The sound of wailing and roaring reverberated from the canyon walls. Great ululations spewed from their jagged mouths as Jayk’s sword found its way through the bellies of the beasts and pierced their hearts. He had already killed two and narrowly evaded the blasts from three of their electrostatic weapons before the other squads arrived. The battle was grisly as their blood formed in muddy pools.
Po, his squad, and the rest of Jayk’s men had finally joined him. He heard Po call out his name and turned just in time to find one of the monsters behind him. Before the charge of his electrostatic cannon was able to ignite his skull, Jayk dropped to his knees and with a powerful swing of his sword removed the Sky Reaper’s hand. The severed limb landed with a thud to the ground and the creature let out a terrible wail as the weapon rolled away from it. Jayk stopped and stood for just a moment and beheld the spectacle before him. It was grotesque and violent. The Sky Reapers were fierce. A heavy fog began to manifest and hang over the battlefield. It was the cloud produced from the electrification of water vapor in the surrounding air. More of the beasts began to emerge from within the slave facility. As they did, Ideo and Rensa brought their troops from the sides and came rushing in to join the carnage. Ideo broke from the pack and headed undetected to one of the nearby airships hoping to use her explosives to immobilize it.
Jayk bent down and picked up the electrostatic cannon from where it had landed and looked it over trying to figure out how to fire it. He pushed and pulled, turning it end over end, but couldn’t seem to get it to work. An electrical discharge rocketed past his side sending tiny arcs branching from the leader that dissipated around him. It was a narrow miss; and knowing what the discharges from their weapons did to human flesh, he was determined to avoid having it happen to him. He tossed the weapon to the ground, and decided it was time to rescue those that he could from inside the facility. Humans were being used as slaves, held in the prison at night and then brought out to plant the gardens during the day. Their mission was to cripple the alien forces, set fire to the farm production, and free the people.
The planetary reengineering of the Earth was an odious task devised by the aliens that would substantially alter the Earth’s current biosphere into one that would be more suitable for them. It would take generations and many human lives would be lost over the course of this activity, most at the hands of the invaders themselves, others from sheer exhaustion. It was a monumental undertaking.
It began with a garden.
In time, the Earth had become a baroque fantasia of foliage that twisted and winded its way across the landscape, painting a bizarre image of blossoming flora, and turning the once familiar canvas into an alien world. Tangling puce vines and twisting cerise limbs covered the horizon. Wild flourishing blossoms of gilded lobelia and aster-like herbs could be seen for miles. Enormous trunks of violet erupted from the land forming a mass of unearthly efflorescence in all directions. Slender blue limbs, emerging from thickset trunks, seemed to move of their own volition searchingly. These unnatural variegations filled the horizon in all directions making it impossible to imagine the planet had ever been anything but. Between this dense farrago of distorted trees and vining shrubs, a veritable jewel box of marvelously colored plant life in all manner of adornment, there existed sparse patches of ruddy heath and uncultivated soil; the last vestiges of a dead and dying world. It was diabolical in its beauty.
Electrostatic discharges emitted from the barrels of their cannons and appeared as lightning bolts crackling toward their targets. The ferocious beasts stood between nine and ten feet in height and wielded the fearsome weapons with vehemence. They had a savage presence marked by extreme and violent energy. They kept the humans in utter slavery and with callous disregard. Earthlings were little more than cattle and were treated as property, just tools with which to cultivate the land.
As Jayk made his way into the bowels of the mildewed structure the battle waged on outside. He slowly came upon a long room with a single glowing light. Through the window he saw a horde of people, both young and old, dressed in rags or nothing at all. Depression and sadness leapt from their faces. There, against the wall, sat a girl in her mid-twenties with grungy red hair and a sadness in her eyes. She alone didn’t bear the markings of hard labor. He stared helplessly at the mechanism by which the solid doors were locked. It would require an explosive force to open. The irony of the situation was inescapable. He heard movement behind him and realized he wasn’t alone in the prison. The soft steps couldn’t possibly belong to any beast, instead he turned to find Ideo glaring back at him.
“You didn’t really think you could do this alone, did you?” Her sarcasm arrested him. “Stand back.” she said firmly.
He rushed to the enclosure doors and shouted to the prisoners, “Get back against the far wall and cover your ears!”
Within moments Ideo had mixed the solution and prepared a tiny ball the size of a small marble that she flung at the doors. The clamorous thunder of the explosion jarred his teeth, and filled the room with smoke and dust. The haze cleared after a moment revealing a large hole, while the steel door lay twisted on the floor of the enclosure.
“A door is only as strong as its hinges.” She stated matter-of-factly, then glanced sideways at him and jumped into the room.
Jayk spoke sharply and with great haste to the men and women. “You have to come with us now,” He scanned the room and found hundreds of souls held prisoner by the creatures, “We’re here to help you, but you have to move now!” Disoriented and confused most began shuffling around. Some lingered as if too terrified to leave the safety of the cell. Jayk ran to the girl and grabbed her by the arm, “Come on, we have to get out of here!” Her dull eyes gave no impression that she understood him. “Don’t worry,” he spoke softly, “I’ll protect you.” She nodded silently in acknowledgment and rose to follow. He put his hand in hers and she grasped it tightly. They ran to Ideo who was waving them through the hole where the door once stood. Jayk could see the fear in their eyes. “How many more rooms like these?” Jayk asked Ideo.
“Not sure, this place is a maze. I’ll check for more. You start leading this group out to safety.” Ideo replied and began moving down the corridor in search of other cells.
As Jayk approached the battle outside many of the rescued stood as still as sticks. Some grabbed tools from the dead and began fighting, others scattered in all directions. The girl slumped in his arms and he almost dropped her. Suddenly, they were surrounded. When faced with the loss of their human cargo the creatures redoubled their efforts against Jayk and the others. Two of the monsters were almost on top of them when Rensa and her team appeared. He put the girl down for just a second and raised his sword in attack. He attempted to draw their firepower away by running to join the squad. The creatures ignored him and went after the girl. His ploy had failed. He backtracked, grabbing one of them from behind by jumping on its back, and plunged his sword deep into its shoulder, “You were supposed to follow me!” He shouted. The creature let out a horrible skreigh, reached back, caught Jayk’s arm, and flung him like a rag doll. He landed with a thud, stunned and dizzy, the sound of the impact still echoing in his head.
The creature yanked the sword from it’s shoulder and tossed it away. It was injured but undefeated. It turned, mouth filled with blood, and howled at Jayk. It’s lifeless eyes and serrated teeth were frightening. The beast charged him and he watched as it’s chest opened up sending its contents spewing to the ground. Another loud blast sent a bolt firing just beyond Jayk’s feet. One of its own had discharged its weapon exploding the creature’s guts all over Jayk, then had fired again and missed. He doubted he would be so lucky a third time. He scrambled to his sword shouting, “A little help!” The creature took aim at him again, “Now!” as he watched the statically charged particles accumulate in the weapon’s interior and begin to condense into a bolt of pure electricity. “NO!” He shouted, then watched as the creature’s head blew apart before his eyes. Falling backward, its lifeless carcass dropped as the weapon sent a cracking discharge of electrically charged particles raining down onto its own body.
Another millisecond and he’d have been a memory in someone else’s thoughts.
He turned and saw the girl standing there with one of their weapons in her hands. She had saved his life. Looking at him with a determined sort of fear in her eyes, she dropped the weapon to the ground. He walked toward her and felt a bit of anxiety well up inside himself.
“How did you do that?! I’ve never seen anyone use one of their weapons before. It’s … impossible.” Jayk stammered out, shaking his head in denial and staring in awe of the young woman that stood before him.
The fighting around him continued, but the sounds became dull, like the faraway rumbling of a storm in the distance. The sounds of screaming and yelling became muted. It was surreal for a moment, as if he wasn’t actually there. Her eyes locked with his as he walked closer, yet it seemed they were miles apart. He could see one of Po’s men shouting and waving his arms from behind her, obscured slightly by a thin fog. Though he couldn’t hear his voice, and only barely made out his face, he could tell he was agitated about something. Every step felt painful as if the life had been drained from him. Battle weariness was beginning to set in. As he moved closer he heard a terrible faint familiar sound behind him; the crackling of electrostatic particles charging up in one of their weapons. But before he could move he watched the bolts pass soundlessly beside him. She spun like a top and fell to the ground in a heap. It happened so fast. Suddenly, all of the sounds began to crash against the shore of his mind even louder than before. He ran to her carelessly without a thought of his own safety.
When he came to her, she was already laying bathed in her own blood, blending with the soil — a confused jumble of mud and red. Her arm lay near her, nerves still quivering, fingers twitching as if pulled by marionette strings. Jayk stood aghast, she didn’t make a sound, though tears of agony streamed down her face. He had promised to protect her, and in that job he had failed. He knelt beside her and looked at her body, a macabre portrait of a moment frozen in time. She didn’t wail or convulse. It occurred to him that she was unaware of what had happened to her, that her body was dumping beta-endorphins through her brain … that she was in shock. She wasn’t bleeding as bad as he thought she should have been after having her arm sheared off. She was stunned and stared up at him quietly and for that time they were alone on the battlefield. Her gentle capitulation toward him as he picked her up from the foul earth was refreshing and tender. Her delicate frame hung weightless in his arms and for a moment they must have appeared as one. Her eyes abandoned all desire to focus and she didn’t speak a word.
The field was strewn with the bodies of the dead and dying. Jayk maneuvered through the detritus carrying her limp body as gently as a kitten. Slowly, a strange man emerged walking toward them dressed spotlessly in white, and adorned with a tiny pin with the image of the Earth engraved on it on his lapel. His hair was cut neatly and parted along the side. He was dry and clean and his gray eyes implored Jayk, yet he made no sound. He extended his arms and looked down at her ruined body. Jayk gave her freely to him, and wordlessly he carried her as they walked across the field. Jayk had no idea who he was or why he had appeared suddenly, but his interest in protecting the young lady was readily apparent, as if in a fatherly manner. Jayk allowed them to walk ahead as he began to tend to the others.
Po came up to him, his body weak and his voice hoarse, “We should begin heading back to the bunker, we’ve done what we came here to do. Rensa and her team are setting fire to the garden. Let’s get the survivors and wounded to safety.”
Breathlessly, Jayk nodded in agreement. Ideo and Dade rounded up their squads and protected the rear as they made their exit from the area. Quickly, they ushered them to the rock faces and out into the wastes northeast toward the forgotten city. They continued along at a hurried pace for a brief time. After moving like that for several minutes they decided that they had put enough distance between themselves and the enemy that they began to slow. The wounded couldn’t keep up that pace for much longer. The bunker was still a two day hike through the remains of the forgotten city, and the airfield. Po decided that it would be best if they rested for the time being and did what they could for the wounded. Jayk and the others agreed and set up camp along a thin stretch of bushes. With the camp made, they rested.
The man who had come to rescue the girl had been tending to the wounded, dressing and setting, wrapping and bandaging, he helped to heal the broken. But, his attention never wavered from the girl. He kept a vigilant eye on her condition. Po and the others were asleep, all that could be heard was the wretched moans of the suffering. As the man went from person to person, Jayk noticed something odd about his movements. They were peculiar in a manner he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Then it hit him, this strange man wearing nothing but white, wasn’t breathing. He got up slowly and moved toward the man. Jayk thought if he engaged him in some discussion, just some casual conversation, he could get close enough to be sure. Perhaps his eyes were playing tricks on him. He walked over to him and the man turned toward Jayk. Before Jayk could open his mouth, the man spoke. His words came out in a gentle tone, “I want to thank you for saving her.” His voice disarmed him as he reached toward Jayk and, extending his left hand, touched Jayk’s arm. He made a slow move for Jayk’s right hand with his and firmly grasped it, then joined his left hand with the right. He looked at Jayk’s arm while cupping his hand in both of his, as if he was inspecting it, then he spoke again, “You have a hairline fracture in the upper extremity of your humerus. Do you feel that?” There was a sharp sting in his arm and he flinched and drew in a quick breath. “I can set it for you if you’d like? For the others we’ll need to get somewhere safe to operate, and soon.” He said and looked at the rest. Jayk’s only thoughts were of the injured and then for her. Looking at him standing there, he realized a truth about this strange man, with his cold hands and his gray eyes staring so peacefully, absent any fear: he must be one of them, the robots he had seen in the compound, but a far more advanced version. A relic of the lost world. He wasted no time.
Jayk went to Po, “We need to leave.”
Soon after, they entered the city ahead of the sunrise. The light piercing through the broken glass fell along the twisted metal fragments of buildings rendering large groups of shadows that crawled across the ground like drunken silhouettes. The walk was slow and everyone was tired and hungry. There was barely enough water for them all. As they walked between the ruins of skyscrapers and buildings, a sandstorm gathered in the distance. Jayk looked toward Po and shouted, “RUN!” A yellow wall of sand came bellowing toward them. They all scattered between the buildings as fast as they could to avoid the storm. The howling winds blew debris against everything. They remained there, trapped as they were, scurrying through the city directionless, taking shelter when and where they could. Chunks of concrete and steel blew from the tops of the structures and pelted the ground below. A crooked chunk of metal fell from above and landed only inches from Po.
It had been two days since John had found any cans of food and he had nearly hunted the mice and snakes to extinction. It hadn’t rained a drop in a week and he hadn’t had fresh water in almost as long, drinking stale water and subsisting off of what was left in the bottom of the canned food. He had woken from nightmares three times that day, terrified and wrestling invisible enemies. It was becoming painfully apparent to him that he could no longer afford to be distrustful. This had to end. He stared at the cracks lining the ceiling. He had decided to conserve his energy, only venturing out when he knew it would be safe to do so. Lying beside him was a stack of books that he had read several times over, mostly manuals, business machines and other such useless material. The light started to poke in through the open walls and then suddenly a dull roar, like a train whistle, pierced the silence as a tremendous force shook the building. The wind and sand charged in. Terrible shrieks and moans issued from outside. He jumped up and ran through the lobby to the crawlspace he had dug out, but large funnels of dirt and soil spun in circles filling the open room forcing him back inside.
People, dressed in modest rags and torn clothes, charged into the adjacent buildings seeking refuge from the storm. This was his moment. This was how he would join them. He wriggled his way out to the open and inserted himself into their group, huddling amongst them. He acted disoriented and wandered around. One of the men dressed in gear came to him and grabbed him by the arm. He mentioned something about getting over by the others and then disappeared. John had removed the clothes he had been wearing and looked enough like the rest that he blended in. The others looked tired and weather-beaten, just as he must have looked.
They ran through doorways and scuttled behind walls. Clouds of concrete and dust rained down upon them. One of the women screamed and then suddenly stopped. Nobody could get a bearing on where anybody was. Shards of glass of centuries old superstructures fell in huge broken sheets and crashed to the ground. They were powerless. Then, as quickly as it appeared the storm vanished, leaving a tidal wave of anguish in its wake.
“Jayk! Jayk!” Po shouted.
“I’m here, Po, what about the others?” Jayk called out from an adjacent building through a fog of debris.
“We got separated.” he replied.
Jayk stumbled out from the structure and met him. The rest began to emerge a few at a time. “Rensa! Dade!” he called out, while Jayk ran from building to building checking for more.
He saw the man in white moving slowly, listing a bit as he moved. He had a short length of metal stuck in his leg. Jayk ran up to him and grabbed him by the arm. “Hey, you’ve got a piece of metal in your leg, you shouldn’t be walking.” he said, without knowing exactly what to say. The man in white looked down, removed the metal, and tossed it casually aside, and then back up at Jayk, “I’ll be fine. Please check on the others, we need to assess the damage.” Jayk stared at him for an instant and then nodded; his suspicions confirmed.
“Jayk, over here!” Rensa called to him from behind a thick wall. She had found another injured person.
Po rushed to her and said aloud, “We need to gather all the people that we can find, injured and healthy. Carry them if we have to, whatever you have to do, but we need to get them back to the bunker. We can’t do anything here.” Po placed the injured woman’s hand firmly against her own leg, “Keep pressure on this wound to stem the bleeding, understand?” she nodded. “I’ll make a tourniquet.”
“Po, get everybody together!” Jayk shouted, “Has anyone seen Dade?”
“Over here, Jayk!” he responded, dragging another person out of a building. Jayk ran to help.
After a few hours of bringing the wounded out into the open and gathering everyone together, they passed out what remained of the food. The provisions were spartan and barely fed the group, but it was enough to sustain them for the journey home. They would be weak, but they would make it back. They triaged the wounded, putting some on makeshift stretchers, fitting others in slings that they dragged along the ground, bandaging still more. They continued moving like that for many hours. As the sun began to set they had reached the airfield that signaled the halfway point of their journey. They stopped beside a row of empty cargo jets that sat frozen in time. Their skeletons served as temporary resting places for the night.
“Had any more headaches?” Po asked Jayk.
“No, I can’t say that I have,” Jayk answered, “Not since I came to the bunker.”
“Jayk,” he paused, “We lost a lot of lives saving them.” He remarked of the horde of injured and dying. “I hope we’re doing the right thing here.”
Jayk was hoping to avoid the topic, he had already given it some thought. “We rescue as many as we can. If even one person is lost to these creatures then we have failed.” It was quixotic of him, but nonetheless chivalrous, which was his nature. He just hoped his idealism wouldn’t be the death of them. “Besides, their numbers strengthen our army.”
Po looked around at the ragtag group of elderly, injured, and dying, “We don’t have an army, Jayk, and I’m not sure what we would do with one if we did. We’re completely out of our element. You’re the only one who has any military knowledge, and all you learned came from books. I’m not saying I don’t admire your enthusiasm, I just want to make sure we’re doing this for the right reasons.”
Po still didn’t get it, none of them did, he thought. “I’m sure that once the time comes, we’ll know what to do with it. Po, war is coming, after what we just did, you can be sure of it.” Jayk said before turning away to go get some sleep.
After some time, Jayk awoke to Rensa screaming his name, “Jayk, wake up! Jayk, hurry, it’s the girl!”
He sat up abruptly and banged his head on the steel frame of the helicopter he was sleeping in. Disoriented, he moved toward the sound of her voice. The girl was lying on a sling, pale and lethargic, her head covered in sweat and dried blood. The man in white was on his knees beside her.
“What’s wrong?”Jayk asked.
“She’s dying.” The man in white replied.
“We still have a day’s hike through the desert before we reach the bunker, even longer with the wounded.” Jayk’s eyes implored Rensa for help.
“Jayk, you should take her alone, you can travel much faster without us.” she said and began to give him her supplies, “Take the water. You can use these clothes for bandages.” He tried to stop her, but she insisted, “No, now go. If you hurry you can be there before nightfall.”
“I’ll come with you. You can use my assistance.” The man in white was calm and reassuring. Looking him up and down, Jayk thought to himself, “This man is in no shape to be making a long trek through the desert, he’ll be a burden on me.” His leg was in horrible shape, some sort of milky fluid had stained his pants leg, but instead Jayk replied, “Alright, just keep up.”
His pewter gray eyes gazed at him, “I’ll keep up with you. Can you keep up with me?” He said looking down at his injured leg, “Hand me a bandage, if you would.” The man asked politely. Jayk took a shirt from the supplies Rensa had given him, ripped it lengthwise and handed it to the man in white, who deftly wrapped his leg with it.
He watched as the man picked up the girl, cradled her like a baby, and started off without him. Jayk hurriedly grabbed the pack of supplies and began to doubt who was going to have to keep up with whom. “Well alright then, we leave now.” Jayk said and headed off. He took off behind them as the man in white headed northeast back toward the compound moving very quickly across the sand and rocky terrain, all while carrying the girl in his arms.
After a long while Jayk had to stop and catch his breath, “We need to stop and rest for a minute.” he huffed.
The man in white turned around and came back to Jayk, “I don’t need to rest, Jayk. I thought you could keep up.” he said.
“Well, this is a little unfair. You’re a robot and I’m a human. I need to rest.”
He looked off toward the hills, then back to Jayk, “Then we stop.”
As they stopped, Jayk dropped his pack and perched himself on the edge of a rock, took out the canteen and began to drink. The man stared back at him, lowering the girl to the ground. “What gave me away?” he asked.
“You mean apart from the fact that you have milk for blood?” Jayk offered, taking a big swallow from the canteen.
He gave Jayk a nod and glanced sideways, “You knew before that, what gave me away?”
“Men have fear, but you didn’t.” He said, and handed him the water for the girl.
After a few quiet moments, he asked, “How far is it to the bunker?”
“It’s a bit past that mountain ridge up ahead, the one shaped like a camel’s hump.”
He looked away and nodded, “I have to ask you something, Jayk, and I hope you take me in the most serious manner.” He was genuine, and this aroused Jayk’s curiosity, “What are those creatures?”
He wasn’t sure where to begin.
“Well, all my life they’ve been here, I can’t imagine a time that they haven’t.” Jayk began, “I was raised in a museum with a bunch of other families. We huddled together and protected one another. And we avoided them. Then one day, they found us and killed almost everyone I knew. I escaped somehow and have been on my own ever since.” He paused and said, “I have no idea who or what they are, or where they came from. I just know they’re not from around here.”
He was quiet for some time after that. Then, he knelt to pick up the girl and looked toward the mountain ridge, “We should be going now.” Jayk agreed and grabbed his pack.
“What is your name, or do you have one?” Jayk asked.
He looked back and with a sincere smile said, “I am a ROGER, a Robotic Genetic Engineer. Build number 5954.”
Jayk heaved his pack onto his shoulder, “How did you get here?”
He looked at the girl in his arms and said, “Sarah brought me.”