“In describing my travels with him, I have often faced the opinion that he treated life with a certain lack of respect. The idea that the value of life was less, or viewed as less, was a common response when I spoke of various Contacts and their fates. I have reflected on this for some time and find that I do not agree with that assessment. His goal, the goal that he was driven to, was nothing short of epic. It was the very high value that he placed upon life that led him to the decisions he made and the events that he was a principle in. So when I described my journeys and was faced with this opinion I always left my listener with a simple question:
What is the value of a single life in the scales of trade when you bargain for the very soul of humanity itself?”
-- From ‘The Paladin and the Prophet’ Vol1, Ch.2
Erd watched the smoke roll off of Tarl.
Erd looked over at Erik’s question.
“Okay, fan out. Keep your heads about you boys. Someone is in here, and they seem to be pretty friggin’ serious about their privacy!”
As his men started to separate and move into overlapping firing positions, Erd grabbed Erik by the shoulder. “Get what’s left of Tarl back in one of the trucks.” Erik turned tapped the harness of Tarl’s rifle several times before grabbing hold of it. He wanted to ensure that he would not suffer the same fate as the still smoking corpse. Erd watched this with mild curiosity. Partly to see if anything would happen, and partly wondering what did happen to the poor bastard. As Erik dragged the corpse back to the trucks, Erd pulled out an unevenly rolled cigarette from the armored hide jacket he wore. Slipping it between his lips he produced a small device from another pocket. He shook it several times and then clicked a switch which did nothing. Erd shook the device again. Then he clicked the same switch several times until a small flame erupted from one end of the device. He held the flame to the cigarette and sucked in, pulling the flame over and into the tip of the cigarette. It finally ignited in a slow burn. Stowing the small device back in the same pocket, Erd sucked in deeply. He let the pungent smelling stimulants flow into him. He held the smoke in his lungs as long as he could and then slowly exhaled.
Erd could not believe he was even here. ‘Go get our Brothers’ Kerl had said. It really pissed the all living shit out of Erd when Kerl tried to sound like Dathan. ‘Our Brothers’ Hah! Kerl let out a smoking snort. So a bunch of dumb frackers, probably from one of those northern gangs that had just come on, got themselves lost? Erd was still trying to understand how he should care about that, because he still didn’t. All this Brotherhood crap that Dathan spouted was fine for most, but he knew that the men stuck together because things were going good. Real good. It wasn’t out of any sort of commitment to one another. All this crap about burning the world and rebuilding it was mildly entertaining from where Erd was sitting most days. He certainly liked the burning part. He figured when the building part began, he’d duck out with as much as he could carry. For now though, it made sense to stay on Dathan’s good side. He didn’t want to end up being in the first group charging into the next place that looked well defended. That tended to happen to the ‘Brothers’ that were not down with Dathan’s ‘Way’.
So there he was enjoying one of the new conscripts when Kerl found him. She was nice too. A little thicker than the usual sort they had. The compound they had just taken had been well stocked and this girl had been well fed. He liked that. So he had her over a table and tied down so she couldn’t do much more than squirm. He liked that as well. Sure some of the boys liked a struggle. They got off on it. Erd was getting to old for that. He wanted to take care of himself nice and easy like and not have to deal with any shit from her. So she was tied down and he was really having a good time when here comes Kerl. He started with his ‘Go get our Boys’ speech and sprinkled it with plenty of ‘Dathan said so’. Erd had ignored the man and finished up. He added some extra nastiness just so he could enjoy how uncomfortable it was making Kerl look.
Of course he rounded up his boys and headed out. That alone wasn’t easy as many were in a similar position as he had been when Kerl came for him. Still he got them all and loaded their trucks and headed out into the hell that was this storm. They didn’t make it too far from the compound before the storm started to convince him that this was a real bad idea. It was slow going just trying to keep everyone together. Losing more people when you were sent find already lost people was a good way to get moved to the front of the next assault on a hardened compound. Hell, the guys that stormed this last one didn’t make it more than a minute before they were cut in half. No, Erd preferred the mop up position he had earned by playing along nicely. So losing his own boys wasn’t an option.
So when the storm finally convinced him that they needed to wait it out, they began looking for shelter. It wasn’t long before the yellow flashers appeared on the edge of their sight lines. They headed towards those and found the huge half open door all lit up and welcoming like.
Once inside it looked like all fracking hell had erupted in here. So it set the boys on edge, but Erd didn’t care. They were out of the storm, he hadn’t lost anyone and whatever had happened here had happened a long time ago. So they should be good. Then they found the huge black truck-tank-thing and Tarl got fried. So now even he was on edge. Erd hadn’t made it this far being stupid. He was tempted to load up and bail outta this place. That storm was no joke though and he knew that bad things would happen out there. At least in here all they had to do was figure out what or who was in here, kill them, and take their shit. Erd was a lot more comfortable with that than trying to fight through a friggin’ Rad Storm.
“Erd, looks like whoever was in here headed up there.” one of the boys called.
This pulled Erd from his stimulant soaked reverie. Bil was at the foot of one of the metal stairways that led up the side of the back wall. Erd followed the stairway up with his eyes and saw that it led to a pod of some sort that was attached to the wall. There were several windows that looked out from the pod. From where Erd stood he could see the door to the pod had been blown in. The frame of the door had a large chunks missing. Probably just about where the latch and hinges once would have been. He could not see inside the pod.
“Okay, so why are you still standing here?”
Bil and two others headed up the stairs with their rifles raised and ready to fire. Erd took another long drag on his cigarette and watched as the men moved into the pod and searched it. After a minute Bil poked his head back out and called down. “It’s all clear up here boss!” Bil held his hand out with a thumb up, to which Erd Grumbled, “Asshole” under his breath. “There is a door that leads out the back. It’s open. They must have gone inside.” Bil continued with his thumb still up. “Do you want us to head in and see what we can find?” Bil asked. Erd returned the thumbs up gesture and with a big smile called up, “Take point and lead the way Bil!” That was one thing Erd definitely had to give Dathan credit for. The man had the right idea about dealing with assholes. Shit certainly does roll downhill, as they say.
“Tank, I need you to open up those doors downstairs so we can get out of here. C’er and Diana, gather up whatever we can and load it into that first car. Hopefully we will be long gone by the time they make it down here.”
Tank went to work on the terminal in the table and C’er headed into the armory. Diana was fingering the weapons on her harness with a hard dark look in her eye. She continued to watch the Raiders move into the Hub on the floating map.
“Diana?” Mason asked. She looked up at him with that dark look.
“Now is not the time for this...” he said stiffly. Diana looked at the holographic display of the Hub that still hovered over the table. Her eyes fell on the two Mechs. “No...No it isn’t.“, she agreed, turned and headed into the armory. Mason watched her and saw that the first thing she picked up was the small device that Tank had been showing her. She tucked that in a bag and slung it over her shoulder. After that she began to work with C’er loading weapons and other supplies into crates.
Mason looked again at the map and mentally traced the route that they had taken through the Hub down to this level. He watched the small men move through the floating map. After a few moments of study, he turned from the map and walked over to Tank. He was working away at the console that had appeared on the table screen, tongue curled over his lip.
“Tank, once you can get the train running, help C’er and Diana get as much as we can onto of the first car, okay? They will need your strength.” Mason patted the man’s enormous shoulder. Without looking up from what he was doing, Tank replied, “Yuppity dee.”
Mason headed over to the armory. C’er and Diana were loading anything of value into two large crates that had been at the back of the room. He looked over the various items on the shelves. He slipped a box labeled ‘Power Cells’ and marked with a symbol made up of inverted triangles into his coat. From another shelf he took several grenades. He secured them to a bandolier and then shouldered that. When he finished with that he looked up and saw that the crates were almost full. He noticed a bag at Diana’s feet that was also filling up quickly. She was quietly loading several items that had been laid out on a table in the room into her bag. Looking closer he saw that the bag was filled with several of the things that she and Tank had played around with. He saw the goggles and the strange device that she had already packed. C’er either did not notice or was unwilling to comment.
“What are you going to do?” The younger man asked finally, his clear blue eyes looking over Mason. Diana looked up from her bag that she had just placed a small case with a picture of a nasty looking winged insect on it.
“I am going to go introduce myself to our visitors.” Mason said flatly. He turned and walked out of the armory. Then he said over his shoulder, “Get everything loaded in that first car and I’ll meet you down there when I’m done with the formalities.”
Bil sidestepped down the stairs, looking down the sites of his rifle into the open space at the end of the stairwell. When he reached the bottom of the stairs he crouched at the end of the wall. He peered out into what at first appeared to be a large room. When he edged closer to the entrance to the room, what he saw actually took his breath away.
Bil had come from a small tribe that lived on the outskirts of a ruined place. His people were farmers who made what life they could from the somewhat arable soil of their village. They would explore the nearby ruins and scavenge for anything useful. Sometimes they found materials to make tools with. Anything like food or medicine was long gone. They were simple people who traded with other communities around them to get what they could not farm. Like any community in the world of After Bil’s people had learned to defend themselves and the life they had clawed out of the burned ground.
Then one day a man came down the long road in a small truck. He was alone, or so he appeared, as he drove it up to walls of their village. The man parked by the gates and then climbed up on the roof of the truck so he could speak to the guards at the gate. Bil had been one of those guards.
Now, it was not really that odd to have someone come to the gates. It was odd for it to be someone that they didn’t know. In that case even odder that it was not someone in bad shape and looking for entrance and help. Raiders did not approach the gate in daylight. No, they would come in the dark and attack. So seeing this man, standing on the roof of his truck and asking them to speak to the village elders was certainly a sight to see.
When the elders came out they asked the stranger on top of the truck what he wanted. Bil would always remember what the man’s response was. It was burned in his mind and had changed his understanding of the world he lived in. “I want to burn this world down and give you a place to live, and not just survive!” Is what he had said. It was then that the man Bil would come to know as Dathan gave one of his Talkings, as the brothers referred to them. Dathan asked the elders about the world and what their village meant to it. He asked them ‘What now?’ That is what Bil remembered most, that Dathan kept asking them that. ‘What Now!?’ he had yelled at them. He challenged them to think beyond their walls and beyond their tiny patch of shit. ‘You’ve built something here, no doubt about that. Something special. Now I want you to come with me and build a world!’ he said. His passion was infectious. It made them all think, even if for a moment, of what could be. It made them think about how it would be to stop surviving and to start living. To start building a future instead of a higher, stronger wall. Dathan shamed them for not looking outside at the world around them. He never said it directly, but they all felt selfish after listening to him.
Then came the choice. Later on Bil would see similar scenes play out across many communities. Dathan’s passion and his words where the fire that warmed people. He had a way of making you want to do more. You wanted to be more. If his words were the fire that heated you, then the choice was the anvil, and the brothers were the hammer. When Dathan told Bil’s village they had a choice, his brothers appeared at the end of the long road. The village was now faced with the choice; abandon what they had and join Dathan to go and build a world, or burn. The large force of men and weapons that spread out behind the lone man on his truck left no doubt of what would happen. Bil’s village chose to join.
Since that day Bil had believed in what Dathan saw could be. Sure, he knew some of the brothers were not there to re make the world. He knew some were there because to them it was better to be on Dathan’s side than not. They did not believe. When things turned and it became time to build the world back up, some of the brothers would want to grab what they could and leave. Bil did not look forward to that day as he knew what Dathan would do. The same as he had a hundred times already. Those brothers would make the choice.
All the times Bil scoured the ruined place near his village, or the years he had traveled with Dathan, he had never seen anything as big as what he saw now. The room, no the cavern, which the stairs opened in, could fit just about everything Bil had ever seen. It disappeared downwards beyond a railing that ran along the edge of a cliff. There were lights burning throughout the huge area, but that only seemed to create shadows and add depth to it all.
“Frak me...” Bil whispered.
“What?” Brin asked from behind him. Brin looked past Bil and said, “Oh, definitely Frak you. What is this place?”
“How deep is it?”
Bil looked back at the rest of the men coming down the stairs. He gestured for them to fan out around the base of the stairs. He checked to the left and right and then approached the railing. He cautiously got close to it, almost as if he expected something to spring up and grab him. Brin watched as Bil looked out over the railing. Gaining confidence with each second that tentacles did not erupt from the darkness; he leaned out a bit more and spit. He watched the gob drop away and disappear.
He turned back to the men behind him and held his hand up in a thumbs up gesture.
A beam of blue light flashed through Bil’s head. A crack of thunder exploded behind the beam and Bil’s head was no more. The brothers all watched his body crumple to the ground, blood spraying from the stump of his neck.
“Hello!” someone yelled from below.
“Welcome! So nice to see you!” the voice yelled again.
The brothers all looked at each other, stunned and unsure of what they had walked into. Then a small sphere came hurtling over the railing, tinked as it hit the floor and bounced towards them. For a few seconds they could hear it chiming pleasantly, and then the world exploded around them.
“Now get the Frak out!”
Mason crouched behind the railing that bordered the downward moving stairs. The railing concealed him from the upwards moving stairs across the way. There was still some smoke roiling down these stairs from the grenade. Over the last several minutes he had listened to the echoes of the explosion drift away and then some shuffling and calling out from above. The Raiders seemed to be trying figure out what to do next. Mason knew that this amounted to waiting for the strongest one left to make a decision. Then the rest had to decide if they wanted to challenge that decision and the strongest member of the group, or go with the plan. In most groups of Raiders he had known, decisions like this often became matters of life and death. So he waited for their decision. He was crouching behind the railing with his gun sighted on the ever downward moving stairs and weighing down his arm.
He started to wonder about the stairs themselves. How could they keep moving? So far as he had seen they never stopped moving once Tank had powered them on. New ones appeared at the top, and slid downwards. Then they disappeared when they completed their journey at the bottom. It did not seem possible that this tek involved constantly creating new stairs only to destroy them a few seconds later. Checking the green light on his gun, he thought about a makeshift power generator he had seen once. It had a large belt that ran in a continuous circuit between two large wheels or gears. Perhaps that was what was happening with the stairs. Maybe they ran below the floor and then back up to the top of the stairwell. Then they would reappear for you to ride on. A journey that never ended, but just repeated itself over and over again. Never getting anywhere; just a way for others to get where they needed to be. A sense of kinship dawned in him for those stairs.
The Raiders had apparently reached a consensus because they started to come down the ever moving stairs. Three men huddled on the stairs, holding tight to the railing (which also moved in an endless pattern) with their rifles raised. They appeared as uncomfortable about being on the stairs as they did about having to come down them. Even though they were looking around for a target, they did not see Mason. He waited for the three men to reach the bottom and step off the stairs. Just as a second group started down the stairs, he began shooting.
Three shots snapped off accompanied by a staccato of pulsing mini explosions. The three Raiders at the bottom fell, and in some cases fell apart, in various states of perforation. The second group decided that coming down the stairs was a very bad idea. They were not wrong.
The first man in the second group turned to head back up. He ended up running into the man behind him, who was trying to aim and shoot at anything. They became tangled and while they tried desperately to get sorted out the stairs continued to carry them downwards. The third member of the group had avoided all that and turned to try and run back up the stairs. He realized the problem with running up stairs that were moving downwards when the blast shattered through him. He fell down to the stairs, which continued their work and carried him downwards. Mason watched the first two untangle themselves. Only now they had to step on and over the third man as they tried to work their way back up the stairs. He could not help but wonder if the bodies would somehow disrupt the stairs as he took aim. Two more blasts and the last two Raiders fell dead. Mason watched the stairs complete their morbid work and carry the dead men down to the bottom. As they piled up the stairs continued to nudge them as each stair finished its downward journey.
Mason settled back behind the rail again and waited. Hearing the commotion at the top of the stairs, he wondered if they were going to send more men down, or try a different approach. Things settled down up there and Mason was left with silence. Several slow minutes passed as the stairs continued to nudge the deaders in a constant macabre rhythm. Mason started to wonder if the Raiders had decided to leave rather than try and push deeper into the Hub. That would be very unlike Raiders.
“Hey shit bag!” came a call from up the stairs. Mason did not respond.
“These are for you, fracker!” the voice called again. Two grenades came bouncing down the stairs. Mason turned and launched himself away from the grenades as fast as he could. One reached the bottom of the stairs and landed between two of the deaders and rested there. The second cleared the bodies and rolled across the floor towards Mason. As Mason dove for cover the grenades erupted in a combined blossom of fire and pure concussive force.
The blast hit Mason with a physical blow, knocking him back and tearing the air from his lungs. His head slammed into the wall that stopped his momentum. His vision swirled with all of the colors he had ever seen. They competed with the darkness that was trying hard to make everything black for him. He fought against that darkness, focusing on the colors and willing them to bring back his sight. His vision resolved itself and he found he could also start to hear again, which he just now realized had been a problem. He shook off the last bit of darkness just in time. Four Raiders flew over the outside railing from the great open space at the center of the Hub. In his blasted daze he wondered about flying Raiders for a second and decided that with all he had seen recently, why not?
No sooner did their feet settle on the ground than they opened fire. Their rifles belched a rain of bullets indiscriminately all over the area between the two sets of moving stairs. Being down on the ground is what saved Mason as their shots tore through everything in front of them at chest level. The shots ripped chunks of wall and glass apart and showered them over Mason where he laid. The railing that surrounded the downward stairs still sat between the shooters and him. It gave him some cover and hid him from the shooters’ view.
Mason found that he was still holding his gun, and the light was still green. He pulled himself along the floor as the Raiders continued to unload on everything around them that remarkably was not him. Reaching the edge of the railing he lay on his side and took aim. He fired several shots and kept his aim low.
As the concussion of his weapon reverberated through the Hub, Mason stood up and shook off the debris from his long coat. Walking over to the opening in the railing where the stairs descended down he took out another grenade. Lying on the ground where they had landed, three of the four Raiders were not moving any longer. One had a leg blasted off, the other two their midsections shredded. The last one, who was missing the lower part of a leg, writhed in his own pooling blood. He clutched at the missing pieces if his once whole body. As Mason approached the Raider turned and tried to pull a gun from his harness. It had gotten stuck somehow. Mason walked towards the rail that overlooked the center of the hub. The one these men had ‘flown’ over. Ignoring the struggles of the Raider, Mason saw that each man had a rope attached to a harness on their torso. The ropes ran up to the level above. “Hmmmm” Mason intoned his appreciation of the innovative nature of these Raiders. Without looking he raised his gun and fired twice into the Raider on the floor. The man had just freed the gun from his harness.
“Is it clear?” came a call from above.
Mason turned and walked past the pulverized and pulped remains of the last Raider. He thumbed the activation switch on the grenade and listened to it chime pleasant tones. When he reached the top of the downward stairs he tossed the grenade up the stairs.
“Oh Fra...” was drowned by the blast of the grenade and the echoes that followed.
Mason stepped on to the stairs and let them carry him downwards.
“I think so.” he answered.
The last crate thumped down on the floor of the pod car. C’er pushed it into place amazed at the weight of it and how Tank had carried it under one arm. Tank had then hopped into a seat that almost buckled under his weight declaring “Same seats!”. C’er was unsure of what that meant and looked at Diana for her input.
Diana stood on the platform looking at the stairs that led from above. She had Thumper ready with her finger on the trigger. The dark look on her face sent a chill through him. It had been a few minutes since the last blast had echoed down to them from the levels above. With each passing second her expression grew darker.
C’er looked back to Tank who had a small device in his hand. “So when we are ready, you can start the car from here?” he asked the large man.
Tank held up the small device and wiggled it at C’er. “Yeppity do. When Mason gets here, we go…And this shortcut better be short!”
“I’m sure it is big fella.” C’er stepped out onto the platform with Diana.
“He’s coming.” she said simply. C’er understood that she would know through whatever connection Mason shared with his Contacts.
“Good. Why don’t you get in so we can go as soon as he gets here?”
There was no response to this suggestion.
An explosion shook the platform and dust and loose stone rained down on them from above. They both ducked and raised their hands to the block the falling grit. Diana raised Thumper and, moving forward, took aim on the top of the steps. As the initial explosion echoed into silence it, a burst of rapid gunfire followed. C’er reached back inside the car and grabbed one of the rifles that were leaning next to the open door. He brought it up to his shoulder sighting in on the stairwell. The bursts of gunfire came in small eruptions, each closer than the last. Then the chatter of gunfire was punctuated by the pulsing blast of Mason’s gun. Diana started towards the stairs behind her long rifle.
“...frack, frack, frack! FRACK! FRACK!” increased in volume down the stairs. This preceded Mason as he apexed the top of the stairs and ran down them three at a time. A burst of gunfire chased him. It drilled into the pylons that ran along the platform spraying chips of rock everywhere.
Diana responded with a burst of her own up the stairs. Mason reached the bottom and skidded to a stop.
“Doesn’t seem like they enjoy your company Mace.” Diana said and ripped off another burst up the stairs.
“Yeah, and I was so nice to them too.” he responded then looked at C’er, “Are we ready to go? I think it’s time.” another burst of gunfire echoed down from above. Diana back-pedaled to the car with Mason.
“Yes, as soon as you get on board...“ C’er waved an arm towards the open door to the car. Mason stepped into the pod car, and C’er started to follow him then paused. Diana was behind him and had just turned to step towards the car to follow them. C’er snapped out his hand and grabbed the small girl by her weapon harness and pulled her down hard. She started to yell something just as a blast slammed into the pylon exactly where her head been a second ago. C’er fired two shots back towards the stairs. When Diana looked up she saw a Raider tumbling down the stairs, dead. When she looked back at C’er he smiled, “Not a good day for you.”
“Can we go now?” Tank whined from inside the car.
“Yes, let’s go.” Mason stepped over and sat in one of the seats that were not occupied by the crates that they had loaded. C’er stepped inside and found a seat as well. Diana stepped just inside the doorway and turned so she could still shoot at the stairs if need be.
Tank worked on the small device he held and the large circular door irised open. The storm blasted into the platform, blowing small debris and an age of dust and un-use all over the place. Diana stepped back from the car’s door as the gush of dust poured inside.
Just then several Raiders came down the stairs braving the winds and dust. The largest of them had a large weapon that he pulled up over his shoulder and aimed it at the car they were in.
Diana turned and looked at Mason. C’er could not be sure but he thought her expression was a question that passed between her and Mason. C’er looked back to Mason and saw him meet her gaze and give the slightest, almost imperceptible nod. C’er looked back to see the girl lean over Tank and kiss the giant on his cheek. She then hit a button on his device and stepped out of the door of the car as it slammed shut behind her.
“No Fair!” Tank yelled looking at his small device as a hum grew in the car. When he looked up he didn’t see Diana. C’er had leapt from his seat and was at the door pounding on it. Mason had not moved and sat in his seat with his eyes closed. The hum reached a crescendo and the car lurched and started forward. The platform began to slide past them. Tank looked back and saw Diana walking down the platform away from the car, shooting. She was walking and shooting and not looking back. Tank’s last view of her was that. Then the car was through the circular door and its acceleration pushed against them all. The once large doorway shrank to a tiny hole behind them. Then the hub itself, which at first seemed like a mountain, shrank until the storm finally engulfed them.
Erd coughed out blood and watched it spatter across the glowing table. His vision blurred and he shook his head to refocus it. The warmth of his own blood pouring over his clothes was an odd sensation compared to how cold he now felt. He watched the glowing table and the picture it showed to him. This was it, he guessed, and laughed a laugh that descended into a cough. With those spasms, more of his blood pumped out of the several holes she had shot into him. This was justice in a way, and only fair he guessed. To be put down by a friggin little girl. The kind he used to do all sorts of things to. Another cough and more of his blood splattered over the glowing table. Struggling now to breathe, he looked at the map she had dragged him up here to show. He still felt the cord she had wrapped around his neck and used to pull him along. He had pushed himself as much as possible to keep himself from being strangled. In this room she showed him the glowing, floating map. As he drifted in and out of consciousness he thought it was so pretty. And was it moving? Or was he seeing things? Well he showed the little bitch where the rest were. He didn’t give a frack. If this was justice for him, then let it be the same for the rest!
Another cough, another splatter. He looked again at the glowing picture as things dimmed for him one final time.
The Mechs rumbled out of the hanger doors and turned north. Atop the head of one sat a small sprite of girl. She had a screen of goggles over her eyes and a cloth wrapped around her throat to protect from the dying rad storm’s winds. The cloth was pulled down as she ate something. In her other hand she held a small device with controls that allowed her to direct the two tek monsters. Across her back was a rifle that was long as she was tall. As the Mechs trundled along the path she had set before them, she took another bite, her eyes dark behind the view screen of the goggles.