Story 05: Memories of Gains and Losses - Dehumanisers
18 October 2086
25 years, 3 months and 25 days after the Destruction
“Thank you very much, friend. I’d have died out here for sure had you not chanced by.” The man lifted his bandaged leg up on the mattress with his hands, groaning from the exertion. His dirty blond hair was waning. This and his growing beard made him look much older than he probably was. “I’m not just letting out hot air here. Ol’ Betsy can pull the camper, but I’ve yet to teach her to dress a wound.”
“Don’t mention it,” Marte replied and sat back on the stone. She was a chubby woman with curly, black hair and brown skin, wearing an assortment of scavenged clothes to fit to her frame. She took from near the campfire a stick, the skinned meat of a lizard brown and warm gored on it. “So what are you doing out here?” It was night, and the dark sky displayed all of its most precious gems. Marte drew her pocketed jacket closer around her.
“Well, we’re sort of merchants, aren’t we, girl?” The horse rolled its eyes. It was still strapped to an old caravan with an intricate rig of wood and wires. The man laughed. “We just don’t see many survivors, and we hide from the IMs. Bad for business, if you know what I mean.”
“Merchants? Can I just request one small thing for my reward?”
“Sure, anything!” he said excitedly. She leant her face closer to him, chewing her lizard with a deadpan expression. “Almost anything, that is.” He chortled nervously and withdrew his face.
Marte tapped the box next to him with the spit. “Would you turn off that damn radio?” she asked. He breathed deeply and grinned again. Marte knitted her brow. “Seriously. The static is driving me nuts.”
“Oh, you get used to that eventually. You see, this fella by the name of Lawrence sometimes makes radio broadcasts. Always saying stuff about fighting and surviving. I think the machines can hear it as well, but they haven’t stopped him yet. Perhaps they just don’t care.”
The horse snorted and searched the ground for shrubs. Marte took another stick with lizard warming against the embers of the campfire. “I’m already plenty motivated for a fight, but I am not about to invited robots to our position.”
The man waved a hand. “Pah, let them come. With the way you handle yourself, I doubt we would have anything to fear. Besides…” His face grew a shameless expression. “You should hear Lawrence’s girlfriend. Man, if she is just half as sexy as she sounds.”
“I can handle myself all right, but I could hardly defend you and your, uh… horse was it?” Betsy lifted its ears indignantly. An old roan, it looked to have been of show breed, but acted like it had never seen a stage. Marte patted the shotgun in a strap around her neck. “Turn off the radio or lose it.”
The grin faded a little from the man’s face. “All right, then how about this. I turn off the radio, and you tell me a story instead. And it better be a good one. I could be missing out on lovely lady Amber’s voice.”
“I’m not much of a storyteller. Nor is there much story to tell.” She turned away from the man and hugged her knees. “It’s getting late anyway. You should get some sleep.”
The man turned off the radio, and the night became quiet. Insects buzzed around. A coyote howled far, far away. “Let’s start over, shall we? The name’s Phil and I was just a little boy at the day of the Destruction. My biggest worry was for the travelling rodeo laid over with terrible stomach pains. Every day for a week I would go to their grounds and see if they were still there, and they would let me in to see the horses. Then just as the robots came, I managed to escape on Ol’ Betsy. I never saw my family again.”
Marte said nothing. She just felt Phil’s eyes on her back. The last glow of the embers lit up her dark skin. The moment seemed to last an eternity, but finally Marte sighed. “I was just a little girl by the Destruction. My sister and I tried to survive the best we could.”
29 July 2061
1 month and 6 days since the Destruction
The dilapidated fishing boat was deep in the water despite being almost empty. All the other ships had been just left to the elements. A lone figure appeared from below deck and stepped on to the concrete pier. The wind was chill despite summer, but he did not look cold in his black shirt and blue jacket. He didn’t really need any extra padding either with hairy arms and his whole head covered in shaggy, black fur. Only a pair of hazel eyes protruded through the tangled mess.
His arrival had not gone unnoticed. Two guards wearing similar blue jackets approached him. Theirs were far smaller and better insulated. In their hands they had carbines whereas the stranger kept his sniper rifle slung over his shoulder and a large riot shield swinging in his left hand. It seemed almost like a pop gun compared to him.
“Halt.” Both of the guards were women, but it was the taller of them that spoke first. She sweated at the wildman before her, but still she insisted on her authority and held up a hand. “J-Juneau has… has been placed under m-m-martial law.”
“My name is Mr Wednesday, and I am here looking for my grandmother. If you would excuse me.” He passed right by her, and she did nothing to stop him. The smaller of the lady guards, with blond hair similar to the other, stepped in his way.
“Listen here, mister, Juneau is off-limits! The city is under lockdown.”
“Move.” The kind eyes of the strangers drowned in that single-worded command. He tried to pass but the smaller guard put a hand to her chest.
“You deaf or something? I just told you, Juneau is off-limits, so take your dingy little boat and go back to where you came from you. Got it?”
“But isn’t he LHD as well?” The taller girl waved her rifle at the giant. He, like they, had the letters LHD printed inside a circle on the back and a smaller one on the sleeve of his jacket.
“I don’t care, the commander said to not let anyone in. So you have to go back and find another port… bub.” The shorter girl jabbed a finger into his abdomen, as far in as she could reach. He simply kept moving like her pushing hands weren’t there.
“You don’t know my grandmother if you think the end of the world would kill her. I apologise, but I must be going.”
She stepped back and cocked her rifle. One last warning was on her lips and never uttered. The giant drove his head rapidly into hers. Her blue cap flew off. The wind was quick to take it and blow it out into the sloshing waters.
“Don’t bother getting up.”
The taller girl reached out for him, but the other guard groaned. She knelt down by her colleague as the stranger disappeared up the stairs into the road.
Magda threw a can of peaches at the floor with a thud and sat down by the living room table. She was the older of the sisters at fourteen of age. Both were dark-skinned with long, black hair, but Magda was the slender one of them; tall and lanky even for her age. “There, that’s all the food I could find today.”
The younger of the sisters was Marte at age nine, short and stocky in complete contrast. The differences between them were comical enough for people to think it was some kind of deliberate act. No one left in the world to snicker at them anymore, though.
Marte took the can into her pudgy hands. She bit into the metal, making Magda shake her head.
“Just fetch me the toolbox, you twerp.”
The toolbox was all that they had left of their father, and the only useful thing he had left them with. But he was gone just like their mother. Now it was just the two sisters stuck in the ventilated shell of their home.
Magda watched her sister waddle back into the living room. She was strong and heaved the rusty blue box, making her best effort not to drag it along the wooden floor. Her cheeks stung from remembering being told off. Her big sister would never do such a thing. She simply sighed at her sister’s red face.
“Honestly,” she said as Marte nearly dropped the heavy container on her feet. “You’re going to hurt yourself, and then who will treat you?” Marte looked at her feet. Magda simply rubbed her head and took a screwdriver and a hammer from the toolbox and set to work.
She had been able to rob nearby stores and shops for stuff to eat for over a month, but their options were dwindling. Food was rotting and getting stale. Even in the cold, fresh fruit was long gone. Didn’t help with ‘them’ also around and needing to eat. Soon the two sisters could be forced to hunt the animals that had crept into the city.
Juice squirted from the can. She handed her sister the opened treat.
Juneau had escaped the destruction relatively easy. A big bomb had levelled most of Anchorage, likely because it was bigger with more targets in it. Alaska capital had instead first been gassed, and then riddled with bullets. The two sisters had been lucky. They had just been another pair of bodies on top of the pile. Once the machines had come back, looking for heat signatures, they had scampered and hid.
Their stepfather had felt such a fickle tie with them that he had bolted at the first sign of danger. Then it was up to their mother’s sudden spark of caring to get them out. But they had not gone long before being mowed down. Fortunately, the strong winds had blown the poison gas past them before they could inhale any of it.
Marte pulled on her sister’s shirt.
“Just tell me if there is something you want,” Magda said. Marte shrunk back, and her sister groaned. “How long are you going to clam up like that? You have such a beautiful voice, Marte. Won’t you sing for me again?”
Any sudden noise would make Marte jump, and she refused to speak or even leave the house. She was wholly dependent on Magda. Just like she was before.
Magda looked down at the floor. Wood. It would burn really well…
Marte held out the can. “No, you just eat,” Magda replied distantly, her eyes staring into another world. She could see the bright orange flames flaring up around them. “Hey sis, would you like to go camping? We could get away from here, from the house and the city. Forever.” She focused again on her sister’s glistening face. Just peach water. Marte’s troubled face said everything that needed to be said.
Mr Wednesday kept a sharp eye on the city. From the bombed out office building he could see all the way to the water and back up the mountains, end to end of the town. Whether his boat was still moored was irrelevant. That oversized tub had barely made it, but it was the only thing he could find at the time. Now that he had made the journey, he could relax in his seat with the sniper rifle across his lap, peering out through the missing wall.
The chair had been pilfered from one of the other rooms. Most of the furniture had spilled out from the conference room when the walls had been forcibly removed. It was just him all alone in the cool Alaskan summer, wearing his jacket and observing the city through the scope of his rifle. He could see almost everything as he spied for life, and for the dead. He had strangely not seen any machines. They had destroyed the city like locusts just passing through. The only things moving were the LHD.
They had a large camp of tents on residential lawns, with tarps and boards covering the ruins of the houses. They had not approached him since his first arrival but they knew where he was. Their commander was a man up in his years with receding, silvery hair. He came out from the biggest tent and waved up. He had spotted the rifle glare on the first day. Mr Wednesday had been ready to leave in an instant, but no one came for him. What was their purpose? Mr Wednesday rubbed his face and shifted his focus.
For days he had searched and found nothing but the LHD guards. There was not a corner of town where he hadn’t seen them. But Mr Wednesday was not fazed. He always noticed something new every time he gazed out on the magnificent city. Close to the waterfront were a collection of houses for those who could afford no better. The guards were particularly present there for some reason, almost like they were looking for something. But what?
Those houses were the most intact part of the city. Perhaps the guards were simply scavenging. Down there, he could probably find a nice blanket for granny. All the stores had been licked clean, after all, and she had been complaining about the cold a lot lately. He almost put the rifle away when he spotted movement in the other end of town. No…
“Still hungry?” Magda asked incredulously. Marte nodded, and Magda’s own stomach rumbled as well. “Yeah, I know, that wasn’t much, but that’s the best I could do. Though I seem to remember seeing some chocolate in one of the stores. Want me to go see if it’s spoiled?”
Marte’s chubby features lit up, and she nodded as hard as she could. She followed her sister as far as to the front door. As if there was an invisible wall, she stopped and clung to the doorway. She waved at her older sister. Magda waved back and went up the street.
The buildings around her were in a sore state of disrepair. They had not been touched by explosions, but their dilapidation was older than the Destruction. As Magda passed the homes, she imagined the people who had lived in them. They had been neighbours and friends since she was four years old, but now their houses had been turned to rubble and their bodies to mincemeat.
There was no point in telling Marte about all the horrific details. Juneau was all she knew, and all that Magda could remember. She had not lied to her either, just skipped lightly over the whole thing. Marte had experienced enough troubles in her short life as it was. Worst of all was the food supplies. The cornucopias she had made up did not exist. The stores were all ripped and plundered. The little food she had managed to scrounge up all came from the houses. There was no chocolate. Only a hope that Marte would be asleep when Magda returned from a head-clearing walk.
As always, one thought came to her. What would Marte do in case her big sister did not return home from a walk? That little girl couldn’t leave the house, and she had no ways of defending, or feeding, herself.
Not that the fear of IMs was great. No one had seen any for so long, but you could never know. Magda always carried a big knife from the kitchen with her, but what good would that do against metal armour?
And then there was the LHD. It had been easy to live in Juneau before they showed up. Now all the obvious storages had been depleted. They could not be trusted. She had run into a lot of them, and they always talked about perverted things. About hunting her down. They knew she was here, but they knew nothing of Marte yet. That was why Magda was always careful leaving the house. She could not let lead them to her sister.
Marte scurried down the deserted road littered with the dead like so much trash. Few had died in their homes. They had either tried to run, or they had been rounded up and shot on the streets and lawns. Only those that had been gassed still lay inside. Magda did not even see them anymore. They were simply bloated obstacles and nothing more. But when she closed her eyes at night, she heard them screaming and smelled their flesh roasting.
The people of Juneau, like every human settlement on the planet, had been burnt with flamethrowers or split in half by gunfire or trampled to death or bludgeoned beyond recognition. On the first day and many days after, she had not dared go far. The stench and horror was too much and she had vomited. But need drove her further and further away. She kept her head high and ignored the crows cawing at her. She was going to her favourite house.
It was a long walk, but well worth it. A two-storey timber house painted red and with a nice little lawn in front, right at the edge of the poorer district. When she had first broken in, she had almost bolted right back out. The whole family was still there, mom and dad and two children clutching each other, even as they had been executed one by one with a bullet to the skull. It was everything she had wanted from her own family. Not to survive alone, but die together.
Parkas hung on the coat rack with big and small boots on the floor underneath. She could bring them back with her once the weather got colder. It would not be long. Magda made a mental note and went up the stairs, to the bedrooms.
The machines had not gone up there. Aside from a little dust, the rooms were in mint condition. An older girl and her sister who did not have to share. It’s what she had always wanted. Sure she acted tough to Marte, and had once to her parents and classmates. She needed to. But the older sister’s room was something out of her dreams. Pink everywhere; frills, dolls, a large canopy bed where the father had painted little stars on the ceiling. Magda threw herself on the sheets and buried herself in the sausage pillows.
Mr Wednesday gave the LHD camp before him a disapproving glance. It was smaller than he had expected, for one thing. Walls of wooden scaffolding, concrete blocks, sandbags and anything else at hand blocked off the road at both ends. Within that space, the big tent dominated. Everything else just dwindled in comparison.
For another thing, the LHD was too relaxed. They felt secure enough inside their little fortification to have a few people loiter about outside as the only guards. An old man with a black moustache and a balding crown looked up from a magazine after a minute of Mr Wednesday staring in. “Who’re you?”
“My name is Wednesday,” the giant replied, his shadow spilling in over the barricade. A part of it had been pushed forward so that one would have to zigzag to get inside. At least they hadn’t been completely brainless. “I want to speak to whoever runs this circus.”
The old man groaned irritably and put the magazine down. “You wear our uniform, but I haven’t seen you around before.” He sussed out the giant with sharp eyes, his hands trembling slightly as he picked up his rifle. “Did you kill someone for that uniform?”
Before Mr Wednesday could answer, the party tent turned command headquarters rustled open. The silverback commander limped down the stone pathway to the sidewalk, clutching a cane. “Stand down, soldier. A man of his size can’t exactly go up to any old officer and take his clothes, now can he? Come inside. I’ve been hoping you would pay us a visit.”
Mr Wednesday stepped inside the bound; not without attracting the suspicious glare from the old man and others milling around the place. “When did you hurt your leg?” Nevertheless, Mr Wednesday went up to the big tent.
The commander went for the large table that took up most of the space in the middle. The canvas walls were crowded with surveillance machines and other equipment. A low hum signified the presence of a generator close by. “Spying on me? Yeah, the air here can get tense. I tried to stop two of my boys fighting over a female recruit when one of them pulled a knife. We threw him in the brig. Now tell me, Mr Wednesday, why I cannot find any mention of you in our records.” He swept his hand over the table, crammed with maps and papers and an unfolded computer bathing his face in a faint light. The matter of the leg seemed a trifle matter to the commander despite him rubbing his thigh with a grimace.
“I was just a reserve. Normally I’m a… I was a bouncer for Bloodbath.” Mr Wednesday hoisted the strap of his rifle up his shoulder as it began to slip. He had another gun on his back, with a crossguard added to make it look like a sword.
The commander rubbed his chin as he gave Mr Wednesday a new inspection. “Yes, I thought I recognised you. Rangle-Kat Wednesday, the Beast of the Ring. I used to watch your fights many years ago.”
Mr Wednesday shifted his weight uncomfortable and rested his left arm’s riot shield on the ground. It was painted solidly white with a red cross. “I quit fighting many years ago. I wanted to use my strength for a better purpose, but my size gives me some medical problems that precluded me from full service in the LHD.”
A warning sound came from the left. An old woman flustered with the radar set, but the commander ignored it and her. “So what brought you here? You finally gave up searching for your grandmother?”
“No, and now I wish I had. She makes me remember why I hated visiting here.” The alarm noise calmed down, but the old woman still fidgeted with her earphones. Mr Wednesday observed her for a moment before looking back at the commander. “Listen, I did not come here for small talk. I was scanning the city from my lookout when I saw a silver capsule. The ones that the LHD used for IM transports.”
The commander dismissed his claim with a chuckle. “Yes, we have a few of those around the place. Can’t get here by land, you know.” The alarming noise blared up again, making the old woman sob in frustration. The commander slammed his palms down on the table. The old woman nearly fell out of her office chair. “Either you keep it down or I’ll have you reassigned again! I swear, a woman your age who can’t cook has to be the most improbable thing I’ve found yet.”
“Commander, the capsule was not there yesterday. That alarm is the IM coming this way right this instant,” Mr Wednesday barked. His eyes hardened with seriousness and the annoyance of the alarm. The commander shrunk back as Mr Wednesday towered over the table. “I came here to extend my services. I held a barricade outside of New York City after the bombs went off; I have been in this situation before. The IMs show up suddenly and deadly.”
The commander wetted his lips and looked down at the map of Juneau. When he looked up again, it was with the same confidence as before. “I appreciate the gesture, big guy, but I can assure you, nothing is going to happen. That capsule you saw must always have been there, you just hadn’t noticed it before. After all, the robots must think this town is empty.”
A horn cried out a warning outside. Guards shouted in panic. “You should underestimate neither Thorne nor his robots. The IMs are adapting. I’ve seen them holding and using anything they pick up.” Mr Wednesday lifted the riot shield up on his arm. It would have protected a normal man crouching. He could barely use it as a breastplate.
“I think the sun must have fried your brain. The IMs can only handle a very limited supply of specially designed guns; their hands are simply too stuff. Besides, an optical error makes them lousy shots against humans. Believe me, reserve. I oversaw the introduction of IMs in my unit. I could dismantle one and put it back together again.”
A guard burst in, nearly tripping over herself, but the commander silenced her with a single glare. Mr Wednesday carried on. “Thorne has modified them and improved them, and now there is one loose in this city. That one robot will be enough to destroy this camp and kill every last survivor in this area. Do you hear me?”
The commander shook his head while the guard nervously stood at attention by the tent flap. “Thorne? Mark my words, there is no such man as Thorne,” the commander said in a low, deadly voice, his eyes meeting Mr Wednesday’s. Sparks flashed as two steely glances clashed. “I told my superiors that giving artificial intelligence to robots was dangerous; that this would happen. It’s obvious that they facilitated and propagated this war using this Thorne as a bogeyman. They needed a human face to put on terror.”
“Commander Plarens, please!” The guard hopped and danced from foot to foot, but the commander lifted a hand. Mr Wednesday snorted derisively.
“Technophobic nonsense. Your problem is your unwillingness to admit that a human could be capable of these atrocities. Commander, neither a demon nor a beast or a monster or a robot destroyed the world. It was a man. And if you refuse to do anything, then I will go back to my grandmother and protect her, rather than stay here and bicker with a man as pigheaded as you.” Mr Wednesday turned on his heel.
The commander interrupted the guard just as she was about to burst. “Why don’t you bring your grandmother up here? You’ll be safer with us,” he called out to Mr Wednesday’s backside.
“Commander Plarens!” The guard was near tears, waiting to be stopped again, but the silver-haired man only looked at her while rocking back and forth on his feet. “One of the patrols was attacked by an IM and now none of them are responding and the IM is headed straight for us.”
The commander stared agape at her, and then looked up at the flapping canvas door.
Mr Wednesday shook his head at the personnel running around like beheaded chickens. Hopefully the commander would see reason now, but there was nothing more that Mr Wednesday could do. He had his own family to protect and moved towards the other camp entrance, away from the distant gunfire. Screams pierced the air and the noise died down.
The only guard left on his post was a Nordic man with thinning blond hair and an impressive beard. He cradled his rifle, blubbering while rubbing his cheek against the barrel, sitting against a rusted pickup truck part of the barrier.
“It’s my fault, it’s all my fault. All my fault.”
“What’s all your fault?”
The man looked up at Mr Wednesday. “I-it’s God’s divine punishment. The IM is here to punish me in holy retribution.” The otherwise strong-looking man was ground down to raw nerves, his eyes wild and wet.
“It’s easy to blame God for things that are wholly our own fault, stranger. No one deserves this.” Mr Wednesday spoke to the man like one might to a child that had broken a vase. “Tell me what you think God is punishing you for.”
The man suddenly jumped up, but with the gun hugged tightly to his chest. “A family moved here ten years ago, Lord knows why. It was just her and her daughters, and they were having a hard time adjusting. I thought it would be easy, you know, to just take advantage of them. The mother wasn’t much to look at. Nor the youngest daughter, for that matter, but the oldest one…”
Mr Wednesday pierced him with his hazel eyes. Through the thickness of his matted hair, it was impossible to discern his emotions, but his eyes were sharp and kind “What you did was wrong, yet you are coming to realise that.” The Nordic man said nothing and simply wiped his eyes with the palm of his hand. “If there is a God, then that would certainly mean something to him.”
The gunfire started again, closer. Mr Wednesday tilted his head backwards. The man grabbed his shirt. “Please… go to them. I abandoned them with their mother when the robots came.”
Mr Wednesday looked back at the man pressing a photograph into his face. There he was, strong and burly with windswept hair. Around him were the straggly, drug-addled mother and her two children. One of the sisters was like a fat version of their mother, while the other one was tall, lanky and good-looking. “I don’t mean to sound harsh, but I doubt they’re alive anymore,” he said and pushed the photograph back. The man only grew insistent. Mr Wednesday grunted in pity. “I know you feel guilty but–”
“Magda’s still alive,” the Nordic man raved. “The patrols from the waterfront have seen her. They report seeing a black teenage girl, that’s her, it must be her.”
“Then go to her. There’s no shame in abandoning this post.”
“I… I can’t.” The man sank to his knees and the picture fell from his hands. His gaze was aimed at the ground under him as he began to shake. “I never touched her, I swear, but what I did? Abandoning them like that? She’s just going to run if I approach her. Please, I just want to stay here protecting the camp. Maybe then God will forgive me.”
Mr Wednesday crouched down to pick up the photograph. Surely that man had not regretted any of his actions until now. They were nothing sadder than the rambling penitence of the dying. Still, a girl was out there alone. Maybe even her sister and their mother. “You shouldn’t be so eager to throw away your life. After all, where there is life, there is hope.”
“What would you have me do? I chose this camp over them, so now I will have to stick with it.” His laughter was scathing and devoid of hope. He clutched his rifle again. “I talked to the other guards but I can see what they want to do if they find her. With so many female guards that they can’t touch… But you? You seem decent enough. Please, I beg you.”
Mr Wednesday nodded. The Nordic man summoned a smile and shuffled towards the other entrance. Far down the street, an IM awkwardly waddled towards the camp. Someone fired a grenade launcher. Large wounds ripped open in the asphalt, but the robot simply marched through the dust cloud. Mr Wednesday pocketed the photograph and went on his new mission.
Far away from the gunfire Mr Wednesday took out the photograph again. He had reached the waterfront with no clues where to start. That’s when he noticed the scrawling on the reverse. An address. If their house still stood, then the sisters would probably still be there.
The neighbourhood was quiet as he made his way through it. The only people left were the LHD, and they were occupied elsewhere. A black girl and her family? Their house was just up ahead. Mr Wednesday pushed the door open and sniffed. No stench of decay. Always a good sign. His big feet echoed through the hallway. A blanket was left on the floor along with toys. Mr Wednesday followed the trail into the room on the right.
The living room. The toys were spread out everywhere, far more than any child could ever feasibly play with. Some had even been left unwrapped in their plastic casings. He carefully moved through them, making sure not to step on any of the dolls or their houses and accessories and cars and boyfriends.
The table had a can of peaches. He leant in close. It was licked clean.
There was still a TV with an old console hooked up to it. Dust lay in a thick layer on the screen and remote.
He came to the adjacent kitchen. Clean. The trash had been recently emptied, and the counter sparkled. The fridge was empty. No light flickered on. Mr Wednesday scratched his scraggly chin and returned to the living room. He paused. There she was, in a large sweatshirt and jeans. “Who are you?” Magda asked threateningly, a knife in her hand.
Mr Wednesday stood perfectly still, fixing his hazel eyes on her. Calmly, he replied: “My name is Wednesday, but perhaps you know me better as Rangle-Kat.”
She stole several glances around the room. “Where is my sister?” she asked and circled around him to check the kitchen.
He allowed her reconnaissance but never let her out of sight, turning to always face her. “You’re probably too young to know my career.” He sighed wistfully and hardened his face. “I haven’t seen your sister, but there is an IM on the loose. It won’t be safe to stay here. I can take you to my shelter, and then I will go look for her.”
The kitchen was empty, as Mr Wednesday had recently ascertained. Magda tensed up and turned the knife at him. “Where is she?” she shrieked hysterically, the tip of her weapon dancing only millimetres from his chest.
Mr Wednesday gently pushed her arm down. “I already told you, I haven’t seen her. Have you checked the other rooms?”
“There are no other rooms we can use. What did you do to her?” She pushed against his grip but it was futile. Mr Wednesday looked past her and saw the couch covered in duvets and pillows.
It was quiet for a moment as Magda struggled against him with all her might. He let her vent, as long as he had her knife hand under control. “I wouldn’t still be here if I had done something to your sister, would I? Now calm down. I don’t appreciate being threatened like this.”
He pushed her back, and she did not retaliate. She wiped her nose on her thick sleeves, huffing and puffing. “You could have a partner, or you could have come back to loot the place. If you don’t tell me where my sister is, I swear, I will cut you. I’ve done it before. Sunk it right into the perv’s leg.”
Mr Wednesday furrowed his eyebrows and lumbered closer to her. “Enough of this. There really is an IM in town, and I am not letting it get to you. Or your sister, for that matter, but first we have to get you to safety. You can trust me. I am from the LHD.” He stretched out a hand to her.
Magda pressed herself against the wall, slashing the air with the knife. “So what? My stepdad was also LHD and he needed all of two seconds to leave us,” she shouted back at him. “And so was the old fart who tried to get it on with me, so excuse me for not trusting you.”
He didn’t answer her. He simply lowered his hand and grunted in sympathy.
“Don’t you dare look at me like that! If you didn’t take my sister, then I will just have to find her.”
Magda stormed out of the house. Mr Wednesday gave her a few seconds before pursuing her. He was back in the hallway when the blanket caught his attention again. The light streaming in from the front door made it glisten. Blood, but just a few drops. And next to it was a gory bandage. Reflexively, he stuffed it inside his coat as a scream disturbed his thoughts.
The IM waltzed right past the open door. It was not making a sound. Its feet were dampened and the wind drowned out the small pitter-patter. The rifle in its hand lifted and aimed at Magda cowering on the front lawn.
Mr Wednesday nearly banged his head against the lintel as he burst out of the house. The IM turned its rifle at him and opened fire immediately. The bullets clattered off the shield. Mr Wednesday crouched to cover his entire frame.
The gunfire ceased.
He peeked over the brim. The IM was a little closer and opened fire again until he crouched back down.
Mr Wednesday rested his other arm on the sniper rifle. It would do him no good, but he had the other weapon. The one looking like a sword.
The Bloodbath shotgun was originally designed to fire beanbag slugs for crowd control, but was adaptive enough to fire any kind of conventional ammo. Based on a model manufactured by Mossberg, it could hold six shots.
The IM stood by his side. Mr Wednesday fired. The robot reeled from the blast, and its LHD paint job flaked. “You can’t hurt it like that!” Magda screamed. Mr Wednesday fired another shot, and another one. “Please, just stop it!” she sobbed.
The IM staggered back and dropped its weapon. Mr Wednesday put the shotgun back in its place. “I know I can’t hurt it, but I’m trying to buy you some time. Now run!”
He smashed the shield into the robot. It was like hitting a brick wall. The IM did not budge. It looked back at him, and then up over his shoulders. Magda was disappearing down the road. The IM used only seconds to process the difficult decision that it had to make.
Extralong fingers wrapped around the shield and picked it up. Mr Wednesday never had a chance to let go. He was thrown, with shield and all, and tumbled down the asphalt.
Regardless of how far she ran, the shotgun blasts kept ringing in the ears, and with each one, she saw again the Day of Destruction. Her mother on the street, their neighbours, and then the smells. She whimpered as she barrelled down the street. Worst of it all was that one prerecorded message. The IMs would not speak or listen, but out of their mouths would come Thorne’s voice, dripping with cold evil.
“War is eternal. Peace is unattainable. Hope is illusory. Struggle is futile.”
She paused and looked down the street. No IM, not even a trace of her house. She had been running long. Her feet knew the ground well and carried her automatically, aimlessly. She picked up her speed and bolted into the main street, keeping her palms pressed against her ears.
The long stretch of road ran like a coronary artery through Juneau, once keeping the town alive with shops and businesses and small skyscrapers. A hand reached out for her, fingers clasping across her mouth. The hairy arm dragged her into the darkness of the shop. From the shelves it looked to have been a bakery. A faint smell of bread still lingered between the walls.
“Not a word or we’re both mincemeat,” a voice said. She could not see the face in the darkness, but she calmed down. It could even be that shaggy giant. The IM passed the shop, its propaganda blaring out. The hand did not release her until the machine was good and gone and its loud voice a distant whisper. “Now then. I think you and I have got some unfinished business.”
The voice panted excitedly as she stumbled forward. Magda turned around and gasped, but dared not speak. Plarens had a gun aimed at her, a standard issue non-lethal handgun. The initial surprise was quickly substituted with anger. “Still limping?”
Unconsciously, he stroked the leg with his other hand. He was already crouched over with his old face flushed with colour and blood all over his clothes. “It’ll heal. But just as I said back then, I only want to talk,” he panted and closed his left eye to stabilise his vision. “Why don’t you come a little closer? No, start by throwing away that little knife of yours first.”
She hesitantly drew her weapon. Stabbing him a little higher this time crossed her mind, but the gun was trained at her temple. The kitchen knife clanged against the ceramic floor. A satisfied leer crept over the commander. He drew a little closer but froze as a great shadow fell on the shop. Had the noise alerted the IM?
No, the shape that they could see through the foggy glass was too hairy. Plarens slinked back into the shadows, behind the counter, his gun amazingly staying locked on her the entire time.
“If that oaf comes in to investigate, do not alert him to me, do you understand? This gun won’t kill you, but it will make you piss your pants, so no tricks or you’ll be a half-hour vegetable,” he whispered.
Magda stood very still, observing the hazy figure. She stole a glance behind her. The commander was paying more attention to his bum leg than her. Magda chanced a few subtle hand gestures, and Mr Wednesday lingered. Could he really see anything through the window and darkness?
Mr Wednesday ducked inside the shop. If he had expected the stray Marte, then he did not show it. He spent a moment of looking at Magda to try and realise what was happening. He did not see the shadow move around the tables.
“What are you doing in here? Did you hide from the IM?” Mr Wednesday drew closer. His hairy face grew concerned and he put hands on her shoulders. Magda shivered from trying to stand as still as possible. “What’s the matter with you?”
The sudden click of a pistol made him whip his head around. LHD guards did not normally adjust the energy output of their pacifying guns. Too big an electrical discharge and the criminal might not wake again. A man of Mr Wednesday’s size, however, would need more pacifying than the ordinary setting. “Stay right where you are,” Plarens said with his back to the door outside. Mr Wednesday shielded Magda, his complexion turning to anger.
“What the Hell are you doing, man? Officers of the LHD never turn their weapons on children.”
Plarens smirked and threw his head to get an errant lock out of his face. His silvery hair was dishevelled and the bald patches better seen. “Oh, I would never dream of hurting her. I prefer them moving and wriggling.” Commander Plarens aimed the gun up at the giant’s face as Mr Wednesday moved towards him.
“Will you tell me what the LHD is doing in a town that they believed to be empty? Your job is to secure the survival of anyone still alive, so why have you not searched properly and then moved on?”
Mr Wednesday’s unusual calm and massive size was enough to unsettle the commander. He chuckled nervously. “Disbanding all the world’s militaries was a grave mistake, but we old Marines realised it in time to fix it. We formed the LHD to protect the world. And now we have a chance to make a fresh start, where only the strong should live and rule. Juneau is a suitable home to harden the spirit. Here we will grow strong, in peace.” Plarens waved the gun at the door. “I can use your strength, so I would like to hire you full time; I will even give you a promotion to officer. We’ll settle on which one later. Or you can leave quietly. I respect your strength, my friend. It would pain me to kill you.”
Mr Wednesday reached into his pocket. Plarens straightened his gun arm but all Mr Wednesday produced was a dirty strip of gauze. He held it up before the commander. “I don’t think you’re all that strong, Plarens. In fact, I think you’re a very weak man hiding behind muscles and uniform.”
Plarens scoffed loudly. “What could you possibly insinuate with a used bandage?” he asked, but at the pity welling up in Mr Wednesday’s eyes, clarity overcame feigned ignorance. Rage boiled up in him. “I just wanted to talk with them. Bring them back to the base where they could be safe, but this… this little… this beast stabbed me in the leg when I had been so nice to show up in person to rescue her.”
Magda did not move from her spot. Her eyes hardened. Mr Wednesday pushed her close to him. “I find it incredible that this small, desolate city should house two of your kind, but what were you doing with your pants off in their house?”
The gun went off in Plarens’s hand. The yellow beam removed all shadows for a single instant. The momentary hate on the commander’s face was illuminated. Mr Wednesday clutched his shoulder and fell on one knee.
“You forget… that our jackets… are made to withstand… those beams.”
“Maybe so, but you don’t look like you could take another one at this intensity.”
Plarens composed himself and kept the gun trained on the panting giant. The blameless look in Mr Wednesday’s eyes, however, made him grimace. The shaggy giant shakily got up, and Plarens forget the gun in his hand. “You want a new world, you say. Where might makes right? But the LHD stands was formed to protect everyone equally, to help the weak from the tyranny of the strong,” Mr Wednesday said, his left arm hanging limply.
The commander’s face distorted to one of uncorked anger. His hand clenched so tight around the gun, it was a miracle it didn’t burst. His voice however was calm but only through extreme self-control. “I was just a young man when I joined the Marines, you know. A real hothead. But the Marines put a curb on my temper. I was happy. Those were good times, but then the peace treaty was signed and ruined everything. Do you have any idea what that was like?”
“No. I was born a decade after the peace treaty, but I know what it’s like to have power at your hands and not knowing what to do with it. You must have joined Bloodbath,” Mr Wednesday theorised serenely.
“What else was I supposed to do? Slip back into a life of gangs and drugs? But Bloodbath nearly broke my neck, so it was luck that heard about the LHD. That was before it was a global enterprise, back when California had a lot of trouble with violent immigrants. Given a year, we were protecting all of the United States, and then the UN chartered us to protect the whole world.” His voice filled first with pride, but his memories flushed him with colour again and anger flared up. “It was easy to take peace for granted, living in America with dwindling debt and low house prices and Al Gore as president. Europe was not that lucky. I can’t tell you the number of friends that I lost to nationalists and civil wars. They did not have an LHD. They did not even have a Bloodbath. Their old soldiers roamed the streets, looking for fights and to stir up trouble.”
Mr Wednesday listened patiently. Like all Americans, he knew what Plarens was saying, but it was so easy to conveniently ignore it all with how peaceful things had been. The Destruction had brought all the bad things of the world back to the surface. His look of understanding and empathy however brought only more frustration to the commander. “You’re looking at me again!” he spat as he stamped the floor. “Don’t you dare fucking look down on me. I fought in the Italian Civil War, the Jewish German Conflict, the Balkan Distress… I just wanted the peace that we had been promised, but those weaklings at the top–”
None of them noticed the IM, not until its hand protruded through Plarens’s abdomen. The metal arm lifted the bulky man up like he weighed nothing. Blood dripped down the robotic limb. Bubbles formed in the commander’s crimson drool. His lips shaped one last curse. Like a ragdoll, Plarens was cast aside and knocked over the tables. Mr Wednesday scooped Magda up under his shield arm. In a weak voice, she asked:
“What do we do now?”
Mr Wednesday ripped out his shotgun and blasted the shopfront window. The unarmed IM grabbed the empty air as the shaggy giant leapt through the new exit. Mr Wednesday continued his momentum down the main street. The IM tore through the window but had a running pace of a brisk walk. Mr Wednesday ducked into an alley and carried on through side streets and private properties, smashing fences as he went.
Magda squirmed under his restraint. “Put me down!” she exclaimed and banged her fists against him with the same effect a mosquito might have had.
“I’m not stopping until we get back to my shelter. We’ll be safe there.”
“My sister is still out there! I have to find her!”
Mr Wednesday said nothing. Though his pace remained unchanged his eyes became distant, looking for the right thing to do. He wiped his mouth with his free hand and finally halted. “I can’t exactly look at random either, I suppose. Your sister could be anywhere and there’s an IM on the loose. Do you have any idea where she might have gone?” he asked and adjusted his grip on Magda.
“The uh… the school I think. That’s the only place she ever felt safe. She’s bound to be there,” she said and ceased her wriggling. She contented herself with her transportation and helped out with the directions.
Their route circled back towards the main street, but the street they came out into was new, the last part of the city’s growth spurt. There was a brand new post office, a large swimming hall and several modern homes. The beauty was marred, however, by unfinished projects standing like skeletons, and the corpses everywhere. Mr Wednesday took a deep breath and sprinted for the school on the right.
It had once been a grey horseshoe of square buildings with a park between the wings. Now most of it was crumbled inwards and washed up against the right wing like a tidal wave of rubble. Mr Wednesday paused, unable to find either windows or doors inside. “We can go in there,” Magda pointed out. A large clock tower had toppled and knocked a hole in the wall. She slipped out from under his arm and leapt towards it. “I’ll quickly find her, I won’t be long.”
Magda hopped up on the mass of twisted rebar and concrete. It was a firm mass, compact enough to support Mr Wednesday as he pursued her. He stopped at the top and watched disappeared into the hole. He would leave the search to her, while he kept an eye out for the IM.
A chill wind rustled his black whiskers as he gazed out over the neighbourhood. It was an area of rapid development and gentrification. Mr Wednesday shifted his gaze, but saw nothing that wasn’t disheartening. People had streamed to the area and numerous houses stood in various stages of completion. Broken towers of hotels jutted miserably up towards the grey sky. Juneau was close to becoming a metropolis.
“–is illusory. Struggle is futile.”
A very faint whisper came to him from the school behind him. The wind almost drowned it out. Mr Wednesday perked his ears. There it was again. Ice flooded his veins. The IM could not possible have beaten them to Marte. How was it supposed to know where to go?
Mr Wednesday rushed towards the hole. It was large enough for him, and large enough for a two and half metres robot.
Magda sat pressed up against the electronic blackboard with Marte in her lap. Their reunion had been short and bittersweet. How the IM had tracked down her sister would remain a mystery when she still wouldn’t speak. Magda clutched Marte close to her chest while glaring at the smashed door. A hulking shadow fell through the missing top part. Hopefully, it would not see them cowering behind the teacher’s desk.
The door creaked open. Heavy boots rang between the walls. Marte closed her eyes, whimpering. She was dirty from crawling on all fours and sweaty from physical exertion. At least they were together in the end. All because the school had only windows facing the courtyard and none to the streets outside. Frustration called tears to her eyes and rage to her face. She didn’t even have her knife anymore. Fat load of good that would have done her anyway.
The hulking shape paused in the darkness. A pair of hazel eyes fixed on them. “What are you two doing? We need to get out of here,” a strong voice chided.
Magda’s lips quivered. At the end of the day, she was still a child. She had seen things girls her age were not supposed to see, but she was still a girl. And at that moment, with Mr Wednesday standing there, she finally felt like one again. Both sisters ran to his side and latched on to a leg each. Marte cried large streams of tears while Magda hesitantly sobbed. Two large hands like shovel blades landed on top of both their heads.
“We should get going, girls. The IM is still somewhere in the building; you must have heard it.” Neither of the girls moved. They clung to him with heads buried into the fabric of his trousers. He had no choice but to hoist Marte up on his right shoulder and Magda back under his arm.
It was dark with debris blocking the wall with windows. Mr Wednesday trod carefully through the glass and concrete. The hole was just down the far end. The few moments of walking dragged by torturously. One by one, he lifted the children out. He took a deep breath of relief and crawled outside in the sun again.
“Is everyone all right?” he asked. Marte nodded despite clutching her left arm.
Magda pried her little sister’s pudgy fingers away and saw a large gash. “Where did you get this?” she enquired but of course didn’t get an answer. Magda shook her head and looked back at Mr Wednesday. “We’d better do something about it. It looks pretty deep.”
Mr Wednesday peered nervously over his shoulder towards the hole. Had the IM been an illusion? It was better not to take any chances.
“She isn’t bleeding too badly so we’ll do something about it once we get home. For now we better get going again.”
Magda walked on her own with her sister in her hand. She had turned mute as well, though she was just in a sour mood, hastily crossing the debris filling the courtyard. Marte had to half run to keep with her and whimpered, but Magda gave no sign of slowing down. Mr Wednesday followed behind them down the pile of stones and metal wires. There were no stairs or signs telling them to be careful of danger. Such things had become a luxury of another world. All Mr Wednesday could do was to guide the girls down unto the withered lawn.
A sudden sound froze Mr Wednesday to the rubble pile. Crunching. He spun around and saw the IM emerging from the hole with a rocket launcher over its shoulder. All in the matter of a second, the robot knelt down, took aim and fired. A cloud of fire belched out of the tube.
Mr Wednesday whipped out the shotgun and blasted off a round. It was all he could do.
The world turned upside down and inside out. It grew blindingly bright and then dark. He could feel nothing. The sensation of floating in the endless void lasted for an eternity, yet the girls were still there when his eyes opened. His feeling returned incomplete. Most of his body was in pain but his right arm was numb.
The girls were moving their mouths silently. Oh yes. He had raised his shield and closed his eyes, but of course his ears would have been unprotected. And they looked so worried. It must have been because of the rusty length of rebar pinning him to the ground. But where was it protruding from?
A small pair of hands shook his left shoulder, but Magda’s voice was so distant. The ringing did not make her easier to understand. “Mr Wednesday!”
“I almost thought that light was the Pearly Gates opening for me,” he replied weakly and grabbed his head. There was a lot of dust in his beard. “What happened?”
Magda sat back on her heels and sighed deeply. “The IM left. It must have thought we all died in that explosion.” Her voice quivered. Her little sister was embraced tightly against her.
Mr Wednesday relaxed. He had no choice. Strength was slowly leaving him. “Are you girls all right?” he asked faintly and closed his eyes.
Magda, dissatisfied with that development, resumed shaking him. “Yeah, we’re all right, but you lost a lot of blood.”
“That’s funny. I don’t feel too bad.” A smile formed on his lips.
Marte waddled over to shake him as well. Both sisters wept. “You can’t die yet. You can’t,” Magda cried, even though he was soaked in blood. The LHD jacket had been compromised and could not protect him from the shower of debris that had kicked up. Long gashes marred his cheeks and hands. Magda’s tears mingled with the blood trickling from his scalp down over a swollen and puffed eye “Please…”
“Go back to my granny’s basement,” he uttered, every breath a pain from broken ribs. “The address should still be in my pockets.”
Marte grabbed his oversized hands, opening and closing her mouth like she wanted to speak. “I would have loved to hear your voice just once.” He rolled his head towards her. Blood squirted from his rebar wound, making him groan.
“M…” Marte stammered before burying her head in his jacket. “Mr Wednesday! Please, this is all my fault. Don’t leave us.”
“Don’t worry, little one. This would have happened sooner or later. Just don’t ever rob this world of your voice again,” he sighed.
He tried to lift his hand, so the little girl took it for him. With a lot of effort he pushed it up to cup her wet cheek. “Listen, girls, there’s a shelter outside of New York City. Go there when you’re ready.”
His hands fell limply down his side.
Marte sat at the edge of the mattress with hands in her lap. After all this time, she found herself unable to go on. “That’s a mighty sad tale with a mighty sad ending. Where is your sister, then?”
She opened her mouth and closed it again. Instead of forcing herself, she simply lay down on her makeshift bed and draped a thin sheet across herself. The campfire had died out and the night was cold. The horse snorted, interrupting Phil before he could pursue the subject. But what Marte was unable to tell, she dreamt in her fitful sleep.
31 January 2068
6 years, 7 months and 8 days since the Destruction
“Phew,” Magda exclaimed and wiped her brow. Marte stood silently with her hands folded against her dress. “Want to say a few words?”
Marte neither confirmed nor denied; her head bowed against the falling snow.
Magda cleared her throat. “Old Lady Wednesday, a mean old woman who taught us to shoot and cook… when she wasn’t harping on us about how much we weighed or how we dressed. Do you think that will do it?”
The wind picked up again and a flurry of snow brushed against them, making both girls shiver despite their thick clothes. Mentally they both thanked their foresight at digging her grave in the summer and covering it with a tarp. Just in case she ever strolled out and happened upon it. Even if she did see it, though, they could always just push her in.
Magda rolled up the tarp and put it back inside the garage. The old Plymouth was still in there, ready to fall apart or be reclaimed by nature. So many other things already had. Magda looked over her shoulder as she thought she saw a shape. She shrugged it off and took her sister in hand. They went back around the house towards the repurposed storm shelter. “Wouldn’t have been her to die on any other day. Let’s get inside before we freeze to death. Not much of a storm now, but just you wait a few hours.”
A singular shape, as imposing as it had been seven years prior, trod out of the flurry. Scratches and dents and rusty gashes told of its brushes with animal life and human weapons. Whenever the IM reported back to base, the same command was given to it. Patrol and look for signs of a hidden shelter. It was a loathsome job, and the cold only dropped for every year. Summer barely came to Alaska anymore. But the unthinking robot was not bothered. It carried out its orders with the efficiency expected of it.
On that day, the robot encountered something that had it never seen before: freshly turned soil and wooden boards banged together. Unmistakable signs of human activity.
The IM switched to its internal heat seeker. It was too energy consuming to keep it turned on, and in the wasteland, energy resources were hard to come by. Round the front yard the IM scanned, up into the collapsing yellow house with its front porch, and then down. Bingo.
It was Marte’s turn to polish the richly painted shield, with its red cross on a white background. Even with Old Lady Wednesday gone, some habits were good to keep up and so Marte rubbed until the surface shone.
It was contrarily Magda’s turn to look after the shotgun. Down the barrel with a pipe cleaner and out again, having of course made sure that the weapon was not loaded. “Don’t you think we have been here too long, Marte? With the old hag gone, we could try and find a new shelter with more people in it. Then we wouldn’t have to be alone.”
Marte did not reply and instead found a particularly ingrown spot on the shield that she furiously wiped. “M-maybe, but we have it pretty good here, don’t we?” she replied with her nose almost to the shield.
“It’s not getting any warmer up here, Magda. The whole town could be frozen solid in a few years. Mr Wednesday left us plenty of maps and directions to this shelter outside New York City, so we won’t be searching blindly.”
The chubby girl fidgeted with her rag, trying to avoid her sister’s eyes that were now directly looking at her. “I… I don’t know. It’s got to get warmer sometime.” She lifted the shield up on its side so she could clean the underpart as well. “We got animals everywhere, and the basement is filled with ammunition. That old lady was really paranoid.”
Magda shook her head. “So what do you want to do here? We are literally the only ones left in all of Juneau except for that IM. I admit it’s been good living here, all things considered, but we should move on now with the old lady gone.” With her eager tone, she hoped to convince Marte. Her sister smiled back weakly and polished like her life depended on it.
The thick double doors almost blasted out of their hinges. The loud bang nearly sent both girls flying. Before either of them could react, another slam sent both doors clanging down the wooden stairs. They landed on the rug right before their couch. A cold breath gushed down into the basement.
The IM raised its fully-automatic rifle and sprayed the room with bullets. The couch tipped over and Magda landed on top of Marte. The large figure descended the stairs and touched the floor. It was unfamiliar with the terrain and scanned the room. It knocked over the coffee table and went further ahead down the hall, checking for further inhabitants. When satisfied, it quietly left the basement again.
“Go to the shelter,” Magda coughed. “Please. Don’t look back, just go.”
Marte’s eyes went wide with horror and surprise. Her sister was slowly bleeding her life out on top of her and there was nothing she could do. She whimpered in soul pain but she could not bear herself to scream regardless of how she tried. “S-sis… sis!” she whimpered and rolled over her over. Her body was too filled with holes. Life had already left her body. Only the shield had kept Marte safe. Several spent casings were spread around the thin carpet. It had never managed to keep toes warm from the cold concrete. Now it was soaked in red.