By Hunter Wheelock
Al always hated the blank stare of death. The Denver wind cut mercilessly through his coat as he walked solemnly among the grisly scene, careful not to track his boots through the blood-stained snow as if it were holy ground. His gas mask kept him warm in this eternal winter, but it didn’t shield him from sight of contorted bodies riddled with bullet holes. They were strewn across the rooftop of a long-abandoned mom and pop shop. Likely one of the last in Denver before The Launch.
Two women, three men. Their green armbands told Al that they were from the Greenthumb Clan, on the southern edge of the city. The symbol of a white leaf sprouting out of the ground, now scarlet. Unprepared for the dangers of the Core Block.
“It was the indocs.” chirped a pleasant female voice from behind him. Bell’s floating oval chassis buzzed over the bodies and scanned a sigil burned into the roof, lighting it up for Al to see clearly. A vertical line with a half circle under it. Once the sign of electric power in the old world. Now a sign of the Indoctrinated’s forced “enlightenment”.
“They must have refused to accept the bug. Poor bastards.” Al observed solemnly. After a moment of hesitation, the young man got on one knee and bowed his head.
“May you find peace wherever you are. Momento Mori.” he said softly. He took another moment of silence before getting to his feet. Another bitter gust of wind blew through the hollow buildings and Al shook off the chill, gripping his shotgun a little tighter.
“Do a scan on them and let me know if there’s anything worth taking. Quickly, please. The blood looks a little fresh for my liking.” Al ordered. Bell beeped in response, her silver and slightly icy body zipping around like a dragonfly. Bursts of cool blue light illuminated the scene and Al couldn’t help but think of the old cop shows of his childhood, before Hollywood was a smoldering husk. Or at least he assumed it to be husk, he had never left Colorado. Some days he doubted he would ever leave this city again.
“The indocs took any valuable tech but they have some scrap on them and I traced one of their packs that fell down this alley.” Bell chimed, projecting a line from the bloody scene to an alley in between the shop and what looked like an apartment building.
“Good work, let’s grab the scrap and the bag and get the hell out of here.” he replied, carefully stepping over the other corpses and quickly patting down the one Bell pointed out. She was young, maybe younger than him. Al took care to avoid her empty gaze as he pocketed the combination of copper and silver fixings. At least he could get a drink at The Junction tonight. They took the ladder back down into the store. Well, Al took the ladder. All Bell had to do was float down.
He was grateful he had been able to find someone who could fix her up. It had cost him half a dozen jobs worth of scrap but the little robot was worth the investment. Al never had much of a head for mechanics, not past the basic level anyway. The pair made their way into the alley and after salvaging the fallen backpack (some ammo he couldn’t use and a few cans of beans) they began the trip back towards Uniterra. Most days in a nuclear winter are gray, so its hard to tell at what position the sun is. Al could vaguely recall being able to see it through the clouds on a rainy day before The Launch. But now they were too dense to tell and a sunny day appeared maybe once a month.
Despite this, both of them could tell it was getting darker. With the darkness, things far more dangerous and unreasonable than the Indoctrinated slinked out. Al quickened his pace with Bell buzzing effortlessly behind.
“Thank you for tuning in this evening, it is October 13th, 2034! We’re looking at brisk -3 degrees with high chances of snow flurries and radiation. We do have reports of Indoctrinated roaming the area and chances of darkfangs so keep those machine guns handy!” Bell informed cheerfully, taking on the cadence of a morning newscaster. Al glanced over his shoulder and was unsurprised that Bell was looking at him intently with her disc-like luminous viewports.
“Is that what the com-grid is saying?” he asked, pointing his shotgun into a dark parking garage, his barrel light extinguishing the shadows.
“Yep! DJ Sonja just started her broadcast.” Bell responded, zipping around a dilapidated light pole.
“Well let’s hope we don’t run into any of that, we’re almost home.” Al replied. As soon as the words left his mouth, the sound of gunfire ripped through the air. Al dove behind a burnt-out minivan, his breath quickening. It sounded as though it was a block or two away. Distant shouting bounced off the vacant buildings. He checked to see that the safety was off the pump action and looked at Bell.
“Sound waves originated from eighty yards away. Probable conflict between indocs and survivors.”
That familiar anxiety swirled in his chest. They were so close. They could be safe behind Uniterra’s walls in just ten minutes. Then the Greenthumb’s bodies flashed in his mind.
“We’re going to help.” Al said through gritted teeth and got to his feet. He moved as quickly and quietly as he could through the abandoned cars and along the sidewalk towards the cracks of gunfire. The packed in and dilapidated buildings loomed over the pair and the snow started to come down heavier, the fat clumps melting against the eye ports on Al’s mask.
“Alphonse, as much as I admire your gung-ho spirit, I feel I should inform you that our survival chance is 50/50 and has significant potential to decrease at a rapid pace.” Bell said as she trailed behind.
“Your positivity needs some work, I should program that in you.” Al replied sardonically.
“I’m sure it would be a great to-” Bell was cut off by the shattering of the window in front of them and the abrupt chaos of a sudden firefight. Al dove onto his belly, machine gun fire roaring above him. He needed to locate who was friend and who was foe.
“Bell, analyze combatants!” he screamed over the gunfire. A blue grid began to wash over the destroyed street, projected from the top of her chassis.
“Survivors right next to you chief! In the building!
Al crawled along the sidewalk, praying that the indocs wouldn’t notice him wriggling like a radiation proof worm. The bricks above him exploded, showering him with plaster and dust. Finally, he reached the door to the building and busted through. A barrage of bullets followed him, causing his heart to leap into his throat. Al vaulted an overturned desk and hit the deck, rounds hitting the wood with destructive force. He scanned the room in a millisecond, it looked like some sort of office building. Then a gun was in his face.
A woman, with a face mask and a grey beanie, pointing a .45 revolver directly at his head. Incredible how suspicious people still were when fighting hivemind cyborgs.
“I’m not an indoc, I’m here to help!” Al shouted over the chaos. The woman seemed to weigh the pros and cons of blowing his brains out when another volley of death caused part of the ceiling to collapse. Al could see her sigh and motioned over to his right, where it looked like an impromptu barricade had been set up. He nodded and gestured for her to go first, putting his head through the strap of his shotgun and pulling out his 9mm pistol. More of a pea shooter than anything, but at this range he’d just be wasting shotgun shells. As she sprinted towards the fortification, Al popped up, blasting indiscriminately in a general direction.
He was greeted with another wave of hate and managed to duck just before he was made into a smoothie. Looking over at the barricade again, the woman gestured for him to come over and popped out of cover to shoot. Taking a deep breath, Al sprinted across the room, going into a slide. Bullets whizzed past his ear as he stumbled into cover, Bell not far behind.
There was another woman with a face mask and eyes covered with some sort of goggles. She did a double take at Al.
“Who the hell is this!?” she shouted, reloading her submachine gun. The beanie woman fired off a few rounds across the street and ducked.
“He said he’s here to help!” the other woman replied. Goggles seemed to bristle at this.
“He’s just some drifter, we don’t ne-” she began but Beanie angrily cut her off.
“We’re in some deep shit, Angie. It doesn’t matter he’s a man, we need every gun we can get.” Al furrowed his brow at the statement but soon noticed their armbands. A deep blue with an arrow on it. Disciples of Artemis. Seasoned hunters of mutated beasts and had a general dislike of men. No wonder Beanie looked like she was gonna execute Al on the spot.
Angie growled in response and blind fired over the barricade. This wasn’t getting them anywhere. Indocs had superior vision and accuracy. At this point they were just trying to make them expend all of their ammo.
“Wait, Bell took a grid of the area, maybe she can pinpoint where they’re at!” Al shouted. The women exchanged skeptical looks.
“I can certainly do my best!” Bell said, merry as ever. The little projector popped out the top of her head and gave a diagram of the grid with the street and two buildings mapped out.
“The bright blue dots are an estimation of their position. It looks like there’s only three.” explained Al, pointing out two dots on the ground floor and one on the second.
“They must be heavily armed then, this much firepower from three bodies.” Beanie commented in a grave tone of voice. Angie remained silent, her expression hidden by her mask and the goggles.
“Maybe if we can flank them, we can take out the bottom two and finish off the one on top.” Al suggested, tracing a potential route with his finger.
“Yeah, but how do we avoid getting gunned down from the one on top?” Beanie replied.
“Wait.” Angie interrupted, gripping her weapon a little tighter.
“Why did it get so quiet?”
Suddenly several windows shattered. Al popped his head up and saw the twisted abominations of metal and flesh that were the Indoctrinated. Steel plating burned into the skin, neon wires routing from their spines into their brains, eyes replaced with chilling luminescent bionic ones.
Their guns were aimed directly at them. The trio let loose, a deafening cacophony of death. It was all Al could do to duck under the barricade again. Beanie wasn’t so lucky. The bullets shredded the top half of her torso and she went stumbling back, crashing into a filing cabinet and slumping to the floor. Al heard Angie shriek next to him. He fumbled with his shotgun and got ready for the monstrosities to overtake them.
No sooner had he gotten ready did the twisted chrome head of one of them peak over. Al pulled the trigger, the indoc’s head exploding into a mass of black liquid, the mix of blood and oil. He heard Angie’s SMG rip next to him. Al scrambled to his feet and peaked over the barricade. An indoc greeted him with a pistol blast right next to his head. Through sheer luck, the cyborg missed. Al responded with two consecutive blasts right into the bastard’s chest. As he fired, he realized Beanie must have hit him before she went down. The wires routing up his chest and through his jaw were severed and he seemed to be short circuiting.
The second indoc fell, thumping loudly as his back hit the linoleum floor. Al swiftly turned and saw Angie looming over a twitchy, tar-like mess that must have been the third. Even at his death, the cyborg was attempting to convert her.
“J-j-join us. Op-p-pen your eyes. Take the path t-t-t-to enlig-” A swift burst from Angie’s gun sprayed the wall with his black ichor and the office was quiet once more. Al realized he was shaking.
“Bell, do a self-diagnostic.” he said, trying to keep his voice even.
“Running…. minor hull damage and a puncture, probable need for repairs.” Bell reported. Al was barely listening. Angie had taken off her goggles and face mask and was now staring at Beanie’s crumpled body. Beanie…Al had never learned her name. He never knew what to say in these situations.
“Listen, once you’re ready, Uniterra is only a few blocks away. We can go there together and-” Al tried to say but Angie spun on him, submachine gun pointed directly at his chest.
“Did you bring them here!? Are you one of them!? Why is it that you only show up after our entire hunting party gets wiped out, huh?” She screamed at him and Al could see the desperate fire in her eyes.
“No! I’m not here to hurt you, I just wanted to help, look.” he said, and he slowly lowered his shotgun to the ground and removed his mask. The air was piercingly cold and he was sure he would take some rads but it was better than getting shot.
“I heard the fight from a few blocks away on my way back to Uniterra. I’m a scrapper.” Al explained. Angie’s hands were trembling slightly.
“You don’t have an armband. Where is it?” she demanded. A terrible sinking feeling began to set in Al’s gut. It was happening…again.
“My clan was wiped out. I was a Snow Fox.” he replied, trying to ignore the memories that flashed in his mind.
“So you’re unmarked? Typical, I knew Maria should have just shot you.” she snapped vehemently. It was painful to hear but it was a pain Al was all too familiar with.
“Listen…I don’t want to hurt you. I came by to help, we can go to Uniterra and you can ask around. People there know me. Please. There’s already been too much death today.” Al pleaded. He could see the gears in her head turning as she decided what to do. Finally, she lowered her weapon.
“I’m not going anywhere with you, freak. I’m leaving. If you try to follow me, I’ll cut you down.”
With that, she gathered her gear and left. Al watched her go, the bitter Denver wind biting at his nose mercilessly. The wind blew through the hollow buildings of the city causing them to howl. He knew how they felt.
“Alphonse?” Bell asked hesitantly. Al grabbed his mask and shotgun off the floor.
“Let’s go, I need a drink.”