Matt saw it before I did; he touched me leg: motioning, up and to the right. It was hovering about twenty yards beyond us studying the shadows between the dead moon and us. Must’ve caught something in its heat-signature, it darted to the opposite side of the crumbling office-building we’d just entered. We lay there silently listening to it hum away. It was looking for something. Not us, at least.
A shot boomed out as it lazed the street with several bursts of viper-spray. We saw it moving down the street then after a stray dog that had wandered into the zone by mistake or seeking food. Either way the last burst caught its hind-legs and it went down groaning. Not much we could do for the dying animal. Tough luck.
Matt set the necrosynth axial onto red mode, then hit the secnav relay, the drone punched forward and he hit the kill-mode LED overlay. The drone twittered then veered off to the left crashing into the wreckage of an old grocery outlet. We waited. Drones flew in packs of two or four. There must be more outside our field of vision. One of them would get curious sooner or later if a signal dropped.
The drones were autoriders, independent of human intent or contact for the most part. About the only time a CommTech would know something was up was either during downtime repair, when the batteries and other maintenance would bring the units home or if an emergency signal had made its way to the Satcom satellite relays far above, traveling the night sky around the earth like Archons of some deadly thought. Matt’s software disruptions made sure neither happened.
We sat there quiet for a few more minutes. Nothing moved.
I got itchy about it. Usually the drones would detect a lost sig-trace signal and been running frantic in a tree vector search and seek operation after their fallen comrade. Even though these things had a weak AI they still performed almost agent like, as if they had personalities. Maddening.
I finally had enough, motioned to Matt. “Let’s do it!”
We moved silently along the dark side of the office building. He’d mapped it out for me and I knew we were within two blocks of our destination. The dark the ruins of this old city reminded me of some kind of ancient beast, its bones scattered around us like a great dragon or dinosaur. Everything appeared surreal, elongated steel beams stuck out at odd angles, tall poles reaching up out of blobs of darkness to the stars, great head-like things jutting up high above us looking down at us like the elder gods of some monstrous and alien cosmos, their hands and tendons stick like dangling down as if they might reach down and grab us for dinner.
Oddest sensation. Things clanged, cracked, drummed, pattered all around us as if the very infrastructure of the streets was about to collapse into a sea of nothingness, else something deep below the earth was about to rise up from some dark place and smash the world to pieces.
“Shit…” I heard it before I saw it, and it was too late. Straight above us one of the drones had been descending. It spotted us. Must’ve sent a message out. We saw several other drones moving toward us from various sectors, a buzzing coming across the cold night like deadly sirens. Matt wouldn’t be able to take them all down. I’d have to find us cover and soon.
I saw it. An old bunker that had been used during the war. I motioned to Matt with my hand waving him forward ahead of me. We moved as a fast as we could across the street. It knew where we were going and began slicing the ground around us and ahead of us with its lazelight. Matt caught it on the shoulder. It spun him around and he fell.
“Dam, buddy,” I reached down grabbed him. “Let’s do it! You’ll survive.” His eyes were glazing over, going into shock; but he knew as I did that either he moved or died. I picked him up and slung him forward into the breach.
I slammed the door shut tight just as eight more drones began popping the air around the bunker’s iron door. It shut solid against them.
We’re fucked, I thought to myself.
* * *
I’d brought a few flares and popped one. Took a look at Matt’s shoulder. Bloody mess, had to stop the bleeding. Pulled a compress out of my pack along with the medpak and some local anesthetic. Stuck the needled clean down to the bone and let him have it. Matt passed out, but he’d feel no pain when he woke up. I bandaged him the best I could, then fixed the sling for him for when he woke up.
I had a look around. The place had been boned, scavenged till nothing but trash and metal scrapings were all that was left scattered around the large open dorm. I found an old shiv-bed in one corner. Some linen still wrapped up under the steel locker next to it. That surprised me, figured the scavvies had taken everything. Must’ve left this for emergencies just in case someone returned one day; or maybe for someone that they’d left behind, someone that might have been wounded in the zone. Either way I brought Matt in and laid him down on the freshly made bed. At least he’d be comfortable for a spell.
Me? I had some thinking to do.
* * *
I kept thinking about Betsy. I’d left Red to call her and bring her to the safe house down by the shop. She’d been out when Maria and her daughter drove over. I knew she’d be down at Patsy’s place. Her sister ran a sort of orphanage, where every straggler in the Grunge ended up at one time or another. Betsy volunteered there about three days a week. Did her good. At least it got her out and about. None of us had a dam thing, and no way to really create a livable life. What remained among the ruins was a great tin-city full of scrap metal, tents, and wood scraps. The dregs of a forgotten world, where humans were but the waste of a civilization that had once eaten the earth up like a cancer.
To think that this had once been the home of Hollywood Stars. One could still find here and there in the rubble an old star where Vine street must’ve been hiding under the rubble. People would find pink flecks jutting up through cracks and seams once in a while: it seemed more like dust pulp, but here and there you could almost make out a name or bits and fragments of one. I once found John Wayne’s, another time Barbara Stanwick’s. As a kid I watched the Slipreamer every night, got all the comfeeds from Consilient Central. All those old spaghetti westerns with Eastwood. Crap. But hey it was fun. Sometimes wish I could go back down nostalgia lane. Not really. Pathetic. That world was dead, and good riddance. It caused all this around me now.
I’d paced the dorm all night long. Finally started rummaging around some old lockers in the back when I discovered an opening, or should say a crack in the floor under one of the lockers that’d fallen over. I pushed it out of the way and low and behold. A fracking hole, black and big enough to fit through. I didn’t have any rope, but kept thinking back. Toby, one of my rummager’s told me about certain parts of the dead zone where there were tunnels built during the occupation. Rat holes here and there that were used to travel between safe houses. Was this one?
Dam, if I went down I might not be able to get back up. I’d have to wait. Matt would be in no shape for climbing anyway. Yet, there’d be no way to go back the way we’d come. That was now closed. I’d have to find something. Started tearing into every locker in the place.
Everyone of them had been stripped. The only thing I found was some electric duck-tape and some cord someone had pieced together. I’d have to strip that linen from Matt’s bed to make a makeshift rope and sling to slip him down into the pit. We’d have to take our chances down there. There wasn’t any reason to stay here any longer. The longer we stayed the greater the chance the drones would bring the necrosynths in on their gig. That wouldn’t be good at all. Not good at all.
* * *
I woke him up a couple hours later.
“What… what…” he was bleary eyed, thought he was back home, delirious with fever. I gave him a sip of water, a cig and some jaw. He sat up, collected himself. Scratched his head and rubbed his eyes. Looking around he said:
“Where are we?”
“An old bunker, mate.”
“Oh…” he looked lost.
“Yea, Matt we have to leave this place now. Can’t wait any longer. I can’t leave you here, even if I could. No one could make it back here again. You understand?”
He blinked. He didn’t, he had no clue what the hell I was talking about. I’d just have to shoot him up with some crank, get him wired. He’d at least run on paranoia.
I gave him a fix. Lit the spoon, fried it, sloped the syringe and slid it in clean. He was firing now.
“Okay, sure, let’s go!” he was jumpy, frogged, and ready for anything.
I tore the sheets, twisted them into a long knot of rope. Popped and threw a flare down the shaft. It dropped into the pit, and I heard it hit something soft with a slurp and plunk. Looking down I could see it the dim light – sparking fifteen feet below me like a tiny flame in a vast empty sea. This wouldn’t be fun.
I lowered Matt down as far as the sheets reached. He’d have to jump or fall the rest of the way. He did.
“It’s mud…” he laughed.
Shitty mud, but soft – I slipped down into the slime after Matt.
– Steven Craig Hickman ©2016 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.