Tanner Ellis, Councilman Jessup and the bully Jackson were now safely tucked away from the driving downpour; a reminder of the blue-gray cloud's dreary presence even at night.
"Another Ellis troublemaker, is it?" Jessup said.
His pockmarked face glowed as he lit a candle that made the dark race off to the corners of a small room filled with shelves and a few counters. They were in a triangular downtown building with bricks that had melded over the years with an overgrown maple tree on the corner.
"You're going to the farm Tanner," Jackson said as he quickly patted Tanner down and found the device in his pocket. "What's this?"
"Give me that," barked Jessup. His bony hand pulled aside a wisp of gray hair and he studied the black plastic rectangle in the candlelight with a suspicious eye, holding the device like it might burn him.
"Do you know why we're like this, Ellis?"
Tanner sensed that one of Jessup's lectures was forthcoming. Like every good Bellingham citizen, Tanner had sat through his many rambling talks at city meetings, and like most good citizens, he had paid little to no attention.
Turning his piercing blue eyes on Tanner, Jessup puffed up like a crow standing over carrion.
"The rain, the never-ending gray sky, ruins falling into further ruin ... this!" He swept his hand. "Greed! Avarice! These little monsters!"
Jessup held up the device in trembling hands. "Off to our ruin we walked, with them attached to our ears or splayed out in front of our faces. All the while fat and happy; oblivious to the fact that we were being led to the slaughter. Why, you ask? Gold? Platinum? Titanium? Do you know what those are?"
Tanner shook their head.
"The lifeblood of these ... these devils! Their hunger was insatiable, and we gladly fed them."
Jessup's voice echoed in the hollow space. "Half the world had it and half the world didn't, so we devoured ourselves to feed the beasts. The world went mad and the damage that man did to this world over a hundred years paled in comparison to what it wrought in a few short hours.
"But we survived ... and we learned! Men like my Father destroyed our digital masters!"
Jessup's voice rose boldly to the rafters, but then died when he realized that Tanner was neither cowed nor electrified by his words. He eyed the youth with dissatisfaction.
"I'll show you," Jessup bellowed.
He pressed the button on the device and brought the screen to life. Out of the corner of his eye, Tanner saw Jackson's mouth drop and his eyes brighten.
Again, a picture showed Mount Baker on a blue-sky day. With a swipe of his finger, a tall red-brick building with crumbling towers. Another swipe, a stone bridge over a wild waterfall with a man in black and a woman in white holding each other close.
"See how they draw you in? I can see it in your eyes." Jessup held the device high above his head.
Tanner's soul screamed for him to save the device, but his body refused to do anything. He even saw Jackson, the bully, raise a hand in weak protest.
Then, by accident, Jessup swiped the screen again and brought up a picture of a one-story brown building with a young couple happily holding up what looked like cooked dough. The wrath died from his eyes almost instantly. He brought the screen down for closer study.
"Lafeen's?" Emotions washed across Jessup's face. His mouth worked to form words, but none came.
His trembling finger hovered over the screen until it went blank. Jessup jumped.
Seizing the opportunity, Tanner ran past Jessup and snatched the device out of the councilman's grasp, then quickly squeezed through a gap between a shattered wall and the rough tree trunk.
Tanner was sure that Jessup cried out after him, but the beating rain drowned out every sound except his pounding heart and heavy footfalls.
Tanner reached the opposite side of a decrepit white tower that, rumor had it, had once been the home to live shows. He crawled inside and hid in the darkness.
Drenched, lonely, and certain that his life was over, Tanner turned the device on again, the happy faces from a bygone era mocking him in his.
It was just like the old man had said; he was infected with a deadly disease. His options were few; be captured and be sent to a farm; or run and hope that he could find sanctuary outside the city.
Footsteps came up behind him. Before he could move, a hand far larger than Jackson's weighed on his shoulder.
The voice was shockingly familiar.