Earth-Bound Angels volume 1 - The Destruction

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Story 03: Memories of Yesterday Part 2 – … And the Man Who Might Not

23 July 2062

1 year and 1 month since the Destruction

It was night and the darkness was solid. Rain drummed on the stone roof and against the glass windows, but Serena slept soundly. She took up all the space of her bed with arms and legs spread out, and the sheet had been banished to the floor. A pair of blue overalls and a yellow shirt hung over a chair.

A whoosh of wind blew the window open. She frowned and rolled over on her side.

Claws clacked their way across the floor. She turned around again, and jaundiced eyes looked back at her. The moon silhouetted a tall, lanky figure. Her mind first strayed to Vigiften, after all, the figure was clad all in black. But when it spoke, it cawed. The light fell on the hands with fingernails like warty talons. Feathers protruded from underneath the veil that covered this thing.

Serena yelped, out of surprise, but that was all. No malice came from the creature as it rapped closer. Rather than asking the usual questions, she greeted it as an old friend.

“What is it?” she asked, only then realising she could put no conscious thought or concept to the thing.

The creature stopped halfway to her bed. “This is no time to be sleeping, woman child. Evil things are about.” It had no accent that she could determine, though it sounded vaguely Middle Eastern. It was a man like a diseased crow clad in funeral shroud.

She got up from her bed, but the creature remained out of reach. Its face was cast in shadow, but mercifully human. Otherwise Serena may have disbelieved her waking status, rather than questioning it. “Am in danger?” she asked, but quickly regretted it and bit into her knuckle. “No, he’s coming for me, isn’t he? Thorne?”

The night swallowed the creature again, though the moon still shone on its bald head. “I have already said too much. My job is only to observe, but I like this place, and I have enjoyed watching you. I would hate to see them dragging you away, for they will not kill you, though razing this village to the ground would be a trifle matter to them.” Only the yellowed eyes remained, hovering where it had stood. They closed as well, and Serena plopped back down on the bed.

It was late and sleep gnawed at her eyelids. She scratched her soft belly and yawned, but found the idea of sleep too far out of mind. The rain came down hard, so Serena wrapped a leather poncho around herself. The fear of Thorne stayed with her. She was not a guard, but a quick patrol of Eden would put her mind at ease.

The crisscrossing paths were deserted. It was late, and bad weather. Surely it had been a nightmare born from too much food before bedtime? Serena shook her head at her own foolishness. She was only a couple of houses away from her own when she turned around again.

The clanging of armour made her turn her head. A female guard ran between the houses only one row below hers. Something followed behind, but Serena could see only the swish of a tail. She decided to investigate, even before the scream woke up all of Eden.

The guard was up in the air, held by a short arm. An abyss of teeth swallowed her whole. Serena slinked closer, but the monster lost its shape. Its kill done, it dissipated into the rain.

More guards came from all sides, alerted by the terrified sounds. Unable to see anything, they passed the scene of the crime without even blinking. Serena slinked closer. All that was left was a sword lying on the ground. It was the only weapon available, so she took it.

A female guard doubled back. Hands sprouted from a pool on top of the left roof. The creature that emerged was smaller than the first. As it went from liquid to solid, a fleshy collar was added, and a shock of horns protruded from its slimy skull. “Waaaaaaah,” the creature called. The guard looked up and screamed.

“This is unreal.”

The guard did not hear Serena’s muttering, nor would she likely have believed her. She was paralysed. The monster jumped down and licked the cold sweat and rain off of her skin. She fainted, and the monster held her limp shape in her hands, dancing from leg to leg.

Serena clenched the sword tightly and charged down the road. The monster still had its long tongue out. The metal blade plunged right between its eyes. It exploded into a mist of salt water. The guard fell to the ground, white as a sheet, but otherwise breathing. “There’s a guard lost in you,” Vigiften said. The strange villager and Lexine strode towards her.

“What are you doing outside?” Lexine shouted. “This is not a matter for farmers. We got actual demons running around, however that’s possible.”

“I saw one of them transform, I think. And then it just kind of… dissipated.”

Lexine nodded. “Yes, I noticed, and I would find it more fascinating if weird things didn’t keep happening here. Like a jungle growing overnight all around us. Right now I just want those things exterminated without having to worry about more than my own guards. Go back inside, and give me that thing.” Lexine grabbed around the sword in Serena’s hand, but she was unwilling to relinquish it.

“No! This is probably my fault, that we are getting invaded like this, so I can’t just sit back. I promise not to get in your way.”

Another scream pierced the air. “I don’t have time to discuss this.” Lexine wrenched the sword out of Serena’s hand with one mighty yank. “This will be my last warning, Serena. Go back inside.”

“Look, I get it. You’re angry that I did not join your guild.” Serena kept up with Lexine even as the guard captain stormed away. “But you got to understand, I’m done with that life; of killing and being ordered around. I enjoy my freedom as a farmer.”

Lexine punched Serena in the gut. “Don’t conceit yourself. There is no room in my team for people who can’t stay in shape. This is for your own good. Now stay down.”

Perhaps if the air hadn’t been so full of screams, Lexine might have heard the metallic clunk when her fist entered Serena’s solar plexus. Vigiften stayed by Serena’s side, keeping watch over her, though it did not take long for her to recover. “You should not make her angry like that. She can be quite stalwart,” the strange villager said.

Serena got up and frantically patted her affected area. She breathed a long sigh when she felt nothing wrong. “Stalwart? More like stubborn. I was a soldier before the Destruction!”

“A soldier with guns,” Vigiften corrected. “Do you know how to use a sword at all?” Though asking, Serena had already picked up the blade again. Lexine had left it to her, it would seem.

“Can’t be that hard. Just point the sharp end into your enemy and hope for the best.”

Vigiften gave her an empathic smile and did not stop her as she raced off.

The Moon was hidden behind angry clouds, and torches sputtered to keep alive and illuminate. Serena caught several shadows lurking outside the perimeter of the light. She couldn’t help but think of the bird man that had warned her. It had not filled her with dread, like the shadows did. Could they be unrelated?

She paused again and clapped a hand to her mouth. The villagers who had braved outside lay motionless on the path. A little girl with blond pig tails had blue and red marks on her neck, looking more like tail marks than handprints. A woman next to her had her eyeballs pierced through. Serena passed them slowly and drew a deep breath.

“I shouldn’t have stayed; I knew Thorne would come for me. But… these don’t look like his minions.”

No one replied. Light was on in every house, and the people huddled inside. Serena could see them. Their faith in the guards kept them from the worst fear. The reason for the dead faces twisted into horror was from the demons themselves, not the mere threat of them.

Serena’s lips quivered. She hastily followed Lexine’s path to keep herself from breaking down. Odd footprints were following the guard captain as well. They grew from a child’s to a behemoth’s as they swung from body to body. It had sprouted a handful of paws by the last villager.

A large totem pole towered over the village’s east side. It was a project that the children had made to honour their founder and the land that they inhabited. Elder Sover had too late told them that his culture probably never carved totem poles.

Lexine fought with another guard at its base. Serena was still far away, and hurting from the punch. She could only watch the guard captain fumbling with her sword. The other guard easily parried her moves and struck back with powerful blows. Like her, the male guard had a yellow sash around his waist. He raised his sword. Lexine held up hers to block the strike. The blade changed direction. Lexine tried to move, but the sword still cut into her side. The armour was weaker there, where it was held together by leather strings. Lexine fell to the ground, clutching her wound. The male guard held up his weapon, ready to score the kill.

That’s when Serena noticed. The dozen or so paw prints stopped short of the fight, becoming instead a pair of heavy boots. “Lexine, he’s not real! He’s just a demon.”

The proud guard captain had become a child. She whimpered and cowered, not a shred of pride left. There was no way Serena could be in time. A tongue erupted from the demon’s face, licking its lips. It was savouring its meal.

Serena hurled her sword as hard as she could. The demon looked up, annoyed at being disturbed. The blade slapped into its face with the broad side. The demon snarled as it staggered back, and dissolved into a fine mist. Serena slowed down. Had she won?

A sound of rushing water filled her ears. She whirled around and saw the demon gathering itself. A different man stood before her. She lost all breath. Before her stood Thorne himself: overweight, bald and white shirt stained with sweat and beer. Not a single emotion betrayed the meaty face. Serena backed away, but her legs could not support her. She fell on her behind. The tongue whipped out again.

“You’re not real. You’re just a demon who takes the appearance of what we fear most. You… you’re…” Serena curled into a ball. Knowing is not always believing.

The demon crouched down. It would not kill her, not yet. Its long tongue licked first her cheek, then the other. Serena could do nothing. “Unfortunately for you, we do not fear Thorne in Eden.”

The fake Thorne looked up. A length of steel protruded from its throat. The demon gurgled, though no blood came from the wound. It exploded into mist that the wind blew away.

Lexine collapsed next to Serena. “The man you fought with. That was Tony, wasn’t it?” Serena asked, trying to get her hammering heart in check. Lexine groaned. “He was so handsome. He kept smoking in the bathrooms and stealing and slept late and never met on time, but he always got away with it using his smile. I can’t believe he would become guard captain.”

“People change. Whatever he was in his youth, he was a strict pain in the ass to me. Dammit. I can’t believe I’d let that idiot hurt me like this again.”

“Heart of gold and tough as nails,” Serena replied.

Lexine snorted and laboriously got up on her feet. Blood squirted from the wound, prompting a small whimper from her. “Or something like that. Look, it’s not that I don’t respect your decision, I was just disappointed that you wouldn’t join my guild. I had hoped I could learn a little more about my old man. See if he was always such a tyrannical bastard.”

“Don’t get up! You’re just going to bleed to death.”

Serena shot up on her feet, but Lexine refused her helping hands. “This is nothing, don’t worry. I have a duty to fulfil here.” She did not walk more than a step before falling to one knee.

Serena’s hands were not refused again, though she could do little more than support the guard captain. “Come on, Lexine. You won’t be any good to anyone if you bleed out.” Gently, Serena helped Lexine back to the totem pole and propped her up against it.

The guard captain breathed heavily. Her armour was matted with mud, and blood dripped from her side. “You can call me Lynsey,” she said and offered a weak smile. “That’s my first name, if you can believe it.”

Before Serena could reply, a guard rushed down the road towards them. She put a fist under her chin when she saw Lexine. “Captain, we’ve got the weird creatures on the run. I think they’re retreating.”

“What? But it took us so much to beat them back.” Again Lexine tried to stand, but Serena was quite firm in her insistence.

“We kept ourselves to groups,” the guard explained. “The beasts had a hard time transforming into something we all feared.”

Lexine took a cig from inside her armour and put it to her lips. “Still, this was too feeble. Those demons only got a handful of citizens killed, hardly enough to bring us any discord. Tell the guards to remain on alert. Don’t–”

Lexine’s words caught in her throat. The guard broke out in tears. Sweat broke out on Serena’s brow. The citizens of Eden cried out in dread and fear and terror.

“What… is this?” Serena panted, barely able to speak. She fell to her hands and knees like a great weight was placed on her shoulders.

Someone pointed to the sky. The clouds were parting, and the glowing moon peeked. The rain stopped. A plume of water gushed heavenwards. A man emerged from the top.

He was short and stout in leather boots, green wool pants held up with a drawstring, a blue coat on top of a byrnie, and a wooden helmet reinforced with iron bands. His red beard was full and lush and nearly obscured his face. “I gave Thorne just one task: to sit on you until my master would need you. But even such a simple thing is beyond him.”

His disinterested glare caught Serena as he jumped, and the waterspout dissipated. The guards tried raising their soggy spears, but they had become heavy. Others threw them away as if they were live snakes. “Did I not tell you that she would cause trouble? This demon is here for her, so I say we let him take her!” Sageway came up a side road with her goons. Unlike them, she appeared fearless, if not a little unsettled and drenched.

“You will sit down. This does not concern you.” The stranger looked at her, and Sageway collapsed to the ground. “I am Lord Phantom, one of the cardinal powers of Hell. I am taking you back, Serena Gearalt.”

“You can’t make me! I love this place, and I don’t even know who you are or who has what plans with me,” Serena replied. Lord Phantom waved his hand, and an oppressive blanket closed on her mind.

Lord Phantom’s shape rippled as he walked. “I’m afraid you will not have a choice in the matter. I do apologise for the small attack, though. Like the flash before the boom.”

“What is all this racket in the middle of the night?” Elder Sover came up from behind Lord Phantom. Taken from his pedestal, the elder appeared even more wizened and stooped. The Lord did not turn around. More precisely, his shape inverted itself to face him.

“I have come for Serena Gearalt. Do you have any objections?”

The Elder clutched his cane tightly. “Miss Gearalt has passed the test, so she is one of us. No forces between Heaven and Earth may violate this decision.”

Lord Phantom nodded. “The woman you are harbouring is as much machine as the marauders that you killed. Knowing this, will you still offer roof and food for Serena?” he asked. The elder’s face did not change. The Lord turned to look at Sageway. “I see. If you’re going to resist, then this next part will interest you. I am certain you two know each other.”

The guards could not lift their swords or string their bows, so the man who came through the fence met no opposition. He was dressed in the blue pants and blacks vest of the Miscellaneous Guild, though he had not changed clothes in a long time. Sageway gasped. “Dad?” she exclaimed and was permitted to rise, though her two goons remained immobile.

“Hello, Sage!” he said tenderly and took her in his arms. He possessed a hint of the Native American that was washed out completely in his daughter. Perhaps with the exception of the raven hair. “I told you I would come back, didn’t I?”

Sageway nodded feverishly with tears streaming down her cheeks. “I never stopped believing, not once!” She wiped her face with an arm.

Lord Phantom put a watery hand on the father’s shoulder. “I hope you have not forgotten why I brought you here? Get Serena Gearalt and take her out of here.” His face was like stone and his eyes hard. Sageway pushed herself away from her father.

“Why are you here? With that demon?”

He merely smiled. “Daddy has come to make good on my promise: I’m here to kill the Elder and make this place into the paradise it could be. Where robots do all the work, and we can do whatever we want.”

Sageway stared agape at her father. “What? No! That’s now what you promised me at all. You just told me you would return when your expulsion expired in a few years.” Sageway was not permitted any more talk. Lord Phantom simply flicked his wrist and she fell to the ground; pale as a sheet and shivering.

“Forget about the elder and just do your job,” Lord Phantom said, but her father took a little detour. The fear lifted from the guards. They unsheathed their swords, but he knocked them aside with a swipe of his arm. “I’m warning you, Gan, do not renege on our deal or you will know the true meaning of the terror of Hell.”

Gan looked back with a dangerous smile. “Don’t worry, Phanty. I just have a few things to do, and then I’ll get someone to haul your catch back.”

The Elder did not move, even as Gan came closer and his face slowly displayed a full of a year’s repressed fury unleashed. He never got near enough to touch him. Serena put her hand around his neck.

“Hmm?” The slightest sense of surprise slipped over Lord Phantom’s face. Behind Serena stood Vigiften. “Are you behind this?”

“Guilty,” Vigiften replied. “Naturally, I had to work on freeing myself first. You exude a powerful aura of purest fear. Just keeping Serena fighting fit takes all I’ve got.” Even so, no pain crossed Vigiften’s serene face, nor did he appear to be doing anything.

Lord Phantom shook his head. “Absurd. A mere spirit acting like a genius. Let’s see how long you can keep this up.” Neither did Lord Phantom seem to do anything. Vigiften took a step back. Though his face strained, he still managed to smile.

“You better both leave. Now.” Serena threw Gan to the ground and turned to the villagers. Her fingers worked on her right arm. The flesh squelched as her nails dug in. The skin came off without blood. Underneath, her arm was robotic; made of metal plates welded together. Her face was set in determination. “You all heard Lord Phantom: I’m a cyborg. There’s no point in hiding it anymore.”

A shadow fell on her from the hissing torches. Gan was up and massaging his neck adorned with blue marks. “Eden is a fool for turning down technology, you hear? You think you’re a paradise now, but a little bit of technology would elevate this place to heaven.

“You think I spent my exile weeping or gnashing my teeth? I am now more powerful than I ever was.” Serena aimed a kick at his face, but he easily blocked it with his arm. A blade broke from the skin and went out across his knuckles. Sageway gasped. “Even Eden cannot survive without technology. I knew there had to be a reason why the machines couldn’t enter. The Forbidden Building has a generator in the basement, keeping an EMP device running night and day! That’s why only cyborgs can enter. The electro-magnetic waves can’t shut down the human brain, after all.”

Serena lowered her foot again and jumped back. “What have you done to yourself?”

“Oh this?” Gan traced a finger across the steel protruding from his fist. “I had a few enhancements done while I was away. This is the future of mankind, and only fools would refuse it.”

“No, the fool is you. Why would you do that willingly? Not a day goes by where I don’t wish to have my original limbs back. The only reason I’m like this is because an explosion took away my original parts. My guts are partly tubes. My joints ache when it rains, and burns when the sun shines. I would not wish them on my worst enemy.” She massaged her metal arm with her human hand.

Gan shrugged with the same superior smile his daughter sometimes exhibited. “Well yeah, Serena, you’re an outdated heap of junk. I mean, come on, you were one of the first, after all. Allow me a demonstration of what the new model can do.” He rushed forward with inhuman speed. His arm blade stabbed at Serena. She matched his quick feet, stepping back and raising her own arm in defence. The guards were already in alert. They jumped out of the way just in time.

Her keen eye scanned her opponent’s movements. She swayed, waiting for an opening. Her fist shot out. Gan looked shocked as Serena’s fist impacted with his chin.

“Not bad, but pure luck. You won’t get me twice.”

His next stab made a vermilion line on her face. He grinned insanely as his arm, faster and faster, thirsted for her sweet blood. Serena groaned as the blade drew her blood again, on her other arm. She could not match his speed once he got serious. There was only thing to do.

The blade sank through her poncho and formed a red spot on her chest. Immediately she secured his hand, then tightened her robotic fingers around the blade until it was dust. “Be careful where you hit me. What parts of me are human, and what parts are android?” she warned. Gan drew back, the metal stump retreating into his arm.

“Hmph. Play all you want, but I know that was a serious wound. Allow me to give you another.” A barrel tore out of Gan’s left arm, like the blade had on his other. She was still digging out pieces from her flesh. The light from the muzzle ate her vision.

The world turned upside down. She could see nothing, but she felt the ground hitting her.

“Prosthetics are only meant for replacements, never enhancements. Are you sure your body can take this amount of modification?” Serena got up, feeling weak in her left arm.

“I would be more worried about yourself.” Gan aimed his arm barrel again. It fired with a loud bang. Light came and went, and Serena stood face to face with him. He tried to redraw, but she had her robot arm on the barrel. “What? How did you..?”

Serena’s face was dark and serious. Gan winced as she bent his weapon out of shape. “I don’t care how much progress has been made; these toys of yours still require a lot of energy.” The barrel turned around completely and pointed at him. Gan lashed out with his fist. He met only her palm. “How long have you been exiled? Let’s say a few months, plus the time I spent here. How much of that time did you spend on getting modified? On adapting?”

Gan kicked Serena away and fumbled back. “None of that matters when you have power. And with power you can have everything. I will destroy you and this whole goddamn village.”

He lunged at Serena and toppled her, punching her as she lay beneath him. “You can’t replace your body’s healthy limbs and not expect it to protest. I’m sure you’ve already experienced the phantom pain? That will never leave.” She blocked or avoided his blows as best as she could, though both her arms ached with the barrage.

“I told you, I’m not some outdated model like you. The complete removal of my mortal body took only a few days. I have spent every waking moment since then on training for this day. Eden will become mine.” His right arm was raised, but creakingly halted. His left arm convulsed in heavy spasms. “No! Obey me!”

“I suffered from fevers and gangrene and blood clots and infections just from the amputation. That took them a few weeks to resolve while keeping me in a medical coma.” She squared him solidly in the face. Gan fell off her, and Serena towered above him, licking her split lip. “But they had to have me awake for when they attached the prosthetics to monitor my body’s acceptance. Some days I spent thrashing in my bed in a haze of pain, others drugged beyond consciousness. My kidneys and liver and heart were all destroyed trying to finder proper dosage of the powerful medicine. And you’re telling me you want this through this voluntarily?” She lifted Gan up by the scruff of his frayed vest. Half of his body jerked uncontrollably, the other was locked in awkward positions.

He lifted his head ever so slightly. “Help… me…” he said through gritted teeth. His bodily functions were out of his hands. A wet patch formed on his crotch.

Serena shook her head. “I’m sorry, but we can’t help you here. Go back and get your medicine, and don’t show your face here anymore.” She released him again, and he splashed around like a landed fish.

“I’m afraid it isn’t that easy.” Lord Phantom stood behind the gibbering Gan. His liquid hands plunged into his chest. “The only one thing stronger than human will and rationalisation is emotion. Control a man’s emotions, and you will control him completely. Observe.” Lord Phantom retracted his hands. Gan stopped shaking. His face was suffused with stark terror.

Gan shot to his feet. His body tried to rebel, but fear had momentarily brought it back under his control. It also made him more erratic. Gan leapt for Serena, drool slobbering from his tightened jaw. Serena locked hands with his, but possessing only half the robotic limbs made her wince as his fingers dug into her flesh.

“He can still be saved, but you have to get him out of here now,” Serena said with strain as Gan pushed her back. His eyes were opened wide. Strange whimpers burped from his throat.

Lord Phantom sprang back, light as mist, out of the fighting arena bounded by the citizens and guards of Eden. “You think I care about this man? I only needed someone to bring you back, and this one seemed eager. I could not care less what happens to him afterwards.”

Gan punched and Serena tumbled back. He howled like a whipped dog through his clenched jaws, pouncing and pounding. Serena screamed as her left shoulder popped. Gan did not stop and socked her in the chin. A red line sprang up around his armpit. A shower of blood sprayed out. He whipped out his left arm. Serena blocked with her good right one. A long crack almost tore her mechanical limb in two. Another red line formed.

Both his arms flopped uselessly around. Gan simply tried pinning Serena down. She kneed him in the throat. Gan fell to the ground. He went up on knee. Blood gushed out from the top of his leg. Finally the spell had become too much. His eyes rolled up. Froth and blood escaped his teeth. The convulsions returned with even greater power.

Serena nudged him on his back with her foot. Though still jerking, Gan was dead. “You have lost, Lord Phantom. Tools tend to break when you don’t take good care of them,” she said solemnly. Both of her arms, as well, dangled. Her face was gashed and bleeding.

“You have grown strong, Serena. Very well then. My master will not need you for some time anyway.” Lord Phantom made no gestures, but the veil of fear was pulled from Eden. Vigiften almost collapsed. Sageway howled as she went to her father’s side. “You may stay. Not that it will matter in the end. ” He turned around and headed for the exit. His back was matted with thousand year old blood through his broken coat and ring mail. The guards raised their weapons, but he dissipated before any could stop him.

Sageway sat on her heels next to her father. Her two goons crouched next to her, Vai with hands on her shoulder and Dunguaire dissolved into tears. ”Why couldn’t you have saved him?” Sageway asked, grief almost choking her voice. “You know how to, so why didn’t you?”

Serena shook her head. “The medical therapy can take months, if not years. After that comes another few years of training to get used to your new body. Your father was not ready for the strain that he put on himself,” she replied in a tired, serious voice.

Ani came from behind and popped Serena’s shoulder back. She screamed, and Ani hoppled away. Serena massaged her arm.

“Even so, an enhancement or two cannot actually kill you. Most deaths are from the operation or the amputation itself. For Gan to die like this… I shudder to think of the extent of his conversion.”

“Dad…” Sageway put her head to her father’s shoulder. She could not hold back anymore.

Elder Sover slammed his cane into the ground. It was less effective than a wooden floor, but it got everyone’s attention nonetheless. “Today has been a trying day for Eden. We have lost many of our own, but I must ask everyone to return to their homes and let the guards do their job. To those who cannot, go to the theatre and we will arrange for something. Work will not wait for us, nor will it stop because of death. There will always be duties to attend to. Get some sleep, everyone, before the breaking of dawn.”

Muttering, the villagers returned to their homes except those that had lost someone close. They did much like Sageway and pleaded with the bodies. Miscellaneous workers went around to each one left behind to offer comfort. The elder nodding approvingly as he went to the totem pole. Lexine still sat propped up against it. She had never gotten a light, and the cig hung from her lower lip.

“I hear that you put a hand on a citizen of Eden. You know this is against the rules without proper cause. I have no choice but to suspend you from active duty for a month,” he said, a glint in his eyes. Lexine flushed but did not object.

“Better make that two. Or permanently, if I can’t get her to the infirmary quick,” Ani interjected and slapped the cigarette away. Some of his farmers rushed towards her with a stretcher.

The small plaza emptied of people. Miscellaneous workers took Sageway under her shoulders. Her arms flailed for her father. Both goons sobbed heartfelt along with her. Left were just the corpses, some blood in the mud and puddles, Serena and Vigiften.

“I didn’t mean to deceive you. This is why I wanted to leave Eden, but before I knew it, you had convinced me to stay and then I found it hard to say. I know your policy on machines. I’ll be gone before tomorrow.” Serena looked up into the night. A pair of yellow eyes seemed to stare down at her from the top of the totem pole.

It was Pulm, however, that came out of the darkness. She took Serena’s metal hand and squeezed it in her own, smaller ones. “Don’t be ridiculous, Serena. No way that they would throw you out, not after tonight.” Pulm smiled, but Serena pulled away. The old lady put her hands on her hips and looked at Vigiften. “Well? Are you just going to kick her out?”

Vigiften was a tired mess, his usually silky hair standing on ends and his face full of tired lines. “This really is late for philosophical debates. Very well, let me ask you. What makes you human? Your flesh?”

“Well of course it’s the flesh,” Serena replied and stifled a yawn. Her mechanical arm ached and she grabbed it unconsciously. “That’s the major difference between robots and humans.”

Vigiften nodded wearily. “All right, so if I cut off your arm, would that make you less human?” The strange villager shuffled closer. “And would that arm then be human on its own?”

Serena wrinkled her brow. “No, of course not.” She raised and lowered her left arm as she stomped around. “Look, just shut it with your big-headed talk for a moment, okay? Not even half my body is my own. I’m a freak who cannot age, and I do not belong in your technophobic society.”

“You asked me yourself back on Outlook Rock what intent matters. So what does intent matter, Serena? You may be part machine, but you’re only using it be human, and in the end, is that not what you are? Can you honestly tell me that you feel more like a machine than a human?”

Pulm grinned broadly and grabbed Serena’s damaged right arm. “I don’t think we’ll even have to make an exception for you. Your arm and your body is a thing of the past. If you want to live your future as a human, then Eden will be open for you. And don’t worry about this arm. Was I not the best mechanic in our unit?”

23 January 2076

14 years and 7 months since the Destruction

Following the Destruction, the United States had in large parts been turned to desert, bordered to the north by the lakes and forests of Canada. Then, one morning a few weeks later, a jungle had popped up with the city of Los Angeles at its centre. It stretched from the ocean to the fringes of the Mojave and even swallowed San Francisco. Such a thing could never have happened before, but the world had seen a turn to the strange after the Destruction.

This jungle was truly not a thing of nature. The trees and growths had not been seen on earth for a hundred million years. Little light penetrated the tree cover, and ancient eyes watched from the shadows.

A highway had once knitted the countryside together, but ferns and grasses had swallowed it whole. Cars had not been driven on the long forgotten asphalt in over ten years. The animals were not even used to horses, so the white vehicle and the motorcycle sent them skittering for cover before their shapes could be revealed.

“Maxwell, we have been over this,” the driver of the car said. “You are not playing the role of Hamlet.”

“Oh, come on!” the motorcyclist said. “Who could be more perfect than me?” Maxwell flashed his brightest smile.

John shook his head. “Perfect or not, I just know that you are going to ruin it.” He waved an accusing finger out of the window. “I already made a mistake allowing you to direct the play.”

“I just made a few changes, so sue me,” Maxwell chuckled and tugged his hair back.

John raised an eyebrow. “A few? Shakespeare is going to rotate in his grave, and he might not even be the author.” He made a quick manoeuvre. Years of unchecked growing had sprouted small trees even on the path.

Maxwell waved his hand dismissively. “I never cared much for that original script, John. I mean, two thirteen year old going that far for love?” he asked sceptically, more than playfully. “At that age, it’s all supposed to be girl cooties and what not. So really, I improved it.”

“You cannot just change a timeless classic,” John replied irritated. “I do not even know how you weaved Terminator and Rambo into it.” He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel.

“It’s important to teach the kids about all the things that they will never experience. Most of those runts were born in the basement, and the rest are too young to even remember movies,” Maxwell protested.

“That is another thing, Maxwell. Those kids only like you because you let them play with the guns. The real guns! I swear, sometimes I do not know who is more immature,” John shot back.

Maxwell snorted. “No, I was wrong. You would be perfect for the role of Hamlet. Maybe that could teach you some passion.” He laughed at his clever idea, though John did not have the chance to reply. A low-hanging branch collided with Maxwell’s forehead. The motorcycle continued ahead without him until it hit a tree. Animals, up till then thinking themselves safe in the treetops, hastily leapt out of the crowns. “Ow.”

“You okay?” John shouted as he reversed to Maxwell’s position. “You really should keep a closer eye on the road, you know?” He was just in time to see cartilage creakily reforming Maxwell’s nose. The minor cuts on his face healed up almost before they could bleed.

“I’m fine.” Maxwell sat up and removed a pinecone from his mouth. “Wait… when did we get into this jungle?” he asked and looked quickly around in all directions.

John sighed. “We have been in here for hours, Maxwell.” He removed his hand from the car door again. Maxwell was evidently fine, so there was no need to step out. “Perhaps if you had not gone on about your play, you would have noticed sooner.”

“And here I thought I should never see any greenery again.” Maxwell brushed needles off his shirt and untangled several sticks from his hair. “So what did you say we were here for again?”

“So now you want to know… after three days on the road.”

“You know that I trust your instinct and judgment.” Maxwell tapped his nose and went to retrieve his metal steed. “Indulge me.”

They got running again, and John rested a hand out of the window. “Well, I uh… I heard about this place called Eden before the Destruction,” he explained. “It was this small colony of people living without technology, so I’m hoping maybe they would not have been touched by Thorne yet. A slim hope, I know, so that is why I have postponed going until now.”

“Living without technology isn’t all that bad, you know.” Maxwell rubbed his chin contemplatively. “I used to do that for long periods, even without what passed for technology at the time. So these people, are they Amish?” he asked.

“There is no religious aspect to them. They just enjoy the quiet life.”

“Sounds interesting. But they probably wouldn’t have been able to defend themselves against the robots.”

John shrugged. “Then at least we got a trip out of it.” His head tilted down to the map spread out over his lap. It was old and careworn. A red circle contained the single caption, Eden. “I figure another hour of driving should do the trick.”

The unseen path meandered through the jungle, avoiding non-existent obstacles and running through missing towns as it followed the old highway. Maxwell probed John a little more about Eden, and John replied with intimate knowledge. “All right, this all sounds good, but you say this land was an Indian reservation run by an Indian. Then why was it called Eden?” Maxwell asked.

“No one spoke the old language anymore, so the guy did not know what to call it or what it had been called,” John explained. “Besides, the man was Catholic. His culture was lost. Even more so now, I suppose.”

“Well that’s just sad,” Maxwell said and clutched his chest. “No one knows of my family anymore either, though we had a cousin that went north and became famous for claymores.” He fell back into his memories. Only a loud cough from John brought him back.

“Reminisce on your own time, Maxwell. We are here.” The sun was up high and threw its rays into the biggest and probably only clearing in the entire jungle. They passed through an unpainted picket fence that rounded off Eden’s territory. “Things look well-kept here. Maybe we are in luck,” John mused.

The clay huts spread out before them, intersected with dirt paths that had not been overgrown. Indeed, children quickly peeked out of doorways and windows at the roar of the heavy engines. The only ones who actually came to greet the group were the guards with hands on their swords and bows held before them.

Maxwell saluted them heartily. “Hail, brothers,” he said. “I am Maxwell and this is my compatriot, John Kilburne. We come with peace.”

A weather-bitten woman stepped forward, a yellow sash around her waist. “You better, or we won’t hesitate to cut you down. Do you seek amnesty… or trouble?” she asked; a straw dancing between her lips.

“Do my eyes deceive me, or is that John Kilburne?” The non-gendered voice was followed by the large strides of a strange villager, with a grin to rival Maxwell’s and hair to put him to shame. “Dios mein, it is!”

John got out of his car and bowed politely. “Long time no see, Vigiften. I had not thought that you would still be here.”

“Of course I’m still here! Like you changed any either,” Vigiften replied. The guards relaxed, though Lexine kept a hand resting on her sword. “Eden is always open for you, though your friend there will have to pass the test first.”

John humbly shook his head. “We are not here to catch up. Or to seek amnesty. Rather, it is the other way around.” He looked out at the village of Eden and spoke a little louder. “I have come to offer rooms in my own shelter for those who wish to fight.”

Vigiften chuckled. “So you finally built that old thing. I hate to disappoint you, John, but I daresay we are safer here than any shelter out there.”

The guards consented to the statement and nodded their heads. John merely looked out at them. “So you still refuse to be a part of anything. Are you just going to shut yourselves off and never care about anyone else?” he admonished.

Lexine grunted and her fingers flexed around the hilt, but Vigiften simply smiled. “Talking about Eden… or about yourself?” the strange villager asked. John’s face cracked into a smile, and the two were laughing in seconds. Maxwell nervously chipped in, his face one big question mark. He leant in close to John’s ear.

“Introductions aside, I don’t think any of these people are going to come with us. They seem rather content.”

“Don’t be so certain of that. Perhaps if you speak up, someone will listen,” Vigiften said, suddenly right next to Maxwell.

“Uh, well… I guess since we came all this way,” Maxwell replied and jumped a step back. He studied the androgynous face and felt the hairs rise on his arm. He turned towards the village and took a deep breath. “People of Eden, you have heard why we come. Do not miss this chance. Join us, and you can help push back the scourge of Thorne. You have lived peacefully so far, and you may continue to do so for a time, but it is only a question of when. When will Thorne have had enough of you and march his army here?

“For he will come. Thorne will not stop until he has eradicated every single human being. But conversely, he will not have won either, as long as even of us is left. And he shall be denied of his victory. We will continue to fight him, but we cannot do this alone. We need all the people we can get. Brothers and sisters, if you will lend me your hands, then I will lend you our weapons and my strength.” His voice hung heavily in the silence that followed. He took a breath to continue, as no one spoke up or moved, when a single villager stepped forward.

“I will.” She was dressed in the clothing of farmers. Her hair was smooth and a dark shade of purple.

“Only one? No one else?” Maxwell shouted. The woman stood before him, reaching him only to the chest. “All right, young lady, tell me your name.” His eyes studied her curves, his pupils making zigzags to trace them, stopping at her robotic arm.

She held his gaze. “My name is Serena, a cyborg, and I came here some ten years ago.” She looked back at Vigiften. “I have enjoyed every single moment here. These people have nursed me back to health, and I have many friends, but I have been restless since one of them died. I cannot sit idly by anymore, so this is not an opportunity that I will miss out on.”

“I can hardly say that I’m surprised. Indeed, I was all but expecting you to run off in the night. This way I can say my proper goodbyes. As can the last of our first guild heads.”

Vigiften waved a hand. The guards took a moment to realise what was expected of them. They hastily made a hole in their ranks, and Pulm pushed through. She tripped in her haste, and a bundle in her arms went flying. Maxwell’s paddle-like hands grabbed her just in time. “Oh, thank you, young man. Now where did the things go?” Pulm frantically threw her head about. John removed a purple dress from his face.

“What’s this?” Serena took the garment from John’s outstretched hand and held it before herself. “No. It can’t be! Don’t tell me you held on to this thing for all this time?” she asked.

Pulm nodded eagerly. “Of course we did, sweetie. Vigiften insisted you should stay, but I said it would only be temporary. You’ve never been the type to sit still, after all.” She chuckled friendly and grabbed Serena’s arms. Flesh covered only one of them. “I had something else for you as well, but where…”

“I think I have an idea.” Vigiften crouched next to a large submachine gun. “Guns are harder to repurpose. Mostly we just melt them down for the metals, but this thing looked so old. We thought it might be valuable to you,” the strange villager said. It took Serena a moment to realise Vigiften was not going to pick it up. By then, John beat her to the punch.

“The United Defense M42. This bad boy saw extensive usage in the World War on the island of Crete, among others. Where did you get your hands on a relic like that?” he asked, handing it to her.

Serena weighed the gun warily. “I still don’t remember everything from before I got here, but I do know that we human models were not allowed to take from the armoury. That gun is probably just something that we raided from a museum.”

Maxwell scratched his neck. “Yeah, we’ve met robots with unusual weapons as well. There are a lot less guns in America after the ratification, and even fewer that an IM can use,” he said, eyeing the gun suspiciously.

She put her hand through the strap and carried it on her shoulder. “Well, hopefully this thing will still fire, if it’s even loaded.” A magazine was definitely attached to it. Vigiften grinned at her and put hands on sides.

“Look at you, Serena. It wasn’t abuse or medication that made you fight, but a burning sense of what is right and wrong. You’ve always wanted to fight. Go, don’t worry about us here in Eden. Just be sure to spread our ideals and word of us. And I will always have Sageway to carry on my philosophical discussions with.” Vigiften winked out at Eden. A miscellaneous worker with raven hair and tearful eyes quickly hid behind one of the houses.

“I only regret not being able to see her become the guild head. Dammit, you jerk, look what you did to me.” Serena hastily rubbed her eyes with her left hand.

Vigiften smiled. “Not just guild head. She’s humble enough now to lead us,” the strange villager said.

Maxwell strayed his gaze dully out over the woods. He was about to suggest that they get a move on, when a soft voice whispered in his ears. “Something’s approaching us,” Lohengrinn said. “Not robots, though. They feel… human.

“What do we do?” Maxwell asked, his eyes coming alive with vigil. “Can we run?” He stole a look at Eden’s guards and their weapons.

No,” the answer came instantly. “The EMP generator that John mentioned would not stop these people. They will likely overrun Eden and destroy it,” Lohengrinn said.

“Then we fight.” Maxwell took the guitar from his back and held a sword in his hand. The first glimpses of metal glistened through the woods. His next sentence was aloud. “Everyone, we got company.”

The gun was in John’s hands the very next instant. Similarly, the guards took to their weapons. Bowmen drew their strings in their watch post. Serena coolly checked the mechanical parts of her gun.

“Here goes nothing.”

John pointed to his car. “There are 9mm and other ammunition in the car if you need it,” he said and crouched behind the hood. Maxwell stood in front of it, waving his sword around.

“Damn, we must have led them straight to this place.”

The first of the menace broke from the tree line. She fell to the ground seconds later, an arrow protruding from her head.

The rest of her gang poured into the clearing. Their enhancements were uncovered like Serena’s. Aside from stronger limbs, some had also gotten a facial reconstruction or body plating.

A cloud of arrows flew from all directions. The cyborg horde barely felt it, and only a few fell dead to the ground. Maxwell puffed himself up even further. “Not on my watch, you don’t!”

The fair-haired giant stormed into the tide of marauders. The bandits swept against him, brandishing clubs and knives or shaking their fists. It was a mess of blood and sweat and grease. His blade tore off arms and legs and torsos, but the drug-crazed fiends were gunning for Eden. They paid little heed to Maxwell. He could not hold them back.

The guards formed a bulwark with their shields to stop the enemy from spilling into the town. The marauders hooted and fired their guns and banged against the wall. The guards struck back with their swords and hacked at what they could reach, while concealed archers pelted them from above.

Off to the side, John and Serena sat behind the car and picked them off. John fired his gun, and bandits blew to pieces. Even Serena’s old submachine raked the human parts of the bandits.

Any sensible person would have long since stopped, but the bandits threw themselves on the swords. Lohengrinn’s projection had been wrong: Eden could have easily handled such a savage bunch alone. Feeling more confident, Maxwell came from behind and gored unlucky bandits on his sword. Arrows protruded from his body, and bullets had bloodied his sun-touched skin, but he would not feel the fatigue or pain, not when innocent lives were still at stake.

The bandit horde thinned. Maxwell cut down the last of them standing off to the side with an assortment of guns. John’s energy orbs flew around his ears. The very last one exploded in a shower of sparks and guts, and his sword swung only through the air. Maxwell fell to a knee, panting. His sword was white as driven snow. The blood clotting his hair and staining his arms dripped unnaturally down his hands and into the hilt. With the quiet falling over Eden, the shield wall let up and Serena peeked up from behind the car.

A last marauder emerged from the tree line, with piercings in her nose and a tube slung over her shoulder. A wicked grin came over her lips. “That’s a rocket launcher,” Maxwell mused. Instantly he was back on his feet. A myriad of scenarios flashed through his mind, as only a combat veteran could process. His fingers twitched. “Lohengrinn, I will need you to guide my hands for a moment here.”

The woman aimed the rocket launcher. Lohengrinn’s soft voice hissed into his ears. “Whatever it is you’re planning, Maxwell, no. I won’t be a part of this.

The rocket launcher fired. The deadly payload roared. Maxwell jumped into its path and clasped his hands around it. The marauder nearly lost her jaw. More came out of the bushes. Smarter. Older. A man in a studded leather jacket nudged the woman. She fired her Tec-9.

The rocket wobbled up and down. Maxwell dug in his heels, struggling with forces beyond human control. Blood sprayed from his shoulders and arms and his head. The woman grimaced and aimed for the rocket instead.

Everyone else had long since then vacated the grounds. Maxwell stood alone on the grassy clearing, locked in his desperate wrestling match. A bullet finally made its target. The rocket exploded. The houses in Eden rattled. The fleeing guards were knocked to the ground. Only a pair of charred legs stood where Maxwell had been. Serena sat up again.

“I’m sorry about your friend,” she said in a soft voice. “He died a noble death.” Serena put a hand on John’s shoulder, but he immediately got up again.

“Surely he could not…” he muttered. Maxwell’s legs tipped over as the marauders stormed out of the treeline. “Everyone, back into position!” John waved his arm, but the guards were already back on the defensive. Again John fired his gun. The energy orbs pierced flesh and bone. Some, whose body structure had been most radically altered, also exploded.

“What kind of a man doesn’t mourn the loss of a comrade?” Serena glanced at him sideways, resting her gun on the hood of the car. Though the marauders were shredded, more simply took their place. Thorne was throwing everything into the stake. “Or weren’t you comrades at all? Don’t tell me I allowed myself to be fooled into something suspect,” she asked, the muzzle flashes glinting off her metal arm.

“If he truly is dead, then I will mourn him after this.” John stood up completely. “Cover me. I am going to take care of that one with the rocket launcher.” He was over the top before Serena could object.

The battlefield was a scene of chaos. Bandits ran around with no rhyme or reason, cheering and firing their guns. One fell and another took his place. The way to the outer ring was blocked, opened, and blocked again. The woman added another rocket to her tube. John had no choice but to run across the clearing.

The man in leather jacket took the TEC-9 from the woman. He had seen where John was headed and sprayed the battlefield. A few of his comrades fell, but John kept going. Bullets tore at his trench coat and white undershirt, but left no blood, not even a wound. His skin rippled like gelatine and closed around the lead. John had to fire his own gun only once. The man never had a chance to scream. Only his lower jaw was left of his head.

The woman threw the tube away and knelt by the man. Anger blazed up into her eyes. She fired the TEC-9 at John, but it was empty. She chucked it at him instead. The gun caught him square in the face and ripped the sunglasses from his nose. She froze with mouth open as John put his hand on her head. A beautiful, yellow light surrounded her. The glare grew and grew until it had swallowed her whole. There was no pain. All was melted away within the searing light. Not even a spot of blood was left, and the grass too was gone.

John hastily replaced his shades with a spare from inside his coat, as guard reinforcements poured out of the trees. Their armour was thick enough to withstand clubs and even gunfire. Their swords cut the bandits down. They tried to flee again, but Eden was blocked off, and the jungle was no longer safe. Twangs of bows followed their imminent deaths.

John almost put his gun back into his coat when looked up into the sky. Airplanes. And they were dropping little presents with a thud. No one else noticed, and foliage creaked before John could make a move. For how long had IMs been airdropped? John crouched behind a particularly large fern.

A guard ran to the sound, thinking it another marauder. A metal hand shot out and closed around his throat. The adjoining IM appeared along with two comrades. More came out of the surrounding treeline. Ten in all poured into the clearing. The IM tightened its grip. The guard’s neck cracked like a twig.

There was but a moment’s silence where both parties took in the opposite. The IMs were now the ones blocking off escape into the jungle. Their guns rose and fired with no hesitation. The guards hid behind their shields or perished. The archers withdrew from their position. They would not even attempt their bows.

The robots had not noticed John yet. They had turned their backs to him. His first shot took them by surprise. Confusion spread among the IM. Serena fired on them from one side and John from the other, while the guards retreated in a third direction. Furthermore, John was on the move. He winced as the first IM collapsed, and he was hesitating to make the second. John had no intention of absorbing any more bullets and hurt himself any further.

Serena’s gun clicked. It was empty. Frantically she pulled off the magazine and started replacing the rounds when another gun clicked behind her. She turned her head slowly. An IM pointed its carbine rifle at her. She nearly cried out.

A white tip emerged from the robot’s chest. Mechanical guts spilled out along with oil from the fatal wound. The IM slid away from the blade and banged into the car, right next to Serena. A sombre giant stood before her instead. Serena put a hand to her thumping chest. “No. I saw you die,” she whispered. Maxwell shook his head.

“You cannot kill what is already dead,” he replied in a grave tone. “When you have loaded your gun with the armour-piercing rounds; start shooting. John is near his limit.” Maxwell walked away from the car with heavy steps, leaving a heaving Serena.

John rested on the ground, panting as well. He screamed in agony as he fired another shot. Pain surged up his arm. A great spasm tossed the gun away. He had been too ostentatious with the rocket launcher girl’s death.

The IM was hit. It shuddered and turned off. Six more were still left. Maxwell cut down one before Serena resumed her fire. With the ammunition specifically made for killing IMs, she easily took out three in one wide spread. The light flickered off in the robotic eyes, and the metal men slumped forward. Maxwell split one in two, and Serena shredded the last.

Silence, again.

The bandits were a legitimate threat to Eden and had to be dispatched. The robots could never enter, so the guards had retreated to evacuate what people remained. All except for Vigiften who stood silently observing. The strange villager pointed out to the treeline.

One last IM had been dispatched. In both hands, it carried a weapon similar to a sniper rifle, but double the size, and with glowing red bands down the barrel. The stock had three light-blue circles connected with red bands on both sides. The IM aimed at Eden and pulled on a crank. The weapon lit up like a Christmas tree.

Maxwell held on his sword with one hand and helped a shaking John up on his feet with the other. “What do you reckon that is?”

John leant up against Maxwell, still weak from a long trip and a long fight. “Must be some kind of new, experimental weapon, but…” John rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Nothing that I have ever seen before.”

“Do you think it’s a laser rifle?” Maxwell asked, his jolly nature slowly seeping back into his body. “They’ve been in fiction for over a hundred years. About time someone invented it.”

The weapon hummed deeply, lights pulsating in a rainbow of colours. “Does not look like it is in any hurry,” John added. “You better take care of it before we can see what it is good for.”


Maxwell gently freed himself from John and took a step forward. The gun, however, wailed out in some kind of alarm. The light beat faster and faster. The humming was like the deep roar of distant thunder. The IM trained the gun out at the village of Eden and yanked on the trigger. The light became a blinding kaleidoscope. A mighty thunderclap deafened all sounds.

There was little left of the IM. The gun was in a million pieces, but the robot was almost eaten by burning hot plasma. Maxwell was still rubbing his eyes when John carefully approached.

“I can see one major design flaw in this weapon,” he said. “It might explode and melt the user.” He picked up a few pieces of the gun and held them up to his sunglasses.

Maxwell rapidly blinked his watering eyes. “Looks like Thorne has to take up another hobby from now on. Clearly he should just leave the weapon manufacturing to you.”

“I would not say that. With some work, I think this gun could actually work.”

The sword was back around Maxwell’s shoulders as a guitar. With his hands free, he rubbed his arms as a sudden chill went through him. “I don’t want to see that thing working. We should head back anyway, I’m starting to worry about the basement.”

John snorted and clapped his hands clean. “More like you are anxious to perform that atrocious show.”

Serena waved at them from their car. A skinny, old lady and the guard captain were all gathered there along with Vigiften. “Guys, come over here and give a hand already.”

People of all uniforms carried large boxes from the village and into John’s car. The backseat and trunk were all stuffed already. “What is all this?” John asked. “We only asked for volunteers, not provisions.”

The old lady grinned. “We can’t just let Serena leave empty-handed, not when we have so much of everything,” Pulm said. She opened the front passenger door so that more boxes could be fitted in.

“But this will all spoil before we can get back to the basement. It is clear on the other side of the country,” John said as the first guards began their unloading. “And where are we supposed to fit in Serena now?” He put his hands to his head, not willing to refuse the act of goodwill either.

Vigiften stepped in with a short laugh. “It’s not all food, señor. Much of it is also clothes and a few articles from the Forbidden Building that we would never get rid of otherwise. People come here with the weirdest possessions, despite knowing our policy.” The strange villager waved a hand towards what was unmistakably a blender on the backseat.

“I can always sit behind Maxwell on his motorcycle.” Serena pointed her thumb over shoulder to where it rested against a tree, not far from the car. “If that is all right with you?” she asked Maxwell, lifting an eyebrow.

Still not completely past his death yet, Maxwell merely nodded with a smile. “I’m sure we can arrange for something.” His eyes, however, unmistakably traced her figure again. “Are we ready to go on, then? If you got everything packed?”

Serena nodded, but turned towards Pulm and embraced her tightly. “Now are you sure you’re okay with me leaving?”

“Yes, don’t worry about this old lady, just go defeat Thorne. Eden will still be here if you want to come back afterwards.”

Vigiften nodded. “All that we need to say have already been said. We will miss you, Serena, and don’t forget about us.” The stranger villager waved as Serena got on behind Maxwell. John pushed some of the boxes so he could sit into his car. Fruits and salted meat fell on his head. They drove off, Serena casting one last glance towards her home.

The warehouse was largely empty. The long rows of shelves had been left with just a few crates, and sand had been allowed to blow in. A throne, composited from scrap metal, sat against a plain backdrop at the end. On its seat, Thorne was resting his chin on his sizable belly when loud footsteps disturbed him, and he raised his head. The sunlight from broken skylights reflected off of his bald crown.

“What? What is it?” he grunted and adjusted himself. P-I-M stood before him with its voice like shaking a pouch full of small change. Thorne wiped his face and smacked his lips. “What? I did not order an assault on Eden. Why did the cyborgs attack?” His hand fished around the legs of his throne, seeking the remnants of last night’s feast strew about the floor.

Again P-I-M rattled as Thorne found a chicken wing on a greasy plate. He froze mid-action and stared up at the robot. “They were there? At Eden? Then if they are this mobile, their headquarters could be anywhere.”

“And what about the gun? Did the reinforcements bring it?” He picked up the chicken wing and greedily devoured it, spitting out the bones as P-I-M relayed its report. “Exploded, huh? I should have known it would be too soon to test it.” Thorne licked his fingers and immediately looked for more food. P-I-M emitted a few more lines of static.

“I know, that group has caused us the most trouble out east. It’s likely that their hideout is somewhere around there, but I think it would be good to keep our options open.” He lifted himself out of the throne, dissatisfied with the morsel he had found. P-I-M nodded and shuffled back into the shadows.

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