The Sandy Ruins
Sand. A voracious devourer of humankind’s achievements. The decaying steel monoliths of the Sandy Ruins were almost entirely covered by the relentless advance of the surrounding desert. Few dared wander into that formerly splendid city, its name and history lost, due to high risks and low rewards.
Kurt Maxwell, however, had a solid plan. Currently, his car was parked on the outskirts of the buried city. It was a large, black, armored all-terrain vehicle with thick wheels, powered by an ultra-rare fusion engine. Its designation was AXV-85, and Kurt stole it from an abandoned research facility. He considered it his most prized possession.
“Keep your eyes peeled,” he said in a commanding tone. “Between the buildings, we can be overrun.”
He put the AXV-85 into gear and entered the ruins. Many of these structures were enormous, even now that only their tops were sticking out of the sand. Their mostly shattered mirror-glass walls reflected the cruel sun’s light as Kurt navigated the forsaken city. Normally, the object he sought would be impossible to locate, but he had two significant advantages. An old photo, bought from a trustworthy information merchant, and a fully functioning Nanocure Mark V survivor.
“Do you sense anything?” Kurt asked.
“Not yet,” a soft female voice said from the back.
“I’ll keep driving. Let me know when that changes.”
Over his thirty-four years of life, Maxwell saw more than enough combat and violence. He wore a dusty, brown leather jacket that had served him for years, a gray army shirt, and cargo pants whose color had long since faded. A semi-automatic pistol and a fixed-blade tactical knife sat on his belt. A compact assault rifle lay on the passenger seat, within arm’s reach.
“What if it’s not here?”
Kurt turned his head to the back. There, lying over the rear seats, with one arm resting over an M60 machine gun, was a short young woman. She had fair skin, neck-length hair the color of ravens, and heart-shaped lips. Her deep-blue eyes would’ve been called Japanese in ages past, but old nationalities meant nothing in the new world. A black combat shirt, stab-proof vest, and cargo pants covered her athletic form.
“Kiddo! Have I ever disappointed you before?”
She stretched her arms and grunted. “There was the time in the Wastelands when the raiders surrounded me—”
“That was a tactical withdrawal, and I did return for you.”
“But I did!” Kurt grinned at the rear-view mirror.
“Oh, and what about when you sold me to that village elder?”
“Are you still sore about that? He was willing to pay a lot for an eighteen-year-old.”
“Yes—pay you! What did I get out of that deal?”
“A fun night with a wise old man.”
“A horny old man! And his three hornier sons.”
“He said they were on a hunting trip.”
She threw a tuna can at his head; Maxwell caught it in mid-air.
“Two glasses of wine and you’d believe anything.”
“First, I had a bottle, and second, I knew you can handle yourself.”
She snorted and turned her head away.
“Fuck you, asshole.”
Kurt noticed a movement between the decrepit buildings and stopped the vehicle. The engine made no sound when idle. Despite the air conditioning inside the AXV-85, Kurt could feel the heat radiating from the windows. The outside environment was not pleasant at noon.
Fifty meters to their right, a tight group of humanoid forms limped around. Even under the blistering sun, he saw strips of bright, vein-like formations over their bodies. He waited until the group disappeared behind another rotting structure. Then, slowly, he drove forward. There were bound to be more such groups around, and engaging with them was an unnecessary risk.
“I can feel it!” the girl said.
“Give me directions.”
“Straight ahead, and… slow down… a little to the right.”
He spotted a building top that fit the one in his photo. That damned old thing better be worth the sake bottle.
“Say, Mei, how about a call sign? You know, a nickname for when we enter combat.”
“You mean like dad?”
“Hey! I told you not to call me that.”
“Why? Because you might develop a conscience?”
“No, because it makes me sound old.”
She stuck out her tongue. “You are old.”
“I think I’ll call you angel—ironically.”
Mei glared at him. Great! Kurt took a corner and stopped the armored car. An entire horde was shuffling from up ahead, and it was the only path to their destination. He shut the engine off and sat completely still. The sound of their breaths filled the vehicle. The intense outside heat radiated from the chassis. Without AC, the car’s interior would soon become unbearable.
The horde’s vanguard approached them. Gray, rotting old corpses. The first was once a man, but now had little hair and skin over its exposed bones. Mechanical sensors with red LED lights had replaced the eyes. It still wore tattered rags, and underneath, a network of glowing orange threads could be seen. Nanoveins—miniature routes that the nanomachines operating that body created to move through. The pathways converged around the heart, making it appear like a tiny, glittering city.
Kurt guessed there were almost two hundred former humans in rags ahead. Some of these creatures were in direct sunlight for so long that smoke rose from their dry skin. The smell must have been atrocious. However, the intense light also powered the nanobots inside them.
“We should’ve come at night to avoid the heat,” Mei whispered.
“Nano zombies store the energy they collect during the day, so we’d be at a disadvantage.”
They also saw well in the dark and formed hunting packs at sundown. It was a part of their original programming, meant to terrorize human survivors of the Great Apocalypse. There was another reason for Kurt’s decision, though.
Some members of the large group tried to touch the AXV-85. Trails of sweat dripped down his face. Fortunately, the armored alloys of the vehicle were extremely hot, and the creatures jumped back. One emitted a dry howl, which sounded like air escaping from a cavern.
After the last of the corpses went past them, Kurt turned the engine back on. He sighed in relief when the AC began chilling the air.
“You’re sick, Mei. I don’t want to wait any longer.”
“I’m not that fucking sick,” she said, flapping her clothes to cool off.
He knew that was a lie, but didn’t want to embarrass her by arguing.
“Do you have to swear so much, though?”
“Did you do it around your real parents, too?”
“Fuck you, dad. Fuck—you.”
A bundle of exposed nerves. Kurt was half-irritated, half-touched by it. Perhaps because he knew people have different ways to cover their pain.
Two minutes later, they stopped in the shadow of a tilted high-rise. The vehicle doors popped open, and they moved out, guns pointing forward. Yesterday, the information merchant told him to look for floor fifty-eight. The sign by the nearest staircase claimed they were on floor sixty-seven.
“It’ll be dark,” Kurt said. “Use your pistol flashlight attachment.”
He drew in a deep breath and kicked down the crumbling metal door to the staircase. To his relief, there was no sign of moving corpses. They began descending the stairs, their tactical boots echoing through the empty building.
“Do you trust that guy?” she said on the way. Maxwell detected nervousness in her voice.
“An info merchant lives by his reputation, so don’t worry.”
“I never worry, old man.”
They soon reached the destination floor, but the door refused to budge.
“Kudos to whoever built this place,” Kurt said. “Let’s try together.”
They delivered a kick in unison. With a loud bang, the door almost tore from its frame. Maxwell looked around, concerned that the noise would attract every last nano zombie in the area. After a minute passed, it seemed they were safe.
“You hit harder than me,” he said, smiling. In response, she pulled up a sleeve. Glowing nanoveins, similar to those of the zombies, covered her arm.
“It’s just the nanobots—” Mei broke into a series of nasty coughs. There was nothing he could do. The girl was given the Mark V Nanocure injection, developed after the Great Apocalypse with a full understanding of what these tiny robots could do to living humans.
“Anything I can do?” he asked with a sympathetic look. She waved her hand.
“I’m fine. Should’ve used less force on the door.”
“Alright, but if you need a rest—”
“I’m not weak.” Mei bumped into his shoulder on purpose. Five minutes later, while they searched floor fifty-eight, she mentioned feeling a powerful resonance. Their objective had to be nearby. Before long, they saw bright lights coming from around a corner.
“Still operational,” Kurt said in awe when he spotted the location. The lights were still on. They must’ve been running for at least fifty years, but how? Perhaps there’s a fusion core inside. A smile spread across his face—one of those could keep his car running for a year.
They advanced at a brisk pace to the facility’s entrance, holding their pistols straight before their eyes. The words Takeda Cryogenics were etched into a bronze plate. The twin glass doors were opaque, so Kurt could only make out rough shapes on the other side. No movement, though—good.
“Ready to breach, pumpkin?”
She groaned. “Don’t ever call me that. I’m not a child!”
“Then stop acting like one. Pick a call sign.”
“And stop swearing.”
“It’s a Japanese spirit of death, dumbass.”
“Oh…” Kurt smirked. “A little presumptuous, no?”
Mei gave him the biggest blue puppy eyes anyone had ever seen. “But you like it, right?”
“Fine.” He raised his hands in defeat. “Mei Shinigami it is.”
“Great! By the way, we don’t need to breach.”
Mei touched a pad that sat beside the doors, and they slid open. She tapped on her arm. “The machines talk to each other.”
The cryogenics facility was huge. The vast space, lit by bright ceiling lights, was filled to the brim with odd objects and contraptions Kurt preferred not to inspect too closely.
“Just so you know, Maxwell is also presumptuous.”
“It’s my actual last name!”
“Yeah, right!” Mei said as she ran over to a room in the back. She did her sensor magic again to open its door. A minute later, she returned holding an injector and two orange vials.
“Jackpot! Inject me, dad—quick!”
Once removed from freezing temperatures, the nanobots—especially the experimental Mark V—began to die out. As expected from a place that hosted those tiny monstrosities, they soon found a room with a surgical bed and an array of nasty, sharp tools.
“Ready?” Maxwell said.
“Just get over with it.”
She lay on the table and closed her eyes. He secured her to the board using four thick leather straps, put the edge of the injector to her neck, and pressed.
Mei cried in pain. In a few moments, she began to convulse. As much as Kurt wanted, he knew he couldn’t stop until the vial was utterly empty, at which point the injector emitted a loud beep.
“Listen, Kiddo, maybe…”
She had already passed out. He watched her breathing heavily, wiped the sweat from her forehead, and pushed away a sticky strand of hair. The second vial could wait.
Meanwhile, Kurt went for a walk in the lab. It contained two rows of sealed metal vats. Some were broken, and dark marks of what must’ve once been liquid stained the surrounding floor. He spotted two skeletons in rotting lab coats with large holes in their skulls.
Did the zombies do that, or do the vats contain scorpion monsters that eat a person’s brain… or use him as an incubator?!
A scream disturbed his thoughts—Mei’s voice. He dashed back to her.
“It burns.” She cried, “It burns everywhere.”
“Maybe we should skip the second dose.”
“No! With two, I’ll be fine for months. I’d rather suffer twice now.”
There was also no telling whether they could find more injections. However, Kurt didn’t want to see her hurting. He pointed to a medicine cabinet.
“What about anesthetics?”
“No. If you add drugs during the process, I might die.”
“How do you know what?”
“When I was in the lab, I overheard the doctors talking.”
“Calling them doctors is an insult to the word.”
He opened the cabinet anyway. There were rolls of bandages inside.
“Bite on this.”
“No way, pervert.”
“It’s for the pain, dummy!”
The brunette stared suspiciously at him while he placed a roll in her mouth. Then, Kurt injected her with the second dose, and she screamed into the fabric until her eyes teared. He squeezed her shoulder, trying to show support, until she passed out again.
I hope the people who created these abominations had suffered a horrible, slow, painful death.
A sudden noise made him snap to a fighting position with his pistol. Slowly, Maxwell moved toward the source. To his horror, one metallic vat in the very back of the row was shaking.
Alien scorpions. Get ready, old man.
He switched to his assault rifle, an H&K G36c model, and took a position by the vat. The goo from inside was leaking to the floor, and it was rocking back and forth. He could riddle it with holes—or wait for Mei to wake up and simply leave. No need to deal with human-impregnating arachnids.
Then he realized whatever was inside was speaking. The voice was thin and squeaky.
“Speak louder!” Kurt said. “I’m not fooling around.”
The banging stopped. He heard the words, “Please help,” and rushed to find the release mechanism. It sat at the end of the vat rows. Unfortunately, activating it required using a similar sensor to the one Mei interacted with earlier.
“I’ll be right back!” he yelled and ran to the other room. At that point, she was semi-conscious, mumbling deliriously. Kurt undid the straps and lifted her over his shoulder.
“I hate you so much, mom.”
“I’m not mom,” he said on the way to the vats.
“I hate you too, dad.”
Kurt stopped on the spot.
By Zeus, that clarified nothing!
He placed her wrist on the panel. A soft electronic sound was heard, and Maxwell saw the vat opening up. Something fell from inside to the floor.
Kurt pointed his sidearm at it. “Who… what are you?”
The creature stood up and stretched both arms aside. It was about as tall as a kid, skinny, and covered by reddish fur. It licked its muzzle, ran two soft paws over its whiskers and ears, and gazed at Maxwell with clever orange eyes.
“Hello, mister,” the canine monster said in a high-toned, childlike voice. “My name is Vulpu.”