I have had the Prologue of Upon Stilted Cities up here on this website for ages. So, I thought perhaps I would post that and an additional chapter up here. You can find the prologue and chapter 1 below. Over the next few weeks, I will post several more chapters in preparation for our release date for Upon Stilted Cities: Part 1 the Winds of Change.
The city of Langeles is rubble, resources are dwindling, and storm systems are larger than ever before. The people of Manhasten are in great danger, and they don’t even know it yet.
To Destroy A Walking City (I)
The city had toppled. Bits of skyscrapers were strewn across the desert. With the city’s legs destroyed, it had collapsed from towering heights. Most of what remained upon the excavated chunk of earth on which the city had stood were smoking ruins, shattered mechanized EnViro suits, and sun-dried corpses. Welts from bombs, bullets, and energy weapons pockmarked the perimeter, as various vapors cascaded into the late afternoon sky.
Inside the ruin, occasional echoes of weapon-fire permeated the stillness in and between the few remaining buildings, but even that would fade with the day.
Far back from the fresh ruin of the city of Langeles, Roderick sat slumped against a rock. He was alone in the barrens. His body ached from laying inside his metallic suit for what was probably several hours. The air was a cool forty-eight degrees Celsius as the sun began its final descent. Perhaps an hour of light remained before the cold night air set in.
Roderick blinked. It was a glorious sunset. Even as seen through the tinted UV protection of his suit’s helmet, it was a ritual of beauty, a day that ended in victory. The power core within Langeles still remained, but the death knell of the city was ringing. Langeles would never walk again. For a city with no shield and no migration, there was only death. Mother Gaia would swallow it whole.
He pressed a small button under his chin and with his left hand pulled off his helmet. Its thick inner liner tugged at his graying hair as the helmet detached. He dropped it to the ground. It thudded against the gravel, rolling for a moment before settling in.
He closed his eyes and caressed the tattoo on his neck, the mark of his order, a tree of life with an eye in the center. He liked to feel the raised skin, the scars that had formed under the ink and burn scars. Most adherents of the Children of Gaia chose a simple armband or an inscription on their EnViro suit exterior, but for Roderick, only the mix of blood and fire and ink could mark his tribute and his loyalty. He was hers.
He felt the fresh air on his face and took a deep breath, knowing full well that he wouldn’t be able to keep his helmet off for long. The methane would trickle into his lungs with each breath. Fresh air, as rotten as it smelled, was a luxury. But, it had been a long day, and a little non-filtered air wouldn’t kill him. At least, it wasn’t anything that an alcove couldn’t heal.
He reached up to wipe the sweat from his brow. Already, beads of moisture gathered in the crevices of his pockmarked face and shimmered in the dying light. His light brown eyes reflected the play of colors on the hard, rocky earth and the swiftly changing sky.
Pain sprang up his right arm like a horse bucking its mount, and his square features tightened as he gritted his teeth. Roderick looked down the length of his right arm and remembered. He shuddered. Truth had a funny way of reminding you where you stand. It would take a long time to get used to a missing limb. The bloody stump of where his right hand been was now a symbol of his haste. He turned and gazed at the wreckage of his Dugger vehicle behind him. The City and the Dugger had shared the same fate.
With great pain, he poked the damaged arm out through the metallic hole of the suit where his armored glove had been. He had managed to tie the pliable, cloth-like underlayer in a knot to slow any leak of his air. He used his teeth as a second hand. After several frustrating moments, the knot came loose. He unwrapped the gauze and examined the wound. It was already stinking. He was fortunate that his suit had maintained his temperature and filtered air as well as it had. He would need to cauterize the wound, and quickly. If the toxins from the air entered his blood… well, he had better not let it come to that.
Silence slid into his ears. All noise evaporated. A high-pitched ringing emerged in the vacancy. Fresh fire burst forth from the remains of Langeles. Even from twenty-six kilometers out, he had temporarily lost his hearing. Roderick shielded his eyes from the blinding white light that erupted from the city like a second sun. No, not like a second sun, it was a second sun. For a brief moment, it was a star, a universe, created by the rupture of fusion and then winked out. His fingers pawed a solitary rock with his left hand for balance, feeling his feet giving way. His legs were so tired.
It was the Langeles power core. Dense smoke seeped into the sky. A hint of a mushroom cloud emerged but was already caught by gusting winds and dissipated across the landscape, intermingling with the colors of the setting sun.
His men had reached it. Where he had failed, they had succeeded. Praise Gaia.
He stared at the city with anticipation. Where was the blast wave? Detonating a nuke inside the city core should have sent a cascading wave of energy. He should need to duck behind a ridge or be hunkering down inside a small cave, but nothing happened. Perhaps they didn’t use the nuke? Had his men managed to overload the core, containing the implosion? He would have to ask them.
It made no difference. Joy washed over him. Roderick let out of a roar of triumph. His roar caught on to the back of the lingering roar of the explosion and merged into forever.
He fell to his knees and bowed forward. Dry lips met the hardpan. His right stump grazed the ground, and a shock of pain climbed the length of his arm. He gritted his teeth but did not move from his position of reverence.
“Praise to you, Mother. Thank you for your aid in this great victory. I shall not forget the lesson you taught me this day. I shall not act in haste again. It is an honor to sacrifice in your name. May the blood that I shed bring new life in the soil.”
He pushed his right leg forward and used his left hand to thrust himself upward. Roderick stared at his bloody stump, still feeling where his fingers had been. Despite the immense pain of the open wound, his fingers itched; an itch he could never scratch again.
Roderick smiled, turning his attention back to the fallen city. The burning city roused his courage, his determination. There, in the smoking ruin, was the evidence it was possible to rid the earth of its infestation. The giant walking city of Langeles and its people were no more.
But what of his haste? What of his disregard for Mother Gaia’s words? Much had gone right, but what had gone wrong? Roderick reviewed the events of the morning assault.
Migration halted so that the excavation could begin. A massive drill protruded from the lower hunk of rock underneath the city and was burrowing into the earth. Clouds of dust cascaded into the empty sky. A cycle.
“Commander, the Duggers are submerged, in position, and await your orders,” said Patrick Lions. His face appeared before Roderick on his view screen. Patrick was a short, round, balding man who barely fit inside of a standard EnViro suit. With his helmet off, Roderick could see his rosy red cheeks and his crooked nose, broken from one too many fights.
“Excellent. What’s the status on the special delivery?” asked Roderick.
“The package has been delivered to the city’s AI Commander. Rocky said the primary shield should fail any time now. One thing, though, he also said the secondary shield is an isolated system. It’s unlikely the virus will deactivate it.”
“Yes, Rocky warned me earlier. But, there will be chaos, and that is all we need. What’s the status on city leg security?”
“One moment, Commander, I’ll check.”
Roderick squirmed in the semi-cramped quarters of the Dugger. He disliked being below ground in the Dugger transports. Duggers were designed for the conditions in severe climate change during the late 21st century, and were usually effective means of transport in the barrens. They had a small drill and two claw-like arms on the front of the vehicle that dug below shallow surfaces. Roderick had hated using them at first, piercing the earth had seemed like an act of great sacrilege, but Mother Gaia herself had given them permission to use the vehicles in her name.
“Commander,” said Patrick, “leg security has been deactivated. Should we send in Miss and her team?”
“No, stick to the plan. Shields fall first, then we send in the main attacking force, and then we send Miss and her teams to plant the nukes. If we deviate from the plan, it will be like Saud. You remember Saud, don’t you, Patrick?”
“Yes, Commander.” Patrick’s voice was notably lower in pitch and his eyes cast downward.
“It took 80 years to rebuild the Order after Saud, Patrick. Have faith in the Great Mother. She has blessed this plan. Langeles will fall before the sun sets.”
“Has she…” Patrick hesitated over the comm line. He knew that Patrick’s faith in Gaia had wavered as of late. Many of his soldiers’ faith had wavered. Inaction was a plague that could spread quickly, and six years of planning was a long time.
“Has Mother spoken with you about this plan, Commander? I… I only ask out of curiosity, of course.” Patrick’s voice contained a hint of a tremor.
Roderick smiled, showing his ancient, yellowed teeth. “Of course, Patrick. It was the Great Mother who devised this plan. She gave me a powerful vision that showed me the city of Langeles on fire. She whispered that other cities would come for salvage after the fire. And then,” excitement washed over Roderick’s anticipation, “then, we will destroy them as well. Mother Gaia has brought us Rocky and Miss so we could carry out the plan. Have faith, Patrick. We cannot lose this day. Today is the first of many victories.”
It was true that the plan had come to him in a vision that the mother had spoken to him. The timing of Miss and Rocky joining the cause was perfect, but even Roderick’s faith had been tested at Saud. They needed a victory to restore the faith of his people.
“The primary shield is down, Commander,” said Patrick.
“AI, confirm?” said Roderick.
“Sir, I confirm the primary shield system surrounding Langeles has fallen. Secondary shields surrounding their security buildings and storm shelters are active.”
“Excellent. There will be riots inside the city over access to those shelters,” said Roderick. “You see, Patrick? Mother’s plan will sew chaos inside the city while we destroy the legs. Send in the primary attacking force.”
“All of them, sir?”
“Yes, all of them, including your elite team. I want to keep their Runnercore busy.”
Seven hundred men were in the main attacking force, and only three dozen were on leg detail. Roderick’s personal guard consisted of only twenty-three men and women. He would hold his force until the nukes detonated, shattering the great legs. Then he and his personal guard would head straight for the city’s core, ending the long life of the parasitic walking cities.
“Yes, Commander. May Gaia bless your path,” said Patrick.
“And may Gaia bless yours. I’ll see you on the other side. Keep the mother in your heart and we cannot fail.”
Roderick watched his screen in the Dugger. He watched as the several dozen transport vehicles began moving toward the city. Most of them surfaced and crept along on treaded tires, but a few were still moving under the sand and hard earth. The ones under the ground would travel below the combatants and flank the Langeles Runnercore from behind.
They were greatly outnumbered. From what his spy had said, Langeles had 2,300 Runners ready for combat. Roderick only had 1,300 under his command, and several hundred were women and children back at Atlantis base. The fallen shield and surprise would give them a sizable advantage. Runners would have to be dispatched inside the city to maintain order.
The EnViro shield surrounding the walking cities weren’t just for defense in combat. The shield was also used to create an enclosed ecosystem. Without the shield, most of the cities inhabitants would be slowly poisoned by the toxic air and cooked in the extraordinary heat. Secondary shields were set up around important buildings in the event that the primary shield failed, but with two million people in the city and only room for about a hundred thousand in the secondary shielding shelters, there would be chaos. Langeles’s own citizens were weaponized in the Mother’s cause; every man, woman, and child an agent of chaos, an inadvertent soldier in the army of the Children of Gaia. They were to be offered up in sacrifice to the Great Mother.
The radar screen saw the dots consolidating about a kilometer outside the city’s boundary. Over the comm came Patrick’s voice: “Duggers, mount artillery and fire. Infantry, dismount and engage. Be ready. Here they come.”
Underneath the soil, Roderick felt the ground vibrate. Langeles had opened fire, with its railguns blasting huge holes in the rocky desert. But, with the shield gone, Roderick knew their ability to use the rail guns would be limited. The guns ran off the same power grid as the main shield system. Naturally, after a few shots, the guns would stop, and the majority of Langeles Runnercore would be deployed in the city’s defense. Fresh blips on the radar screen were appearing. Roderick knew those must be the Langeles Runners.
“AI, status check on our cargo?”
“Sir, all three atomic weapons are stable and ready for deployment.”
“Excellent. Open a line to Miss.”
Miss appeared on the screen. Her short black hair was ragged and unkempt. She had a lean face that contrasted with her thick, cracked lips. A faint crosshatch of scars ran up the left side of her neck and ended just below her ear. Her time in the barrens had taken their toll, but there was still beauty to be found. Her brown eyes glittered with an inner fire that Roderick had always desired. His second in command stared back through the communications line, awaiting instructions.
“It’s time, Miss. Uncouple the cargo cars and take down the legs. The main force and the fallen shield will keep Langeles security distracted.”
“Yes, Commander. May Gaia bless your path.”
“And yours, Miss.”
Roderick felt a jolt as the cargo car he had taxied uncoupled from his Dugger. He felt lighter, more eager than before. His plan was unfolding perfectly so far. Now he had to wait.
Time passed. Roderick grew agitated. For all his planning, he hated to sit back and wait while the rest of his troops fought. He had spent most of his life as a man of action, as the one on the front lines. It was bizarre to sit back and watch. So much could go wrong, but Gaia had instructed that he wait.
Roderick waited as the 8th and 9th nukes were attached to the city’s legs. A few more to go and then he would pull his troops back.
Then something went wrong.
Over the comm came Miss’s voice, the signal fragmented. “Commander… spotted us. Seven men… Confirmed that the…. 10th… leg. Should… detonate?
“Repeat that Miss, I didn’t catch all of it.”
“Signal… Under attack… Legs… Retreat…”
“No! Don’t retreat. Finish the mission and then get out of there.”
“Ten… pla… treating… distance. Gaia…”
The signal evaporated. “AI, what’s happening out there.”
“It appears that the Langeles Runnercore has discovered the leg team. Most of the team is dead. However, based on radiation scans, it looks like at least ten of the legs have a tactical nuclear weapon attached to them.”
“Her life signs are still strong. It appears she is back in her vehicle and moving away at high speed.”
“Then start the detonation clock. Let the Core team know we’re moving as soon as the blast wave is clear.”
“For detonation, a confirmation code is required.”
“Of course. V638927SI.”
“Thank you, Sir. How long would you like the countdown to run?”
“How long will it take for the main force to get a safe distance from the blast zone?”
“If they left immediately and put the Duggers at full speed, they could be clear in six minutes.”
“Alert Patrick and the main force to disengage immediately.”
“Unfortunately, Sir, Patrick Lions no longer has any vital signs.”
Roderick grunted. That was quite a blow. He liked Patrick. How many decades had they fought alongside one another? Patrick had saved his life at Saud.
Roderick sighed. “Fine, just alert the remainder of the main force. Set the countdown for fifteen minutes. Alert everyone at two-minute intervals. Any longer than that and we risk giving Langeles time to disarm some of the bombs.”
“Acknowledged, Sir. Countdown to detonation is now at fifteen minutes.”
It was a long fifteen minutes. Roderick passed the time watching the radar of his troops departing to a safe distance from the estimated blast zone. He watched nervously as more of the Langeles Runnercore seemed to be gathering around the legs. If they figured out what was happening… but Roderick knew it was too late, only six minutes remained in the countdown now, and there was no way they could disarm the weapons in time. Miss had planted the nukes at the upper third of the legs, only someone with her special skills could have easy access to them.
“Four minutes remaining until detonation.”
This was it. Roderick could feel a kind of giddiness pass over him. It had been a few hundred years since he felt so excited. The city would fall, their plan would work.
“Patience, Roderick,” said a powerful and soothing voice.
The voice was outside him but coming through him.
“Yes, Roderick. You must have patience. Do not act out of haste now or there will be a heavy price to pay.”
“Yes, my Goddess, of course. Forgive me. I am unable to prostrate to you in this vehicle.”
There was no response.
Still no answer.
“Two minutes remain until detonation,” said the AI.
What did Mother Gaia mean by “patience”? Did it mean that he would have to wait to assault the core? Did it mean that he should cancel the detonation?
“Sixty seconds remaining until detonation.”
A wave of panic washed over Roderick. He quickly reviewed the morning’s events. Had he overlooked anything? The AI began to count down the final thirty seconds. He smashed his fist into the steering wheel, and his anger burst forth at the same moment the bombs on the legs detonated.
Roderick watched over his view screen as the distant blast drowned out all vision with a great blinding light. He wondered if all of his men had remembered not to look directly into that light. Through his periscope camera it was fine, but he doubted the EnViro suit helmets would shield them from blindness. A mighty roaring noise pressed itself against the ground and waves of sand and rock shifted above the Dugger. Thunderous fury.
In the view screen, Roderick saw the city kneeling down toward the earth, like a man kneeling beside the dying body of a brother in arms. The west end sunk first, smashing into the hardpan of the barrens. Some skyscrapers broke in half and pieces scattered as they cascaded toward the ground. Tremors for each mass of concrete could be felt, even at this distance, when they returned to the earth from which they had risen. Then, finally, the rock slab of earth on which the city rested slanted up toward the sky, amongst the sand and gravel, and came to its final rest. A marker, a gravestone, a well-deserved end.
Roderick’s rage and frustration were forgotten, as were the words of the mother. Roderick’s cheeks pulled upward. A smile bloomed on his face. Red cheeks, like red roses, surrounded a sharp, toothy grin.
Roderick opened a comm line. “The Great Mother has brought us to the brink of victory my brothers, but we must not tarry. Main force, resume your attack, mop up what’s left of the Langeles Runners. Core team, you are with me. CHARGE!”
The vehicle vibrated violently, and the sand on top of the clear glass cockpit began to move and shake. As the vehicle moved up above the surface of the ground, Roderick’s view cleared. The vehicle lurched forward, its large, treaded, tank-like tires gripped like teeth in the earth.
The Dugger gained speed and began moving more quickly toward Roderick’s final destination. He felt his heart beginning to pound. He was almost there. The outline of the city grew larger with every passing second, and in only a few minutes he would be on the outskirts of fallen Langeles.
A proximity alert flashed in the vehicle view screen, and the AI spoke. “Warning, incoming projectile. Five seconds until impact.”
Roderick looked down at his radar. He saw the red blip approaching the vehicle. He grabbed the steering wheel and jerked it left to avoid a direct hit, but it was too late.
The RPG struck the ground just below the Dugger’s left rear tire and sent Roderick spinning through the air, rotating like a corkscrew. The vehicle connected to the ground in a series of long hops, and Roderick felt his right hand catch in the steering wheel. The sounds of tearing metal screamed through the air as the vehicle slid and came to a wrenching halt.
Silence hovered. Only the wind dared to raise its voice. Tiny dust devils formed and spun and caught some of the smoke that gradually began to rise from the Dugger. Behind, the city of Langeles had caught fire.
A cacophony of noise returned and Roderick, dazed from what was probably a concussion, pulled the emergency cockpit hatch release with his left hand. He reached up with his right hand to pull himself up and out of the cockpit, only to realize his hand wasn’t there. Confused, he looked down the length of his arm. A mangled stump of flesh, shredded muscle and bone were oozing blood down the exterior of his EnViro suit. All Roderick could do was stare. No pain came to him, only shock and surprise.
Where had his hand gone? Scanning the cockpit, he saw a metallic gauntlet still gripping the steering wheel. Bone and blood dripped at the end of the gauntlet. Roderick looked at his stump, then at the steering wheel, then back to his stump again. It felt unreal.
It was the wrong hand. It had to be. It looked so small and frail. How could it be his? He glanced around another time but, seeing nothing, he refocused his gaze on the steering wheel.
Roderick stretched out his left arm and reached for the gauntlet. In his denial, he had thought it a simple matter to plug the hand back into the arm, like a robot or a child’s toy. His left hand wrapped around the gauntlet, the first instinct simply to pull the gauntlet from the steering wheel. It would not release. Then, he tried to pry one finger at a time off the wheel. No luck. He had heard of a death grip before but… he started to chuckle to himself but the laughter caught in his throat. He almost choked on it. He cleared his throat and let a sliver of madness drive a fresh wave of laughter, and for a moment the sight of his ruined hand was a source of great humor.
The laughter died as suddenly as it had come. Roderick turned his head out toward the burning city. There he saw someone standing only a stone’s throw away from him. It was a Runner, fully armed and in a combat-ready EnViro suit. He had a high caliber pistol aimed at Roderick’s face.
If Roderick had looked up only a single second later, it would have been the end of him. Without thinking, he threw the rest of his body out of the vehicle and rolled behind a solitary rock as the Runner opened fire. A few bullets sprayed the terrain. One of the Runner’s bullets ricocheted off the metal of the Dugger and smacked into the Runner’s shin armor. The impact forced him to fall to one knee. Roderick, seeing his chance, jumped up and reached down for his sidearm in his suit. His bloody stump mashed against the holster and Roderick screamed in pain.
The scream further stunned the Runner. He dropped his weapon, falling backward onto his ass. Roderick reached across his body with his left hand. He struggled, grasping at the butt of the revolver from the awkward angle, and finally pulled his revolver from his holster. He aimed and fired clumsily until the clip was empty. One of the bullets struck home. A single hole opened in the Runner’s face shield, and behind it, blood splattered, and the Runner rolled to his side, dead. His metal armor at rest, not unlike the city from whence he came.
Roderick sat and slumped against the rock.
“Are there any more surprises out here for me?”
“No, Sir. I do not detect any more Runners in the immediate vicinity.”
“How…” Roderick was starting to feel weak and tired. Blood dripped into his eyes from a small gash on his head. “How… are we doing… out there?”
“My apologies, Sir, your inquiry must be more specific.”
“Progress of… my… troops?” His breathing was slowing down and the lids of his eyes felt heavy. The head wound and the lost of blood from his arm were both a threat.
“Sir, the Core team has penetrated the perimeter and the main force appears to be overwhelming the remains of the Langeles Runnercore. I calculate that you have an 87% chance of victory at this point.”
“Good, good… How many dead?”
“Exact figures at this time are difficult to calculate because of various reports of your troops and some conflicting data from the Langeles AI that I have intercepted. However, I calculate the total death toll at 1,752,892.”
Roderick felt a pang of frustration. “No, ours. How many of ours are…”
“Ah, I see. According to my sensors, there are 289 casualties,”
Roderick struggled to make a quick tourniquet by tearing off some of the linings of the passenger seat. He pulled some gauze from the glove box and wrapped it on the end of the wound. With his teeth, he pulled the material as tight as he could. Then he pulled up the lining of his suit and tied it and wedged it in the hole where the gauntlet had been, in hopes to keep the suit sealed.
Muttering more to himself than to the AI, Roderick asked, “Why was that Runner… out here?”
The AI responded, “Standard drill deployment procedure requires that a city deploys four perimeter Runners in each of the cardinal directions. Runners are instructed to set up sensor beacons and report anything unusual.”
“Why… didn’t he see us… earlier?”
“My apologies sir, I do not know.”
“Haste… Mother… sorry for my…” Roderick coughed. The remainder of his words caught in his throat. He closed his eyes.
Roderick opened his eyes back in the present. He stood and turned, moving toward the wrecked Dugger. He pried open one of the cargo hatches and began to rummage through the medical supplies. He would have to review the morning events again later, but for now, he needed to tend to his arm. It took him a moment, but he found what he was looking for, an emergency flare, an antibiotic shot, some morphine, and an EnViro suit sealant patch. It was a damn shame he didn’t have a regen patch in the Dugger–they had them back at Atlantis base–but the flare would have to do.
He dropped the sealant patch on the ground. He lifted the morphine syringe case up to his mouth and used both his teeth and his left hand to open the case. He grabbed the syringe out with his mouth and used his left hand to pull up the armored sleeve on his right arm. He injected it a few inches above the messy stump. It hurt, but the pain was minimal in comparison to the exposed nerves.
“All right. AI?”
“If I pass out, I need you to wake me immediately. Don’t let me fall asleep.”
“As you wish, Sir.”
The morphine acted fast. It didn’t block out the pain entirely, but it was much more manageable. Roderick winced in advance. He knew what was coming next.
He pressed the trigger on the flare. The short flames sputtered and licked the sky at various heights. Sparks flew. He braced himself as he brought his left hand toward his right arm.
Roderick thrust the blue flame onto his stump and screamed, a scream that carried across the kilometers. A war cry of pain and victory. Roderick felt his body’s desire to lose consciousness; he fought it. A few more seconds and the wound would close, for now.
Those last seconds were an eternity. He could bear it no longer. He turned off the torch. He injected antibiotics directly into the wound. Grimacing again at the pain, he withdrew his stump from the open spot in his suit. He picked up the sealant patch off the ground and placed it on the edge of the tear. He watched the sealant patch come to life and spread itself over the tears in his suit where his hand had once been. The pain eased. By morning, the wound would be well-scabbed. Though pain would be a long companion, the danger of infection was over, or at least long enough for Roderick to find an alcove.
Roderick considered laying down in the back of the wrecked Dugger for a moment, then thought better of it. He had to be visible, had to contact his men. It was either that, or he had to find shelter before daybreak.
Roderick reviewed the day again and again, through the mirage of morphine. He knew it was unfortunate that Rocky’s virus required the city’s security codes to work properly. The Langeles codes had not been easy to obtain. Eleven cities remained, and Roderick could think of only one path to absolute victory, especially with a fifth of his force destroyed. Runner 17 was the key. If he wanted to destroy the rest of the cities, he would have to find him.
Designation Runner 17
“Activating Runner, Designation 17.”
The AI’s voice, muffled by the warm, gelatin-like padding of the greenish goop that surrounded 17’s body, echoed in his every cell. The lights of the Runner storage facility switched on. Flickering like a stuttering heartbeat, it pulsed against his closed eyelids. He was awake. He did not open his eyes. Not yet.
A large claw slid under and around his alcove on the storage shelf. Pops and hisses marked a disconnection. Thrumming eardrums. The claw tightened. It lifted. It rotated. With the slow guidance of the machinery, the storage container shifted from its flat horizontal position to an upright standing position on the dock floor. As it stood stationary, the clear plastic of the alcove slid open from the bottom up. An avalanche of the stem cell, fusion-based gel escaped with increasing speed as the opening widened until it was man-sized.
AI said, “Runner 17, step forward.”
He obeyed, keeping his eyes closed; knowing from centuries of experience what came next.
“Initiating cleaning sequence.” A metal arm with four shower heads descended from above, spraying water into every corner of 17’s naked body, washing away traces of the gel mixture from his dark skin.
“Initiating drying sequence.” The same arm that had bathed 17 with soapy water now blew hot air from its four adjustable nozzles. The warm air felt good on his skin, and he stretched and rotated his shoulders. He tilted his neck from side to side, wiggled his square jaw, and rubbed his dark brown eyes. Then, he reached back and wrung out his thick, long, black hair. He removed a hair tie from his middle finger and braided it.
“Runner 17, please proceed through exit tube 8c for your pre-run inspection. Failure to comply will result in disciplinary action,”
“What? No baby powder?”
“Baby powder is not part of the standard Runner activation procedure,”
“Yeah, well, it should be. Coming out of those damn alcoves is a little too much like being born. Next thing I know, you’ll shove a thermometer up my ass.”
AI hesitated for a moment. “Runner 17, please proceed through exit—”
“–or I’ll be disciplined. Got it. Can’t they install humor? I’m getting tired of the same old schtick. I want new material.”
“AI customization options are disabled in the Runnercore Activation procedures. For all complaints and concerns—”
“Alright, I will go through the damn tube. Jesus Christ.”
17 yawned and walked toward the long, tube-like corridor leading to the Runner Docks. He scratched the stubble on his long face. Behind him, several other alcoves in the storage area were coming to life. He glanced back to who the AI was unboxing.
“AI, why are you unboxing 875 and 913? You know they’re just going to get themselves recycled.”
AI repeated itself. “Runner 17, please proceed through exit tube 8c for your pre-run—”
17 shut tube 8c’s door behind him. He couldn’t stand the activation AI. It was so stiff. It was no way to wake up.
The briefing screen switched on and followed him down the length of the tube as he walked. He noticed the date, April 4th, 1291 AC, 6:30 p.m. He’d only missed a few months this time. Time was funny in there. The screen displayed his mission. He stopped and glanced at it.
“Basalt and Quartz, huh? Sounds like a real rollercoaster ride. AI, why is there a particular location marked here?”
“Sir, the coordinates are the most likely location of the two required resources.”
“Uh huh. And since when am I given coordinates for a resource recon?”
“As you know, sir, access to resources in the past few decades have become increasingly scarce. Major Daniels has decided that our best chance of resource extraction is to pinpoint specific locations that appear, at least by previous mineral surveys, to be resource-rich.”
“So Daniels is the one who made up that bullshit story? You know, I’ve been at this for more than a thousand years now. The only time you send me out at 6:30 p.m. is when there’s something much more important going on than resource recon. How ‘bout you tell me what’s really going on at that location?”
“I am sorry, sir, but the only thing, ‘going on at that location’,” the AI switched to an exact copy of his own voice to quote him, “is a rich vein of resources.”
“I’m sure. Can you tell Major Daniels that I know he is full of shit, please?”
“Sir, Major Daniels is not receiving messages at this time.”
“Then leave him a message and make sure you include a smiley face in it. I know how much he loves them.”
“As you wish, sir. Please proceed to Inspection.”
17 walked forward again toward the end of the long narrow tube without argument. He wasn’t in the mood for a shock in the base of his skull. Without being aware of what he was doing, he rubbed the place on the back of his neck where they had implanted the chip more than a thousand years before. He looked up at one of the security cameras. No doubt that Daniels or someone else from security was watching him. He raised his right hand and gave them the finger and then a salute.
17 reached the end of the tunnel, and like a thousand times before, an iris whooshed open. He stepped forward into the light, squinting while his eyes adjusted, pupils shrinking. He swished the little saliva in his mouth and spat out the remainder of the stem cell mixture from the alcove. A hint of the greenish mixture blotted and swelled on the metal floor. There was no getting rid of that chemical taste. He thought for a moment that maybe stealing a meal from a dock worker or inspector would be worth the pain of a shock. He longed for some mouthwash or a toothbrush. The pain he could handle, the grainy taste of goo in his mouth was far more intolerable.
Then the inspector walked toward him, tablet in hand. With a single glance, he forgot everything else. He swallowed hard. She was stunning. She raised her right hand, holding a small wireless scanner linked to her tablet, and checked his vitals. She waved it like a magic wand up and down, left and right, muttering to herself the technical jargon of the readout.
17 could feel his heart pounding in his chest as his breathing grew more rapid. Her long blonde hair almost shimmered in the brutal fluorescent light of the docks. Those lights made everyone look ugly, so the fact that she was still radiant caught 17’s attention. Her deep bluish-green eyes accented her bronzed skin. Her mouth had an almost natural upturn, and he traced the curvature of her tiny jaw with his eyes. He watched her lips as her mouth moved and felt his breath escaping him. For the first time in centuries, he felt butterflies in his stomach.
“Runner… 17? Wow, that’s the lowest number I’ve seen so far.” Her voice was light and curious.
17 focused. He shook his head. He couldn’t imagine their life together, or even just what it would be like to bed her. It would only serve to remind him that he was a prisoner.
“Ain’t no lower number now.” He tried to make his words sound hollow and dry.
“Sorry?” The young girl blinked at him.
“You’re new, aren’t you?”
“Is it obvious?” She frowned, her whole face flattened, but a smile hinted.
17 paused and looked her up and down again, this time making it obvious what he was doing. Her face flushed a little. He couldn’t help it. Chances were, he would only see her a few more times before she moved on. Inspectors always moved on. Hell, he may never see her again, but something in him resisted that idea, something in him said he might see a lot of this one. He pushed the thought away. It was nonsense.
“How many years do you have?”
She hesitated a moment. 17 knew inspectors weren’t really supposed to talk to Runners, but he wanted—no, needed–to chat with this one.
“I… only… 23 years.”
“23 years? Are you kidding? I didn’t even know they let anyone that young away from their parents anymore.” He hesitated a moment, deciding if he should ask the next question. It burst from his lips. “Uh, what’s your name?”
The girl, her eyes soft, looked around. Doubtless, she’d been lectured on fraternization with Runners, warned at great length how evil they were. 17 gave her a little smile, trying to encourage her, but that only seemed to make her more nervous. Was she nervous for the same reason he was?
“I’m not supposed to… I…”
“Yeah, yeah. I know. They told you the big bad Runners might hurt you if they find out who you are, might steal you in the night like the Boogeyman. Told you we are all dangerous criminals on a life sentence, right?”
The girl nodded. Her face was bright red. Her eyes kept sinking downward, admiring 17’s naked body, but she was trying to hide her curiosity.
She bit her lip.
“You know what my crime was?”
She shook her head.
“Do you want to know?”
“I pissed off the wrong woman, an Upper. Least that’s what they tell me, but hell if I can remember. Been too damn long. Everything bleeds together after a few centuries.”
“But I thought…” she hesitated again, looking around to see if anyone, probably her supervisor, was watching. She lowered her voice just above a whisper and moved closer. “I thought that to become a Runner you had to commit a violent crime?”
17 laughed. The girl jolted back, looking around again.
“You’re shitting me, right? Is that what they are teaching up in that… what do they call it these days? College? University?”
“Um… Scholar school… Sir.”
“And she gives me a Sir. Wow, I like you,” he chuckled. “You know, it’s been at least a millennium since someone called me Sir? What’s your name again?”
The girl looked down at her feet and then met his eyes. Her soft eyes made his heart ache a little. He couldn’t remember the last time someone had looked at him that way; centuries, at least.
“Maybe we better just get on with the inspection,” she replied. She looked back over her shoulder again.
“Come on now, don’t be like that. I just woke up, and it’s been several months sitting in that alcove. Do you have any idea how lonely and boring it is in there? You know we don’t fully sleep in those things, right? It’s more like an acid trip or something.”
Her expression softened a little, and her left cheek slanted upwards just a hair. She hesitated, and the words almost seemed to leak from her soft lips. “It’s… Alexa.”
“Alexa, you don’t look like an Alexa, you look like a…” He stopped. No. She couldn’t possibly look like… He didn’t dare make that comparison. A deep sense of anguish welled up in him. His memory was trying to surface, but he pushed it back down. There was a sense of mockery and injustice in this girl’s presence. He tried to shake it off. Now he was starting to understand the effect she had on him.
“Uh… Never mind. Alexa it is, then. Tell me a little more about yourself, Alexa. Are you a Lower?”
Alexa shook her head. “Mid, actually.”
“A Mid? What the hell are you doing in Runner dock then?”
“I…” she hesitated, her eyes again dipping down 17’s well-scarred body. She looked up into his face again. “That’s none of your business.” She shifted her weight from one leg to another.
“Uh, you’re right, sorry. It just seems like a lovely young Mid like yourself wouldn’t bother with the big bad Runners down here in the docks. If you’re a Mid, I bet you got lots of opportunities and probably a lot of interested men too, huh?”
She frowned. “I’m not some object for a man to possess, you know. And my career choices are my own.” Now determined to focus on the task at hand, she fixed her gaze on her data tablet. He could tell that it was hard for her not to look back up at him. She peeped over the tablet, caught his eyes again and smiled. She forced the smile down and with it, her eyes. It made his heart flutter a little. He swallowed, thinking of his wife from many lifetimes past. Only the hair color was different.
“I’m sorry Alexa… I… this isn’t a good place to be.”
She looked up at him. Her eyes moved back and forth across his face and then her eyes locked with his. “I think… I think I’m done with my inspection. You have to move along now, Runner 17. And…” Her face turned bright red, and she looked down at her feet. “And put some clothes on. None of the other Runners come out of their alcoves naked. Um, your EnViro suit is in station 9.” She pointed her finger in the direction of the EnViro suit platform.
“Alexa?” A man’s harsh voice rang out over the intercom. “Alexa, please return to your office immediately. You know the policy about speaking with Runners.”
She turned and ran off. He watched her go. She dropped her data tablet on her way back to the tiny office in the corner of the Runner Docks, but did not stop.
He frowned. It had been the first time in decades that someone besides the AI had spoken with him and he went and screwed it up. He shook his head. What did it matter anyway, not like a Runner could ever have a normal life. After he returned from the barrens, he was debriefed and then straight back into the regeneration alcoves until the next mission. He was lucky if they allowed him a real meal instead of that nutrition drip they ran through his EnViro suit.
There had been a few moments in his Runner career when he had tried to date the female Runners, but it proved impossible. The timing of re-activation never quite matched up. Sometimes months or years would pass between encounters. He found over the centuries that the best he could hope for was a quick fling, which also proved difficult out in the harsh conditions of the barrens. It was hard to get your pants down when they were under thick layers of metallic armor, but somehow, they managed. Caves were helpful in that regard.
17 turned toward station 9 and walked forward. He glanced back in the direction Alexa had gone and frowned. Then he moved forward and stepped into worn yellow outlines of feet. A machine both above and below made a guttural whirring noise, sputtered, and came to life. The platform on which 17 stood lifted several meters into the air. Cracks had begun to take shape in non-symmetrical patterns on the platform. The whole place crumbled from age.
From above and below the platform, large metallic hands with three fingers and an opposable thumb extended outward, each with its own task.
The arms dressed 17 in undergarments and then a thin, electronic, protective spandex-like coating that resembled a wetsuit and protected him from heat and cold. The boots enclosed his feet, granting him nearly a half meter more in height. Next, the arms pieced together an exoskeleton that tripled the user’s strength. Bone joints glistened, waiting for connections to metal plates. Around the exoskeleton, the mechanical arms assembled the exterior armor. It started at his shins, attaching one piece at a time, moving upwards. Each piece resembled the armor of a knight, but it was perfectly connected, perfectly sealed like that of an astronaut’s suit but much more flexible. For the final step, a helmet descended from above and enclosed the EnViro suit. Everything clicked on and came to life.
“EnViro suit activated. Welcome back, sir. It has been four months, three weeks, and four days since you were last in an EnViro suit,” said the suit AI. “I have taken the liberty of uploading your system preferences and the required mission data into this suit.”
“Good, I don’t suppose you can talk to someone about the Runner activation AI, can you?”
“Is there a problem with the activation system, sir?”
“Yeah, that system is an asshole.”
“I… apologize, sir, we may not customize—”
“I know, I know. It told me already. Tell me again, why can’t I just use your system for activation?”
“I am flattered, but my systems are based on the chip in the base of your neck and only works when in direct contact with an EnViro suit or another external uplink.”
17 sighed. “If you say so.”
“Are you ready to depart?”
“Yeah sure. Being out there in the Barrens is a hell of a lot better than in those damn alcoves.”
“I am sure I would agree if I had a body.”
The outer bay door opened. Before he stepped forward, he looked back. Was Alexa watching? He hoped he would see her again. He frowned and turned forward toward the lift.
As he descended toward his Dugger, 17 had his first glimpse of the Barrens in months. Dunes and rocky wastes filled his gaze. The wind changed the landscape right before his eyes. There was nothing but death and possibilities out there. He glanced in the corner of his heads-up display and noticed the wind was only 80 kph, a mild evening at least.
He missed trees. Even though they had some here in Central Park, he hadn’t seen one in centuries and wondered if there would ever be a day when he would see one again.
Before the end, he would see many.