Authors: Michael Rizzo
Tags: #mars, #zombies, #battle, #gods, #war, #nanotechnology, #heroes, #immortality, #warriors, #superhuman
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Part One: Game of Dead
Part Two: As I Walk Through This Wicked World
From the memory files of Mike Ram, relative date 23
“It strikes clear that none of this would have
happened if it weren’t for you and your kind, Colonel Ram.”
And so it drops, however little sense it makes.
“The robot attacks… Now this new horror… All
. The demon said so himself: He’s
doing it to
But then, fear doesn’t need to make sense.
The grief does. Despite the privacy they usually hold
to in their funeral ceremonies, they’ve laid the bodies out in
their Council Chamber, which tells me they want us to see what
they’re blaming us for:
Two children, a girl and a boy, maybe only five or
six Earth Standard years old. They both bear the telltale neck
wounds of Harvester injectors: small punctures haloed by
distinctive bruises, the unmistakable imprint left by the injector
housing; heralding certain, horrible death by what it delivered
into them. That they look otherwise intact tells me that they were
spared that fate—a victim suffering the process of conversion
usually injures themselves in their agony and madness as their
brain is consumed, the interface weaving into their brainstem and
the sensor stalks forcing their way into the eye sockets through
the skull. I can’t imagine that the Pax—or
human—would simply restrain them and leave them to suffer that.
Someone—perhaps one of the Pax here in the Chamber with us, perhaps
a family member—took on the agonizing duty of giving them
But how they were given that mercy is unclear. I (and
those like me) can kill a Normal with a touch, but these people
only have simple handmade weapons. I’ve seen them spare their own
with a well-placed blade or arrow, but there are no other visible
wounds on these bodies. It seems reasonable to assume they’ve
reserved a less violent method—poison, suffocation—for their
children, to make the terrible act very slightly more bearable.
That they’ve even had to consider the most humane way to kill a
child is its own tragedy.
I’m distracting myself, letting my morbid curiosity
obsess on the mechanics of the act so I can have the briefest
respite from dwelling on the reason that it had to be done.
Despite the display, the Pax have still taken their
own steps to make this easier to endure, as all humans do in
matters of mourning: The small corpses have been arranged neatly,
peacefully, with reverence. They could be asleep—such a poor and
worn comparison, however well it fits here—but my visual
enhancements assure me that they’re as cold as this cavern,
destroying the illusion for me. I scan no breathing, hear no
heartbeats. They are children no more, just empty shells of flesh
and bone, however gently cared for. All the potential of their
lives has been taken. And for what? A sick piece of shit’s petty
amusement. And that makes me angry beyond reason.
But I have to maintain myself (especially since my
host doesn’t seem able to). This is a solemn moment. These people
need to grieve. Again. And they need some kind of hope. This isn’t
the time for rage.
And even when it
time to rage, there must
be focus, control, reason. Many have been lost in these last
terrible months, but there are many more lives that might still be
saved, if so-called cooler heads can prevail. Thankfully, I’ve
always had a special talent for turning rage into tactical
calculation, a plan to win the unwinnable battle.
Of course, that tactical (practical) part of me wants
to warn them: If you don’t destroy the control modules that are
building themselves right now around these children’s brainstems,
or preventatively sever their heads, their small bodies will
reanimate within three days of their infection, and the sick
technology that will then be unnaturally motivating their corpses
will immediately seek to replicate, to pass the ravenous nanotech
to the nearest warm target. But I know the Pax know that. They’ve
learned that lesson far too dearly. I expect the reason that
they’ve risked leaving the bodies intact this long is that they
still freshly mourning, that they need time and ritual
to say their goodbyes before their beloved beautiful children are
destroyed like so much toxic meat.
(I feel a wave of nausea, but not at the thought of
the mutilating that needs to be done to these bodies. It’s because
I’m immune, invincible, and practically immortal.
My enemy can’t
hurt me except by hurting them.
There’s no way to stop that
except ending him, and the fucker has been gleefully keeping
himself out of my reach.)
Among those gathered here, I can reasonably guess who
the dead children’s parents are, who are siblings and grandparents
and extended family (though the whole community is family). Their
collective grief is agonizing to be in the presence of. I wonder
which one of them accepted the terrible duty of granting these
children mercy. I certainly would have, if I’d been here, if they
would have let me. I’ve already lost count of how many innocents
I’ve killed and mutilated (as cleanly as possible) in the last few
weeks since Asmodeus unleashed this atrocity on the people of this
world. I couldn’t do otherwise, because I
alternative run its course. And I would have to do it out of need,
to keep the technological plague from spreading, from taking more
lives. But is it better to let a stranger—an outsider—do the
soul-scarring deed? Or just easier? I can’t answer that for
“You will leave this place
,” Leder Sower,
their elected leader, orders me and mine. I can feel his own rage
and grief cut me with every word he measures out through clenched
jaws. “I bid you get as far from our lands as possible, and make
doing so. Take this evil with you, before it
takes us all.”
The command makes the rest of the Pax present visibly
uneasy. They keep silent, don’t argue with their Leder in front of
outsiders, but it’s clear that none of them expected Sower to go
this far, not after how we’ve fought to protect them, to help
defend their lands from killing machines and worse.
I especially catch the look in Gaius Archer’s eyes.
He’s obviously disturbed by this, but knows his place as a captain
of their Hunter Warriors, staying at attention with his elaborately
handcrafted Green Man mask hung over his chest. But I get the
impression that Sower’s unexpected decree and the two dead children
displayed here aren’t the only things upsetting him. He looks
, and seems eager to speak up about something, but
can’t, not here and now.
The cut-stone Council Chamber falls into a tense
silence. I can hear the wind whistling across the top-ends of the
narrow skylight shafts that provide the manmade caverns their dim,
“You aren’t wrong, Leder,” I try diplomacy. “Asmodeus
does attack you to taunt us. But he will continue to attack you
even if we leave, because he knows that doing so will bring us
back. He knows we won’t leave you to his atrocities.”
“Then we will disappear, as we do,” Sower insists,
gritting his teeth like he wants to scream at me. “Vanish into the
Green. Seal up our Keep with stone.”
This triggers a fresh wave of palpable discomfort in
those listening. The Chamber echoes with their combined gasps—they
can no longer fully suppress their shock for the sake of decorum.
Ordering our eviction was one thing, and understandable to a point,
however short-sighted. But
… Yes, the Pax are unmatched
in stealth in this verdant environment, but the things that
Asmodeus has sent to hunt them have proven their lethal efficiency
in tracking and targeting them. This Keep has been their only
effective protection against the hunting parties of bots that have
devastated their Steads and killed scores of their fellows, entire
families. Abandoning this fortress without need in the face of such
threats is throwing them all back out into the firing line, without
adequate cover or defense.
Something is wrong—wrong with Sower. I can feel it
twist in my gut. This doesn’t seem like the same man who so warmly
welcomed us to feast only weeks ago (and they’d certainly suffered
devastating losses then). He reminds me of… I’m not sure. Someone
under the influence of something, some drug or mental illness. I
can see it in his expression, his eyes, his coiled and trembling
body language. It’s a strong enough impression that I have to
wonder if it’s more than emotional and physical exhaustion.
I have a chilling thought: Could he be slipping into
dementia? I have no idea how old he is. Perhaps in his Standard
sixties, perhaps older. His wiry body is covered by thin, weathered
skin over muscles that look like cables; his white hair reduced to
a few stubborn wisps adorning his tanned skull; his deep-set eyes
yellowed and framed by deep wrinkles.
I have no idea what these people’s average lifespan
is, how well they age and what they tend to succumb to, living
adapted to the terraformed environment as they do. They certainly
appear healthy, though I have no standard of reference for their
low-gravity lean, elongated physiques and low-pressure enlarged
ribcages. The air may be thin, but humans on Earth have managed to
live at comparable pressures. The food is plentiful, and they
habitually protect themselves from solar UV. The electrostatic
Atmosphere Net helps reduce the cosmic radiation that would cause
steady cell damage, and having a mountain over their heads adds to
that protection. Out in the Steads, they layer water-rich soil and
plant life over their burrow-like shelters. But exposure to even
low levels of gamma is debilitating on brain tissue over time, and
Sower is one of the eldest of them that I’ve seen. Is that what
Archer is looking so concerned about? Is his Leder showing the
signs of neural degradation?
“And what about Katar?” I have to shift the
conversation before one of my fellows can no longer hold his
tongue. Both Bly and Lux are bristling, standing on my either
shoulder. “How will
City is exposed
now.” Thanks to Asmodeus.
about Katar!” Sower almost does
scream. “My responsibility is to my own. And too many are dead.
” He jabs his long boney
finger at the bodies. There’s a fresh surge of weeping among those
gathered. Sower is using their loss as leverage. He may have even
been the one who delayed whatever funeral ceremonies need to
happen, just to have the display to justify his decision.