“There are many places to see and explore if one has a mind to do so. A brave mind and very strong intestinal fortitude. Now so far I have shared my notes on several of the wonders of the burnt and rotten world I have roamed with you, and have had some fond memories in the retelling of places vast and inspiring. Now I must relate to you, fellow traveler, tales of something more sinister. While I shall find writing this next piece to be uncomfortable and certainly one that will bring back feelings better repressed for all time, I would not be doing you any justice if I did not. I have recorded my travels in the sole purpose of incenting others to go out and explore and re-discover the world around them. ‘Re-Discover?’ You ask. Yes, for the world we drag ourselves through, the one we commonly refer to as ‘After’ is called that for a reason. Something cannot be ‘After’ without a ‘Before’. Oh, if you venture out into the world of ‘After’ as I have. If you Journey over that next hill, and around that bend that others see no reason to traverse, then, dear reader, you may find out more about ‘Before’ than you would like. For there are places left over from whatever was ‘Before’. Places that are not part of our world, as they are not broken and twisted as much of what else you may see. But they are not part of ‘Before’ either in this traveler’s most humble opinion. I say that because they are not whole anymore. Whatever it was that turned ‘Before’ into ‘After’ has left these places perverted in some ways. Mostly intact and in some cases still functioning as maybe they once did. Places such as these lay in wait to be found.
Perhaps they are waiting to be re-discovered and reveal their wonders.
Or perhaps they intend to protect those very wonders from any who would stumble upon them, let alone seek them out.”
--- “A Traveler’s Guide to the ‘After’, Volume 3” by Unknown
The wind and rain slammed against the strange see through wall and made Kali jump again. She steadied herself for a minute and just took a few deep breaths.
“It’s okay my dear,” came that voice which was too warm...too soothing. “We are safe from the Rad Storm here. The people who lived here chose this place well and did a great job keeping it together.” She looked over and saw Dathan still standing in front of the table. He was staring at the strange pictures as he had been for some time now. Her eyes drifted to the gun belt hanging from the back of the chair to his left side. It was just far enough that she knew she would never reach it before he noticed her moving. She wondered if that was why he had left it there and turned his back to it. It would be pointless to try for the gun and she knew that and so did he. Was it that, or did he trust her and was showing her that? Her mind had been running in these sorts of circles for the last few weeks. Ever since Dathan had taken her from her village. Nothing was plain and clear any longer. Nothing just made sense.
“Continue with that part. You were doing really well. I’ll help you if you get stuck.” Dathan did not look up from his strange pictures. A ‘map’ he had called it.
Kali looked back to the book that was open before her. The pages had a slight stain on the edge and she knew it was the blood of their previous owner. It was a constant reminder that the warm, dry, ‘safe’ room she was in with him had once belonged to people who were now all dead. Dathan’s brothers had made sure of that after these people made their ‘choice’. They had made the same choice that Ferrin had made for her village. Only this village was larger better fortified. They had taken over some buildings from Before which were made of smooth stone and metal. Things that had been rare in her village. Kali closed her eyes for a moment and again the visions of what had happened here filled her mind.
She had witnessed the ruthless brutality of the brotherhood on her own village. The men were all slaughtered before her eyes. The women and children had been ‘conscripted’ as the Brothers had called it. The younger boys were led off and she had not seen them since. The older women and younger girls were also taken off. She had learned that they were merged in with a larger group of women conscripts. Now they were the ones who cooked and cleaned for these men. She shuddered when she thought about the girls closest to her own age. They had been taken and used by the brothers in ways that made her gag to think of. That would have been her own fate as well, but the limping brother had pulled her out saying that Dathan wanted to see her. She was afraid of him after he had killed his own ‘brother’ for touching her and then what he did to Ferrin. Ferrin had been a veritable rock in their village, so strong and brave. He and his hunters had protected the village for as long as she could remember. Dathan had killed Ferrin as easily as if he was slaughtering a chicken. So hearing that Dathan wanted to see her did not offer too much relief.
Kali did not remember too much of that first time she spent with him. She was brought to some large tank that somehow floated over the ground. Before she even had a moment to marvel at this incredible thing, a door had opened in the side of the vehicle and Dathan came out. Dathan was kind and gentle as he led her inside the tank and closed that door by pressing a button. He looked back into her village and she was certain that he had winced as a gunshot cracked the air. Once inside he offered her food and spoke nicely. He spoke of the world and how he needed to fix it. To bring back good things to people who chose to work with him towards remaking the world. He said that there were too many people just trying to survive and not enough trying to change things, to improve them. She had listened and tried to eat some of the food he had offered her. After a few bites her stomach flipped over and she threw up on his shoes. He had laughed then. The sound of that laughter still rang in her ears. It was warm and kind and somehow made her feel better. It made it all seem good. Anyone who could laugh so freely and so openly could not possibly be evil. Not evil like she had just seen in her village. It was the beginning of the constant circles in which her mind now turned.
The next few days she had spent with the older women. They washed her, fed her, and gave her new clothes and a new sense of normal. During the day they rode in a larger vehicle and mostly slept. When the brotherhood camped they went to work, setting up tents and cooking the evening meal. Being around them felt very much like being in the women’s hut of her village. The women worked and talked and complained. Which man ate too much, which one complained about the food, which one kept tearing his clothes and needing them mended. They did not include her in the work or the talk. Instead letting her soak it in and recover from the trauma of the days before. It seemed like they understood what she needed more than she did. Now as she looked back, she believed that they did. Each one of them had most likely gone through a similar experience.
Then Dathan had come for her one night after the evening meal. He did not take her away from the women. Instead he sat with her and cleared some space at the women’s work table and set out a book. She had seen them before but was never taught how to use one. Dathan had laughed at that, and said that he would teach her to ‘use’ the book if she would let him. So they had begun with the books that night.
A few days later they had found this place. The people here had fought the brothers. Even though there were more of them and they had better weapons than her village they were overcome. Just like her village. She had not seen the fighting, but the sounds of the explosions and guns still echoed in her mind and sent a shiver through her.
Kali fingered the blood stained edge of the book before her thinking of all this. She wondered about the person whose blood was now a part of the book.
“Go ahead...” Dathan prompted, pulling her out of her thoughts and restoring her focus to the lines on the page. It was full of strange images of odd looking creatures, but he wanted her to read the words and not focus on the pictures. There were many, many books that just had words and no images he had explained. She looked back to the blood stained pages and turned them as she read. True to his word, Dathan helped her when she came to a word she could not read.
“So Yertle, the Turtle King, lifted his hand
And Yertle, the Turtle King, gave a command.
He ordered nine turtles to swim to his stone
And, using these turtles, he built a new throne.
He made each turtle stand on another one’s back
And he piled them all up in a nine-turtle stack.
And then Yertle climbed up. He sat down on the pile.
What a wonderful view! He could see ’most a mile!
‘All mine!’ Yertle cried. ’Oh, the things I now rule!
I’m king of a cow! And I’m king of a mule!
I’m king of a house! And what’s more, beyond that,
I’m king of a blueberry bush and cat!
I’m Yertle the Turtle! Oh, marvelous me!
For I am the ruler of all that I see!′
And all through that morning, he sat there up high
Saying over and over, ‘A great king am I!’
Until ’long about noon. Then he heard a faint sigh.
‘What’s that?’ snapped the king
And he looked down at the stack.
And he saw, at the bottom, a turtle named Mack.
Just a part of his throne. And this plain little turtle
Looked up and he said, ’Beg your pardon King Yertle.
I’ve pains in my back and my shoulders and knees.
How long must we stand here, Your Majesty, please?′
‘SILENCE!’ the King of the Turtles backed back.
‘I’m king, and you’re only a turtle named Mack.’
’You stay in your place while I set here and rule.
I’m king of a cow! And I’m king of a mule!
I’m king of a house! And a bush! And a cat!
But that isn’t all. I’ll do better than that!
My throne shall be higher!′ his royal voice thundered,
’So pile up more turtles! I want ‘bout two hundred!’
‘Turtles! More turtles!’ he bellowed and brayed.
And the turtles ’way down in the pond were afraid.
But they came.”
There was a knock at the door. Dathan looked up from the map, glanced at her with a warm smile, then said “Come on in.” loud enough for whoever was outside to hear.
The Limper came in. He was not limping as much now, but Kali still thought of him that way. It was a way that she tried to remember Ferrin. He paused when he saw her there and his eyes drifted down over her body. Kali had become used to this happening around these men. The clothes the older women had given her were very different from what she had when in her village. The pants were of a strange material that was tight, but had stretched over her. They had given her a strange undershirt they called a ‘bra’. It seemed to hold her breasts in place which she was thankful for during the jostling and bouncing of the long rides. The shirt they gave her was not quite a shirt but more of a leather vest. It worked with the bra to leave a good portion of her breasts on display. At first she was very unhappy with these cloths but then she saw that most of the women in camp were dressed similarly. Also Dathan never looked her over the way the other brothers did and as she spent the most time with him she kind of forgot about it. Now the way that the way Limper’s eyes roamed her body made her very aware of her exposure.
“Kerl?” Dathan prompted and the man turned and made his way to Dathan’s map table and started to kneel, fist to his heart. Dathan turned to him, and then with the gesture she had seen before he waved the limper up. The man stood and returned the smile that Dathan warmed him with.
“Bad news. The rear guard hasn’t reported in.” Limper stated with obvious concern. Kali was not sure if the concern was for the missing ‘brothers’ or for what Dathan’s reaction to the news would be.
“What was their last position?” Dathan gestured to the map. Limper looked down and studied the map pictures for a moment. Then he looked up and at Kali then back at the map and pointed to a point on the map. She looked and saw that he pointed to the place that Dathan had shown her and said was where her village ‘used to be’. She had remembered how simple he had said it to her, ‘used to be’. The truth of it struck her then as it did now.
Dathan looked at her then back to Kerl. “Could it be the storm? Maybe they are sheltering.”
Kerl shook his head. “We’ve been here too long. They should have been here before the storm struck.”
As if on cue the wind banged against the clear wall that Dathan had called a window. This drew Dathan’s attention and he walked over to the window, looking out into the dark of the storm.
After a minute he turned back to Kerl and the concern was plain on his face. “Send a team for our brothers, Kerl. Bring them back.”
“I was going to…when the storm broke.”
“Now, Kerl. We do not leave our brothers behind. Go get them.” Dathan’s intensity had flared and Kali saw how Kerl had tensed. She has seen this before in her time with Dathan. His ‘brothers’ feared him as much as they loved him. After what she had seen him do in her village to the man who had been touching her, they had good reason to be afraid. At the same time she heard the mnemonic echo of his laughter and knew that they also had good reason to love this man. Again, circles.
“I want to get out of here soon. There is a pass through these mountains on the map and I want to head that way. If we can’t make it through we have a long way to go around. There are people on the other side of this Range that need us. This place some of the conscripts call Metro sounds exactly like where we have much work to do. When we go, I want everyone with us.”
“I will send out Erd and his boys.” Kerl said with a note of resignation.
“Thank you” Dathan grabbed him by the shoulder and gave a rough, but respectful shake. Kerl smiled and then turned to leave. With one last glance at Kali he was out the door.
Kali looked down at the book and stared at it while her mind spun. Brothers had disappeared at her village. Could the Hunters have found them? Maybe they were coming for her? This warmed her heart for a moment and then her eyes made their way to the gun hanging on the chair just a few feet from her. No, how could even the hunters of her village hurt these men with their guns and tanks and the numbers that they had?
How could anyone?
“Tank, what is that blinking thing?” Mason asked pointing to one of the screens that showed a map. A small dot had started to blink on and off at a specific point on the map.
“Dunno” the giant continued to stare hard at the screen in front of him. His tongue was out and curled up over his upper lip which was his habit when concentrating. The Rad Storm had overtaken them a few hours ago. The path before them was now obscured by the incredible wind and rain. Tank was moving IT slowly and steering around the debris that the storm was dumping in their path. At several points they had to stop because they could not see anything. He was navigating entirely through the front view screens and not relying on the map now. The dronies had returned to IT just before the storm swept in. They had done their job though as the map screens continued to show a large area that they were now only making minimal progress across. While IT was an incredibly large and heavy thing the wind was powerful enough that they were jostled when it slammed against the vehicle. Mason was beginning to think they needed to find some sort of shelter.
“Do you know if we can find out somehow?” Mason asked as patiently as he could. Over these few days he was learning to be specific. Tank was open and would tell him anything, but he had to ask the right way. In answer to Mason’s question, Tank reached over and tapped the screen where the dot was blinking. At first nothing happened. Mason was about to try and rephrase his question when the dot expanded out into a broader circle. Writing appeared and quickly began to scroll. Mason tried to read it but it moved too fast and he missed most of it. After a few seconds of that the writing disappeared and only two words remained. “The Hub” pulsed in and out over the blinking dot. Then several symbols appeared around the dot. One appeared to be a cup and another a bed, while a third appeared to be a pod or vehicle of some sort that was sitting on what looked like a track. The others were odd and Mason was unsure of them. As Mason was trying to discern what any of it meant another massive gust of wind shook the vehicle. Tank grunted and brought IT to a sharp stop.
Mason looked at the screen that Tank had been using to guide them. It showed a large wreck of what may once have been a building rocking back and forth as it settled into its new home. It was in front of them and completely blocking their path. Mason was astounded that the winds that had only been rocking the vehicle he was in were powerful enough to toss around such a large structure. Again he found himself wondering at this vehicle that Tank simply called IT.
“Someone doesn’t want us to go that way.” C’er commented from the rear of the cabin where they all sat.
Mason looked back at C’er, who shrugged with an ‘it’s not my fault’ look, and then back at the screens in front of him. First he looked at the screen showing their blocked path and then the one with the blinking dot and pulsing writing.
“You’re right,” He said suddenly. “Tank, can you take us here,” he pointed to the blinking dot, “to The Hub?”
The giant looked over at the screen and again his tongue announced the effort with which he was thinking this over. “It’s not where we have to go. You make us go loooooong way again.” he looked at Mason with childish annoyance.
It was then that something dawned on Mason. “Tank, can you show me where we are going? On the screen, the map?” Tank’s face lit up at this. “Yes! I can now, and you will see how wrong you are!” The excitement of his impending victory was evident. They watched as his large but dexterous fingers poked at the map screen and then flicked and swiped over the map. With each gesture the map scrolled and seemed to expand and contract. Tank began to make a rumbling sort of vroom sound as his fingers traced a path across the map. He finally pointed to a place on the map in triumph. “Here is where we go! You see? You keep making us go long way.” Mason did not see. He was not 100% sure he followed the path between where they were now and where Tank was pointing at on the map. Looking at the point, there did not seem to be anything there. Not a blinking dot and words like with The Hub. But Mason did see one thing that confirmed one of his thoughts.
“Tank, it’s not the long way. There is a shortcut.” Mason said.
“Shortcut?” Tank was stymied by this. He looked back at the screen and again manipulated it back and forth, his tongue making another appearance.
“Yes. Mason has a shortcut.” Mason announced. His suspicion confirmed as this time he could trace one of the lines along the map back to the blinking dot that marked The Hub.
“He does?” Tank and C’er said at the same time and then looked at each other.
“Jinx!” Tank yelled and punched a meaty fist at C’er, who leaned back and pivoted, dodging the blow.
“Hey! No fair!” Tank complained.
“Tank! Stop it. Take us to this Hub, and I will show you my shortcut.” Mason interrupted.
With a dark look at C’er, Tank turned back to his red wheel. He looked at the map screen at first and then at the screen that showed the rear view. Pressing a few buttons he then pushed forward on the lever that set IT in motion. The rear view showed that they were backing up, away from the wreckage. Tank then tapped the blinking dot and selected one of the icons that appeared. A small message appeared that said ‘Calculating’. After a few seconds a yellow line appeared on the map between the blue arrowhead and drew a path to the Hub. Tank gave one last ‘this better be good’ look over his expansive shoulder at Mason and then started to follow the route on the screen.
The storm raged on and Tank continued to guide IT and his passengers along the yellow beam. Mason was satisfied that the blue arrow head was getting closer and closer to the blinking dot. The screens did not show him much as their visibility was limited with the wind and rain, so he had to just go by the map screen.
Diana joined them in the front cabin after a few hours. She must have woken and rummaged around to find something to eat. So she sat next to Mason munching on some kind of food bar that had been in a packet. She had found more than food as she now wore a harness on her torso that housed two handguns as well as several knives. The teenage girl huddled in the seat under a short coif of dark hair and munching on a snack was a stark juxtaposition from the arsenal that she was wearing.
For the first day after she had joined them she had mostly slept. Once awake they all traded their stories of recent events. Tank laid out all the weapons he had taken from the Deaders and Diana eyes were alight as she took them in. They had talked of what they were going to do next. Diana wanted to go back to her home and track the Raiders from there. Tank was adamant that they needed to go where he was taking them and that they were already late. This was the only dispute between the two who Mason could see were already fast becoming friends. Mason had become used to this among Contacts and didn’t question the ease with which they fell in together. He spoke up only to end the dispute. He told Diana that he was sure that the Raiders were heading the same way that Tank wanted to go, and that they should be able to get ahead of them. This appealed to the hunter in her and she accepted that.
“So you think this Hub will offer some shelter from the storm?” she asked between bites of the bar.
“Something like that.” Mason responded as he was sorting shells of ammunition into different cups.
“He’s going with whole ‘Mysterious stranger from the wasteland who knows what to do’ routine on this one.” C’er chimed in. “He’s pretty good at it. It’s annoying as frack, but I think that’s why he likes it.”
Diana looked back at C’er who shrugged.
Suddenly a loud noise drew their attention to the screens where they saw a large fence tearing open around IT. The rear screens showed it catching on some part of the immense vehicle and being dragged.
“Oopsey.” Tank said sheepishly when he noticed that they were all looking at him. The small grin on his face made it clear that it had not really been an accident. Over the last few days they had all noticed that he seemed to enjoy running things over with his huge ‘toy’.
IT then came to a stop and Tank hit another button off to his left. The front screen lit up as the vehicle’s powerful lights burst on. The visibility was still bad in the rain, but now they could make out why Tank had come to a stop.
They were in front of a huge building. Actually, they were in front of a huge door to a huge building. Mason was able to make out letters that had been scrawled over the door.
The words where “Danger” and then “Turn Back”.
“Well that’s not welcoming.” C’er groaned.
“What?” Diana leaned forward.
Just then a screen off to Tank’s left pulsed to life and filled with words very quickly. It then blanked out and a single word appeared:
While they all looked at the screen, strobing yellow lights came to life on either side of the massive door. After a few seconds a crack appeared down the center of the door and slowly widened. A bright light washed out of the massive door as it ground open, blinding them so that they could not see inside.
“Now that’s a little more welcoming.” C’er shrugged. “But still, what about that sign? Someone clearly thought whatever was in here was a problem.”
As the door opened wide enough Mason patted Tank on the shoulder. “Take us in.” he said looking inside the door and trying to see what waited.
“Of course why go by whatever some random person scrawled on the door...” C’er sighed.
IT rolled forward slowly. The forward view screens showed them a cavernous chamber as they passed through the half opened door. The yellow lights were also strobing inside the chamber. Here they were muted by overhead lights that made it brighter that the brightest day any of them had known. Under the harsh light, the room was large enough to hold the entirety of Diana’s village. As the screens corrected for lighting they could see a sprawling boneyard of wreckage. There were several hulks of machines from Before littering the massive room. As Tank drove IT deeper inside they could see that most looked heavily damaged. Metal was scorched and torn apart. All sorts of smaller debris were strewn about the spaces between the larger wrecks. In several places there were other remains that looked like the long ago withered bones of people.
“Tank cannot fix all of this...” he said taking the wreckage in.
“I don’t think you will need to. Remember this is a short cut.” Mason said with a reassuring pat on his expansive shoulder.
“Mason...Look at that.” C’er pointed to a part of the view screen that was showing the scene ahead of them. Large pieces of metal wreckage had been lined up end to end forming a wall across most of the room. In several places the wall had been blown apart from the other side. Through one of the gaps in the makeshift wall, Mason saw a door equal to the one they had come in. It was closed but the door itself and the wall around it were damaged in several places.
“Whoever built the wall here had a pretty good reason it seems.” Mason pointed out some of the larger blast marks along the second door and surrounding wall. In Mason’s experience a large shelter like this would be prized and defended at all costs. Many communities of After had grown up clinging to the remaining shelters from Before. One such as this would have valued just for its sheer scale. That there was still some form of power running through it made it a treasure beyond reckoning. So Mason would have expected to see such a wall or other defenses set to keep any invaders out. Here it seemed that they were set to keep something in.
A loud grinding noise exploded through the speakers and they all jumped a little. The rear screen showed that the door they had come through had smoke pouring out of the track it was in. It lurched back and forth once or twice and then the grinding noise turned to a sharper crunching sound. Finally the door settled in place only half open and moved no more. The smoke continued to swirl in the storm winds that the gaping doorway let in.
“Oopsy.” Tank said. “I don’t think Tank can fix that either.”
“It looks like that door won’t be closing any time soon. So whatever is in here can get out now.” C’er added.
“Pull through that gap there. We need to see what’s through some of those smaller doors.” Mason pointed to a set of smaller doors off to the side of the larger door beyond the makeshift barricade.
Tank guided IT through the rubble. He chuckled a bit when he had to drive through a smaller wreck that blocked their path. The far side of the makeshift wall was much clearer of debris and wreckage. Instead there were several large craters in the floor. Tank enjoyed himself when he accelerated into the open area, weaving through the crater field. He pulled close to a ramp that led up to a series of metal catwalks. They connected to the several doors that Mason had seen. In a few places the metal walkways were destroyed but it looked like they could reach two of the doors.
“Let’s go see.” Mason stood and headed to the back of the vehicle.
In the back room of the enormous vehicle they waited for Tank to lower the rear door. Diana opened up one of the lockers built into the side of the vehicle. From it she pulled out a large rifle that was almost as long as she was tall. She hefted it with some effort until she pulled a strap over her head and shoulder that slung the large weapon to her chest. The sling was designed so that she could easily handle the weapon but its weight was distributed so it would be easier for her to carry. She then pulled out a bandolier of ammunition clips and large bullets. She selected a clip of ammo and slid it into the rifle, cycling a small lever that loaded the weapon. She then turned the rifle exposing a second, larger barrel that was on its underside. Diana pulled a slide back on that barrel, loaded four of the larger bullets inside that slot, and then closed it with a resounding click. She then resettled the large rifle in the sling seemingly unaware that the rifle was almost as large as she was.
When she realized that Mason and C’er were watching her closely she said, “What? Tank calls it ‘Thumper’.”
“Really?” C’er looked at Mason who shrugged as if to say, ‘it’s not my fault’.
“I see you two are getting along well.” C’er turned back to Diana.
“Well I don’t think my spears will do much against whatever is in here. Here, take this one.” she responded and hefted a similar but smaller rifle and the passed it to the robed man. C’er caught it easily and looked it over. There was no second barrel on that one. “Sorry, just one Thumper.” Diana patted her weapon with a sweet smile.
“How ’bout you Mace?”
“Mace?” C’er looked at Mason who again shrugged. He then unholstered his large pistol, checked the green light on its side, and responded “I seldom need more than this.”
Tank then stepped in and more than filled out the room. He grabbed a small bag and threw it over his shoulder. Diana handed him a rifle but when she turned away to get ammunition for it, he handed the rifle to C’er who put it down. When Diana handed him the ammunition he did the same. Tank then moved over to the other side of the room, forcing everyone else to move out of his way. He began to search through the oversized bed, tossing most of its content around the room. Finally he pulled aside the blanket, which was actually two blankets that were taped together with a strong silver tape. Underneath he found his dog. He lifted up the small stuffed toy and tucked into the front of his patchwork overalls. “You keep your head down.” he said sternly and pushed Dog’s head down inside. He then moved towards the back door, again forcing everyone to move out of his way a second time.
He looked back at the group and asked “Ready?”
“Whenever you are big guy.” Diana confirmed. Tank pressed a series of buttons and the rear door hissed as it unlocked and then whirred as it opened out and down. They walked down the ramp and out of the massive, armored vehicle.
“It’s a kill zone.” Mason said looking around. “At least it was meant to be.”
The field between the back wall and the barricade of wreckage was made of the smooth stone that was prevalent in many structures from Before. This some was torn apart with blast holes and littered with the resultant rubble. From where they now stood it was more apparent that the gaps in the barricade had been blown out from this side. Some powerful weapons had been used in whatever battle had occurred here.
“Mace,” C’er said and got a dark look. “Notice anything different about this side if the barricade?”
Mason looked around at the craters and the rubble, then at the blasted barricade. In the gap he saw the skeletal remains of a person. Then he looked back around on this side of the barricade.
“There’s no deaders on this side...”
“Whatever or whoever came out of that door,” C’er pointed to the large door set in the back wall of cavernous space, “either cleaned up the deaders or there were none to clean up.”
Mason nodded his agreement and then turned and walked towards the ramp and one of the doors that they could reach.
“Let’s see what is in here.”
C’er stood for a moment and watched the man walk away. He marveled at Mason’s simple acceptance of the situations he found himself in. That and the steel determination to move on and move through whatever was in his way. After a few seconds he nodded for Tank and Diana to follow and then fell in behind them, his own rifle at the ready.
The ramp and metal stairways here were mostly intact. The stairs climbed up the side of the wall. They stopped at a door that was in the side of a large pod that was attached to the back wall. There was some writing on the door, but Mason could not make it out from this far away. He started up the stairs and the rest of the group followed. When Tank stepped on to the stairs there was a low metallic groan that protested against his weight. Tank hopped up and down on the stair a few times and smiled at the resulting sounds before he headed up the stairs.
When they were about half way up the stairs, this side of the huge room was suddenly bathed in yellow light. Lights on either side of the large battered door began to strobe just like the ones outside did before that door had opened. These lights were pulsing a beat off from the others and casting alternating shades of yellow across the great open space.
“That can’t be a good thing.” C’er commented looking over the side of the stairs so he could see the large door that was now bathed in the strobing yellow light.
Mason had gotten close enough to the door to be able to read the sign. “Security” was written on a small placard on the door. He looked back at the group behind him and met the bright grey eyes under the coif of dark hair. Diana nodded. “I got this Mace.” she said and in one motion turned and hopped up on the rail of the staircase and slid down to the bottom quickly. “Come on Robe Boy!” she called over her shoulder. When she reached the bottom she absorbed the landing in a smooth roll and came up at a full run with Thumper at the ready.
“Robe Boy!?” C’er protested.
“Go! Keep her from getting killed.” Mason shouted over the sound of the loud whirring noise that started up from somewhere around the door. C’er nodded and slid down the railing. He landed without the roll but also broke into a sprint toward the large crater that Diana had dived into.
“Come on Tank, I think you may be able to fix something in here!” Mason yelled down to Tank who was looking back down the stairs after Diana with obvious anxiety. Mason turned and ran up the remaining stairs to the door. When he was close he fired several shots from his gun into the door. The light and sound of the large handgun ripped across the top of the stairs as the high energy slugs tore the side of the door to shreds. Mason lowered his shoulder and slammed into the door at full speed. There was a loud crack as it gave way and Mason burst forward into the pod.
The stairs outside the pod made screeching groans in protest as Tank ran up the stairs. At the top he crouched his way through the shattered doorway into the pod. The interior of the room was messy but mostly undamaged considering the battle that must have occurred here. There were windows looking out on the large room that allowed the lights to illuminate the pod. Set in front of the windows were a bank of consoles fitted with various bits of tek, including several screens like the ones inside IT. One of these screens was glowing with various symbols and Mason went to it. He threw a chair that had been centered in front of the screen out of the way. A message was blinking across the cracked screen.
Security Status Critical.
Level 2 alert.
Trespasser neutralization in progress.
Please stand by.
“Tank... Do you think you can tell this thing to stop doing what it is about to do?” Mason asked and Tank stepped over and looked at the screen.
“Why? It says please...”
Crouched in one of the many craters before the large door C’er and Diana lined their weapons up on the door.
“Okay Robe Boy, whatever comes out of that door is probably what made all these holes and made deaders out of the people on the other side of that wall.” Diana said between bites from another bar of food that she had produced from a pocket. She looked at him and saw a distant look in his eyes. “Soooo...” she continued when he did not respond, “I am not sure these weapons will kill it. You are going to have to distract it so I can get close to it. Are you listening? Because you don’t look like...”
“When I say to, shoot Thumper at the center of the door and then get out of this hole fast.” C’er interrupted her.
“What? Why?” she took a final bite as if to emphasize her question. C’er poked his head over the edge of their crater. He looked around the kill zone at the different debris piles.
“Look, you can’t go all telling me what to do here. Definitely not if you are going to go with that mysterious ‘I know something you don’t’ routine. Mace is good at that. He can pull it off. You? No…I don’t think so. So what...”
“Now! Shoot!” C’er yelled at her and pointed at the door.
Stifling an exasperated sigh, Diana fired several shots from the large barrel. Naturally she elevated the shots as these larger bullets would arc like one of her spears on a long throw. The last shot was off before the first connected with the door. Before she could see the hits C’er was dragging her up out of the crater by the weapons harness she was wearing.
“Go! Go! Go!” he was yelling.
“Are you Lost!?” she started to yell back at him and dig her feet in just as her shots started to connect with the door. Only they did not connect with the door. A crack had spread across the center of the door. It widened just enough that her shots passed through the narrow gap. Still being dragged by C’er, she howled in triumph as several massive explosions bloomed inside that crack. Fire and smoke erupted from the other side of the opening door. C’er was not even looking as he dragged her across the large room towards another crater. Just as she was about try and stop the man several beams of light seared out from behind the now half open door. The crater that she had shot from was stitched by the beams and actually began to melt. Diana had never seen stone melt, and suddenly had a deep interest in getting into that next crater. She stopped fighting C’er, turned with him and dove into the hole.
“Come on Robe boy!”
“Talking to these things is noooot fun Mason. I don’t like this shortcut. No, no, no, noooooooo.” Tank said as he connected a device from his bag to the terminal beneath the screen that was asking them to ‘please stand by’. The device had a set of buttons that each had a letter, number or other symbol on it. They were colored with different bright colors. The letters were all one color, the numbers a different color and the symbols a third bright color. “It took a long time to talk to IT and teach it what to do. Looong time…NOT short time.” he continued as he worked.
Mason looked back at him from where he was looking out at the kill zone where Diana and C’er were huddled down in a crater. “Well maybe this won’t take as long since you already learned to talk to IT.” he suggested.
Just then several thumps boomed from the crater Diana and C’er were in. Both men watched the arc of the shots and saw them drop inside the opening door. When the explosions shook the pod Tank let out a “Weeeeeeeeee!“. Mason watched C’er pull Diana from their crater and towards another crater. “What is he doing?” he thought out loud. “Who?” Tank leaned over and looked out the window. Just then the beams lazed out of the door and slagged the crater C’er and Diana had been in. “Wow! Pretty.” Tank cooed.
“Tank, you have to tell them not to neutralize trespassers. Now! Or whatever is coming out that door is going to do that to our friends.”
“It will make them glow pretty colors?”
“No...it will melt them.”
Tank turned back to the terminal and began tapping at the lettered buttons. Mason watched as new letters appeared on the screen as Tank, tongue curled over his lip in concentration, typed.
Du not melt mi frndz
Tank hit a key and then new words appeared on the screen.
Error: NM-156: invalid string or command
The yellow strobes danced through the smoke pouring out of the open doors. C’er watched the smoke and waited. The loud whirring of the large doors stopped and then a louder thrum came to life inside the door. A shadow took shape in the swirling smoke that pulsed with the reflected glow of the yellow lights. The shadow condensed into first one and then two shapes as they rolled out of the doorway.
“I was afraid of that...” C’er groaned.
“What are they?” Diana did not take her eyes off the strange things. She unconsciously reloaded Thumper with several more of the large bullets.
“Mechs is what I have heard them called. Many people stay away from places like this because of them. They are from Before and pretty much kill anyone or anything that comes near them.” C’er explained.
Diana looked back at the Mechs as they rolled down the ramp that led from the large door to the kill zone. They were big, probably as large as three of Tank if he could stand on his own shoulders. They rode on two bands of metal that wound underneath them behind metal plating. Between those bands was a broad base from which a long, thick stem rose. That trunk was thicker than any tree near her village had been. Also like a tree this trunk had branches. Two stood out from each side of the trunk; one higher and one lower on each side. Each of these branches supported what looked like weapons of some sort. The lower branches each held a strange looking pod that bristled with long needles on the front. These pods moved independently of rest of the Mech’s torso. They appeared to be scanning around as if looking for something. The upper branches each had a different set of pods. These had a set of pipes bundled together in a way that reminded her of a pipe flute that Ferrin had made for her years ago. These pipes were huge and she was unsure of what they could be. Between those branches the torso or trunk of the Mech came to a head of sorts. Centered there were several lights that beamed out and around. There were several other small branches that stemmed off back and shoulders of the mech. The two Mechs rolled into the kill zone scanning for prey. Diana realized that despite the hits Thumper they appeared undamaged.
“Can you kill them, or break them?”
“I’m sure it can be done, but I don’t know if we can. When you see one of those things you run the other way, or you die.” C’er smiled a faint smile.
“What are you smiling at?”
C’er shrugged, “Because today is not a good day for us.”
“I call the one on the left, it already looks scratched up a bit.” he said and sprung out of the crater shooting as he ran towards a gap in the barricade.
“No it doesn’t...Wait, what!? Hey that is NOT okay!” Diana yelled after him as she jumped up and headed in the opposite direction firing as she ran.
Beams lazed out from the lower pods and traced destruction in their wake as they tracked C’er and Diana. They shot as they ran between the cover of the craters. Mason looked back and forth between the blasts and the terminal tank was working on.
Error: NM-156: invalid string or command
…appeared on the screen again getting a “Hey...Not fair!” complaint from the giant.
“Tank? I really need you get the Mechs to stop trying to kill our friends.” Mason said in a forced but calm voice.
“I’m trying, but this thing isn’t nice. It’s cheating!” Tank almost whined.
“Keep trying, you’ll get it.”
Mason looked back out the pod window and watched as one of the Mechs rolled up towards IT. Diana was spraying it with shots from the smaller of Thumper’s barrels. She was concentrating her fire on the weapon pods, but it seemed to have no effect. The Mech ignored her as it closed on the large APC. Suddenly it stopped and a green beam spread out from the head of the Mech and washed over the vehicle. It did not damage IT in any way Mason could see. Once the green beam completed one circuit back and forth over the vehicle it snapped off. The Mech turned on its treads and moved towards Diana again lazing beams from the weapon pods at her. She was already moving however and the stone glowed and melted in the spot she had been shooting from.
Looking back at IT as the Mech rolled away from it, something occurred to Mason. “Tank, I think IT just made friends with them. Can you get IT to talk to them and get them to stop?”
“Well duh! IT made friends with the door. But Mason says for Tank to make friends and Tank is not good at making friends. Only Mason and Diana. Mason also says this is a short cut but now we are gonna get melted and Tank thinks this shortcut sucks!” Tank crossed his arms over his expansive chest with an indignant “Humpf!”
“Tank, I know. I didn’t know about the Mechs. But if you can get IT to talk to them...”
Tank rummaged through his bag again. He pulled out another device and started to connect it to the terminal. All the while he grumbled to himself about stupid short cuts and people who think they know better than Tank but do not at all, not even one bit.
C’er ran behind the barricade through a gap just as the beams from the Mech ripped across the floor behind him. As he turned the corner of the wall of wreckage the beams began to melt their way across the metal wall. Several chunks of the metal were fused together as it went. C’er continued along this side of the wall trying to catch his breath and thinking of what he could do next. He could hear the Mech on the other side. It had stopped firing and now seemed to be rolling along the wall opposite him. He came to a place where several smaller holes were blown through the wall. He could not get through them, but he could see through to the other side.
Mason and Tank were up in the pod and seemed to be working on something. Considering Tank’s abilities with tek, their best chance may be for him to shut these things off. A bright flash caught his attention. C’er looked at IT and saw the lights on the vehicle flash on and off several times. When that happened Mason covered his face with the palm of his hand and Tank shrugged then turned back to whatever he was working on. C’er had no idea what they were trying to do, but hoped it worked soon.
Just then his Mech rolled past the opening and he ducked out of sight. As it passed he saw a metal plate on the back of the base of the thing’s trunk that looked loose and almost hanging. Like a half closed door. He would need to get to that plate somehow. He leaned against the wreckage and wracked his brains for any ideas. He heard the thump of Diana firing at one of the Mechs and looked up to see the bullets arc up high over the barricade. They were destroyed by a blast of the beam weapon from the Mech that had just passed by. Looking up, he saw the top edge of the barricade. His eyes picked out several hand holds leading up from where he was to the top of the wall. Before he let himself think any further he grabbed a hand hold and started to climb up the wall as quickly as he could.
The makeshift wall of wreckage was easy to climb but there were several jagged edges that he had to be careful for. Once he reached the top, he rolled onto surface staying as flat as he could and looked about. His Mech had continued along the wall several meters and then stopped. It was starting to rotate around as if looking for something. Diana’s Mech was on the far side of the massive kill zone. It appeared to have just slagged whatever Diana had used for cover when she fired that last volley. He looked about for her and could not see her anywhere. Then his Mech began to roll away from the barricade into the zone and he had to go now.
He stood and sprinted along the top of the barricade. When he reached the edge he pushed off hard in a leap out into space. He covered the distance and slammed into the back of the Mech. He just missed the various antennas that sprouted from the things back. Still he was glad they were there as that was the only thing he could hold onto to keep himself on the Mech.
The Mech reacted immediately and rotated around turning back towards the barricade. The lower weapon pods scanned along the barricade as if looking for whatever had hit the Mech. C’er watched as a light sparkled up the needles that protruded from the left pod. They then focused into a tight beam and blasted into the wreckage. The beam stitched molten destruction across the wall where he had just been. The Mech continued to scan the barricade until it seemed to be satisfied that nothing was there. It turned back and resumed its trek out into the kill zone.
C’er slowly began to climb down the trunk of the machine using the various antennas as hand holds. At the base he found the loose plate that he had seen. It was pried up along one edge and it looked like it was a hatch of some sort. It looked like there had been some sort of handle or latch that had been ripped off in an attempt to open it. The area around the hatch was stained in a dull brown color. C’er could only wonder if that was the blood of whoever tried to get the hatch open.
He slipped the rifle off his shoulder and jammed the shoulder stock of the weapon into the gap. Trying to hold onto the Mech with one hand, he pushed against the rifle using it as a lever against the hatch. It hardly moved. The Mech suddenly turned on its trunk and caused him to almost slip form his tentative purchase on its base. The lower weapon pods rotate downwards but they could not get an angle that would let them target him. Regaining his hold, he pushed as hard as he could against the rifle lever as hard as he could.
Diana ran hard as she loaded the last bullet into Thumper. The Mech was off to her left and had just slagged a chunk of debris she had been behind a few seconds ago. She had hit the thing with everything she had. Even pounding it with Thumper in the same exact spot hadn’t done much more than leave some scorch marks.
Looking over her shoulder as she ran she saw her Mech rotate towards her. Knowing what was coming she changed directions and felt the heat of the beams as they lazed into the spot where she would have been. She looked across the kill zone, trying to see where C’er was and if he was doing any better. Running full out, she missed the loose stones in front of her, turned her ankle awkwardly and went down hard.
Diana cursed loudly and rolled over as quickly as she could. Pain lanced up from her ankle through her hands and arms which had absorbed the brunt of the fall when she went down. Thumper was still secure in the harness. She took hold of the rifle as she rolled to her back, bringing it to bear on the Mech. The lower weapon pod closest to her lined up on her and the world slowed down and her vision zeroed in on that pod. She fired and saw the sparks as each bullet slammed into the exact point on that pod that she had hit before. The shots ricocheted harmlessly off as the sparkle of energy erupted over the needles of the pod. In that moment Diana screamed at the Mech in anguish and rage. Not because she was hurt. Not because she was about to die. Because she would not get to kill the Raiders who had killed Ferrin.
Suddenly the sparkle of energy disappeared. Diana was still firing, and still screaming, but the gun was empty and was just clicking loudly. The Mech turned and trundled off towards the other Mech, leaving her lying on the ground. Her voice fell quiet as did her rifle and she lay back breathing heavy. She listened to the sound of the Mech’s metal tracks crunching over the loose gravel as it rode away and sought the will to get up, to get moving.
Blinked across the screen and Mason pounded the console with his fist in celebration. “Yes! Great work Tank.”
“Don’t do that!” Tank scolded. “These kinds of things don’t like that and IT is making friends here!”
“It’s okay Mason, you didn’t know.” Mason could not tell if the Giant’s tone was conciliatory or patronizing.
“Okay, so then can IT get the Mechs to stop?”
“Hmmmm. Dunno. Those Mechs really want to melt things.”
“I’ll try...I will”
Tank’s oversized yet nimble fingers resumed their dance over the multi colored keys. His tongue slowly crawled out and curled up as he worked.
Mason looked back out the window of the security pod. He saw C’er on the back of one Mech, apparently prying at a panel or something on the trunk of the machine. The second Mech had just turned and was heading towards the first. It was on the far side of C’er’s Mech and was moving at an angle to get a clean shot at him. Feeling a quick burst of dread, he scanned the area but saw Diana pulling herself up using Thumper as a crutch. She was favoring her one foot as she stood up and start to limp-hop after her Mech, which was now ignoring her.
Invalid Request. Please restate.
...blinked on the screen and Tank complained, “Hey! That’s not nice!” Mason looked at the screen and at the requests that Tank was typing in.
Set security status to normal
Mason suppressed a sigh. “Tank maybe you need to be a little mean here. Don’t say please.”
Tank looked up at him, and his tongue receded into his mouth. “Do you think? That’s not nice. But if you think...”
Set security status to normal
Tank pressed the key that sent the command. There was a pause. Then, almost unwillingly, the screen scrolled through some text and then ended at a prompt.
Confirm Level 4 Authorization
“Frak!” Mason cursed and almost punched the terminal but caught himself.
“Oh! I know this one!” Tank exclaimed and then dug back into his bag in excitement.
Mason looked back out the pod window and watched the progress that Diana’s Mech had made in lining up a shot on C’er. He scanned the kill zone. Diana was making progress as she limp-hoped across the ground towards some rubble.
“We don’t have much time here....”
Tank was clicking some other small piece of tek into a slot in the terminal. Once in place there was strange sound that came out of the terminal, almost like laughter. Then an image flashed over the terminals screen of a skull that appeared to be laughing. Then the image was replaced by a window with more text that seemed to float over the security system. Tank typed in some commands something about running a ‘pawn’. The floating window then scrolled through several lines of text. Then finally a set of text was highlighted and blinked on and off.
“What is that?” Mason asked.
Mason watched as Tank’s lips moved as he recited the letters and numbers that were blinking. Then he did something on the keyboard. The floating window disappeared and the authorization request was back in the forefront. He began to type.
He hit a key.
Invalid Password attempt 1 of 3
Confirm Level 4 Authorization
Tank stared blankly at the screen. “Well that’s not good.”
“Tank, say it again as you type it.” Mason stared at the screen and knew something was wrong but could not figure out what it was.
“Big I-a-m-Big I-n-Big G-zero-d-Big M-o-d-three”
Tank was about to send the password again.
“No, don’t send that. Hold on.”
Mason reached for the keys only to have his hand slapped.
“Mine!” Tank shrieked.
Mason shook out his hand and gave the giant a dark look that actually made the oversized man shrink back.
“Can you type what I say? Exactly what I say?” Mason said tightly.
“Yes.” Tank said.
“Okay then. Type this: Big I-a-m-One-n-Big G...”
There was a metallic groan and the hatch moved ever so lightly. C’er lined himself up again and lowered his shoulder behind the rifle and pushed as hard as he could. The hatch squeaked and groaned and shifted another few inches. The Mech had turned and was actually now rolling backwards into the kill zone, which struck C’er as odd, but his focus was on opening the hatch. Several deep breaths and he pushed again trying to use every bit of strength that he had. This time there was crunch and the hatch seemed to shift back closed an inch and then locked in place. He jerked against the rifle three times and came away with the feeling that he was pushing against the ground itself for all that it moved.
“What is with this place and doors!” he screamed his frustration.
Just then his Mech stopped and turned. He looked around and saw Diana’s Mech just on the other side of a crater from his own. Its lower weapon pods pointed directly at him and pulses were sparkling over the length of the needles.
“Thump!” echoed through the massive room, but C’er could not take his eyes off of the glistening needles. The back of Diana’s Mech blossomed into explosive flames as the sparkling reached its apex. The flare of the explosions blinded C’er and ripped his focus from the weapons aimed at him. He turned and pushed off of the base of his Mech with all his remaining strength. He dove through the air and slammed into the smooth stone ground blasting the air from his body. He covered his head as he rolled over gasping for breath and waiting for the beam weapon to track him and do its work. All the time he wondered how his Sight had failed him.
There was only the low thrum of the two Mechs and the rasping of his lungs trying to suck back in air. Suddenly there was a change to the thrum followed by the crunch of gravel.
C’er peered out from behind his hands and watched as his Mech rolled past him. It actually steered around him and then turned back towards the large door from which it had come. Looking around he saw Diana’s Mech was also making its way back towards the door. Across the large room, he saw Diana. She was leaning against a larger piece of rubble and still holding Thumper at the ready as smoke trailed from its larger barrel. She looked at him, and then the Mech, and then back to him. As if afraid to say anything and draw their attention again, she held up a hand in a ‘What just happened?’ gesture.
C’er rolled to his knees and watched as his Mech reached the ramp and started up towards the door. His rifle was still jammed into the hatch.
“Hey,” Mason called down from the shattered door of the Pod. “If you two are done playing around with Tank’s new friends, we found something up here.” Without further explanation, he turned and walked back into the pod.
C’er looked from where Mason had been back to Diana. She flashed a hand gesture up at the pod that he was unsure of, but could assume its meaning. She then unslung Thumper and used the long rifle to prop herself up as she limped towards the stairs.
“Not a good day for you...Not yet.” He sighed to himself as he watched her.