Ch 1: Five More Minutes
People like to talk about what they think the future will hold for them. They want robot butlers, flying cars, a sexy trophy wife and a big-ass mansion on the moon with an indoor Jacuzzi. The only problem with that kind of plan (other than the fact that half of those things don't exist) is that people don't think about the middle parts; they just want to get right into the juicy dessert. Well, there's a good reason for that. The middle parts suck. Nobody wants to work for what they think they deserve. Well here's a newsflash for you, the world doesn't owe you shit. There is no happy ending. Life doesn't have some good spot you can fast-forward to and watch from there. You could keep on skipping scenes until the credits roll and not find a single frame of hope. That's because the whole thing is work. The whole thing is shit. You can struggle and fight your entire life and still end up without your reward because the whole thing is one big middle part. Get it? Good. Remember what you're feeling right now, because I don't want to hear you bitch about being disappointed when this is all over and you don't have your happy ending. Well that's it I guess, here's my middle part:
The first thing I remember was the horrible smell. It was like rotting meat mixed with old blood. Sometimes in the morning when I wake up I swear I can still smell it. I'll bathe for an hour, scrubbing until my skin is rubbed raw and won't be able to get it off. It's probably because I was marinating in that shit for God knows how long. It was hot too, and the humidity only made the smell worst, sticking it to my skin and coating the inside of my nostrils. That acrid metallic stink must have been what woke me up, because after that first whiff my heart was beating so fast I thought it was going to explode.
My eyes shot open to a blinding white. I jerked my head away to shield my face from the relentless glow, smacking it into a greasy curved surface. Immediately I doubled over and coughed up a pint of the same rancid fluid that coated the walls. Once I cleared it all from my lungs and took a deep breath, I doubled over again and puked my guts out. When my vision came into focus I saw a grotesque figure I didn't recognize. From the narrow window of light, I could barely make out the ghastly frame of a pair of skeletal legs standing in the middle of some cylindrical container. I screamed out of horror when I realized that these legs belonged to me. I tried to move them, only able to shift a couple of inches before the agonizing burning in my muscles prevented me from going further. I gasped for air, gagging at the disgusting stench that flooded the tube. I banged against the glass wall as hard as I could and screamed at the top of my lungs. I must have carried on like this for hours until finally I heard the muffled footsteps of people outside. I shouted louder, my voice now hoarse, and punched the wall hard enough to split my bony knuckles open. With tears clouding my sight, I desperately looked up at the tiny window, locking eyes with a woman. I'll never forget those eyes: a core of sterling-blue ice with a corona of scorching solar-gold, like the rising sun striking a glacier, opened up wide enough to swallow me whole. Beyond the indescribable beauty I caught a glimpse of something else: Fear. After a few moments I began to hear the banging of metal hitting metal. Each strike sent a vibrating pulse through the chamber. Strike after strike, they beat at the walls until something heavy hit the ground with a thud. Suddenly, the metal sheath surrounding the tube began to peel back. A crack of light swept across the tube, being pulled by the forceful fingers of a dozen hands. I stood there with my naked, emaciated body pressed up against the glass, eager to catch a glimpse of my saviors. A look of dread and wonder covered their faces. The girl with the blue eyes stood in the front, staring forcefully into my soul with a look of complete repulsion. Five others stood beside her, tall rugged men with the kind of muscular physique that only comes from years of hard physical labor. The one closest to the girl, a man with ruffled dark hair and an unshaven face picked up a steel pipe from the ground and started walking forward.
"Get down!" He shouted in a muffled voice, pulling the pipe behind his head. I ducked into the corner and covered my face. He swung once, the impact shook the entire tube, swung twice, a long crack splintered across the glass, and swung a third time sending shards flying in all directions.
"Jole, get over here." He shouted to one of the other men. I looked up to see a thin man with tied back hair and long sideburns pull a machete from his hip. I lurched forward to get away, but was violently yanked back into the tube. A sharp pain shot down my back. Turning around, I saw two thick cables connected to the chamber wall that trailed back to where I was sprawled on the floor. In a panic I reached backwards, frantically trying to find the source of the cables. My fingers brushed past two ports below my shoulders where they tunneled into my body. I screamed out of shock, causing the men in the group and the woman to recoil. The man named Jole stepped into the tube, covering his nose and mouth.
"Christ, this reeks." he mumbled, inching closer with the machete. I looked around nervously, catching his glance.
"S-Sorry?" I stuttered. Jole and the man that broke the glass chuckled.
"Ha, it's alright kid." He said, "Now hold still." Jole reached down, grabbed one of the cables and began sawing through it. It sputtered out that rotten, metallic fluid when he severed it from the chamber. "Yea, I'll definitely need a bath after this." He said, starting on the next cable.
"You're telling me." I said looking up at the rest of the group. They glanced around uncomfortably. Once I was disconnected from the cables I stood up slowly, my legs trembling. I gingerly walked to the edge of the tube, covering myself with my hands. My muscles ached and burned, but I kept on going. Joel offered me a canteen of water.
"Thirsty?" He asked. I took a generous swig before I felt the burning sensation in my throat and realized that it was actually liquor. Trying desperately not to choke, I handed it back to him with a timid "Thank you." He grinned, patting me on the back, and walked over to the rest of the men. The man that broke the glass came up next and held out his hand. I looked down at my naked body uncomfortably and shrugged at him.
"Right." He nodded pulling his hand back, "My name's Grant, what's yours?"
"Uh…" I racked my brain for an answer, but came up blank, "I'm not sure." I replied.
"Not Sure? I don't think that fits you very well." Grant said, expecting a laugh, "Why don't we come up with something else for now?"
"Yea, ok." I mumbled, "What did you have in mind?"
"Geeze, I don't know. What about Skinny? Or Stinky? Or how about Pickle, since we found you in a jar?" Grant looked at the rest of the group for support
"I'm not really a fan of any of those." I frowned and scanned the room; hoping somebody would make a less humiliating suggestion. A row of silver tubes on the opposite side caught my eye. Some kind of company logo was emblazoned on the front in bold yellow letters.
"What about Osiris?" I asked.
"Osiris?" Grant repeated, "Yea that's not bad. You mind if I call you Cyrus, for short?"
"Yea, that sounds perfect." I sighed with relief.
"Alright Cyrus, I'm glad we took care of that. Now let's get out of here." Grant started walking away, and gestured for the others to follow. A dark skinned man with a shaved head walked over and grabbed Grant by the shoulder.
"We're leaving? What about the whole reason we came here?" he whispered, glancing back at the silver tubes.
"I don't think anyone would be comfortable doing that after what just happened." Grant replied, nodding towards me with a look of disgust. The other man examined his shoes in shame.
"Yea… Ok." He said, walking back to the group.
After that, the blue eyed girl walked over with a rolled up sheet of black plastic. I couldn't breath. My chest felt tight and my stomach fluttered. I looked up from her feet. Muddy black jeans hugged tight to her slender legs. Every line, every curve. A loose belt kept them low on her hips, swinging side to side on each step she took. Underneath a patched leather jacket a sweat stained tank top clung to her body. Her soft features were disguised by dirt and grime. She was beautiful, but in no way innocent. A scar ran across the bridge of her nose and another along her cheekbone. There wasn't enough pain in the world to take that beauty away.
After moving up along her face, I locked onto her eyes. I tried, but couldn't pull my gaze away from hers. My mind went dull. There was something magnetic about them… And something more. Not just a spark. More like a bolt of lightning. Little fragments of memories flashed through my head with each second of her stare. A balmy summer night. The dancing flames of a bonfire. The cloudy groan of thunder. The gentle blink of raindrops. Suddenly she broke away. Without looking she stretched out her hand holding the black tarp.
"Here." She said, "Cover up." Embarrassed, I took the sheet and wrapped it around my bony hips. The coating of rancid fluid covering my body made the plastic cling to my skin. I had the feeling that they weren't planning on bringing a person home with them. Act natural. Don't say something stupid. Be cool.
"Damn, I look like a corpse." I said with a nervous laugh. My bony legs were still shaking under the stress. The girl avoided my eyes uncomfortably. I kicked myself. "So what's your name?" I asked.
"Alice." She replied.
"That's a pretty name." I said.
"Uh… Thanks?' she said unconvincingly. I shut my eyes and sighed. This isn't going well. "Everybody is leaving now." She added, "If you were planning on coming."
"Actually, I was thinking about hanging around here for a bit." I joked, looking around at the crumbling walls and sinister metal containers.
"Right…" she squinted at me suspiciously and started walking towards the group.
"That was a joke!" I shouted, running to catch up to everybody else.
The walk through the building was painfully quiet. It turned out that we were actually a few floors underground. Most of the ceiling and apparently the ceiling after that had been eaten away by the elements, allowing sweeping rays of sunlight to penetrate all the way through. The only thing that remained was a rusted out skeleton of steel pipes and beams, like an iron web that prevented the walls from collapsing in on themselves. From what I could tell, the building used to be some kind of research lab. Some of the metal containers appeared to still be operational, and were cold to the touch. The majority of them were much smaller than the one I was found in, only about a couple feet tall. A large number of these looked like they had been forced open, and had their contents removed. A couple of the men referred to these containers as clams, but I tried not to think about why. After only the first few minutes my legs felt like they would give out on me and I was short on breath, but I kept pushing on. I didn't want to them to think that I would be a burden on them and I definitely didn't want them to think that letting me come with them was a mistake. Fortunately, it wasn't long before we came across a large collapsed wall on the ground floor. And that's when I saw it.
We stepped out of a massive dome, so overgrown with moss and vegetation it almost looked like an ordinary hill. A sprawling jungle of the most colossal hardwood trees I have ever seen completely engulfed the countryside. Rich, verdant greens and ancient, incandescent reds painted the landscape, in sharp contrast to the fresh stroke of cerulean hanging in the sky. The methodic buzzing of insects and gentle murmuring of leaves in the wind broke the tranquil silence. I was overcome by the earthy aroma of pine, and a barrage of entirely new scents that I couldn't begin to put names too. And the sun! Oh, the warmth and brilliance of sunshine was nothing like the broiling sweat lodge inside of the tube. At the base of the hill sat the old gutted shell of a pickup truck. I wasn't sure how that worn-out antique could possibly still run, but that looked to be where we were heading.
As we approached the front of the truck, I noticed a reflective black figure pumping up and down. Upon closer examination, I saw that it was some sort of robotic animal lashed to the front of the truck with heavy belts and clasps. Its four hydraulic legs ended in narrow pegs, and where a head should be there was only a tiny camera mounted on a post. It spun this camera around like a lighthouse, gauging its surroundings in the most nauseating way imaginable. The body of the mechanical beast was wide and fat compared to its spidery legs. Armored with a steel cage, the whirring motors and flashing lights that made up its innards were still visible underneath. A series of multicolored wires snaked out from its torso and climbed up the fibrous tethers, leading into the truck's dashboard. The machine looked rather old and beat-up. Caked on mud covered its legs up to the knee, and the metal coverings were scratched and rusting. On top of that, many of the components looked to be thrown together, or jury rigged in a last-ditch effort to save parts.
"In the back." Grant said, jabbing his thumb at the truck bed and climbing into the driver's seat. I joined the rest of the group in the back, while the girl jumped into the passenger seat. The truck bed was covered with multiple patterned quilts, each one a different combination of muted colors and stained from years of sitting out in the open.
"We'll be back at camp in a little over an hour." Jole said, swiping his machete over a chunk of granite. "Don't worry about everybody else." he added, "They just need some time to warm up to you." I looked over to the rest of the men, but they avoided my gaze. A loud rattling followed by a high pitched chirp emanated from the robotic beast and the truck lurched forward. This was going to be a long drive.
Ch 2: Southern Hospitality
We drove for hours in uncomfortable silence. The sun had started to set and we were deep into the forest, following the trail that ran alongside a rocky creek. As we approached an opening in the tree-line, the truck slowed to a stop. Grant climbed out of the passenger seat and unhooked the four legged robot from the front of the truck. He flipped a toggle on a board that appeared to be retrofitted onto the machine. Once activated, the robot lumbered into the forest like a trained dog. We followed at a slower pace, passing through the gap in the trees and into an open field. A large bonfire crackled and sputtered in the center of the camp, embracing the field in a blanket of smoke. Three wooden structures stood in the distance, two rather large cabins and one that wasn't much more than a shack with a towering power line pole behind it. The robot made a beeline towards the shack where the silhouette of a man opened the door and brought it inside. As we approached the camp, an intimidating man stopped us. He had deep, sunken in eyes and a protruding jaw line. His lips were permanently pursed in a displeased scowl, and as Grant stepped forward, his eyes hungrily scanned his body like he was sizing him up for a meal.
"Welcome back Grant." He growled, in a cold and monotone voice. "Why did you bring me a walking corpse?" his eyes remained locked on Grant as he said this.
"We pulled him out of a bad clam at the meat locker." Grant looked apologetic, "His name's Cyrus." He signaled for me to step forward, turning his head but keeping his eyes focused on the ominous man. I quickly shuffled forward, standing as close to Grant as I could.
"Hello, Cyrus." The man bellowed, "You look hungry, Cyrus, would you like something to eat?" I gave a furtive look to Grant, who was nervously glaring at me and shaking his head slightly. While unnoticeable before, a gnawing pain began to grow in my stomach.
"No thank you, sir." I whispered.
"Are you sure? Such a thin young boy, you must be famished." The man cooed, his eyes sharp as a knife.
"I'm OK, sir." I replied.
"Good." The man's tone shifted and his eyebrows furrowed, "Because here, we all have to earn our food. Tell me, what kind of service can you provide?" I stayed silent. "You can't hunt, not like that." He said, prodding my chest, "Christ, you can barely stand!" He shouted, pushing his boot into my shin. My knees collapsed under me, and I fell into the mud. I looked up at Grant, pleading for help. He looked away. "So tell me, child. What good are you to me?" Suddenly, Alice stepped forward.
"He knows how to program." She said quickly. "He told us so." I let out a sigh of relief.
"Is this true?" the man asked, looking down at me.
"Yes." I lied, hoping that he wouldn't ask me to prove it.
"Well, alright then." He said satisfied, and lifted his boot off of my leg. "If you were planning on eating any time soon, you better get to work." I hastily lifted myself off the ground, my entire body shaking. He pointed towards the wooden shack. "Ask for Gibson. Tell him Demetri sent you to be the new programmer."
"Yes sir." I replied. I looked back at Alice and gave a silent thank you. She met my eyes for a moment but quickly shook her head and turned away. I began walking towards the shack, to the sound of Demetri berating the rest of the group. When I got to the shack, I knocked hard on the door. The front porch was stacked with piles of miscellaneous electronics and scrap metal. An amber glow flowed through the window curtains. The door creaked open, and an old man stood in the doorway. His hair was a dingy grey, trimmed neatly, and deep wrinkles ran along his clean-shaven face. A pair of round glasses perched loosely on his nose.
"Can I help you?" he asked. He examined the plastic tarp I was holding around my waist suspiciously.
"Are you Gibson?" I asked.
"Can I help you?" he repeated louder and more annoyed, giving an impatient nod.
"Um, yes sir." I replied, "Demetri sent me to work for you." He shook his head wearily.
"Where does he find these people…?" He mumbled. "What's your name, kid?" he asked.
"They've been calling me Cyrus. " I replied.
"Alright Cyrus, but you aren't coming in here like that." Gibson pointed a disapproving finger at my plastic sheet. He ducked his head back inside and shouted, "Barbara, get down here and bring a change of clothes!" In a moment, a young girl came down; who I assumed to be his granddaughter. She looked a couple of years younger than me with soft features and a head full of amber curls. "Barbara, take Cyrus here out back and get him cleaned up." He ordered.
"OK, Pap." She grabbed me by the arm, and led me around to the other side of the building. On the back porch there was a stained and chipped bathtub sitting beside a row of those robotic animals. They appeared to be shut down, and were all hooked up to some sort of charging station. "Take off your uh… clothes." The girl directed, setting a stack of folded garments down on a wooden stool. Embarrassed, I dropped the plastic sheet and covered up. She turned on a hose and began filling up the tub.
"So…" I said, attempting to fill the awkward silence, "What kind of work does Gibson do?"
"You don't know?" She asked, unimpressed. "Aren't you supposed to be the new programmer?"
"I guess so." I replied, wondering how long I could fake my way through this.
"Well, Pap might not look like it now, but he used to do direct work out on the hunts." She replied.
"What do you mean by direct work?" I asked, failing to see the connection between writing code and hunting animals.
"See those Quadrobot's?" she asked, pointing towards the four legged machines.
"The robots? Yea." I responded.
"Well, when we go out on a hunt, the programmer is the one that jacks into the Quadro's onboard computer and installs new software." Barbara tightened the water valve until the hose stopped. "You can get in now." She said.
"Thanks." I replied, stepping into the tub one foot at a time. The water was icy cold, and my body shivered as I dipped myself in. There was no comfortable way to lean against the porcelain with my bony shoulders, so I hunched over, careful to avoid touching the severed knobs of cable still in my back against anything else. Barbara handed me a rag and bar of soap. "So if you guys just find these machines running around the forest, who builds them?" I asked.
"I don't think anybody knows." She said, sitting down on the edge of the tub, "They've been around for a while though. Pap say's that some of them we get are over a hundred years old."
"One hundred years..." I thought back to the lab and the metal tubes, wondering how long I was asleep in those putrid chemicals. "So I'll be going out on the hunts?" I asked, furiously scrubbing away the fluid residue and the horrible memories.
"Eventually, I guess. There isn't anyone else to do it." She replied.
"What happened to the guy that did it before?" I inquired.
"He was killed during a hunt." Barbara murmured, bowing her head.
"Killed!?" I exclaimed, nearly dropping the bar of soap into the tub. I looked at the harmless four legged robots in confusion. "How?"
"Oh, they aren't all like that." She explained, noticing my stare, "They come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. The one that got him was a Chimera." Seeing that I didn't follow, she continued, "Chimera's are hybrid machine's thrown together by… Who knows. Maniacs I guess. They strap on weapons and explosives, program them to shoot anything that moves, and release them back into the wild."
Of course. I don't know why I expected programming to be anything other than dangerously lethal. "That sounds awful." I said, plans of escape running through my mind. I could tell that this subject was upsetting her, so I decided not to pry further. A moment later, she left to go inside. I continued to wash myself in silence, and after a few minutes stepped out of the tub. The clothes Barbara brought for me were at least two sizes too big. The shirt draped over me like a dress, and I had to roll up the pants legs to keep from tripping, but it was a hell of a lot better than running around in a plastic tarp, so I couldn't complain. When I walked inside, Gibson had a pot of soup cooking over an electric stove. The interior of the shack was flooded with circuit boards, servo motors, and tangled masses of cables. In the middle of all of the mess sat a wooden workbench with the gutted shell of a Quadrobot. The entire room was illuminated by a single naked bulb dangling from a wire.
"Come here Cyrus, I got something for ya." Gibson grumbled without looking up from his work. I looked down at the mountain of mechanical rubbish covering the floor from the doorway to Gibson's desk. "And don't touch anything!" He added. I tiptoed my way through the piles of junk, eventually getting over to where Gibson was sitting.
"Yes?" I asked, eagerly eyeballing the steaming soup. Gibson dropped a thick textbook into my hands labeled "Beginner's Guide to NOL+ Coding." The thing must have weighed five pounds and had at least a thousand tattered yellowed pages of non-stop text and symbols. The spine was dented in multiple places and the hardcover was nicked and scratched.
"You said you were a programmer, but I doubt you're familiar with this language." He said gruffly.
"I'm not." I mumbled honestly, "But I'm a fast learner."
"You better be." He looked up at me and adjusted his glasses. "Get used to the syntax; I want to be impressed tomorrow morning." Gibson pointed to a ladder on the opposite wall, "Barbara made you up a place to sleep in the attic."
"Thank you, sir." I said, looking back at the soup and debating whether it would be rude for me to ask for some. I decided not to push my luck, and climbed up the ladder. As if there wasn't enough junk on the first floor, the attic was packed tight with stacked boxes and piles of machinery. On the left side of the room was a modest alcove with a bed and a window facing the moon. Moonlight outlined my sleeping arrangements in a silver glow. The shelf in the alcove containing the bed was narrow; two feet wide at most. Atop this shelf was a bed furnished with a straw-stuffed cot and a worn blanket. A small embroidered pillow was propped in the corner. An icy draft ran through the attic, ruffling my wet hair and making my sore joints ache. I lifted the blanket skeptically and discovered that it was riddled with holes. With a frown, I wrapped it around me and curled up in the nook. After gaining some level of comfort I pulled out the ancient textbook and flipped to the first page:
"A Brief Description of the NOL+ Programming Language:" I read aloud, "NOL+ is the native low-level multi-paradigm coding language used by the products of Neolith Industries and its subsidiaries. Originally devised in 2085, NOL+ is the most versatile language used in robotics. However, it is not widely used due to its unique data structures and high learning curve. NOL+ is designed for experienced programmers, so it is common for beginners to experience a great deal of frustration." Well that's reassuring. Just then I heard the creaky thumping of footsteps against the wooden ladder. It was Barbara, carrying two steaming ceramic bowls. The savory aroma of vegetable soup wafted towards me, making my stomach quake with hunger.
"Here, eat up." Barbara said, handing me one of the bowls. The soup was little more than a meager broth, but at that moment it might as well have been a three course meal of steak and lobster. "There's a pretty serious food shortage in the camp right now," she continued, "so don't expect anything more than this."
"Thank you." I said, slowly sipping at the soup. It took every ounce of my self-control to avoid sucking the whole thing down right in front of her, but I didn't want to look ungrateful, especially after everything they'd already done for me. However, I had a suspicion that these weren't handouts, and that I was expected to compensate them for everything spent on me.
"Well, goodnight." She said. Barbara walked over to the opposite side of the attic which was partially obstructed by stacks of electronics and a dense bookshelf. A faded technicolor curtain linked to a steel pipe completed the division of space. After finishing my paltry supper I pulled back open that shabby textbook. I forced through page after page until my eyes became heavy and my mind cloudy. As the morning sun began to creep through the attic window I felt myself drifting off to sleep.
Chapter 3: The Trouble with Bog Leeks
The next week went by in a daze. After realizing my initial incompetence, Gibson had me running around doing odd jobs, most of which involved menial physical labor. He wouldn't even let me near a computer until I proved that I knew what I was doing. One of his favorite chores to assign me was dragging destroyed Quadros from the scrapyard at the edge of the forest all the way back to the shack's front porch. After doing that, I'd have to gut them for any working parts and sort the pieces according to Gibson's nonsensical organization system. At the end of each day I'd promise that before this time tomorrow, I'd be able to impress him with my programming. He was always disappointed. Every night I'd stay up until the crack of dawn poring over his collection of textbooks and jotting down code on scraps of paper. After grabbing a few hours of sleep, I'd be right back out in the scrapyard. As if by malicious design, the temperature had been climbing steadily as the food supplies dwindled. The combination of unbearable heat and empty stomachs resulted in a cloud of hostility throughout the camp. On one particularly sweltering morning during my daily march to the scrapyard, I came across Grant and Jole prodding at the dying embers of a fire.
"I can't eat another bog leek, Grant. I just can't do it!" Joel complained, pitching his stick into the coals. The sun was beating down hard on his face, and sweat was pouring from his hairline.
"Arrrggg!" Grant cried in frustration, yanking at his frazzled mess of hair, "The human body isn't designed to eat nothing but bog leeks!"
"Hey, you see Alice lately?" Joel asked, shifting the conversation away from the food shortage.
"No, she's in one of her moods." Grant mumbled, "If I don't keep my distance, it'll get ugly." Grant rubbed his eyes aggressively. "Ah, I don't know what's killing me faster, this drought or this dry spell." My face flushed red hot. I clenched my fists tight. At this point, Jole spotted me listening in.
"Hey, Cyrus." He said, giving me a nod, "What have you been up to?" I was about to give him an answer when Grant spun around in his seat.
"Oh, Stinky's here?" He shouted, jumping up to his feet and aggressively striding towards me. "Do you know how much shit Demetri gave me for bringing you back to camp?" he spat, jabbing me in the ribs. "The entire group is barred from doing scouting missions, and I'm stuck patrolling the fucking tree line!" Joel shrugged in agreement.
"Look, I'm sorry!" I pleaded, torn between guilt and malicious satisfaction. "I didn't mean for any of that to happen." Grant's arm dropped and he bowed his head, letting out a long sigh.
"Yea, I know Cyrus… It's just this damn heat." He replied. Grant's stomach let out a loud gurgle. He looked back at Jole, who gave a defeated nod. "Would you be interested in going to the bog with me and Jole to pick some leeks?" he asked. I looked out towards the scrapyard, where hazy heat lines wavered above the mountainous piles of metal. The hollow pit in my gut made the decision for me.
"That sounds amazing." I agreed, following Grant and Joel into the forest.
Grant, Jole and me wandered through the forest in silence, fuelled by our mutual desire to satiate our aching stomachs. After some time we came against a thick patch in the trail. Joel stepped in front with a discouraged, "I got it," and began hacking away at the underbrush.
"So…" I said to Grant, failing miserably to sound casual, "You and Alice, huh?"
"Hmm?" Grant asked, "Yea, I've been seeing her for a while. I wouldn't go putting a label on it though." My chest tightened up. It was difficult to be angry at Grant since he was generally such an agreeable guy, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't painfully jealous.
"That's cool." I muttered, clenching my teeth. I wondered if Grant could hear the raw envy flooding through my veins.
"Hey, Grant." Jole panted, "We're coming up on the bog now."
"First come, first serve!" Grant shouted, shoving me out of the way and bolting in Jole's direction. I ran after him, gaining energy from the promise of something to eat.
The bog was a wide length of wetlands. Murky brown water filled the majority of the area, with a clumpy splatter of rust-colored moss. The surface of the water was as placid as glass, mirroring a perfect imitation of the constantly shifting sky. Grant and Jole were already knee-deep in bog water, grabbing at clusters of sickly green sprouts and yanking up the questionable root vegetable. I pulled up my already rolled pant legs up higher and began walking to the edge. The orange-red moss made up a network of irregular islands throughout the bog, and for a while I attempted to hop between these to make my way across. Seeing the sheer number of leeks Grant was pocketing made me give up on this method and begin wading through the murky water.
"Cyrus, you better get over here!" Grant hollered, "I can't promise I'll leave you any!" I picked up my pace until something caught my eye. It happened so quick, I wasn't sure I'd seen anything at all, but I had an uneasy feeling about it.
"Hey Grant, are there any fish in this water?" I shouted over. Grant stood up straight and laughed.
"If there were fish, do you really think I'd be gorging myself on these nasty-ass swamp roots?" He went back to tugging out leeks, shaking his head. I took a few more steps before a cluster of bubbles came up.
"Guys, I really think there's something moving down here!" I yelled, timidly stepping backwards. Grant looked around nervously.
"Probably just bog gas." Jole reassured Grant.
"It's bog gas, Cyrus! Quit being a baby." Grant shouted back. I kept creeping forward, more wearily than ever. The dark water seemed to be taunting me, concealing unimaginable horrors within its inky depths. I was only a few feet away when Grant stumbled backwards, narrowly regaining his balance. "Geeze! What the hell was that?" Grant asked.
"Not you too…" Jole moaned. "Look, I come out here all the time. If anything were living in this acidic shithole, I would be the first person to know about it." Not a moment after saying this, Jole doubled over with a splash, dropping below the shallow water level.
"Oh fuck! Jole! Jole!" Grant cried, hurrying over to where Jole was pulled down. He plunged his hands into the water, searching frantically. Grant pulled up Jole's machete and the tattered remains of his belt strap. "Oh shit! Cyrus, he's not here!" He yelled. I started sprinting towards Grant as fast as I could when a torrent of dark water shot into the sky. A massive black figure launched up in the column of water, blocking out the sun with its monstrous girth. I could faintly hear panicked screaming, and as the hideous creature reared its head I caught sight of Jole constrained between a massive set of pincers. He was fighting and struggling against the monster's forceful grip in a desperate attempt to free himself.
"Help me!" He screamed. The creature flopped down on its endless rows of legs, each one a fearsome three foot long stake of bone-like chitin. It shook Jole violently, but he held on tight. "Oh god, get me out of here!" he shouted. I froze in place, crippling fear icing over my joints and muscles. The whole world went silent, and I felt every frame move at half speed. Grant was running towards the gigantic creature, brandishing Jole's machete, a rage fueled grimace forming across his face. Joel was kicking and punching at the hard exoskeleton of the monster, still caught in its demonic clutches. The creature was contorting its segmented body in horrible positions and swinging its head in fervent anticipation of its meal-to-be. Suddenly, the monster loosened its pincer's grip and shifted its multi-eyed gaze from its current prey to what I assume it perceived as an easier target.
Now, I'm not proud of what happened next. If you can't respect what I did, then I ask that you at least understand it. I was completely terrified. This isn't one of those, "outmatched hero confronts the horrible monster" situations. No, this is more like one of those, "scrawny child runs away from a gigantic fucking centipede while desperately trying not to soil his only pair of pants" situations. So yeah, that's what I did. I turned my back on the closest thing in the world I had to friends and hauled ass out of there. However, I'm guessing that this monster movie reject could smell fear or something like it, because as soon as I began running it quickly lost interest in Jole and scuttled after me on its absurdly excessive number of legs. I didn't need to look back to know that it was right on my trail. That horrible thunderous snapping of its mandibles and the maelstrom of sloshing it made as it charged after me through the bog water made my kidneys pump out a surge of adrenaline. I quickly glanced back to witness the creature open its mandibles wide, dropping Jole into the brackish bog water with a sickening smack. Jole frantically stumbled out of the way while fighting against the undulating currents. After releasing its captive, the creature wound up its lengthy body into a greasy spring of twitching legs and armored segments. Fighting against the swelling waves was exhausting but the horrific thought of being torn apart by the giant insect encouraged me to keep moving. The creature's head rushed towards me with a shrill cry that pierced through the calm air. I dove to the side, floundering in the shallow water to regain my footing against the slick muddy floor. When I got to the edge of the bog I scrambled up the closest tree I could find. The monster was still on my trail. It barreled closer in a flurry of legs, sewing a zigzag stitch into the mud. It tightened its body and readied another attack. In one powerful strike the monster bashed against the trunk and knocked a flurry of leaves loose. I kept climbing higher, kicking out brittle chunks of bark with my bare feet. The creature began to rise on its back legs. It was gaining elevation and I was quickly running out of branches. Finally I reached the highest point and hoisted myself up as much as I could. Suddenly there was a deafening crack. I felt my weight shift as the tree began to shear around the middle. I grabbed on tight, shut my eyes, and braced for impact as the branch I was straddling fell. A sickening pop followed by a squelch. I open my eyes a crack to see the body of the monster writhing in pain on the ground. After a moment, it was still. I slinked down from the branch to step into a puddle of hot slimey goo. I looked down to see a segment of the creature's body. The splintered trunk of the dying tree appeared to have impaled the oversized insect through a soft spot directly below the shell of its head. I stepped off of the monstrous carcass, my scraped hands and feet stinging. Grant came running up with Jole hobbling alongside him. They both stared at the creature's body in awe. I gave an unsure shrug.
"I guess I killed it." I said. Grant nodded in agreement.
"I dropped all of my leeks." He replied, disappointed.
"Fuck the leeks!" Jole yelled, hacking at the shelled carcass, "I'm eating this son of a bitch!" Me and Grant looked at each other, and then hungrily eyed the centipede.
We brought the creature back to camp chunk at a time, getting some help along the way. It suffices to say that we quickly became very popular with the other members of the camp. After single handedly ending the food crisis, Grant and his group were once again allowed to go out on scouting missions. As a sign of their appreciation, Grant and Jole invited me to join the squad as the official programmer. We never spoke about what actually happened out on the bog, but some much more flattering rumors started circulating that we decided were close enough to the truth.
Ch 4: King of Spades
On the following morning Gibson handed me a sturdy tablet computer. I'm not sure whether it was the events at the bog that changed his mind, or if he was finally satisfied with my background knowledge, but for whatever reason he began teaching me how to program. Gibson introduced me to a wide assortment of programs that he had prewritten. The majority of them appeared to be some kind of malware, designed to infiltrate a Quadro's firmware and deactivate the machine. He kept each one saved on a separate portable hard drive, each one labeled with a different unique name. NOOSE, DAGGER, and BOLT were a few of these programs, installed on color coded jump drives. Gibson told me these viruses were designed to inject themselves with a single button press and could crash a Quadro in thirty seconds by pummeling it with an onslaught of sensory data. However, he warned me that none of them would be effective against more complex computer systems.
"What could I use against those?" I asked eagerly.
"Ha, Cyrus I've been spending my entire life trying to solve that problem." Gibson grumbled, "Our only option so far has been going in directly, working around those security systems, and commanding the system to shut down." He looked blankly at the front door, lost in thought. "But ever since the accident, I've been working on a program to do just that." Gibson's eyes became cloudy. He let out a cough and blinked hard.
"You mean the old programmer?" I asked, "Barbara told me what happened."
"That's right." Gibson lowered his head and let out a long breath. "Not a day goes by when I don't think about what I could've done different." He shook his head and straightened back up. "Well, no use wallowing in the past. I've got something I'd like for you to take a look at." Gibson unlocked a drawer in his desk and retrieved a battered black hard drive. It was the size of a notebook, shelled in dented aluminum and had a large white spade stenciled on the front. "This is my life's work." He said, handing me the hard-drive. "I could never get the program to run, but maybe a younger pair of eyes can figure out where I went wrong." I took the program from his hands and slipped it in my jacket pocket alongside the tablet computer.
"I'll do my best." I said, looking into Gibson's tired eyes. He looked off and began cleaning his glasses on his shirt.
"I know you will, Cyrus. Now, I've got some work to finish up here, why don't we call it a day?"
"You sure?" Gibson letting me off early wasn't a common occurrence, especially since it wasn't even noon.
"I'm sure." He grumbled, "I think Barbara is down at the commons. It might do you some good to get out of the house." He gestured vaguely towards the west side of camp.
"You're probably right," I said, standing up, "But I think I'm going to get a little practice with the NOL+ IDE." After getting Gibson's reluctant approval, I climbed up into the attic and stretched out under the window.
I spent the next couple hours typing and testing lines of code. Finally having access to a computer meant that I could begin giving back to the camp. Now I had something to offer, something real. This wasn't like the freak accident with the bog monster. The work I could do on this computer would be a real service to the community and best of all, I'd be making it with my own hands. Transitioning from writing code with pen and paper to typing in the NOL+ Integrated Development Environment was a bit of an adjustment. I stumbled at first. Little accidents like a misplaced comma would cause the entire program to fail. I was going from Tee-Ball to the Batting Cages with nothing but book smarts. However, all the long nights I spent scanning through the instruction books must have been worth it, because after not long I had my first successful program.
"HELLO, CYRUS." The computer typed out in digital letters. A little message to myself. I smiled at the friendly greeting. I started flipping through the "Brief Description of NOL+" textbook to find something a little more challenging when I overheard a commotion outside.
Ch 5: Trial of the Dome, part I
Ch 6: Trial of the Dome, part II
Ch 8: Tip of the S.P.E.A.R.
May 19, 2015
G.A.E.A. Global Affliction Extermination Action