03 January 2012
Weird shrieks pierced the humid silence, sending shivers of terror down Alanna's spine. They were coming. She'd been running for three days, stumbling through the Wastes, fleeing the hungry hell-wights known as Scavengers. Her stomach rumbled and twisted in her gut, hollow and aching. She pressed a forearm over her stomach as she ran, wrenching her head around to look behind her. They never showed themselves, staying always out of sight, following her tracks, her smell, her bioelectric signature.
She'd prayed, wished, hidden, run, and now she was at the end of her strength. The Scavengers would get her and she'd be turned into harvest for a power cell. She was alone, now. Mama and Papa were gone, and Louis was gone too, now. She had no one to mourn her, if she died. That thought, more than anything else, is what kept spurring her burning legs and lungs ever onward, over the bare, blasted, naked mounds of the Appalachians, through windblown empty cities echoing with windsong and the voices of ghosts. Keep running, she told herself. Don't let them get you. Make them take you, make them pay for it.
Ahead of her now was the skeleton of a city, gaunt bones of wracked buildings rising into the leaden sky. She was parallel to the road, and she could make out a billboard in the distance, faded letters announcing Welcome to Columbus. If only a city meant refuge. Usually, it just meant vicious, nomadic gangs and hordes of Scavengers. There wasn't much difference between the two. The gangs were, technically, humans, having flesh-and-blood appendages and speaking comprehensible dialects of English, but they were desperation and hunger embodied; they took no prisoners, and weren't above cannibalism, if they were hungry enough.
The ululations were louder now, and they were coming from all directions. They surrounded you just before they took you down, Alanna had been told. She ducked into the gaping mouth-hole of an apartment building on the outskirts of the city. It was a burnt out shell of exposed, blackened rafters and scorched brick, smelling still of smoke. She wandered from room to room, tiptoeing, as if silence or smaller footprints in the dust would make it harder for the Scavengers to find her. It was a pleasant fiction, while she allowed herself to believe it. The problem was, she couldn't keep up the pretense for long: the howls and shrieks had turned to growls and garbled words, steps crunching in the street.
She found herself cowering in the darkest corner, fists clenched around her last line of defense, a two-foot-long metal pipe. Her skin prickled in the twilight chill, her breath coming in ragged panting gasps. A bulky figure appeared in the doorway, mech-light eyes glowing dull orange in the gloom. The figure sputtered an unintelligible guttural command, gesturing at her to stand up. She burrowed deeper into the corner, raised her jagged-ended pipe. Heavy steps thumped closer, crashing hard enough to shake ash down from the ceiling. She could just make out the details of the figure now: it was barely recognizable as human, its legs grafted from an obsolete bot-suit, thick metal jointed pistons, whirring and whining servo-motors, arms assembled from mismatched cybernetic parts, a torso showing sickly, rotting flesh through a tattered shirt. The Scavenger's face was a nightmare vision, a rusted metal lower mandible, a gaping hole leaking mucus where a nose had rotted off, bald scalp peeling scabbed and leprous flesh, orange mech-light eyes oozing pus where oxidized metal met skin. The thing was clearly male, no cloth covering its all-too-human groin.
As it neared her, repeating the stand-up motion, Alanna coiled her legs beneath her, tightened her grip on her make-shift weapon until her knuckles ached. One more step and it was within reach; Alanna lunged at it, swinging the pipe with all of her fading strength. She connected, and the thing's head split open, splattered gore across the room. Mechanized arms still reached for her, carrying out dying commands after the brain was compromised; she bashed at the ovoid head again and again until it was pulp, pulled free of its grasping fingers and stabbed at its chest with the end until it stopped moving. It had an Impulsor pistol in its grip; Alanna pried the gun free, crept away from the foul-smelling corpse and back out into the echoing canyons of the city streets. The rest of the Scavengers were close by, she could hear them calling to each other in their unintelligible language.
A gurgling howl of glee signaled that she'd been seen; she forced herself into a run. She heard at least two behind her, there, two to the right and ahead of her, another on the left. Hopeless, it was hopeless. Alanna sobbed, staggered to a stop, leaned against the rough crumbling bareface cinderblock wall of a bombed-out edifice; the nearest Scavenger was less than ten feet away, growling wordlessly. Alanna raised the Impulsor, fired. The shockwave shook the dust at her feet, rattled her teeth, and the creature lurched, clutched its chest, fell twisting to the ground. She fired again, and another shockwave blasted the silence, another Scavenger fell, the building behind Alanna rumbled, trembled, shook, wobbled; an upward glance showed the building swaying back and forth, chunks of brick tumbled down at her. Alanna threw herself into the street, felt fingers snatching at her arm. She flung her fist out, felt flesh crunch, thrust the muzzle of the Impulsor into the thing's face, fired, felt the shockwave more than heard it, was doused by blood, hot and sticky on her face and in her hair.
Another hand grasped at her, gripped her, squeezed her arm hard enough to make her gasp, yanked her to her feet. She hadn't realized she had fallen to the ground; “move, girl!” a voice commanded, deep, reassuring, human. Alanna scrabbled in the dirt with her feet, pushed off and ran pell-mell, tripping to keep up with the hand pulling at her. Dust was in the air, shards of brick stung her cheeks and back and legs, Scavengers shrieked angrily; she couldn't make out the form of the man in front of her. She hoped he was helping her, rather than saving her to eat her, or rape her. Or the one, then the other. His voice had given her comfort, at least. His presence soothed the terror hammering at her. She held onto the hope that he would be a rescuer, but kept the Impulsor in her hand, ready to defend herself against him.
The crashing roar of the building's fall quieted, but the Scavengers were still ululating behind them, close and loud and vengeful. The man stopped, pulled Alanna into a crouch behind a jagged hulk of masonry: “stay here and keep shut, if you want to live,” he told her, then he was gone into the skirling dust. A few seconds later, she heard series of wet percussive thunks, howls and growls abruptly silenced. She felt a syrupy wave of energy roll over her, something psionic, hugely powerful. Its effects were immediate: the dust whorling in the air skittered, slowed, froze, caught some the gelatinous force, Alanna's matted, tangled, dirty hair stopped mid-lash before her eyes. Alanna could see motes of dust, minute and myriad, spinning in place like a cue-ball on a pool-table. Sounds pulsed in Alanna's ears like sonic sludge: crunches, thwaps, wet plops like blood splatting in the dirt. Time and motion resumed with shocking suddenness. A lone figure strode towards Alanna through the wind-slung debris: tall, dark and handsome. Her heart skipped a beat as he got closer; it wasn't entirely a school-girl-crush kind of beatskipping, it was partially fear. He was feral-looking, primal, despite his modern gear. His hair was black, dreadlocked, falling to his back; broad shoulders, thick arms bare at the biceps, forearms covered by metal and leather vambraces, a cuirass of homemade ringmail over his torso with a thick sleeveless tunic underneath. He wore heavy, dark pants tucked into knee-high boots a wide leather belt slung low with holsters on both hips, and a backpack; handles of arc sticks poked out above the backpack, between the bag and his back. Utilitarian gear, not expensive, but good, well-used and well taken care of. His facial features were what kept her hand on her Impulsor: he did not look kind. His eyes burned with the fire of a man who has survived in the Wastes for far too long; it was the glint of near-insanity, a quickhot anger, a never-dormant hatred for Scavengers, a determination to keep breathing at any costs.
“What the hell are you doing out here alone, girl?” His voice was the same, deep mellifluous rumble she'd heard when the hand had jerked her away from the crumbling building.
“I...I don't have anyone,” she murmured. “My brother Louis was killed, just a week ago. There was a gang, they...they took us. Louis...he fought them off, made me run. I didn't want to leave him, but he...he was sick, anyway. His leg, it was gangrenous, and spreading.” Why was she telling him all this? He was nodding slightly. He patted her on the shoulder awkwardly.
“You did right, I guess. You got away, and you're still breathing. That's what counts. If he was gangrenous as you say, then he was gonna die soon anyhow, and he must've known it.” He looked around, sniffing, listening. “Shit. There's more coming. We'd better get scarce. Come on, girl.”
He pulled her with him into a swift walk, almost a run. Alanna had to trip-skip-stumble to keep up; she yanked her arm away, looked over her shoulder, trotted next to him. “Thank you,” she said.
“Course,” he grunted, uncomfortable. “Couldn't let 'em get you, could I? Name's Dez Marlowe, by the way.”
“Alanna al'Haran. So...where are we going?”
“Well I don't know know about you, but I'm headed towards Detroit.”
“Well then, that's where I'll go.”
“I can't slow down for you, so you'll have to keep up and pull your weight.”
“I'll do my best.”
Dez sat in front of the small fire he'd made under the lee of a massive oak tree. The girl, Alanna, hadn't lasted long. Got up to pee in the middle of the night, went alone, not even twenty feet from the banked fire, and hadn't come back. Nice girl too, it was shame. It'd been too late by the time he'd realized anything was happening.