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 Amazon.com 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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