Short Stories

GREEN HELL

Run Like Hell

Some people think the world hates them.

Right now, Kerubo knew it did.

Fortress City Ifarada was under attack. Again.

Most days, the Green Hell surrounding it just slowly but steadily tried to overgrow the exterior wall with corrosive vines and clog the air filtration systems with lethal spores.

One might think that the liberal application of defoliants would be enough to solve all their problems.

Two flaws with that logic: the defoliants they used were constantly losing their effectiveness as the damn plants adapted, and anything that sufficiently harmed the plants made the wildlife pissed.

Today, something else had the toothy denizens of the Green Hell all riled up.

The ice-cold voice of a dispatcher echoed through the dimly lit room:

"Outpost 3 is running low on ammo. Runners, prepare to resupply."

Standing in the airlock always made Kerubo antsy, and her tic of lightly tapping her prosthetic feet made an appearance.

She felt like a racehorse at the starting gate.

Ammo? Check. Mask? Check. Package? Check. Squad? Check.

Her day job as a courier- parkouring through the labyrinthine cityscape under the dome- gave her a skillset that came in handy for her other job: escorting ammo drones.

The light went green an instant before the pressure door slammed open.

Go time!

Three spindly, bipedal ammo drones shot out into the blinding daylight with their escorts hot on their wheeled heels.

Trying to maintain a permanent supply line far enough out to keep the worst of the Green Hell's residents at bay was a fool's gambit. Anything underground would be infiltrated by tree roots or vermin, and anything above ground risked being overgrown. Keeping the shit off the walls was hard enough.

Case in point, the road ahead was buckled and splitting from a Devil's Garden: a biological minefield of acid-spraying plants

Or as she liked to call it: A Pumpkin Patch from Hell.

One wrong step and the contractive tissues of the plant’s bulbous yellow nodes would douse her head to toe in a chemical concoction that made pure sulfuric acid seem mild.

Don’t step on the death squash! DON’T step on the death squash!

She heard the voice of Kumba- one of her squadmates- shouting over their shared comms.

"HEADS UP! WE'VE GOT INCOMING!"

A flock of Kongamato shrieked in the sky overhead, partially blotting out the sun with their leathery wings before diving towards the ammo runners.

Kerubo had enough run-ins with the bat-like predators to notice they often ignored the runners themselves and went straight for the ammo drones first.

It's like they somehow knew that the drones were important.

She raised her submachine gun to her shoulder and fired several quick, rapid bursts without slowing down to aim.

Slow is death! Speed is life!

Her heart pounded in her chest, but she kept her breathing steady. It was way too easy to accidentally hyperventilate behind a gas mask.

Focus.

Kerubo had to sidestep falling corpses and swooping talons. One of their drones splashed off the edge of the road and into a ditch as a Kongamato hit it from the side.

No time to recover it! Gotta keep moving!

The drones themselves were insanely maneuverable despite carrying 100 kilo ammo crates on their backs. Leaning forward like a skier reduced drag and helped lower their center of mass, while having both wheels and legs meant they could jump over obstacles.

Her drone vaulted nearly two meters into the air to avoid a fallen log as they neared the beleaguered outpost. She and her partners matched the feat on their athletic leg extensions.

The outpost's sentry guns were burning through ammo while the crew stationed there cleared the drop point of swarming insects with the flamethrowers. In the Green Hell, the rule of thumb was ‘The smaller the animal, the deadlier the toxins.’

Even from twenty meters away, she could feel the heat of the controlled inferno against her skin.

Almost there!

The corpses of a whole pack of Hellhounds- no doubt driven into a psychotic rage by the alarm chemicals of the plants- were piled high beneath the gun nest as it rained shell casings down upon their spiked, scaly hides.

The only thing that had even allowed her people to survive centuries of this kind of biological onslaught was hard-learned human ingenuity. For example, their cities borrowed design principles from the long-dead Martian colonies: keep the hostile environment out with solid engineering, and the hostile neighbors out with enough firepower to kill an army.

The observation towers out here past the perimeter wall helped coordinate fire with the city's heavy artillery, which was currently hammering the terrain just beyond their position.

A flimsy, chewable drone wouldn't cut it.

The two drones that had managed to finish the trip quickly docked themselves into the ammo feeders and started offloading reams of bullets while she and her squad helped secure the outpost.

"What the Hell has gotten into all of them?!" Kerubo yelled to the technicians as she dumped more rounds into the rabid creatures charging her.

"We've got a massive sensor contact on approach! It's uprooting the trees and sending everything into a frenzy!" The technician on monitor duty shouted back while desperately trying to manage the coolant levels in the guns.

"Helephant herd?"

"Negative! Single contact! Entering visual range in five, four, three, two-"

The earth shook and the forest wall splintered as the beast emerged from the depths of the Green Hell that spawned it…

At over ten meters tall, it was the biggest Grootslang Kerubo had ever seen.

Oh FUCK!

The enormous pseudo-theropod made a beeline for the tower, shrugging off bullets that would have instantly killed a human being. Even the splash of artillery shells fired from the city’s wall seemingly did nothing to its nearly invulnerable skin.

Kerubo and her squad tried to get the beast’s attention to draw it off, but it simply lowered its enormous head and ploughed straight through the building without slowing down.

The technicians never stood a chance.

Nothing we can do for them now, just RUN!!!

Chunks of concrete crashed around her as she took off into a dead sprint with the rest of her squad, the artificial muscles of her rebuilt legs straining near their failure point.

Getting her legs ripped off by wildlife as a kid had been more than enough dismemberment for one lifetime.

As they rushed back along the path, the entire perimeter was in utter chaos. The wall cannons fired blindly through living clouds of Mboro, while the shroud generators blanketed the terrain with a fog-like haze of acrid smoke to drive off the enraged vespids.

The third ammo drone got splashed with mud from a stray anti-tank round as it was picking itself up out of the ditch.

She could see their escape route up ahead: the personnel airlock next to the heavy vehicle gateway they used for admitting trade caravans.

As she felt the pounding footsteps behind her, a terrible thought rushed to the front of Kerubo's mind:

It's going to breach the gate!

If that happened, they would lose an entire district if they were lucky. Once the Green Hell got a foothold somewhere, it was damn near impossible to remove.

Kerubo looked back through her breathing mask to the drone as it finally climbed out of the mud.

She had an idea…

This is a really, really stupid idea! Not enough time for a better one!

Her squad kept running as hard as they could towards the airlock while she made a beeline for the drone.

The Grootslang wasn't very fast, but with so much bulk and that impenetrable hide it didn't need to be.

She resynced the drone's control software to rally on her while she grabbed the satchel charge she always kept strapped to her lower back on these runs- just in case.

Kerubo didn’t mind risking her life to help keep her people safe, but being ripped apart and eaten alive was a bad way to die. Explosives? Not so much.

She slapped the bomb onto the drone, letting the magnetic clamps lock it in place while she turned back towards the oncoming mountain of teeth and flesh.

The drone followed suit, charging ahead of her while she continued to pepper the beast with bullets. She had to make sure it didn't just step on the drone.

Come on! Come on you big bastard! Open wide!

The Grootslang shifted its single-minded focus on destruction just enough to notice the free meal on wheels barreling its way, along with the tasty morsel not far behind it.

It didn't even bother changing the direction of its gateward charge- it just lowered that massive, horned head, swung open its mouth full of half-meter-long serrated teeth, and snatched the drone mid-stride.

Kerubo leapt into the air and with both feet kicked off from the beast's snout, conserving and building her momentum as she pulled a one-eighty at breakneck speed.

The whole world slowed as she slipped the detonator's safety off mid-summersault and squeezed the button.

An explosion of gore, bone, bullet brass and grey matter ripped the Grootslang's head open from the inside, showering her with a downpour of blood and viscera as she stuck the landing and sprinted back to the pressure door.

She threw both her arms up in triumph and screamed to the heavens:

"I LOVE MY JOB!!!"


THE SIEGE

Gilgamesh

Everything was on fire.

The buildings, the streets, even the fucking river as burning petrol from ruined cars and downed aircraft leaked into it.

They still didn't know what was attacking them, let alone why.

Half of their comm traffic was being jammed, and the rest was a cacophony of panicked screaming and gunfire.

Central Command had gone silent an hour ago. The Western Wall was compromised, and hordes of enemy VTOL aircraft and ground units were pouring through the breach- killing everything in their path.

The City Guard garrisons responsible for protecting that district were outgunned and cut off. They were as good as dead, but they were not going quietly.

Every enemy they felled was one less their brothers and sisters would have to face.

One less to stalk their children through the burning streets.

General Gilgamesh- to his knowledge- was the highest-ranking officer still alive. These things had targeted him directly in the first moments of the attack. Were it not for his sharp eye and deft reflexes, he too would have succumbed to the assassination attempt. That told him the Enemy had somehow infiltrated the city and sabotaged their defenses long before the assault came. The mystery of how would require further investigation later.

All he could do for now was follow his final orders: get the civilians to safety. The Enemy hadn't made it across the river yet, and his men still held the crossings. He would worry about what to do next if his people survived the night.

He stood shoulder to shoulder with the mechanized infantry of 3rd Battalion guarding Mansur Bridge, smack dab in the middle of the entire city. With the river at their backs and the Enemy bearing down their throats, it was up to them to hold the escape route open for as long as they could.

Below his feet, he felt the rumble of the sapper team he had deployed to seal the subway tunnels.

In all his years, Gilgamesh had never thought it would come to this. New Babylon was- short of perhaps the domed fortress cities of the African Green Hell- the single most heavily defended location on the planet.

Their army was trained in defensive siege warfare. The ancient city planners who had laid the foundation of this place had done so during the early years of the most devastating conflict in human history. This was the ONLY major city on the entire Eurasian supercontinent that had withstood everything the End War had thrown at it. Everyone else had been forced to rebuild from the ground up. For the last thousand years, nothing had ever made it past their walls.

And in a single night, they had lost half of the entire goddamn city to an enemy they didn't even have a name for.

It was like something out of the Old Texts, where the gates of hell had swung open and unleashed God's hatred and wrath upon the world of man.

The megabuildings of the Babel Heights, about twenty kilometers northwest of his position and far behind enemy lines, were putting up one hell of a fight as their flak guns seeded the sky with clouds of metal. One by one, however, the guns were falling silent as the lower floors were systematically overrun.

The Grand Temple- being across the river behind them- hadn't fallen yet. Sitting atop the largest structure in the entire city by volume, its mighty railguns shouted bone-shaking defiance at the advancing enemy, with blue streaks of superheated metal gutting the heaviest of the assault craft overhead. It was terrible and glorious to behold.

But their enemy wasn't stupid. When their deep-strike airborne assault failed to make it over the river, their remaining craft began setting down just outside the railguns' sight lines- or outright dropping entire racks of whatever the hell their equivalent of troops were- throughout the western half of the city. They were trying to cut off as many of the civilians and military assets from retreat as they could, and it was working.

Radio chatter told him that the last of the evacuation convoys was coming in hot: two dozen heavy trucks loaded down with women, children, and wounded.

There should have been a hundred vehicles in that convoy…

The trucks came barreling over the ridge down the road, pushing their engines past the red. There was no time left for caution, and no room for safety. They had to make it to the crossing before what was behind them reached it.

A concealed gun emplacement- set up by the Enemy in one of the buildings overlooking the road- unleashed volleys of high-explosive shells on the lead and rear vehicles. Though their escort Janissary Armored Car managed to kill it, the damage was done.

There was some grim fortune in that the trucks trapped in the middle had enough torque together to push the mangled lead ahead even with its engine shot to hell and most of its tires shredded. The rear truck wasn't so fortunate.

The people in its passenger compartment were badly shook up and had taken some nasty shrapnel, but they were still alive. Even at half a kilometer away and over the sounds of screeching metal and gunfire, Gilgamesh and his men could hear their screams from the barricades.

The convoy couldn't wait for them. The remaining vehicles were already over capacity and the noose was tightening by the second. They couldn't even get out to hook up a tow chain, as white phosphorous began to fall like hellish snow. The nearest recovery vehicle was minutes away. There wasn't enough time.

Gilgamesh weighed his options heavily. They had to hold this line at any cost. If they didn't, everyone behind them would die. War was ultimately a cruel math problem with few practical solutions.

Fuck it ALL. There was no way his men would make it in time to help without getting slaughtered themselves.

The soldiers at his side tried to prepare themselves to watch civilians being used for target practice by the monsters now taking aim from the buildings. It wouldn't be long until the first person tried to make a run for it.

It must have come as a shock to everyone, then, when the General himself leapt over the barricade.

Every step he took hit the ground like a sledgehammer, launching tiny flecks of concrete in his wake. Pieces of white phosphorous from the incoming mortar shells splashed off his armor as if they were nothing but snowflakes. Even bullets seemed to miss him by the barest margins.

In thirty seconds, he had crossed half a kilometer of broken terrain while under fire.

The soldiers bearing witness to this spectacle had broken free of their stunned trance long enough to lay down a seething stream of fire from their own machine guns as cover. The Enemy was not so easily impressed.

He slid to a stop on hand and foot behind the crippled truck, grabbed it by the rear bumper, and pushed!

"HURRY! IT'S COMING!!!" One of the civilians shouted out the back door while desperately trying to keep their femoral artery closed.

"Ancestors, grant me STRENGTH!"

Gilgamesh's family lineage had a long history of martial duty that could be traced all the way back to the End War itself.

They fought in Green Hells, on radiation-soaked beaches, and even felt the dust of other worlds beneath their boots.

They were the first true Super Soldiers, and their blood was in HIS veins.

He strained with all his might, digging his toes into the ground and visibly deforming the steel bumper with his grip.

The eight-ton truck, down an engine and two tires, started to move.

Slowly but surely it built up speed. Someone moved the dead or still-dying driver aside and took over steering while looking out the busted window. The streets were clogged with smoke, and there was no shortage of burning cars along the curb.

The heat was becoming unbearable. Even Gilgamesh still had physical limits, but he could succumb to those later. These were his people. It was his duty to protect them, no matter the personal risk or sacrifice.

Every time a sniper tried to take a shot at him, a long stream of 30mm airburst autocannon fire would hose the buildings with hateful scorn. Anything that so much as moved near a window along the road was given an express pass to hell.

As Gilgamesh reached the bridge, the truck had enough forward momentum to make it the rest of the way across to the waiting medevac team on its own. After that herculean effort- which would have killed anyone else without his gifts- he allowed himself a moment to catch his breath.

Someone had the good sense to hose him down with a fire extinguisher while he pried bits of still-burning phosphorous out of his armor with a knife.

Once he was no longer a fire hazard, some of his men offered him their canteens while patting him on his back. He drank his fill, scarfed down a handful of protein bars, and retrieved his weapon.

For a brief moment the smoke cleared, and they all saw what was coming.

The neighboring nations sometimes used combat walkers. They were slow and usually lightly armed compared to a main battle tank, but they excelled in rough terrain that would bog down a tracked or wheeled vehicle, such as mountains, swampland, and dense jungle.

This one was different. It was big, it was fast, and that casemate cannon sticking out of its back looked like it could outgun even one of their own Cataphract MBTs, one of the toughest tanks in the world and the heaviest vehicle in their arsenal.

The thing just exuded a feeling of menace, like a giant, weaponized rhinoceros beetle that had never skipped leg day.

It took one look their direction, locked itself down, and fired that enormous cannon at their position. The Crusader Infantry Fighting Vehicle ten meters behind them simply ceased to exist.

The Crusader's partner returned fire with a cable-guided anti-tank missile. Low tech, but no amount of smoke or sensor jamming would interfere with the guidance system.

Four separate streams of tracer fire poured off the enemy walker, ripping the missile apart mid-flight. Two seconds later, and the second Crusader was gone.

"GILGAMESH TO ALL CHANNELS, NEED BACKUP AT MANSUR BRIDGE BARRICADE! ENEMY ARMOR IS ADVANCING ON OUR POSITION AND WE JUST LOST OUR HEAVIES!"

Where were the damn tanks when he needed them?

The silence that followed was his answer.

He would have to make do until reinforcements arrived or another asset could be retasked.

"TEMPLARS! TO ME!"

Unlike the basic riflemen of the City Guard, the Templars were equipped and trained for all-out war as heavy infantry. It fell on them to be his bulwark against this evil.

In the skies above them, another Archangel Strike Fighter met its end dogfighting enemy aircraft.

"ALPHA, TAKE LEFT! BRAVO, TAKE RIGHT! FLANK AND VOLLEY ON MY MARK! MOVE!"

Two platoons peeled off into the buildings while the third took up positions behind the sandbags and armored plating of the barricade.

A synchronized fusillade of shoulder-fired rockets streamed down the boulevard from multiple angles. Not even this damn thing could intercept that much coordinated fire.

Of the half-dozen rockets in the first volley, only one made it through the crisscrossing streams of heavy machine gun fire. But that one rocket hit the main cannon from the side, shearing it in half like a steel banana.

Firepower kill. Out-fucking-standing.

Their triumph, however, was short lived. Panels along the walker's spine swung upwards, loosing a swarm of guided munitions that tore into the barricade and nearby buildings. The Templars took the mauling with grit as they pulled back.

With its vertical launch tubes depleted, the hulking monstrosity threw aside all pretenses of being a Mobile Gun and began to charge. It crushed the wrecked vehicles in its path underfoot, and any that were too tall to gallop over it simply knocked aside with the forked battering ram adorning its armored, red-eyed head.

The General had seen that kind of reckless tactic only once before- when a terrorist had loaded an ore hauler with twenty tons of fertilizer and tried ramming it into the East Gate.

He signaled his combat engineers to be ready to blow the bridge. That son of a bitch wasn’t getting through them.

"GILGAMESH, HONOR GUARD COPIES YOUR TRANSMISSION. WHERE DO YOU NEED US?"

"GILGAMESH TO HONOR GUARD, REQUESTING IMMEDIATE DIRECT FIRE SUPPORT ON GRID LIMA TWELVE, TRAILING WEST. MAIN ROAD."

"CONFIRMING GRID LIMA TWELVE, TRAILING WEST. SPECIFY TARGET."

"THE BIG FUCKING BUG!"

"TARGET CONFIRMED. DROPPING THE BOOT."

No amount of lectures or recordings can prepare you for the feeling of a railgun firing at a target a few dozen meters away from across the city.

The way the shockwave hits your entire body like a truck as the round passes by, and again when it hits.

The way anything liquefies as the round impacts going at seven times the speed of sound.

The way the air tastes like burning metal and stone afterwards.

The monstrous walker collapsed as its strange, almost organic entrails were reduced to a fine, blackened paste that was now smeared in a conical pattern down the entirety of the street behind it.

"GOOD HIT, HONOR GUARD! GILGAMESH OUT!"

He breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Less than five seconds later and he, his men, the bridge, and everyone else within a hundred meters probably would have been dead- if not from the super-sized suicide bomber, then from the demolition charges and being trapped on the wrong side of the river.

As his troops recovered, he surveyed the damage they had sustained. The roiling pressure waves of all the artillery had knocked the nearby flagpole over. Tactically, it was meaningless. Symbolically?

He dusted off the rubble, reset the mast, and hoisted the tattered but still intact flag back to its rightful place overlooking the crossing. The Crescent Moon, Six-Point Star, and Leaping Fish- stitched from silver thread against a rich blue background- shined majestically in the morning light through the smoke.

As the sun rose behind them, Gilgamesh and his men drew small comfort from having survived the night. Their war had just begun.


The Lord General

He never wanted this.

His duty was always to his people. To protect them.

Not to rule them.

The Council was dead. Murdered by those... abominations.

Gilgamesh wasn't even in the top twenty people for the Chain of Succession. He had always known his calling was to lead soldiers into battle, fighting side by side from the front lines. He had turned down higher promotions to avoid sitting on the Council while his brothers and sisters bled.

But now the Chain of Succession fell to him, and- per the Scrolls of Armageddon- the Honor Guard had named him Lord General.

To decline such a duty meant death. Not merely his own, though he doubted even he could endure long if the Honor Guard gave the order.

No, to decline the duty of Lord General meant that his people were doomed, for if none could stand and unite them in their darkest hour then they had no future.

For all his unimaginable strength, the weight of the world now rested on his shoulders…

The survivors of the first night had rallied on the Grand Temple while defenses were shored up along the river and uncompromised sections of The Wall.

Sitting atop a ziggurat 200 meters tall and a kilometer wide, the Grand Temple was the city's beating heart. It also happened to be an entrance to the largest civilian refuge their people had ever built.

Streams of confused and bleeding souls were being ushered onto freight elevators- scattered across the enormous plaza that dominated the Ziggurat's upper layout- to take them into its cavernous interior. Though that had not always been its purpose, the Dragon Cradles had been easy enough to retrofit to suit the changing needs of the End War's aftermath.

Even now, as the ancient railguns fired from their battlements along the Ziggurat's edge and detachments of the City Guard fortified the Hanging Gardens beneath into ramparts, Gilgamesh couldn't help but admire its beauty through sad, weary eyes.

In times that all too soon were feeling like distant memories, those on pilgrimage to the Grand Temple would line the kilometer-and-a-half long ramp that rose opposite to it on the eastern face of the Ziggurat- the sun at their backs as they beheld its majesty. As the sun fell behind the Temple in the waning light, they would return to their homes with blessed rays of light scattering off its polished exterior like the wings of a divine protector.

Gilgamesh had always liked that little architectural trick.

Today, that holy path was being defiled by endless, rumbling convoys of military vehicles and supply convoys…

But his people had learned long ago that tradition did not outweigh extinction.

The latest wave of troops was readying to deploy to the front lines. The river was still by far the most vulnerable stretch of their perimeter, and every second spent fortifying it was being paid for in countless lives.

Being forced to watch them march to their deaths while being unable to follow was his own personal hell.

The Lord General returned to his still-unfurling command center from that momentary lapse into sentiment and set to work.

The Scrolls of Armageddon outlined contingencies for in the event The Wall ever proved insufficient to protect New Babylon.

Among the information they contained were strategies to weaponize every possible asset at their disposal, maps of lost utility tunnels, hidden caches of supplies, blueprints for ancient technology, detailed weaknesses of enemy doctrine & equipment, and protocols to destroy even the strongest buildings with ease if necessary.

Every known secret that could save or doom the city if it fell into the wrong hands.

In the past 1000 years, only a single scroll had ever been lost: the Scroll of Ishtar. Nobody was quite certain what secrets it had contained, only that its name invoked the most dangerous and powerful figure of their history.

"We have confirmation that they've shut down the hydroelectric dam upstream."

"If they destroy it, we'll have a flood on our hands. Send a team to seal the North River Gate. We can bog them down in the mud as they try to cross once the remaining water drains."

"Reports indicate enemy assets are poisoning water reservoirs in their zone of control."

"Damn it! How long will our remaining reservoirs last?"

"We're still taking a headcount-"

"How. Long." He did not the luxury of time nor the patience to wait for bad news.

"A month, my Lord. Probably less."

New Babylon was a desert city. Water was one of their most precious commodities, and as such they had built up their infrastructure to stockpile enough to withstand multi-year-long droughts if need be.

Now all of that was gone.

The Lord General put his palms down to the edge of the strategy table and gave a long, quiet sigh.

"Institute immediate water rationing. Assemble a task force to find a way to counteract or filter out the poison. What's the status of our long-range communications?"

"No luck, my Lord. Our transmissions are being jammed, and we've lost contact with the Beacon Network. Even the fiber cables were severed just before the attack came."

Landline technology was primitive, but it was reliable- and right now the city's Internal Emergency Network was the only means they had for coordinating with themselves outside of point-to-point lasers and old-fashioned couriers.

The Enemy had gone to great lengths to ensure they couldn't call for help from beyond their walls...

"So… We're on our own."

He pushed aside the gnawing fatalism in his mind and stood tall as a leader should.

So long as even one person held a rifle against this evil, the city would not be lost.

"Unseal the arsenal vaults. Get every manufacturing asset we still control to work on replacing our material losses, and establish recruitment and training facilities for bolstering the Guard."

He took small comfort in that compulsory conscription was unlikely to be necessary.

Beneath the fear, confusion, and pain, his people were angry.

"The machine shops and chem depots have small arms covered, but the foundries and factories are going to require more power than we can currently provide."

"Without the dam, our railguns are going to see energy shortfalls before long if they keep firing at this rate."

The city had multiple redundant powerplants and generous capacitor banks for weathering emergencies- but nearly half of the ones currently in operation were across the river and in enemy hands. Without those guns…

"I have a representative from NergTek here that says they might be able to help fix that," one of his technical officers at Forward Base Bravo chimed in.

NergTek… It had been a long time since Gilgamesh last heard that name.

"Bring them onboard and give them whatever they need."

If gambling wasn't illegal, he would have put substantial coin on one of the items being the Scroll of Tiamet. Their company's prior research into it- and the subject it covered- had bore fruit centuries ahead of New Babylon's current standard of technology.

Such power was a dangerous thing in less capable hands, but it was a risk he had to take.

"I want every other researcher we can spare to start pulling these things apart."

He gestured at the images of their enemy with contempt.

"I want to know what they are made of, who made them, what powers them, how they communicate, if they eat, breathe, or shit…" The Lord General quietly ground his teeth in thought. "I want to know all the ways we can kill them and figure out any other nasty tricks they have in store for us before they have a chance to use them."

"We know they compromise or corrupt any technology they interface with," the Master of Spies noted. "We should keep any specimens our forces capture somewhere where they won't be able to infect our systems."

"Agreed, and until we know more about them I don't even trust their corpses. Use the empty warehouses near the south river gate for now as a dumping ground and set up a lab there. Rig the entire district with demolition charges and petrol bombs if you have to, but I do not want any incidents getting out of control behind our front line, is that clear?"

Even the Master of Spies- normally as expressionless and emotionally inscrutable as an automaton- couldn't fully hide a nervous gulp as it passed down his throat.

With so many lives at stake, carelessness or incompetence would not be tolerated.

Every officer present gave a curt but energetic nod in the affirmative to their Lord General's decree.

His point made, the Lord General's lethal glare softened back to one of professional focus.

"Good."

He glanced over the latest casualty estimates, and his heart sank. They had lost three battalions in the last hour.

The City Guard could feasibly be reinforced with reservists or those given crash-course training, basic armor, and mass-produced small arms. Templars and Immortals- on the other hand- were soldiers, and as such their losses were far more dire. The former required years of dedicated training to reach peak effectiveness, while the latter represented a handful of individuals who- much like Gilgamesh himself- had won a genetic lottery. As the opening night of the siege had so painfully reminded him, even Immortals could be killed.

Equipment could be replaced. People couldn't.

"Any progress with inoculating our Golems and Goliaths against enemy influence?"

"Our technicians are having to completely remove any wireless receivers from them and switch to hardline connections. It's slow going and will dramatically decrease their combat effectiveness, but it's currently the best option we have other than scrapping them for parts."

He would gladly sacrifice a thousand soulless machines in place of a single human life- but he wasn't about to authorize their use when said machines were more likely to turn against their masters than protect them.

"Refit those we can and disable the rest until further notice. Proceed with retrofitting the remainder of our arsenal for manual operation."

"Yes, Lord."

With his war council given their orders, he quietly contemplated his next move. He would leave the micromanaging of their army to his officers, but it was up to him to guide the greater campaign and deploy specialized assets like a scalpel as necessary. He keyed the IEN's operator dispatch.

"Get me Nebuchadnezzar and Hammurabi Squads on the line."

Out in the desert- far beyond the horizon- a merchant caravan saw the glow of the city burning.


ASHWALKER

Homestead

Ash.

It got everywhere. His hair, his skin, his clothes, his bike's engine.

It had somehow even gotten stuck in his family's name: Ashwalker.

When Yellowstone blew its top centuries ago, everybody knew the End War was over. Nobody had won.

The coasts had already been reelin' from gettin’ nuked, but when the ash started fallin' and wouldn't stop, even the places far from the major cities started to panic.

Most of the people who could bugged out with the Exodus fleets, headin' for places like Europe, Asia, or South America. Anywhere they thought they might be able to ride out what was comin'.

Some folks stayed behind on purpose. All the "preppers" enjoyed ‘emselves- for a while, at least. The ones who filled their bunkers with lots of provisions and nothing for entertainment but family board games probably ended up eatin’ each other after a month.

'Course, a lot of folks got left behind.

Anyone livin' within five hundred miles of the giant, smolderin' hole in the ground belchin’ ash and toxic fumes everywhere?

They're probably dead, no point in checkin'!

Low income communities out in the boonies?

We've gotta prioritize the routes we can clear!

All the folks livin' on the reservations?

Don't worry, the Feds will help coordinate their evacuation with the Tribal Governments! They definitely didn’t fuck off on the first boats outta here!

Maybe they wouldn't have wanted to get dragged away from what was left of their ancestral lands a second time?

Would've been nice to have gotten a choice…


Oh well. They wouldn't have to worry about that happenin' again nowadays: it was all their land now, 'specially since the Army forgot to take their nukes with 'em when they pulled out.

Sure, the big missiles in the silos were all basically worthless on account of their fuel goin' bad and nothin' bein' able to make orbit after the war, but some… enterprisin' individuals remembered that there's more than one way to drop a nuke on somethin'. Keepin’ the warheads ‘emselves in workin’ order was trickier, but they managed.

All the folks who got screwed by the Exodus started bandin' together in little clusters of civilization anywhere they could- whether it was in underground shelters or just wherever the geiger counters stopped havin’ fits.

None of 'em were too keen on havin' one big government tellin' everyone what to do again, so they settled for a loose confederacy between all the towns and outposts. Helped ‘em avoid bein' awful or killin' one another over stupid shit, and it meant they could help each other out if someone else was doin' the killin'.

Apparently, there had been another confederacy in America a long time ago nobody really cared about anymore.

Somethin' about "The South will Rise Again?"

Guess the sea levels goin' down from all the glaciers up north technically counted…

Even after all this time, North America was still mostly a dusty wasteland. Part of it was because it's damn hard to make even volcanic ash fertile when it's contaminated with radiation and there's hardly any rain.

The bigger problem was that the Confederacy's population was too small, too thinly spread out, and too damn stubborn to cooperate on the scale needed to revitalize an entire continent.

A lot of 'em were perfectly happy with how things were anyway: as long as they could grow enough food to keep their own bellies full, livin' in a desolate, ash-coated shithole was a good way to keep outsiders from messin' with 'em.

Still, someone had to make sure folks resolved their differences with words instead of bullets and help keep all the nasty critters at bay.

Right now, that someone was Cheyton Ashwalker, Wasteland Ranger.

Some homesteaders out here in the middle of nowhere had put a call out on their ham radio a couple of days ago that someone had been stealin' the cables off their solar array. Since they weren't gettin' enough power to their grid, their fences weren't keepin' the pests out and their hydroponics had gone kaput. If they didn't fix it soon and stop the thief, they were gonna have a real lean winter.

The road to their place cut through the Spires: a bunch of structures that looked like enormous termite mounds. All the skyscrapers that got covered in ash eventually turned into these if they didn't end up collapsin’ in on ‘emselves.

Most folks were smart enough to give 'em a wide berth seein’ as they were deathtraps, but that didn't mean things weren't livin' in 'em.

You never knew if somethin' hungry was watchin' from the shadows.

Come for the scenery, stay for the wildlife as it tries to fuckin' eat you.

Speakin' of which, he had company.

Ash Runners looked a lot like a four-foot tall roadrunner with teeth and claws, and they weren't picky about what they ate so long as it was made of meat and they could catch it.

Unfortunately, they happened to also be just about the fastest damn things that didn't come with a set of wheels.

His motorcycle wouldn't have any trouble losin' 'em once they got out in the open, but here in the Spires they had a mobility advantage.

The nearest one closed in with its mouth snappin' at his arm, nearly snaggin' him by his desert camo poncho as it flapped in the wind.

Cheyton slipped his opposite hand down into his gun's wrist brace and drew it from the holster. He levelled the short-barreled MOD-rifle across his elbow and pulled the trigger.

Blood and feathers went flyin' in his peripheral vision, and the nasty critter fell face first in a tumble that probably broke half the bones in its body.

Ash Runners died easily enough. But like most of the really dangerous shit in the world, they didn't hunt alone. More were waitin’ on an overpass up ahead.

One of 'em got excited and leapt off the ledge with its wings spread and talons ready to rip his guts open. They couldn't fly, but bein' able to glide was still a neat trick.

He squeezed off a quick burst over the handlebar and watched it fall from the sky.

The others got wise and backed off as he opened the throttle on the straightaway and outran ‘em.

Didn't take too long for him to reach the homestead after that little encounter. Once he double checked to make sure the Runners had taken the hint, he turned in through their gate .

Folks out in these parts weren't always the friendliest sort, but they all knew the sound of a Madax Road Warrior's engine. Anyone who heard it also knew better than to shoot first and ask questions later.

When he switched his engine off, he couldn't help but feel as though everything was just a little too quiet.

He shook it off and walked up onto the front porch. Not everyone out here had alarm donkeys like his parents did to let ‘em know when someone showed up.

Pushin' the doorbell button did… nothing.

Guess the power bank was depleted.

He tried knockin' on the edge of the screen door. It made quite a bit of racket.

No response.

He rang the dinner bell hangin' from a chain- oldest trick in the book for gettin' people's attention up to half a mile away.

Still no response.

He tried knockin' on the door again, this time the interior one. Could be they were sleepin'.

Could be they were busy and weren't payin' attention.

The door swung inwards from the motion of his hand. It wasn't latched.

"Huh. Hello?"

He peaked into each of the rooms as he knocked on the door frames.

Nobody home.

He checked the adjacent garage. Looked like one of their trucks was gone. Maybe they would be back in a bit.

Generator was turned off. Part of him wanted to press the push-to-start button on it and see what happened, but it was probably off for a good reason. He checked around some more.

Seemed the thief tried makin' off with the generator cable but had gotten spooked. Somethin' looked weird about it though: instead of just unpluggin’ it from the connection point, the cable had been cut.

He pulled his grime-covered road goggles up to his headband and kneeled to take a closer look.

"Hmm."

Claw marks. Not from an Ash Runner. Something bigger.

A rumble in his stomach reminded him that he'd skipped lunch.

He went back inside and checked the fridge- openin' it just long enough to remember that the homestead's main power had gone out at least a day ago.

"Nope."

There was probably some canned food in the root cellar, but that was their winter stockpile and he was in the mood for meat anyway.

Not Runner meat. Those things tasted more like vulture than chicken, and the less said about the diseases you could catch from ‘em the better.

He grabbed his compound huntin’ bow from the bike and went for a walk around the compound. Figured he could get his dinner and scout around at the same time. Besides, they had been complainin’ about critters gettin’ into their garden. Anything that ate plants usually didn't taste that bad.

Sure enough, there was a jackalope chewin’ the leaves off a shrub out back. Without hesitation he took the shot, killin’ it before it had a chance to panic and flee.

The folks back in Ash Haven- again with the fuckin' ash- with too much time on their hands had lots of philosophical debates about the horny little critters.

Most of which could be boiled down to "Why do these things exist?"

Jackalope were, essentially, rabbits with antlers. No way was it a natural mutation or a weird growth. He heard some researcher at the bar goin' on and on that they were likely some kind of experiment in developmental studies.

Somethin' to do with “programmin' a critter to grow horns at the right stage in its life and modify how it behaved?”

Cheyton was pretty sure somebody long ago just had a strange sense of humor and made ‘em because they could.

The good thing was that they didn't catch a lot of the nasty diseases you had to worry about out here in the ashlands.

They could still be carriers for Tularemia, though, so unless you wanted to get treated for the "wild" strain of a bioweapon, you had to be real careful when skinnin' 'em.

By the time he was finished basically flingin' the jackalope out of its own skin, the fire he had started in their fire pit out back was hittin’ the right temperature. It would make the meat nice and tender while also keepin' the dusk chill off him.

While he chewed on a haunch as the sun dipped under the horizon, somethin' caught his eye a ways off: lights.

They weren't movin'. Just two beams of light shinin' off the dust. He scarfed down the last of his meal, grabbed his gear, and went to go investigate.

It was the other truck. It had skidded off the road and gone down a gully. There was some blood- not much, but enough that whoever had been ridin' in the cab had been hurt in the crash. Looked like they had been dragged out of the wreckage, back towards the Spires.

Runners would've just ripped ‘em apart where they crashed- and they didn't put spike strips out on the road.

Cheyton pulled his gun to his shoulder and followed the trail on foot.

As he entered the mummified ruins, he started gettin' that feelin' again that something was off.

The smell of smoke was comin' from somewhere nearby.

It smelled wrong.

He tracked it back to the source: a hovel hidden away in the base of one of the Spire's. Probably wouldn't have found it if he weren't actively searchin' on account of the camouflage.

There were tripwires and alarm chimes in the entrance. Easy enough to get past once he spotted ‘em. Once inside, though, he had to keep a lid on his own reaction to what he'd stumbled across.

Three people were strapped to racks usin' power cables. One of 'em was missin' their skin. The other two were slippin' in and out of consciousness, their cries muffled by the ropes stuck between their teeth.

The thing currently workin' the- thankfully dead- skinned body over with a cleaver looked like someone had been given all the tools and knowledge to make a human from scratch in a lab, but had done so while on the kind of acid trip that gave a person wakin' nightmares.

That probably wasn't far from the truth.

Pale, taught skin? Creepy, long limbs that ended with clawed hands and feet? Oversized mouth that still didn't look big enough for the rows of knife-like teeth? Clothes made from the worst kinds of leather imaginable? Only one thing he knew of that fit that description:

A Wendigo.

They were supposed to be extinct. Confederacy had dropped a nuke on their big colony a century ago and spent years huntin’ down the survivors. If there was one thing that could get everyone out here in the wastelands to work together, it was seein’ their neighbors gettin’ slow roasted by cannibalistic monsters.