(NOTE: I forgot I'd put this into Blogger, way back. Enjoy, you Web Bots!)
Thrax raced through the rows of clothes and elegant displays featuring neck-snappingly beautiful animatronic figures towards his beseiged friend. The swarm of undead were all around him now.
More figures began to shamble up the escalators, male ones, dressed in sharply cut suits or mall security garb.
Firing as he ran, Thrax blasted five mummizombies into oblivion, dousing Kal in billowing snuff dust.
More of the dead turned to face him.
A quick jab with a rifle butt separated the nearest’s head from her torso. Limbs grabbed at him. Thrax kicked one in the chest, toppling it backward into the horde, sending them crashing to the floor like glass dominos. Several shattered on impact, heads and arms spinning away across the slippery floor.
The mall security zombies started to move around the fashion mob. They awkwardly unholstered their stunners and fired. The air crackled with electricity, but the bolts went wide. Their coordination was shit.
Thrax ducked behind the slow moving fashion mob, using them for cover, popping up to take shots, obliterating mall cop after lumbering undead mall cop.
“What are you doing!?” screamed Kal, still held fast. “Get them off me!”
A head exploded onto his face from the left.
Ghatz pulled back his brown dust coated rifle butt.
“Working on it.” He stepped back and began to swing the weapon like a club, smashing the mumizoms to bits.
“Easy!” Kal cried after an energetic blow by Ghatz barely missed his head.
Thrax charged the escalator, shoving the flailing zombies back down the frozen steps. He pulled out a grenade and tossed it into the mass.
“Fire in the hole!” he yelled, ducking back.
Smoke and flame spewed up out of the stepped chasm. Limbs and heads flew. Dust from disintegrating bodies rolled outward.
The swarm thinned. Thrax smashed the brain casing of the last zombie holding Kal in from behind. Its body fell away, leaving only half a dozen disembodied hands still clutching on to Kal.
He started to rip them off.
“Gross, gross, gross!” he cried, dancing about in disgust. He tossed the hands away as if they had cooties.
“Don’t be such a damn baby,” huffed Thrax. “Cripes, dude!” He peered down into the smoke roiling in the escalator cavity. Fired a few casual shots in. Paused. Unclipped another grenade and tossed it down.
“Better safe than—” BAM!
“—sorry,” he concluded dryly. He looked about at the once again quiescent corpses. “Hey Kal. What was that about?”
“Synvirus, I imagine,” said Kal. “Probably infected during the collapse.” “They went shopping during the fall of civilization?” asked Ghatz, incredulous.
“Last chance,” mused Kal. “If the ancients loved anything, they loved to shop. There was once a disease called ‘Shopaholism’. Kept these obsolete malls around to keep the ritual alive. Real question is what they wanted. The undead shoppers. Didn’t seem interested in actually killing me. One sec.” He ran a virus scan on his trillion synapse connectome and artificial glia clusters. “Yet I don’t seem to have been infected with anything according to my back up brains. Nothing detectable, at any rate.”
Ghatz reached behind him and yanked a hand off his jacket, chucked it down the hole. “Doors at the far end. Big black shield curtain. Sealed.”
“To the main concourse,” he nodded, then paused. Looked about. “Where’d she go?”
“What girl?” asked Ghatz, exasperated.
“Didn’t you see her?”
Thrax gave Ghatz a look. “See... who?”
“You aren’t used to combat, prole,” asserted Ghatz. “You imagined it in a state of panic.” Kal shook his head, waving them away.
“Nevermind,” he said, and stumbled down into the fountain pool. He sloshed over to the limo’s passenger doors. “Something’s wrong. The androids should have recovered by now.”
“I still want to know who this girl is,” teased Thrax, loitering by the smoking escalator. “Was she all shriveled?”
“Funny guy,” muttered Kal, unlatching the door and swinging it open. He gazed inside and his eyes went wide. “Holy...!”
“What?” said Ghatz, alarmed.
They raced over, expecting the worst.
Peering in, their jaws went slack.
“Oh wow,” gasped Ghatz.
“For love of The Benefactor,” swore Thrax, lowering his weapon. “That’s enough you lot! Out you get.”
There was a commotion inside.
“Wait!” he shouted, holding up a hand. “Get your clothes on first! This is a combat environment.”
“How long have you been awake?” demanded Ghatz crossly. “Um... Since you got out,” said a voice from within. “Jasmine started it.”
“It was Sable.”
“Excuse me!? That, that’s just, it’s... it’s an outright, slanderous lie! A complete fabrication, from where I don’t know.”
Thrax slung his rifle and threw up his hands. “Goddamn sexbots. We could have used your help out here.”
“Sorry. One thing kinda led to another and...” “Just get out.”
The squad clambered sheepishly into the aquamarine fountain pool. The ash had already been filtered out. The water was now pristine. Drinkable.
“The least they could have done is let us watch,” groused Kal.
Jasmine leaned over and gave him a peck on the cheek.
Sable flushed beet red and glowered.
“Hey,” said Kal, cheering up, “We could have a break, together. You know, to break the sexual tension as it were.”
“Out of the question,” said Ghatz firmly, “Sexual frustration keeps us on game. Every star athlete knows this. Let’s bring our A-game, people.”
Just the sort of prim prick thing Thrax expected from Ghatz. “He’s got a point.” “That’s entirely unsubstantiated. Numerous scientific studies—”
Thrax clapped his hands. The discussion was of no interest. “Arm up from the trunk. There are grenades. We’ve got a missing driver to locate, and the megamall’s hostile. No more horsing around.”
“Oh my God!” shrieked Candy, drawing alarmed eyes. She tottered over to a pile of dust and dresses. “Is that a Louis Vachon original?!?”
Even Jez’s eyes lit up.
“We’ll never get them out of here now,” said Thrax wearily.
“Best bet’s the stairway,” said Ghatz. “That shield curtain hasn’t moved in eons, everything else is locked.”
“Right. We’ll go in five. Jasmine, you’re on point.” “Aw. Buzz. Kill. Way unfair. Kitty’s the stealth expert.” “Oh. No. Don’t you put it on me, girl.”
“I said Jasmine. Do it.” She hefted her rifle.
Jasmine rounded the corner of a display plinth and swept the aisle ahead with her multi- spectrum gunsight. “Clear.”
Thrax followed closely after her, clutching his weapon like a protective talisman.
The squad moved along a tattered carpet lined with ceramic sensory deprivation tanks covered in flaking gold filaments. Beyond lay a sea of metal lumps, the remains of deluxe appliances set atop granite and marble displays. Many had been deliberately smashed and toppled.
“What a mess,” sniffed Thumper with disdain. “Look at all the dust. No telling how many microbes and viruses are slathered over the surfaces here.” She slung her rifle and slithered on a fresh pair of latex gloves, then snapped a chalky white facemask in place. “Place is a dump.”
“Anyone see ‘Electronics’?” Kal asked.
“Um, I think we’re in ‘Housewares,’“ replied Sable, craning her neck. “Yes. Housewares.” She skittered up beside Kal, slipping between him and Jasmine.
Kal shook his head. “Ladies, I need some zinc packets. Let me know if you see zinc. They should be conveniently labeled.”
“Look for it after.” Thrax grimaced and wiped dust from his face. “This is a combat patrol. Keep quiet. Subvocal communications only.”
Sable tapped her ear implant. “Uh, Mr. Thrax, my comm gear doesn’t seem to be working.”
“Mine either,” said Candy.
“Some kind of interference. Or infection. Hand signals then. Keep moving”
The lower level was in a state of extremely poor repair. It had been mostly stripped of micromainentance bots, and now the floor was coated inch deep in dust and debris. Sections of the ceiling had fallen in. Despite the ruin, small blocks of still protected pristine systems continued to function perfectly, including lights, which cast out comforting rays. The air was filled with drifting flecks of white dust.
And there were signs of conflict.
“Damn, smells worse than a thousand ton snail squid left out in the sun for a week down here,” whispered Kitty, stalking cautiously forward.
At the foot of the sixty meter escalator, framed by bone dry waterfalls and marble nymphs, a wide barricade stood: formed from damaged merchandise, burnt desks, toppled columns, and crowd control barricades. Paramilitary stun wire had been strung in a great circle, enclosing it. At the center of the protective circle was an inert portable fusion reactor, tied by heavy insulated cables to a pylon mounted fear generator and a dozen deteriorating Holy Grails, Active Denial Systems with microwave panels arrayed outward. Wires were wrapped in and around the barrier. Piled against it were stacks of bones, humanoid but definitely not human, mixed with armour, weapons, golf clubs, and baseball bats. Powerful limbs, claws, tails, huge jaws. Not symmetrical, lots of variation, deviation. Mutation. They had used improvised armour and weapons. Thrax noticed their small brain casings.
It creeped Thrax out. Thousands of them piled up high on the barricades, electrocuted, fried, half-vaporized, charred without any apparent concern for their own lives. What drove them? What were they after? Suits? “What the hell were they?” he whispered to Kal. “Back there?”
Kal gave him a puzzled look, glanced back. “What, the bone stacks? I told you. Anarchons. People infected by anti-consumerist nanogenes. Still alive, as opposed to the more primitive, undead nihilist nanozombies. Those are hack work. Seriously. Really artless. These, now these are cool. A new species born of revolution. Use hox genes to stimulate latent DNA, turning infected into prehistoric horrors, their brains truncated to prevent influence by pacificators. Kill anyone with a shopping bag. Coolest trick is they’re actually tapped into credit rankings and bank accounts, so they can prioritize the richest targets. Weaponized anti-consumers. Mostly snagged the poor, who couldn’t afford better immune systems. Poor neighbourhood equals instant army, wherever you dump a load of specialized black goo. Impressive code-wise, in my humble opinion. Coder really knew his stuff. But don’t worry. Nothing for them to eat down here, by the look of it. Unless there are underground sewage tanks. Be long gone and—”
“Sssh!” Thrax pointed ahead. Something was up.
Jasmine came upon a dozen barrels, toppled on their sides. Thick black stains streaked out from them across the floor, and were smeared from north to south. They did not collect dust, seemed to absorb it.
“Don’t step on it,” advised Kal. “Barrier. Might still be active.” “It’s a deterrent barrier,” said Sable.
“Yeah, that’s what I said.”
Beyond, the furniture and merchandise thinned out. Half tonne counters lay crushed and smashed. Three foot wide gouges had been cut into the marble flooring, forming chaotic crisscross patterns.
He wasn’t hopeful about finding Sang.
Not alive, at any rate.
Not down here.
How hard could it be to drive a limousine, he wondered. The clock was ticking. The synvirus lurking in his bloodstream would reduce him to goo in seven days.
Jasmine, now wearing a sleek black sheath evening dress, held up her right fist in the air and froze. The rest of the squad stopped in place. Ahead was a great rent in the floor, five meters across. Snapped rebars, pipes, and wires lined the edge like ragged fur.
Thrax looked down into the darkness below. It smelled of mould and stagnant waters. Ghatz and Kal came up beside him. The air was dank.
“Hell of a hole,” whispered Thrax. “Explosion?”
“Perhaps,” said Kal. “It blew upwards. There’s debris, chunks of concrete around. Damage. But no scorch marks, no melted metal. So... no. More likely something big smashed its way in here.”
“Something that can chew its way through three feet of diamacrete,” said Ghatz, looking nervous. He bent down and ran his fingers along the shattered edge of the thick floor.
“Yeah. Oh, my God. I know. I know what it was!” declared Kal happily. “Giant, mutated recycling nematodes! Those babies are remarkable feats of genetic engineering and nano- enhancement. They’d fit the size of the hole, and photo reference in my connectome.”
“Nematode’s a worm, isn’t it?” asked Sable rhetorically.
“I don’t like this,” murmured Candy. She’d donned a magnificent white wedding dress that shone in the dim light, illuminating those around her.
“Quiet!” hissed Jez, angrily. “Take that off. That ludicrous dress is making you an obvious target... On second thought, never mind. We need a canary for our coal mine.”
Kal kept talking: “Incredibly powerful, immune to toxins, radiation, you name it. The Benefactors bred them for waste disposal and land reclamation, saturated them with deconstructors, then unleashed them into dumps. Landfills. Radioactive wastelands of the early collapse and reactor glitches. They break down toxins, radioactive isotopes, plastics, everything artificial. But they bred out of control, grew to enormous size. Before authorities even realized what was happening, swarms of them ate whole cities. There’s a great disaster blockbuster based on the loss of Detroit called ‘Wormhole’. So awesome. The babe in it has huge gazongas.”
“There’s another over here,” said Andromeda, who had wandered off to the right. “And more beyond.”
“Khorosho, then,” whistled Thrax softly. “Back we go.”
“Shut down your fusion piles first,” advised Kal. “They’re attracted to radiation signatures. Like catnip.”
“Fuck,” swore Jez. “I’m not shutting down my rifle.”
Thrax nodded agreement. “Me either.” It was a batshit crazy idea. “What should I do if they show up? Throw appliances at them?” he whispered.
“Oh, they’re probably long gone.”
“Then you don’t mind if I keep my weapon primed.”
“Suit yourself. Just don’t stand quite so close to me.”
“Do it,” ordered Ghatz. “All of you. Shut down your weapons. No smoking, either.”
Clicks as pumps were shut off.
Candy threw back her veil and leaned over the edge of the pit. She cupped her hands around her mouth. “Sang?” she called out, “You down there?”
Drawn by the declaration, Thrax turned in time to see Jez as she tottered forward, pushing into Candy, who stumbled towards the abyss. Her arms flailed about, panic seized her. Candy opened her mouth to scream but no sound came out. Kal grabbed her arm and swung her round; she grabbed him and pulled herself tight against him.
“Thanks,” she said, kissing him on the cheek. “Thanks.” She buried her head in his chest.
Thrax gave him a supportive tap on the shoulder with his fist, and cast a dark glare at Jez. The others might think that was an accident, but Thrax sure as shit didn’t. He looked over at Kal and Candy.
“Hey, no worries. I always wanted to do that,” Kal said. Kal peeked at Jasmine to see if she noticed his heroic deed, but she was examining her nails. Thrax had no idea what Kal saw in her anyway.
Kal cast a look in askance at Thrax, who just shrugged and shook his head.
He wasn’t about to shove Candy into an abyss so Kal could repeat a good deed.
Deep below, in a vast stink of darkness, they heard a low, ominous, rumbling. It echoed, over and over again, the rolling sound a thickening miasma, until it saturated the air around them, pressing against their eardrums, and threatening to drive them mad.
“What was that?” Thrax swallowed and popped his ears. He felt unsteady. “Memetic call,” replied Kal.
The sensation finally faded and Kal became intrigued by a large dark smear on the concrete. He let go of Candy and knealt down. Ran a finger along the glistening mark. “Dried mucous. Relatively fresh.”
Sable reached over and put a little on her tongue. “Three days. No more.” Her eyes met Kal’s. He grimaced and looked at her finger with disgust. She blushed. “I, I thought we should know... how long...”
“That’s disgusting.” Thrax made a face.
Kal got up and walked away from the abyss, which seemed wise to Thrax, who took a couple steps back away from it as well.
Jez smacked Candy on the back of the head, then pulled her close and hissed into Candy’s ear, with barred teeth, “You trying to get us all killed for some stupid human? A driver?”
“No,” stammered Candy. Her dress glowed with disarming purity. “Sorry.”
“Fuck,” cursed Kitty as her weapon began to cool. She walked forward, stopped, whirled about. “Now can we go?”
“Yeah,” said Thrax, looking at the snot stains. “I think that’s a real good idea.”