V. The Electric Swarm
The Biggest Game Comes at a Terrible Price...
“If secrets had weight, this prick’s loaded.”
With Marcus’ last grunt, he and Brennus set the strange mechanized screen down on the work bench with a thud. The red and gray wolves mopped their brows and gathered themselves. Eric stood by, impressed with the find, while the women were off to the side.
Though Sabina was amused by the three-ring circus, a perpetual glower sat on Val’s face, aimed at the machine. Her trance was broken by the jingling of bracelets as Sabina rubbed her shoulder. “Take it easy, my dear. You’re bound to burst a valve staring that hard.”
“If only you had telepathy Val,” chuckled Marcus, tugging at his aloha shirt to cool off, “Bren and I wouldn’t have had to haul this sucker.”
The white wolf relieved herself of the baited breath. She felt the pat of Eric’s hand on her back.
“I know it’s quite the first clue,” he said, “But it’s here, it’s with us now, and now we get to pry it open and see what makes it tick.”
And pry they did, Eric dissecting the machine with precision and skill. In a way, they were a magician’s hands doing the work, careful and slight. The hunters looked on, mesmerized, the strange device emptied before their eyes. At the end of it all was a massive motherboard tucked behind the screen. Entangled entrails of wires laid strewn about as Eric dismounted the board.
“She’s primitive, but she turns the trick I bet,” he said. He had emptied the servos from the long, slender arms that had been dangling at the thing’s side. The digits and palms were all coated in a strange, faux-fur texture. “Like doll’s hair,” Eric ruminated as he continued his disassembly.
Val went to feel its palm. The second the pads of her paws touched the fabricated hand, she tensed into a shiver, falling back into Marcus and Brennus who caught her. She didn’t pass out, only a horrible shock rolling through her.
“Easy my love.” Brennus soothed. “It’s dead. It can’t hurt you.”
Her gray lover’s gentle touch and demeanor slowly pulled her from the near-catatonia. Marcus went to touch the machine’s hand, only for Val to stop him.
He obeyed without hesitation, Eric locking the arms in the work desk drawer, a broken-up miniature hover engine following behind. “Besides,” he continued, “We’ve got bigger fish to fry with this sucker. Sabina dear, grab that remote mouse. The one on the computer desk.”
The red wolf brought it over, Eric quickly plugging the receiver into a port on the motherboard, and quickly reassembled the back of the screen. “Should be safe to tap into, I imagine its creators loaded up a basic menu for quick and dirty programming.”
He pulled an old keyboard from out of another desk drawer. He went to plug it in, only for none of the ports to work.
“Either it’s rudimentary or we’re in deep shit.” Marcus said, pulling Sabina close.
“Try primitive as a flint-and-steel,” Brennus gasped.
The four wolves leaned in as Eric surveyed the screen. It was a simple menu, basic items laid out in black-and-green, but with item numbers beyond deciphering. The cursor moved line-by-line, highlighting items such as:
213890-27% - Y-N 213786-51% - Y-N 213879-97% - Y-N
“Someone jot this stuff down,” Eric ordered.
Her hands now steady, Valentina pulled a pad and pen off the computer desk and wrote down as fast as she could. “What does it mean?”
“Means they don’t want us to know a thing,” came Marcus’ bitter reply.
Eric nodded gently. “That, or it’s just a different coding language, not designed for anything beyond its single purpose. Confusion might be a piece of the puzzle, but these look like calculations to me, the percentages being the tip-off. And Y-N isn’t anything cryptic either: ‘Yes or No.’”
“So it has a question to answer for every calculation?” Sabina asked.
The red mechanic smiled. “Query: what are some common factors you see here, besides those previously stated?”
The hunters looked long and hard at the string of menu items.
“All the numbers begin with 213,” they chimed in unison.
Eric clicked and dragged, selecting the first three numbers of “213879-97%,” and with a right-click came a drop-down menu. The menu made no mention of the numbers, but gave four commands:
Code: 000-N Code: 001-Y Code: 002-X Code: 003-SEO
“Another decision to be made,” Eric said. “Can you guess what SEO means?”
It was Sabina who made the connection. “Sanguis et Oleum.”
Just as Eric clicked on Option 003, a string of numbers flashed on the screen with the word SEND at the end of the line.
“We got coordinates!” barked Eric. Val’s hand flew across the pad of paper trying to jot them all down.
“Almost there, almost—”
The machine went up in blinding fireworks of sparks and smoke, all five wolves sent flying backwards.
“Quick, the extinguishers!” barked Brennus. The red couple were on it, Sabina darting for the red canister and throwing it to Marcus, who pulled the pin and doused the flaming monitor. The fire never stood a chance. But to Val, it was all up in smoke.
Eric and Brennus helped her to her feet. “Look at me,” Eric said softly. At first, she could only see the dusted ruins of her find. Then the red mechanic took her head in his hands and pulled her to face him. Her jade eyes were glazed over.
“That little machine just gave us more than you realize.”
“It has taught us HOW,” he said firmly. “In fact, let’s go to the real computer and punch in those half-written coordinates. If they don’t tell ya where the last find was, they might tell you where that find is heading…The Colosseum.”
She looked to him, then to the pad clutched in her hand. Her white-furred fingers uncurled, and at last she realized. She handed it to Eric as Brennus took her in his arms.
“I know it’s happening all so fast,” the gray wolf soothed. “But we did something incredible here and—”
She hushed him, looking up to meet his warm brown eyes. “I just needed a moment, Beautiful. Thanks for giving it to me.”
They embraced as Eric fired up his computer and navigated to his geolocater. Everyone gathered themselves and looked over the mechanic’s shoulder.
“The latitude, 33°26.9028′ N,” read Eric as he typed. “That’s in line with Haven alright! And I know we didn’t get the full number, but let’s try 110°39' 19…”
Eric trailed off, the smile withering from his face.
“What’s wrong Eric?” Marcus asked.
The old machine’s fans whizzed as the application ran with the information, and soon, a point appeared on a flat-white map. Everyone stared stunned at the screen; it wasn’t Haven.
“Machine’s GPS was still live.” Eric sighed. “Close the doors, grab your guns, and file the three rides in. Might’ve just set Hell loose on ourselves.”
Like wildfire they moved, the hunters bringing their rides into the garage and double-checking their guns. Whatever was coming, no one would take it lying down, and all would see to the closing of their Pandora’s box.
If it could be closed.
The night had come and gone without incident, the hatches still battened down at Eric’s Garage, and all four wolves put up on cots in the office.
“Rise and shine Warriors,” came his cheerful call, “We got four cups of black brew with your names on it.”
The smell alone brightened the spirits of all as, one by one, each rose. First Sabina was peeling herself off of Marcus’ body, the red wolves nuzzling each other before getting up. “You make a might nice pillow Formosa,” she teased.
Val had slept alongside Brennus, the gray having fallen asleep with his arms around her. The white wolf nibbled playfully at his ear before the two got up and got dressed. And while everyone were having their coffee, taking a moment to refresh themselves with all they had learn, a slight whir came in on the desert wind. Everyone’s ears perked instinctively, but no one paid it much mind.
Until it drew nearer.
The whirring became a buzz, and the buzz into a static, the sound of a radio on the fritz. And when the five wolves pulled themselves from their review, the sight that greeted them was mesmerizing, and terrifying. As if a channeless fuzz had leapt off a television, a cloud came buzzing furiously upon the garage. Mouths agape and eyes wide as a canyon, the hunters looked on at the swarm.
“Nanobytes.” Eric grimaced.
“I’ve never seen so many.” Val replied.
The red mechanic flicked a switch which set the garage humming; his answer to the monolithic hive as it drew nearer and nearer.
The hum came from for posts surrounding the garage. Invisible arcs of electric power coming to a point above the building. Many of the cybernetic fleas began to spark and shimmer, falling dead into the dust, the popping and crackling growing louder and louder as more and more came from the horde.
At first, it looked like it would hold. Then came more. More and more and more. Darker and darker the light grew as more and more came to rest in a crystalline grave of sand and the growing mountain of them. When the last ounce of the sun’s light was blotted out, then came the awful snap.
The shield blew out and sent what seemed like millions of the grotesque electric flies came cascading down around the garage, covering everything with in the shield’s field of protection. And not all were dead.
“Quick, hit the footswitches and stand back!” Eric barked. “They’re at every door.”
Sabina and Marcus tapped the ones by the garage doors, Brennus got the front door, and Valentina the back. Eric flipped another switch, and the electric hum came back on once more. The hunters drew their guns as the wall of black beads came rushing in towards the room once more. At first, the defenses held, the nasty little machines falling as they had just before. Only this too wasn’t to last.
Slowly, as the nanobytes began to build up underneath the doors, spilling in like coffee grinds from an upturned pot, the mounds began to vibrate and shutter. Everyone backed away into the center of the room. Sabina grabbed for the fire extinguisher while Brennus leapt for two large blades on a work benches.
“You think the doors will give way?” the Latina asked.
Eric shook his head. “No, but those micro-bodies will.”
“What happens if this many get on you at once?” Marcus asked.
Brennus looked to the red couple solemnly. “I’ve only seen that happen once. It took more than a shower in the Elec Tube to clean the body for burial.”
The gravity of it all now instilled, the hounds waited. The crackle of the bodies grated their ears as their mindless brethren heaved and shoved, until
The floodgates opened as the black mass raced through in a roar of shrill buzzing. Between the sawed-off, the Auto Mag, the Mars, the room glittered like the back of a compact disc, the rainbowesque laser-fire cutting down as many of the nanobytes as it could. Sabina froze them out with short blasts of the extinguishers while squashing others with the bottom of the can. Brennus sliced through the air, halving arcs of electric insects in swift, clean cuts. They all drove the bugs away from the center, but not away from the house.
Slowly, they came rolling up the walls. They took to the workbenches, the windows, the tool racks. The walls went black, thousands of the synthetic wasps filling the room, nestled in every nook, cranny, corner, and edge.
“They’re gonna cut off the air!” Val warned. The room grew darker and darker, the walls lined inside and out with nanobytes. One by one, the team began to gasp for air. Marcus and Sabina held each other tight, Brennus and Val searching for one another in the growing dark before finally meeting. They could each feel one another, their hearts beating slower and slower as, with a final spark of electric anguish, the lights went out.
Darkness. Nothing but the cruel void filled with a fuzz-filtered chorus of grasshopper chirps that could strip paint. Two couples, five friends, all left to die in a tomb of Wasteland filth.
Then came a violent ZAP!
Plasma, the deepest shade of purple imaginable, roared out from the center of the room in all directions. Electric arcs missed the hunters’ heads by millimeters as the windows blew out, ejecting thousands of black bugs. The plasma extended into the forcefield, the deafening shriek of the nanobytes now a shock wave.
The lights came back on. There stood Valentina, Brennus, Marcus and Sabina up to their knees in nanobytes. Dead nanobytes. Eric was in the pile too, but while the hunters leapt out of it in disgust, quick to undo their sandals and empty themselves of every wretched creature that had fallen into their pockets and under their heels, he just stood there. His breath was heavy, his eyes afire with rage, though he finally quelled it when he realized what had happened.
“Well,” he sighed. “These devils aren’t gonna clean themselves out.”
The funeral pyre was well underway as the hunters gathered around their mechanical Mage’s microscope.
“Always wanted to see one up close.” Eric said, adjusting focus. “Never bothered fishing them out of the Tube when I finished showering. Now I never have to.”
It was strange. It truly was an insect, but through the microscope, the metal endoskeleton could be seen through the shell, the tiny metallic rods that granted it movement were fashioned from sterling silver. Eric gave each hunter a chance to look. Marcus was fascinated, Brennus curious, and Sabina revolted.
Val could only stare. “Why all of these for that one damned box?” she growled.
Brennus turned to look to Eric, the gentlemen having come to a peculiar conclusion the others were not privy to.
“‘I will bring locusts into your country tomorrow,” Brennus began. “‘They will cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen. They will devour what little you have left after the hail, including every tree that is growing in your fields.
“‘They will fill your houses,” continued Eric, “‘and those of all your officials and all the Egyptians. Something neither your parents nor your ancestors have ever seen from the day they settled in this land till now.’”
“Book of Exodus?” Brennus quizzed.
“Chapter 10, Verses 3 through 6.” nodded the red mechanic. “If it’s a goddess with which you deal, she will use that power to whatever ends she deems worthy.”
“But why!?” barked Valentina.
“Locusts bring death on all whom cross their path.” Eric explained. “They take away every chance at living. Crops, the earth, the air. But nanobytes are a byproduct of A.C.E.S and any decay within her eco-system. They are the dead, the dying. The only thing left after it all fails. Therefore…”
Silence hung in the room before Valentina surmised. “They were what’s left of those roving machines. We caught the last of the abductors.”
Eric nodded. “So it means there won’t be any more kidnappings via machine. Or at least via these.”
“But there’s still so much out there, I know it, I just—”
“This trail is the only one that ends.” the red mechanic said. “There are many more to traverse. I think it’s time you all pack up and get ready for them.”
They did so, loading up their rides and getting ready for the road. Before she got behind the wheel, Val sat down with Eric in the garage.
“You got any idea where to take this all next?” she asked.
Eric nodded. “Well…I see two options. Number 1. You march on that crazy neon town out West. Number 2. You keep scraping up more about procurement. They couldn’t have just been using machines, because even then they weren’t as purpose-built like our little tube TV here. Maybe it’s time our hunters start looking for the folks who came for the big game.”
It was the openness of it all that frightened her, but when she saw Eric smile, she knew something big was going to give. Never how, only that it was possible.
The last she’d see of Eric for a while was him waving goodbye to the cavalcade, and vanishing into the shadows of the garage.
They were on their own once more.
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