Story 06: Memories of Losses and Gains – Countdown to Insanity
24 October 2086
25 years and 4 months since the Destruction
Adlai pushed the glasses up on his nose and went down the south corridor with a book under his arm. The last couple of rooms had been merged for a daycare. The children could play there with toys scavenged from the wastes, out of the way. Adults voluntarily took turn in supervising them, and Adlai had few other responsibilities anyway.
The daycare floor was littered with model cars and action figurines. It was a wonder how plastic things sealed inside plastic cases never rotted away. The girls were off in a corner, having some secret meeting with their dolls, while the boys sat in the other corner, chatting over magazines and comic books.
The old man watching over them acknowledged Adlai’s presence with a nod from his seat. He could have enjoyed his age like many others in the basement when they grew old. Instead he sat almost every day in the daycare. He rapped his cane on the floor, and the children looked up. Instantly, they mixed and flocked around Adlai, all of them around the age of ten. Younger children stayed with their family, and older children could wander the basement at leisure.
“What story will you tell us today?”
The girl was at the other side of ten and clutched his jacket, like most of them did.
“Don’t be so impatient. Let me sit down first,” Adlai said a little nervously. Usually that made the children give him the space he needed, but they were impatient, anxious, as if they had picked up signals he could not see or feel.
“Is it another one of your books?”
The young boy sounded almost disappointed. The collection of books from the outside grew with every raid, and many of them had been approved by grownups. “What’s wrong with my books?” he laughed. “Don’t you like them anymore?”
A little girl wringed her yellow dress between her hands. Usually too shy to speak up, she hung her head. “Y-your books are fine, but…” she couldn’t finish her sentence. Adlai looked at her searchingly. All at once, the children grabbed on to him and babbled in one cacophonous voice.
“Tell us about the outside. What are the robots like? What is the Sun? Have you seen any real animals?”
Adlai looked from one face to the other, feeling cold sweat dripping down his neck. “L-listen… I said listen! Will you be quiet for a moment,” he said and waved with his hands. “I haven’t been outside since the Destruction so I wouldn’t really know. But I can tell you about how the world was like before.”
“But we’re tired of hearing what the world was like before. We want to know what it’s like now. Is it true there is nothing but sand?”
The children clutched and grabbed again, but Adlai said nothing. The old man rapped his cane again and smiled.
“Now, now, children, Adlai here only barely survived the Destruction. He has had enough of the outside world.”
Crestfallen, they released him and backed away. Adlai reached out to them, but they went back to their toys. The old man chuckled while stroking his impressive beard tinged with streaks of purple. Adlai drooped almost to the ground as strength left his system. “I’ll just go back to my room then.”
“So what did you plan to read for them? Another story from the Talmud?” The old man pointed his cane at the leather-bound tome in Adlai’s hands.
The book landed in the old man’s lap with a dull thud as Adlai weakly threw it. “Why don’t you read it to them?” Adlai asked with an edge of annoyance. “The kids seem to listen to you.”
“I wouldn’t need this book to tell its stories,” the old man whispered with nostalgia and cradled the front cover, tracing the gilded letters etched into the leather. He stroked his beard and chortled almost like a young lady. Adlai did not notice. He was turned on his heel and already storming out of the room.
As always when anger and frustration got the better of him, Adlai went to the shooting range on the floor below. It was the only place for someone without a permit to fire a gun, and only under supervision. Adlai went to the desk and tried to avoid Maxwell’s searching eyes as he requested a pistol by the desk.
“Been a while since I last saw you down here,” Maxwell said. Adlai nervously accepted his gun and went across the small entrance room. The ranges were kept behind soundproof walls. He took ammunition from the one of the cabinets and chose a cubicle at the very end where he could not be seen making a fool of himself. Not that it mattered, as he was all alone. What was Maxwell even still doing in the basement? He didn’t usually miss a chance to go outside.
The little paper target flopped down from above. It was amazing how many of those that John had saved up. Or perhaps he kept finding more outside?
Adlai held up the gun nervously and fired six shots as quickly as he could, while holding it as far away from himself as possible. The paper target came back with a clipped the shoulder and a hole in the abdomen. Adlai put the gun down on the platform before him with a sigh. A sudden hand on his shoulder made his knees buckle.
“You’re not going to pass the test like that, you know. Why can’t you just do as I tell you?” Maxwell chided.
“I’m sorry, I just keep thinking of the robots when I hold a gun.” He eyed the weapon with disgust, and looked up at Maxwell. “I do want to go outside and see how things are, but… I also just want to stay down here where it’s safe.”
Maxwell chuckled heartily, only deepening Adlai’s scowl. “You really think it’s safe down here? If Thorne ever found our hideout, we’d have IMs crawling up our ass before we could even arm ourselves. That’s why I never go anywhere without this thing.” Maxwell patted the guitar on his shoulder. “So pick up that gun again and remember what I told you. There is no such thing as a weapon, only tools. And tools are only dangerous in the wrong hands.”
Adlai took a deep breath and resumed his position. Maxwell adjusted his stance, lifted up his tightly clenched hand and kept adjusting until he deemed Adlai ready and let him loose. The Jewish man took a deep breath and fired the gun. All of his shots hit. Some were merely grazes, but a few would be deadly hits on a machine. “You have to account for the recoil as well. Take another clip and try again,” Maxwell instructed.
Again loaded the gun and found his position without Maxwell to correct him. Sporadic lessons over the years flashed back to him. He kept his eyes trained on the paper dummy and weighted each shot. The paper man returned with all holes inside the outlines.
“Great going,” Maxwell praised, “not bad at all. How about we increase the difficulty a bit?”
“I don’t know how far away I could hit a target.” The idea at least amused Adlai into a nervous smile. He wiped his sticky brow. “But I guess we could move the dummy down the range a bit.”
Maxwell shook his head and put his guitar up against the wall. “Not exactly what I had in mind.” He scratched his upper lip as he sussed out the gangly man. “How would you like to try hitting a moving target for once?”
Before Adlai could say anything, Maxwell vaulted over the counter to the other side of the range and spread out his arms. Adlai hesitated, taken aback by Maxwell’s sudden initiative.
“What’s the matter? You know me, so you know I’ll be fine. If you want your license, all you have to do is kill me.”
Luciano’s office chair groaned as he parked himself. Hastily he checked the monitoring equipment all around him. There were cameras watching the grounds around the basement, a radar for incoming bogeys, a few radios to keep an ear out for signals, a TV that was mostly used by Thorne for propaganda, and even a computer for the Internet. No websites could connect anymore, though. Satisfied, fifty-three year old Luciano relaxed and took a book from within his wool shirt. The page he opened up on was empty, but he retrieved a pencil from the spine and made a few doodles.
“Still writing on that fantasy of yours?” asked a young man coming into the small room from behind. He would just barely have been born by the time of the Destruction. His face was long and his blonde hair darkening.
Luciano chuckled and scratched his bushy, black moustache. “It’s not a fantasy if it’s going to come true. Someday this war will be over and people will look to me, with all my plans, for what to do.”
“Sure, sure. But until it comes true it will remain a fantasy. Dreams have a way of being finicky,” the young man replied sceptically and took a seat next to Luciano.
“You know how the IMs drop down in silver bubbles? I’ve been thinking we could use those for transportation. They are sturdy, after all, but I’d still have to find a way to negate the g-force on impact.” He bit into his pencil and stared hard at the paper, as if the answer would reveal itself to him. All he had was an arrow pointing from a stick figure to a circle with a question mark above it.
The young man shook his head. “I thought you were renewing your weapons licence today?”
Luciano did not reply for a bit, not until he put the notebook down and the pencil clattering next to it. “I still have till tomorrow. Not that I’ve been going above ground at all lately.”
Grunting in disapproval, the young man continued. “But isn’t it boring just sitting here?”
“Are you kidding? I have all the time in the world for my thinking, and I can just take a nap if I want to.” Luciano leant back and stretched to prove his point.
“You’re still going to have to monitor the equipment; your snore could drown out the scratching of any radio,” the youth teased.
“That’s what I have you for.” Luciano clapped the young man’s shoulder and closed his eyes. “Wake me if anything happens, all right? I’ll rest on my problem.”
And so Luciano fell to his meditation again, and his dreams of silver bubbles flying between blocks of houses. Someday, perhaps even soon. It didn’t feel like long before the youth shook him awake. Blearily, Luciano flailed his arms and bolted upright.
“Uh… Luciano… I don’t think you can doze off just yet.”
Serena lay on her bed and flicked away another girly magazine. Only the hunky men interested her, but the magazines talked mostly about nail polish and dresses. She reached a hand for the plate on the floor. Empty. Serena sighed and silently wished she gone with the hunting party. But Maxwell had also stayed behind. Maxwell… she put a finger to her lips and smiled.
She was just up on her feet when the gathering bell chimed. She clicked her tongue and slithered into a black T-shirt from her closet.
Taking her time, the large common room was already packed. Nearly two hundred people lived in the basement, and most of the adults had met up. The billiard table, pinball machines, dinner tables and couches were all gone in a sea of heads. The speculating mutters was a wave of cacophony, almost repelling Serena again.
Maxwell appeared at the other end of the room. He must be standing on the stage. The crowd fell silent.
“Excuse me,” Serena said and pushed herself through. There was something off about Maxwell’s expression. And John was right there next to him. Serena had to get a little closer, pinching her way through the crowd.
Julia blew away a lock of green hair away from her face and looked at their kill. Just a single deer, dangling on a pole between two other survivors similarly dressed in hooded beige robes. It helped them remain unseen from above and by their prey.
Nature had reclaimed the entire North American continent, and probably beyond it as well. Animals roamed that could easily be exploited for food. Only trouble was leaving and returning without alerting anyone to the basement’s secret location.
Julia checked her unfolded computer again. The only way to find the basement in a sea of sand was with the tracker. She could see herself as a blip nearing their destination. She threw back her hood and pressed her screen. A garage emerged from the sand, still retaining its blue colouration.
“Back at last,” Julia said a little disappointed. They had not encountered a single IM on the way. “We thank you for using Julia as your guard for this hunting trip, and hope you enjoyed your journey.”
Her imitation of an airline service fell flat on the crowd. A few stifled chortles were all she got as the survivors entered the garage elevator.
Maxwell raised his arms. The return of the hunting party had spurred a second outbreak of whispering. “Quiet, please. I think we are all here now with our intrepid hunters back. Hey!” He put his fingers in his mouth and whistled, and the crowd fell silent. “All right then, we have some exciting news for you. Luciano himself will tell you all about it.”
The moustachio’d man was silent for a moment, a look of surprise on his face. Being summoned to speak had not been in his instruction. Luciano cleared his throat and stepped forward. “Uh, so, ten minutes ago I picked up a radio signal from what seems like another group of survivors on the west coast. The message repeated itself a few times before dying out, but I was able to record it.”
He took a green cylinder from his trouser pocket and cracked it length-wise. A thin film stretched between the two halves. The screen of the computer was black with a white line. Scratches and hisses bellowed out, symbolised by waves above and below the line. It took a second for the noise to distil into a woman’s voice. “My name is Amber Summers, and I live in a small shelter with about fifty other people. They are mostly scientists with no fighting experience, but we have discovered where Thorne most likely keeps his base of operations. Anyone who can hear my voice, go to coordinates 37°14′06″N 115°48′40″W and help someone from our shelter that went ahead. We can shut down all IMs from this location.”
The sound degenerated back into static and died out. Maxwell stepped forward on the scene and looked down at all the people gathered. “We have longed to be free for twenty-five years, looking high and low for the place where we could direct our attack. We now have that chance. Good people of John’s basement, it is time for us to take action against Thorne. You may be thinking, “What can I do?” or “What’s the point?” but I tell you, that’s all a load of crap. Sure we have it good down here, but are you truly happy living in these cramped quarters? Is this basement really to be our whole world and the topside theirs? We have a golden opportunity here, people. Let’s not waste it.”
“B-but.” A young girl pushed her way up front, tears glistening behind her. “Their base must be heavily fortified. How can we ever hope to win against them?”
“Is that all you people think of?” Maxwell asked quietly and tilted his head down. The low voice drew them nearer and made everyone gathered turn their full attention on his words. He lifted his chin and his voice boomed so that they fell back. “I do not promise you vain ideals like success or survival. I will instead grant you a place in history, something that can only be secured through battle. Glory, my friends, is not obtained by sitting here on our hands. Those who can should fight for what they believe in, and those who cannot should cheer and await the return of the lucky few. Survival is not an incentive. It is a commodity.”
“Enough!” An old woman smacked her cane into the floor. Everyone turned around to look at her. “I’ve already lost my husband and my son’s fiancée; I don’t want to lose my only child as well. Hasn’t there been enough death already?”
General murmurs broke out among the crowd but Maxwell did not silence them. He gazed at them all in turn, all their stories and backgrounds and futures flashing before his eyes. When he again spoke, it was neither with anger nor with pity. It was a voice filled with endless wisdom, such as a youth like himself should not possess.
“Of course there have been enough deaths. Us in the basement, we could be all that’s left. Yet how do you expect to win if you bet nothing? It isn’t just your lives we’re gambling here, it’s mine as well and John’s too and the lives of everyone in the future. We’re all going to put our lives on the line. If none of you comes, it will just be John and me, but we’ll gladly win this war on our own. Or at least we will try.”
John took to the stage and pushed on Maxwell’s bulging arms to retreat. Only Maxwell’s own volition made him move. John coughed emphatically. “We will go by bus to the destination, but there are only sixty seats. If we can fill those, then Maxwell and I will also go on his motorcycle and in my car, which will open up a few more spaces. The rest will have to stay behind and defend the basement in case of emergency.” Only sporadic whispering broke out. John prodded his glasses further up on his nose. “I am giving volunteers one hour to review their option. We are meeting down in the lowest level, the garage. And must I remind people how warm it is outside despite late October?”
Maxwell cut in front of John again.
“I don’t want to see any empty seats, folks. It’s your future at stake here. The machines can take our flesh, but they can never have our spirit or our minds. It’s because we oppose their mechanical tyranny that we are all huddled down here. If you don’t want to come, you might as well just leave the basement and surrender yourself to Thorne… ah?”
John drummed his fingers on his opposite arm. Maxwell retreated with a sheepish smile, and John took the spotlight. “Before we adjourn, I must ask… can anyone drive a large vehicle?” His hard, serious gaze did not underscore how serious a flaw his plan had. No one said anything but stared up unblinkingly at him.
Everything was desert as far as the eye stretched. Even ruins had been swallowed by the sand. Whole cities were gone, making navigation difficult. All she had was a map and a compass to tell her the general direction she needed to go. Ever onwards Marte continued regardless of impediments, large shield trailing after her and shotgun strapped to her back. Somehow she had managed to keep herself in her usual round shape. Only the memory of the basement and what everyone had sacrificed kept her on her feet. It was all the purpose she had left.
What day was it? What year? Nothing ever changed, from the lush forests of Canada to the sandbox that America had proven to be. Most clocks had stopped, or they could only tell her the time and not the date. What she really needed to know was how old she was. She hadn’t celebrated her birthday since she had left Mr Wednesday’s storm cellar. Summer and winter differed only imperceptibly in temperature. It was plain hot all year round. Marte was too inured by the sand and desolation and heat to question what could have brought that about. Surely no natural force on earth could have caused such a continental change?
Finding an old highway made her so happy she nearly collapsed. It just suddenly poured from the ground like a grey spring of concrete. Perhaps the barriers on both sides had kept the sand from reclaiming it. As in a true desert oasis, palm trees shot up at seemingly random through the hard pavement.
There had been four lanes of traffic, two on either side of a concrete divider. Cars, in some state or another, dotted the cracked pavement. It was too far away from town to be touched by bombs, but robots had swept through quickly, leaving nothing but perforated cars.
Some skeletons had never gotten out; others had futilely tried to escape. Some were crushed, others shot or blown apart, and most had been carried off by scavengers. The thought of patrolling IMs made her wary, but she could see no danger for miles and miles around her. Thus Marte trudged along the sweltering pavement. It was either scorching sand or burning asphalt.
How long she walked became irrelevant. At length both end of the road disappeared into heat waves. Marte collapsed under the shade of a palm tree. From her backpack she grabbed a bottle of precious water and some lunch wrapped in paper. She had only just gotten the bottle to her lips when a low noise snapped her attention into alertness.
The heat had to be getting to her. She could see something from the direction she had come, moving rapidly, kicking up a trail of dust. She jerked up on her feet and nearly dropped her water bottle. A semi-truck without load roared down the decrepit highway. It tried its best to navigate around the cars but the impacts shook under Marte’s feet. The red truck bulldozed its way through and toppled cars over that couldn’t be avoided.
Marte watched the truck pass her like a storm. The tires screeched loudly and the passenger side door banged open. An arm adorned with circlets of many colours waved at her. Marte’s lunch already lay spoiled at her feet. She put the bottle into her backpack and hurried up to the truck. A Latino woman in her late forties waved her inside. Marte could barely close the doors before the truck rumbled back to life again. “Pleasure to meet you,” the Latina said with eyes focused on driving. “Name’s Carmelita.”
“Please to meet you too,” Marte said and introduced herself as well, then adding with curious eyes examining the cabin, “Where did you get your hands on this? And how are you still running it?”
“Running it ain’t the problem. The IMs are still making plenty of gas. It’s just a matter of stealing it.” Carmelita adjusted the rear-view mirror and clicked her tongue disapprovingly.
Noise from the outside indicated the presence of another vehicle coming up from behind. Marte tried frantically to adjust herself in the seat, but her space was cramped. A large bag restricted her feet and it was impossible to find a good place for her shield. The constant bumping and the breakneck speed were not making things easier. “What’s going on?” Marte asked while twisting and turning. “Can’t you slow down?”
“Nothing doing, mamacita.” Carmelita chewed bubblegum agitatedly, the rings on her arms jangling and her breasts rippling in her lowcut shirt. “We have company on our tail and they’re not inviting us over for cocktails.”
“What?” Marte asked nervously. A long fingernail directed her to the passenger side mirror. A greyish green car came into sight, bearing more than a passing semblance to a turtle. It didn’t have to avoid obstacles like Carmelita’s truck with its shovel-headed front grill. Palm trees and cars were rammed aside. “Oh sweet Jesus, what is that?”
“Dunno, but it’s been trailing me for a while now. I guess they got tired of my thefts.”
Marte managed to work the shield behind her and lean against it. “T-thank you. That thing would have crushed me if you hadn’t picked me up,” she sighed deeply.
“So how about you make yourself useful? Dig into that bag between your feet and see what you can find.”
Marte opened up the brown leather bag, at least out of curiosity. She gasped when she saw it was chock full of grenades and other explosives.
“Let one rip on those pendejos!” Carmelita screamed excitedly. She yanked on the rope hanging down and the truck tooted loudly. “You hear that, you mechanical bastards? You can’t catch Carmelita.”
Unable to not be smitten with the good mood, Marte shuffled around the bag between boxes and barrels before locating a few deadly eggs. They were heavy in her hands and did not bring good memories. “I’ve only used a grenade once or twice before. Almost inevitable when trying to survive out here.” She stared at the muddy colour and the sleek surface of the grenades. The jerking of the truck nearly knocked them out of her hands.
Gunfire erupted behind them. The IMs had gotten closer and began firing their various rifles. Carmelita’s truck had fortunately been reinforced as well. All the shots plinked harmlessly on the chassis. “What are you waiting for, an invitation?” Carmelita yelled.
The shovel-headed killing machine crept steadily closer. Everything it pushed aside barely slowed it down. It was fast for its size with belt wheels and heavy armour.
Marte despised the grenade in her hand. The pin fought back but Marte was both determined and strong. The grenade hurtled down the road faster than she had expected and passed the armoured car. It blew up a large chunk of the road behind it. “Damn, they explode too fast,” Marte said as she quickly jerked back inside.
“Well then cook it.”
Carmelita calmly chewed her bubblegum, concentrating her eyes on the road. As much as swerving slowed them down, hitting obstacles only worsened it. “You know, pull the pin but don’t throw it.” The side mirror tore off with a splintering sound. Marte yelped, but Carmelita grabbed her collar. “Hey, mamacita, it’s all right. I’m going to get us through this but only if you can help me out. Now throw another granada.”
Sweat beat down Marte’s brow. “Uh… I’m not sure I can do this, explosives were never my strong suit,” she said, but Carmelita waved her hand at the window with a typical shoo motion. Marte swallowed the lump in her throat. “Very well... here goes nothing.”
Marte unpinned another grenade. She held it for as long as she dared, what seemed like an eternity, before finally throwing it out of the window. The grenade hurtled towards the armoured car and exploded on their view slots. The tank-like car brushed it off with just a minor shake.
“Shit!” Marte exclaimed and retracted her head again before the robots could shoot it off. “It just splashed off like a water balloon.”
“I guess we just have to try something a little more dangerous. How are you with that gun around your neck, mamacita?” Carmelita smiled unnervingly, unchanged as something tumbled down under the truck. Her arm hoops jangled.
Marte patted her shotgun proudly. “Well, I’m not too shabby,” she replied optimistically, but had to shake her head. “It won’t do us much good though. I’ve been out of ammunition for a while.”
Girlish laughter, fitting of a woman twenty years her age, bubbled from Carmelita’s lips. “Why don’t you check the bag again, see if you can find something to your tastes?” Another salvo plinked off the armour, just as the truck lurched. “I usually grab everything I can when I raid their fuel stations. You won’t believe the kind of stuff I get my hands on.”
Marte crouched back down to check the bag. The small cardboard boxes she had felt earlier were full of ammunition, from standard nine millimetre rounds up to forty-five. What really made her face light up were the many varieties of shotgun ammo. The boxes had such interesting labels as birdshot, hail and rubber.
“Just take as much as you can carry. I’ve always preferred the revolver but you can’t afford to be picky these days,” Carmelita said from somewhere above.
“T-thank you very much, but I don’t see how a shotgun will fare much better against that turtle than a grenade did.”
“Oh?” Carmelita teased. “Then you haven’t found… it!”
Marte pushed things aside and nearly jumped into Carmelita’s bag. It was a black hole that had merged with the passenger foot space, lined by soft, blue velvet. A strip of sunlight kissed her cheek. The rays bounced off a green metal case. Carefully, Marte dislodged it on a hunch and pulled it free.
“Is this it?” she asked and opened the lid. Inside were several slugs for a shotgun.
“Well why don’t you try firing one of them?”
As she fed a slug to her gun, she noticed an ominous skull and bones etched into the copper. The noise from the armoured car’s powerful engine came closer. Bullets flew repeatedly.
A rusted lorry had crashed through the central reservation and sprawled across the lanes. Carmelita narrowly swerved around it, but the turtle car didn’t care. The IMs rammed into the lorry head-on but got the trailer stuck in front of them. Sparks flew as their pursuit was temporarily dampened.
Marte twisted in her seat and aimed for the bizarre sight, waiting for them to get rid of the block. The IMs eventually realised they could not shoot past the trailer, and that it was slowing them. The machines slammed on the brakes so that the trailer tumbled forwards. Boxes of colourful scarves blew out all over the pavement. The turtle car looked like a festive parade float with all the ones it sucked up.
That was the chance Marte had waited for. Hoping for the best, she squeezed the trigger. For a long, dreadful moment it seemed nothing would happen. Her double dose of pain exploded before it could even hit the other car. Then the road vanished in a series of blinding light. The deafening sound followed with a minor delay.
Their truck danced like its wheel had been turned to ice. Marte quickly sat back down and put on her seatbelt. Bang! The truck smashed through the concrete dividing road and desert. Marte was first yanked forward, then rudely pushed back.
“What… what was that?”
“It was perfect! I knew Thorne had been up to something, but who could have thought he would make something like that?”
“Y-yeah… I just hope the truck is okay. And that the armoured car isn’t.”
“Well why don’t we see for ourselves, mamacita?”
Carmelita hopped down, and Marte followed her curiously with shield on her arm and shotgun slung over her shoulder. She massaged her neck and places where the seatbelt had bitten into her. The alternative would have been a lethal head dive through the window. Good thing Carmelita had been braking or Marte would seriously consider whiplash.
Marte dug into her vest pockets and grabbed a handful of ordinary shells she had taken from the bag. No way would she ever want to use those explosive shells by accidents. If she was in close quarters, she would go the same way as her intended targets. The standard ordnance would be enough to halt any IMs or even, if she was lucky, shred through battle-worn armour and destroy core mechanics.
The turtle car was split open and the interior gouged out. Little pieces of IMs were spread across the pockmarked road along with car parts and shredded scarves. Twisted, blackened metal littered all of the driving lanes. An IM still sat in the driver’s seat; only the right side of its torso remaining.
Marte gazed into the soulless eyes of a charred head by her feet. Satisfied, she returned to the truck. Carmelita had backed it out and put it in the right direction. It was humming with life and Marte realised how long it had been since she had last heard a working car.
With no more pursuers, she was able to get comfortable on the passenger seat. The semi-truck picked up speed again and they were off. Carmelita whistled in admiration. “That was some nice shooting, mamacita.”
Marte relaxed in her seat and leant her head back on the shield. “It’s nothing special. You either pick up a few skills or get picked out.”
Carmelita couldn’t help but smile. “Too true. I used to work in a roving rodeo and now look at me,” she chuckled.
“Yeah, this war for survival has a habit of changing those it leaves alive.”
“To me, it looks more like the Destruction revealed people’s true selves. No law to tie you down, no police to come after you.”
“I doubt that can be the whole truth. Even decent people must harden themselves to survive without civilisation.”
“I’d drink to that, but I’m sorely out of the good stuff. So where can I drop you off? Or are you a drifter like me? I’ve always wanted an assistant.”
Marte rested her hand on her palm and looked out bored at the passing landscape. “I heard of a shelter outside of New York City a long time ago. I want to head there first, see if it’s still there… I’m sure there would be enough space for you as well,” she added optimistically, but Carmelita shook her head.
“The Big Apple? Sorry, mamacita, that’s the one place I will never go.” Her voice turned wistful, and her eyes disappeared in the distance. Marte waited for an explanation and drummed her fingers nervously on her thighs, but one never came.
“S-so what happened?”
Carmelita sighed deeply and resignedly, casually avoiding a thick palm tree that had sprouted in the middle of everything. “I had myself a sweetheart there. My rodeo would come to New York every summer around the time of the Destruction, and I would spend all of my free time in his arms. But now, like the city, he’s gone,” she sighed.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Marte replied and put a hand on her shoulder. “Is there really no chance he could have survived? The IMs sometimes miss a few.”
Carmelita shook her lightly however. “No, New York City was one of the places bombed.” For the first time, anger distorted her face and the wrinkles summed up her true age. But just as tears began to well up in her eyes she brushed them away. “But I’ll take you as near as I can go. There’s a motel I sometimes use as a way station.”
Marte’s appreciative smile could not cover the curiosity welling up in her. “Wait… how did you survive then? Weren’t you supposed to be in the city as well?”
“Well, dumb luck is the answer to that,” Carmelita replied soberly. “We had some bad sushi on the way and were held up for about a week in a small town close to the big city. Then the Destruction happened. When the IMs came to kill everyone, I took the truck. It was me who spent all her time repairing it anyway. Say, why don’t you stick with me instead of chasing a shelter that might not even be there anymore? We could make a fearsome team and knock some humility into the cold hearts of those robots!”
Marte fidgeted with the shotgun in her lap. The temptation of agreeing was superseded by her fond memories of Mr Wednesday swimming into her view. “Thank you, but no thank you. I have to honour the last wish of a dead friend, even if I am the last to survive. I hope you can understand?” she said, remorse thick in her voice. She wanted to continue but Carmelita put a hand on her lap, silencing her.
The sun glimmered off the many colourful circlets around her wrist. Before speaking, she flicked a lock of her ebony hair behind her ear. “You’re a good person, Marte. Just promise me to make me your next destination if this shelter doesn’t pan out.” It was the first time she had said Marte’s name, making the black girl smile. “And hey, you’ve survived this far. I’m sure you will be fine.”
For a long time the girls chatted and laughed, swapping stories about what they had done for the last quarter of a century. Marte told of her long journey and all the misfortunes she had encountered, while Carmelita’s adventures would fit a rowdy ballad of considerable length. Time passed unnoticed in good company. A tall motel sign appeared on the side of the road. Somewhere, they had gone off the highway and continued down a smaller road.
Car wrecks filled the parking space in front of the motel. Skeletal remains, picked clean by scavengers and the scorching sun, littered the grounds and the road around the motel. Glass was missing from all the windows, and doors were broken down. The few still in place hung limply on their hinges.
Marte swallowed a lump forming in her throat. The depressing sight was overpowering. A strong smell of death hung over the place. Dark birds of carrion sat on perches, crying melancholic songs for anyone to listen. An ominous atmosphere hung over the decrepit motel that choked up Marte. It was a small reminder of home.
The bones of the dead crunched under the wheels of their truck as Carmelita pulled into parking lot. Smaller cars were gently nudged out of the way. “I doubt there’s anything left to scavenge, but the second floor beds are comfortable.”
Sweat trickled down Marte’s brow as she opened the passenger side door and jumped down. A cloud of dust blew up from the sand threatening to swallow the motel. “Thanks so much for the lift. It would have taken me all day to get here. Now I just hope New York isn’t too far away,” she chuckled sardonically. A bird on top of the sign cawed at her, making her flinch.
Carmelita laughed a little more heartily and spied out in the distance with a hand above her eyes. “Just follow the road and you’ll be fine, mamacita. And be wary of radiation if you go into the big city.”
Marte took the shield from inside the truck and put it around her back again with the shotgun dangling from around her neck and shoulder. “There’s no radiation, Carmelita. The bombs weren’t atomic.”
“What? Are you telling me that I’ve been avoiding treasure troves all this time for no good reason?” Carmelita put a hand to her face and groaned deeply. She bent forward, laughing so that tears rolled down her cheeks and all her jewellery jangled.
Marte couldn’t help but be infected with the mirth as well and cracked a real smile, despite the gloom. Their loud outbursts made the birds flutter away in angry hisses. “Yeah, I think the bombs were incendiary, from what I heard on the news,” she said when Carmelita had calmed down again.
“That’s too rich… I thought for sure they had dropped the big bombs of horror fiction. This is good news, this is really good news. Here, why don’t you take this?” Carmelita tossed an old plastic bag out of the truck. Marte barely grabbed it and nearly fell face forward attempting not to drop it.
“W-what’s this?” she asked and peeked inside. “Is this food?”
Carmelita nodded. “Sure is. I can’t give you all my provisions, you understand, but this is my thanks. You’re beautiful in your own way, Marte. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise. The world would be a sad place without people like you.”
“So how are we doing?” Maxwell asked and stepped out of the elevator, looking around the parking garage. “Is the bus filling up nicely?”
John stood in the middle of the enormous hangar of garage and tapped his chin with a compacted computer. Even that motion was enough to cast off echoes down the hall. “Yes, and that is what is worrying me. All of these people are too young to have ever driven a car.” He pulled the computer apart. A list of names were displayed on the screen, with the weapons and equipment they would be handling next to that.
Maxwell scratched his neck and sighed irritably. “I’ve been rounding up as many people as I could, John. I don’t think we’ll find someone who can drive the bus,” he remarked.
John chewed on the computer’s upper half. The bus waiting for them was a big, blue and white coach extensively reinforced with plates of metal. “Then I guess I will have to try and drive it myself,” John murmured in frustration. As if in response to their quandary, the elevator opened with a ding. A figure wrapped in conical desert camouflage hurried into the parking lot.
“Sorry I’m late!”
“No, it is me who is sorry, Julia. We are already overbooked.”
Quite perplexed that John could recognise her through the disguise, Julia paused slightly before reaching them. She threw back the hood and revealed a woman whose only sign of age was crow’s feet.
“That’s what I came to tell you. The only real job I ever held was driving a school bus, to pay for my tuition. I know it’s been a long time, but I’m sure I could drive our bus.”
“Great!” Maxwell bellowed and clapped his hands together. “The old coach is over there.”
Julia followed the giant hand with her eyes and all colour drained from her face.
“What… what century is that thing from? How did you even get your hands on that?”
“What is wrong with the bus, Julia? It performed admirably in New York City from 1989 to 1996. I got it for a dime a few years before the Destruction.”
“It shows.” Julia was at a loss for words. She went up to the coach and slid a hand down its swing doors. Rust permeated all its joints, despite efforts to cover it up with fresh paint and metal plates.
John did not even look up from scribbling down her name. “I have you listed as short range melee, small calibre guns, rifles and emergency medicine.” He whistled appreciatively before folding the computer and putting it into his coat. “And what a stroke of luck that you can also drive the bus. Is there anything you cannot do?”
“Don’t forget her delicious pot roast, John. Man, I’m really starting to get a good feeling about this mission.” Maxwell wrapped an arm around Julia and dragged her up the stairs into the bus.
The fluffy red seats were individually equipped with roll cages to secure the passengers tightly. Young men and women chatted excitedly or fearfully while older people quietly sat in their seats. Little light entered the interior from the boarded up windows, forming only narrow slits from where one might be able to shoot. Of course, the front window could not be blocked, so a special paint had been applied to make it hopefully splinter-free.
Julia took her seat, nervously checking that all was still in place from what she remembered. Most other interior had been removed to lighten the bus for the armouring and to ensure nothing could rip off and hurt the passengers. A computer screen had been added to the dashboard that displayed the immediate surroundings around the bus. For now, she could only see the underground garage.
Maxwell raised his arms and all eyes fell on him. “All right, people, remember, no large firearms are allowed on board. Anything bigger than small firearms goes into the luggage compartment. Keep the safety on your guns on, and your melee weapons sheathed, at all times. Furthermore…” he continued.
Adlai at the back of the bus was listening with half an ear. He was nervously checking the Colt handgun for the safety before stuffing it back under his jacket. It was cold and heavy, even in its leather harness against his thin shirts. “You look a little pale,” Luciano said from the seat next to his. The chubby Latino looked the Jewish man up and down. “Don’t tell me you haven’t handled one of those before?”
“Of course I have, don’t be ridiculous,” he said a little too quickly, blushed and added more slowly. “But, well, I only just passed my test today.”
Luciano chuckled and scratched his hairy chin. “You’ve been here long enough otherwise.” It was in good humour, but Adlai grunted and looked the other way.
It was quiet for a moment as Maxwell rambled on with his security protocols. Adlai drummed his fingers together and looked back again. “I just don’t like fighting. My father died in one of the European civil wars. It all just seems so meaningless at this point.”
“Then why do you carry a gun?” Luciano asked and put a hand on Luciano’s shoulder. “Why did you decide to tag along?”
“I just feel so useless down here. I thought I could at least play with the children, but even they’re getting tired of me. Oh man… I hope God will also think this is the right thing to do. What about you? Do you have a gun?”
Luciano leaned back in his seat and exhaled deeply, not from the question but a general tiredness. He opened his vest and patted a pocket with a computer cylinder sticking out. “I didn’t come here to fight, but I can fire a gun if need be.” Luciano closed the vest again. “I’m here to monitor any incoming signals, and my assistant back at the basement will message me when anything comes up on his end. On that subject, do you mind waking me up if my computer says anything?”
Maxwell finished up his safety procedures as Luciano closed his eyes. “John and I will be riding along the bus so you will be alone in here. I trust you all to behave, and if you have questions during the trip, I will have you direct them to Julia here. She will be in contact with both John and me. Are there any questions now before I leave?” He swung his ham fists out over the assembly. The people had gradually succumbed to whispering and talking again. No one raised their hands or their voices, so Maxwell nodded and stepped down. He clapped the side of the bus, making it rock in its suspension, and the doors clapped shut.
“Do you have your passengers as well?” Maxwell asked and went towards John, who nodded. Inside his car already sat two in the back and one in front. “Great. And you also checked that we didn’t forget anything or anyone?”
John went inside his car as well. “Everything is in order, do not worry. We are ready to leave if you have your passenger as well.”
Maxwell rubbed his hands together and looked towards his motorcycle off to the side. Serena was already waiting for him. Her long, purple hair flowed delicately down her curves and her old dress. A special occasion demanded special clothing. It revealed so much more with a few more kilograms on her frame. Maxwell couldn’t help but grin. “I say we’re ready to leave, chief.”
He got on and Serena sat behind him, embracing him tightly. Maxwell kicked the motorbike into life. A green-garbed figure materialised in his lap with feet up on the handlebar. “Ara, now where am I supposed to sit?” Lohengrinn teased and made himself comfortable.
Maxwell snorted. “You’re a spirit, Lohengrinn; spend the trip in your own realm. Besides, we can bring one extra passenger like this.” He leant in and whispered even though Serena could not hear him anyway. Lohengrinn smiled impishly and vanished.
Serena tapped his shoulder with the palm of her hand. “Are we going or what?”
Maxwell looked back over his shoulder and grinned. “No need to worry, fair one, I was just trying to remember if we had forgotten something.” The bike hummed as it taxied toward the elevator.
The carport was easily able to store the coach, but not until it had manoeuvred itself inside sideways. Maxwell waited patiently in a corner. John came in last and parked in front of the coach. The elevator shook to life and ascended up through the soil.
Real sunlight soon blasted in from the doors sliding up. All the passengers had been mandated to wear appropriate clothes. Any who had turned up in warm clothes had been turned down.
Maxwell felt hands around him. One set was warm and pulsated with life, the other cold and smelling of wind-blown meadows. Unperturbed, he set out in the lead with the coach trailing after him. It was a loud and industrious machine spewing black smoke, despite John’s best attempts at fixing it and modernising it. Maxwell took a computer cylinder from inside his vest and checked the filmy screen. A long, long road lay ahead of them.
Much had changed with the Firefly suburb since the Destruction. Sand dripped from the roofs of decayed ruins and blew across the desert. Sand as far as the eye could see, interrupted only by dry bushes. Dunes could be solid sand, or solid ruins. He blew through one and there was nothing. The coach followed his path diligently.
“Are you comfortable? It’s going to be a long journey and the view will not change much.”
Serena relaxed her head on his back and sighed contentedly. “This is all the view I need, Maxwell. I’m more worried about you. Your ass isn’t fifty per cent metal,” she teased, her breath smelling sweetly of candy. A breath mint quickly ingested. The hour of preparation had gone by quickly.
“I forget that you’re half machine,” he chuckled. “You don’t feel like one.”
“I sometimes feel like one, more than a human. Rain is so odd when you can only feel with half your body,” she said melancholically, her eyes looking nowhere in particular.
The motorbike blew the overlying sand away and revealed the road they were taking. “Having our flesh or limbs taken away won’t make us any less human,” he said replied, turning his head to look at her. “Only our mind. Take that away from us and we become like animals.”
She giggled. “Why are you so smart when you’re so dumb, Maxwell?”
He grinned back at her. “You pick things up as you go along,” he explained with no real seriousness to his voice. He was merely playing along with her, and she was enjoying the attention. “I’ve been almost everywhere and I have seen quite a lot. I have seen people that acted like animals, and beasts that were almost human. It’s all how you look at things.”
She did not giggle that time, only sighed deeply. “I know all that, but I can’t shake the feeling, you know?” It could have ended there, in silence, but she could feel his gaze on her even as his eyes didn’t reach her. “All right, yes, I feel like a human, okay? But it doesn’t stop me from also feeling slightly mechanical.”
That apparently satisfied him, and for a long time he said nothing but she could still feel his comforting gaze resting on her. “It doesn’t matter what else we are. Plumbers, lawyers, aliens, demons, robots… what’s human is our mind, don’t ever forget that.” Again he said nothing for a while, but the quiet was ripe with questions. He could not leave the subject that he had started before properly ending it. “I cannot tell you what I am, Serena. In twenty-five years I have not aged a bit, but every part of me is flesh. I can only ask you to trust me that I am human, and implore you to enjoy our time together.”
“It’s not really you that worries me. At least you bleed and sleep and I can feel your breath and pulse. But John? If he had been cold, I would have suspected him of being a robot, but he is almost feverishly hot.”
Maxwell acknowledged it with a grunt. He had made the same observations and it was those that he fell back on. “John is… well, John is an enigma. I don’t know what else to say here,” he explained in a delighted tone, as if the very mystery thrilled him to no end. “I can tell you he is all right, even if he is reluctant to share, even with me. I think it’s because he doesn’t know himself what he is either. There is nothing more frustrating than not knowing your place in the world.”
She looked behind them past the bus where she could see John’s car. His face was unfeeling but she knew of the warmth he kept inside. “If I hadn’t seen the things I had, I likely wouldn’t have believed you or John were real. But this world is so filled with magic and wondrous things. None of that seemed real when I was a little girl. What happened?”
An ill wind howled down the wastes and carried a breath of sand with it. Maxwell waved it out of his eyes. “There has always been more to this world than meets the eye. Just enough to arouse suspicion, but not enough to cement it as fact. Perhaps if the boundary between worlds was thinner.”
Their basement hideout vanished into the horizon. Serena stretched her neck to see past the bus but it was all sand. “Do you think we will ever come back?” she asked wistfully. The remnants of houses poked out of the sand like the jagged teeth of a buried dragon. “I’m ready to give up my life, but I wouldn’t like to die if I can avoid it.”
Maxwell nodded, though she didn’t pick up on that. “I cannot guarantee who wins or dies in a battle, Serena. Skill only gets you so far. If you really want to survive, you just got to stay lucky and stick with me.”