Interlude: The Final Mission

In a world ravaged by war, the environment is often painted in shades of gray.

Here it is: a new Interlude, with a twist. This short story was the inspiration for my new novella series No Road Home! Enjoy this story heavily influenced by Fallout series of video games. Then buy Echoes, the first book in the No Road Home series at on October 15, 2019.

He did now know pain.

At least, not anymore. They saw to that in the lab. They beat it out of him in training. He was oddly grateful for it in the blistering heat of the day.

The sun seared your flesh in a short period of time out here. His skin was accustomed to it. The back of his neck was like leather. Still, the sun was causing it to crack and bleed.

Doesn’t matter, now. The sun, the heat, the hunger… That still hurt, he’d admit. They made him resilient to starvation, but they didn’t quiet the hunger that accompanied it.

He pushed it out of his mind. He had an entire country to avenge. An entire country, ravaged by a war they never asked for, seared by nuclear fire, left to die, like him, in a parched desert landscape.

A house emerged out of the dusty haze ahead of him. Perhaps there might yet be food inside. People? Surely not. Nobody stayed out here after the dust settled.

Those that did were quickly slaughtered by bands of raiders. Their remaining possessions were torn apart, gutted, left to rot along with their decimated corpses. Their ransacked homes became their makeshift tombs.

He stood at the entrance of the home. The surname Garcia was painted in faded black letters above the house numbers. The door before him was shut.

He reached for the doorknob, but stopped himself. A brief glimmer of humanity sparked through him. He knocked gruffly on the weathered paint and listened.

There came no response. He tried the doorknob. It did not turn. He looked up at the top of the door frame. He ran a weathered hand along it. His fingers happened upon an oddly-cool piece of metal.

He slipped the key into the doorknob and turned it. The lock clicked. He turned the knob at last and pushed his way inside.

The temperature dropped noticeably as he stepped into the entryway. His footsteps sent a cloud of dust into the air. The sunlight entering the house flitted off the particles, casting ghosts about the room.

He looked at the floor. There was a dropped purse, a backpack full of unfinished homework. Shoes were scattered around an open closet.

Perhaps this home had escaped looting. He continued forward into the family living room. He wrinkled his nose.

Before him was a long-abandoned couch. In the corner was a worn, green recliner. In it were the mummified remains of an elderly lady.

“Little Pete, what’s to eat? Maybe grandma’s got a treat!” The man blinked the image of his own grandmother from his mind. He turned from the corpse, rubbing at his course cheeks.

A long-darkened TV panel stared back at him from the wall. He stepped over to it and tapped one corner. The screen remained dark.

He stepped into the kitchen. He looked over the fridge. No power meant nothing good in there. He was thankful for modern sealing technology.

The cabinets were fully stocked. The reality made him nervous. His stomach made him decisive. He chose a vintage, unopened box of Cheerios.

He opened it up and ate directly from the box. He looked for the expiration date as he munched away. Not bad for being a few months past freshness.

Something clicked and whirred in the hallway beyond. He put down the box and pulled out his handgun. The whirring and clicking was louder now, but also slower.

He popped around the corner, gun raised. A home security bot was very slowly trundling down the hallway. Its bright yellow eyes barely registered a somber orange.

“Intruder… alert.” The robotic words were barely a whisper in the silence, strung out and broken. So this is why the house was untouched.

“Military clearance alpha delta four two nine zero.” Two weak beeps came from within the robot. It remained still. It’s nuclear battery nearly spent, it wouldn’t have been able to carry on, anyway.

Peter the soldier emerged from the house a short time later. The hastily discarded backpack was now on his shoulder. Its textbooks had been replaced by breakfast cereal and canned goods.

A mansion appeared over the horizon sometime later, a lasting nod to the separation of rich and poor. He eyed it with interest as he drew closer. There could be some good gear in there, perhaps even a functional vehicle. There would almost certainly be greater security…

And of course there was. The hills surrounding the mansion were fenced in. A single, large gate opened onto a grand driveway that led to the main building.

A crazed, bipedal robot stormed out from behind it, screeching. The robot’s silver and white color scheme was quickly being taken over by a sheen of dark brown rust. The battery in this one was quite charged. Time for the gun again.

The soldier called out his clearance code to no effect. He tried to assert his dominance with the gun, instead. The robot barely slowed. “Shit.”

He holstered the gun and raised his fists. He slammed them full-forced into the robot’s chest, sending it skittering backwards a full two feet. The blow revealed the shiny titanium beneath the synthetic flesh covering the soldier’s knuckles.

The robot screeched. It quickly covered the distance between them and grappled with the soldier. “Not allowed! NOT ALLOWED! Violation of grounds! Protect protect PROTECT…”

“United States Army! STAND DOWN!” The robot headbutted him. He yelled as blood burst from the split in his skin.

He grabbed the robots chest plates and pulled with all his strength. The steel slowly peeled back. He jabbed one hand into the robot’s chest. He pulled it back out holding a fistful of wires.

The robot dropped to the ground. Its head and limbs twitched as its systems crashed one by one. The soldier warily stood over it, waiting for it to power down.

It became still at last. The robot turned to look on the soldier with blinking, fading eyes. “Daddy!” It was the voice of a young child, a recording.

“Daddy, I’m scared.”

“I know son,” the father’s voice was heard to answer.

“Daddy, I don’t want to die!” The light faded out of the robot’s eyes for the last time.

He shook his head, then lifted it skyward. He sighed deeply, letting it droop again. He produced a handkerchief from his pocket. The soldier wiped at the blood on his forehead.

Emotions. He’d had enough of them. Yet this world kept shoving them in his face. Part of the “enhancements” the military had given him was an emotional damper. He wondered, did they ever think it would be tested like this?

The soldier continued on his way. Cars were starting to appear on the side of the road, mostly on the right. In times of danger, citizens often look to the military for help.

Most of the cars were abandoned. Many, unfortunately, were not. He stopped looking when he passed a fully-loaded sedan, complete with an occupied child safety seat.

Army Base Delta started to come into view at long last. The lowering sun cast a long shadow before him. It took him longer than expected to get this far.

Something moved behind one of the abandoned cars ahead. He froze. There was another noise. He drew his gun.

A dog walked out from behind the automobile. The soldier grimaced, rolling his eyes. The dog stood staring at the man. It began to pant.

The soldier put away his weapon and continued on. The dog turned and began to follow as he passed. He stopped. The dog stopped. “Shoo.”

The dog sat and stared at him. “Stay.” The soldier waited a moment longer, then continued. The dog remained where he was.

The verbal detent wasn’t very effective. The dog jogged along to catch up. The soldier turned in anger. “I said SHOO!” He swung a foot at the dog.

The animal pulled up short, nearly falling backwards. He looked at the soldier with heavy eyes. “GO!” The dog turned and left with his tail between his legs, whimpering.

The soldier didn’t like what he saw as he drew closer to the Army base. He pulled out a small black device and activated it. The item started clicking immediately: a Geiger counter.

He replaced it with a packet of pills. The packaging was marked “Anti-Rad”. He ripped it open and dry-swallowed the contents.

He picked his way into the remains of the base. It appeared to have taken a direct hit in the nuclear strike. All that mattered was if one particular part of the base had survived.

It had. In the middle of the destruction stood a simple concrete dome. A heavy metal hatch remained intact on one side of it. Heavy black soot coated a half-melted keypad in the center of the hatch.

He cleared it as well as he could and typed in a string of numbers. Nothing happened for a moment. He was preparing to straighten up when there came a loud click from within the door.

He grabbed the large handle on one side of the hatch and pulled. It swung up and out to one side. Dim, yellow lights running on emergency power lit the shaft within.

A cool, dark tunnel extended from the bottom of the shaft. A gentle breeze brought the stench of decay with it. Not a good sign.

At the end of the shaft was a simple bunker consisting of a latrine, sleeping quarters, and a communications room. Inside the comm room, he found the corpses of two men. One was laying in one corner, a bullet hole in its head.

The other sat at one of the computer terminals, also with a bullet in its head. Murder-suicide. The screen was still lit, casting a ghostly glow on the corpse before it.

He slid the corpse’s chair out of the way, opting to sit in a slightly-less defiled chair nearby. On the screen he read “PROJECT: RETALIATE”. Below that, “Critical targets acquired. Launch warheads?”

He leaned back and sighed. One key press. He had come all this way for just one key press. One simple confirmation, and the United States would be avenged. Those responsible for this mass slaughter would be slaughtered themselves.

The soldier closed his eyes. “Little Pete,” his grandma told him. “Don’t repeat, death’s no treat!” He blinked his eyes open, and saw the corpse of the elderly woman in the house.

He squeezed them shut again and saw the corpses in the cars along the road. He saw the tiny skeleton in the safety seat. Heard the recording of the young boy. “I don’t want to die!”

Peter opened his eyes. He stared at the two buttons in the center of the screen: “OK” and “CANCEL”. Just one key press.

He was never sure how long after he opened his eyes it was before he moved. He supposed it didn’t matter. He’d go to his grave certain that he made the right choice.

Peter moved the cursor over the “CANCEL” button and clicked. The computer asked him if he was sure. He told it that he was, without hesitation.

He struck out on the road past the old Army base, the sun stretching out his shadow farther and farther before him. It was joined sometime later by a second shadow. This one was panting.

He stopped and looked to his side. The dog looked back up at him, his tail cautiously wagging. The soldier smiled, reaching down to pet the dog’s head. “Let’s go.” The companions continued down the road, leaving the horrors of the past behind them, looking towards the future.

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Interlude: The Right Path

Revisiting what you loved as a child might prove ill-advised as an adult.

Jenna’s eyes fluttered open. So bright. It felt as if she’d just gone to sleep. How could it be morning already? Her eyes focused on the sky above her. The sky?

She sat up, gasping. Her hands dug into the lush, green grass underneath her. She was on the edge of a forest. Two narrow, roughshod paths started a short distance away from her.

She slowly stood, looking about her as she went. This definitely wasn’t her bedroom, was it? She brushed self-consciously at her backside. She felt denim. So somehow she’d managed to get dressed, too.

Jenna jumped at a sudden flash of something gray moving in the grass before her. The gray lump stopped abruptly and looked upwards. It was a mouse. It grinned at her. “Hello, there! Welcome to our world.”

The young lady first gasped, then grimaced. “Oh, no… Not again!”

“Not again, she says.” The mouse crossed its tiny arms. “So rude!”

“Look, it’s nothing personal. This isn’t the first time I’ve been here, and it’s always a pain in the ass to get home, and…”

“Such language, too!” The mouse harrumphed.

Jenna clucked. “Yeah, well… That’s me.” She brushed an errant lock of hair from her face. She surveyed the two different paths. “Let me guess, one of these will lead me home.”

“Nope!” Jenna frowned. “Both of them will lead you home.” The mouse beamed.

“Of course they will,” she mumbled to herself. She turned back to her new friend. “So which one gets me there quicker? Hmm?”

“Well that would be the left one, but I really don’t think…”

“Thanks!” Jenna strode past the startled mouse and stepped onto the left pathway. She turned, smiling. “See you ar-OOF!” She found herself plastered against a very sudden, very solid brick wall.

The mouse winced. “I told you that wasn’t a very good idea.”

Jenna gasped. “You did not!”

The mouse’s eyes narrowed. “I certainly tried.”

“I suppose you did…” Jenna sighed. She turned back to the wall. “Well, every wall has a corner.” She turned to her left and was greeted by an adjacent wall. She cried out in disgust.

“Well, there’s the corner then, eh?” The mouse chuckled gleefully. Jenna shot him a death glare. He shrunk back. “You could always try the other path, you know.”

Jenna rubbed her temples. She slowly shook her head. “Fine. Sure. Why not? It’ll be fun.”

The mouse beamed. “Of course it will be fun! This is after all the land of…”

“Yeah, yeah, I know! Just… Let’s go.”

“How did you ever manage to get here with such a terrible attitude?”

Jenna rolled her eyes. “Just call me lucky.”

“Maybe one of us,” the mouse mumbled.


“Right this way, milady!” The mouse shot forward down the path to the right.

Jenna plodded along behind the mouse, a dour look on her face. It softened as she took in the forest around her. The midday sun was pouring through the treetops, making vibrant, dancing shadows on the forest floor. It certainly was beautiful, here.

“You’re remembering.”

Jenna blinked. “I’m sorry?”

The mouse stopped, turning around. “You’re remembering, from before. Surely your last visit here couldn’t have been so bad?”

She sighed. “Well… Not all of it, no.” Her hand subconsciously moved to the keloid scar on her upper arm. “I never asked to come back, though.”

“Right, well…” The mouse pointed. “Here’s another split for you, then. The left path is shorter again but I’d strongly suggest going to the right.”

“Left it is.” The mouse groaned, holding his shaking head. She peered down that direction. The ground appeared a little dampish, but the way was otherwise clear. “Don’t be silly. It looks fine.”

“As you will.” The mouse turned down the right path and bounded away without another peep.

“That’s more like it.” Jenna smiled, turning down the left path.

The trees surrounding her slowly pulled away from the roughshod path she walked. They were replaced instead with tall, flowing grass. The ground grew increasingly damp to the point where standing water appeared in places. Mosquitoes of alarming size and volume flew lazily about them.

A boggy pond came into view as she rounded a muddy corner. She grimaced, immediately regretting her decision. She turned around to return from the direction she had come, but it was too late.

A mud-covered, eight-foot-tall man stood before her. His sloping brow stuck out farther as he considered her. An ogre. His mouth stretched into a wide, toothy grin. “Well hello there, lovely! Haw haw!”

Jenna smiled hollowly. “An ogre! Okay! How lovely! Yes, well… I’m just wanting to go back the way I came, so if you don’t mind…”

“P’raps I do mind, then!” He crossed his log-like arms.

“If I’m on your property, I apologize. I’m just passing through.”

The ogre shrugged. “I’ll let you pass…” Jenna relaxed slightly. “If you give me what I want. Heh!”

Jenna shot him an incredulous look. “I am not that kind of lady!”

“Hold on to your garters there, miss. If I wanted your flower I’d pluck it, sure as the sun hangs high. I just want a kiss. On my forehead.” The grin returned. “Or is that too charged for you, eh?”

She sighed. “Well… I guess that’s not too terrible.”

“Less terrible than me tossing ya into yonder bog for being a pest, hmm? Haw!”

“Yes…” She stared absently at the path behind the ogre. “Yeah… Alright, I guess. Bend over so I can reach it.

“That’s the spirit!” He did as she asked and looked at her expectantly.

“Oh! No peeking now! That wouldn’t be very proper, you know.”

The ogre snorted. “Oh do pardon me, ma’am!” He closed his eyes and waited.

Jenna quietly tip-toed to one side of the ogre before making a run for it. She dashed past, brushing past him in an attempt to stay out of the boggy earth beside the path. It was a mistake that would cost her.

The ogre roared loud enough to shake the trees. He spun about and charged at her. He caught up with her in two strides and grasped the back of her shirt. She made a choking sound as her momentum pulled the neck of her blouse taut against her throat.

He lifted her clear off the ground by the garment. He held her at arm’s length, a smirk on his face. “We look slow, don’t we? But we ain’t! Haw! Not a bit, love.”

Jenna stared at the giant with wide, pleading eyes. “What… What are you gonna do with me? I’m sorry. I…”

“You’ll be sorry, right. What am I going to do with you?” He flashed a sinister look. “I’m gonna do just what I promised!” He started spinning around as he finished the sentence.

Faster and faster they spun around. Finally, he threw her with all his strength and a mighty roar that sent the birds fleeing from their perches. Jenna soared through the air, mewling and flailing as she went.

She fell back to earth in the center of the bog. She struggled to her feet, soaked in tepid water and rotting vegetation. She let out an exasperated scream.

The ogre boomed laughter. His mighty voice easily reached her ears. “Maybe next time you’ll just take your medicine like a good lass!” He swung one mighty hand in dismissal and pounded back the way he’d come.

Jenna fought back the urge to cry. She started dragging her way through the mud towards the other side of the bog. A familiar gray shape came into view as she neared the edge.

“You!” She flung out a muck-covered hand, extending an accusing finger. Mud flew through the air and landed to one side of the mouse. The poor creature jumped, peeping in surprise. “How!”

The mouse’s eyes narrowed. “How? I took the path I told you to take. Funny how I’m here nice and dry while you’ve been tossed in the wash.”

Jenna growled but said no more. She pulled herself onto the dry path near the mouse with a tired grunt. She sat down, turned back the way she had come from. She looked at her clothes and groaned.

“I tried to tell you to take the other path.”

Jenna sighed. “Yes, you did.” She pushed her way to her feet, absently shaking her arms as she stood.

“Right, well…” The mouse gestured towards the path. “Shall we?”

“Sure. Why not?” The mouse was all too happy to skitter away from the look on the young woman’s face.

A short walk later, and the unlikely duo found themselves standing at another fork in the road. Jenna’s misery deepened. “Great. Another fork.”

“Well it would be odd if it were a spoon, wouldn’t it?” The mouse tittered at its own joke. Jenna did not. The mouse nervously cleared his throat.

“Let me guess. I should take the right path.” The mouse shook his head. “So the left path, then.” The mouse shook his head once more. Jenna frowned. “Well I have to take one path or the other!”

“Yes, you do… Just not at the moment.”

Jenna growled. The mouse took an uneasy step backwards. “Yes at this moment! I want to go home!”

“Well right now you should go up.” The mouse nodded at the tree behind him.

“Up.” The mouse nodded. “You’re insane!” Jenna pounded past the mouse onto the left path. The mouse looked nervously on, then thought better and took his own advice. He watched her progress from a slightly higher vantage point.

Jenna plodded down the path, head hung low. Each heavy step raised dust and dropped mud from her soaked clothing. “Go up… I’ve had enough of this place. I loved this place! Such absurdity…”

She suddenly looked up. “What…” There came a loud rustling from further down the trail. She paused, listening. The sound subsided. “Just the wind.” She huffed and continued walking.

The rustling sound started again. She slowed. The rustling grew louder. “I uh… Maybe I should try the other path.” Jenna turned around and started back the way she had come.

The rustling did not subside. It instead grew louder, more consistent. She walked quicker. Was the ground rumbling? She slowed and ventured a look over her shoulder.

Her mouth formed into an “O” at the sight of the massive dust cloud rising in the distance. The rumbling grew in intensity. “Oh sh…” She turned and ran. “Mister Mouse! Mister Mouse!

A wild group of galloping ostriches clawed and leaped their way through the forest. The mouse’s tree was just ahead! She spared a look behind her and paid dearly for it.

The toe of her shoe caught fast on a root in the ground and sent her stumbling to the ground. She was quick to her feet, but the ostriches were even quicker. Jenna turned to see them bearing down on her.

The ostriches hissed and scratched and kicked as they scrambled around her. Jenna’s screams were quickly lost in the stampede that surrounded her. The crowd finally began to thin out. Jenna, shaking, collapsed against a tree and began to weep.

She stood wearily a short while later. She looked down and fought not to cry again. A quiet rustling came from behind her. She jumped, quietly crying out. It was the mouse.

“Pardon!” He looked at her from head to toe. “Oh… Oh, my. I dare say, you’ve been tarred and feathered, haven’t you?”

Jenna looked down again. The thick, sticky mud had clung to the loose feathers of the ostriches as they streamed by. It was an apt description. She sniffled, nodding slightly. “I just want to go home,” she said in a small voice.

The mouse sighed, nodding. “Best thing for you, perhaps. Maybe you’ll follow my advice now?” Jenna nodded numbly. “Right! This way, then! This path would have taken you straight to the razorhides.” Jenna did not recall the razorhides, but shuddered all the same.

They rounded the tree that the kindly mouse had scrambled up a short while ago and took the path to the right. It slowly arced in a semi-circle back in the direction of the left path. One path eventually crossed over the other via a gracefully arched stone bridge. The mysterious razorhides could be heard howling somewhere in the distance.

They emerged from the forest back into the brilliantly shining sun. The mouse sighed contentedly. Jenna frowned as the mess on her slowly dried in the heat. Tarred and feathered, indeed.

The mouse turned to face Jenna at the end of the path a short time later. “I’ve two things to show you, young lady. First, please follow me.” Jenna did as requested.

They ventured to the left a short distance through the grass. Soon they stood at the edge of a seemingly bottomless pit. The mouse turned to Jenna. “Not one person to fall in there has ever returned.”

Jenna shrugged. “That’s too bad? I won’t jump in there?”

The mouse smiled slyly. “You tried to!” He turned and pointed at a short cliff on the far side of the pit. “Up there… That’s the end of the path you tried to take at the beginning of this little adventure.”

“So that wall wasn’t trying to keep me from going home, it was trying to keep me out of the pit?”

“Looks that way, doesn’t it?” The mouse winked. “This way, please.” He skittered back the way they had come.

A short walk later and they stood before a round pool. Jenna ran a hand along the top of the slate wall that formed its sides and leaned over the edge. Her own gently rippling reflection stared back up at her.

Looking closer she saw something beneath the surface. Buildings and people were vaguely visible. Did she hear the drone of distant traffic? She spun around, smiling. “It’s the way home!”

The mouse jumped out of the way of a flying chunk of feathery mud, frowning. “Yes, I suppose it is, isn’t it? Perhaps you’ll be a bit cleaner on the other side of things…”

“Yes…” She looked down at her ruined clothes. “Still…” She looked back out across the fields before them. Maybe I could stay a while longer? I… Well, I missed being here.”

The mouse raised a furry eyebrow. “Fancy that, with you rushing for the exit so swiftly, hmm?”

It was Jenna’s turn to frown. “Yes, well… I suppose I haven’t been a very nice person…” The mouse nodded enthusiastically. “But perhaps if you gave me another chance…”

“Nope!” The ogre loomed up from around the far side of the pool and pounded towards her.

“What? How? I don’t…” Jenna’s head whipped back and forth between the petite mouse and the mammoth ogre.

“Quite true, you don’t. Haw!” He hoisted her up and dumped her unceremoniously headfirst into the pool. “Heh! The end, eh Mouse?”

The mouse nodded his head. “Quite! What a figure…”

Somewhere on the far side of that pool, in a city far away from the peace and tranquility of the other-world, Jenna rocketed out of a public fountain. The pigeons that had been sitting quietly about it screamed in defiance and fluttered into the air as she splashed back down. Jenna popped back out of the water, gasping. She spit out water, shaking her hands in front of her.

A police officer that had been leaning on the side of his cruiser stood up, eyebrows rising markedly. He shook his head and pushed on the bridge of his mirrored sunglasses. He walked towards her, talking quietly into his radio as he went.

“Hello, officer!” Jenna smiled innocently and waved. A chunk of mud flew through the air, just missing the officer. The man flinched reflexively backwards. “Oh… Sorry!”

The officer smirked. “Ma’am, I’m gonna have to ask you to step out of the fountain, please.”

“Oh, boy…” Jenna did as she was asked.

“So what’s your story? Take a wrong turn, or something?”

Jenna’s cheeks flushed. “Yeah, you could say that.”

Interlude: In Broad Daylight

A man and woman execute a heist in broad daylight with the expected results, but the man claims he knows exactly what he’s doing…

The old man and young lady lazily strolled past the entrance to the International Museum of Life and Nature. The man waved to a guard as they passed by. The guard waved back, a funny little smile on his face.

The young lady brushed a lock of blonde hair out of her eyes. “You’re just loving this, aren’t you?” She gave the old man a derisive look.

“Just trying to be nice. Those young men work hard to protect this place, you know.” He winked, grinning.

The odd couple rounded the corner of the building. They picked up their pace as they headed for the back. “Do we really need to do this now? Why can’t we wait until nightfall?”

“Because nobody will be expecting someone to break in right after closing. Getting cold feet, Alice?”

She punched the old man in the shoulder. “What’s with the real names, William?”

William scoffed. “Nobody calls me William. Well my mom did, but…”

The woman shushed him as she peeked around the back of the museum. “It’s clear, William.”

“I sense animosity.” He tip-toed theatrically to a nondescript gray door at the back of the building.

“If we don’t get caught, it will be a miracle.”

“Then just call me the Miracle Man.” Will smiled as he whipped out a small plastic card. A small black electronic device extended off one end of it.

He slid the card into a slot beside the door. A light on the attached device began to flash red. A click came from the door a moment later. The light turned green.

Will pulled the card back out and pocketed it. He pulled the door open and gestured towards the opening. “Ladies first.”

“How thoughtful of you.” Alice took one last nervous look around before dashing through the doorway.

The old man quietly closed the door behind him. He gave her a wink and pressed his index and middle fingers against the side of his neck. The wrinkles on his face smoothed, the marks of old age fading off his skin. His thinning hair filled back in, turning from gray to a reddish-brown.

Alice copied his actions. The crook in her nose smoothed away. Her eyes turned from blue to brown. Her long blonde hair shrank up into a black bob weave. “There’s the face I’ve come to… tolerate.”

“You love me and you know it.” He turned and walked into the next room over.

Hello, forgetting about security cameras? Motion sensors?”

“Chill out. I got this.” Will reached into the leather satchel on his hip. Out came a small, rounded metal device. A short, slender antenna extended from the top of it.

He placed it on a dull gray metal security box affixed to the wall. A minute light flashed on the end of the antenna. The lights in the museum glowed brightly before suddenly falling dark. Dull yellow emergency lighting flooded the museum in its place.

Will leaned in, inspecting the device. He tapped at it with his finger. “We should have five minutes maybe.”


He shrugged. “Maybe… definitely. Probably.” He strode out into the museum.

Alice crept along behind him. “Shouldn’t we be a little more discreet, or something?”

Will snorted. “The security system is off. Nobody knows we’re in here. What’s the big deal?” He turned his head towards the entrance at the sound of someone knocking on the glass. His guard-friend pointed menacingly at him. “Oh.”

“Real smooth.”

“Yeah.” He swiftly walked over to one display case in particular. Under the glass stood a six inch tall, rounded metal case on a black velvet pedestal. A blue light pulsed at the top of the casing.

“You ever wonder why everything has blinking lights on it?” Will asked.

“No. What is that, anyway?”

“A metal case.” Will smirked.

Alice punched him in the shoulder. “Duh! What’s inside it?”

“You’ll see…” The sound of the rear door clicking open floated to them from the back of the building. “Eventually!” He backed away from the case, dragging Alice along with him.

He pulled out a laser gun and fired a shot at the glass. The thin red bullet of light whined through the air and was absorbed into the glass. He shot again. This time the glass shattered.

Will dashed forward and grabbed the metal case and shoved it into his leather satchel. He froze as the alarm system began to blare. “That was about five minutes, wasn’t it? Fivish… Maybe four.”

“Come on, genius!” It was Alice’s turn to grab Will. They raced for the back of the museum. A gaggle of guards were pouring in.

“At least I’m not the one running towards the guys with the guns!” He held out a small device as they veered away from the nearest guard. A red beam fanned first across, then up and down the man.

“They’re armed! Open fire!” Red laser fire erupted all around the two thieves, streaks of light spreading out as they struck the floor and displays around them.

The barrage faded away as the guards lost sight of Will and Alice. The lead guard scanned across the dimly-lit museum. His radio crackled noisily in the quiet.

A pair of guards suddenly ran up to him, pointing in the direction they had come. “That way!” The first one said. “They’re headed for the entrance!”

The lead guard nodded and waved the others towards him. He ran towards the front of the museum. The two other guards looked at each other, smiling. They ran towards the back of the building, instead.

They stood by the rear entrance. “Idiots.” The guard held his fingers to his neck. His body rippled and morphed into that of Will.

“Did you have to make me so fat?” The other guard’s massive gut faded away as Alice made her transition.

“It worked, didn’t it?” He banged the metal door open and ran into the open air. Alice followed close behind him. He smiled, pointing. “Right on time!”

He was pointing to a US Mail levi-carrier. The vehicle’s boosters glowed pale blue, levitating the vehicle a few inches off of the ground. The cockpit door was open.

“Wait. You knew this would be here? How?”

“That’s why I’m in charge, isn’t it?” He winked before sprinting for the levi-carrier.

Alice ran after him. “You can’t be serious!”

Will climbed into the levi-carrier and waved her towards him. “I’m always serious!” He pulled her inside and slammed the door down.

He waved to the yelling mail carrier running towards him and smiled. He flipped a series of switches above and below him and pulled back on the joystick in front of him. The levi-carrier lurched upwards into the air.

A piercing alarm sounded. The levi-carrier halted its ascent and hovered in mid air three stories off the ground. “Well that was unexpected.” He pressed at a number of buttons. All responded with rapid beeping and no moving. “A little help, please?”

Alice sighed. “On it.” She sidled over to a control panel on the passenger side of the vehicle. She pulled a corded plug out of a small box clipped to her belt and jacked it into the panel.

A holographic keyboard and screen phased into existence before her, casting an eerie blue light in the cockpit. She hovered her hands over the keyboard and began pecking away. The alarm cut out a moment later with a series of beeps. “Fly.”

The sound of sirens drifted to them from somewhere in the distance. “Gladly!” Will continued his ascent and nosed the levi-carrier forward.

More beeping. The screen in the middle of the instrument cluster illuminated. “PROXIMITY WARNING” flashed on the screen, followed by a video feed of the rear of the airship. The screen was filled by a police air-pursuit interceptor.

“Hold on tight!” Will braced himself. Alice squeaked as he banked the levi-carrier sharply to the left. The belly of the vehicle shot sparks as it scraped the side of an apartment building.

“You know these things aren’t designed for this kind of flying, right?”

“Sure they are! It’s just not recommended.” Will slammed the vehicle to a stop and ascended rapidly. One of the pursuing police interceptors rocketed by underneath them.

The levi-carrier’s boosters sputtered and cut out. The vehicle began to drop. “There’s a reason it’s not recommended!” Alice screamed and slapped at him.

The vehicle bounced off another police interceptor hovering beneath them. The impact jolted the boosters back to life. Will yanked back on the the joystick, roasting the interceptor in blue fire.

The levi-carrier ascended rapidly as the police interceptor slowly descended, smoking and trembling. Will rocketed the the levi-carrier forward. A third police interceptor rose into sight behind them. “You gotta be kidding me!”

The interceptor matched the mail vehicle turn for turn as Will weaved around a number of skyscrapers. Alice clucked. “We’re never going to out-maneuver him. We’re a mail-van trying to outrace a military-spec pursuit vehicle.”

A grin slid across Will’s face. “You know the Willis building?”

“Yeah. What about it?”

“Are they still remodeling the skyview floors?”

Alice’s brow furrowed. “Yeah, I think, but…” Will’s grin broadened. “What are you thinking, William?”

The Willis building came into view. “This will work.”

Alice’s mouth turned into an “O” as she realized what was going on. “Oh Will no I don’t think that…”

“This will work.

“Oh god Will no it won’t oh my god!” The levi-carrier crashed through the glass facade of the skyview level of the Willis building. The vehicle tore at the ceiling of the level as the computer systems scrambled to compensate for the ground suddenly being inches below the boosters.

The police interceptor didn’t handle the transition as well and nosedived into the floor before bursting into flames. The levi-carrier burst through the windows on the far side of the building a heartbeat later. It dipped dangerously before the boosters corrected, rocketing the vehicle towards freedom.

Will set the battered levi-carrier down in a wooded area a short while later. He shut down the vehicle and sighed in relief. The silence pressed in on his ear drums.

Alice shattered it. “If you ever pull something like that again…”

“Yeah, yeah. You’ll stick with me just like you always have.” Will kicked the cockpit door open. He stumbled out and stretched. He sat down on a tree stump with a satisfied sigh.

Alice climbed out after him. “Alright. No more stalling. What did we risk our lives for?”

“So impatient!” Will pulled the round metal case out of his satchel. He took a small cylindrical tool from his coat pocket and held the tip of it to the case. The case beeped and split down the middle.

Will pulled the two ends apart revealing… a red apple. “Ta-da!”

“An apple? I could’ve died for an apple?

Will shook his head, disappointment on his face. “Tsk-tsk, Alice.” He pulled the fruit out of its containment device. “There’s only a handful of these badboys left in existence.”

He held it up to his face, examining it. “Scientists have had some luck cloning them, but they can never get them to grow for some reason.” He held the apple to his mouth and took a large bite out of it.

Alice gasped. “What are you doing!”

“I was hungry.” He took another bite. He shrugged his shoulders, chewing. “I always wanted to try one. Check it off the list.”

“Yeah… but now it’s kind of worthless?”

Will smiled and winked. “I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to eat the seeds.”

Interlude: Resurrection

Desperation turns to hope inside a long-abandoned warehouse.

There it was. She hadn’t been seeing things, after all. The building jutted from the ground like a rotten tooth as she crested the final dune. The old factory stood in defiance of time and the sands whipping around it.

But what kind of factory was it? That was the million-credit question. Even that took a back seat to the excitement she felt at the chance to get out of the sun for a few hours.

Perhaps it was some optical effect caused by the unrelenting sun, or her tenuous grasp on reality after being under its oppressive thumb for so long, but this was one big factory. She sighed with a sort of ecstasy as the shadow of the building finally fell over her. It felt as if she had just walked into a refrigeration unit.

She stood before the modest double-doors that gave entrance to the building. She looked up and up. It had to be a good three stories tall, at any rate. Old car factory? Tank factory? Had to be something big.

Lock-pick kit powers, activate. It was a simple deadbolt mechanism. She stood up a couple of minutes later, dusting herself off. She pulled on one of the doors. It resisted. She yanked at it until it finally squealed its way open.

The interior of the factory was cavernous. Brown and black shadows undisturbed for decades pulled away from the dusty beams of light set loose through the doorway. They joined the sunlight stabbing through the gloom from windows set high above her. She crept through the entrance, trying to look in every direction at once.

The door mechanism clicked and whirred, pulling the protesting door shut again. The clank and boom thundered through the factory like a thunderclap. The young woman jumped. “Jesus!”

She pulled a light mech off its perch on her arm and nestled it onto her shoulder. She turned it on, shooting a beam of blue-white light across the dimly-lit expanse. She whistled as the beam touched the farthest reaches of the factory.

The brief inspection told her she only had one floor to comb over. All that was left of the upper floors lay in piles of broken concrete and steel. Man’s handiwork was no match for the ravages of time and nature.

Neither, she feared, was anything that may lie beneath the building’s gutted remains. She lowered her head. There was so little left of humanity in this world. There had to be something here. Right?

“Please, God.” She approached the first pile of devastation, fingers working. It looked so insurmountable. A monument to broken dreams, as intangible as the faded memories hidden within it. She began to pry away the years.

She stepped down from the opposite side of the pile an hour later. There were no tears. Not yet. Not that she could spare the moisture… Three energy packs, a half-spent proton core. A sat-nav radio, possibly repairable, though with parts that were painfully scarce.

The clouded beams of sunlight were inching higher on the pitted walls of the factory. She looked about her at the various collections of detritus. She may be spending the night here.

She piled her finds in the middle of the trash-strewn floor and shuffled to the next trash pile. This one sparkled more than the last. Logic boards? Electrical circuits? She fought to keep her spirit as she tore into the past.

She found nothing of use. That was it, she had to stop. There were the tears. They tasted far too salty. She dropped to the floor, sending a cloud of stagnant dust into the air around her.

She slipped off her backpack and tore it open. She fished out a small bottle of faintly glowing yellow liquid. Concentrated hydrating fluid, the label said. It was half-empty. She took a small sip.

It felt as if she had drank the whole thing twice over. She sighed happily and capped the bottle. She surveyed the hilly landscape of trash. Right, where to next?

Her eyes paused and widened as they swept past the largest pile. It was shoved into one corner, mostly in shadow. She turned off her shoulder light and squinted.

She absently slipped the bottle into her backpack and shouldered it. She never took her eyes away from that mountain of waste. She began to smile as she neared it. Could it be?

In the middle of the pile was a small, rectangular object faintly radiating blue light. She scrambled towards it, feet and hands slipping in the dirt and detritus. She wiped her bloodied hand off on her pants and reached towards the object.

It was affixed to a dull metal panel of some sort. She wiped the dust away from the front of the object and squinted her eyes. The blue light shone brightly.

She tried to calm herself. Whatever this was, it was possibly functional, and almost certainly worth a considerable number of credits. But what was it?

There were no markings on the glowing rectangle. She ran her fingers around it, hoping they would tell her something she didn’t know. A smile slipped across her face. She pressed forward on the object.

It slid haltingly across the gritting surface of the panel. The lights clicked off, but something behind the panel clicked as well. She took a wobbling step back as the whole panel suddenly hinged upwards on pneumatic arms.

The glowing blue, red, and yellow lights inside illuminated her wide eyes and spreading smile. Here, friends, was hope. She dropped her backpack off of her shoulder and dove into it for her tools.

She sat back on her legs a short while later with a satisfied look on her face. The red lights had fallen dark, replaced with green. She thoughtlessly piled her tools back into her backpack and shouldered it again.

The panel quietly hissed itself closed. She reached out and pulled the rectangular release back down. It illuminated again, casting a soft blue light across her face and neck.

The sound of machinery whirring to life shattered the silence around her. Chunks of twisted steel and broken concrete shuddered and slid off of the piles of junk around her. She stood shakily, crying out.

She dropped to the floor, quickly walking backwards, her eyes widening as the pile grew. No, it wasn’t growing. Something was moving, shifting beneath the concrete and steel.

A pair of brilliant blue eyes shone out from the shadows.

A robot. Massive, corroded, but intact, slowly stood erect before her. Its head, fully ten feet above her own, turned to look down at her. Its eyes focused on her and turned red.

“No… No! Oh, God…” The young woman turned and began to run. The noise she feared, had expected, the robot’s shifting feet booming on the factory floor followed closely behind her.

“That is not what I expected.” She rounded the first pile of refuse she had combed through and settled in behind it. “ACQUIRING TARGET,” a loud, deep, robotic voice boomed close behind her.

The pile behind her shifted violently. She screamed, falling forward and scrambling forward over the dirt and debris. She turned to see the robot rapidly dismantling the pile.

It picked up a steel beam and cast it to the side. It slammed off the main doors, buckling them and sealing off her only known exit. She shook her head as she made eye contact with the robot.

“TARGET ACQUIRED.” The robot pounded one massive foot down upon the remains of the pile and dug in. The young woman screamed and ran towards the far corner of the factory.

She pressed herself tightly into the corner of the factory and reached for her only weapon, a small plasma pistol. It wasn’t there. She must have lost it when she ran…

The colossal machine filled her vision with darkness mixed with blood-red light. It leaned down, lowering its head. It smelt of motor oil and ancient technology.

She began to cry. Red laser beams scanned over her face and body. The lights disappeared a moment later with a loud buzz, followed by several beeps. “ACQUISITION COMPLETE.”

The robot swiftly stood back up. Its head faced forward, the crimson eyes fading to a more hopeful blue. There came a loud click, followed by staticky feedback from a speaker hidden in the robot’s chest.

“Is it working? Oh!” The sound of a young man clearing his throat came from the robot’s speaker. “If uh, a hem. If you’re hearing this, I am unfortunately no more. And… Okay, this is stupid.”

The young woman’s brow dipped as she cocked her head. The voice continued. “I had a whole speech, um… Look. I’m dead if you’re hearing this. If you reactivated this robot, you obviously know enough to take care of it.

“It’s all yours. Just… Please take care of it?” The man’s voice began to crack. “He’s much more than just a robot. You’ll see… So good luck. Or something.” There was a loud click. The speaker fell silent.

The young woman looked back up at the robot’s face. She jumped as it suddenly twisted to return her gaze. “So… You’re my robot now?”

“THAT IS CORRECT.” She twitched. “ADJUSTING volume. I obey your commands.” The young woman began to smile.

BOOM. The doors to the warehouse buckled outwards. BOOM! The doors exploded out into the desert, frame and all. The young lady walked out of the shadows and stepped to one side of the newly-formed exit.

The massive robot dipped down as it stepped out into the open. It stood, gazing out across the wastes, exposed to the outside world for the first time in decades. It turned to look at the young woman.

She smiled back at the robot before turning and walking back out into the desert. The robot clunked along behind her obediently. She guessed there was something worthwhile in there, after all.

Interlude: Killing Time

Not all is as it seems… or is it?

Kelly checked her watch again. “Two hours to kill.” She sighed. What was she going to do for two hours?

She looked up to see a woman dressed all in black pounding her stilettos into the sidewalk a short distance up ahead. “Where did she come from?” She mumbled the thought to herself.

The mysterious woman suddenly stopped. She slowly turned halfway around. Kelly unconsciously came to a stop and made eye contact with the woman.

The lady in black stared back at her with piercing black eyes. A smile slowly played out across her lips. There was a seductive feeling to it. She winked and abruptly walked into an alleyway on her left.

“Huh.” Kelly half-smiled. She started walking forward again. Curiosity welled up within her.

She stopped just shy of the alley. She stretched a bit, trying to get a glimpse of what lay around the corner. She sighed. “Well, I do have a couple of hours to kill.”

Kelly giggled nervously. Was she serious? She’d never really looked at other girls that way. This was nuts. She darted forward, meaning to walk right past the alley.

She stopped though, and turned. It didn’t feel entirely optional to her. She swallowed hard and peered into the alley.

At the far end was the lady in black. She had removed her trench coat. She had a black blouse on, the neck dipping dangerously low. The lady turned just so and smiled seductively before slinking out of sight to her left.

Kelly shook her head. “Yeah, okay… This is too weird for…” She slapped at her arm. “Ow!” Her hand came away trailing cobwebs. “Damn spiders.”

She looked up. The lady was leaning around the corner. She gave her another wink and disappeared out of sight. Kelly sighed shakily. “Why not…” She started forward down the alley.

The dull pain in her arm faded from her mind as she began her journey into the unknown. She grinned at the sun above her. She had a couple of hours, right? Maybe this lady would be more fun than the guy she was supposed to be meeting.

She grimaced. She lowered her head and shook it. This was nuts. Her arm was hurting again. Maybe she should just go home…

A cool, gentle wind wafted over her. Unheard voices whispered to her on the breeze. She opened her eyes and jumped. A small squirrel observed her for a moment before skittering down the alley.

She watched it bounce away, suddenly feeling better. She smiled and began to follow after it. The silent whispering voices reassured her all would be well. Of course everything would be well!

She breathed deeply through her nose. Had the air always been so fresh in this part of the city? The alley seemed to be widening the farther she walked.

The end, where the lady had turned away again, seemed farther away somehow. Kelly found she didn’t care much about it. The sun was shining so brightly in the alley, and…

What alley?

She laughed at herself. There were no alleys out here. She blinked the glare of the sun out of her eyes. She sighed contentedly, taking in the rolling verdant fields before her.

A dark figure dipped behind a tree in the woods ahead. Had that been the mysterious lady in black? Wait… What lady in black? She was going to meet…

A man. He peered playfully at her from behind the tree. She grinned back at him. She giggled and began to jog towards the treeline in the distance.

How silly was she? Kelly rolled her eyes. She probably just needed something to eat. Those two hours went by awful quick.

She stopped short of the tree her beau was hiding behind. She giggled. “Hello?”

The strapping young man popped out from behind the tree with a flair. Kelly giggled again. He smiled broadly. “Greetings, fair maiden.”

Kelly blushed. “Fair maiden, huh? Well, aren’t you sweet.” She walked up to him without realizing what she was doing and embraced him.

He smiled down at her. “We’ll do such wonderful things together.”

All seemed well from poor Kelly’s perspective, but from any other angle…

One would see that Kelly was not embracing an attractive young man, but was in the grips of a monstrous black spider. Its razor-sharp mandibles worked open and closed inches from her face as the young man spoke to her in her head.

“You should rest, first.” The young man wrapped a gauze-like white linen about her. Kelly’s eyes grew heavy. “Sleep well, and dream of the sweet music we will make together.”

Kelly’s eyelids slowly shut. “Yes… So beautiful…” She drifted off to sleep.

The spider skittered back from the cocooned woman and considered its handiwork. Only her mouth and nose remained visible. It let slip a small screech of approval. The spider skittered off deeper into the cave to inspect its other meals.

It stopped, rearing up at a screeching noise from just inside the entrance to its lair. The cave was suddenly flooded with dull, yellow light. The spider turned about, darting towards the commotion.

A young warrior in leather armor stood bathed in yellow-orange light. The cocoon before him ignited with a WHUMP as he touched his torch to it. The baby spiders inside screamed just as the ones in the previous cocoon had.

The mother spider reared up on her back legs, screeching indignantly through her quickly working mandibles. The man tossed the torch at the colossal spider’s feet. It skittered backwards.

The warrior unsheathed his sword and paced around the cocoon. The spider was gone when he reached the far side. The seductive sing-song voice of an unseen woman whispered into his ear. The tip of his sword dipped toward the ground.

The sound of another screeching baby spider snapped him back to reality. He spun around, lifting his sword just in time to hold back a killing blow from the mother spider. He fell over backwards onto the hard ground, the spider looming over him.

Kelly stirred inside of her cocoon, unaware of what was happening around her. The man shoved up on the giant spider with all his might and slashed into the spider. Hot, acrid blood rained down on him. Spider and man screamed in unison.

Kelly’s eyes fluttered open. The webbing covering her eyes glowed dull orange from the firelight. What was going on?

She had her answer a moment later. The young man tore the cocoon away from her face. He smiled at her. “Hello, fair maiden.”

Kelly smiled uncertainly. “What’s going on? You look familiar…”

“You were captured by a Dream-Weaver spider. I followed you in here.”

Kelly went white. “A spider… I was bit…” The man freed her with his sword. She stumbled forwards into his arms and embraced him.

The man smiled. “You’ll be safe, now.” He took her by the hand and led her out of the cave.

She looked over her shoulder as they left. A feeling of shock and horror passed over her, even as her mind refused to let her see the carnage she was leaving behind. She turned back to her beau, smiling gratefully.

They walked out into the open fields. The sun shone down upon them, warming them after the cold of the cave. She smiled contentedly, venturing into the unknown with her new companion.