Robot Wasteland, Chapter 1 - Running

Clint Staples

Since this appears to be Fiction Friday, I thought I would post some too.

This is the first part of a story serial that I wrote a while back, based on an RPG I developed called Robot Wasteland, in which humanity was all but wiped out by a DARPA experiment to create Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robots (yup, the acronym for that is E.A.T.R.) gone completely wild.

A couple of decades after the fall of mankind, surviving humanity has to hide in the wasteland, avoiding the devourers, as the metal monsters are called, yet eke out a living on the scraps of life that remain.

But maybe there is hope.

Fewer devourers are active as time goes by, their processors fried, or their conversion chambers empty for too long.The Mobile Factories haven't been seen in nearly a decade.

Maybe it is time for Mankind to stop hiding and reclaim the Robot Wasteland.

 

Chapter 1 - Running

            In the tick of time available, Kaz considered the brick in one hand and the slugger in the other. Both were ugly, scarred, too heavy for real accuracy. Whenever she fired the slugger, the kick sent a jolt of pain all the way up her arm. Right now, she yearned desperately to pull the trigger anyway. There wasn’t really any choice to make. Slamming the pistol into the sling at her hip, she stood up and hurled the rock with all her might at the shrieking chainsaw head of the raider.

            She ran.

            Without knowing whether she had hit her target or not, without any real hope of escape, she ran. She had been running for years, so she was used to it. Worn, dirty boots carried her over or around the debris that cluttered what, before the Harrowing, had been Packard Avenue. As she ran for her life, she imagined that at one time there might have been a noticeable difference between the avenue and the areas to either side. Jules’ stories were full of trees and green grass and water. Now the road was barely distinguishable from the rubble and arid earth around it – a straight ribbon of cracked, heaved concrete slightly darker than the parched ground surrounding it.          

            This wasn’t going to work. The staccato of the raider was getting louder. Ahead of her it was a straight run, nothing to interrupt the race. Kaz had to do something or it would not be a long one. She ducked her head, planted a foot as it hit the ground and drove herself up and to the left, her arms reaching for the leaning Packard Street signpost. Gloved hands slapping the metal pipe, she gripped as momentum carried her body around in a straight-legged arc, rising off the ground to pivot around the pole. For an instant she was upside-down and overhead, craning her neck to look down at the saw-blade spine of the raider, nightmarish chain-blade maw at the one end, a wicked scythe-tail on the other. The head didn’t turn to follow her. It had lost her for a sec. Raiders didn’t waste energy on processors; she might get out of this yet.

            Her swing continued until she was face down, body parallel to the earth, legs spread, knees slightly bent, ready to touch down when she let go of the signpost then kick out into a run in the opposite direction, hopefully leaving a confused and hungry raider scratching its chip with non-existent fore-claws.

            But her moment of luck did not last. Her equilibrium shifted, as the signpost pulled free of its concrete foot. Instead of landing in a run, she flew, legs uppermost, as the center around which she swung gave way. An instant later she hit the ground hard, preventing a face-plant only by catching herself with slapping palms and one armored knee. The signpost went clanging along Packard Avenue until it bounced against the rusted husk of an old car.   

            Kaz scrambled to her feet and started running again, refusing the hot flare in her knee, not wasting time looking for her metal pursuer. Raiders might not be that smart, but they got audio. Sure enough, an instant later she heard the triphammer sound of its feet tac-tacking the scarred tarmac behind her. The raider had not been distracted by the clanging progress of the signpost; the video of her fleeing backside overrode any further consideration of the sound. Kaz hadn’t thought she could run any faster, or be any more scared. She was surprised to find that she was wrong on both counts.

            At least she was headed back in the direction of camp. Leaping over a treacherous pile of stones, she drew her empty slugger as she dodged toward the raised stone circle upon which they had set themselves up a few hours ago, back when Fritz and Bel were still kicking. Before the ravager and its little pal had happened upon them. Maybe she could stuff the slugger into the raider’s face and jam its chain-blade.

*

            Bel was supposed to have been on watch.

            Maybe she fell asleep; maybe the ravager was just that good. Kaz had heard stories about them stalking, quiet as ghosts, until they were close enough to leap and kill in one swift strike. Maybe the metal terror had controlled the raider, commanded it to stay back as it worked its way close. She didn’t know. By the time Kaz sat up, limbs quivering with fear and adrenaline at the commotion, Bel’s scream was over. Fritz’s was cut off short. Kaz looked up, slugger in hand, to see a body cartwheeling through the air, missing a head and an arm, to smack the stone like a bloody sack a pace from where she sat. Across the body as she scrambled away from the spreading blood, she saw the source of the carnage - a ravager, eight hundred K of angry, hungry metal, one of the nastiest devourers ever to come out of the mobile factories.

           She’d never seen one before, but nobody lived long in Nomansland without hearing horror stories about a leftover ravager, hunkered down for a decade or two on trickle flow, waiting for a recharge to walk on by. Currently, its spade-shaped head was half-buried in Bel’s chest, its lower jaw raking blood, bone and meat into its conversion chamber. She could see Bel’s pretty face spattered by her own blood as the devourer fed. The shaking head of the ravager imparted movement, made her look like she might be alive. But the eyes were like glass.

            A tracker beamed from the smooth upper surface of the ravager’s skullplate, red light tracing a ragged line through the dust in the air between them. She looked down to see the end of the beam settle on her torso. The ravager’s tail rose snake-like over the shoulders of the hunched tigerish form, the targeting lase of the beamer at the tail’s end covering the red dot already painted on her chest.

            Her slugger, forgotten in her grip until that instant, held no hope. The projectile would do little to the eater before her, even if she were not incinerated before she could lift her arm. But no crackling bolt of plasma erupted from the muzzle of the beamer. The targeting lase held her as the ocular beam winked out. A sec later, it vanished. The ravager returned to its meal.

            Kaz had been dismissed. Maybe the ravager had more food than it could consume, or didn’t want to waste the energy. The reason didn’t matter; she had to go before it gave its processors a shake. She freed herself from the thin cloth over her legs, gathered herself slowly into a crouch looking anywhere but at Bel’s lolling head. Backing away a dozen agonizing paces, the old adage “Metal follows Movement” playing in her head. At the edge of the remnant of their camp, Kaz turned to skulk off – leaving Bel, Fritz, everything they had had, behind.

            That was when the raider charged from behind a pile of rubble. Maybe the ravager had summoned it, maybe her luck was so bad she had stumbled on two independent machines at the same time. Sighting with the slugger she fired her last three shells. One shot kicked up a spray of concrete dust to one side of the hurtling eater, Another spanged from the curving carapace of its torso, causing the raider to stagger momentarily before righting itself and renewing its charge. The destination of the third shot remained a mystery as she turned – and ran.

*

            Kaz was moving full out over ancient broken pavement, raider on her heels, when she remembered the feeding ravager in the camp ahead. Reconsidering, she swerved to put the remains of some indecipherable broken monument between them, long climbing strides carrying her to, then up the pile of rubble that marked a building from the time before metal had wiped out most of humanity.

            Out of the corner of her eye she noticed that the ravager was not where it had been. She hadn’t been away more than a dozen secs, run maybe fifty paces or so in each direction, but the predator was gone, along with Bel. As the raider began to scramble up the rugged slope, Kaz bolted for what was left of camp, sprinted the last few strides to the raised platform, up the stone steps, and dove for Fritz’s corpse.

            She landed hard on her sore knee, grunting as her hands came forward, stopping her from falling face first into the red ruin of Fritz’s upper body. She shove thoughts of him away. The sound of the raider’s pursuit changed as it scrabbled up the steps, chain-blade shrieking to life in anticipation. Her hands fumbled for the beamer harness at Frits’ waist. One hand gripping the blood-soaked webbing, pulling to increase her forward momentum as she tucked head head to her chest, the other hand closed around the grip of the beamer as she curled her body into a somersault over the body. The hand on the harness pushed off from the body as her legs straightened, scissored, twisting in mid-air to turn her toward her pursuer. The whine of the raider’s chain-blade all but drowned the low whumph as the beamer cycled. The devourer toppled forward, head dropping to bury its buzzing maw in Fritz’s already mutilated corpse. Kaz landed, straight-legged and perfect, weapon arm still trained on the raider, the other extended behind her for balance, She gazed at the smoking, glowing hole in its fore-body as the buzz-saw groan wound down, the digitigrade talons ceased their spastic kicking. She could smell ozone and burning electronics.

            Her own ragged breathing, and the slamming of her pulse in her ears replaced the sounds of pursuit and slaughter. There was no sign of the ravager or Bel. She checked the action of the beamer, worried about the electric burning smell of a moment before; it had cycled properly, and appeared to have enough charge for another shot or two. She wasn’t sure how well the beamer would handle the ravager if it returned, but it was the heaviest thing that the three of them had had, especially against armor. Even faulty weapon cores like the one in the beamer, that didn’t even register charges on the magazine display, were so prized that Fritz had refused to use it except in direst emergency. Kaz decided that this had qualified.

            Satisfied that the weapon would defend her a little longer, she slowed her breathing while she surveyed what remained of the last three years of her life. Nothing looked familiar, bedrolls, backpacks, shredded tent, all scattered, flattened, as unrecognizable as Fritz. She tried to look away, but insider her head it was worse.

            Fritz, and the camp, were the shambles you’d expect when a thousand K of devourers came calling. Bel was nothing more than a smear of red leading into the rubble. Kaz had to orient herself by tracking back to her own bedding, before she could figure out where Fritz had lain down. He had always insisted that they sleep separately when they were in the waste. A sob tore its way up and out, followed by nausea that had her bending over, hand to her mouth.

            She bit her lip until it bled, smiled tightly at the easy, physical, pain.     

            She knew she should gather everything she could carry, sorting out the best items before she left, but she couldn’t face pawing over the body to get his knife or fire-pouch, and the fear of finding the rest of him, or the ravager, was all she could think of. So she prowled the camp half-heartedly, found Bel’s bow and three loose arrows lying next to her pack. One shaft was broken, but she stuffed it into Bel’s pack with the others anyway. The quiver must have gone with Bel. Fritz’s scattergun and his pick, blood-spattered and lying only a few feet apart, were amid the crumpled and unbloodied remains of his bedroll. So he had been awake. It just hadn’t helped.

            Should’ve pulled the beamer, she thought. Her gorge rose again.      

            She found his pack, undisturbed, one strap hanging from the corner of a broken concrete pillar. She went through its contents without enough consideration, but his scent was all over it, floating on the blood and death and ozone. She opened Bel’s smaller bag, took what she felt would serve her best, stuffing each piece into the larger bag, then she did the same with her own. She left behind more than she took, but made sure that all of the ammo and weapons were with her, and as much of the rest as she could carry. Pushing back a loose strand of ashen hair, she swiped the back of her glove across her eyes, retrieved her own gear, and took off northwest. She needed to make it to Junkyard before nightfall if she wanted to live.

                                                                                          *****

For those who like a visual, the image in the header of this article depicts the Ravager. I sculpt miniatures for the game industry, so I sculpted some for Robot Wasteland. Paint job by the incredibly talented award-winning minis painter Samson.

Next Friday - Chapter 2 - Hunting