FlashFic: Dark Skies, Cold Hearts

A mysterious sight in the night sky takes a treacherous turn.

“What is it, grandpa?”

The old man stepped out onto the porch and looked up at the night sky. “Looks like a shooting star!” The bright blue object did not fade, though the man’s smile did. “No, that ain’t right…”

The boy’s father stepped out of the house. “What is it, Pop? Meteor shower?”

“I don’t know.” The object had tripled in size and brightness. The sky started to rumble. He shielded his eyes.

“Jesus…” The younger man squinted. “That’s not a meteor, is it?”

“No…” The grandfather took a step back. “That’s an aircraft, or something.”

“I bet it’s a space ship!” The boy ran off into the front yard.

“Danny, no!” His father ran after him.

A screaming sound accompanied the rumbling. The object gleamed in the sky. It was triangular, with three brilliant blue circles beneath it. “I told you! It’s a space ship!”

The boy began waving at the UFO. Danny’s father grabbed him and started pulling him backward. “No, Danny! We don’t know if they’re friendly…”

A beam of pure white energy zapped from the spacecraft and struck the father in the chest, knocking him backward. “GAH!” A brown scorch-mark graced his sky-blue dress-shirt. “I can’t move…”

A second beam, much wider and violet-white, engulfed the boy before he could run to his father. “Dad!” The man watched helplessly as his son lifted off the ground. “Dad! I feel…”

The boy disintegrated before the man’s eyes. The individual bits of matter pulled apart and shot up the beam into the ship. “DANNY! NOOO!”

The grandfather burst back out of the front door with an old service rifle just as the purple beam dissipated. “DON’T YOU TAKE MY GRANDSON, YOU SONS OF BITCHES!” The old man took aim and opened fire.

The shots plinked uselessly off of the spacecraft. The father turned his head towards the grandfather and shouted. “Dad, no!”

There were tears in the old man’s eyes. “Hell YES!” He emptied the gun into the spacecraft. The last round caused sparks to shoot out of the front of the UFO.

A third light beam, this one blood red, shot from the spacecraft and into the old man’s chest. “DAD!” The old man’s body was silhouetted in glowing orange light. It disintegrated like the boy’s body had, but the particulates fell to the ground, burning ash blown in the wind from the UFO’s wake.

The spacecraft turned. It rocketed up into the air at an impossible rate. A wash of blue energy blew backwards into the old farmhouse, setting it ablaze. The still-paralyzed father slipped into the cold black hole of unconsciousness.

He awoke sometime later. Several dark figures stood around him. He cried out and flailed his way backwards. “He’s awake.” The voice was distant and quiet to him.

“Shit,” another voice said. “Grab him.” Two pairs of strong hands grabbed the father’s arms and held him fast. They propped him up on his feet and let go.

One of the figures stepped forward, slowly coming into focus. It was a man in US Army fatigues. The father began to cry. “Please! My son…”

The Army man held up a hand. “We know what happened. Did you call anyone? Call for help?”

The father shook his head. “No… I didn’t have time. They took my…”

“We know.” The man took out a pistol. “Too bad they killed you and whoever that ash pile is.” He aimed it at the father’s head and pulled the trigger.

The father let out a single piercing screech and fell dead to the ground. The man put the gun away. “Secure the area.” He turned and walked back into the shadows.

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 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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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: The Complex

A boy learns the hard way to listen to his elders as he finds his way through a decades-abandoned building.

The young man pulled himself up onto the sagging roof of the Nagatomi Complex with a grunt. His companion was waiting for him impatiently. “I don’t know if we should be up here, Kyle.”

“Come on, Aaron! We’re teenagers now. Besides, it’s not like help is miles away.”

“Yeah, but my dad said this place is…” Kyle had run out of patience. “Aw, come on, man!”

Kyle ran along the pitted roof, jumping over the old duct work and debris. “There’s nothing in here, Aaron! Come on!”

Aaron breathed in gasps. “Just… wait!”

Kyle slid to a stop in the rubble. Aaron stumbled to a halt and half-crashed into him. “Watch it, dork!” He pointed at a sizable hole in the roof. “Dare me to jump it?”

Aaron looked uncertain. “I don’t know, Kyle. What if you don’t make it?”

“Whatever, man.” Kyle flashed him a grin before breaking into a run. His feet touched down just on the far side of the hole. The rotted roof cracked and groaned, giving way underneath his weight.

Kyle cried out in surprise as he disappeared down into the complex. Aaron ran to the edge of the hole. He was nearly in tears. “Kyle! Kyle!”

The young man was sprawled across a pile of rubble several feet down. He sat up coughing, brushing at the dust covering him. “I’m alright.”

“Just sit tight! I’ll go get my dad!”

“I said I’m fine! I’ll just find my way out and meet you out front.”

“Oh, man! That’s not a good idea! My dad says there’s things in there. Just wait.”

“I got this, dude!” Kyle pulled a 9 millimeter handgun from the waist of his pants. “Ain’t nothing gonna take me out.”

“Whatever, man. I’m getting my dad!” Aaron ran off before Kyle could respond.

“Yeah, whatever…” Kyle stood with a groan, taking in his surroundings. To his surprise, he found he could see deeper into the complex. The emergency lights were still working, albeit weakly, at least a century after the building had been abandoned.

“Sweet. I’ll be out of here in no time.” He spared the sky above one final look before wandering deeper into the building.

The floors were littered with fallen cabinetry and various destroyed furnishings. Long-forgotten reports lay scattered across the rusting metal flooring. The dim, flickering emergency lights cast macabre, dancing shadows at odd angles.

“Just an old abandoned factory.” Kyle talked quietly to himself. He gripped the pistol tightly in his hands. “Just need to get to the stairs.”

He heard something rustle in the far corner. He stopped dead, listening. “Probably rats.” He continued on, moving a little faster.

He swore he heard something speak, very faintly. “I don’t…” It was distorted. “Probably an old computer or something.” Kyle spotted the door to the emergency stairwell and breathed a sigh of relief.”

“I don’t…” The voice was much clearer this time. “I don’t feel…” It was coming from just ahead of him.

Kyle came to a stop and held up the handgun with shaking hands. “I… I have a gun!”

The pile of rubble just ahead and to the left of him began to shift. “I don’t…” Something was pushing itself free of the debris. “I don’t feel…”

A heavily damaged robot slowly rose from the wreckage. Its cladding was missing, leaving the sharp, skeletal substructure visible. The rusting motors and servos whined in protest at being put through their motions after so many decades.

“I don’t feel…” A bright white mask, featureless save for a hint of a mouth and black eye holes stared back at the boy. “I don’t… feel…”

“Stay back! I’ll shoot!” Kyle’s whole body was quivering.

The towering machine stuttered forwards, metal feet squealing on the floor. It stretched skeletal fingers out towards the boy. “I don’t…”

Kyle screamed. He squeezed off two wild shots, then ran for the stairwell. The robot began clunking faster towards the boy. It continued it’s plaintive cries. “I don’t… I don’t feel…”

The boy pounded down the stairs and burst out of the door at the bottom. Faint daylight filtered through filthy windows. He could make out the main entrance through an open door from the room he was in.

“I told you… No problem…” Kyle huffed as he jogged to the other side of the room. He passed through the open door, eyes on the prize.

A loud bang followed by an avalanche of papers and filing cabinets erupted from beside him. He screamed, swinging the handgun wildly and wasting two more shots. He fell backwards against the wall as something emerged from the mess.

Another robot. This one was wheeled, with skeletal, human-like arms. In the middle of its frame was an old, flickering CRT monitor. An odd-shaped black dome sat atop it. The blurred image of a woman’s face appeared on the screen.

The face contorted and began to cry and blubber. The disembodied head shook violently and began to scream. The robot started toward Kyle, arms swinging.

The boy screamed back and started firing the gun. The last two shots struck the dome atop the screen. Sparks flew from the robot. The face of the woman continued to scream, contorting and stretching.

A final blast shot the black dome off of the robot. The screen went blank. Kyle pushed himself to his feet against the wall. He gasped as he peered into where the dome had been.

A shattered inner glass dome held what looked like a human brain. The brackish fluid that had supported it poured down over the rusted metal exterior of the robot-human hybrid. He leaned in, fascinated and repulsed at the same time.

“I don’t feel…” The white-masked robot reached out towards Kyle from around the open doorway. Kyle screamed and ran for the front door. He grabbed both handles and pulled. It was locked.

“I don’t feel…” The robot stared at its destroyed counterpart. “I don’t…” It continued its march towards Kyle, arms outstretched. “I don’t feel…”

Kyle screamed, pulling and yanking on the doors. He gave up, turning to run. He tripped over a fallen filing cabinet and hit his head on the cold floor.

“I don’t…” Kyle fought to open his eyes. The robot was looming over him. He screamed, scrambling backwards. Where was the gun?

The robot bent towards the ground before Kyle. It stumbled, nearly toppling over. “I don’t…” It stood back up, skeletal fingers wrapped around Kyle’s handgun. “I don’t feel…”

Kyle began bawling, holding his arms out in front of him. “Go away! Go away! Please…”

“I don’t…” The robot used its free hand to pull at the white mask on its head. The mask came free with a snap. Behind it was a glass container.

A human skull with eyes stared back at Kyle, flashing a permanent rictus. “I DON’T FEEL…” The robot pointed the handgun at its own head and pulled the trigger.

The glass shattered into a million pieces. The fluid supporting the skull poured out like blood. The robot’s voice box screamed distorted noise and then fell silent. The robot toppled to its knees, then fell backwards.

Something boomed against the entrance doors. Another boom. Another boom. The doors popped open, rusted hinges screaming. A man stumbled through, holding a sledgehammer. “Kyle!”

The man rushed over to the boy. Aaron followed closely behind him. “Dad! Dad! Is he okay?”

Aaron’s father edged around the fallen robot-human hybrid, a look of fear and revulsion on his face. He dropped to one knee beside Kyle. “Are you okay, son?”

Kyle looked back at him, eyes wide. He swallowed hard, trembling. “I…” Aaron’s father put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. Kyle flinched, shivering. “I don’t… I don’t feel…”