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Knight’s heart raced. The anxiety from knowing the horde of mechanical tyrants lurked outside. The cold, a dependable trial to endure. Even the hunger didn’t bother her. But watching five eyes independently blink at her made her stomach drop. When the beast spun around, it took her a moment to process. But when it snapped and jack-kicked her square in the chest, her brain only caught up to her body after the pain of slamming into the concrete pillar set in. The carbon polymer plate carrier she had on beneath her now-shredded hoodie spared her from broken ribs.
Slumping forward from the recoil, Knight pulled herself onto her stomach, gasping for air. Her ears rang. She couldn’t feel her legs. Her mouth tasted like copper. Struggling to slide her legs under her, Knight clawed towards the gun that tumbled from her hands. Like a flightless hummingbird, the wolf-lion darted over her head, bouncing off the support columns. Retaining its momentum and pausing only to stand on the near wall behind Knight, its snout with bobbing nostrils darted between the group, sizing up the rest of the crew still on their feet. One of the miners charged, swinging his shovel at it with a resounding whiff before tumbling back head-over-heels as the creature corkscrewed over his head and threw its hind legs with a back flip. It caught him square between the shoulders and sent him tumbling head-over-heels back towards the center of the room like a sack of flour launched from a trebuchet.
The strength in Knight’s chest returned as she dragged herself across the floor to grab her weapon. Halfway there, she snatched her hand back, a stray pickax tumbling between her arm and the pistol. She looked over to find the second digger disarmed and stumbling, the creature swung the back half of its body at him. It landed on all fours, and squared off with the staggered man. In one fluid motion, another twisting pounce caught the miner center of mass, and he was thrown against the generator cage at the farthest corner of the room, the hard chain link fence frame threatening to buckle from the impact. By the time he hit the ground flat, the beast completed several laps around the enormous sub-basement.
Another few desperate yanks and Knight found herself almost within reach of her sidearm. She stretched hard, pushing and twisting as much as she could, groaning as her tendons screamed sore. Just as her fingertips touched the stippled grip, it rattled away. Her body flooded with an icy chill, the hairs on the back of her neck standing at full attention at the deep vibration that followed. Her mouth dried. The sound of metal scratching against concrete rang out, as it would when a sedan collided with a median barrier. The scent of burning grease permeated the room.
“Get…” Still winded, Knight drew every ounce of energy with her to gasp a full breath. “…Get out!” She boomed, shuddering in pain from the cry, casting a wild gaze at those still standing.
With a final resonating thud, the room grew still for a moment. Knight took a shuddering gasp of air as she turned toward the source of the vibration. The beast came to a pinpoint stop at the opposite side of the room, locking onto the metallic cacophony.
The doorway exploded. A chunk of concrete the size of her body smashed down and stopped within inches of Knight’s face. The rest of the room was showered in stone and gnarled lengths of iron. The creature spread the quills of its mane, arching its back, its dripping maw opened wide with a hiss as the cone of a spotlight shined on it through the thick dust.
Knight was no more than two arm lengths from the closest appendage. Long and lanky, the metal leg shimmered a dull blue from the refraction in the fog, six thin roller toes pointed square at her neck with a low hum. She struggled not to cough, burying her nose in her arm. The whole machine undulated a deep droning sound. Through the dust, a set of red and green lasers scanned the room at human chest-level. The rays skimmed the creature’s forehead and the boxy mech lowered it stance, the quiet constant idling electrical motors traded for the scream of acceleration. The toe rollers spun and dug deep into the concrete floor, kicking up more flakes that bounced off Knight’s head.
Within her reach one of two 25mm auto cannons attached to thick armatures descended, pointing at the creature as a crescendo of beeps rang out from the crab-drone. Being so close to her head, the sound of the two rotary barrels spinning up drowned out the rest of the machine’s internals.
“Shit!” Knight said.
Hot bullet casings rained down on her as the machine opened fire. The muzzle boom coupled with the echo of the gunfire rattled her brain. She could feel the whir from fragments of ricochet bouncing off the walls. More dust kicked up as the beast darted and ran on the ceiling. Shrapnel peeled chunks from the support beams. Knight wrapped her head in her arms and managed to pull her knees up to her chest, tucking her chin tight.
Through the gap in her elbows, she watched as the creature spiraled outward with a leap from the ceiling, its talons fully extended. Landing square between the two weapon appendages, it slammed the drone direct in the main sensor array. On impact, the mech bucked back, lifting four of its six legs up in the air. The beast clutched the machine’s face and swung its hind legs beneath the torso, jack kicking it like a cat playing with a ball of yarn.
Pinned between the collapsing drone and the floor, the monster continued to thrash at the machine as its momentum carried the two toward the destroyed entryway. With a single kick, the creature retracted its claws and launched the three-quarter-ton mech, creating another hole into the stairway just next to the former doorway and the room fell silent.
The strike of a shovel against the rubble pierced the stillness of the room, followed by footsteps kicking rocks. Still tucked closed, Knight felt a grip tightening around her collar. She looked up to find Pierre yanking on her jacket. Sweeping still weak legs beneath her rising torso, she snatched her gun out from beneath the debris before her. As she rised, Knight fought the desire to hit the deck as a stray volley burst through the far hole in the wall. Another explosion followed with rubble tumbling into the room sent both her and Pierre prone with heads covered. And she found herself face-to-face with the second explorer. Dead.
“We got to get out of here.” Pierre said as he low-crawled out to peer through the hole.
Knight couldn’t look away from the explorer’s contorted lips, as if he died being tugged by a fishing line. His bottom lip pulled down and to the side, almost to his jawline and his mouth looked like it was unhinged, he died with his back arched, and head tilted almost against his spine, but his mouth reached his neck. His throat shriveled and filled with a thick layer of dust. Just above that was a shriveled tongue that warped around his front teeth, a rotten berry on a dried vine. All color faded from his eyes, his pupils nonexistent. His nose disappeared and you could see into his sinus cavity. The rest of his body showed no sign of bone, a human-sized paper doll.
A soft touch on her shoulder made her jolt. She threw her head over to find Pierre staring at her. “Lieutenant, we need to go. Now.” He said, his brow furrowed.
She gave a slow nod and stood, pulling him to his feet, staring at the corpse as she helped Pierre upright. He gave a sharp whistle and first explorer uncovered himself from the rubble, sprinting over to them. They made their way to the far side of the room, the double doors opposite the holes in the wall, already ajar. Pierre stopped at the doorway and turned evoking another shrill call out to the room from his lips. A gentle sigh came from him as he panned his head across the room. He ushered Knight forward with a deep frown and a delicate shake of the head.
Rounding the corner, they found the whole stairway collapsed, a mountain of broken bricks and frozen snow in its place. Most of that side of the building was missing, revealing the open sky. The sun was hugging the mountains.
“The other way up is on the North side of the building.” Knight said. “We need to get back. Now.”
The way through was nothing but a gap between massive chunks of concrete. As Knight helped Pierre over a knee-high rock, he paused and sat down. “I need a moment.” Pierre said, shovel shaking despite holding it with both hands.
She motioned towards the explorer to go through, sitting next to Pierre and facing the way they came. Searching for words was hard labor, a cornucopia of thoughts tumbled through her head. On top of that, her ears rang. Her legs still wobbly. The chaos that the list of a million ‘what ifs’ disappeared when she thought back to that face. He was just there in the other room, she could go look at it more. How did it happen? She thought back to the creature, and the scratches she found on the dead man’s arm when he was still alive. That had to be it. Was it some form of new disease? Could she be infected? Were they all now infected?
Hearing Pierre muttering snapped out of the mobius strip of thoughts that rolled on like an old film machine.
“What?” Knight said, turning to him with a cocked head.
He cleared his throat. “Oh, just talking to my wife.”
Knight turned all the way around and looked at the tower of debris in front of them then cast her gaze toward Pierre. “You feeling alright?”
“Alright is relative, lieutenant. I haven’t punched out yet, if that’s what you’re getting at.” Pierre said.
Her brow dipped for a moment, “So… who’re you talking to then?”
Pierre cleared his throat and straightened his winter coat, “…I’m talking to my wife,” he flicked his tongue and stuck his chin out, “as I usually do when things get rough.”
She turned back, loosening her posture and stared back the way they came. They were part of the same parish, Knight was all too familiar with his wife. Passed away from cancer. The slow kind.
“Does she have any advice for us right now?” Knight said with a gentle tone, hunching forward and folding her hands, elbows resting on her knees.
Pierre chuckled followed by a hard swallow, “Oh, I’m sure if she were here, we’d be quarreling about something or other.”
Driving wind above them pushed a dusting of snow upon them, a long silence creeping in with the cold. The old miner wiped his face with his flannel sleeve, “Why ain’t they take me instead? It’s like they’re just torturing me.”
It was a wonder that Pierre still lived. He had a bum leg from the infantry. The same shrapnel that took his knee took his eye. He almost lost his arm too. He was a hero in the first Red Dragon war almost 30 years ago. Infantry. Held a linchpin position against an overwhelming force. Got pinned the Medal of the Republic, the highest honor in The Coalition. An honor Jace shared with him for what he did in the Second Red Dragon war.
“Maybe in my younger days I could have dealt with it, but watching these kids die is eating away at me,” Pierre gripped his still trembling shovel with both hands again.
Knight remembered when she found Pierre. In the early hours of The Fall, they opened the church as a shelter and had him keep an eye on the kids. By the time he and Knight found the bunker… well, at least Pierre made it out.
“More and more people aren’t waking up,” Knight said, tapping her toes, “between the cold, the hunger, the machines…” She sighed, “…I don’t blame them for giving up.”
There was another lengthy quiet.
“I want to believe we’ll get through this.” Knight said.
Pierre looked over his shoulder.
“It’s easy to fall into despair. I do too, you’ve seen it. But there’s a reason we’re not all dead yet. We’re here, there’s a plan. There has to be.” Knight said.
“When we were at Hill 374…” Pierre began.
A sudden burning pain in Knight’s arm distracted her. She threw her opposite hand up her sleeve and slid it up. The pain from the cloth dragging on her skin was nearly unbearable, like jabbing an array of syringes in your arm and dragging it upwards. Seeing it there on her arm made her want to throw up. Three shallow scratches. She shook her head, trying to regain her composure. Panic would only cause imaginary symptoms. There was enough 25mm being slung around that room to kill an entire battalion. Just a ricochet injury. Though her sleeve wasn’t torn.
“You alright?” Pierre leaned to find her hunched and staring at her arm.
Knight shot straight up, “F- fine. Just a scratch.”
“Well make sure you wrap it up. Don’t want it getting infected.” Pierre said, turning away.
No, definitely not infected.
The image of the torn man in the room ahead of her sent a shiver down her spine. Was she next?
She pulled her clothing back down around her arm, and buried her hand in her hoodie pocket, closing her shoulders tight. No. Not infected. No infection here. It’s just arm tingles. And the nape of her neck hurt. That’s just from training, from getting used to the Plug Injections. Not an infection, no.
“We ought to get moving, it won’t be long until it gets dark.” Pierre said, struggling to get to his feet.
Knight nodded and the two worked their way through the debris toward the other side of the stairwell. It also was collapsed, but only the first flight. The two found the first explorer dangling his legs over the ledge, staring off into the distance.
“It’s time to head back, son.” Pierre said with a grunt, sizing up the gap, “Did you check up top?”
“Good. Now check it again.” Knight said, a hand over her arm.
The explorer rolled his eyes and disappeared as he stood and tip-toed up the steps. The building retained an eerie quiet. It felt like he was gone for an eternity. Knight and Pierre passed each other glances before leaning over to try and see what the explorer was doing. A moment later he returned, descending with conscientious feet. He laid prone at the edge of the broken lip and held his hand out down to the two. Without so much as a look, Pierre pushed Knight forward. “Go on then.”
As Knight muscled up with some help from the explorer, the building rattled and an explosion echoed from deep within. She turned and both of them lay flat and ready to pull the old miner up. A massive icicle snapped and smashed into the rubble behind Pierre, startling him. He turned and traced the origin. His eyes widened and as fast as his bum leg and shovel could carry him, he sprinted back the way they came. Knight followed his gaze, a massive chunk of building dangled from the corner of the marred wall. Just as Pierre crossed the threshold, the chunk fell with a thwang from what rebar was hanging on and came crashing down, impacting where they once stood.
Knight called out to him through the rubble, climbing on top, trying to peer through the gaps.
“I’m fine.” Pierre shouted back.
“We’ll get you out!” Knight said, tugging at the rubble, making no progress.
“Just go, I’ll make my way back. We’ll meet in the lobby.” Pierre said.
Another groan from the building rang out. Knight continued to yank at the debris with little effect.
“I said get out of here!” Pierre said, the clank of his shovel echoed from under the pile.
Looking at the massive chunks of steel and concrete layered in the stairwell below, Knight clenched her teeth and pursed her lips as she looked at the explorer, “Climb!”
As she got back to the landing, Knight felt shooting pains rocket down from her spine to her toes. Her leg suddenly locked straight, sharp shooting pains surged from her hip. She’d lost all ability to wiggle her toes on that side. Stumbling and falling onto the next flight of stairs, she hobbled up a few steps before the explorer ran and ducked under her arm and they ascended with a distinct lack of haste. By the time they reached the next floor, she gasped for air and sweat poured out of her.
They had two options to get back: the double doors and the maintenance tunnel. She was starting to feel light-headed and her vision began to blur. The main hall was big enough for a drone to travel down, but she didn’t think she’d make the trip through the maintenance tunnel. Still out of breath, she raised a lazy hand towards the double doors when the wolf-lion burst through. Swinging its hind legs around to face the direction he came, it kicked them both through the closed maintenance hall door.
A blast of machine gun fire followed the creature, sending ricochets bouncing throughout the stairwell. The mech burst through the doors, destroying it and sending debris flying out of the building. It ceased firing and turned to track the beast as it ascended up the broken stairwell, burrowing its claws into the concrete walls and bounding from surface to surface. It aligned and continued dumping bullets at the creature.
With the beast out of sight, the machine raised one side of its body and tapped its legs against the wall. Knight and the explorer looked at each other before she motioned to the door with her chin. The mech began slamming its rollers into the concrete, causing the whole stairwell to groan. With a second jab, the crab legs pierced the structure, and it lifted the other four legs off the ground, wagging its guns upwards, the ammunition belts slamming into its exoskeleton as it pivoted. The two slid on their backs into the maintenance shaft. As the door clicked closed behind them, a barrage of gunfire bore a hole into the metal, the ricochets taking out the ceiling-mounted lights in the maintenance tunnel. A roar echoed from the other side.
Knight drew her pistol and aimed at the door. Her arms shook, ready for the machine to burst through. The sound of crumbling building drowned out the sound of the autocannons. And then, stillness. The only light came from the water tanks and digital monitors still running. At the far end of the hall, a chain link fence walled off another section, the sound of dripping rang out slow and constant. Knight stopped focusing on the door and lowered her aim.
Under her forearm, the gashes glowed a faint emerald through her clothing. She recoiled, almost dropping her gun in a rush to pull out some bandages, a gasp escaped her.
“Lieutenant, are you alright?” The explorer asked.
“I’m fine!” She mustered the will to catch her breath. “I’m fine.” Knight’s hands shook as she pulled tight on the cloth strips she wrapped around her arm. “I... I caught my hand on the door is all.” The bandages threatened to cut off circulation. “Go clear down the hall.”
“Yes ma’am.” The explorer said as he got up.
She tensed her fist as she looked at her wound. It was getting hot. It felt like the bandage was burning her. As she flexed, each clench tore the bandage a little more.
“No sign of anything up ahead.” The explorer said. Knight shuddered and snapped her attention toward him.
She reached out to grab onto the wall and hoisted herself to her feet. Her leg was still locked in place, but the pain was much worse. Taking a step, she stumbled forward. The explorer caught her and swept under her shoulder. Placing as much weight as she could on the wall, Knight pushed against the concrete. They needed to get out of here and back to base.
They rounded the corner into the fenced-in area and pushed farther into the maintenance halls. More narrow walkways and thick steel piping. The deeper they went, the hotter it became. Knight was desperate to find the stairs. They had to be only one level down from ground level. The more they traveled, the sweatier Knight grew. It took more and more for her to push forward. It was sweltering.
“I- I need to stop for a second.” Knight said.
The explorer set her down against the wall, and slipped on ice as he stepped back, grabbing for and holding onto a pipe for stability. She sat there slumped over, concentrating on her breathing.
“What should I do?” The explorer asked.
“Go...” Knight said. “Go find the stairs out.”
The explorer hesitated for a moment before disappearing deeper into the hall.
She felt like she could rip her clothes off, and it still wouldn’t be enough to get cool. Her innards were boiling. The sweat on her body had already evaporated and her throat felt filled with sand. Blinking was a labor, like there were shards of glass behind her eyelids.
“Mom?” A little girl called out to her.
Knight closed her eyes. Her brain must have been melting. There was no way.
A cheerful giggle perked her eyes open. Bouncy blond curls were the first thing that caught her eye. If Knight had tears, they would have flowed. With the hallucination of her daughter was a merciful way to die. She was in her choir dress, her daughter’s favorite.
“I tried to get to you. Please believe me.” Knight said.
The girl flexed her cheek and bowed her head for a moment. She produced a gold heart pendant and placed it in Knight’s hand.
She doubted it was real, despite being cool to the touch. She pressed the latch, opening it to the picture of Knight, her husband, and her daughter together in the park. It was a birthday present. Knight caressed the picture with her thumb. Her daughter reached over and snapped it shut, drawing blood as she pinched Knight’s finger.
“Come find me.” Her daughter said. She turned and bolted farther into the tunnel.
“Sarah!” Knight said.
She summoned what strength was left in her to turn herself over upon her knees. Struggling to pull herself up using the piping, she threw one foot forward with a grunt. Gripping the metal, she leaned and hoisted the next over and down. Her breaths were shallow and rapid, and her vision was blurring.
Crawling up the few steps to the next hallway segment, she heard a rumble.
“Yes mommy, this way!” Sarah’s voice called.
Her legs, numb. Her arms filled with thunderous shakes from her shoulder. Despite this, her pace quickened. Each limp hammered hard against the concrete. Her hands felt like they were digging into the wall.
The wolf-lion burst through the concrete beside her, taking up the hallway and began growling.
“Do not follow!” The beast said with a growl.
With it in arm’s reach, Knight raised her wounded arm and swung it wide across her body. The creature yelped from the impact and tumbled sideways, rolling back through the hole in the wall to the lobby.
“Get out of my way!” Knight said. Every inch of her skin felt like needles jabbing into it.
Wagging itself off from the blow, the creature raised its quills and roared, taking a few steps back, “You don’t know what you’re doing! Turn back!”
Knight trudged forward. She figured it wasn’t far. She could hear her daughter. They’d be together soon. It grew easier to move her legs. The wall was much friendlier to grip, her hand sinking into it like warm beach sand.
Thinking about finding her daughter brought more kind thoughts. Maybe there were more New Canterbury survivors. Maybe that bunker was overkill, they could all go back to the city. Everything would go back to normal. Knight looked at her wound. It was emerald and scabbed over. Sarah’s favorite color, green.
The wolf-lion continued to bark and whine as he trailed her moving deeper into the maintenance tunnel.
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