Chapter 07: Attitude
25 October 2086
25 years, 4 months and 2 days since the Destruction
Night fell on a deserted stretch of road. A lonely motel had once illuminated the sky with its neon lights, luring in tired travellers. Now the sign was faded and most of its bulbs were broken. For twenty-five years it had been like that. Darkness after hours. But on that night a fire roared. The spell that transformed America to a scorching desert was lifted at night and October’s chill hit hard. No concern had been exercised for the wooden furniture. Tables and chairs and even bits of wall and ceiling had been wrested free and dragged to the parking lot swept free from sand and dust.
The bus was parked off to a side, like an ancient relic from another time, and hid the survivors from prying eyes. Some stayed on board, too nervous or anxious or frightened to move, or simply slept, away from the chatter around the campfire.
There was little privacy to be found while on the road so the survivors enjoyed their break to skulk off. Two such had found the decrepit motel a nice place to stay warm with blankets. The beds were still there, of course, no one to do anything about them before they arrived that evening. But distrusting its safety, whether from vermin or disease or fungus, they had found their comfort on the floor. A stripe of moonlight fell on the room.
Serena rolled off Maxwell and down under the sheets. “Just what I needed. It’s been too long.”
“Maxwell, is everything all right? You’ve been so distant ever since we came here.”
“It’s nothing about you, babe. This whole thing just worries me.”
Serena lifted herself up on an elbow to get a better look at him, dragging the covers up for warmth. Unrepaired cracks and broken glass made the motel draughty and chilled her naked skin. Gooseflesh popped up and down her left arm. “You don’t have to stay here if you’d rather talk with John. I can find someone else to warm me.”
She purred into his ear. Maxwell grinned and put a hand on top of her head. “Great, I was actually just waiting for you to fall asleep.” He got up with little regards to his privacy and strolled through the room, picking up his trousers, putting on his vest and stepping into his primitive moccasins. “Hey, I might just find myself someone to warm me as well. Try not to catch a cold here, all right?”
Her stuttering did not reach him as he adjusted his garments on the way out of the door.
The night was pitch black. Even the bus was dark. It was a place for weary souls to rest. Maxwell squinted, but could not penetrate the aphotic layers outside of the campfire’s reach. “What I wouldn’t give for those eyes of John’s.”
As if his words were a spoken command, a voice replied to him, but not the one he sought. “Aya; if it’s John you seek, I can feel him nearby,” Lohengrinn whispered to his ears. Under the guidance of his sprite, Maxwell wandered off to the broken motel sign. Under it, copper letters had been hammered into a polished rock. It was just big enough to seat a tall, dark-clad figure.
“No matter how long you live, the stars are always the same up there,” John said with head lifted towards the sky.
“Uh, yeah…” Maxwell leant up against the steel frame that held the sign and gave the stars a complimentary glance. “Listen, there’s something that’s been bothering me.”
“You fear this is a trap?” John asked equably. His gaze was still aimed heavenward unlike Maxwell’s.
“I do. We’ve heard this Amber chick talking from day one about solidarity and unity against Thorn, but what if it’s all a ruse? Or worse, the real Amber has been captured and forced to relay a message to trap us? Or she could be dead and her voice duplicated. Thorne is more than capable, and willing, to do all sorts of nasty things.”
John did not move from his spot despite having Maxwell in his back. “This is the first I hear of you objecting. In fact, you seemed quite determined to leave. What has changed?” John asked in a tone wavering indistinguishably between indifference and curiosity.
Maxwell relaxed his shoulders and crossed his arms. “Well… nothing’s changed, I guess, I’ve always been sceptical of this mission. But I also trust you. You did not have a moment’s hesitation to jump on her words so I went along with you. That doesn’t mean I like this. So tell me, how can you be so calm?” His voice was insistent and demanding.
“You say you trust me. Can I ask you to continue doing that?” John got up from the stone and faced Maxwell. “I know it is a lot to ask from you since I do not tell you a lot about myself. But if this thing will run as smoothly as I hope, then I will show you.”
Maxwell was quiet for a long while, breathing in the cold, clear night air. “Of course I trust you, and as your friend, I would like to continue that. But this is stretching it. I don’t know the first thing about you, John.” He put his hands on John’s shoulder and held him out before him.
“I know her personally, will that satisfy you? I did have a life before the Destruction,” John replied and started fidgeting, but no one escaped Maxwell’s grasp without his permission.
Maxwell stood perplexed at John’s words. His hands relaxed and John stumbled back. A wide grin formed on the fair-haired giant’s lips. “You… you know Amber Summers personally?” His seriousness flickered on and off with a twitch to his lips. “The very same, smoking hot voice on the radio? You know her… no, this isn’t what I came here to discuss.”
John smoothed out his leather jacket and stretched the sleeves. “So what is on your mind?”
“Now that we are out on the road, I have had some time to think. And I’m starting to not like all these coincidences. Two times, I could understand, but four?”
John, already a tall man, had to look up to find Maxwell’s face. “What coincidences?”
“The Lords that we have met. Each of them has shown up in person to one from our shelter.” Maxwell bit his lip as he grasped for his mental notes. “Remember the suburb where we found Adlai? What Luciano told us about the mall? And Serena’s story about her time in Eden. And don’t forget what happened to Julia.”
John shook his head. “I agree, that is a little suspicious, but we do not even know what the Lords are. Only thing for certain is that they are powerful beings.”
“I must admit my knowledge about the Lords is wanting as well, but I do know who they work for. The Devil,” Maxwell whispered and put his hands on John’s shoulders. “Don’t get me wrong, I know that the Devil did not cause the Destruction, but we’d be fools to not realise that he’s taking advantage of it.”
“To do what!” John asked sceptically. “What does the Devil have to do with the Lords?”
“Let me tell you a little story about a young man who once long ago went up against the Devil. He knew he had no chance of winning alone. After all, the Devil is a god with power to destroy the world. So the young man gathered people like himself and sealed the Devil away. That was to have been the end of it, but the Devil is tricky. He realised that he could escape his prison if he was weak enough. So the Devil went looking for trusted servants. That is what the Lords are, John. They each have a share of his power, and once they are enough, the Devil will break his bonds and then it’s goodbye, world.” Maxwell shivered and rubbed his arms, feeling a chill that had nothing to do with the night.
“And that young man..?” John turned the choice of words over in his head in a silent pause. “But what would he want with four people from our shelter? To even send the Lords after them. You think he wants more servants?”
Maxwell relaxed his shoulders and hung his head. “I’ve been asking myself the same thing. It’s obvious that he wants something, maybe more recruits, but if we don’t know what it is, then we don’t have a chance of foiling him.”
“And for that matter, Adlai never met Lord Carrion either. Are you sure the Devil is interested in just survivors from our shelter? The Lords seem more interested in wreaking havoc.”
“It’s a darn strange thing at any rate. There are no coincidences when it comes to his infernal majesty.”
The night was cold but neither of the two noticed. The only noise was the distant crackle of fire and the shouting of mirth. Yet through it all, John’s eyes wandered towards the quiet motel’s top floor. “I’ll give it some thought, Maxwell. Would you excuse me for a moment?”
Serena draped the sheets tighter around her. The dress lay discarded beneath her undergarments. It would not suffice for a cold October evening. She had been foresighted enough to bring a lined, dark blue coat but her legs would still be bare. Her breath came out in little clouds. “I swear that oaf is thicker than rock. Or perhaps he just likes to pretend he is so he can do whatever he wants.” She got up but the floor was chilling beneath her feet. She hopped in place, summoning courage to get dressed and go to the bonfire.
She looked up at the ceiling. No one else had gone into the motel under her notice. They could have gotten lucky while she was distracted… or they could have been in the motel all along. Serena forgot the cold. She flew into her clothes and decided to investigate. Nothing worse than being jumped in the night while everyone slept. She went out into the hall and down to the end where a pair of stairs led her up to the first floor. It started out as two-man rooms, but as she went further down the hall, she passed family-sized ones and large suites. She kept her ears attentive to any further sound.
Something large was moving around inside the presidential suite at the end. Serena took the gun from around her neck, holding the barrel in her left hand and a finger around the trigger in her right.
It was too dark to see clearly. The only light were the strips of moonlight spilling out from the rooms. The floor inside the suite steadily creaked like someone walking slowly. Serena jerked the door open and raised her gun, but one was already pointed at her in turn. Heart hammering, Serena waited for her opponent to make a move.
“There are only two ways this can end, and I am not dying in either of those,” Serena said quietly after a long, dreadful moment. “Drop your weapon… now.”
“Same for you!” The replying voice was confident and a little bit surprised. “Are you with that group outside? What are you doing here?”
“You’re not a machine, are you?” Serene pressed. Her eyes got used to the dark and she saw a black woman of considerable weight toting a shotgun.
“Real astute observation there. Now drop your gun!” the figure yelled.
Serena was quiet and her arm taut. A gun was a heavy thing, yet neither of them were willing to let down. Serena relied on her robotic arm while the other one trusted in her own mass.
The floor creaked again much lighter. Nervously, both fighters shifted half an eye but no one came down the corridor. The darkness shaped itself into a figure of a man. His pale skin ate the darkness, leaving a sketch of himself.
John was unmoved by the situation unfolding before him. Both women lowered their guns at the sight of him. They could not see his eyes but were entranced by the gaze of him nonetheless. They lost track of how long they watched his silhouette until he suddenly stood before them with hands on both their weapons. “What is going on here?” John asked and then looked at the black woman. “And who is this?”
“So where did you go? Found a nice lizard we could cook?”
Maxwell leant back on the log he was occupying, hands on his knees and observing John entering their circle of light. He was not alone. Serena had her machine gun over her shoulder, and next to her was a large, black woman. She had strangely blue eyes, a big gut, and puffy hair. Her clothes looked like an explosion in a thrift shop, with cargo pants and a vest on top of a large man’s shirt. Maxwell shot up on his feet.
The black woman took a defensive stance, frightened by the sudden movements of the gigantic man, but John raised a calming hand. “Relax, Maxwell. This is Marte and she checks out.” John waved his hand slightly to urge Marte forward. “She has been looking for us for a while.”
“What is your take on this one?” Maxwell murmured, not to John though his gaze never reverted from him or Marte.
Lohengrinn sprang into being, sprawled on the ground with a cup and saucer in his hands. He sipped the tea and replied. “She’s not a machine, if that’s what you think.” A tray of biscuits appeared next to him. He sampled one and they vanished from existence again. “You don’t have to call me for every little thing, you know? Don’t worry. I’ll contact you if I see anything suspicious.”
“Eh, pleasure to meet you, Marte. My name’s Maxwell, and… you’ve been looking for us?” he asked while sticking out his hand. Marte had to grip it with both of hers to shake it. He directed her to the log, while John sat down into Lohengrinn.
Serena slung her gun into her hands and turned away from Maxwell, shooting Marte a sour glance. “I’ll be out on a patrol, see if any machines have caught on to us.”
“All right, don’t be long. Now then, Marte, what are you doing here?”
“Well, I was on my way to your shelter when I decided to camp out here. It’s been so long since I’ve slept in a real bed so I stayed for the night. Then you woke me up with that infernal machine of yours.” She pointed to the coach. Survivors sat down in chairs or on the ground or whatever they could find to listen in as well.
Maxwell scratched his naked chin. “That’s odd. We’ve been combing this entire area for twenty-five years and we’ve never seen you.”
At this, Marte put a hand through her hair and sighed deeply. “I come all the way from Alaska. I met some obstacles during the trip.” Especially the younger ones drew closer, the people who could not remember or had never experienced a time before the Destruction; people who had never had a chance to go far from the shelter. A calm rested on the camp, every ear attuned to her.
Maxwell gave the overweight woman a searching glance. “There is something I need to know. Did you encounter anything strange?” he began, but interrupted her before she could reply to specify. “Did you meet anyone calling themselves Lord?”
“Nothing like that, but I have seen plenty of strange things.” She adjusted herself on the log, scooting a little closer to the fire. She was aware of the attention resting on her and spoke out to the audience, not just to Maxwell. “All of Canada is covered with forest, just like the United States is covered in desert. Only a few years after the Destruction, and whole towns and roads were swallowed. It’s uncanny.”
“Could be a sign of infernal activity,” Maxwell whispered. “So, Marte, how long have you been on the road? It’s a long way from Alaska but it couldn’t have taken you more than a year or two.”
Marte smiled sheepishly and stared down between her legs. “Well actually, it’s taken me a little longer than that. I had to make frequent stops to scavenge for food and ammunition, not to mention the occasional nuisances.” She looked out at the gathering again with renewed vigour and stories bubbling up in her. “I was stopped by a gang of survivors in Wisconsin that kept me cooking for them for years. I only escaped because–”
John leant closer to Maxwell. “She seems to be a positive reinforcement on the morale. I suggest we bring her along, if she is willing,” he whispered, and Maxwell nodded.
“Yeah, I can see what you mean, but how do we fit her in? We’ve already stuffed the bus as far it will go. Maybe the cargo hold?”
“Don’t worry about that, I might be able to rig up another seat in the bus.” John got up and clapped Maxwell on the shoulder. “I’m going to need some help, however. I don’t have any tools with me.”
Maxwell rubbed his hands together and stood up as well. “Excellent, I feel more and more invigorated about this quest. Not since the battle of the Somme have I endured such a challenge.” His massive size drew everyone’s attention and even Marte stopped her storytelling in surprise. “Today is your lucky day, Marte. We will make arrangements to bring you along if you want.”
“Where are you going? I complete forgot to ask, but I’ve been wondering what you’re doing out here with all these survivors.” She craned her neck to look up at him.
“It’s very simple. We’re tired of defending ourselves, so we’re taking the fight to Thorne himself. His base of operations is far away but we should be there in a few days.”
“Awesome! I mean, I searched for your shelter to find peace, but this is even better. I’ve been hoping to give him back in kind for what he did to me. To all of us.” Her pudgy hands clenched into fists. She had recently told her story, so the memories were fresh, and resentment washed over her face.
“Then it’s settled. John and I will make some modifications to the bus so you can ride along. You just stay here and have a good time with the others.”
Maxwell disappeared into the darkness with a hand on John’s back. Marte was silent for a time. The flames of the fire danced in her eyes. The survivors nearly went back to their own doings when she went back to the narrations of her journey. The crowd swallowed every word with rapt attention.
Unseen by any of them, Lohengrinn appeared and took Maxwell’s seat on the log. He flicked his hair back while admiring his visage in a hand mirror. “I wonder, do coincidences really exist or are they the work of forces unknown? A woman is caught in the web and a handsome fellow such as myself must ask: unwitting pawn or mastermind?”
First John and Maxwell chased out the people on the bus, telling them to socialise and greet the latest survivor. Then with some metal from inside the motel and some reconfiguration of the bars inside the bus they managed to rig up another seat on top of the baggage department next to the front door. People were only using it for their coats anyway. It took them a few hours, by which it was midnight and survivors slouched back the bus. It was either the seats or the motel’s beds.
Maxwell returned to the fire and caught the last snippets of stories being swapped. Eventually he too fell asleep, keeling over backwards with legs still on the log. It wasn’t long before he was dreaming…
Why had he been late? Maxwell had followed the Reserve Army but had somehow managed to get lost again. It was raining hard. His face was smeared with mud and his hair clung to his face. His sword was dipped into what had once been road.
There! He could just make out the marching soldiers again. He ran but they remained out of his reach. He tripped and planted his face into the mud. His body was drenched and icy cold. He shivered terribly and panted in exasperation. The soldiers disappeared again.
“Have I not told you to stop remembering these things?”
Lohengrinn was there. Lohengrinn was always there. Maxwell stretched a trembling hand and grabbed the green-garbed man. Instantly warmth filled his body again and he stood up. The sky was blue and the ground dry. Not a drop of rain or mud remained on him. The meadow, reaching him to his knees, stretched on forever. A single, enormous oak stood in the middle of it. It was the only feature of the endless landscape, aside from the hills rolling like waves on a sea of green.
Maxwell fell to his knee and rested his head on Lohengrinn’s lap. Lohengrinn stroked his blonde locks with a smile. “You’re at peace in here. Why would you ever leave?” he cooed into Maxwell’s ear. He in turn whimpered like a beaten dog dragged out of the rain. “There is nothing but nightmares out there.”
In the real world it had become morning and most of the survivors were waking up. Sleepy-eyed people wrapped in blankets walked like zombies around the ground, looking for places to deposit their natural waste. John sat on a lawn chair, arms on his legs and head bowed forward. It was not the movement on the ground that stirred him from his stasis. Rather, high into the air, unseen by the layer of clouds, he noticed something no else could have. Like a statue coming alive, John got up.
The fair-haired giant contrarily had a peaceful look on his face. His limbs were spread out in the manner of a star. First John yelled his name, but when that prompted no response, he tried jabbing Maxwell with his boot.
The fire had died down but its size had resulted in a heap of ashes. Scrounging around it John found a length of wood that was still hot to the touch. Knowing of Maxwell’s tolerance and regenerative powers, it was without remorse that John stabbed Maxwell in the ear with it.
Maxwell swatted at it like a fly despite having the log half inserted into his skull. “What? What? What’s going on?” he asked drowsily and batted his eyelids before opening them.
John removed the piece of wood and threw it over his shoulder. It landed back in the campfire and sent a cloud of ash spewing. “Trouble,” he replied shortly and pointed up into the sky. “Airplanes, to be precise.”
“Not just any airplanes, either. Aircraft carriers.” John crossed his arms. Maxwell yawned and closed his eyes again, but a low rumble from above made him jolt upright. Several small dots formed a cluster way up high. “LHD models designed to drop IMs.”
“Aw hell, did they discover the fire?” Maxwell asked and sprang up on his feet. Some of the survivors pointed to the sky. Horrified gasps ran through the camp.
“What do you think?” John asked with calm unbefitting of the sudden tension. “Fight or flight?”
“We’re fighting on our own terms. Let’s leave now, before they can attack us.”
Maxwell took a deep breath and hollered orders. The survivors scrambled to take their seat inside the bus and strapped themselves in. They argued fiercely, and whisperingly, what it could all mean when the whine of the planes increased.
Louds thuds followed. Everyone screamed in the expectation of explosions, but they heard only more impacts. The last survivor scrambled into the bus and the doors banged close. Julia kicked it into life as silver bubbles rained down around their ears. The ground shook. The bus rattled but refused to topple.
Hatches hissed open. Metal cocoons bore ugly metal men. Julia gave the bus everything it could while John waved the last survivors into his car. Maxwell rode up along the bus with Serena behind him. But the silver bubbles were not blindly thrown.
One orb smashed into the ground between Maxwell and the bus. His motorcycle flew into the air and kicked him off like a bronco. The semi-buried road was hard to land on. He heard the bike crash somewhere around him. Serena grunted in annoyance nearby. His vision swam and his ears rang, but through the fog of his mind he desperately sought the bus. He had no idea which way to look and got up on swaying feet. Screams. His swimming vision sought the source.
The bus was teetering on its left wheels, wavering between crashing and correcting. He shook the fog away and shambled determinedly towards it, his bruises healing as he went. He got himself under the bus just as it fell on its side. His hands dug into the metal armouring, driving his feet into the ground. Every muscle in body flexed just from keeping it from falling. But the bus was slipping, as was he. The sand was not a good surface. Bubbles hissed all around him.
“Wotan, give me strength,” he muttered and pushed at the bus. It swayed back down on its wheels and then swung in the other direction. His blood froze. The bus went back on its wheels again, rattling back and forth. No one was cheering. The front window was missing.
Marte woke by noise and the trembling ground. For a long while she swooned in and out of consciousness. The shield was beneath her. It had padded her fall and protected her back, but not her head. Even while trying to get her bearings, someone shook her. “W-what’s going on?” she asked blearily and felt the enormous hands on her. “Wednesday?”
“Close. It’s Friday,” the hands replied. Realisation hit her harder than the headache. She shot up on her feet by grabbing his arms.
“Maxwell! I’m sorry, but I don’t think my roll cage worked.”
“Don’t sweat it, I told John it would be dangerous without a welding torch. We were going to work on it again this morning but… well, let’s just say you’re lucky to have that shield.”
Guns blared up and were answered from the distance.
Maxwell grabbed her arms and pressed her close to him. She barely reached above his navel. IMs trampled out of the desert and encircled them. Maxwell pushed her head against his abdomen as they opened fire. Still, she could muffled hear what was going on. There were plinks of bullets hitting her shield strapped to her back and the metal armour of the bus behind them. It was the other sounds that gave her a sour feeling in her throat, that of bullets ripping into flesh.
“Let go of me!” she cried as she understood what was happening. She struggled against his firm embrace, but it was also the tenderest feeling she had ever experienced. She never wanted it to end, but she was killing him. “Please… just let go.”
Maxwell’s grip tightened. He lifted her up off her feet with hands under her arms and ran to the bus. Only when they were safely inside did he release her. Marte looked nonplussed up at the giant. Blood ran down his arms and head.
“Are you all right?” he asked gruffly and held Marte out at an arm’s length. “You’re not hurt anywhere? Take a moment, adrenaline can dull the pain and make even severe wounds feel like scratches.”
“I-I’m okay, b-but what about you?” She was a little girl again with a speech impediment. She shook her head and stepped back from him. “How are you still alive?”
“Don’t worry about me, Marte. I’m the superman of the basement.” He stood up into his full height and put hands on his hips. “Stay in the bus unless something happens, all right?”
Maxwell wheeled around and took the guitar from his shoulders. It became a sword as long and almost as wide as himself. He leapt out and she saw his shoulders, his side, his legs and even the back of his head were bleeding. The world spun for Marte. She grabbed the luggage deposit area to keep her steady. Julia looked up from the driver’s seat where she hid under.
“Ugh, who does she think she is?” a female voice said from somewhere behind her.
“Yeah, she might have dyed her hair, but she’s obviously still our cook,” a much younger one replied. “And a lady her age?”
Julia clutched the Škorpion so that her knuckles whitened. Nothing was ever good enough for them, no matter what she did. Always whispering, thinking that Julia wouldn’t hear. But she had aged. Even her little excursion to Finley seemed a lifetime ago. Under the dye her hair was slowly greying. She was worrying about that even as the firefight went on. Only a salvo of bullets through the opened front brought her back. The black woman that Maxwell had brought in was still standing perplexed on the stairs.
“Psst! You! Get down, you’ll get yourself killed.”
The black woman looked up and seemed to realise where she was. She quickly ducked beneath the window.
Julia put the pistol grip to her shoulder and fired. In response, muzzle flashes flared up like a solid wall outside. Bullets bounced off of the bus’ protective layer, hoping to enter a hole somewhere. Julia’s aim was skilled and true. The special ammunition given her to ripped through the IMs’ armour. The machines fell only to be replaced by others. Their comrades emerged from pods, marched across the blowing dust and fired their various guns. They were relentless and their numbers impressive, but Julia kept up her shooting as the IMs came down the road.
Marte was also a good shot. The two of them managed to keep the robots at bay from the front. Maxwell ran into view and hacked down a few robots. Confused, the IMs concentrated on him and exposed themselves to the survivors.
At length, Marte slipped down under cover again. “Is there no end to them?”
“They’ve been looking for us for a while. It only figures that they would spare no expense now that they’ve found us,” Julia replied, keeping up the fire undeterred. She had a bag by her feet with ammunition to keep her from running out. Her precision shooting would mean she could walk away with some left. If she walked away at all.
Down among the isles, the despondency had free rule. The barrage slowed down as the robots kept pounding them. Not even the safety of the bus could keep up hopes forever. There were two in each seat, but the slit in the windows wasn’t big enough for both to be shooting, so the people took turns. While one fired, the other prepared guns or cleaned them or fed them while waiting to switch turns.
A sudden scream of pain took everyone’s attention away and the firing ceased. A man fell to the aisle between seats, clutching his chest. Blood trickled through his fingers. “Go on, keep shooting! Don’t let the robots anywhere near the bus,” Julia shouted. A lot of grunts, but the screams tore at everyone’s hearts. He represented what they were all feeling. Julia dug into her sports bag and took out a med kit. “Just lie very still, I’ll see what I can do.”
The bus stank of sweat from the oppressing heat. Julia flicked a lock of clinging hair aside as she knelt down next to the man. She opened the med kit and quickly rifled through the contents for a black bottle. Its white label was faded after so many uses. She tore his bloodied shirt off and poured generously on the wound. The screams became ear-piercing. The man writhed on the ground but Julia pinned him down until his pained distress became whimpers. “That was a cocktail of some disinfectants and anaesthetics. You want to be numb for what I am about to do next.”
Julia lifted the sweating man up into a sitting position so she could examine the wound. The bullet was still in there. She took a stick from the bag and plunged it into the hole. It was impossible to determine how much was inside the man without proper equipment, but she managed to pull out a deformed slug. The magnetic stick released its catch down on the floor.
The man’s bare chest was clammy with blood. It made it easier for the bandage to stick. Julia wrapped some turquoise gauze liberally around the wound, over and under his arms. Between the numbing concoction and the soothing binding, the man was actually starting to smile.
“I don’t know what happened. I just heard this clanging against the window and then… T-thank you.”
Julia packed the things back in the med kit. “Just doing my duty. Please be more careful, we’re going to need all the people we can get once this is all over. Now rest. There is nothing you can do with your arm like this.” Despite her words, the man tried to get up but she pressed down on his other shoulder. He winced from the pain and relaxed.
She went back to her position and picked up her gun. Before she could fire however, she noticed that the IMs were fewer. The shooting from inside the bus dwindled. They were all seeing it. The wave of IMs had stopped. Confusion turned to silence turned to joy. She put her gun down but refused to join the whooping.
Even Maxwell had ceased his assaults and took a much needed breather. Julia observed him from inside the security of the bus. He rested himself up against his gigantic sword, unwilling to pursue the fleeing IMs. Serena rushed up to him. Together, the two went back towards the bus.
“Why do you think they turned back?”
Maxwell sat down tailor-fashion on the corpse of an IM in front of the bus. Serena took a knife from inside her dress and began digging. The tip went deep inside his flesh, poked around and a slug rattled out. The wound healed and the fabric closed with it. “I don’t know, but it makes me uncomfortable to think about. I fear they retreated to acquire heavier gear.” He neither whimpered nor cried.
“So it’s still too early to celebrate. What do you think we should do until then?”
“The only thing we can do. We have too many wounded, and the bus took a good beating. But we will not be caught unawares.” He smiled mirthless determination as the knife dug into his backside.
“I don’t trust her,” Serena said bluntly, her focus entirely on the stubborn bullet that refused to come out. She could hear the tip clinging against the brass jacket. “You really think it’s a coincidence that she shows up, and then we get assaulted next morning?”
“I’m tired of hearing that word. It’s been popping up too many times lately. I tell you, there is something larger at play. Something that brings us together only to rip us apart to see what survives. The whole Destruction probably gave power to this evil entity. Only Thorne will know, and I intend to question him.”
The knife tip slid under the bullet. With a swoop, it came loose and landed in the desert sand. “What evil entity? The frigging Devil?” she asked in jest, but a cold wind dispelled the warmth and made her shudder.
“Whatever it is, it is not good,” John said and came up towards them. His car was parked far down the road, almost back at the motel. The people on the bus also filed out and gathered around them. Serena moved up from Maxwell’s back to his head.
“I am glad to see so many well. I know that some were wounded, but we all survived. For now. Keep up the teamwork and it will stay that way. Now, on to the matter at hand.” He clenched his teeth as Serena dug in under his ear. He continued first when she had extracted the bullet. Most of the onlookers paled, some even retched. Only John stood unmoved. “The IMs have made a tactical retreat, but they will be back with better gear. You can see it even now. Planes are dropping troops and equipment close by. The bus’s armour will not protect you any longer.”
“So what should we do?” a young man asked nervously, holding his gun like it was the only thing keeping his spirit tethered to the mortal coil. “We’re going to die if we just stand around!”
Maxwell smiled and closed his eyes as Serena put the knife away. He slapped his thighs and got up on his feet. “But we will not be standing around. Don’t you see that we have the best kind of armour readily available?” He spread out his arms, and the survivors cast nervous glances around. There was nothing but the vehicles and sand to all sides of them. And one other thing.
Julia raised her hand and Maxwell snapped his fingers at her. “Is it the robots?” she suggested. “I mean, their armour is pretty sturdy, but we’ve been able to penetrate it pretty well.”
Maxwell shook his head. “Indeed, but you’re missing the point. We designed our bullets specifically to shred the IMs’ armour… they did not! If we flip their lifeless husks on their side, then we will be safe from almost anything they can throw at us. So grab an IM to hide behind, two and two. Fan out along the road and make sure to have all sides covered.”
Renewed hope welled up in the survivors. They took but a moment to think about the plan and then quickly set to work. The Sun was blazing down hard like always but the IMs were coated in protective paint and thus mild to the touch. “I worry about them, you know. They’re still green,” Maxwell said and sat down again.
John nodded. “Do not worry. I will aid them and keep an eye on intruders.”
“War is such a terrible thing,” Serena said with a distant voice and sat down on the IM’s legs. “But, everyone came here voluntarily, you know? They’re all willing to lay down their lives.”
Maxwell scratched his chin. “I hope it won’t come to that. If they all die, there will be no one to fight Thorne. And if we win, there will be no one to tell of our victory. I will be all alone with just my hand… Listen, why don’t we see about helping out as well? Adlai looks all alone.”
Adlai tugged at the leaden boot of the IM. It was heavy, he was a bit on the lean side and the others had a partner to help them. Even the new, black woman. But as in all sport events of his life, Adlai was the odd one out. Until a shadow fell on him. “You need a hand?”
“Ah, much obliged!” he said as the woman crouched down and pulled the other leg. Even with the left shoulder cleaved off, the machine was heavy, but it felt like nothing with the woman’s help. It was the buxom lady Maxwell always ran with. Adlai blushed and directed his eyes at the task. “I think we should get him close to the bus.”
She wasn’t even using two hands, needing only her right arm. The skin was scratched off and the metal underneath revealed. “Bad idea.” She looked up to scout the terrain and shook her head at those with the same idea as Adlai’s. “If the bus tips, it’ll land on them. Let’s get you settled a little further away.”
She finished dragging the robot on to the road. Adlai could feel it from the pavement under the sand. His hopes of sharing shelter with Serena were shattered, however, when she went out to help the others along with John and Maxwell. She had almost become the third leader of the basement just from her proximity to them. Adlai sighed and tried turning the IM on to its side. It was not meant to lie that way and nearly crushed his feet as it tipped back down. Sand sprayed up, and Adlai fell on his behind.
He reached into his brown jacket. It made him sweat in the days and freeze in the evening, and it was too stuffy for the basement, but it was the last thing he had from his time before the Destruction. And it covered the gun holster. Adlai could not remember the specifics of his weapon, but it was the model that policemen always used in older movies.
Adlai leant his back up against the robot and tried to relax. Things had spun out of hand. Whatever reasons Adlai had had to come along withered. There was nothing glorious about war. It was dirty and it smelled and his heart couldn’t stop hammering. Soon the IMs would return with more troops and heavier equipment. Only comfort was the daylight. Without it they would literally be groping in the dark.
The world outside was noisy on a different level than the shelter. There were sounds and even smells that he had forgotten. The real world was all the more real for it. He was glad to be outside for a change, but it also tore at him. Whose spot had he taken? Someone less useless could have been on the bus instead of him.
Footsteps interrupted his self-pity. He looked up to see an Italian man in a red vest. “Still haven’t gotten your barricade up and standing,” he said and crouched down.
“Hey, Luciano.” Adlai scampered up into a crouch as well. Both men dug under the IM and lifted it up. He adjusted the legs while Luciano did the arms, in hopes of making it more stable “You don’t have a barricade then?”
Luciano took a long blow of his cigar and exhaled the smoke. “Nope. Figured I might check up on my bus mate, and there you were, sitting all alone.”
Adlai tried to show his appreciation with a smile, but it would not work. “Listen, not to sound obnoxious, but I think you’re better off somewhere else. I’m not much of a shot.”
Luciano opened down his vest and patted a futuristic-looking submachine gun with a sleek, almost alien design. “Don’t worry, this thing will destroy robots for two. You saw it in action inside the bus.”
“I just hope it will be enough.” Adlai sat down and proved that the barricade was stable enough to lean up against. “I don’t feel like dying here.”
“No worries, my man, no robots will get past my Beretta Mx4 Storm. And if it makes you feel better, the IMs are highly specialised pieces of machinery with parts made all over the world. Thorne is having a hard time replacing the robots he loses. I can’t imagine his force would be particularly big after all these years.”
“Yeah, I know, and even if he salvaged the IMs it would take several to repair just one. But they still have equipment, you know? They have access to all the LDH bases with advanced weaponry and such. Doesn’t that frighten you at all?” Adlai clenched around his little gun.
Luciano quietly enjoyed his cigar, contemplating. “Well of course I’m afraid. Who wouldn’t be in this situation? The important thing is to remain calm and not let the fear get the better of you. Use it to control your pride and… uh-oh. Sounds like we’re about to get serious again.” Footsteps came closer from the marching feet of metal men. All around the noise got louder. Luciano adjusted the battered bowler hat on his head. Adlai breathed in deeply.
“Just remain calm. Control the fear, don’t let it control you and start shooting. Preferably before our defences are breached.” Luciano peered over their IM barricade and opened fire. All around them the survivors followed suit.
They were sprawled on the road fanning away from the bus, covered by the husks of IMs. The survivors fired their weapons to both sides of the road as the IMs steadily advanced on their position. The chests of the robots flashed with sparks and muzzle fire. The racket from the guns was deafening. The smells of bloodshed and gunfire were sickening.
Adlai fought back the sour taste in his mouth. Which way should he shoot? They were coming from all sides. Luciano rested his submachine gun on the barricade’s arm for support. Adlai followed his example and concentrated on the IMs that had gotten too close. That was the effective range of his gun. He fired a shot. The closest IM did not even stop, not until Adlai pushed the button. A great chunk of the IM disappeared.
While nervousness ruled over Adlai, it was anger that motivated Luciano. His teeth could almost have chewed through the cigar. “Eat this, you shitheads,” he yelled as loud as he could. His gun sprayed the IMs in rapid fashion. No need for a perfect aim despite a laser scope.
The Sun wasn’t the only thing making Adlai sweat. The screams coming from wounded survivors froze his blood. He tried shutting it out while also trying to get his heartbeat under control. For every shot of his that hit, another one missed. It wasn’t important. The explosion could still unbalance the IMs for others to pick off.
“Looks like we’re doing it!”
The adrenalin was rushing to Adlai’s head, filling him with a strange joy as he ducked beneath cover again. Luciano crouched down as well to feed another magazine into his gun. “Yeah well, don’t celebrate too early; they’re just building up to the hurt. They won’t bring out the big guns if they can avoid it. Good thing I have my lucky hat.”
Adlai got up again to resume firing. As Luciano had predicted, the machines withdrew only minutes later. The survivors thought it a sign of victory. They saluted by emptying their guns at the IMs marching back. They catcalled and jeered after them. But the robots were not fleeing like beaten dogs.
The latest in camouflaging techniques faded, and a black helicopter appeared behind the bus. The cockpit could not be seen as the windows were painted solidly white. A stylised face flashed on, grinning. The survivors could not hear it. They only noticed the helicopter when its automatic grenade launchers let 40mm grenades rip.
Luciano had survived through it all, he just wasn’t aware of it yet. He twitched as life struggled to return to him. The last survivors were spread out between craters. His eyes slowly rolled up. A young man shuffled past his face. Debris that Luciano recognised as part of the bus stuck out of the man’s leg. He tried shouting at him but found his ears deaf. He reached out for the young man but pain seared through his left arm. He had been hurt as well, a simple gash where something had brushed him. Despairingly he whimpered. His lucky hat was gone.
Struggling, Luciano hauled himself up into a standing position. The battlefield was littered with more dead than alive. Not that there were many corpses to count. It was mostly splatters of blood and detached limbs. The few survivors walked around like zombies or vomited. But that was not the thing that struck Luciano.
There was a distinct itching in his throat and chest, and the air smelled of something between pepper and pineapple. Luciano, having researched the World War for his novels, instantly put his sleeved arm to his nostrils and mouths. It was no longer a skirmish. The battle had become a slaughter, and it was humans trapped in the abattoir. He looked around for any means of escape.
There was little left of the bus, not even the chassis.
Another figure stirred by his feet. He had forgotten all about Adlai. “What happened?” he asked confused, looking up blinkingly. His forehead was smeared red.
“We have to get out of here,” Luciano said through his elbow. “Those damnable machines spread chlorine gas.”
“What?” Adlai got up laboriously, imitating Luciano and put his arm to his face.
Something whirred in the background. The few people left alive looked for a source, groggily. Gunfire blared, and their torsos separated in a shower of blood. Luciano threw his arm around Adlai and ducked. “Things are just going from bad to worse. They can’t come close for fear of rusting so now they resort to pick us off from a distance!”
Their metal corpse barricade was amazingly still lying there on the exposed desert road. The unrelenting bullets of miniguns plinked harmlessly off its protective carapace. “We have to get out of here,” Adlai shouted, his heart beating in his throat. “Isn’t John’s car around here somewhere?”
“I agree with you, my man, but how would we got to it?” Luciano’s voice was disheartened, his hands in his lap. The IMs were firing from both sides of the road. They were only alive because of other barricades also still standing.
Adlai’s keen eyes scouted the broken wasteland. He would not let go, and clenched his gun tightly. John’s car was parked further down the road where he had left it. “We got barricades running down the road all the way to John’s car. We can do it if we’re careful.”
The grenade fire had been concentrated on the area around the bus. From where the two cowered and down to the car, only sand had been blown. The cigar dropped from Luciano’s mouth. He never realised he had still been holding it between his teeth. “You’re crazy, Adlai. But my kind of crazy. Yeah, we definitely can’t stay here.”
They stood up into a crouch and ran with machine gun fire starting up. The two survivors leapt behind cover. “Over here, over here.” They looked up to see the black woman from the previous night waving at them from behind the next barricade. “Yeah, you two!”
Their blue-haired cook, still in her conical desert camouflage, tossed her head at them from next to Marte. “Get over here.”
“How did you two survive?” Luciano shouted and snuck over to the two ladies, Adlai just behind him. No IMs noticed them. “No, never mind that, how are we going to stay alive?”
“Well, we might just be able to figure something out.” Julia’s camouflage was shredded from the waist down. Her bared legs were bruised and scratched. Still she seemed in good spirits and even wore a faint smile.
Marte was just a little ruffled, still clutching the riot shield and shotgun she had brought with her. “I’m just glad to see that others survived as well. Though things aren’t looking too good.” She pointed to jeeps and troop carriers off the road. IMs patiently waited for their gas to dissipate so they could investigate closer.
“I guess you guys are also going for the car.” Julia looked sideways at John’s white-striped blue Chevy ‘68 replica. It was still a ways down the road with no more barricades between it and them. Just open, dangerous terrain. “Problem is how we’re going to get to it. We were nearly killed just moving here.”
“Can we just take the car, though?” Adlai stole a glance over their barricade as well. “Shouldn’t we wait for John and Maxwell?”
“If they aren’t dead, they’ve probably escaped,” Marte said. “Just forget about them and concentrate on how we’re going to escape.”
Luciano shook his head. “Dead? I don’t think I’ve met ever a more unkillable lot. And abandoning us? Get out of here.”
“But where are they then? I can’t see either of them.”
Julia’s word also made Marte have a look around, just to confirm her own suspicions. She didn’t find them. “Look, forget about them. We just need to get to the car and then get out here. And I think I know how,” she said and sat back down.
“How? We can’t all fit under your shield, however convenient that would be.” Adlai shook his head. “John and Maxwell have planned something. Maybe we should just wait for them.”
Marte put her shield down, brushing him off like a flea, and lifted one of their barricade’s legs. “Sure, we can’t fit under my shield, but what about this one?”
Julia’s face lit up when she realised what Marte meant. “Oh right! That thing would protects us for sure,” she exclaimed and pounded her right fist into her left palm.
“Exactly!” Marte said with a smile. “Only this thing is very heavy. We would all have to lift one end of it.”
Adlai slammed his palms into the exposed pavement and the two ladies fell quiet. “John and Maxwell cared for us for twenty-five years. They wouldn’t just abandon us like this!” he exclaimed, his face beet red.
“Then where is that blonde giant’s motorbike?” Marte bit back, but Adlai’s scowl made her think more carefully about her next words. She took a deep breath and continued. “All right, let’s say they haven’t abandoned us here. Then maybe they left the car for us. Either way, it will be our best bet to get out of here. What do you say?”
None of the others had an argument for that and a quiet fell on the small group. Julia noticed Adlai’s headwound and started fussing with it despite his reassurances. She hummed a calming nursery rhyme but had only a rag to dap his wound with.
The wind blew towards them and the stinging sensation returned. Adlai, Luciano, Julia and Marte… the urgency returned to each of them in turn. They nodded a silent agreement and began struggling with their barricade. It was not built to be picked up and carried, but the distance wasn’t that great. They just had to cover the space to the car. Not even a hundred metres.
“Wait.” Julia released the IM again. It fell back to the ground and tripped the other three. “This thing will only protect us from gunfire on one side. It will take all four of us to lift just one.” She looked worried to their unprotected side. The IMs were milling about strangely.
Gunfire roared again. All four of them instinctively ducked, but the noise was distant. None of the bullets hit anywhere near them. The four survivors looked up. What were the machines aiming at? The IMs were frenzied and dancing around.
Adlai dragged himself up to a half stand to get a better look. There was another vehicle driving around amidst the confusion. A gigantic sword cleft into the machines. The sun shone on its white blade but there was no sheen. The rider’s blonde hair flowed freely in the wind. A pale man clung to him for dear life with a gun toting in his left hand. “I knew they hadn’t abandoned us!” Adlai banged his fists against their barricade. “Look at that!”
Luciano put a hand on his shoulder and smiled. “A distraction, eh? I guess they do want us to leave then. I mean… they couldn’t possibly handle all those robots on their own.” He pointed to the distance where reinforcements rushed to the IMs’ aid. John’s gun expertly hit his marks. The IMs exploded in a shower of oil and machinery. More just ganged up behind them.
Julia put her Škorpion back inside her desert camouflage when she saw that there was no immediate danger. “We’d better hurry before those clods become unable to get away.” There was no end to the IMs. The airplanes had dropped hundreds around the desert to prevent any escape. “The IMs have almost overpowered them.”
The four survivors sped out of cover like the Devil himself was on their tail. A new problem, however, presented itself for Luciano.
“I’ll gladly drive the car, but how are we going to start it? I don’t like the prospect of violating such a beauty.”
They noticed the front door was already open before he could finish his sentence. A woman leant up against it. “I am flattered, but you wouldn’t be able to lay a hand on me. Or was I not the beauty you talked about?” A woman with hair so dark that it appeared purple. She bit into an apple, and the juices flowed down her chin. She tossed the keys overhand. Luciano barely caught them.
“Where did you get those from?” Marte asked, but the others pushed past her, quickly stowing their possessions into the trunk. “I guess we can save that for later.”
She got into the front passenger seat while the rest crammed into the back. Luciano took the front seat and was off almost before they could close the doors. The IMs didn’t appear to be any wiser, and the survivors left the noise of gunfire in the distance. The motel from the night before passed them on the right.
“So where do you want to go?” Luciano asked with eyes glued to the road. “We’ve got the whole world before us… and behind us.”
“I was hoping to get as far away from here.” Julia twisted in her seat on the left side to look out the windows. They could not even see the IMs from before. “I think we should just head back to the basement.”
“Under no circumstances am I taking you back there.” Protest flew wildly from the backseat. Luciano hammered his fist into the horn. “Listen, stop being so selfish! What will happen if we go back, huh? With the IMs just behind us?”
“Why would they still be following us? John’s car has scrambling devices; the robots would never be able to follow us.” Serena relaxed in her seat on Adlai’s right.
“I’ll agree with Luciano. The car saw a lot of action today,” Adlai said and clutched his knees. Luciano grunted his agreement.
“This beaut doesn’t show her scars easy, but she took quite a beating, and not just from the IMs. I also saw several bubbles almost hitting her.”
They had seen the car from afar and rushed inside, not noticing the scraped paint, the dents in the armour and the broken antenna. “You all know how fragile such equipment can be,” Adlai said. “It might be all right, but we just can’t chance it.”
Murmuring. “All right then, I have the wheel and I decide. We’re going to stay on the road and search for new shelters and more survivors.” Luciano looked over his shoulder to the gathering. “If you have any objections, you can walk back to the basement.”