opposite direction towards the playground. It was a young woman and she ran really fast as if fear compelled her movement. More people ran from the trees and Clarkson heard the first of the screams. He looked back to his children who were still calmly playing on the metal gym along with about half a dozen others.

The commotion on the far side of the park grew quickly. The whiffle ball devotees paused their game and every sportsman's gray and/or bald head was turned towards the place in the trees where the sidewalk emerged.

What were they looking at? People seemed to be running from something. Clarkson stood on his toes and shaded his eyes in the manner of a scout.

"What is it?" the Turkish cook asked.

Hidalgo shrugged and squinted. Some guy had a whiffle ball bat and was swinging it around. People cleared the area before Clarkson could see that the guy swinging the bat was attacking someone. Or, maybe it was the other way around. The old guy with the bat was protecting himself from attack. The assailant was pale and easy to spot because he was stark naked.

The old man swung the bat and struck his attacker, yet the naked man continued to press forward, grabbing him by a forearm even as the man hollered for help. It was only then Clarkson recognized how much taller the pale man was. He towered over his opponent. Whiffle bats in hand, two more of the ball players joined the fray just as - Clarkson could not believe his eyes - the tall pale man pulled the older man's forearm to his face and took a ferocious bite from the meaty part. Without hesitation, one of the others struck him across a shin with the thick part of the bat.

"What's going on over there?" asked the Turk.

Instead of a crowd gathering in a big circle like typically when a fight breaks out in public, people began to run in an effort to put distance between themselves and the action. Nearby, a shirtless man had been sunning himself on a blanket. He sat up, then got to his feet for a better view. Others followed his lead.

Down at the edge of the trees, another tall, pale, naked man, identical to the first, came out of the woods and began fighting alongside the first. They were relentless and at that point even the most ardent defenders stopped risking their own lives to bolt and run.

Clarkson could not remove himself from the crazy scene across the park. "What the infierno…?"

"Here's your pie, man." The Turk handed Clarkson a cheap cardboard container - Clarkson could smell the pie inside and the bottom of the box was hot on his hand. He leaned forward so the pie man could more easily scan Hidalgo's ID lapel button, but the vendor told him it was on the house as he lowered the tarp and made a quick getaway for himself.

Indeed, by that time, people were streaming up the hill, running from what looked like two grim reapers grabbing victims one after another, taking ferocious bites and chunks of flesh from some and breaking the necks of others as casually as swatting flies. One of the two broke free from the horrific scene it had helped to create and in long, slow strides, started up the hill.

Clarkson threw the box on the ground and ran through the crowd back to the metal framework. People were panicked by then and everyone was on the move seemingly headed in every compass direction except the direction of the approaching demons. In mere moments, things had gone from a pleasant Monday morning in the park to utter chaos. Who or what were those creatures? Were they human? From where had they come?

Clarkson made it to the climbing gym expecting to see Anna Louise and Robert the Ripper perched atop the dome frame, but they weren't there. Even with all the commotion, time suddenly stood still for Hidalgo as he first looked one direction, then the opposite. With his heart in his throat, he completed a three-sixty-degree turn, searching in vain among the crowd for his kids.

At first, it felt as though all the blood had drained from him. Where had it all gone? If there was no blood in his head, shouldn't he pass out? How could he still be conscious? Those thoughts passed as he discovered he was planted to the ground with no will to move. His children were gone, and it was his responsibility. He was the one watching them, not some baby-sitter or a teacher's helper getting paid with benefits; he was their father and he was supposed to be watching them. Where had they gone?

Maybe from their perch, they saw why everyone was running and put their own common sense to use. Clarkson had stopped paying any attention to the threat making its way up the hill. Instead, he looked for places of safety where his kids might go, places with a good vantage point where they could watch for old dad who was hung up on Bloopie's Pies and was a good thirty pounds over-weight. Clarkson looked up the hill instead of down. Sure enough, there they were, standing on a green bench a hundred meters away, both waving and hooting. When they realized he saw them, their hoots turned into shouts of encouragement. Ripper cupped his hands around his mouth, "Run!" he shouted.

His son's voice shook him from parental search mode and Clarkson noticed the crowd had thinned and now all who ran past ran in one direction. The second tall pale man who had followed the first from beneath the trees was twenty meters from the climbing dome. Clarkson was on the far side and would have started away but for two teenage boys who took it upon themselves to either subdue the creature or impede its progress up the hill.

Clarkson shouted for them to get away. "Wait for the police!"

Naturally, being young men, they didn't listen, and both engaged the naked man with bamboo sticks. Somehow, they had fastened knives to the ends and were presently engaged in a game of matador and bull.

The pause gave Clarkson a moment to take stock of the thing. Human or not? He could not say, but it was definitely humanoid with a long, lean muscular body that appeared to have been absent from the rays of the sun for a very long time. He/it had an elongated face with big, sad black eyes. In the center of the pupils floated a glaring yellow dot full of hatred or hunger, or both. The slash of mouth across his lower face was like an open wound with long canines on both uppers and lowers. Blood stains streaked its chin and chest.

The boys closed the distance. One distracted the beast while the other jabbed at it from the flank. It fought back, slapping away the improvised spears and continuing to walk up the slope shepherding people in its path.

Clarkson moved backwards towards the winding concrete trail and the abandoned cart; in his haste, he stumbled and fell on the incline. The creature had stopped in front of the gym and while avoiding one well-aimed thrust from a kid who couldn't have been more than sixteen, the creature backed into the blade of the other.

It gripped the shaft of the spear where it entered its torso. There was no howling of pain or anything of that sort, although there was blackish bile that Clarkson assumed was the thing's own blood leaking from its side. The lad on the other end maintained his grip, which turned out to be a poor strategy.

The creature grasped the improvised spear and pulled it out with ease. In the same motion, the blunt end of the shaft was driven through the young man's sternum and the beating heart directly beneath. The boy tried to push himself away but it was impossible and so he dangled at the end of the pole for a moment before finally relaxing with a gasp and a sigh.

Clarkson had never seen anything like it before and gaped at the sight. The other teen threw down his spear and ducked inside the dome. He ran through to the opposite side, Clarkson's side, ducked through the framework again and ran up the hill. He did not pause when he reached Clarkson who was just rolling over to all fours. Should have lost that weight, amigo, while you still could. The kid must have read the dialogue in Clarkson's mind because he urged Clarkson to "Get up and run, mister!"

When he was on his feet again, Clarkson looked back. The creature, that monster, had fixed its gaze on him. With a grip on the metal frame, it leapt to the top in a single jump. From the perch, he jumped again and covered half the distance to Clarkson.

Clarkson moved his beefy two hundred and twenty pounds and pounded his way toward the wagon in an effort to get something between himself and the creature. Everything happened so quickly, there was no time to…

And then it was right behind him. Clarkson Hidalgo sucked air into lungs unused to such exertion and wheezed out again. He stepped on the pie box he'd thrown to the ground a short time before and continued in a beeline to the wagon without looking behind. Anna Louise and Ripper urged him to run even faster and he responded. He ran faster than he had run in years. When he got to the bench where his kids were, he bent over double, gasping for breath. "Where is it?" he asked. "Where is it?"

Anna pointed down the hill. "It's eating pie!"

Clarkson looked and saw that the creature had stopped at the discarded pie box and was presently sitting on the ground munching a triangle of baked bleached flour, cheese, tomato sauce, pepperoni, mushrooms, and pineapples. The pineapple slices were for Anna. To everyone's relief, police in black uniforms and masks started showing up.

Ripper wanted to stick around and watch them "kick-ass" but it wasn't the sort of entertainment Clarkson wanted for the children and he practically had to drag them both from the park. Ah, Dad.

When they got to the entrance/exit, they waited a moment at the public conveyance stop as a driverless car pulled in. There were police cars and emergency vehicles also parked at the entrance.

"The police have everything well in hand," said Hidalgo. A lady in the next queue overheard him and quipped, "You think so? I heard there are other incidents happening in the city."


The lady shrugged. "All around us."

"Daddy, I want to go home." Clarkson held his daughter and assured her they were going home to see Mom. Ripper didn't say anything. Instead, he watched smoke rising into the sky and wondered what was burning.

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