1287 Anno Salvatio
The road was a rust-red stripe, built up like a flood-bank, that ran unbroken into the pale blue horizon where it would eventually terminate inside The Tower.
Nothing inhabited these desert sands. Not a cactus, not a hare, not a single blade of grass. Nothing but a vast unmoving ocean of orange-brown.
No boot prints or tyre tracks marked the road’s dusty surface.
Spider imagined they had robots with sweepers following the cargo-laden machinery back to The Tower.
The most likely scenario was a wind had come through and blown their tracks away.
The road existed solely for getting heavy overland cargo across the desert.
Tower folk rarely left The Tower—at least not permanently. When they did leave, they’d normally take the underground bullet train, or travel by air. Same for those travelling to The Tower from Satellite cities and communities.
Spider paused a moment to scan the horizon with his binoculars. At full zoom he could make out the tall cylindric dark grey smudge, distorted through a drape of heat haze, he followed it up to the sky, where it continued upward until fading completely into the azure.
“I can finally see it!”
He swivelled west and swept his view along the low serrated dark brown blur of the Rockies. Mid-sweep he caught a glint off something, a tiny speck of light that swelled like an expanding star... then vanished completely.
He glassed the spot again at full zoom. It was quite blurry, but he could make out a man with a white beard watching them through a set of binoculars of his own.
He watched the old man a little longer. He appeared to give up spying on them and carried on walking southward, quickly vanishing behind some rocks.
Nothing to get worried over. He was likely a lone ranger or wayfarer. It wasn't unusual to come across those sorts from time to time out in the wilderness.
He wiped a gritty film of sweat and dust from his brow and licked his dry, cracked lips. Frustratingly, that only made them worse.
His best friend Jack straggled a short distance behind, shoulders slumped, panting like a dog, black hair clinging to his oily brow and jowls.
“Keep the pace, bruh” said Spider, “we gotta long ways t’go before we’ve earned a nap.”
“I’m havin’ second thoughts ’bout this, man.”
“No goin’ back now. We’re almost a quarter the way there.”
Jack groaned and took out his water-flask. “I… need… to stop… a minute.”
Spider rolled his eyes. “Alright.”
Spider set his rucksack down and fumbled through it for some painkillers. He downed a couple with some water and gave a couple to Jack.
“Spy, why couldn’t we just’ve took the train like smart people?”
“The adventure my man! Besides, we coulda got lost looking for the terminus.”
“There woulda been ruts we coulda followed.”
“Naw-aw. You remember ol’ Bealy, went to drive to the train. Truck was spotted by Envoys a week later, two kays out from Terminus Town wheels fully buried in sand. Ol’ Bealy wasn’t found ‘til a week later, gettin’ picked over by hawks, twenty kays north o’ where he got stranded.”
“Ol’ Bealy was a lunatic. And I thought you was good with directions!”
“I am, Jack. I know it’s a long hard journey, but we’ll make it and it’ll all be worth it in the end. Don’tcha wanna see The Tower in all its glory approaching from the south. Can’t see nothing underground in a train.”
“You reckon you’ll get Becky back?” Jack asked after a short while.
Spider frowned. “Probly not. Maybe when I become a movie star, she’ll learn what she been missin’.”
"Naw. When I'm a movie star, I'll have girls swarming at me left right and centre. Ain't gunna be no time for pining over Becky."
A light wind picked up from the south. A hot dry breath on the back of their necks and legs.
Thick columns of dust rose lazily in the far south-west. Spider swept his gaze across the sky.
A long V of tiny black dots sailed northward.
He supposed they were birds then glassed them. Fighter planes! Just like in the movies. He followed them across the sky in awe.
“Listen!” cried Jack.
“There’s a strange hum.”
All Spider could hear was a faint rustle of sand stirring in the breeze. He listened harder. Jack might’ve been right. A hum was coming from somewhere. It sounded like a diesel generator underground or far away. It was hard to tell. It couldn’t be the underground train. He was certain it didn’t run beneath the road.
The pair sat and snacked and sipped a little water. Enough to keep the thirst to a bearable level without using too much. They seemed to be going through it quicker than they should and were now worried about running out well before reaching their destination. The longer he focused on the dust columns in the south, the thicker they seemed to become and after a short while the sound of engines became audible. Then visible. A vast fleet of little dark brown specks spanned kilometres off of the left hand side of the road.
He glassed them.
War vehicles. Old, clunky and primitive in comparison to what would be cached away inside The Tower.
Nonetheless, an eerie sight indeed.
“We should keep walkin.’” Spider said, a little panic creeping into his voice.
Jack groaned and pulled himself up with heavy reluctance.
“What is all that?”
“Military trucks. Lots of ’em.”
“Why ain’t they drivin’ on the road?”
Somewhere far in the northern distance a plume of red and black erupted into the sky amid a long thunderous boom.
“What the heck!” yelled Spider.
Carrying on further didn’t look like a great idea. They’d have to go back.
The vehicles became louder, then bigger and the air around rapidly became thick with dust.
“What do we do?” yelled Jack, his voice muffled by his sleeve.
The armoured trucks crawled along steadily at about forty or fifty kays an hour. Each vehicle drove on six rubber tyres, each tyre was at least five feet tall. Each truck had a machine gun mounted on the cab, dwarfed by a large turret on top of the hull. A few smaller, lightly armoured four-wheeled fuel tankers drove among them at a slightly quicker speed. The clunk of steel and roar of engines made it impossible to talk without yelling. One of the tankers pulled out of its row and stopped by the road, its front wheels mounting the slope. Spider and Jack approached tentatively.
The driver jumped out. He was a large tanned man in a set of olive-green coveralls, large perspiration patches around the underarms and collarbone. “You two boys need to turn around and go back that way!” He jabbed a finger hard in the direction they'd come.
“Why?” Spider shouted.
“We’re bringing down The Tower!” He proclaimed.
These men are batshit.
“You boys need to turn around, it’s gonna get real dangerous! We’re blowing the roads to bits up ahead right now.”
More explosions crackled in the distance. Dust was everywhere. In their eyes, in their nostrils. Coating the back of their throats.
Spider went to speak, but the words wouldn’t come. He took a swig of water.
Are these people for real?
Jack piped up from behind. “You can’t attack The Tower!”
“Boy, we can. It’s some David and Goliath shit for sure, but we're doin’ it! The days of The Tower’s corruption and oppressive hold on humanity is over!”
Such words have never been used to describe The Tower! Never as far as Spider had ever heard.
“But The Tower is good!” said Jack.
Spider jabbed a finger toward the man.
“You’re all nuts! For starter’s how? My big brother Jonny, is an Envoy up there. He once tol’ me a nuke wouldn’t even make the tiniest chink in it! What makes you think your army of tanks are gonna stand a chance?”
He could be in there. Millions of folks are in there. What this mad asshole is talking about is downright insane and criminal.
The truck-driver shook his head. “Kaleel is no god and The Tower is evil. You think y'all in your Satellites are free? Y'all have no clue what true freedom is and y'all never will for as long as that unnatural torch of oppression is still standing. Humans don't rule the world. Computers and robots rule the world, the destiny of mankind is the hands of a goddamn computer programme for crying out loud!"
“No!” Shouted Spider. “You need to turn around! All of you. You’re all nuts!”
"Then I wish you boys all the best."
The man climbed back in his truck and carried on.
Spider looked in the direction of The Tower and watched the far-distant plumes of black smoke and red-brown dust curl into the sky. “Dammit!” He hissed, stashing his binoculars into the side pocket of his rucksack.
“C’mon Jack. We best head home. Folks ain’t gon’ believe the shit goin’ down out here.”
Jack cheerfully gathered up his rucksack and started southward with a fresh bout of energy.
Spider walked along sullenly.
Being forced to turn around was disheartening, perhaps next time he’ll take the train or find a ride to one of the larger Satellites where they have passenger drones.
The two kept silent for a while. Eventually the trucks passed by completely and faded into the distance, the wall of dust with them.
“I thought wars didn’t happen.” Said Jack.
“I did too... Jonny tol’ me, in the AD times, people lived in countries separated by invisible lines drawn on maps. Those countries had wars all the time. The movies show it too.”
“But there’s no such thing as separate countries anymore right?”
“Naw. It’s a consta—consta-chew—”
“That’s the one—constitutional violation to claim borders.”
He huffed proudly at the effort of his explanation.
A camera-type flash across the sky.
A thunderous boom followed, it rattled through every bone, most pronouncedly in the little ones in between the ears and jowls. Heat like an open oven soaked through their backs permeating flesh and bone. The road vibrated like a hammer-struck bell beneath their feet.
They turned toward The Tower.
A great dark tsunami of dust tore inexorably toward them. The roar filled their ears til they were deaf. They braced themselves against the incoming wall of dust. It crashed over them, pelting every exposed bit of skin with sand.
Spider was staggered by the blast but managed to stay on his feet.
He coughed violently into the crook of his arm as the air became still again.
He daringly opened his eyes. A thick butterscotch haze cloaked everything, he couldn’t even see his boots. The dust and sand stung his eyes so much he couldn't keep them open.
Spider doubled over in a coughing fit.
“Jack?” he called between fits. No answer.
He pulled his shirt over his face and sucked in, but the air in there was just as dusty and he rolled onto his side coughing harder than before.
The fits subsided eventually.
Only the ringing in his ears and the sporadic popcorn thud of what would likely be rocks and debris finding their way to ground.
The back of his neck burned.
By Hell it burned something wicked.
It throbbed intensely. Everywhere from the top of his scalp to mid way down his back.
He touched the back of his head. Where he expected to feel hair he felt hot moist scalp and a prickly stubble. He shrieked, from both pain and horror.
“Jack! Where the heck are—” He trod on something soft and damn near tumbled backward with alarm.
“Jack… No…” He ran his hands over his best friend’s body. He grabbed his neck, desperate to feel a pulse but there was nothing. He grabbed his wrist. Nothing. He put an ear against his chest. It was wet and warm there. A smell like hot blood and ash with a chemical tang. There were no breaths. No beating heart.
“No… NO! NO! NO!” Spider broke down into sobs.
He knelt beside him and cried until the great smog of dust had settled.
Jack was dirty, he looked as though he had been buried alive and dug back up. His face puffy and caked with dried blood. A scabby dark purple crack, still leaking blood, ran from on top of his skull to the bridge of his nose. His thick long, black hair was crusted with dried blood and sand.
About twenty meters down, the burnt out rim of a war-vehicle's wheel lay on the edge of the road.
A small smear of Jack's blood on the edge of the curve.
Spider tied his rucksack around his waist and muscled his best friend up on to his shoulders and struggled to his feet, determined to carry him back home. He managed five laborious steps before the rubbing on his burns became far too much and he let him tumble off like a sack of potatoes.
“I’m sorry!” He bawled. “I’m too weak!” He wiped the snot from his face with a dirty sleeve and cried harder. “I’ll come back for you! I promise.”
After some time, he got to his feet and staggered onward, dragging his rucksack alongside him.
A distant bumblebee-like buzz from the direction of the Tower. Spider quickened his pace and stayed focused on going home.
Whatever or whoever it was he wished only for them to stay away. He needed only to get home and sink into a cold bath, have Ma bandage him up. Then sleep. Then get a truck and come back for Jack.
The noise became closer—a piercing electrical whine in the air right above him. He ran.
A quadcopter. It swooped in like an eagle, the gust shunted him to his knees. It’s white body gleamed menacingly.
He choked on the up-draught of dust.
It’s skids settled gracefully on the road a short distance ahead. All four sets of rotor blades slowed, quieting the shrill buzz.
The dust settled and a door hatched outward from the hull.
A tall, thin dark man with short hair in a white coat and blue trousers appeared at the top of the steps smiling and beckoning. Fear turned to relief.
“Will you take me home?” Spider pleaded.
“I’ll take you home. Come up!”
The man helped him up the steps. His grip was strong, hands silky and clean.
Spider became acutely aware of how pitifully filthy he was.
The man’s hazel eyes glowed with enthusiastic welcome. His skin had an oily gleam and his face bore the subtle lines of an older man with well-preserved youth.
He introduced himself as Doctor Octavio Bardem.
“You look a mess.” He said with a smile.
It was luxuriously cool inside, the burns all over his head, neck and shoulders ached with a glowing heat. He could've sworn his skin was on fire.
Nobody else was on board except for two androids. Kally 7s (or 8s perhaps). The doctor in Redwood had one for an assistant— one of only several robots residing in the village.
They stood about five feet tall, their torsos were long capsules, heads small and spherical with large tinted goggles for eyes that were capable of sliding all around the head, other than that they had no humanoid facial features. Their arms were made of hard black plastic and their feet and hands were coated in blue rubber that made Spider think of dishwashing gloves.
The hatch-door closed with a pneumatic hiss, completely silencing all outside noise. Machinery beeped and purred quietly inside the walls.
This was Spider's first time in an aircraft of any kind.
“You fly this thing?”
If the quadcopter was moving there was no way to tell except for a faint whir rising and falling beneath their feet. There were no windows to see out of, only a wide rectangular monitor on the wall at the front end of the cabin that showed a panorama of the ground below. Right now the screen was filled with a whirling cloud of reddish-brown dust.
One of the androids folded a bed with a thin slab of a mattress out from the wall, the other relieved Spider of his rucksack.
Doctor Octavio took a boxcutter from his pocket and had Spider turn his back to him. He carefully cut away the tattered remains of his shirt. His breath stung the back of his neck.
“My oh my.” He said with intrigue.
Spider laid down on his front.
“I’m afraid I’m currently ill-equipped to deal with burns of this severity.”
“Really?” Spider groaned through gritted teeth. “What sort of Doctor are you?”
“One that spends most of his time in a laboratory not dealing with patients, but you get to be a special case.”
“What do you mean by that? I thought you was takin’ me home.”
“My section in The Tower is going to be your home for a while.”
“Redwood is my home!”
“You, my young friend will not find the treatment you require in the Satellites, especially not one as remote as Redwood. Now tell me Spider, what do you know of that miserably failed attack against The Tower?”
“How do you know my name?”
“Kally 7A just told it to me.”
Spider’s eyes darted inside his unmoving head from the android back to the Doctor. The Doctor tapped his temple smiling. The android on the Doctor’s left studied Spider’s face, it’s goggle eyes buzzing and swirling. “How did it know?”“Your birth was recorded, your retina scanned within hours of you being pulled from your mother. Just like all children.” He spoke to Spider like he was stupid. Sure, that fact made sense, he remembered seeing it done to all his sisters and his baby brother Jones. It never occurred to him to ask why. The Doctor assumed an air of hostile impatience, demanding answers. “C'mon Doctor, please, I don’t know nothin! Jack and I... we was just hiking along minding our own business, ‘til that... that army went by. We couldn’t believe what we was seein’... Still can’t believe it.” Both androids stooped lower to scrutinise his face from up close. His eyes grew hot with tears and he began to blubber. “Keep your eyes open!” Spider obeyed “Tell me, is Spider being honest with us?” “No deception detected in the subject’s communication.” The android on the left said, it's voice had a pure metallic quality, the android on the right reaffirmed the statement.“Nobody can deceive an android, Spider. I think your honesty has earned you a little something for the pain.” “Can you tell my folks where I am please, Doctor? They need to know about Jack too. He’s dead down there, he needs to go back home.”“Your folks...” The doctor said thoughtfully, staring at the wall. “Kally 7a is sending me pictures of them all. Big breeders your family?” “What’s that sposed to mean?” “You have a lot of siblings. One older brother. Jonny, I see he recruited as an Envoy last year. Sensible. Three teenage sisters Clara, Gracie, Daisy. And seven year old Jones, the baby of the family. Tell me Spider, for it intrigues me greatly, why on earth did your parents have a Jonny and a Jones?”
“Jonny was named for our Ma’s papa. Jones for our Pa’s Dad.”
“And you ended up being named Spider?”
“Ma said her little niece got to name me; she was dyin’ of leukemia at the time.”
“Please will you tell them where I am, where Jack is?”
“They’ll learn of you and your friend sooner or later. As for now let’s worry about getting you to my section in the Tower.”
“You will tell them?”
Doctor Octavio sighed. “Yes, Spider.”
“Thank you…Is it safe at the Tower? With the attack and all?”
“Failed attack.” He clarified with a chuckle. “The WMD that gave you those nasty burns all but wiped out the so-called Liberation Front’s army, who were assumedly going to pick through the rubble after the fighter planes had done their job.”
“They sent 180 autonomous fighters in fleets of 30—each loaded with a hydrogen bomb—in a kamikaze style assault toward the recesses 10 – 30 kilometres up. Had the assault been successful, The Tower would almost certainly have collapsed under its weight and the resulting shockwave would have been felt over the entire continent.”
“What happened to the planes?”
“The air traffic controllers hacked through their firewalls and commanded them to the ground. Machines will be extracting their weapons as we speak and the planes will undergo reprogramming.”
“I bet the folks there will be pleased to know they’re safe.”
“Information of the attack is only available to a privileged few. The rest of the people are blissfully unaware.”
"You're one of them... the privileged few?"
"My work keeps me in a good esteem with the Administration but let's just say I have my own private methods of keeping informed.
“Well I won’t tell no one, ’cept my folks at home, I can't lie to them and they gotta know what happened to Jack.”
“All you need to worry about at this moment is getting well. Now give me your arm.”
Spider let his arm hang from the side of the bed. Octavio drew a small dose from a little glass vial and injected it straight into the vein in his elbow. The initial jab felt like a hornet sting then a cold tingling sensation flooded his body, clearing away all the pain from his burns.
His eyes became heavy and a powerful euphoria took him.