CHAPTER 01

The Wolf-eyed Spectre

101 – Shere Khan pt 2
Breathe…Push

I was immersed in the high pitched wail, the screaming wind. It whipped around my goggles and passed into my mind. There wasn’t much room for thought as I tore through the landscape.

In the distance, the monstrous form of one of the Towers rose, jutting its defiance at the velvet sky above. The Towers were a guide, as good as sign-posts out here in the wastes pointing in the direction of the ‘civilised’.

The sky was also a reminder, as dusk settled into a blind horizon turning the landscape blue, the dust that caused its murky depths was a knife over my head.The day was running out. I had to find it soon.

Inevitably there’d be buildings at the base of the Tower, and perhaps salvation from the night. I shifted my weight, swinging the nose of my board round to bear down on my goal and leant heavily into the thrusters, sending my surroundings into a blur of lines.

The pitch rose.

102 – Seven Hounds
It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like during construction. I wonder if they knew then how the world would turn out, their Grand Vision, a final solution. Or if like now the animals just went along with it. Unthinking, uncomprehending. Lambs into a pen they built themselves. A prison for the mind.

The silence around me was the biggest change, the howling wind ceased as the board slowed. A thick enveloping stillness returned to smother the landscape. I stared at the buildings ahead, low and squat silhouetted against the tower around which they brooded.

The hunger reminded me, keep moving.

Quietly I approached the first building and began my search. While the tower had provided a need for the greater world, a dream of free energy could not sate the flesh. A hacking reverberated from deep within my lungs and a loud melodic ping from Archimedes mocked me; I needed to find life soon.

An amber glow, another reminder, my battery wouldn’t last forever.

Frustrated after hours of fruitless searching outside I entered the decrepit house, a family dwelling, this made it cold and somehow deeper within the pervading silence that wrapped the surroundings. There it was, a familiar canister waiting on a forgotten bench. It felt cool in my hand and I wasted a moment pondering how it had come to be here, calmly awaiting my arrival.

No need to stick around, besides the walls are crowding.

Out in the street I found the board drifting lazily, it struggled as though alive but I managed to pin it. I leant against a wall and opened my prize. Carefully I removed one of the seven cylinders, checked it for imperfections and swung the power lead from my belt. An electric spark, Tesla’s dream. I brought it to my lips, a deep breath. Leaning forward the respirator sprang to life with a hiss that rocked my core and the smoke expelled upwards.

A grand vision indeed.

103 – Determining Velocity
Freedom was enough most days. Keeping to myself had its highs and lows, but I had what I needed. At least I wasn’t a coward, head in the sand, refusing to see.

A pinging reminder from my arm told me to turn north, adjusting my stance I complied. A concession to the modern world, the arm unit had proved more useful than not.

Broken it may be, forever stuck in low power mode and the map inaccurate at best, it served its purpose. It kept the respirator functional and the music playing. It sure was needy though, even without AI that the other ones had and even in power-save it sucked down juice faster than I would like. Thankfully it had found the nearest Grid Interface.

The display still showed its amber warning but it should keep me going for a while.

The wind had picked up and the sky above was an unusual sea of black clouds. Concerned about moving at night I studied the horizon and watched the lightning… Just a regular storm, no need to worry; I’d get a lot more warning if one of the EYEs was upon me. I should make it to the interface before it hits in any case.

The earth raced below and the heavens prepared to crash from above. Yeah, this was enough.

104 – Ain’t No Tune
In some ways the incessant, constant drone was worse than the castrophany outside. Straining, I could hear the untamed, dominating wind and rattle of oversized drops on the roof. The factory was large and alive with it’s own symphony but the rage of the storm would not be silenced.

From my vantage near the Grid conduit, I could see the machines as they moved, reached, pushed, burned and then drew back to repeat. A rapid clacking, a tick like dice of bone, they forced raw materials into new gear, the latest model.

I shifted slightly and felt the air wheeze as it expelled from my respirator slowly, like an old man sitting down in bed, feeling stuck somewhere in a darker age. As my arm charged a warm fuzz moved through my shoulder. Drawing smoke into my lungs I sunk into the feeling.

Something pierced the reverie, a shard of ice plunging deep woke me and I looked to the door I had entered through. Had it been….. the second wail came clear against the storm. That definitely come from outside. I ripped my lead from the jack and started for the exit, I couldn’t afford to be caught inside.

The machines went on with their work as they always do.

Heads in the sand, refusing to see.

105 – Quest
I didn’t stop to think on my way out.

I failed to notice the security unit turning curiously to track my movement.

I failed to see the signs on the wall, marking the territory of the faux-collective that called this area their own.

It escaped my attention that I was not alone in this place, in this world and even in this life.

I had an opportunity to progress my Quest.

An opening, a  service entry, led out to the factory yard. My breath, shallow and short, my mind turning through possible scenarios that swore to drive my fear upwards, I went on. I found my target, a little one. It lay damaged, screaming into the night, the shrill, piercing cry clear between the flurries of wind that tore at me.

The curious watcher would have only seen my step falter once as I approached it. Infected, clearly, but hurt and looking to pose small threat. I knelt beside it and began. Removing a small, flat, metal triangle from a sealed compartment within Archimedes under-belly I reeled off a number of commands and override protocols to set everything in place. Using my thumb I pressed the small device gently onto it’s forehead amid a twisted combination of screams and laughter. A warm red light pulsed from the Plugs on it’s head while a golden glow glimmered out from beneath the triangle.

“Execute”

Archimedes’ screen was a blur of scrolling code. Errors were caught in subroutines and escape pathways bypassed as the script bore down into the data shell. Access was overwritten and a variable given a null value. Archimedes withdrew provisions and re-established firewalls, a series of checks returned positive results and a melody rang out into the yard indicating that all was good. The virus was well made, but it stood little chance against the antidote.

Quest complete.

The screaming stopped. The girl’s chest rose as she tore a ragged breath, her eyelids fluttered trying to focus on her surroundings. Her cracked lips tried to form a word lost to the scouring winds as her eyes settled onto mine. For a moment she seemed happy and for a moment she cried, but in my arms she fell unconscious and I feared that hope had lied.

“How do you fix a human body?” I muttered to myself.

106 – Wolfetone
New dawn, Same hope.

The brightening skies brought me back to the present, my thoughts not forgotten but put on hold as I neared my destination. The girl had made travel slower than I would have liked, and travelling by night had its risks, but my new charge was fading away. She had to live and I had to keep moving.

The board wobbled and dropped. The demon called inertia threw me to the ground. Reflexes kicked in and my powered arm caught the brunt of the impact to stop us short. The girl shifted on my back but stayed put. I appeared to have tripped a system that watched the edge of town. A short-phase pulse alarm rippled ahead of me through the streets.

Moving outward from me like a wave doors closed, locked and sealed against the would-be danger. I despaired and berated myself. The Virus was one thing, code and script; these were just building blocks. Wet blood, pulsing heart beats and intricate organs, the interplay between biology and consciousness were realms unknown to me. Soon the girl and I were alone in the street and the only sound above the hum of electricity was our breathing, mine drawn and haggard, hers small and weak.

Keep moving. The nearest locked door proved fruitless, no answer.

… As I pounded on yet another building entrance, my patience was ending, the last 15 unanswered knocks were taking their toll. The hum around me now overpowered by ragged gasps from over my shoulder. New dawn, dying light. I turned to the next door, set in a recessed alcove and hammered, it cracked open immediately, I was met by a pale face, wild hair and startled eyes, struggling to focus in the new light.

She studied the form on my back, from face to head plugs they took it all in and then snapped into focus, frightened realisation took hold and they jerked toward me. Exclamation, fascination, joy and fear. We stared at one another.

New hope.

100 – Epilogue
Slow night, nothing new…

I sighed lazily, watching the streets through ill-gotten camera connections. I often stared long into the night, keeping an eye out for trouble, because trouble makes work. The only sounds resonated from a speaker nearby, a relic, picking up stray transmissions from an antenna I set up outside of town. Words, stories and what had passed for music warbled through my office. Voices of the dead.

Thanks to the Grid and what we had done to the globe, EM frequencies got trapped. Bouncing around like some long-forgotten greenhouse effect. The sounds I heard, pieces of the past, kept me in my vigil. The speaker was an odd sort of comfort in this life, one of the few things I built that I had considered taking with me when this town fell apart.

The rest of society was awash with their conveniences, The Other World, safety in the Farms, their “Core Protocols”. Me? I had what I knew. I made myself useful to the town by fixing any mecha-units they rode into the ground and patched up the bio-wares as they broke. They wanted to make a living in the wastes but this was no Durian. That town had it all…

Most nights my monitors were still, but tonight was different. Movement at the edge of town.

Huh, a hoverboard, it’s been a while… My heart tightened as the stranger struck the perimeter alarm and I watched sadly as the board tumbled to the ground, such an old piece deserved better treatment. What was this guy thinking?

As he fell his powered arm struck out to stop his fall, an old Bramtech SJ-6 or 7… It’s hard to tell in this light but whatever it was, it was broken now. He was carrying something that he valued more than his tech. I tapped into several other angles to get a better view, he had no Plugs. A conflux of curios, a wonder indeed.

Tracking him was tough, he moved quickly and I had a hard time keeping up.

Through the town he searched, knocking on doors but not waiting long for a response. His search bore him down toward my end of town and his haste became mine. Flicking through my repertoire of cameras my heart pushed it’s way up into the back of my throat and I landed on the camera set atop the doorway to my building.

The knocks startled me but I opened the door before my mind caught up. I stared into the eyes of the spectre. The man with no connection to civilisation. He held a girl on his back and by the look of her she suffered from the Virus.. or had.

This was something new.

CHAPTER 02

The Best at Something

201 – Memoire

Archimedes display updated, 0908. I had been here for almost 3 minutes and my nerves were beginning to get tight.
I hated staying in one place too long. People get curious, I get bored. Facets of their everyday lives get on my nerves and Guardians watch you much more closely as an outsider.
There were only so many times a conversation could start or end with a someone shoulder checking you before you avoided them entirely.

/* come in Brave-3… check.. vagrant is in your sector… entered domicile 146-3… check */

I looked down at my display again, still 0908.

“Are you a doctor?” I asked flatly.

“No” came the reply.

/* … wastelanders bring anger with them, they can’t function in society and aren’t ready to accept orders… exercise caution Brave-3… */

My temper began to unfurl slowly but I drew a measured breath, respirator rattling softly in my chest. A more polite question formed on my lips but what followed next divided my attention in such a startling fashion that the words never formed.

/* Engage. */

An aggressive knock rattled hard at the door I had come through, followed shortly by a clear-tone broadcast from within the buildings old CAIN System.

[SURRENDER THE INFECTED AND SUBMIT YOURSELF FOR QUARANTINE]

The Guardians maintain peace. It was necessary or people would revert to being animals. Jealousy, greed, the Rage, even independence are not welcome in the shreds of society that remain. And me? Showing up out of nowhere with a sick child, I’m surprised it took them three minutes.

Guardians or not, this had to stop. I’d show them what society could do.

202 – Scalene

The door slid open sending light spilling through the entryway, locks were cobwebs to Guardians.

I drew one of my precious cigarettes, hung it in the corner of my mouth and, with both hands raised, walked out of the open doorway into the warm sunlight. Things might go better if I just let them say their bit. One of them stood before me, the form a series of haphazardly assembled armour from at least 3 different series, I noted his vulnerabilities. The weapon drawn and aimed squarely in my direction had bad cells, you could see from here. I opened my mouth to tell him that he had left his helmet clasp undone when a crash from behind caused me to bite into the end of my life source and fall. My arm’s damaged servo-motors couldn’t keep up this time and I tasted the dusty filth of the pavement.

This should be interesting… I laughed and pulled myself slowly up.

[YIELD, WANDERER. SUBMIT YOURSELF FOR QUARANTINE]

Before me in the dirt lay my cigarette. Bent. Number 6, so beautiful and clean, now damaged and helpless. I reached down and gently raised it up off the floor, inspecting it with an expert eye.

[CONFIRM. YIELD]

The second one appeared beside me and I saw an armoured boot draw back.

I threw myself forward onto my hands and vaulted upwards. There was a sharp snap hiss as the accelerated mechanics surged, followed by a screech of metal that caused a shudder in my soul but I made enough height for what I expected would happen…

The one who had tried to kick me found nothing but air and staggered as inertia caught up with the armour. The first, whose weapon was trained on me got spooked by the sudden movement releasing a blast that tore through the open space I had possessed connecting with the second’s leg. A cry rang out into the empty street and I landed easily in front of the itchy trigger finger.

A few moments at best, before his partner recovers.

My mechanised arm struck out and the back of my hand slapped his helmet clean from his head. This wouldn’t have happened if he had let me speak earlier, I thought sourly. His weapon clicked in his hands as he squeezed the trigger again and again, trying vainly to hold it steady but his fear was rising. He didn’t even notice the mocking amber light, the exhausts sighing pathetically, or even deeper still the high-pitched whine as the capacitors dumped their empty allocations.

I wasted another moment wondering how he had come here. Who he was. So young and so eager to become a slave to the UEC. Buy the book of the Protectors, go forth and do good to the world. Because the world needs good.

My patience ran out.

I found purchase on the front of his armour and I shoved him against the wall. His chest heaved as fear stole the breath from his lungs but I bore down on him, my eyes searching his.

I’d be gone soon enough if they left me alone.

I knew they wouldn’t call it in, it had been too quick, too embarrassing. They left as quickly as they had arrived. As I watched them leave I carefully loaded the 6th back into it’s protective case and sighed.

I needed to get my board, moment over.

203 – Velocity

As I walked back inside a slap jolted me sideways.

“What do you think you are doing?!” she demanded.

She reached close, flipped open a panel on my arm and snapped a wire from its housing, the speed and confidence took me aback. Archimedes blanked and went offline, my arm slumped under the weight as the mechanized unit powered down.

“You barge in here, dump a virus victim on my table and start a fight with the Guardians….Sit down.”

The girl had been lain on a nearby cot, she was still breathing steadily.

I sat and stared at the fragile little form while the mechanic continued muttering under her breath. Seemingly from nowhere and with startling speed she started stripping the casing from my arm, I made to protest but she shot a look at me sharp enough to kill.

With ruthless efficiency she tore back the damage around the servos and replaced parts as needed. I looked around, spare parts took up every shelf space. Parts for everything. A speaker on a desk caught my eye. A low murmuring emanated from it, unmistakably the voices of the dead.

“Ok, explain.” she demanded as the final panel slammed close on my arm.

I did my best to give a quick run down. Avoiding the origins of my panacea script, I told her how I had found the child in a nearby factory, damaged by the storm. The image of her face pleading at me as the roaring winds stole all other sounds rushed back into my mind and the story trailed off.

No further questions came as she replaced the lead and walked over to the cot. A tone resounded and scrolling text filled Archimedes display as it ran through POST. All checks green, time 0920. More hidden tools appeared, medical equipment from the look, and she set about checking the girl.

“I thought you weren’t a doctor?” I quipped.

“I’m not.”

204 – Eightfold Rune

The warbling voices, spectres of the long dead, provided an appropriate ambiance to the rest of the silence in the room. I watched as she worked on the girl, a symphony of two disciplines. One was warm, full of care and nurture as blood was cleaned away and wounds were tended. The other cold and full of logic, lit by incandescent light as data readouts rolled across screens.

“How is this possible?” She exhaled.

“What?”

“This girl clearly had the rage virus, yet now she does not. There is no ‘cure’ for the virus, it can’t just be cleaned up, turned off. It rewires your brain chemistry. Your emotions dominate and suppress everything else, the damage this causes to synaptic pathways is beyond repair.”

The speaker sung into the silence as music wrapped itself around scattered pieces of newscasters and storytellers.

“This girl, while somewhat malnourished, is otherwise healthy…it’s not possible.”

I avoided answering, knowing anything I say will reveal more than I am willing to commit. I didn’t know this woman, a woman who was at home working on flesh and machines yet qualified for neither it seems. The mess around the room was, at first glance, chaotic but after a few minutes I couldn’t help but notice the patterns. Everything has a place.

I glanced down, 0932.

“So when do we leave?” She asked, my head shot up.

“What?”

“The Protectors need to know about this.” she replied, “I assume you will be taking her to them, I’ll come along but we should leave soon. The Guardians ostensibly work under the Protectors and your antics in the street outside are no doubt being broadcast ahead of us. We can head for Cit-four, it’s closest and I think The Last Cowboy was seen there recently.”

I balked “I don’t think I can…”

How do I explain….

205 – Pumpkin Escobar

The silence stretched until it was tangible. The ellipses a palpable entity of their own, standing at the edge of the conversation so loud that both parties could not ignore them.

Work continued on examining the girl, my benefactor calling my bluff.

I sighed, “After seeing what just happened you suggest coming with me to a city. A City!”

“I don’t know what your problem is but clearly you know something about the virus. People need help; they need hope.” She stung me with the truth.The conversation halted again.

I thought about the price, already paid and still to come. The panacea code that could change the world… But it was a small win beside a very large mountain. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the code anyway, whether it was the spoils of my efforts or, in some twisted sense of irony, the sonofabitch I had worked so hard to track down gave it to me as a backhanded compliment.

The thing about technology is; it’s hard to stop progress and even harder to stop innovation. So even after The Fall new tech didn’t stop, people changed too and at first I believed it was simply a new breakthrough when I heard about it, blown out of proportion by rumour and sensationalism. That someone could have that kind of power or those abilities… Well. That’s what breeds fables after all, I thought darkly.

I bristled at the unasked questions hanging in the room. Who was she to question my past?

Once again I broke first, angrily this time, “So I should save the world? As though the Virus is the big issue?!”

I caught myself, I was livid, but needed to stop. Her questions were part of the price. I had gone chasing after answers, for the most part alone. The answers I found were not the ones I sought.

There I go, breeding personal fables. The truth was I have done much on this Earth but was not prepared when I found ‘him’.

The Technomancer was anything but a story.

206 – Mahiro Submarine

I withdrew from these thoughts, the swirling nebulous land of my memories was one I could be too easily trapped in. My eyes focused and settled the woman whose solid stare bore heavily into me.

I realised my decision was already made and sighed, “We need another way out, they’ll be watching the street.”

Her eyes moved back down to the little girl and the intense pressure directed toward me dropped significantly.

“That shouldn’t be an issue. Give me some time to get some things together and check your board.”

While she worked I looked over the board myself. There was no way it’d fit three of us, but it would work as a floating litter with some reconfigurations. I started looking for tools, the sooner done, the sooner we could leave.

It was as though she read my actions,

“Don’t bother with that” She disappeared from view for a few seconds through a doorway and brought out something that drew a whistle low from my lips. A longboard, sleek and in perfect condition. I traced the outline of it quickly and noted the adjustments, the capacitors were a custom fitting and the fuselage was leaner. It looked fast and mean. Who was this girl?

After grabbing a few supplies I looked to the her for the way out and she grinned, first one I’d seen. A few shelving units were moved with impossible ease revealing a trap door.
“Tunnel system, all the way out of the town.”

I simply nodded, casually inspecting the subtle rails that the shelves were set upon as we maneuvered the boards down into the tunnels. Low, rectangular and perfectly flat. The spartan tunnels were wide enough to fit both boards side by side as long as no one was riding. We secured the girl to the larger board and set out. I checked Archimedes

TIME: 1027

The trap door was pulled shut sealing us down in the shadowy halls and I heard the unmistakable sound of the shelves rolling back into place above our heads.

Same day. New Hope.

200 – Epilogue

The darkened tunnels provided plenty of time for introspection. It seemed that in a whirlwind of connected moments I had uprooted myself from my unusual life and set out to…what? Save the world?

I suppressed a scornful chuckle. Like the wolf-eyed spectre that walked silently alongside me I was too bitter to accept that I could have any significant impact on what’s left of ‘civilisation’. But, as we moved through the tunnels my gaze rested on the sleeping girl, maybe civilisation was worth saving.

I thought back, to my family, my father and sister. I thought about the colony ships and the hope for a brighter tomorrow. We had ruined this world and the best and brightest had gone to secure our future. As a child I was inspired when my father spoke of mother, chosen to be on the first fleet because of her spacecraft design, but I was naive…

I had always wanted to know how to do it, how someone became the best at something. Putting pieces together and making them fit was my specialty, I could take apart any device and re-fit it how I wanted so mechanics caught my interest more than once but it’s hard to want to know everything just for the sake of knowing it…

Watching this little girl, though, I could see that answers do not always need questions.

It had taken a while but I had come to terms with the truth, ‘the best and brightest’ had been the ones with money, influence, power. They weren’t paving the way for the rest of us, they had just fled. The world was a mess since the Lunar Disaster and things had gotten bleak, still who knows, maybe Mars isn’t much better.

A gentle hum broke the silence and we pulled up short, the stranger put his foot on his board, something was wrong. The air felt different, electric, like a static charge lifting hairs. It seems the tunnels weren’t so unknown after all. An EM shield blocked our path. My companion was already moving, working on his arm computer.

Useless.

An old Bramtech with no grid connection, no point trying to get through an integrated EM defense system, he couldn’t even interface….

The humming stopped. My companion removed his foot and his board kept moving, he didn’t say anything or acknowledge that he shouldn’t have been able to do what I just witnessed.

My naivety was teaching me another lesson.

How do you become the best at something?

Try something new.

CHAPTER 03

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::Coming soon to a wasteland near you!//.

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