Underground Shelter, W.A.R.T.S
The sandstorm winds begin to ebb, as several people rush the rest of the way out of the underground shelters’ entrance tunnel. A blonde man approaches with a borrowed rifle held up to his eye line and not a step behind him are two other men wielding pistols. One of the men awkwardly holds his gun while keeping his bandaged arm up to steady his aim. They stop a moment at the ticket booth, a remnant of the underground garages’ past purpose and examine the bloodstained off-white wall.
They sidestep a crumpled body and stalk toward the generators set up along the wall beside the makeshift electric fence. The rolling gate shutters as the last of the storm passes by, but the lack of howling winds outside goes unnoticed while the mercenaries check if their newest assailant has truthfully been neutralized. They focus on the threat lying on its side, slightly smoking from its chest. Each man hangs back at least a meter from the body, while more people join the scene.
“Wallace!” A night guard runs over to the body beside the ticket booth. He slides the rest of the distance to the body’s side and grips the man’s bloody head. “Wake up, Wallace! Wake up!”
“Move aside.” The night guard shifts to give the smaller man room to work but doesn’t leave his companion’s side.
Pheno kneels beside the unconscious guard and notes that he’s bleeding profusely from his forehead. He ignores the commotion happening behind, while leaning over the injured man and monitoring his pulse at the side of his neck. There is a slim, shallow cut on the patient’s neck, but it isn’t a cause for concern.
“Is he alive?”
The doctor ignores the question as he examines the laceration cut across the forearm. He takes at the deep wound and reaches within his brown satchel for some materials. The thick strap digs into his boney shoulder as he rifles around in its depths. His hand pulls out a small brown bottle, a thin white cloth, and a small roll of gauze. He settles down on the ground and lays the items on his lap. He cleans around the wound with the thin cloth, then unravels some of the gauze, folds it, and presses it into the unconscious man’s forearm.
“Hold this here.” The doctor instructs the night guard while keeping the limb raised above the patient’s head. “Press down, but keep it high.” He packs his other items into his bag, then uses the guard’s shoulder to rise off the ground. Small pebbles and soil cling to the knees of his raggedy, brown trousers.
“—dead. The storm’s died down. Don’t know for how long, but—”
Pheno hurries over to the mercenaries surrounding the human remains beside the generator. The darker skinned mercenary, Nard, is nudging the corpse with his foot while his comrade keeps his weapon drawn, aimed for the head. The blonde has his rifle lowered and is speaking on his radio. The doctor clears his throat. “One dead. This one will make it if we can get to the infirmary.”
Ika bites his lower lip, he can see the night guard keeping the pressure on the injured man’s wound behind Pheno. He glares down at the remains in front of him before speaking into his radio. “We’re coming over to A level. The gate is clear. Open it up and send someone to the infirmary, we’re on our way.” He pockets his radio and turns to Nard. “Let’s go. We have to get them out the side exit.”
Nard looks over at the other mercenary, spits on the corpse, and holsters his weapon. “Legs?”
“Meh, fine, but you first. I’m shit backwards.” Both men grab the injured man while the night guard keeps the damaged arm up and out of the way. Pheno follows them, calling out reminders for care.
Ika remains with the corpse. He crouches beside Marcus’s head and turns it upward to view the cloth covered eye. Was it even…?
He hooks a finger under the cloth to—
“We’ve come to open the gate!” an older woman’s panting voice cuts through his thoughts and springs him back to standing. His rifle thumps against his inner thigh while he backs away from the generators to give her room to work.
“Get me a tarp!” the woman orders one of the three lackeys behind her before grabbing the body by its wrist and hauling it to the side, out of her way. Ika retreats from the area, it’ll take some time to get the wires off the gates here and then this entire tunnel will be jam packed with traffic as people return to their homes.
He makes his way toward A level. The rest of the wounded will be taken out of the alternate exit. They’ll need all the help they can get with the current chaos that’s just swept through their encampment.
1.3 km East of W.A.R.T.S
“Ugh, right. There’s no privacy down there.”
“I’m glad to be sleeping without some schmuck snoring in the next tent over.”
“That’s ‘cause you usually aren’t outside the orphanage. I’m lucky if I only get snoring.”
An old pickup truck drives away from W.A.R.T.S’s main area down a well-traveled road a kilometer outside of the base. Tires kick up dust from the arid, cracked ground as they turn off the main road to circle a shallow pit. The pit was dug in the shadows of a large rock formation that appears to be in the shape of a giant tooth. With three, enormous, spiraling roots shooting out from the center, the molar shaped formation sat in the middle of the mostly flat desert plain.
It’s the only bit left of a unit of formations that were scattered along the province, a clear marker of the defeat New Cinalia suffered from the many blows dealt by Underling. Their boss calls it “diente rocoso” [rocky tooth], but the rest of his men call it Crap Mouth Rock, since it sits right beside two pits, one for their trash and one for their shits.
Southeast of their position sits a river that pushes contaminated water right by their location to flow north toward the mountain ranges in the distance. Back in their direction, beside the pit of crap, the communal toilets are settled above a large pit full of critters waiting for fresh dung to feast upon. The rusty blue pickup truck parks and the two subordinates leisurely round the truck as they continue their conversation.
“I saw Nicky and Cohen at it again the night before…or I don’t know.” The young man slams his door and taps his leather gloved hand on the roof of the truck while he thinks. “Telling time down there is hard…maybe two nights ago actually. I don’t think they know their angry whispering isn’t…what’s the word?”
“Subtle.” The other young man, who is wearing a brown cap, stands at the back of the truck with his hands resting on the warm metal. He picks at the peeling paint chips.
“Yeah, that.” Gloves slaps a hand down on the latch to open the cargo area then hops inside to get to the tarp lying in the corner of the dirty truck bed. After he gets a good grip on it, he lifts the wide end of the tarp onto his thighs and looks down at his buddy. “You got it?”
“Yeah, sure.” The tarp is pushed out of the truck into the waiting arms of his comrade. He shuffles backward until Gloves can hop out. “You know what can solve all of that?”
“What?” Gloves’s gaze is fixed on the bill of his friend’s brown cap, envious of the shade hiding him from the sun’s harsh rays, rays that are beating down into his eyes and on the back of his neck.
“A night away from everyone will do them good. Cohen’s been stuck working with all those kids, she needs a good—” The heavy bundle is carried between their bodies as they slowly approach the shallow pit.
“Ugh.” Gloves shifts the bundle a bit higher and sidesteps a rock. “Dude, don’t start with that again.”
“What?” Brown Cap has a lewd smile spread across his face.
“People’ve got real problems…sex doesn’t solve everything.”
“Hey, did I say that? All I mean is—” He adjusts his grip on the tarp and looks over his shoulder at the large cat-sized maggots squirming in the sandy pit. “Show me a couple and I’ll tell you who ain’t getting any. You fart down there and people hear it three floors below you. Nicky ain’t into that.”
“You know what else Nicky ain’t into?”
They pause as they get to the edge of the trash pit and lower the bundle to the ground. The young man with the brown cap pulls it off to fan himself but spares a glance at his friend to raise an eyebrow. What?
“You.” His close-mouthed smile can’t hold back the laugh that shakes his frame.
“Ha ha.” Brown Cap rolls his eyes at the corny joke. “I ain’t into him or anything, but Nicky ain’t half bad. You could learn a thing or two from him.”
“Like what? How to get pussy whipped in an apocalypse? That guy could have any pick of the girls and he went for Cohen?” Gloves shakes his head at the foolish choice.
Brown Cap wiggles his eyebrows and crouches down to untie the strings securing the tarp around the lengthy body. “He ain’t want a girl. He wanted a woman.” With the ties undone, him and the other errand boy back up and turn the bundle parallel with the edge. “Cohen can handle herself out here that’s why Dennis stuck her with those orphans. Fred alone would get done in by a plastic bag. I’m surprised he’s made it this long.”
“Fuckin’ Fred. Did I tell you what he—”
The truck radio goes off and both men pause to look at the vehicle. “Charlie, Ed? Charlie, Ed? You still out there…at the Mouth? OVER.” Brown Cap jogs over to the passenger side and leans into the truck to reply back.
“Toilet kids sighted some critters down by the river, can’t fill the pails. Stop down there and give them a hand then hustle back. OVER.”
“Aiy, okay. Roger that.” He sets down the radio microphone and slides out of the truck.
“Damn…Let’s hurry this up. Toilet kids need a save again.” Brown Cap bends over to shove at the bundle wrapped in the tarp while Gloves keeps the tarp within his hands.
Gloves scoffs. “I ain’t getting stuck in a two-hour line cause those twits can’t stand to kill a few bugs.”
“Okay, let’s toss this sad sap and kill some goons.”
The corpse tumbles out of the tarp with a few shoves and careens down into the maggot infested pit below. The errand boys wrinkle their nose at the sight, roll up the tarp, and turn to head back to their vehicle. As the truck drives away, southeast down toward the brown muddy water, the body continues to roll toward the center of the pit.
SYSTEM REBOOT COMPLETE
SYNTHETIC INTELLIGENCE DEVELOPER LOADING…
STARTUP PROCEDURE ACTIVATED…
ANALYZING DISK SPACE…
UPLOADING MEMORY FILES…
TURNING ON VISUAL EFFECTS…
ADMIN DISTRESS EXCEEDED MAXIMUM PARAMETERS
ADMIN’S LIFE FORCE IN JEOPARDY
PRIORITY #1 FAILURE IMMINENT
INFILTRATING EXPLORERTECH INDUSTRIES WASHINGTON
The body rolls to the center of the pit impeding the path of several maggots searching for decaying food and animal scraps. The maggots are starving from having to burrow into the sand to hide from the wrath of the sandstorm’s winds. One maggot; about the size of a well-fed cat, white, and moist; crawls onto the newest clump of nutrients and tries to acquire a taste. The clump bucks the maggot off its back. Violent spasms run up and down the body’s form.
“Aaaaaaaah!” Sia screams face down in the sand. The scream is muffled by the gravel, trash, and remains mixed into the pit. She tries to take a breath and chokes, flailing and scraping an arm through the scum. Her other arm, jerks from under the object pinning it down, and pushes against the earth to roll her onto her side. Finally, air feeds past her muddy split lips, but before she can enjoy the bliss of survival a current of pain flows through her body.
“Aaaaah!” She’s in agony. A burning sensation morphs while traveling down her spine, and fire ignites at the back of her legs. Her head feels too small, her mind feels it will tear under the immense strain.
“Necra bolo!” Sia tries to bring a hand to swipe at her eyes. She can’t see. She can’t see. After being stuck in that darkness for who knows how long… she needs to see, but her arms won’t cooperate. Her head lolls back against the grimy soil as another spasm courses through her. “Aaaaaaaah!”
Somehow, she rolls back onto her stomach and wriggles against…. the ground. She can feel moist walls shift around her as she labors toward…somewhere. Her throbbing limbs are weighed down by at least twenty kilograms of suffering each, but something keeps them moving across the uneven terrain. After a few seconds, her body numbs but her mind continues to pulsate alternating levels of awful and intense pain.
“Necra Bolo! Min perdern tregar roman!”
What?! Sia doesn’t understand the words spewing out her mouth. “Reeeeema! Lenn, min perdern tregar roman!”
“Aaaaaaaah!” She can’t take it. She can’t survive something like this. “Reeeema!”
Put…ter? Is— Sia tries to communicate with the device. It must hear her, it must have woken her up. Why has she woken up in this condition? S.I…?
But the Synthetic Intelligence Developer is not the voice to answer.
Help…me…. a deep male voice reverberates within her aching mind. Sia cringes and curls into herself before projecting back a message.
Apex…is tha—. Sia struggles to form her thoughts into coherent words. How is Apex occupying her mind at the same time she is? This has never happened before. What the hell is going on?
The scream that tears through them almost rips the combined consciousness out of their hands. Sia’s mud encrusted eyes gape open as she convulses on the ground and a deep wail emits from her weakened vocal chords. When the shudders cease to wrack her body, she rapidly blinks to get a better view of her surroundings and sees the pale, translucent skin of a large larvae squirming nearby.
“Uggaaaaaaah!” She tries to raise herself up, but only succeeds in kicking her legs uselessly against the trash strewn ground.
The commotion within the pit doesn’t go unnoticed.