In the passenger cabin, Thrax and the androids swarmed Kal with congratulatory hugs and high fives.
“This is what it’s all about,” Kal gushed as Jasmine stuck her tongue in his flap like ear. She liked ears. “Oh yes! Adrenaline and blood rush. Oh, my lovely loins! Drinks on me!”
A sudden shift. They tilted back as one, stomachs in free fall, their feet leaving the floor before the invisible utility fog caught them and compensated.
Everyone scattered for their seats.
Kal leaned back and fought the urge to vomit.
Sang sent the limo skimming down a canyon lined by petrified buildings, slipping past wreckage and piled detritus of war. Heavy duty assault mechs with full weapon load outs, were half-embedded in petrified nano-goo. Their upper hulls were swiss cheese, peppered by hundreds of ragged holes. Rusted scout mechs lay ahead, lying sprawled in the ash, wrapped in the shadow of kilometer high buildings that blocked out the sun.
Sang hit the halogen headlights.
In the dim light Kal could make out macabre symbols to mad alien gods painted on the facades, many marred by rifts carved by black, terrorist goo. Rags hung from exposed wires, clusters of barrels and chairs lined the edges of the gaping interiors. Strange feelings washed over them as they flew down the street. Desire for shoes, electronics, exotic foods, knick knacks, and the latest model of vehicle. Every now and then a flash of anger and outrage, shrieks demanding mankind be destroyed, demands for social mobility, powerful urges to stay indoors.
A series of slogans and images flit through their heads:
“NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE WITH iGOD: YOUR PERSONAL APOTHEOSIS.”
“NARCISSUS TELOMERE TREATMENTS: STAY YOUNG. BE YOUNG. FOREVER.”
“YOUR WILL SHALL TRIUMPH WITH INDOMITABLETM SPORTS GEAR.” “FIND LIFE SOLUTIONS WITH TRANSHUMANITY UPGRADES.”
“MADONNA XXX, THE VIRGIN WHORE, IN CONCERT! ONLY THIS WEDNESDAY.
Kal grabbed his head, tried to push the blaring thoughts out of his head. He found he could shut them out if he just... pushed ‘down’ a part of his brain. That was the only way to describe it. Like you were going to the bathroom. “The city seems to have fallen into anarchy even before the large scale fighting began,” observed Kal. No one knew exactly how the collapse had happened. Mostly people thought it was because technology had simply run out of control.
“Must have been one hell of a doublefisted megacull,” muttered Thrax softly. “Someone living here?” pondered Ghatz.
Kal shook his head. “Not likely. Those are probably hundreds, even thousands of years old. Just preserved by autorepair cycles.” He gazed out at the ruins and a powerful sense of loss flooded over him. “Think of it. All those buildings were once teeming with people, all filled with hopes, dreams, loves. Millions of them. More than we’ve ever seen in our lives, more names than we could remember. All wiped away. Nothing but an empty shell left. Bones of diamond concrete.”
“Dick and Jane are dead, biatch,” said Kitty. “Get over it. They ain’t ever comin’ back.”
“I’m not so sure, choombata. Man your window,” ordered Thrax. “I have a bad feeling about the place. You’re smart Kal, but smarts aren’t wisdom. Ready your weapons. Watch the building floors, gaps, alley ways. Anywhere snipers could set up.”
“Agreed. Do it,” interjected Ghatz.
“You heard Our Glorious Leader,” said Jez, sulkily. “Watch ground level. Spots with limited fields of fire.”
“Smarts can be wisdom,” muttered Kal under his breath.
The team slipped into their combat positions; the interior filled with the sharp whine of fusion piles priming for action.
Pin searchlights on the limo’s flanks cast circles of light onto the diamacrete bones of the buildings as they blasted past.
Sections had been melted, warped, by rogue goo, then frozen in place as police-injected kill switches activated. Military grade, khaki nanoblobs were frozen in deadly embrace with black terror mounds composed of converted civilians and machinery.
Sang glanced at shimmering, floating readouts. “Hull integrity back up to eighty per cent. Material tanks down thirty per cent.”
“Watch the map,” said Ghatz. “Take Main Street going west.” He spun the hologram around, analyzing from multiple angles and distances.
“We should stay off the main streets,” replied Sang. With a snap of the wrists, he veered the limo down a barren side street.
“I told...” Ghatz stopped. “Fine. Agreed.”
Kal had nothing to add. They sat in silence, awed by the scarred and battered ruins around them. The tension built up and up. Finally he couldn’t stand it anymore. “Rather quiet in here,” whispered Kal. “Perhaps... too quiet.”
“It’s like a church,” said Thrax.
“Oh, please. What do you know of church, little man?” chided Jez.
“More than you.”
“Don’t be pathetic. My naughty nun outfit has a tungsten database chip. Whole sordid history of the church, Cadaver Synod, the lot. Should have worn that.”
“Guys! I think I saw something,” called out Blossom. She adjusted her goggles.
“What?” asked Thrax.
“Lights. Like, red lights. Random patterns and stuff.”
“Nasties,” added Thumper.
“Yeah! I’m so sure!”
“Um. Could be targeting lasers?” mused Sable.
“I’ve seen them too,” added Kitty, placing her hands against the window, resting on her knees and shifting her buttocks into the air.
“Dreamer. Have not,” retorted Jasmine. “Or I would have.”
Thrax waved them to be silent. “Okay. Keep an eye out, bots. At ready.” Kal checked the scan feed. There was a lot of interference.
“Widens up ahead,” observed Sang.
A column of sky lay ahead, the glorious colours of sunset slashed down through the black wall of tenebrous buildings.
“Slow down.” Ghatz checked the map. “It’s a parking lot. The Liberty Megamall of America is beyond. Last of its kind.”
“Oh. My. Gawd. I don’t believe it. Are you kidding me?!? Liberty Megamall is like the ultimate in on-site luxury shopping. Custom onsite manufacturing, radical immersive experience, and the most innovative, wicked hot product design anywhere in the world, or like, the entire freaking universe!” gushed Blossom. She was on the verge of completely freaking out. “I mean come on!”
“Way. Out.” said Jasmine, barely able to remain deadpan. She popped a memory mint and sucked on it contemplatively.
Even Sable smiled and nodded eagerly. “From what our archives say, they uploaded the consciousness of a thousand Italian fashion designers into their custom clothing AI. NeoBauhaus, Frontean, even Cinema-Aesthete theorists.”
Thumper wasn’t impressed. “Lame,” she sighed, and slipped on a pair of earphones.
“Their catalogue has one million different kinds of shoe designs,” added Candy, eyes aglow. “You guys, I bet samples are still in there.”
“That’s what they were fighting for, girl,” said Kitty. “Shoes?” replied Candy, confused.
“No, the nano-manufacturing capacity,” snarled Jez. “Stupid.” “Sssh.”
Ghatz pondered. “Wide open space. We’ll be a sitting duck.”
Thrax put a comforting hand on Sang’s shoulder. “Take us down to ground level. We can drive across the lot, use wreckage for cover.”
Ghatz slowly turned and glared at him. “What do you think you’re doing? I’m in charge here, yeah?”
“Oh. Sorry. Not.”
“Sit down. Sang, take us to ground level. Drive us across. Whisper mode.” Sang nodded. Grinned wryly but said nothing.
Thrax grumbled and buckled back into his seat. Kal gave him a wink, then looked out the window.
The limo slowly settled down onto the street, sending gusts of gritty ash blowing outward. The wheels deployed and the frame gave a slight bounce as it settled.
“Macroenhancers,” ordered Ghatz. The front windshield became a virtual display that zoomed in on the terrain before them. “Threat analysis.”
“No threats detected,” replied the onboard AI.
“Uh,” said Kal, tapping the back of the front seat, “I wouldn’t rely on that too much.” “Quiet,” snapped Ghatz. “Power signatures?”
“Six thousand three hundred and forty-seven, plus eight thousand nine hundred indeterminate readings I cannot get a fix on. Sophisticated masking technology seems to be in use. Military grade.”
“What I said,” breathed Kal. He made a face at Ghatz. The jerk was going to get everyone killed.
Thunder boomed and the maelstrom above them swirled with menace.
Sang turned, putting his arm over the seat, and looked at Kal. “Any advice?”
Finally! Someone showing some sense, thought Kal. He thought furiously. Nothing. “Drive fast.” Kal wasn’t always good under pressure.
Sang nodded and rubbed his hands together. “That’s what I like to hear. Give me a minute to warm up for it. A little meditation.”
“Oh Christ. Pathetic nonsense,” swore Jez contemptuously. “Om,” said Sang serenely.
“Actually,” interjected Sable, “Meditation has been found to have, um, profound impact on the human nervous system, not to mention happiness. Studies–”
“Stay here,” Thrax scooped up his viewer plate, a couple packets of nanocide, and stepped out, slamming the door behind him. The air was crisp. Sharp. Odorless. There were no sounds other than the wind and creaking of settling buildings.
Thrax tromped over to the store front on the right. Ash dunes had blown in through gaps that had once been windows. Shelves held rusted lumps of unidentifiable product. Not nanite protected, thought Thrax, disappointed. Probably too cheap to spring for it. Discount store. He walked forward, around jumbled desks, and into the next section, just before the parking lot. His boots left perfect imprints in the soft ash.
Ghatz, Hercules, and Jez followed him in, sweeping the room with their weapons. “Relax,” said Thrax. “Nothing dangerous here.”
Jez smirked. “Famous last words. Won’t stake my life on it.”
Furniture had been piled up around street level windows, reinforced with sandbags. Humanoid combat robots lay slumped behind, built in weaponry hanging limp. Thrax dusted off one’s blank, jawless skull like face, flipped back the loose helmet dome, and peaked in. A blob of fused metal and brittle, dried and shredded gel. The bot’s neural net had been dissolved by airborne corrosive.
A section of the southern wall had been blown out and then blocked with garbage bins, concealing a sinister, insectile pulse cannon, covered in snowy dust. Camouflage nets hung in front.
Set on a heavy metal desk in the vast display room’s centre was a communication array, surrounded by seated, mummified figures in armoured biowarfare suits. Other bodies lay crumpled by the windows. Cans, rusted together, lay in stacks, piled with crates of ammunition. A portable fusion generator was attached by cables to the cannon.
They all paused at the sight of that. Thrax scanned it for radiation.
“S’okay, it’s inert,” he said, giving them the all clear. He activated his HappyTime filter just for a lark; the world morphed into a fairy tale castle, the corpses into vine wrapped statues having tea. Birds chirped and sparkling sunlight flooded the chamber. He sniffed fresh lilacs. He breathed deep.
Jez shot him a suspicious look. “You on something?”
“Good feelings,” smiled Thrax. He shut down the filter and grey gloom enveloped his senses once more. It was too dangerous to indulge in filters, too immature. And he had no stims, anyway. With a start he noticed a single, shimmering, turquoise butterfly that refused to vanish with the rest of the reality overlay, and stubbornly flit, carefree, about the room.
“A pity. We could have used one of these, yeah?” said Ghatz. He slung the rifle over his shoulder and stepped up to the figures. Then he paused. “Wait. No holes in their suits.
Don’t recognize their ranks or insignia. Rebels?”
Plastic playing cards on the table.
White gleaming shapes behind dusty faceplates.
“Dunno.” Thrax walked over and reached out. Wiped a faceplate clean. The suit gently crumpled into a pile at his touch. The bones inside had turned to dust.
They could make jello out of that, he thought idly.
In the limo’s back seat, Kitty got bored playing with her retro-PDA, and stuffed it in her black ammo bag, then started to drum her fingers on the armrest. She popped a bubble at Sable, who kept going on about ancient pre-post-modern fashion designers.
Dullsville. Who the hell would want a sexbot like that, Kitty wondered. So boring.
Kitty climbed over Thumper and Blossom to the rear seat row and peered out the tinted window. Red dots were multiplying in number deep within the buildings. They began to grow larger, approaching the windows and ledges.
“Uh, yo,” said Kitty, “I think we have a problem here. In case anyone cares.” “Sush,” said Kal testily. “I’m trying to map a path forward.”
“Well, excuse me, nerd boy.” Kitty tapped the window. “I think we have more immediate concerns than your PHD thesis.”
“Give Mr. Grammer a break, Kitty,” said Sable, folding her arms across her prodigious chest, which was packed within a prim shirt and tight vest. “He’s trying to keep us from getting killed going across.”
“Girl, we’re not going to live long enough to go across. Look!”
Red dots began to dance on the surface of the limo. Far behind them, down the main thoroughfare, undead ancients in tattered garments appeared, preserved by microscopic machine infections, they began to race towards the chariot at Olympic runner speeds, their teeth gnashing, eager to spread the nihilist synvirus that churned inside their skull cavity. Their eyes were shiny black orbs, and glistening, gritty black goo overflowed from their hungry, foul mouths.
Until next week.
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