Prologue: The End of a Migration
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 previously 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 was fading with the day.
Far back from the ruins of Langeles, Roderick awoke and sat up. 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 EnViro suit helmet, it was a ritual of beauty, a day that ended in victory. The power core within Langeles still remained, but the bells of the city were ringing for the last time. Langeles would never walk again and without migration, there was only death.
He pressed a small button under his chin and with his left hand pulled off his EnViro suit helmet. Its thick inner liner tugged at his graying hair as the helmet detached. He dropped the helmet to the ground and it thudded against the gravel.
He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and caressed the tattoo on his neck, the mark of his order; a tree of life with an eye in the center. Most of adherents of the Children of Gaia chose a simple armband on their EnViro suit exterior, but for Roderick, only the mix of blood and ink could mark his tribute and his loyalty.
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 gradually trickle into his lungs with each breathe. Fresh air was a luxury, but it had been a long day, and a little non-filtered air wouldn’t kill him.
He reached up to wipe the sweat from his brow. Already beads of moisture were gathering in the crevices of his wrinkled 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. Roderick looked down the length of his right arm and remembered. He sighed. Truth had a funny way of reminding you where you stand. The bloody stump where his right hand been only hours before was now a symbol of his haste. He turned and gazed at the wreckage of his Dugger vehicle behind him. It, like the city, was little more than a smoking ruin.
He untied the makeshift knot in the arm of his suit with his left arm and teeth, then unwrapped the gauze and examined the wound. It was already beginning to stink. He was fortunate that his EnViro suit had maintained his temperature and filtered air, considering the suit was no longer sealed properly. 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.
A deep and sudden silence slid into his ears. All noise evaporated and a high pitch 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 issued from the city. He clenched a solitary rock with his left hand for balance, feeling his feet beginning to give way.
It was the power core. An explosion that massive had to be the main power core. Dense smoke seeped into the sky. A hint of a mushroom cloud emerged but was quickly caught by gusting winds and scattered across the landscape, intermingling with the colors of the setting sun.
His men had finally reached it. Where he had failed, they had succeeded.
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 have to be ducking behind a ridge or hunkering down inside a small cave… but nothing was happening. Perhaps they didn’t use the nuke? Maybe his men had figured out a way to overload the core?
It made no difference. He allowed joy to wash over him. Roderick let out of a roar of triumph that caught on to the back of the lingering noise of the explosion and merged into forever.
Roderick fell to his knees and bowed forward, kissing the hardpan. His right stump barely 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.”
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 would never be able to scratch again.
Long ago someone had told him that all great gains came at great personal cost. If one city had cost him his hand, what would the remaining 11 cities cost him? He imagined himself, limbless and crippled at the end of his quest, or worse. What if he fell short? What if he was unable to stop the drills from piercing the Mother’s soul? He shook off the idea. Gaia would not allow it. Her will was more powerful than the walking monstrosities, wasn’t it?
A pinprick of doubt surfaced like a solitary bubble flowing upwards from the depths of a pond. He had been taught, growing up in the migrating city of Mex, of the great poisoning of Gaia. He learned that many fought to defend Mother Gaia, but all had failed in the wake of the greed and lust of so many powerful companies and corrupt politicians. When Gaia had grown too harsh, and had tried to eradicate humans with climate change, what had humans done? They built the wretched stilted cities and survived like a walking plague in perpetual motion, always escaping the sandstorms and apolicanes.
Apolicanes had made the coastal regions of the earth unlivable. Migrating cities were able to visit briefly to stock up on water from the vast and mostly lifeless oceans, but if they lingered, even more than a few weeks, they risked facing an Apolicane, a massive storm system that could span nearly a thousand miles with winds of more than 350 kilometers per hour.
It was rumored across long memory, that the Apolicanes were not in themselves natural, but yet another attempt for man to try and control his environment, some climate management system gone wrong. Roderick had never known if that particular story was true, but considering all the desperate things humans had done at the end of the 21st century, he wouldn’t be surprised.
His progenitors had called the cities the miracle that saved humanity. They had become giant arks keeping alive those that would continue to pillage the earth’s resources. Drilling deeper and deeper, scraping for every last raw material to maintain the mobile city infrastructure. To a city, Gaia was nothing but a giant piece of salvage, something to continue to exploit. Humans had learned nothing from history, nothing at all.
He stood surveying all that was barren. Today was a good day, a cause for celebration. Roderick smiled lifting his aching body and turning his attention back to the fallen city. The ruins roused his courage, his determination. There, in the smoking ruins, was the evidence that it was possible to rid the earth of its infestation. He would not fail. The last hope anyone would have of repairing the city ended with the destruction of the power core. They could repair the massive 150 meter legs, assuming they were able to avoid a sandstorm. They could repair the drill and the holes in the hull of the city, but the destruction of the power core marked its finality. The city of Langeles and its people were no more.
What of his haste? What of his disregard for Mother Gaia? So much had gone right, but what had gone wrong? Roderick closed his eyes and reviewed the events of the morning assault.
The city had begun drilling operations. Migration was halted so that resource extraction could begin. A massive drill protruded from the lower hunk of rock underneath the city and was burrowing into the earth.
“Commander, all 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.
“Excellent. What’s the status on the special delivery?” asked Roderick.
“The package has been delivered to the cities AI Commander. Rocky said the primary shield should fail shortly. One thing though, he also said the secondary shield is definitely an isolated system and it’s unlikely the virus will deactivate it.”
“Yes, Rocky had warned me earlier. The city should still be thrown into chaos. What’s the status on city leg security?”
“One moment commander, I’ll check.”
Roderick squirmed in the cramped quarters of the Dugger. He disliked being below ground in the Dugger transports. Duggers had been designed for numerous 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. They were a kind of land submarine, periscope sensors and all. These particular ones had been salvaged from the fallen city of Mex, which had been destroyed by a freak accident.
“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, then we send Miss and her teams to plant the tactical nukes on the legs. 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 70 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 com line. Roderick heard the hesitation. He knew that Patrick’s faith in Gaia had wavered of late. Many of his soldier’s faith had wavered. Inaction was a plague that could spread quickly and three years of planning was a long time.
“Has the Great Mother spoken with you about this plan Commander? I… I only ask out of curiosity, of course.” Patrick’s voice contained a hint of tremor.
Roderick smiled, showing his ancient tobacco stained teeth. “Of course Patrick. It was the Great Mother who devised this plan. She gave it to me in a powerful vision and showed me the city of Langeles on fire. She showed me 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 that 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 shaken at Saud and his own impatience was bubbling up to the surface. They needed a victory.
“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 have been activated.”
“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 Runner Core 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 and nail shut Langeles’s coffin.
“Yes Commander. May Gaia bless your path,” said Patrick.
“And may Gaia bless yours, Patrick. I will 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 towards 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 Runner Core from behind.
They were greatly outnumbered. From what his spy said, Langeles had 2300 Runners ready for combat. Roderick only had 1300 under his command and several hundred were women and children back at Atlantis base. The fallen shield would give them a sizable advantage.
The EnViro shield surrounding the walking cities wasn’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 tens of thousands in the secondary shielding shelters, there would be chaos. Numerous Runners would have to be deployed inside the city to maintain order. Langeles’s citizens were weapons mobilized in the Mother’s cause; every man, woman, and child an agent of chaos, an inadvertent solider in the Children of Gaia, to be offered up in sacrifice to the Great Mother.
The radar on screen saw the dots consolidating about a kilometer outside the cities boundary. Over the coms 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 begin to vibrate. Langeles had already opened fire with its rail guns 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 Runner core would need to be deployed in defense. Fresh blips on the radar screen were already beginning to appear. 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 channel to Miss.”
Miss, a strikingly beautiful woman, appeared on screen. Her deep blue eyes, olive skin, and black hair were everything that Roderick 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 was uncoupled from his Dugger. He felt lighter, more eager than before. His plan was unfolding perfectly so far.
Time passed and Roderick grew increasingly agitated. He hated sitting back and waiting while the rest of his troops were out fighting. So much could go wrong.
Roderick watched as the 8th and 9th nukes were attached to the cities legs. Only a few more nukes to go and then he would draw his troops back.
Then something went wrong.
Over the com 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… Retreating.”
“No! Don’t retreat. Finish the Mission and then get out of there.”
“Ten… planted… retreating… distance. Gaia…”
The signal evaporated. “AI what’s happening out there.”
“It appears that the Langeles Runner Core have discovered the leg team. Most of the team has been destroyed. 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 quickly.”
“AI, start the detonation clock. Let the Core team know we are moving as soon as the blast wave is clear.”
“Sir, In order to detonate I require a confirmation code.”
“Of course. V638927SI.”
“Thank you Sir. How long would you like the countdown to run?”
“How long will it take for 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.”
“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 his troops departing to a safe distance from the estimated blast zone. He watched nervously as more of the Langeles Runner Core seem to be gathering around the legs. If they figured out what happening… but Roderick knew it was too late, only six minutes remained in the countdown and there was no way they could disarm the weapons in time.
“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.
“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 countdown 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 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. A mighty roaring noise pressed itself against the ground and waves of sand and rock shifted above the Dugger.
In the view screen, Roderick saw the city kneeling down towards the earth, like a man kneeling beside the dying body of a brother in arms. The west end sunk first, smashing into the hard earth of the barrens. Skyscrapers broke in half and pieces scattered as they cascaded toward the ground. Then, finally, the rock slab of earth on which the city rested, slanted up towards the sky, on the hard desert earth.
Roderick’s rage and frustration were forgotten, as were the words of the mother. Roderick’s cheeks pulled upwards and a smile bloomed on his face.
Roderick opened a com 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 gripping the earth.
The Dugger gained speed and began moving more quickly towards 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 rear left tire and sent Roderick spinning through the air, rotating like a corkscrew. The vehicle connected with 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? He glanced back into the cockpit with only a hint of concern. 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.
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 it from the steering wheel. It would not release. Then, he tried to pry one finger at a time off the wheel, still no luck. He had heard of a death grip before but… he started to chuckle to himself but the laughter caught up with reality and it caught in his throat. He almost choked on it.
Frustrated he turned his head out towards 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. A high caliber pistol was aimed at Roderick’s face.
If Roderick had looked up only a single second later, it would have been the end of him. Roderick threw the rest of his body out of vehicle and rolled behind a solitary rock as the Runner opened fire. Bullets sprayed the terrain. One of the Runners bullets ricocheted off the metal of the Dugger and sunk into the Runner’s shin, forcing him to fall to one knee. Roderick, seeing his chance, jumped up and reached down for his sidearm in his EnViro suit. His bloody stump mashed against the holster and Roderick screamed in pain.
The scream further stunned the Runner and he dropped his weapon taking few steps back. Roderick reached across his body with left hand. He struggled, grasping at the butt of the revolver from the awkward angle, and finally, pulled it 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, behind it, blood splattered and the Runner rolled to his side, dead.
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 was dripping occasionally 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.
“Sir, the Core team has penetrated the perimeter and the main force appears to be overwhelming the remains of the Langeles Runner Core. 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. 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 life sign readings there are 289 casualties,”
Muttering more to himself then to the AI, Roderick asked, “Why was that Runner… out here?”
“Standard drill deployment procedure requires that a city deploy 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 towards the wrecked Dugger. He pried open the cargo hatch 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 then he found what he was looking for, an emergency flair, an antibiotic shot, some morphine, and an EnViro suit sealant patch.
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 grabbed the syringe and 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 quickly. 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. He braced himself as he slowly brought his left hand towards 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. Only a few more seconds and the wound would be closed.
Those last few seconds felt like an eternity. He could bare it no longer. He turned off the torch. Quickly, he injected anti-biotics 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 over and though the pain would linger, the danger of infection would be over.
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 hazy mirage of morphine. He knew it was unfortunate that Rocky’s virus required the cities security codes to work properly. The Langeles codes had not been easy to come by. Eleven cities remained and Roderick could think of only one certain path to absolute victory, especially with almost 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.