Robot Wasteland, Chapter 2 - Hunting

Clint Staples

Fiction Friday is apparently a thing - so here is part 2 of Robot Wasteland.

Robot Wasteland is a serial that I wrote a while back, based on an RPG I developed of the same name (did not get sold or anything, I just ran it for a bit- so if anybody wants to publish it, you let me know), in which humanity was all but wiped out by a DARPA experiment to create Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robots (And Yes, 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, and survive, in the wasteland left by the rampaging robots who consume any organic material they can find, avoiding the metal monstrosities referred to variously as devourers, eaters, metal, etc.

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 Factories, giant moving fortresses that churned out devourers, are a thing of the past.

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

In chapter two, we leave Kaz behind for the moment, and meet a new denizen of the wasteland - Roark. As you light guess from the title, he has a different way of dealing with the tribulations of daily life in the wasteland.

 

Chapter Two - Hunting

 

            Ragged empty groans drifted from the mouth of a dark alley across the road. Anger flared in response, burning through Roark’s mind, a livid rush down his spine, through his limbs, answered by the howl of the machine-spirit. The world around him snapped into crystal focus. Shadows that had been impenetrable to his sight a moment ago were now deeper gradations of green, the machine’s soul-sight imposed over the normal world. The whining howl echoed through his skull, he could feel his muscles leap and twist under his skin as a roar of fury, amplified by the machine-spirit, burst from his lips.

             Several husks shambled from the shadows, eyes fixed on him where he stood, trembling with rage amid the rubble. Roark swung back his great hammer into a two handed grip, and charged. Talismans and trophies scraped and clinked against his armor as he hurled himself across the open area, heedless of stealth, his only desire to destroy. The husks lurched and staggered as fast as they were able, arms outstretched in their need, such that they were spread out in a straggling mob as he met them. The heavy head of the hammer smashed the torso of the nearest, the force of the blow hurling the withered thing into the one next to it, impact sending pieces flying from them both. They went down in a tangle of  thrashing limbs. Roark’s stomping foot came down on a skull as his charge carried him among the horde. Sweeping hammer blows shattered the bodies as he whirled and frothed in the grip the machine. The husks ringed him, pressing in, eager to grasp with hands or teeth. But the tines of the hammer pierced and crushed, manic strength hurled them down, or away or into each other, caving in skulls until none remained whole.            

            Moments after his charge Roark stood, surrounded by his shattered foes, legs wide, hammer-head resting on the ground, chest heaving. The terrible wordless chatter of his machine-brother urged him to run howling and mad into the depths of the Ruin, killing all in his path.

He almost gave in.

But no threat materialized, no living thing appeared to kindle the machine-spirit.  After a time, it fell silent. Never again would he would he surrender himself to his brother’s hungers.

            Once again in command, Roark smashed or stomped the heads of any that still moved, hissed or groaned. Finally, only the chill wind could be heard as it whipped dust and scant snowflakes along the road. Looking down the canyon of concrete and brick, he pondered his next move.

            If he were going to find anything that the clan truly valued, he would have to venture further into the Ruin. He had been scratching away at its flanks for two days without turning up enough even to keep himself fed, let alone pay for the lives he had taken. As if echoing his thought, his belly growled its complaint. Rubblers were poor fodder, and not easy caught by a man alone and on the move. He had been lucky to kill one with his gear whip yesterday. After going without anything more than icy rainwater for three days previous he had consumed it, guts and all, in a single setting. Now all he had was a scrap of its hide and the bones for soup. He peered skyward, inhaling deeply. The Bright-Spirit, hidden eternally behind its veil of dirty red clouds, was low, near its night-home. Breathing deeply through his nostrils, he huffed out again as his belly growled once more. The chill air carried no hint of food or fire amid the musty scent of concrete dust. He did not relish another hungry night.

            A sound came to him, woke the machine-spirit from its slumber. A cry – light as air – flitted on the scouring wind, faint with distance, or a much closer whimper of pain.

His brother’s hunger at the sound was terrible. Roark squashed it without mercy, allowing only the tiniest portion of the machine its freedom. The sound, sourceless to his unaided ear, gave up distance and direction to the machine’s senses. The sound belonged to the same shadows that had spewed the husks. Sending a wordless thanks to his brother for his aid, Roark padded into the alley, hammer ready, summoning machine-sight to pierce the shadows.

            There was no sound beyond the wind, though he must be close to the source of the cry. If some machine were luring him to his death, surely he would hear it again as it attempted to draw him onward. He trod as lightly as he could, but Roark was a very big man, further enhanced by his brother-bond, and armored. Whatever had made the sound might have had heard him approach. He stopped moving, listening intently, asking the spirit to listen too.

Nothing.

            About to approach, ambush or no, he heard a scrabbling, like gravel rattling onto stone, or a rubbler crawling through bricks and debris. His brother pinpointed a section of the wall on his field of vision. Experimentally, Roark rapped the butt-spike of his hammer against the ancient structure. The brick walls were in better repair than many in the Ruin, in places towering three or more times his height. In response to his tapping, a trickle of gravel poured down from its upper reaches, but amid that sound he heard the whimper. Peering at the wall, there were a number of cracks near its foundation through which rubblers might creep, or sound emerge. Stomach growling at the thought of fresh meat, he retraced his steps, to the mouth of the alley and looked for a way around the wall.  

            A tall arched opening, now in partial collapse., beckoned. Once there might have been a door, or shards of the fine glass you could still find occasionally, which polished up very well. Now there were only tiny chips in the frame – dusty, translucent pieces of another lifetime. The floor was strewn with bricks, fallen wall and ceiling, such that his clattering, clanking progress gave him little chance of surprising the rubbler. Following the point his brother had pinned in his sight, Roark bent low before a section of collapsed roof to peer into the shadows,.

            Machine-sight caught movement. Flared a light to paint his quarry as Roark closed the distance, leaning low to cram his bulk into the tight confines, blocking any avenue of escape for the rubbler.

            A girl!

            Half again the size of his Yenna, a flare of hair glowing green in his soul-sight, strange eyes that glittered like glass, a mouth open in a wide oval, good teeth, all visible by the aid of the machine-spirit. He also saw the knife clenched in her little fist as she crouched, back pressed to the furthest part of her little cave, her other hand stretched toward him, fingers spread, palm forward as though the gesture could hold him back.

She screamed.

            From within his brother’s skull, Roark hissed. He scuttled backward, quick for such a big man, scanning the immediate area instinctively. Machines, husks, and other things, waited for such an invitation. His augmented senses told him with some surety, that nothing nearby was stirring to investigate. He moved toward the girl again, shushing her the way one would a babe too young to know better. She paused only to draw another breath.

            The girl was not screaming at him, Roark. He reached behind his head to grip the harness of cables and hoses, woven and bound into a tail that hung down his back, and lifted the skull of his machine-brother from his head. Immediately, his muscles began to tremble, bereft of his spirit’s presence, the senses, the fury. Looking up, he tried to fit a kindly expression to his harsh features, hoping that his smile would be visible through his thick, red-brown beard in the gloom of encroaching dusk, that she would not focus on the deed-marks that studded his forehead and temples with silver, copper and gold. “Shhhhhh  . . .” he whispered, like he had to Yenna and Shon when they were small, “I won’t hurt you.”

            She quieted on seeing his human features. Roark held a hand out to her, but she would not take it. Unaided by the machine-spirit, he peered at her again. It was easier to imagine Yenna’s features now that the strange girl was only a light spot in the darkness, “You can’t stay there, you. The rubblers and will get you if nothing worse does. Come on out.”

Too, a softer tone was easier to manage without his brother snarling in his head.

            He wished he had some food to coax her. Instead he continued to proffer his open hand – huge and dirty, scarred and calloused from a hard life. Finally, he felt her tiny, long-fingered hand took his, and he gently tugged her from her lair.

Despite her strange coloring, she was a pretty child, a winter or two short of her blood. To his human eyes her hair was nearly white, a match to skin so pale that it looked more like the rare white stone the ancients like to carve in fanciful whorls and embellishments. Her eyes were bright copper, like his second set of deed-marks. She wore a dirty, grey, hooded poncho that reached past her waist, over too-short, too-tight pants with raggedly patched knees. Her feet were bare. She was tiny, not much larger than Yenna though nearly double her age, if he judged right. She still held her little knife, now at her side, which was of shining silvery steel of the highest quality.

            “Can you speak?” he said gently.

            “Yes!” Her tone was indignant. Pointing tentatively at the skull, she said,  ‘I thought you were a devourer.’

            “I am not.” He tapped the smooth curve of his brother’s skull where it lay beside him, adding, “He does as I say.” As it always did, his fingernail found the groove his hammer had scored along its snout.  Her eyes had widened when he spoke of the dread machine as a brother. “Are your people near? I will get you back to them.”

            She shook her head quickly, turning away, eyes staring bleakly into the darkening corner of the rubble-strewn room. He added quickly, “I won’t do them harm. You must have someone . . . you can’t be wandering here by yours . . .”

            “Not anymore,” her voice broke like thin glass,  “I . . . don’t have anyone.”

            It was Roark’s turn to look away, as anger entirely his own twisted his features in a way that would certainly frighten the girl.. How could he win enough from the Ruin to return to the clan, with this helpless child to mind. He cold barely feed himself.

            His fury turned to self-loathing. He forced down his impulse toward the impulse toward kindheartedness, picked up the machine skull again and settled it over his head, letting the mane of cables fall around his shoulders, down his back. Immediately, his brother lent him the strength to adher his plan. He would offer the girl to Dullan’s people as compensation for the killing. A girl just coming into her blood would be the end of his exile.  

            His hand darted out, surprising them both, gripped her arm tightly. The other twisted the knife away, drawing a gasp of pain from the girl. “You will come with me,” he said, voice as hard as his brother’s cold chattering in his mind.


End of Chapter 2