Earth-Bound Angels volume 1 - The Destruction

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Chapter 12: Apocalyptic City

31 October 2086

25 years, 4 months and 8 days since the Destruction

The M134 was better known as a minigun for its smaller type of ammunition than that of a cannon, at a difference between 7.62x51 millimetres and 20 millimetres. This beast weighed about forty kilograms and used bullets fed by a belt to rapidly tear targets to shreds. A crank axle had been added to allow it to be worn like a backpack and fired over the shoulder.

With his hands free, Lawrence could also use the axe tied to his hip for close quarter combat. It was silver-plated, and the head sprang from the mouth of an ox with a ring through its nose. It was his pride and joy, given to him on his retirement day. He had later sharpened it so its function would no longer be ornamental.

Running after him was Amber. Her three-pronged boomerang was nearly the same size as her, but was made from lightweight polymers, the edges razor-sharp ceramics. The holster tied around her abdomen had three fingers gripping the handhold. The Fire Wheel was deadly as it could sear or slash at its owner’s expertise or whim.

Maxwell trailed further behind them with hands behind his head. He wore a battered old rucksack on his back and a guitar on his shoulders. When drawn, it would transform into a white sword. A yellow band ran down its sides, and its hilt was orange with a milky orb as its pommel.

“It’s just the three of you, so of course I worry,” Lohengrinn said. Maxwell’s unseen ally and perhaps greatest weapon was a short sprite with cascading locks of golden hair, wearing a jacket woven from green itself.

Maxwell dismissed him with a wave of his hand. “We have a fiery hunter of bail skippers, an old boxer and a Neon Knight. I worry about the robots.” The front party had come to the gate. Lawrence kicked it with his boot and the gate slipped from its hinges. A cloud of sand whirled up at the disturbance. “See? This is going to be easy.”

Lawrence marched through, even though Amber coughed and waved the dust away. Maxwell came up from behind but she shot him a baleful glance and hurried ahead. Maxwell’s chuckle quickly died into a sigh.

There was not much left of the old air force base. In its heyday, it had been the centre of conspiracy theories revolving around aliens and alien technology, but it was never anything more than a secret development facility for new prototypes of airplanes and helicopters. The disbanding of world militaries had seen it relegated to storage facility. The rise of the LHD had not seen its revival. That only made conspiracies theories flare up again.

So there they stood, on a cracked runway overgrown with sturdy bushes. Old warehouses with roofs or walls missing stood on both sides, and guard towers had been set with regular intervals.

Maxwell took the last step inside, the mesh gate clanging under his feet. A gust took the sand and filled their vision. The party held up their arms.

Out of the sandstorm came the sound of music. Maxwell’s ears perked. It was ‘Entrance of the Gladiators,’ and not the cheesy organ version heard in circuses. A big orchestra was playing it with every instrument needed. The sand subsided and the maestro strolled towards them.

His composer’s baton was a jester’s sceptre. His fine clothes, frayed like a vagabond’s, gleamed in all the colours of the rainbow. Lord Arcana laughed heartily as he made his entrance atop a graceful hind. With the sand gone, the musicians were revealed as well. Around fifty crude clay dolls, each with its own instrument, had closed a circle around the party.

Lord Arcana bowed so that his jester’s crown jingled and jangled. “Meine Damen und Herren, may I present to you: the finest freedom fighters that this earth can provide. Two we already know, Lawrence and Amber Summers, who ran around my jungle and eluded capture for twenty-five years. The last is a newcomer to these parts, but certainly not to the fight, the mononymous Maxwell!”

“How can you be here? I thought Maxwell ensured a perfect escape!”

Tut mir leid, the raid on your shelter was not my idea.” Lord Arcana made a sincere bow so his coat fluttered. The life-size clay band played on, their instruments made of wood and mud, some stringed with webs. “My… dear assistant saw you and reported you to Thorne. This is my problem, my jungle, so I would have beaten her to within an inch of her life. But I did not have the time. We were called back here to prepare for your cute little assault.”

Maxwell took a threatening step forward, his hand hovering behind his back, ready to take his guitar. “And the shelter? You can see we’re here, so obviously you know it survived,” he commanded.

“Oh, that all depends on you, for today we will play a little game here called Survive Or Die. The rules are simple. Survive or die! You should count yourself lucky; all five of us Lords have come out to play with you. And don’t worry, we shan’t be holding back. Teufel only cares about the last two Kilburnes, so we can be as rough with you as we want.”

Lord Arcana laughed even as the sand whirled up again and everything disappeared. The music accompanied them a while longer.

Maxwell put up an arm up to his eyes. The others were gone. Everything was gone. He was standing in a cage with walls of mud. He put a hand to it and found it hard and compact. He banged a fist against the wall, getting nothing but a dull thud.

The ground was reasonably soft, though. Several rotten hands broke through and pushed up decaying bodies. Mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, there was no discrimination. Each of them had green, sickly skin and a vacant look in their eyes. Their numbers filled the cage, pushing Maxwell into a corner, but they did nothing to him. “Hmm… ah! Revenants?”

Lohengrinn’s silky voice whispered in his ears: “Zombies, dear.”

The risen dead moaned their consent. Lord Arcana’s voice called out again. “That’s right, for the first challenge belongs to Lord Carrion, something of a loner among the Lords. Being lorded in 1793 makes him the second oldest in our flock. Lord Carrion, everyone!”

A door banged open at the other end of the room, and a different corpse entered. He was dressed in nothing but a bloodied butcher’s apron. In his right hand, he held a rusty meat cleaver, the left he lifted and the dead jerked awake. Life filled their eyes like beasts waking from slumber. Their nostrils flared and several licked the air. At first they could taste only the stench of each other’s rotting flesh, but one fragrance permeated all. The scent of fresh meat.

Maxwell already had his sword out as the dead pushed to get closer. The nearest latched on to his arms and slobbered all over them. There was no space to swing his blade. Instead, Maxwell whipped his head. A woman screeched and fell back, knocking over those behind her. Maxwell grabbed two others and hurled them ahead. That freed a little space, but the dead were quick to step over each other to get at him.

One large swing of Maxwell’s sword transformed the undead to a clumps of clay. The torsos turned over and crawled back towards him with soil spilling out. Maxwell stepped on their squishy heads. A grim visage fell over Maxwell’s face as he automatically dealt with the situation. His legs busily kicked and flailed, his arms manoeuvring his sword. An old lady was cleft from one shoulder to the other hip. A burly man got the blade through his chest. The hole would put a cannon ball to shame.

There was no end to the dead. Lord Carrion glared with lidless eyes. He lifted his hand, and more dead pushed through the ground. He clenched the hand, and others punched their way out of the walls. For every one Maxwell felled, another two took their place.

The small enclosure filled up quickly with the soil left behind. Maxwell relaxed, though his shoulders heaved with the increasing difficulty of breathing. The heat was overwhelming. At last he had enough.

With a mighty battle cry, Maxwell put his sword horizontal, splitting several undead in front, and charged at the opposite wall. The undead were skewered on his sword or knocked aside. More of the undead popped out of the wall. Maxwell blasted through them.

He stumbled and fell on to pavement. He was back on the runway. Only the clotted blood had followed him. Maxwell rolled on to his back, trying to get his breath back.

Lord Arcana’s sandstorm still blew. Two more were still trapped inside.

Amber fumbled around. She could hear rustling around her, but the flame in her hand would not light enough to even see her own palm. She found the first wall. It was a row of trees, but the bark was dry and withered; the rustle was the dead twigs rubbing against other trees. There was grass under feet, but it was downtrodden and muddy. She quenched her fire again and followed the line of trees by touch.

A hand, cold and hard, grabbed her out of the foliage. She shrieked, and another hand used her arm to pull itself out. Groans and deep sighing and whistling erupted all around her. Finally she jerked away from the hands and bumped into someone’s chest. Only some thin fabric stood between her and the person’s ribcage.

“Challenge two: Lord Shadow. His vast intellect could not save him from his antisocial personality disorder. This guy was lorded as late as 1948, meaning he never saw the end of the World War in which he sacrificed so many of his years, and so many people on either side. What a shame!”

A projector put a small circle of light on Amber. Skeleton warriors in turbans and long robes of silk sprang out with scimitars above their heads. Instinctively, Amber shot fire balls from her hands. The first three hit their marks, and the skeletons fell to pieces. The fourth warrior dodged and ran Amber through with the scimitar. The blade melted as it penetrated her skin. The skeleton pulled out and cocked its head. Amber blasted the guy with a gush of fire.

The next sound was hoofs. Her spotlight widened just enough to see German knights riding towards her in a wedge formation, lances held over their heads. Had Amber had breath, the sight would have taken it from her. Instead she summoned fire into both hands. It consumed her until she became living flame, a roaring beast many times her own size. She pounced, and her fire swallowed them, horses and all.

A bright flash dispelled the darkness. Amber slumped into the grass and curled up. Her sleep had not been enough, and now she had summoned the beast twice in as many days. She closed her eyes and hoped the trial would end.

Sandals splashed in the mud and armour clattered, louder and louder as they got closer. A wall of red shields surrounded her. Spears protruded from openings, advancing on her. Amber scrambled to her feet. A legion of Roman soldiers had her surrounded. She sprayed them with fire, but their expertly placed shields did not let a single ember inside. She let loose another blast of fire but got only a sorry little cough. She was the youngest of the Kilburnes and had far less magical reserves than her brothers. She was quick, however, and energetic and smart.

Her magic had been depleted, sure, but her physical energy was still untapped. She took the boomerang from her back and held it up before her. The blades glistened as she loosened it. Midair, and it caught aflame. Unable to create fire, her ability to control it remained unquestioning.

The Fire Wheel drove into the aegis wall like a pile driver. The shields scattered like leaves blown by the wind. The skeletons behind, with rusted armour, fell on their behinds with broken spears. The Fire Wheel went straight up into the air, looped, and rammed back into the ground behind Amber. It was like a small bomb went off. The Roman legion fell like dominos.

The remaining soldiers crept out from behind their shields with gladii drawn. Two scores still remained. Amber crouched with arms and knees spread to the sides, the Fire Wheel hovering above her waiting for a command. Her right fingers wagged a challenge to the soldiers. Javelins flew. Amber summoned a wall of hot air around her. It was all she could do, and it deflected most of the spears.

One went straight through her chest, but like pushing a stick into liquid fire, it burned up. Yet the damage was done. Amber staggered back, her concentration lost. The Fire Wheel fell into the sand.

All at once the amassed army of Roman foot soldiers charged at her. More javelins flew out from unseen numbers behind them. Amber erected the heat barrier again. Enough javelins were diverted for her to remain standing, though her skirt was ripped. She flung off the useless cloth as the first soldiers came close enough to attack.

Fire still smouldered on the Fire Wheel. It rose and ploughed through the skeleton horde to arrive in her hands. The first swing of the legionaries simply smashed into the ceramic blades. The decrepit swords shattered from the impact. Amber slipped her arm into the Fire Wheel’s handholds. It spun around like a buzz saw and tore into the armour. The fiery whirlwind ate whatever morbid life the Roman legion had been given.

The soldiers tried to stop her with their swords and spears and shields, but the flames and blades cut through their weakened armour and ground their bones to a fine dust. At last Amber stood in the middle of her spotlight, alone and tired like she had begun. A small ember glowed at the tip of her finger. With more rest, it could be a roaring flame again.

She drove the Fire Wheel into the ground and sat up against it. She did not want to be around for the next army that Lord Shadow would throw at her. On the other hand, she did not possess the energy to find an escape route.

The opposite wall of trees split open. Amber jerked up on her feet.

Lawrence had no walls around him. He sat up in the longship and saw nothing but the endless sky and sea around him. Not a cloud, not a mass of land, not a lone gull to disturb the tranquil scene. The boat had a single sail, oars and shields on the side and a dragon figurehead in front. Alone he sat, quietly bobbing up and down, trying to get his bearings.

No, not alone. A shadow fell on him from the sun high in the sky. “So this is what you have come to; a slacker and a layabout. We gave you everything you could want and you defy us with this… this fighting?” He had not heard the voice in a long time, but every child in the world would recognise it. Lawrence jolted up on his feet and turned around. His mother was a tall woman with absurdly long, blonde hair, standing with arms crossed. “You only had to finish your studies, become a lawyer or a doctor, not worry us with these antics. You disappoint us.”

A man sat behind her, visible only from the fingers holding on to the newspaper. “Your mother’s right, Lawrence, we did not raise you to become a hooligan. Why would you do this to us?” the newspaper asked. “Your mother told me, the day that you called, that we had no son. I asked her why. I could not believe what she said.”

Lawrence put his hands to his ears and backed into the bench in the bottom of the ship. “S… stop it! This isn’t real!” he shouted, but the people remained. Henry flipped a page of the newspaper, and Marilyn demanded an answer with eyes like daggers.

“Of course it isn’t real. How could it be?” a voice called. Lord Phantom sat on the bench next to Lawrence. “There are no irrational fears. Some things we call fears are instincts that protects us from the dangers of darkness or needles or dentists. By realising what we fear, we can overcome them. Now true fears, what you would call phobias I suppose, are much harder to beat, because they have very specific origins. No one is born with phobias. Girls are taught to be afraid of spiders and bugs. Someone trapped in a well will of course be afraid of closed spaces, and so on.”

“Are you the one doing this?” Lawrence asked with rising heat. His parents were patiently waiting for the new conversation to end, like they had been turned off. “Why are you telling me this?”

“It doesn’t matter what I tell you. You see, fear is the greatest drive in humans. You don’t need violence; just the promise of it is enough. If you were convinced these phantoms were real, nothing I could say would make you think otherwise. But since you do know they are not real, tell me, can you make them go away?”

“If you had just stayed, if you hadn’t mortified us like this, we wouldn’t have to leave New York City. We would not have had to abandon John. It’s all your fault. Everything that happened to your brother is your fault. You were not there to protect him.”

“Stop it!” Lawrence flung to his feet and lashed out a hand at the phantom. His hand went right through her. Though she was just smoke, her reproaching eyes were real enough.

Lord Phantom merely shook his head and clapped his legs as he got up on his feet. “Don’t look at me, I’m not doing anything; I can’t actually make your parents appear here. All I’m doing is projecting your own inner fears and insecurities. These are your thoughts, Lawrence. This is your guilt.”

“You abandoned me, Lawrence.” A third phantom appeared between his parents. The figure was dressed in a pink nightgown. His long black hair tied into a ponytail and his pale complexion gave the young boy a fair appearance. Even the voice, soft and delicate, complied with the image. In his hands was a teddy bear too big for him. “Why didn’t you stay with me? I ran away from the hospital, and then our parents left, and I could not find them again. Where did I go until you met me again? What happened to me?”

Lord Phantom shook his mournful head. “You really have some crosses to bear. But don’t feel bad; parental consent is important to a growing child. It can be stunting to an adult human to live his life in disapproval of his parents. To get out of here, you must confront your inner fears. As for myself, I have other places I need to be.”

The three phantoms spoke again, all at the same time. Lawrence knelt down with hands pressed firmly over his ears, but the voices were in his head. It was all in his head. None of it was real, but that did not matter.

“Challenge Nummer drei, Lord Phantom, one of the more enigmatic of our kind. Unable to face the shame of defeat, he instead opted to roam the seven seas for three hundred years until he was inducted all the way back in 1097. Is it any wonder this guy is the closest to our Master?” Lord Arcana’s voice called out from nowhere and was heard everywhere. Lawrence looked up and immediately heard everything the phantoms had to say.

“Disgrace.” “Disappointment.” “Failure.” The words did not even make sense anymore. It was all his feelings, all in his head. “We only wanted a daughter. We tolerated your existence for eighteen years, even appreciated it, but you are dead to us now.”

“Enough!” Lawrence screamed at the phantoms, but their squabble continued in his mind.

“How could you let us down like this?” “You were never meant to exist.” “They left me at the hospital.”

Lawrence heaved with indignation. He stomped his foot to the wooden hull.

“I would not have had to abandon you if you had just allowed me to live. I was never a son to you. I was just some stranger that you needed to not be ashamed of, but guess what? I was not perfect, but neither were any of you. You were lousy parents, and you are rotten people. I will not feel guilty for disappointing you anymore. You do not deserve my fears and insecurities.”

His two parents fell quiet. Remaining was only John. Lawrence knelt down. “You…” the phantom began.

Lawrence had a tearful smile on his face, but the tears could not come to him. “Yes, I abandoned you, John. I knew our parents would mistreat you, but I never dreamt that they were capable of just leaving you on the street. I looked for you everywhere, but you weren’t taken in by a ward or an orphanage. Not a day goes by where I don’t wish to just pluck you right out of that time. But I can’t. I will just have to try to live with your current you. He isn’t half bad, you know? Just a little reserved.” Lawrence stood back up, and the John phantom nodded.

The boat shook. Lawrence waved his arms but found nothing to hold on to. He fell into the seat Lord Phantom had occupied. The sea quivered and trembled, like he was riding the back of a wild beast. A plume of water spewed up from the lake. The ship turned so the prow faced the sky. Except it had gone black.

The whole thing lasted but a moment. Lawrence held on for dear life as he rocketed through the sky. And then he was vertical again, rushing into a dark chamber. Dead trees lashed at his face.

The pressure forced him directly through the next wall. The ship was gone, as had the water. He fell out of a ceiling and landed with a heavy thud on the linoleum. A woman fell down on top of him and bounced off again.

“I didn’t think I would see you again.” Amber relaxed, on her back and with her feet to Lawrence’s nose-first face. They were silent as they took in their new surroundings. It looked like a model kitchen: practical but soulless with white colours and outlets everywhere. Nightlights, toasters, irons, laptops, drills… every imaginable kind of electrical appliance, whether belonging to a kitchen or not, were stacked on the vast kitchen counter warding them off. “I never had to deal with skeletons when I was just a bounty hunter. Well there was this one time, crazy young lady had her basement full, but none of them moved, I mean.”

“You’re rambling again.” Lawrence rolled on his back, his eyes closed. The clutter was downright distracting, in trying to spot any duplicates.

“Are you still angry with me?” she asked, sitting up.

As he did not reply at first, she crept closer, until his eyes popped open and she fell back on her tail. “I shouldn’t be, but I am. I could understand it if it was a sensual thing, but that big oaf? Aren’t I good enough for you?”

She pounded her little fists into his chest. “It’s not like that, how dare you even say such a thing? I love you, Lawrence, but… it’s complicated. I don’t know what to say.”

He sat up as well to grip her wrists. “No, no, I understand completely,” he said, and for a moment, Amber’s eyes lit up with hope. “He’s an old flame from your bounty hunting days, right? I mean, he’s immortal, you’re immortal, who knows how many times you’ve crossed paths.”

What little magic Amber had left made her hair dance. A red light of danger surrounded her. She pounded her fists into the floor and left little craters. “How can you say that? You think I would ever do something like that unless…” She bit her lips and looked away. “I thought he had died, and John was gone, and you were gone too and the entrance was blocked and I had never felt so lonely in my life. Seeing him in the mortuary all alive and naked. It felt right. I didn’t know we could make a way out. I didn’t know you were so close.”

“I guess I can understand that. Maxwell mentioned something about it.” He scooted a little closer to her. “Look, I’m still angry with you, but what could you possibly see in him? He’s obnoxious and unhygienic and he keeps making these weird eye contacts with nothing at all.”

Amber sniffed, but there were no tears in her eyes, no matter how hard and how long she tried. “You don’t… you can’t understand.” Lawrence leant in, ready to deliver some heated counterargument, but Amber put her hand to his lips. “Lawrence, I… I’m your sister. We were born from the same parents.”

She took her hand away again, but Lawrence was devoid of words to say. For a long while he simply sat there, looking at her, neither of them knowing what to do or say. The clutter hissed and boiled and screeched and seethed and hooted and rang. At last he chortled nervously. “Come on, Amber, for an excuse, it’s pretty lame. How… how would that even be possible?” he asked with a nervous grin.

“My parents are Heinrich and Maria. My mother has a plain face, but her hair is golden and even longer than mine. My dad always hides behind his newspaper and just goes along with my mother.”

“No. I don’t believe it. I don’t want to believe it!” Lawrence pushed Amber so she fell on her back. He got up with a face full of rage. His body heaved, his movements able to go any which way, but ultimately he turned around. “I don’t like this place.”

She got up and approached his back carefully. “Lawrence, I know it’s a little hard to comprehend, but what about the powers you have? The powers that I have, and the… the ichor that our body is made of. It makes sense,” she hounded and stamped her foot.

Lawrence turned around so suddenly and with such rage that Amber drew back. “No, I’m saying, this place… it’s doing something to me.” It took all of Lawrence’s strength not to fly off the handle. “You just don’t understand anything, you whore. All you do is sleep around and have fun. I worry about leaving you alone for this exact reason.”

“As if you’re any better! You always ignore me and disappear into your projects or go off on your own. Do you really think it’s any wonder I can’t be faithful to you? And now it turns out you’re my brother! Honestly, I feel stupid for not leaving you sooner,” she finished and stormed off in the other direction.

Lawrence roared and sank to his knees. “I love you!” he snapped.

Silence. Amber stopped but kept her back to him. “Do you really?” she asked with her head bowed. “How could you still love me? I’m your sister, Lawrence. And you called me a whore.”

He strained himself to get up. A radio clock’s acid drum and bass alarm went off. Lawrence swiped a whole armful of appliances off the counter in a rage. They fell to the floor, chattering louder than ever. Lawrence finally stomped the alarm until it had played its last note.

He tried walking towards her. Each step towards her was like anchored with lead weights. “No, you know I would never call you that. This is all just another test. Another Lord. Someone is making us say and do these things. I love you, Amber, and I don’t care about anything else. We don’t share blood, only parents, and I am tired of them always ruining my life. I don’t want to spend eternity without you.” At last he tripped and fell just short of Amber, but she was there in a flash, kneeling down by his side.

“You might not have meant the words you used, but the feeling is genuine, is it not? You really worry about me putting out while we’re apart?”

“Yes, I am sickly jealous of you, but I still trust you. Otherwise I would never dare leave you alone; I would never disappear into my projects if I didn’t know you would always be there for me. And you betrayed that trust.” He looked up into her face. Neither had tears to cry yet both sets of eyes were glistening.

Amber crouched down to the fallen Lawrence, arm on her face. “I’m sorry. I can’t ever tell you how sorry I am, but I can tell you it will never happen again. You’re the only one for me too, Lawrence. I don’t ever want to be with anyone but you.” She smiled despairingly, but Lawrence took her tiny hand into his coal shovels.

“Aw, isn’t this sweet. The fourth challenge belongs to Lord Strife, a trickster and an illusionist. In life he was a conman and had a thousand faces. He died when a previous mark recognised him and incited a lynch mob. That was back in, oh… 2040 I believe, making him our newest addition.” Lord Arcana’s voice called out, once more announcing the presence of a different Lord. “But boy I tell you, this guy loves to insert himself into his illusions, so I had to be very insistent. I mean, where could you possibly insert an elephant in a sweater in this mess, am I right?”

Lawrence jolted up on his feet. “I swear to Christ I will tear your arms off, you little fruitcake! Enough of these games. Reveal yourself, now!” he spat.

A gust of sand filled their vision and carried them away. They stood again on the runway with Maxwell right next to them. The sandstorm condensed into Lord Arcana twirling his jester’s sceptre. “And this brings to a close our parade of Lords. You have now seen or felt them all, except for mich.” He bowed low with a mocking grin. Lawrence approached him while rolling up his sleeves.

“Oh, I’m going to enjoy this!”

“Ah, but you will not be fighting me.” Lord Arcana raised his sceptre, and red light flowed from the imitation of his own head.

Sand shook around them as IMs rose where they had fallen or been dumped. Others pushed away tin roofing or debris. Some walked out of the empty and hollowed buildings on all sides. But as one, they bore down upon the party. Most had weapons in their hands but a few were missing even that or their legs.

“Allow me to introduce myself,” Lord Arcana said as he rose up into the sky. “A brilliant, yet misunderstood magician in life, that is Lord Arcana. Baseless rumours of sodomy and incompetence kept me from truly realising my potential, but now I have the devil’s luck.”

A beam of light shot out of farthest warehouse. The sound of the explosion came half a second later. Lord Arcana jolted with surprise, and the robots stopped their shambling march.

“Wait a minute, you’re just trying to stall us!” Lawrence shouted.

Lord Arcana looked down between his curved shoes with annoyance and shrugged. “So long story short, I was lorded on the fourth of September 1901 when I slit my own throat in a drug-induced satanic ritual. Viel Spass!” Lord Arcana fluttered his cape and was gone.

Ten of the best preserved IMs stalked closer with rifles ready for firing. Despite their submergence in the sand, the guns were in remarkably good condition. The IMs themselves, however, had seen better days. One even had a gaping hole through its chest. Maxwell pointed eagerly at the IM in question.

“Hey, I remember that one! John killed it in a supermall in New Jersey… w-what’s going on?”

“He’s done this before,” Amber said with her boomerang in hand. “He introduced himself as the Puppeteer back in the early days and resurrected most of the IMs we had already destroyed. When he couldn’t get rid of us, he drew the jungle over us like a carpet.”

“Now what would Lohengrinn call them… zombies? Zombie robots!” Maxwell grinned as he took his guitar off his shoulder. The IMs released the safety from their rifles and opened fire.

Maxwell leapt into the air and ran forward, deflecting the bullets with his massive sword to get close enough. He thrust his blade into a chest and kicked it in groin would to release his sword. He spun 180 degrees and decapitated another. One IM grabbed him from behind and lifted him up into the air. Another IM sucker punched him in the gut. Blood spurted from Maxwell’s lips.

Lawrence’s trophy axe had been filed with a laser to achieve maximum sharpness. It penetrated the hard outer carapace in one stroke and ripped apart cords and wires. The IM shook and collapsed. Maxwell stomped his feet to the ground and flung the other IM over his shoulders.

More simply descended upon them. Lawrence punched the nearest and cracked its chest. Maxwell headbutted another, and its head ripped off. The robot ran around like a beheaded chicken until Lawrence reverse roundhoused it.

Amber’s boomerang flew over their heads. A dissevered IM fell apart. Amber flashed by it before bullets could reach her. She was a blur, quickly darting between the IMs, the Fire Wheel hovering like a balloon above her. She pointed at an IM, and the ceramic blades gouged out the important guts. Wires sputtered and hissed.

Jeeps roared up the runway from behind. Reinforcements surrounded the immortal party. Lawrence bit into his finger and released the metal throat he had been crushing.

“Fan out and herd them together!” he shouted over the din of engines and gunfire.

Maxwell and Amber complied without understanding and went in opposite directions.

Lawrence carved a way back to the base entrance. IMs jumped out of the jeeps and fired their rifles immediately. The bullets ripped his clothes to shreds but melted in contact with his flesh. Like a veritable bulldozer, Lawrence mowed them down with a few, swift strokes of his axe. He stole several glances over his shoulder. His plan needed expert handling if they did not want to get overwhelmed.

Though the IMs understood Lawrence, Maxwell’s battle cries and Amber’s flames loosened them up. The robots nearly tripped over themselves to get away and ran right into the trap. Lawrence took care of the ones from behind.

The group of robots did not like being glued together. There were just too many of them for three people to handle. Several dozen IMs ran pell-mell to preserve themselves. Their AI ensuring efficiency was slowly being replaced by the selfish will of Lord Arcana.

Finally Amber spent her newly regained magic to form a ring of fire around them. The IMs quickly found weak spots where the flames thinned or cooled. Maxwell sprang into action, whacking at the escapees.

“You better do it now!” Amber screamed. “I’ll lower the wall right in front of you, and then you shoot. That’s what you want to do, right?”

Lawrence knelt on the ground. One slice of the ring opened and the IMs spilled out. Lawrence yanked down on the crank axle. Even with his expertise, even with his superhuman body, the pressure of heat and indescribable noise made the minigun a tough weapon to handle for long. He fed the gun all of the belts he had wrapped around himself and hoped for the best, his face screwing up in pain. The roar of the engine spewing out lead was right behind his ears.

Even with their armour, the robots did not take many hits to go down. The IMs ran around confused in all directions, but Lawrence adjusted himself while the other two herded them into the line of fire.

It took less than a minute to fire all five thousand rounds. Lawrence ejected the gun from his back. It fell to the ground with a loud thud as he rose to his feet. Only a few stragglers remained. He picked up his axe and went back to work.

Maxwell roared with joy as his blade sank into one of the survivors. There was almost frenzied glee to the blonde giant’s movement. He twirled around like a dancer, and already weathered IMs were cut completely down to size. Amber sat down and let the others deal with the last robots.

Lawrence sliced open a few more, and that was it. The runway was quiet again. “That’s that then,” he said and admired their work. The ground was scorched and filled with scrap metal.

No wounds were visible on any of the fighters. Only the holes in their clothes reminded of injuries sustained. For Maxwell, not even that. He had only little trails of blood on his chest and face, and some down arms and legs, where bullets had made contact and waited to be extracted. His clothes had long since patched themselves up.

“We should just extract John and get out of here. It took everything we had to fight these reserves, so I doubt we could take on the entire IM army on our own.” A fresh breeze came to play with Amber’s golden locks. Lawrence offered her a hand.

“We don’t have to. Once we find the console, we just turn off the IMs and the war is over. Easy as pie.”

Her brow furrowed. “I would go with you all the way if we had solid information, you know that. But what evidence do we have that this console even exists?”

“I know, I know, but the source mentioned designs that never left my drawing board.” Lawrence dismissed the argument with a wave of his hand. “Look, the Primary Intelligent Machine failed, so I suggested this console myself. It’s easy enough for the Government to have actually built it.”

“That’s what worries me! The more I think of it, the more it sounds like a plant. P-I-M’s intellect is frightening. He could easily have infiltrated our network and put the information there to lure us out. He above anyone would know the plans to that thing.”

“You don’t need to worry about that. Our network is impenetrable, and not even online. How could he possibly have–” Lawrence turned around as Maxwell patted him on his shoulder. “Yes, what is it?”

“I think Amber might have been wrong,” he said and pointed to the sky. A black attack helicopter flew in from over the desert. Its screen was cracked, its armour torn and burnt, but its general shape was intact, including the rotors. “If the IM honcho had other whirlybirds, you think it’d still be using that thing?”

The engines sputtered and whined. Roiling, black smoke wafted from it. Amber groaned, and Lawrence stared up fascinated. P-I-M’s face flickered back on the screen. Sparks flew out of the broken windows and he was gone again. The engine gave out for a moment, and the helicopter threatened to crash. Still it lumbered towards them.

Maxwell adjusted the grip on his sword, took aim and let it fly before Lawrence could get a word in. The blade was like a missile. It lodged into the front and protruded from the top. The rotor tore off, and the deadly blades flew in all directions. A warehouse crumbled somewhere behind them.

The helicopter smashed into the runway. The force of its speed carried it to a stop just in front of Maxwell. The blonde giant retrieved his sword from the front windows. Not a scratch could be seen on his immaculate, white blade.

“I can’t tell you how long I’ve wanted to do that,” he said and put the guitar over his shoulder again. “Where to now?”

“I, uh…” Amber and Lawrence stared nonplussed at Maxwell. She approached the smoking wreck. P-I-M’s helicopter was definitely down. “Well, how about we check out the warehouse where that light came from earlier?”

The machinery crackled and sparked. Amber jumped back in surprise. Maxwell nodded and turned from the helicopter.

“Sounds good. That must be where they keep John.”

“John…” Amber looked longingly towards the warehouse. For a moment, a thundercloud seemed to rise from it. Amber blinked, and it was gone. “I’ll run ahead.”

With the Fire Wheel left behind she took off like a rocket, pushing a groove in the sand.

It had been the best preserved of the warehouses, probably too far away to have felt the initial raid. Still, it had not been well maintained. The door was broken down, and sand had been allowed to blow in. Powerful gusts over the last many years had shaken crates off the shelves. The collapse of the roof had later flattened the furniture and broken the remaining crates.

A man sat on his legs, head held towards the bright sun. His pale skin reflected the natural light with a warm glow. Tears would have welled up in Amber’s eyes. Instead she softly approached the man. The back half of his trench coat was blown off. His white shirt was red from blood, and he had burn marks on both neck and chest.

“John?” Amber called. She carefully scanned the surroundings but saw no one else. Not even a body, though there were clear signs of a struggle. She quickly darted across the twisted metal and broken wood.

The man lowered his head again. The sheen disappeared and he was just John. Amber fell down next to him. John looked at her, and a small smile crept over his face. “I met him. Our last brother, it really is Ronnie.”

She nodded, but not knowing what to say, silence fell over them. John looked away again.

Amber put a hand on his. “Where? W-when?” she asked confused, and he turned his head again. “Now? Here?”

He nodded. “Yes. I could not save him, but I will next time. I will not stop until I have.”

Amber shook her head. “I don’t understand. How could there have been anyone here? Where is he now?” she asked, no less confused.

The smile faded and John turned his gaze to the ground. “It does not matter,” he said calmly. He was completely John again. He stood up and looked exactly the same. Nothing had changed. “Is the war over?”

She got up as well. Amber was at least a head smaller than him. “I should be the one to ask you that. We destroyed a token force outside, but where are the rest of the IMs?”

“Not here,” he simply said and brushed past her. His steps were tottering, unsure. If Amber was tired, then John was drained. She took a hold of him. “I think P-I-M really hates us.”

They joined Lawrence and Maxwell outside, gazing heavenward. The sky was thick with airplanes. One after another, their cargo of silver bubbles rained down over the Mojave Desert.

“I am guessing that to be the last of the Intelligent Machines,” John said and the other two noticed him, both breaking out in wide grins. “He must have pulled them in from all over the world when he failed to kill us. He has lost, but he will not let us win either.”

“I knew it was a mistake making something more intelligent than me.” Lawrence rubbed his chin and approached his brother. “But it won’t end here.” He grabbed the red pendant around John’s neck, visible through his shirt’s many holes. “I trust you wore this when you met P-I-M?”

“Of course. You told me how important it is, so I never took it off,” John replied calmly, tired to the bone.

Lawrence slipped the pendant over John’s head with one hand and took out a computer from his own jacket with the other. “Then we still have a hope, because I installed a data snatching programme on each of the three pendants. As soon as you came near Pim, this little baby started hacking his server and copied all of his data. Whatever override programme he used, I should be able to make a countermeasure.” He handed the flash drive and the computer to Amber.

The bubbles fell like hails on the air force base. Holes were banged into the runway. The few remaining warehouses exploded in clouds of dust and concrete. Amber yelped.

“What do you want me to do? I still want to fight!”

Lawrence grabbed Amber’s shoulders. “I know you do, firefly, but this is really important. You’re too tired to fight, and that includes you, John. I don’t want to lose either of you now that I have just gotten you both back.” Lawrence clenched his fist around his axe as the first hatches hissed open.

Maxwell still had his sword in hand. “Don’t let them get their footing! Strike them while they’re still emerging,” he shouted over the noise of impacts. He was first to spring into action, but not before giving Lawrence a thumb up. “Good luck,” he added.

“How long is it going to take?” John asked, looking at the fresh IMs climbing out of their metal cocoons. Amber sat down tailor-fashion next to him. The cylinder split length-wise. She pulled the ends apart and revealed a thin film that acted as the screen. John’s flash drive was inserted at the bottom.

“I can’t say. P-I-M must have used coding from his original role as the Primary, but it would not suffice. The American government didn’t stick with our original designs so–”

“Please,” John said and raised his hand. “Just a rough estimate.”

She prodded her screen frantically, murmuring to it. “Uh… five minutes, at the very, very least,” she replied offhandedly.

John took the dangling remnant of his coat where plastic vials sat in a row. He took them all in hand, popped them open and downed their yellow, mercury-like contents. Amber jerked her head up at the popping of bungs.

“John, what are those?” she asked sceptically. “Is that… is that ichor?”

John licked the last yellow drops from his lips. “I was saving them for an emergency, and if this is not one, then I do not know what is.”

She stared at him puzzled. “But I thought ichor could only be extracted by expelling it through…” She fell quiet and hid her face behind the screen. “Oh. I see. You were never a strong fighter, John, but you were resourceful. That’s what I always liked about you.”

“We do what we can. Five minutes, no more.” He voice was solemn as went to join his brother and his friend.

The first line of IMs already lay in a heap along with their bubbles. Maxwell wiped off the blood from his arms as the fabric patched itself up. Lawrence threw away his shredded shirt and jacket.

The fence surrounding the base clattered to the ground. The next line of robots marched to the fore. The IMs squeezed between ruins and came up the runway and trampled over the wrecks of comrades. All was quiet for a single moment as the IMs lifted up their guns.

Maxwell cracked his neck, and he was off. Carbine rifles, submachine guns and small firearms all yelled to claim his life. The ammunition pierced his flesh and made him jerk, but Maxwell barely felt a thing. The air was thick with gunpowder. He raised his sword, and the bullets ricocheted off the blade. One swing alone split open a handful of IMs.

The butt of a gun rapped him over the head. Maxwell fell to the ground and shattered his nose. Metal men surrounded him and took aim.

A spear of light pierced the chest of the first and exploded. The other IMs toppled over from the blow. As Lohengrinn’s silky hands caressed his wounds, Maxwell muttered a silent thanks to John. He got up again with a clenched hand. It shook.

Already half of the blood was spent. He needed to be more careful, but the killer’s glee welled up in him. He turned around, growing less defensive with each hack and slash of his blade. The pain and dwindling energy only entered him into a berserker state.

Lawrence, on the other hand, simply tried to prevent the IMs from entering. His axe had been sharpened, yes, but it was still a trophy. It ripped open one, two, three robot chests with no difficulty, but Lawrence could spot the beginning cracks. At last he flung it away, cracking open another IMs head.

Weapons were not Lawrence’s main forte anyway. He was a boxer used to using all of his limbs. He darted from one hole in the fence to another, dealing out jabs and kicks. The armour, which not even cannon shells could break, cracked before him easily. His flying knee strikes were just as deadly as Maxwell’s sword. He weaved between gunfire, his chest rippling with each hit.

The fence blasted apart, and blinding sand gushed up. Lawrence held a hand to his face. A long-necked barrel gleamed out of the cloud. The first round hit him square in his naked chest. Lawrence staggered back.

IMs streamed past the first with light machine guns. The fire nearly ripped him to shreds. He fell to the ground, gasping for air. His abdomen vanished, scooped out. There were no guts or blood, only his ichor sloshing around. It stretched itself to fill the void.

Flashes of light went right through the IMs. It took them a moment to realise they had been defeated. Only then did they explode.

Lawrence smiled and jumped up on his feet. His fingers twitched, as did the corner of his mouth. His angered eyes set on the IM with the hunter’s shotgun. Lawrence’s foot sent it spinning to the ground before it could cock its weapon. The light flickered from its eyes. The gun slid from its hand and landed by the feet of the next group.

His moment of inattentiveness had flooded the base with robots. Maxwell was already gone from sight. A herd of shotguns was coming up from behind and to the side, machine gun units from the desert and ahead. He could not possibly hope to take all down. Yet he smiled and raised his fists to the sky before leaping straight ahead.

The strength he had born with, but the skill was a lifetime of training. The IMs clashed against a bulwark of arms and legs. Oil and coolants dripped from Lawrence’s nose and hair.

Somewhere far away Amber yelled. The fighters could not hear the words, but it stirred them from the stupor. Five minutes had passed.

The last wave encircled the airstrip. Their hands carried grenade launchers, RPGs and heavy machine guns. Lawrence took a step back. The IMs marched closer, feeding grenades or belts to their guns. They stopped just short of where the fence had stood. The IMs hunched over, their arms dangling down.

“Did that do it? Was Amber successful?” Maxwell asked, coming down from his rush. He wiped a bloodied arm across his forehead.

Lawrence tipped over the SMG robot in front of him. “Yes, that was her cutting off Pim’s access to the IMs. But it’s not over yet. If I know him at all, he will try to control them directly now. After all, he can easily jump from his own vessel to satellites orbiting earth and then to any robot or machine that can take him. He’s no better than a virus.” He looked at the charred helicopter wreck behind him. “We’ve shut off his ability to control IMs, so he must feel very limited in his options. John, where is his vessel?”

John shook his head somewhere further down the runway. “Gone, and I do not know where. I will explain later. Point is, his own shell has been shut down,” he called out resolutely.

“And that means he has no vessel to return to.” A victorious smile spread over Lawrence’s face. “I say we have finally won! Twenty-five years, ladies and gentlemen. If only we had known back then how to stop this war.”

A large shadow fell on the base. As one, they turned their heads to the sky. An enormous, black zeppelin blotted out the sun. The body was smooth and littered with propellers. A monitor on the side displayed a gigantic image of P-I-M’s face. The gondola hanging from its belly was thick with IMs. A single shot rang out.

Maxwell tottered back, a trickle of red running into his eyes. He swayed back and forth, unsure whether to fall down or not, the back of his skull blown out. Finally he went down on one knee. “I wish people would stop shooting me in the head,” he groaned, regrowing bone and brains in a flash. “Do you guys have any idea how much this frigging hurts?”

Amber cringed and looked ready to vomit, not helped by the cracking and squishing sounds. Lawrence scooped her up under his arm and ran to the nearest ruin to hide. Maxwell eventually fell back as well. Only John remained standing out in the open.

And so in the sky shone the evil visage. It spoke no words of declaration or triumph or hate. It simply existed to kill. John calmly took aim with his gun. Multiple snipers aimed back at him. Only one of them got off a shot. The bullet whizzed right past John, shattering his shades. There were no eyes, just two black holes.

John rolled the drum of his gun and fired. The beam of light left a mirage as it passed through the balloon. P-I-M’s face screwed up in rage. He roared silently, and the zeppelin flowed slowly down. Nose first, it banged into the ground. A wave of wind fluttered John’s coat.

“And let that be the last we will see of you.” He took another pair of shades from inside his coat and turned back to his comrades. “So what is going on here, guys?”

Maxwell sat behind the ruins, picking out the bullets he could reach. Lawrence and Amber had the computer between them, discussing frantically. Amber looked up as John stepped over the stump of a wall.

“We did manage to remove P-I-M’s programme from the other IMs; that much is for sure. So basically we have no idea what he’s doing now.”

Nine IMs marched out of the crash. They put the scopes to their eyes and fired. Sand sprayed up, and the warehouse walls bled dust. “Well, you had better think of something fast. We got company,” John said with a glance back towards the wreck.

Lawrence and Amber took a few moments, muttering to the screen and prodding it. The IMs came closer, some with metal beams twisted around their torso. “If that blimp held a last foothold for P-I-M, then he could control all the other robots directly,” Amber said with disbelief. Her fearful eyes again looked up at John, while Lawrence hectically continued their work. “All of those IMs are P-I-M. He has assumed direct control.”

The other IMs still functioning stirred and joined their blimp brothers on their advance. A new ring tightened around the survivors. “How can he control all those IMs at once? I can barely concentrate about two things at once,” John asked, keeping his gun close to his chest.

“P-I-M is extremely intelligent. Normal IQ measures do not even begin to apply to him. Splitting his attention a hundred fold and still making valid decisions is a cakewalk to him,” Amber explained.

“He’d make the perfect housewife, in other words.” Lawrence grinned, but Amber slapped him over the head.

“We’ll figure something out, John. You two keep him distracted meanwhile. Perhaps try and see if you can get to the zeppelin.”

“All right, let’s do this!”

Maxwell clapped his thighs and got up. A pile of bullets already lay at his feet, a job half done. Sword in hand, he jumped over the ruined wall and charged headfirst at the enemy.

John slouched behind. He did not want to show it, but shooting down the zeppelin had demanded a lot of energy. He rolled the drum of his gun again. He could not keep the setting that high.

IMs bore down on them from the front. A single, wide column of robots marched down the asphalt with guns in hand. Maxwell disappeared into their ranks. His white blade could sometimes be seen sticking up. The march halted as the metal men dealt with their attacker.

John looked around him for advantageous positions. A dust cloud from behind made John aim his gun, but he quickly lowered it again. “Is that my car?”

A white vehicle with blue stripes rumbled up the runway. The five survivors were Adlai with a handgun, Luciano with a rifle, Serena with a machine gun, Julia with a submachine gun and Marte with a shotgun. As fearlessly as the immortals, the survivors ducked out of the car and spread out around the base.

The IMs split into two, entrenching themselves on both sides of the runway behind the more intact ruins at the end of the base. A shot rang out, landing between Marte’s feet. She raised her weapon, and the IM, along with the warehouse, disappeared in a roaring fireball.

Luciano and Serena covered behind broken walls and put in suppressive fire. The IMs aimed at them instead but Maxwell cut them down with a broad stroke. A grenade flew over his head. He leapt into its trajectory and batted it away with the broad side of his sword. The IM did not even have time to react.

Adlai winced and scratched his leg. Julia pulled him down behind a fallen IM. Her little Škorpion raked bullets quickly over the landscape, drawing the fire to her. John stood exposed and fired at whatever came too close.

Maxwell moved between the positions. The IMs could not decide who to shoot at. He pursued the robots as they scattered, allowing the survivors to pick off the stragglers. Those who stood and fired were instead cleft in two.

The earth rumbled as if screaming at them. IMs swarmed in from the desert. They had been dropped further away, and most held no other weapons than wooden bats or pieces of rebar. The last of the fence was trampled underfoot as the metal ring tightened on all sides. Guard and control towers crashed down. Marte let her last special bullets fly. The IMs marched through the fire and over the holes.

Maxwell disappeared into the onslaught of robots. John found safety with his brother and sister, behind a particularly sturdy wall with a smashed window. IMs came from behind and to the sides. Gunfire erupted everywhere. Amber’s fingers frantically danced across the keyboard.

“Couldn’t you get to the zeppelin?”

“Sis, I could not even get away from this position,” he replied and commenced shooting again. His car was still inside the circle of safety, but it had nowhere to go. The IMs were mashed shoulder to shoulder, constantly shifting to get closer. The survivors had to find new shelters soon. “Hold on. I will try to buy you more time.”

John put away his gun and stepped out into the open. A yellow glow surrounded him. The bullets could not even touch him. They melted in the shimmer. He lifted his arms to the sky and walked towards the metal menace. The robots did not identify the threat, and made no attempt to stop him.

The first IM banged into his car. The glow around John burst. A shockwave of yellow light travelled out in a perfect circle with him as the centre. The light touched only his enemies. The car and the survivors and even Maxwell remained unharmed. It was a technique that directly converted ichor to energy; benevolent to friends and unmerciful to enemies.

The first, second and third ring of IMs glowed for half a second, and then went off like bombs. They left no trace behind. The fourth and fifth ring simply ceased to function. Sparks sputtered, their metal armour cracked and their mechanical guts spilled to the ground. The sixth ring was pushed back. The rings around them trampled them and marched on, intact.

John fell to the ground. He lived still, but he could barely move. Disappointment filled him as the IMs closed around them again. But the light gave the survivors new vigour. With their dwindling ammunition, they pushed back. The tip of Maxwell’s blade cruised through the IM ranks like the fin of a shark. John observed from his position on the ground. His car was safe for a few minutes.

A loud explosion propelled Maxwell up, and down with a harsh thud. Smoke wafted from his charred body. His skin healed slowly. All he could do was writhe on the ground. The heavier armed IMs came up from behind. Their grenade launchers and RPGs were loaded. Randomly, they fired up into the sky. The survivors scrambled from hiding.

The explosions marred the runway with deep craters. Smoke and dust filled the old air force base. Sight and hearing were both blocked out.

Julia waved a hand in front of her. Serena lay on her belly right next to her. Marte and Serena popped out from behind a warehouse reduced to a single free-standing metal rack. Adlai was up on his feet amidst pockmarks, pushing his glasses up. He was breathing heavily as he looked out over the landscape. The IMs were unmoving.

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