Robot Wasteland, Part 6 - Homecoming!

Clint Staples

Here is Part 6 of Robot Wasteland. If you have not had a chance, you can read chapters One, Two, Three, Four, and Five.

Robot Wasteland is a serial that I started 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 (An actual real-world DARPA submission, 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 Part Five, Kaz, Roark and Linnie, ran afoul of a group of scrappers out of Junkyard, led by a nasty character that Kaz knew personally named Callum. Attempting to buy off the scrappers doesn't go so well  . . .

 

Homecoming

 

Coughing and all but sightless, Kaz dove through the space that Roark had occupied a moment before – before he had roared and charged from cover toward several men with rifles and crossbows – out of the yellow cloud, and into the open.

            Not that she could see.  Her eyes streamed tears. The cool breeze told her she was exposed. Flat on the ground, arms and legs outstretched, belly scraping the dirt, she lizard-walked, as Jules used to call it.

            Her training saved her. She heard the crack of the shot, felt the bullet cut the air over her spine before whining from the hard-packed ground beyond.

            Judging from the direction of the bellowing, Roark was somewhere between her and the shooters. Berserk mountain of flesh or not, his life expectancy was measured in heartbeats if she didn’t do something. Bel’s bow was back in the cloud where she dropped it, useless without an arrow. Fritz’s scattergun was scraping the dirt under her hip. Neither it nor the holstered beamer was of any use this far away. She had to get closer to the action before Roark collected too many projectiles – and so she could see what needed shooting

            Kaz sprang to her feet. The ground was a blur, she ran anyway, zigzagging over the flat, adjusting to the feel of the earth beneath her boots. Her breath control, fast and very shallow, held coughing spasms at bay, but she grew dizzy in a half dozen strides, lungs ready to burst.

            The sound of gunfire blotted out the silent death of crossbow shots. But nothing came her way. Nor did they alter the timber of the tribesman’s rage. Roark was still up there, making noise and attracting attention, but that couldn’t last.

            Contracting her diaphragm, she expelled all the air in her throat and lungs, inhaled deeply of the comparatively clean air of regular, everyday Nomansland, and kept from coughing by an effort of will as she abandoned her evasive pattern for a straight run as fast as she could toward her ally’s war-cry. She needed to be close for the scattergun or beamer.

            Hell, with her eyes they way they were, she had to be on top of them to be able to see at all.

            Running all out, nearly blind, even with years of acrobatics and balance training, stumbling was inevitable. Her toe caught on something. The next things she knew she was falling. Tucking her head she rolled into a somersault, one knee bent, the other leg straight, hoping to step out of it like she had when evading the raider.

            She almost succeeded. Something teetered under her planting foot, her ankle strained dangerously. Correcting her stance saved her ankle, but sent her wildly off balance.

            Kaz was falling.

            He didn’t remember drawing the beamer but there it was in her hand. She hit the ground, clutched tight to he weapon as contact tore a searing trail of fire up the underside of her arm, along her ribs. When the sound of another rifle shot came, it was much closer. There was no hornet buzz of a bullet’s near miss. Only sudden silence as Roark’s roar ceased abruptly.

            Something heavy hit the ground nearby. Kaz saw the hazy shapes of people moving – like she was peering through bad glass in a rainstorm. Amid the sound of ragged gasping from nearby, she lizard-walked forward, ignoring the pain along her left side. Pavement rash was a problem for future Kaz.

            An object struck the earth right in front of her. A rifle? She couldn’t make it out. Another lizard-stride. Shouldn’t she be soaking up bullets and bolts? Her forward hand touched the object.

            Roark’s hammer!

            Beyond, there was a large shadowy shape, almost certainly a body, supine in the dirt. Two more shapes loomed over it. Tears of pain from the gas mingled with those of frustration and rage. Kaz didn’t know which was which.

            She pointed, fired the beamer, felt the whhummph as it cycled, the backwash of heat. Her eyes watered anew as the end of the pistol erupted, angry and orange. One of the loomers fell back. The screaming was terrible, and prolonged. Kaz shifted her aim to the other upright figure, pulled the trigger again, and again. But the beamer’s fire did not come. The loomer neared, took her shooting hand by the wrist, disarmed her easily as its shadow blotted out everything else.

            When Kaz heard Roark’s voice, she wept.

*****

           

Her eyes still stung, but she could see more clearly. Roark had her head lying on his thigh, his big hand providing welcome shade. His face, in the shadow of the reaver mask pushed back on his head, was not that of the savage that had charged a rifle and a pair of crossbows over open ground. She didn’t know what it was. It didn’t look like the face of an indiscriminate murderer, slaver or cannibal.

            “You can’t sell Linnie,” she begged in a whisper, hating herself for sounding so . . . vulnerable. But she was, she realized, looking up at those heavy features: the shining metal studs, hard eyes barely visible between folds of flesh, pale ghosts of scars she hadn’t noticed before. Even by the standards of Nomansland, this man’s life had been harsh. He was certainly a killer, could be a murderer, or worse. Had he wished, Roark could have crushed her skull, or trussed her up for sale along with the girl. What did it say about him that he hadn’t?

            The big man’s sky-grey eyes held her gaze for a long heartbeat before looking away.

            “No . . .” was all he said, his voice as low as hers, as distant as the line of hills to the west. When he turned back to her, his face was filled with anger, or something else as volatile.

            “Is her life worth more than mine? Of my children?” Kaz felt his leg tense under her head, saw the arm rise. For an instant she thought he was going to club her with it, but he was pointing westward.

            Wait, Kaz thought, He has children?

            Well, why not. He clearly was not young. And ferals have to breed, or no more ferals. Afraid that her rising would set him off, she reached upward, lay a gentle touch on his arm.

            “What are their names?”

            “Shon and Yenna,” his ferocity died with the naming of his children, but remained, like embers waiting for new fuel.

            Kaz hesitated, unsure whether asking the next question was a good idea. Finally, curiosity won out over caution. Slowly she sat up, pivoted on a buttock to sit beside him facing the high lands toward which he had pointed.

            “They’re out there? In the Glowing Hills?”

            Roark did not follow her gaze. Instead he looked down at the dirt between his knees and nodded.

            “I did something, and was banished from my people. Unless I can win my way back, Yenna and Shon will grow up as chattel to Dullan’s kin. I was going to . . .” Roark’s mouth hung open, the words refused to emerge as he turned to look past the bodies of the slain scrappers to where Linnie sat, back to the scene of carnage, a dozen strides away.

            Kaz, raised on barter and service in Junkyard, thought she understood.

“You thought you could swap Linnie to the people you wronged, get your children back?

            “Look, maybe you could have. But you don’t have to anymore. My mom, Jules, she’s pretty highly placed in Junkyard. I can get you inside, maybe even a place in the Union. But even if I can’t, your share of the reaver, plus whatever we can scrap from Callum’s assholes, who no one in Junkyard is going to miss, should be enough to let you buy whatever you need to free Yenna and Shon.”

            The feral had turned back to her during her speech, his face impassive, or just impossible for Kaz to read. Had she made any impression? The silvery dome of the reaver skull, dagger-like teeth prominent around its lower edge, did nothing to suggest that he would ever choose negotiation over bloodletting. But if he had accepted exile instead of fighting for his kin, maybe he was considering this.

            Roark got up, favoring a leg that she hadn’t noticed was red from thigh to shoe-top, and walked slowly to Linnie. There he slumped to the dust at her side with a groan. He spoke for quite a while as he and the girl, tiny in his shadow, faced the Glowing Hills. Kaz couldn’t hear what he said, but Linnie could. Her strange eyes were huge as she looked from Roark’s distant home to his face. Occasionally she would nod, or whisper words Kaz couldn’t catch. After a time, Roark lay back, flat on the ground. Linnie didn’t snuggle in, but she hadn’t drifted away either. She sat, sifting dirt with her fingers idly as the big man began to snore.

*****

 

            It was a slow trek to Junkyard with Roark hobbling at half speed or worse. But he carried his load of reaver without complaint.

            They arrived after the reinforced double doors were shut for the night. If Kaz hadn’t known where to look, they might have walked right by without noticing any sign of human habitation. That was the way things had to be when there were metal killing machines stalking the ruins for any slow-moving protein.

            Kaz had explained to Roark, and Linnie, that Junkyard was situated in a single complex of buildings, all connected like some sort of concrete organism. Once, it had been a water purification facility. Much of its structure was subterranean. Huge holding ponds in the ground of the biggest structure were connected via underground tubes to other, lesser pools or tanks elsewhere. Some ponds held water, others were dry, had been since the end of the world. These ones, along with a few covered or subterranean walkways that had been used by people a cataclysm ago, allowed access all across, and through Junkyard.

            None of that was visible from the outside, and it was the exterior that kept Junkyard safe. The majority of the complex being below grade had made it easy for rubble and other debris from whatever war had been waged to pile up, obscuring the outline of the facility, making it seem like little more than a mound of rubble itself. When the devourers scoured the dying world down to a husk, they overlooked the rubble pile in favor of easier access take-out – like people who ran screaming in terror. There had been attacks in the past, twice by sizable forces of devourers, and once by a particularly nasty band of ferals, but Junkyard had weathered them.

            For the final approach, Kaz went ahead. The little door that Jules called the Sally Port, would be manned, even after the big ones shut for the night. She saw no unfortunates stuck outdoors for the duration, but smart travelers tried to avoid the necessity of camping outside the gate.

            A flash of her Union card got her a few secs with the guards, who immediately granted her admittance. Getting Roark and Linnie inside proved to be more difficult. She swore herself responsible for the big man’s actions, and for care and feeding of the girl, but that wasn’t enough. Looking across the dozen metres that separated the gate from Roark and the girls, she couldn’t really blame the men on watch for their hesitation. Roark looked anything but harmless.

            Kaz recognized the smaller of the two scrappers on guard duty, Liyun, who knew her by sight. He was steadfastly forgetting that Kaz had connections with someone in Admin. Finally, she had to dig into Bel’s bag for a burnt-out servile husk, proffering it to the pair.

            A sec of evaluation and the trio was cleared for entrance. Kaz went back, collected Roark and Linnie and they approached the doors. When Liyun and his partner saw Roark pushing the makeshift wagon full of reaver-scrap, he looked like he might want to renegotiate the deal, but didn’t stop them entering. Kaz congratulated herself on telling Roark to block the guards line-of-sight to the prize by standing in front of the mower-wagon while he waited.

            Roark, great hammer in one fist, his other one balancing the hind leg of the reaver on his shoulder, stumped through the cramped doorway after Linnie, who followed Kaz and the wheeled contraption. Part of the reaver caught on the doorframe, made him teeter backward, but he righted himself. He had lost feeling in his injured leg a long walk ago, but stumbled onward, careful to angle away from Linnie, scraping the corrugated iron sidewall of the passage as he did.

            “Fuggin’ savage!”

            The hoarse whisper of the insult drifted to Roark from the guard-post. He was too tired to care, but his machine-spirit immediately urged him to violence. He caught his balance, turned back to the gate-guard. He knew he would be better to ignore the words, especially in the shape he was now. But it had been a long day and he found himself growling in time with the spirit in his mind as he took a step toward the guards.

            Kaz hand on his arm stayed him.

            He looked down at her, aware of the guards a pace or two away, fingering their weapons. He hadn’t noticed before, but she was beautiful: exotically so, with none of the deed-marks of his people. Unlike the plaited cords his folk favoured in imitation of machine cable, her hair was unbound and cut off at the shoulder. At the moment, her up-tilted face was dirt-smeared and gaunt with fatigue, but her eyes were bright and keen – and their message was clear.

            He squashed the insistence of his machine brother, holding to the reason he had agreed to come to this settlement. He let Kaz turn him away, and entered Junkyard proper, his machine spirit fuming inside his mind, cataloguing the features of the guards, with a notation for future violence.

 

End of Part 6