There were ghosts in the fog. It had come creeping in over night as she kept vigil by the steaming fire; curling over abandoned roads and structures, enshrouding the decaying city in shifting white.
It was morning now, though one could hardly tell just by the look of it.
The sun was nothing more than a weak watery disk of light that lit everything in a sort of twilight of murky illumination. The road beneath her feet was cracked, crumbling; footsteps softly muffled by the silken moss and creeping phlox that covered nearly everything in shades of emerald, lime and olive.
Here, at the edge, she rested a hand against a column that supported a broken viaduct; pieces of concrete lay scattered over the wild ground like discarded blocks. The way into the shrouded city ducked under the long unused freeway system. The damaged ring of suburbs that lay behind her had been worn away to crumbling walls and empty doorways, suffocated by the growth of wild grass.
More shapes wandered in and out of the moving white curtain.
There, in the distance, the gutted top story of a skyscraper peeked through wispy tendrils of milky precipitation like a great dark ship drifting at sea. Gone again now, the only thing visible was the suggestion of a dim shape that towered in the sky.
Telma Nutt hated these kinds of worlds. This one, which had no name in the pocket-sized informational Waylog, was one of the End worlds. War, famine, disease, destruction – one or all of these things had silenced this place. Nothing human had set foot here for centuries and Telma wasn’t fond of the privilege of being the happenstance wanderer who rediscovered it.
More often than not remnants of whatever catastrophic force that had destroyed the world crept in the dark corners of the mournful decayed ruins of civilization. There was always danger in such places and it set Telma’s teeth on edge.
The fog had the unfortunate effect of muffling sound.
Earlier, in the swaying fields of grass and bramble there had been tiny creatures that rushed away from her as she fought her way through vegetation.
Strange, minute things that looked like giant eared lions with enormous eyes and a long whip-like tail capped with a dandelion puff of fur. They made a small chirruping sound as they bounded madly away.
That had been one of small signs that not all was dead and it was the last time anything living had made noise since she entered city limits.
There was the only the sound of forgotten buildings; settling and groaning with age and gravity, rusted metal shrieking at the inexorable downward pull of time. There was almost beauty in the terrible symphony of decay that surrounded her; each with its own ragged chord and rhyme.
Telma had been following the peeling white washed wall of a grocery mart when she heard the ticking sound; out of place and spine chilling in a dead city. The parking lot was a jumble of broken white lines that shared space with small saplings that had found cracks to push themselves up through. There were slumped dark shapes that turned out to be vehicles. They were very unlike the ones she was used to; more like a futuristic space ship than the beat up truck she used to drive to work, once upon a time.
Muscle tensed and froze. Long habit had her shedding the aviators cap and protective eye wear, rolling the strap of the duffle bag off her shoulder with a well practiced shrug and locking the large caliber high capacity magazine into the rifle.
Telma tossed the cumbersome items into the doorway of a building and immediately flattened her back against the rough brick wall of an alley way beside the grocery mart, gripping the rifle tightly against herself.
It was an unfortunate and necessary routine. Hear something out of place? It’s probably going to try and eat you. Can’t see the immediate threat? Get your back against a wall, shore up your blind spots and get ready to rumble.
Like the fast castanet sound of cicadas with a metallic echo.
Damn the fog, it made the sound seem like it was coming from all directions.
Adrenaline and fear lent acuity to the senses. Even under the thick jacket and grimy jeans Telma could feel the sticky coolness of moisture, her fingers sliding along the chilled metal of the rifle through cutoff gloves. Every groove and niche was a comfort, something that was intimate and familiar as the back of her own hand.
The rubber grooved soles of the heavy boots dug into asphalt, giving necessary traction for the inevitable moment when running meant keeping alive.
She lost the sound of the ticking and that was more terrifying then hearing it; at least by hearing the noise she knew it wasn’t here, now it could be anywhere.
Her back pocket vibrated. Startled, she slid out the Waylog and flipped open the screen.
Imminent Threat Detected
The screen read. Overlaid a topographical map of her current location was the red circle that indicated the device had picked up something hostile.
Switch to Vocal? Y/N
Telma pressed ‘yes’ and hurriedly tucked it into the inside pocket of her jacket.
‘Twenty meters and closing. Evasive action is recommended.’
Telma snorted and pushed the bolt into place on the rifle.
“No kidding. Got any useful information that might help me survive?”
‘…inorganic structure, multipedal, compositional configuration suggests-’
Whatever configuration the Waylog was going to suggest was cut off as a streamlined dark shape hurtled out of the dense fog like a maligned torpedo.
It was only animal instinct and sheer terror that made Telma throw herself to the ground and roll as a shower of sparks and debris showered around her accompanied by the terrible screech of metal on stone.
She lunged to her feet and lined up a perfect shot that landed dead center of the head of the beast. It ricocheted and the bullet imbedded itself into the brick wall behind her. Gasping ragged breathes of air and taking a couple of steps back she got her first good look at what had been stalking her in the fog.
At first, she confused it for some sort of metal dog, but looking closely Telma realized the shoulders were too big, as was the head. Whatever it was, it was huge; like an SUV with legs. The head was very narrow with a short snout, like a boar, yet the body was vulpine and ended in a long whip like tail that served to balance the creature.
It was entirely mechanical. There was a strange frill-like crest behind the head that steam hissed out of.
Cooling system, maybe? Telma thought to herself numbly.
Age was written in every pock mark, scratch and dent of the worn body. The once aluminum silver frame was dulled with wear. Over the haunches and back legs crawled a vibrant note of green; the tenacious spring moss that clung to the creature like a botanical barnacle.
On one side was the mostly worn identifying mark which read: 9976BF.
Her sudden evasion had thrown it off its trajectory and now it was scrabbling against concrete to gain purchase for another lunge, it hadn’t even seemed to notice her attempt to shoot it. Telma felt a shiver of dismay as she stared at the stilted, long legs that ended in lethal looking points; as though they had been replaced with blades.
The razor toothed mouth opened and the thick neck twisted with a series of high pitched clicks – the noise she had been hearing in the fog. Forelegs and snout were deeply corroded and stained a reddish-brown. Telma could all but imagine how it became like that. This creature had clearly been designed to be as lethal as possible.
Through the ringing in her ears she vaguely realized that the Waylog was still talking.
‘…noted is the similarity to the Red Camellias design used in the latter end of the Fallen War of Croatia. The initial design of the 9976BF model was dismissed due to faulty wiring and the tendency to involve civilian casualties among the intended targets-’
“Useful, I said useful, you sorry piece of scrap!!”
‘…configuring. One moment please.’
In the place of the placid and irritating high English accent came the sound of scratchy music, repetitive and infuriatingly catchy.
“Are you playing elevator music while my life is in danger!?!” Telma shrieked in disbelief.
She scrambled out of the way as the creature made its second attack, luck would have it that the bulky shoulder and torso of the body made turning very difficult and Telma needed no urging to dart off in a zigzag, running out of the alley way like a bat out hell.
Lungs burning, pulse racing Telma pushed her long legs to their fullest capacity, booted feet eating up pavement in a mad dash through empty streets and broken buildings searching futilely for some sort of buffer between her and the beast while the Waylog analyzed its inner workings.
She didn’t have to look behind her to know it was following; she could hear its progress as it demolished wall, stranded vehicles and glass alike to get at her.
Desperation had Telma find the nearest tallest building, hoping that she could lose the beast in the stories that rose above the ground. The nearest happened to be a parking garage that had halfway sunk into itself.
Any other day the cracked and moldering ruins would have been a pleasure to explore; the cavernous gloom of the interior was a forest of overgrown greenery, the battered debris of a long dead civilization and the fascinating and almost surreal collection of vehicles that looked like gigantic fuzzy green stones.
The cramped space and crowded vehicles gave her enough of an advantage to gain some ground against the rampaging beast. It was having difficulty navigating the mossy metal stairway that Telma charged up, the long thin metal points of the feet sliding along rust and vegetation.
At the top of the stairwell Telma threw herself against the rotting door and it splintered and burst open, nearly dumping her onto the uneven broken top tier of the parking garage. Clutching the rifle like a crutch she pushed herself back up. The world was a wash of white all around her. Visibility was even worse on top of the building.
Telma wondered how long before the beast caught up with her again.
She jumped in surprise; her concentration had been so focused that she had tuned out the ridiculous music and had been furiously running through every survival scenario she could think of.
‘The Ruin Hitch 9976BF model was a design made with the upmost efficiency in speed, short term analytical capabilities and ability to negate all hostilities. A simplistic electrical conduit runs along the spine-’
“Speed it up, would you!?”
Telma was hearing the rending screech of metal and thunderous tread of something huge coming up the stairs.
‘-and is powered by a low grade atomic thermonite. It is centrally located in a tight cluster in the back of the throat.’
Telma swallowed hard.
“So if I aim for that one spot, goodbye Fido. Ha, do I look like Annie Oakley? Don’t answer that.” she said quickly, knowing the blunt precision answers the Waylog was programmed to quip.
“Are there any other alternatives to disable this thing?”
‘Negative. The orlicahan titanium body was designed to withstand high grade heat and pressure, most likely with nuclear threat in mind. Successful chances of severing conduit cluster with a .458 Winchester Magnum is estimated 23.69088777%.’
“So, we’re going to round that to a twenty-five percent chance, right?”
The Waylog remained silent.
Telma gripped the rifle harder, trying not to focus too hard on the pounding of her heart. It felt like it was trying to claw its way out of her chest. Focus too much on the chilling terror of death coming for you on an abandoned building in a world you had no desire to be in and you lost the battle even before it began.
There was no heroism or clean battles in cold survival, Telma had come to learn the hard way. There was only tooth and claw and clever desperation to live at any and all costs.
“Right.” She said quietly.
The floor beneath her fractured and heaved like magma pushing up the surface of the earth.
Telma backed up as concrete and rebar splintered and was flung across the roof of the parking garage and the last remnant of the destructive creativity of humanity emerged like a monster from the depths of hell.
As often happens during moments of great peril the mind slows the surroundings until time becomes a still frame where every second is a moving glacier cutting through the landscape of personal existence.
Telma drew a breath in. Everything stopped. The white mist hung in the air like frosted white drapery, droplets of moisture clung to the tips of her eyelashes, the weight of the rifle a solid reassurance in her hands.
The scene that lay before her would be burned into her mind’s eye for a lifetime; the massive width of the shoulders of the beast broke the last of the concrete obstacle, the head snapped up, sending a shower of debris across the roof and the razor legs found purchase on the crumbling concrete, finding enough traction to crouch for a final leap.
The scope of the rifle was pushed hard enough into the eye socket to where there was dull pain and Telma’s world became the view of an open mouth that was cavernous, and moving and almost on her when the sight of the scope found its mark and she pulled the trigger-
Time caught up and there was the force of impact as everything swung crazily. Concrete, the milky white sky, the freefalling terror of her body as it was rolled along. Shock and pain as body parts met with unforgiving hardness and gravel bit into skin. Finally the sound of metal scraping and bits and pieces of things hitting and rolling along the ground. There was a tremendous crash that sounded far away.
Telma Nutt lay stock still and concentrated on getting oxygen back into her aching lungs.
From the inside pocket of her jacket came the muffled voice of the Waylog,
“Model 9976BF has ceased all operations. All hostile activity within 20 kilometers acquitted. The program directive wishes to remind Ms. Telma Nutt, as required by the manufacturer and as per agreement by the Impervious Bond Act paragraph 334 section A, that the continuing exploration of the Multifold Worlds increases the risk of fatality with each-”
“Shut up. Just…be quiet a minute.”
The Waylog promptly went silent.
Finally, she gathered herself up and pushed her body from the demolished ground that was beginning to creak rather alarmingly.
She found the rifle some yards away and dully realized that while she may have hit the fatal spot of the metal beast it had been close enough to knock her head over ass as it went past her straight over the roof and met unforgiving asphalt hundreds of feet down.
Telma found she wasn’t happy or proud about making a one in a million shot that bought her life and continuing freedom; mostly there was just a feeling of terrible weariness, exacerbated by the multitude of scrapes, bruises and painfully throbbing shoulder that had taken the brunt of the kickback of the Magnum twice in one day.
It took some time to retrace her steps to the grocery mart where the trouble began but as the weak light began to fade into long shadows Telma once again found herself walking along a dead highway heading westbound out of the city.
Here, the air was a little less stagnant. The fog had dissipated enough to see the wide expanse of ocean beyond the destroyed buildings. It was a beautiful and terrible image; the setting sun lit sky and water in shades of red while the weakened light cast shadows on a hollow city.
“Find me the next world.”