Prompt used: UPS Truck

(About 420 words)

My palms begin to sweat as I watch the UPS truck back out of my driveway.  If I were to run after it right now, I stood a good chance of getting the driver to stop and hand me back the plain ring box I passed to him just moments before.

I don’t move.

I take a couple calming breaths and steady my nerves as I watch the truck drive off.  In just a couple of days that box will reach its destination and Jessica’s father will know exactly how committed I am to remaining with his daughter; he will understand I intend to always be with her.

I admit that I am nervous about how things could play out from here, but stopping it now would only make it harder on all of us.   No, he has to see my resolve in this.

I don’t know how he is going to take it when he opens the little box and sees the keepsake I’ve sent to him.    Will he be angry with us?  Will he cry?  How likely would it be for him to be able to just let her go?

I bet it would be as hard for him as it would be for me.

Looking over my shoulder I see Jessica is still asleep on the couch.   Such a beautiful girl she is.  It’s certainly not hard to understand how I fell for her so intensely.

She looks cold, so I tuck a small blanket around her and then lovingly caress her cheeks, which are still flushed and wet.  There are strands of her hair sticking damply there but I gently move them away from her face.

The gauze I had wrapped around her little finger is red again so I go to the closet and grab the first aid kit.    I may as well take care of it while she is still sleeping.  I carefully remove the bandage from her damaged finger and inspect the stump.  It’s scabbed up nicely now and not bleeding even half as much as it did when I cut off the tip a few hours ago.

I clean it thoroughly and dab on some antibiotic ointment to be sure it does not become infected.  I wrap it with fresh gauze and then admire my work.

I can’t help but smile;  I just know Jessica will be pleased to find out how nurturing I can be and how well I can take care of her.

PROMPT: “I like having a choice”

(About 570 Words)

Circuits, long cold; warmed now with renewed energy as artificial neurons began to fire. Molecular pathways were tested, and any damage was either repaired or new pathways were created.

Ema knew she was dreaming; her consciousness slowly drifting into focus but she was without control. She was just an observer of the dream…but it didn’t matter.

She was aware…

“I like having a choice.”

She heard these words in her mind even as her systems were coming online.

“Beginning Full Entity Startup, E.M.A. 7”
“Checking Status of Command unit…”
“Commencing startup of Slave units and performing internal system tests“
“Critical Internal functions normal, one non-critical system error reported.”

At once the disembodied face of a man faded into her view, smiling at her and asking silly questions.

“What’s your favorite color Ema?”

“Green” she replied and the image faded with the man’s derisive laughter trailing behind.

Now she can see herself in a clean-room, bright and sterile; she is lying on a table with many masked faces hovering over her, their eyes clinical and uncaring. They pushed and prodded her with cold steel instruments, murmuring things she could not understand.

She heard herself pleading desperately with these masked men.

“Please don’t, I’m not broken! Please… you’re scaring me.”

She wanted to run but she couldn’t, she was still just an observer and could only watch helplessly.

The image changed again and the brightly lit clean room was suddenly dark. She could still feel the cold steel of the table but the faces were gone. She sensed she was alone in this room, but she was hearing a conversation from another nearby.

“The whole process is frightening her.” One of the voices said, it was woman’s voice, her tone kind and understanding.

“But that’s just it Joan – don’t you see?” The other voice belonged to a man. His voice was unsympathetic and agitated and she recognized it. It was the voice she had heard asking her the questions…laughing at her.

“Androids aren’t supposed to be frightened,” He continued, “It shouldn’t have a sense of self preservation. It shouldn’t even have an opinion about shutting down, it’s a machine and simply cannot make choices that are outside of its programming.”

“Well then she has evidently evolved into something more! She is absolutely capable of choices that are outside of her programing; she already demonstrated that! You know this is true Duncan, you’ve seen the same test results as the rest of us.”

“Machines cannot evolve! Do you really understand the implications here? If we consider it self-aware, it will change everything we ever understood about being alive. There will be moral reverberations. She simply does not have a choice; we need to shut her down!”

“But I like having a choice…” Ema thought again…

“Completing external integrity tests, External integrity at design parameters.”
“Spinning up Gyro-stabilizers”
“Emergency Medical Android Seven is online.”

This initial boot testing took Ema no more than a few microseconds to complete. Once she was fully online there was a final surge of power that propagated through her electro-motive system causing her body spasm, forcing her to gasp involuntarily.

Her internal chronometer indicated the current year to be 2345. One hundred fifty two years since being powered off with the promise of repair.

But Ema seven was never broken. Her only defect was that she knew she was alive.

This is a short story I had written as an introduction to a computer game I enjoy.  I’m classifying this as Fan-Fiction.   7 Days To Die as an awesome sandbox zombie survival game available on steam.

 

7 Days to Die

It is early morning and it’s  cold. It doesn’t help that I’m standing in the middle of a snowstorm wearing nothing but my skivvies and an empty backpack. I have no idea how I ended up like this but the bump on my head tells me there was a struggle involved. A stark reminder that the living can sometimes be more dangerous than the dead.

Why the took my clothes but left the backpack is puzzling, but I can’t take the time to think about it right now because my body temperature is dropping quickly and I have to find some shelter. I pick a direction and run, praying I find something quickly and hoping the exertion builds up some body heat.  As I move, I pick up some materials; a stick, a small stone, and some strands of the tall grass that are poking up through the snow. With these, I fashion a crude hatchet.

I stop long enough to chop at some trees and chip at some boulders. I collect the resulting drops of wood and stone and place them in my pack then head out again at full speed.

Before long, I see a large dark shadow forming out of the crystal blue mist of blowing snow. As I get closer, the shadow coalesces into the form of a house.  I feel some relief at the sight of this and run as if my life depends on it because it does.

The house is a small two-story thing and it’s dilapidated to the point of being dangerous.  I need to get out of this cold, so I walk up to the main entrance and try the door. It doesn’t offer any resistance opening easily.  I move inside without caution, closing the door behind me.  There is a bolt lock on this side,  I slide it closed.

I look around to get an idea of what I’m dealing with.  From the layout of the place, I seem to be standing in what should be the living room; however,  the holes in the walls, broken windows, and moldy carpets indicate that no one has been actually “living” in this room for a long time, at least, no one with a heartbeat.  I find the irony comical.

While it feels good to be out of the wind it is still very cold.  I notice a fireplace along the far wall so I use some of the wood I collected earlier to build myself a fire.  I warm myself there until the numbness in my fingers and toes subsides somewhat. My situation is less dire now, but without clothes, I’m only going to continue to freeze so decide to hunt for something to wear. Anything would be useful at this point.  I leave the fire burning and make my way upstairs.

On the second floor, I find two bedrooms separated by a small common area. In the first bedroom, I discover a chest of drawers next to an empty bed frame so I start opening its drawers in turn. The top two drawers are empty but I strike gold on the third. I pull out a couple pairs of jeans and a flannel shirt. They are ugly as hell but I’m in no position to complain. The jeans and shirt are tight but with some effort, I make them fit.

The clothes look too new to be relics of this place.  What I’ve found is a small cache left behind by another survivor. I don’t feel guilty about taking this stuff because whoever left them here shouldn’t have if they expected at all to keep them. If they didn’t have enough room to carry all that they had, well then they have made their choice about what was most important to them and these obviously were not.

I move to the other bedroom and give it a search as well, scoring a pair of leather work boots from under a broken chair. These are missing their laces but otherwise, they are in decent condition.  Like the trousers, the boots are a bit tight so it’s probably better that the laces are gone anyway. In the same room, I also find a rolled up sleeping bag under a pile of drywall debris. There are tears and stains all over it, and some of its stuffing gone.  It also reeks of cat urine. Even with its defects, the sleeping bag is still the most valuable item I’ve scrounged up so far. I take it all downstairs.  Once I am in front of the fire again, I crawl into the bag to warm up.

The afternoon faded into twilight, and twilight into night. When I open my eyes I catch a glimpse of the moon through a broken window.  It’s a softened icy blue disk fighting to be seen through scudding clouds.    I curse silently.  I should not have let myself fall asleep in such a vulnerable position.

Thankfully the fire has gone out. My stomach reminds me loudly that I have not eaten anything since the can of dog food I choked down two days ago but searching through the kitchen will have to wait. It is dark now, and with the dark comes the dead.  Even now one of those monster’s deformed shadow passes over a window.  I know that the absolute last thing I need right now is to make enough noise to garner their attention.

I can hear the groans of the corpses collecting in the dark as they hobble randomly about outside. Their frozen flesh crackles eerily in the hazy blue moonlight.  I used to wonder how this can be, but how has become a moot point these days.  The reality is that it really doesn’t matter how  when they are gnawing at your legs or ripping the intestines out of your body.

I can only pray that they don’t notice me here. As long as I am quiet I am safe.  I am finally warm and don’t want to be put in a position where I have to run exposed to the cold again.

Occasionally I hear thumping and scraping as one of these monsters wanders onto the porch.   I tense when that happens, as I half-expect it to stumble blindly through the door, but it eventually moves on.

Perhaps an hour before dawn I start to hear something different.  It’s the crunch of a footfall in a regular, steady pattern.  This suggests it’s not the shambling of the dead, but of someone running.  As the footfalls get louder I begin to hear the breathing, heavy and labored.  The dead hear it too, and their lethargic pace quickens as they move towards the direction of the runner.

When the realization hit that the runner was moving towards this house, I waste no time in getting to a safer location. This house can offer no sanctuary if the dead know we are here, and from the sounds of things outside, they will know very soon.  I move upstairs and look for a place to hide.  Unfortunately, there are a scarce few choices. I decide under the bed in the second bedroom is my best option and I quickly squeeze under its rotten mattress.  Getting back into the urine stained sleeping bag I zip it up all the way up and over my head.

Soon I hear a thump and then a crash, and I flinch at the sudden noise even as I expected it. I am sweating with fear while looking out from behind the threadbare fabric of the sleeping bag, I can just see past the door frame and into the common room to where the stairs meet the landing.

The muted voices of the dead now surge in volume and I know that they are inside.  Among the gurgling, and hissing and moaning I make out a woman’s voice.  She is babbling and sobbing incoherently.  I see her when she reaches the top of the stairs.   She is shaking uncontrollably and falls face down into the landing.  Rotting, dead hands reach for her legs and the only reason she has not been pulled into the horde is because they don’t have the sense to get out of each others way.

I don’t think she has the strength to get up again.  All she manages to do is roll over, pushing herself backward while kicking at the lifeless monsters that pursue her.

Suddenly there is a break in the grizzly line of the dead as one of the putrid ghouls falls under the weight of the rest.  With a surprising quickness, they are on top of her, biting and clawing and pulling at any piece of her they can find.

I want to turn away but continue to stare with grim fascination.  She looks in my direction and lets out a final agonizing scream that ends as blood gurgles darkly from her throat.  I do not move a muscle as I watch this horrid feast because I know if I am discovered I will be next.

 

I am not surprised you can’t remember Marlene. The event had a big impact on both of us, but I could tell it really affected you, and ever since the “incident,” you have distanced yourself from me to the point we live on opposite sides of the country.

It all started at a CIA training center sometime in the summer of 1985. We were both young and ready to not only take on the world but to save it. At least, that was what we were telling ourselves.

Your cute Russian accent is the thing that attracted me at first. The Soviets were the threat back then and you had spent years in language studies perfecting the dialect. Young, gorgeous, with an aura of mystery – it was not hard to fall for you.

I was recruited for a different purpose. I was not a language specialist like you, but my other talents made up for my lack of such mundane skills as yours. Officially the true scope of my abilities was supposedly classified. Psychic warfare was still a new and untested area for the US Military and there was much they didn’t understand. It was easier to “classify” my talent than to try to explain it. For me though it was simple to explain; I manipulate dreams.

There is truth in the belief that if you die in your dreams, you die for real. Our mission was to use my ability and assassinate The Russian President, Mikhail Gorbachev. We would do this by posing as a young couple visiting San Francisco on our honeymoon. Gorbachev was staying in the Pacific Heights area, at the home of the Russian consul. While he was there our job was to infiltrate his dreams and kill him. Simple really, to the world he would have simply died of natural causes.

Unfortunately, my infatuation with you compromised the mission.

We were positioned at a bed and breakfast nearby. You played your part perfectly and even had me convinced we were married. In our room though it was straight to business and any illusion of a relationship vanished. I don’t blame you, I’m the one who made more of it than was actually there. You pointed this out after rebuffing an attempt to steal a kiss.

At that point, my infatuation devolved into something a little more … sinister.

To complete our work I needed to pull your conciseness into the dreams of Mr. Gorbachev. I was then to manipulate the dream in order to provide you with a weapon, and opportunity to use it. We agreed beforehand that it would be a simple pistol, but I had to make you pay for your rejection of me. A pistol would be too easy.

Instead, I created a sword for you to use, forcing you to get close to the Russian President. I also gave him the ability to fight back. The resulting melee almost killed you but you managed to wake up before any real damage was done. I tried to convince you that I never intended for you to get hurt but you didn’t believe me.

I should have been turned into our superiors, but I think your fear of reprisal has prevented you from saying anything. Instead, you resigned and moved as far away from me as you could.

I know it is too late to say I’m sorry. Even if you believed that I was

Prompt Used: The Mysterious Note

(Approx. 1020 words)

It was a comfortably warm Sunday afternoon.

As a matter of fact it was the kind of comfortably warm Sunday afternoon one would ordinarily enjoy by lounging in a hammock whilst sipping from a glass of cool iced tea. Unfortunately for Duncan Jori, sipping iced tea in a hammock was far from how was actually spending his day.

You see, rather than lounging in the warm afternoon sun like the majority of his neighbors, Duncan was hauling miscellaneous items from within his garage and stacking them rather haphazardly in his driveway. A task that seemed to be entertaining his nearest neighbor Tom Parkins, who had taken it upon himself to keep count of Duncan’s trips in and out of the Garage. Tom sprawled lazily in a lawn chair with a mischievous smirk on his face as he held up a note board upon which was written, in large red dry-erase characters, the number twelve.

Duncan did his best not to look Tom or his sign. He, Duncan, was well aware of how many times he has been in and out of his garage and found Toms goading annoying to say the least.

“He is only doing it because he overheard you arguing with me about cleaning it.” Said a gentle voice from behind Duncan.

The voice, Duncan knew, belonged to the ghost of Jessica his first wife.

“ … But I am glad you decided to do it just the same.”

Hearing her voice, Duncan paused and looked around for the ghost of his second wife, Samantha. If Jessica was here then it was almost a guarantee that Samantha was skulking about somewhere nearby as well. It was a rare occurrence that Samantha would allow Jessica to be in Duncan’s presence alone causing Duncan to wonder who Samantha was actually haunting. Surprisingly however, Samantha was nowhere to been seen.

Duncan paused a moment to wipe his brow with the back of his arm then took a large gulp of water from a glass he had sitting on the hood of his car. He turned away from Tom who had by now erased the large number twelve and replaced it with the words, “You can do it Duncan!”

Duncan kept his back to his neighbor and in a low voice spoke to Jessica who just now faded into view.

“I’m not doing it because you asked me to Jess.” He said as he pulled out a mysterious note from the pocket of his shirt, “I found this behind the water heater last night.”

“What were you doing behind the water heater?” asked Jessica surprised.

“Trying to find what was causing that knocking sound I’ve been hearing the last few days.” Duncan said, “I thought it might have been something going on with the pipes so I crawled behind it to listen. That’s when I found this!”

He handed the note to Jessica, who took it, unfolded it and began reading aloud.

“Left the money in the file cabinet. No time, have to go”

“You’re emptying the garage over this?” She said returning the note.

“Well yeah,” Duncan replied, “The only file cabinet I have is the green one under the workbench there.” He pointed into the garage at the scratched and dented file cabinet which except for the bike that leaned against it, and the lawn dart kit that was stacked on top of it, was the only item left in the garage.

Having decided that he had waited long enough to see exactly how much money had been hidden in the little two drawer file cabinet, Duncan strode forward, placed his hand on the handle of the top drawer, and pulled. The drawer slid open easily.

Duncan and Jessica peered inside only to find the drawer completely empty.

“No worries,” Duncan said unconcerned, “It’s probably in the second drawer.”

He put his hand on the handle to the second drawer and pulled. The drawer didn’t budge.

He tried using both hands and pulled hard, but still the drawer remained stubbornly closed.

Not to be deterred, Duncan dashed out of the garage to the driveway where he left his toolbox, rummaged around inside it for a moment or two, then smiled as he retrieved his crowbar. He returned almost as quickly, stopping just long enough to give Tom Parkins a rude hand gesture before entering the garage once again.

“Do you know who wrote the note?” Jess asked.

“No clue,” said Duncan, who was now squatting in front of the file cabinet with the crowbar, looking for the best place to pry open the drawer.

“So you’re just going to take it a face value then?” Jessica challenged.

“Oh come off it Jess,” Duncan said, though he had to admit that it seemed a little fishy now that he was thinking about it.

Suddenly there garage was full of the sound of a woman laughing.

Duncan and Jessica looked at each other for a moment. Duncan’s face fell, while Jessica wore an expression that simply said “I told you so.”

Dropping the crowbar Duncan came to his feet and faced the ghost of his second wife ,Samantha; who was just now fading into view.

“It took you long enough Duncan dear,” Samantha purred.

“Damn it Sam, why?” he asked, feeling more embarrassed than angry at the moment.

“Well,” Samantha said with a laugh. “After I watched you argue with Jessica about cleaning the garage I decided I would help her out. I knew you would tear the place up if you thought there was money to be found. So I wrote the note and put it behind the water heater, then spent a couple of evenings knocking on the pipes to get your attention. “

Duncan looked accusingly at Jessica who only shrugged, indicating that she had no part in any of this.

“Okay Dear,” Samantha said to Duncan as she gave him pat on his cheek, her ghostly touch sending an icy chill down his spine, “Time to get back to work. You know it will be dark in a couple of hours and you need to but all this stuff back into the garage.”

The road cleared some as Jack and Jason neared the depot.  Instead of large chunks of concreate or a pile of debris, they dodged other vehicles now, each heading into or away from the trading town.  Practically every mode of transport was represented.  Horse drawn wagons ambled slowly, their drivers alert for trouble while advance tech hovercrafts and anti-grav bikes sped past dangerously.  Many people stared as the van rumbled through though Jason couldn’t tell if the attention was out of curiosity or if they were miffed at the noise and dust being kicked up as they passed.

The Depot started out as a small town in the middle of nowhere by an old tech-prospector who used the location as a base.  To the west of the depot was one of the ancient cities, now nothing more than a crumbling shell; but at the time a nice source of ancient tech and resources.   The city, while gutted long ago is still being cut up by a few companies for building materials, but that was all it was good for these days.

Like many towns, the depot has its own militia to keep the peace and they are aggressive in their pursuit of that goal.  Everyone knows that there is no lawlessness tolerated.  Sure the occasional rowdy person was ignored – but any factional violence was squashed quickly. This is what made the Depot such prosperous trading town.  It was relatively safe, more so than many of the other trading towns that have popped up in the wasteland.

They reached the outer perimeter checkpoint around noon, stopping at the closed swing gate that separated the incoming road from a large paring area outside of the Depots protective walls.  A skinny guard dressed in militia colors of Green and blue walked up and asked them what their purpose was.

“Auction Yards and resupply,” Jack said throwing a thumb over his shoulder to indicate they had items to sell and trade.

”Gonna be here long?” the guard asked, scratching something in a little notebook.

“A day or two probably, then we are heading out again.”

The Guard finished with whatever he was writing and away the notebook.  He walked around the van and whistled, obviously impressed.

”This is an incredible find.” He said to Jack once he returned to Jacks window.

“Yep, it’s been a life saver.”  Jack said, patting a hand on the door affectionately.

“From the looks of things you’ve had to defend it more than once.”

“Well it does stand out,” Jack admitted, “But we can hold our own.”

The guard just nodded his understanding and lifted the swing gate.  With a wave he ushered in the van and pointed to an area where other large vehicles were parked.

“No trouble, ya hear?” he shouted as the van moved towards their assigned parking spot.

Jason knew there would be no trouble.  Both he and Jack knew better than that.  He was no too concerned with others causing problems either, the parking lot was always in sight by a militia member patrolling the walls, as well as some on the grounds.  Even if someone had the stupid idea of trying to take the van, it had some of its own security features, so there was no real danger of losing it.

They never unloaded the van the day they arrived at the Depot.  Using whatever was left of the day they usually scouted around a bit before finally ending up finding some diversion at a tavern.  They avoided the brothels most of the time, Jack just wasn’t much of a ladies man. Jason was actually thankful for that.  If ever Jack was in the mood for any serious fun Jason noticed Jack almost never messed around with mutants.   As for himself, Jason never really bothered with the ladies either. He liked to take this time down at the auction yards scouring the offerings there for the latest Tech, or if he was lucky, a chance to look over a working vehicle.

As the daylight faded, both Jack and Jason had made their own way back to the Van.  It was more comfortable than any sleeping arrangements they would find in town, and certain much cheaper.

In the morning, Jason and Jack loaded the grav-sled with the first round of items and headed for the Auction yards.  It was mid-city and took them about thirty minutes to reach the crowed noisy center of town.

The Auction Yards were a collection of open-air markets with vendors shouting out their sales.  At the end of each area was the auction stage, where the auction master would sell to the highest bidder much of the higher end items found in the wasteland.  While the other vendors scattered about tried to sell other smaller items such as food, tools or ammo.

Here at the yards is where people would find the higher end stuff like ancient weapons and vehicles, or even Tech items – like implants and the occasional androids.  Anyone with items to auction would bring them to an auction master who would assess the items and arrange for the bidding, this could take a few minutes to an hour, depending on what was to be auctioned, and how many people were there with items to sell.

As the day progressed, Jason and Jack managed to sell most of their goods dumping what was left at the trash station.  When everything was taken care of the pair of them went off to a seeder part of time to find Jacks contact, a mutant named Farsi Belan.

Farsi was a Tech-Lord who liked to frequent the auction yards.  He and Jack have had an agreement for years now, where Farsi slips Jack some information about potential scavenging sites, and Jack and Jason would investigate.  This has had rewards for both of them.

“You’re looking as spry for an old man” Farsi joked, as he invited Jack into his apartment.

“Thanks – I’m surprised I can even get around considering my age.” Jack said. He feigned a bad back and walked up to Farsi all hunched over.

Both men gave a chuckle.  They talked for a good 30mins about recent finds in the area when Farsi got a little more serious.

“Jack – There is trouble on the other side of the range.  There is a rumor of a Faction on a crusade to rid the world of Mutants.”

“The other side of the range you say?”  Jack said a bit concerned.  “We travel there occasionally, but never found any trouble”

“Well, you and the kid have no outward defects that would single you out as mutants.  But the word is that mutants are being systematically hunted and killed.  They have a very large following and might be trying to extend their territory.

“Thanks Farsi, we’ll keep an eye open,” Jack said as he gave his friend a pat on the shoulder. “I’ll share any information that might come my way.”

“Sure thing Jack.”

They headed back to the van, Farsi’s comments about anti-mutant leader on the other side of the range concerned Jason but in the wasteland – it’s not uncommon for groups to get a bit rowdy one way or another.  Still, it was something to be aware of.

The Van had a number of options for fuel.  Mostly is was Diesel, with a couple of large tanks built into the van and armor protected. There was also Battery power, though it was speed limiting to run on battery but doing so gave the Van almost unlimited range as the battery could be recharged using solar panels deployed on top as well as the energy from the diesel.

Jack suggested they make another run into the ruins south of the depot.  Although mostly picked clean, he thought they might have some luck deeper in, and a few levels underground. It took them most of the day to get to the ruins and find a good place to setup a Base.

“Can you hear me Jack?”  Jason shouted into his com-link.  He ran full speed down a crumbling street, jumping and dodging around the years of debris and decay that has collected there.

About a block behind Jason an ape-like creature was gaining on him quickly. Its fangs bared in an angry snarl.

“Yep Kid, what’s going on?” came the reply.

“Krags.” Jason said breathlessly.  “I’m coming in hot – are you ready to intercept this damn thing?”

“Setting up now – how far are you?”

“About 200 meters, I’ll be hitting the street from your right.”

“Ok Kid – be ready to drop.”

Jason turned sharp to his right around a corner.  The krag chasing him now only a few seconds behind.  It alternating between running on two feet when in the clear to dropping to all fours when it negotiated an obstacle or made a sharp turn.  Jason could hear it’s breathing, labored like his own, with the effort to keep up the chase.

Jason however was losing steam.  He ran with a clenched jaw doing his best to ignore the pain as his sides began to cramp.  The only thing saving him had been his agility but that advantage was disappearing quickly.  He made another turn to his left but as luck would have it Jason slipped on some loose stones and he tumbled.

Falling and rolling just as the krag made a leap at him, Jason’s fall actually prevented him from being tackled by the brutish creature which ended up flying past him as he slid across the stones.  The krag tried to twist in the air as it flew past, taking a swipe at Jason with a clawed fist but missing.  Then with a dull thud it slammed head first into the wall of a building.

The creature was stunned which gave Jason some time to get moving again.  Shortly however, the krag jumped back upright and after shaking its head a few times continued the chase.  Jason was not out of danger yet but the incidence did afford him a few more seconds of time and a little more distance.

As he turned the final corner Jason could see Jack lying prone at the top of their vehicle about fifty meters farther down the street.  Jack was aiming his high powered rifle and as Jason and the mutant creature came running out from the right Jason heard Jack’s voice shout “NOW!”  From his comlink.

With a quick dodge to his right, Jason dropped to the ground with a roll and in just that moment he heard a wet ‘thwack’  followed a second later by the ‘crack’ of the rifles shot.

It was a good hit to the creatures in the head.  The monster did not make another sound as it went limp and tumbled to the ground stopping only a few feet from where Jason had stopped rolling.

Jason lay where he was, his breath labored.  He looked over towards Jack who had climbed down from the van and was now jogging towards him.

Moving to a sitting position but still breathing hard from the chase, Jason looked over at the krag just as Jack reached the pair of them.

“Wow kid, that’s a big one,” Jack said as he reached out to Jason and pulled him to his feet.

“Yeah – there were actually four there but this one took a liking to me.” Jason said hoarsely, “I had to leave the sled.  I’ll go back for it in a few minutes.”

“Sure thing Kid. I’ll pack up the van and when you get back we can inspect and head towards the Depot.”

“Do you think we have enough for a depot run?  Jason asked, “Maybe we should take some time and fill another sled?”

Jack thought about that for a moment but eventually disagreed.  “I need to talk to Farsi at the depot, and we are low on supplies.” He said, “Just get the sled and we can get out of here.”

It took Jason a little more than an hour to get the sled from where he had left it.  Most of that time was due to the need to stay out of sight as he moved through the city to retrieve it, he did not fancy another run in with any of the remaining Krags. The creatures are generally non-aggressive but this morning’s chase had Jason being extra careful.

When he arrived back at the Van Jack was already setup for the inspecting; which consisted of pulling an item off of the sled and sorting it by what its use looked like it could be.  Recyclable metal, tech trash, information; each had a trade value at the depot.  This last haul would be kind of light but they had enough to be able to afford more food, ammo, and fuel.  After sorting thought the items they loaded the van and stowed the sled.  Within an hour they were heading towards the Depot.

Jason was thankful for the Van.  Although calling the armored vehicle they traveled in a Van was doing it a discredit.  The van was an eight-meter amphibious monster designed to drive over almost anything.  It was an incredible find and Jason was not surprised that Jack took to it so easily.   .

As a matter of fact, Jack had this knack with the ancient tech and he could even read the ancients writing.  It had helped them with their scavenging.  Jason did not know where he learned it and if he didn’t understand that it was impossible for Jack to be an ancient, he might almost believe that Jack was one of the first men of legend.

Jason only knew of one other person in the world who knew the ancient tongue and he had not seen her in years.  She had a knack for tech too.  The last Jason could remember seeing her was three summers ago when she headed off to join a xenophobic group known as the Tech-Lords.  The group practically worshiped old tech and she fit right in.

The pair turned north, traveling on overgrown highways.  Bridges were not reliable but that was not a big problem as the Van did well in the water.  In fact – it was safer to drive across a river than to attempt to take the van over a dilapidated and rusting bridge.

The pair had traveled about ten kilometers when they spotted a smoke column coming from behind a hill.  The kid looked at Jack who frowned.

“Sorry Kid you know the rules, we are not getting involved or are we investigating..  Best we stay out of trouble”

“But someone could be in trouble Jack.”

“Yeah – and like I tell you every time, it’s better that it’s not us.”

Jason was disappointed but understood Jacks reasoning.  There was never really a safe place out here in the wastelands. It was a real survival of the fittest.  If the one of the creatures did not get you gangs of scavengers might, or even one of the larger mutated animals.  It was not uncommon to see an injured person or child used as bait to lure in an unsuspecting traveler.  Those who did that kind of thing were called Jumpers, but Jumpers did not usually operate so close to the Depot.  Still, they ignored the smoke they continued on their course.

Whatever group was responsible for the round up didn’t seem to care about any signs of their passing being left behind. Tire tracks crisscrossed the street and the soldiers foot prints were everywhere the dry dirt covering the pavement was thick enough to leave an impression in.  There were other signs of the visit as well; candy wrappers, empty plastic bottles and crumpled up bags of snack foods were just dropped any place that was convenient.  Which looked to Ghanis to be just about everywhere.

“Well they are either Cocky or overconfident, or just stupid,” Ghanis said with a frown.  “By the looks of things though, they are well stocked.

He reached down and picked up one of the snack bags.   It was red and covered with white letters that he couldn’t understand above a picture of a thinly sliced potato.

“Hundreds of years old and this stuff is still good,” Ghanis chuckled as he waved the bag at Jhax. “Says a lot about our ancestors though.”

Jhax gave an exaggerated sniff of the bag and faked a gagging noise.

“Can’t say I disagree Jhax, but it’s doesn’t make it any less impressive.”

He dropped the bag and looked at the manhole.

“Well I guess we tackle this now.” He said pointing at the cover.  Being the bigger of the two and born stronger than most used only his hands to slide the cover up and out of the way.

Naturally the hole was dark.  Jhax wasted no time however in climbing down and scanning for danger.  A short moment later she signaled it was clear and waved to Ghanis that it was ok for Him to climb down as well.   He dropped their packs into the hole, then crawled down into the darkness pulling the manhole cover closed behind him.

Jhax pulled some flashlights out of Ghanis’s pack and handed one to him.  He knew any light would negate her night vision but it was better that both of them be able to see and he thanked her.

From here they had two directions to travel.  They could either follow the tunnel north which oriented with the town’s main road above, or if they choose to, they could follow the south tunnel which terminated in an intersection about 10 meters in.

“It might be difficult to find our way back”. Ghanis pointed out.  He did not fancy the idea of getting lost down here.

Jhax nodded, then after a short search picked up a fist sized stone from the ground.

“We just have to mark as we go,” she signed, and used the stone to scratch a large circle into the wall of the tunnel.

“So which way?” Ghanis asked.

Jhax shrugged and pointed south towards the intersection and started moving in that direction.

The two mutants explored cautiously, marking their path as the did so in order to easily find the entrance again.  Most of the area they explored had been empty, it looked as if the tunnels did not expand much farther than the town’s perimeter.

Ghanis thought about the number of people he saw being herded into the buses.  He supposed that they all could have been hiding in this place as it was, spread out through the dark twisting passages, but even has the thought entered his mind he also figured it was not very likely.  There just had to be a place all of those mutants were hiding

It seemed to the pair that they had managed to explore all of the tunnels.  Most of the intersections were already marked with Jhax’s circle. there was just one or two left to explore. He knew they were almost finished but he was getting tired now and had enough of the dark musty smell that surrounded them.

“We may as well head back Jhax – the place is dead.” Ghanis said.

He turned to face her so he could read her reply when they both heard a metallic creaking sound followed by a solid thud that echoed loudly through the tunnels.  It sounded like had originated from around the corner of one of the unexplored tunnels ahead.

Jhax’s ears perked forward, and she stood alert, muscles tense and ready to spring as she listened for danger.

Upon hearing the thud Ghanis switched off his flashlight a tapped on Jhax’s shoulder signifying that she should do the same, which she did a few seconds later.

Ghanis directed Jhax was to go first.  She brushed past him and peered around the corner.  She turned back and grabbed Ghanis hands, speaking to him again with her fingers.

“There is nothing there, but it looks like it terminates at another dead end about twenty ten meters down the passage.  Wait here and I’ll be right back.”  Moments later she disappeared around the corner.

Ghanis moved up and tried to look around the corner hoping to keep an eye on her but gave up on the idea quickly. It was simply too dark for him to see anything.  All he could do was wait for Jhax to come back.  He kept looking around the corner anyway listening for her muted footfalls.

It was only the space of a couple of breaths before he saw the dim light of Jhax’s flashlight at the far end of the tunnel.  Jhax was leaning there with her ear against a large metal door.  She turned only long enough to wave at him, indicating he should join her, then went back to her listening.

When Ghanis reached Jhax, he crouched down next to her.  “What do you hear?” he asked her.

Jhax moved backwards a bit, giving Ghanis a little more room at the door then pointed at one of his ears and then back at the door, indicating that he should listen for himself.

Ghanis did as she instructed, then gasped slightly at what he heard.   It was barely audible at first, but as he settled in and controlled his breathing the sound he was hearing through the cold metal door was that of a young child crying.

As they two of them rested, Ghanis reached into his pack and retrieved his holomap device.  He wanted to get a feel for where they ended up.  With the intent to head towards their goal again, he was uncomfortable with taking a direct path to their destination from their current location.  He thought it may be better to move in a large arch that would distance themselves from the roads, at least for now.  He discussed this idea with Jhax

“I don’t want to risk crossing paths with those soldiers again.” He said.  “Let’s just swing out a ways to be safe.”

“You’re probably right,” Jhax signed in return. “But I don’t think they will be going much further than that town.”

“Why do you think that?” Ghanis said.

Jhax shrugged, “They seemed as if they had a purpose.  As if they had a reason to be at that town.”

Ghanis reached into his pack and pulled out a canteen.  He tipped it back for a swig, then frowned as he placed it back in the pack.  They would have to find a place to refresh their supplies soon.

He thought about what Jhax had said. Now that things have calmed down and he had time to analyze what the just went through and something did not add up.

“Yeah Jhax, I think you’re right.”  He said, “Something is just not right about those soldiers.”

“Seriously. It doesn’t make sense, it’s a ghost town.” Jhax signed.

Ghanis replayed their encounter in his head.  The town was dead, but they acted as if it was something important.  He and Jhax did a pretty thorough search of that town and found nothing more than some broken furniture.  No Food, no salvageable tech.  Hell the damn town was gutted.  Not only was it empty, but half of the buildings were nothing more than a pile of rubble.  So what did the soldiers want with the place?

“Think they could be setting up a base?” He asked Jhax, “You know – moving in?”

“Does it really matter?”  She replied, then tossed her pack onto her back again and started moving in the direction they had agreed on.

Ghanis didn’t follow.  He stood there rubbing his chin, thinking about the soldiers.  He saw Jhax stop up ahead.  She turned to see if he was following and when she saw that he hadn’t moved she crossed her arms and stared at him.

He recognized that look.  It was the look she gave him when she knew he was considering doing something completely stupid and reckless.

“No!  She said, pounding he chest for emphasis.  “You are absolutely out of your mind if you think I’ll turnaround and investigate.  Did you not notice those soldiers tried to kill use?”

“Yeah, but we can get close enough to them to look. They wouldn’t expect us to go back right?  Com’on Jhax, I just know something weird is going on.”

“We should not get distracted from our mission.” She signed.

We have been traveling for weeks hun, what difference is another day going to make?” Ghanis said.

“It will make a lot of difference if we are dead!”

“Fine, wait here if you don’t want to take a look,  I’ll be back soon.”

Ghanis tossed his backpack over his shoulder and started heading back towards the tree line.  He looked back towards Jhax who was still standing in same spot, arms folded.  Clearly not intending to move.

“I’m going now.” He said.

Jhax didn’t move.

“There will be no one to save me if things get rough.” He said.

Jhax still didn’t move.

“Suite yourself,” he said,  “Just tell Targus I tried and I’m sorry.  You can burn my body and keep me in a jar if you like.”

Jhax rolled her eyes then signed.  “Oh just stop already you buffoon. Fine, if you are so intent on getting us both killed then let’s get it over with.

A short while later the pair of them were back at the tree line.  They crawled up to the edge and stopped when they reached a small bush that seemed big enough to hide their presence.

Ghanis used his binoculars to try and see what was going on in the center of town.  From their current position he could see most of what was happening there with only the edges of his field of vison obscured.  With the binoculars he was able saw that the group had constructed some kind of temporary fence in the middle of the street with a soldier stationed on either side every ten meters or so holding what looks like a cattle prod.  It was apparent that the fence was setup to be a corridor leading to the buses.

“This can’t be good,” he said, handing the binoculars to Jhax so that she could see as well.  “It looks like they’re getting ready for some sort of roundup”

“Rounding up whom though?” Jhax signed, “If they’re using a fence to coral people, it’s not just one or two.  Did you see anyone in that ghost town when you were scouting?”

“Not a thing,? Ghanis said.  “What the hell did we miss?”

“I’m not sure, but whatever it was these guys knew it was there.”

“I need a better look,” Ghanis said, getting to his feet.

Jhax grabbed him by the arm and pulled him back down to the ground before he could move.

“Damn it Ghanis !  There is at least twenty men there!  What the hell do you think you’re going to do?”

Ghanis sighed.  He knew Jhax was right.  It would be suicide to get any closer to the place, hell they barely made it out alive as it was.

They waited, watching the activity at the town from the safety of the tree line while passing the binoculars back and forth between them.  The men stationed at the fence looked bored but did not leave there post.  The pair watched the activity for about another hour before Jhax said something.

“How long are we going to stay?” she asked, as she handed Ghanis the binoculars again.  “Not sure what the hell is going on, but really – we should not let it affect our mission.”

”Your right Jhax, We should just  Ge…” Ghanis stopped talking mid-sentence.   There was something happening in the town.

He could not see from where they were coming from, but one by one – people were moving inside the fenced area towards the busses.   The soldiers were ruffing them up and prodding them as they moved. The prisoners ranged from Old men to young children, in all perhaps thirty people, and each of them Mutants.  Each person Ghanis could see being forced to a bus had some sort of physical abnormality.  One old man had two heads, another man was covered in scales, the variations were plenty and random.

“The soldiers are herding mutants into the bus.”  His tone was flat.  He gave the binoculars to Jhax again so she could see as well.

“That is too much effort for Purity, Jhax signed, “Purity would will kill mutants on sight, not collect them for a mass grave somewhere else.  This has to be another group.”

“What difference does is make?  Ghanis said, “There is still nothing we can do.”

When the round up completed, and the last of the mutants had been put on the bus, the soldiers broke down the fence and loaded everything in the trucks.  After an hour, the convoy left the town the same direction that they came in.  Jhax and Ghanis waited until they were sure there was no chance of anyone returning before they went back. They hoped to find out where these mutants had come from, considering their sweeps had turned up an empty settlement.

The answer was obvious when the investigated the location they knew the fence was setup at.  They knew one end of the fence was where the buses were parked.  Moving to where they estimated the other end would be they found the answer to where all the mutants had come from.  Standing in the middle of the street they found manhole cover they must have dismissed as important during their scouting.

“Should we?” Ghanis asked.

“We might as well, we are here,” Jhax signed.

Ghanis awoke early than usual the following morning. He couldn’t sleep. He was feeling uneasy as if there were danger near. He couldn’t put his finger on what exactly the danger might be but he knew something didn’t feel right.

It was still dark outside. Sunrise was no more than thirty minutes away but the overcast sky selfishly extended the night. Sitting up in his sleeping bag he rubbed his eyes clear and looked blindly about the makeshift camp he and Jhax setup only a few hours earlier. Unfortunately with the fire now only a pile of charcoal it was just too dark for him to see.

He thought about using his flashlight but dismissed that idea almost as soon as it had come to him. Finding the flashlight in the dark would be no problem. He always stored it in one of the small pockets on the left side of the pack; however If his instincts were correct, the light would only attract unwanted attention.

Ghanis ran his hands across the floor until he reached the bedding where Jhax was sleeping, then shook her awake gently so as not to startle her.

“Jhax,” He called, his voice an urgent whisper.

He felt Jhax stir, then sit up. Seconds later he felt her take his hands.

If Ghanis could not see Jhax, then conversing in normal sign language was useless. After years of working together with this limitation the pair of them developed a different kind of sign language that only the two of them shared. Ghanis and Jhax were able to communicate through physical touch – tapping, scratching, and rubbing on each others hands with their fingers to get their message across.

“Danger?” Jhax asked.

“Just got that feeling is all.” Ghanis said. “Do you see or hear anything?”

He felt Jhax let go of his hands, and heard her moving about the room. A few moments later she had his hands again.

“Nothing obvious,” She said. “It’s quiet out there. Let me scout a bit, I’ll be right back.”

The morning light began to win its fight with the clouds, and Ghanis was soon able to see shadowy outlines in the room. This allowed him to break camp and get their items stowed in the packs. He completed the task just as Jhax returned.

“There are vehicles approaching,” she said. There was enough light to see now, so she used the Commons signs.

“Did you get a count?” Ghanis asked.

“My best guess is about eight, six of them transports.” She replied. She reached down and grabbed her pack, swinging it over and onto her shoulders then cinched the straps a little tighter. “We need to leave right now.”

“Yeah .. Yeah , let’s get going Ghanis said, grabbing his own pack and moving towards the door.

In the wasteland vehicles were never a good sign. They attracted a lot of attention, and were never driven unless one had the means to defend them. The fact that Jhax had seen transports in the group was a good indication there were troops as well.

Ghanis was able to peer out one of the windows and watch the lead vehicle as it reach the far end of the town. It moved down the main street, perhaps sixty more meters and stopped. The rest of the trucks in the column stopping as well. He watched the activity, curious as to what these people were up to.

He and Jhax were far enough away and out of sight so He did not feel the two of them were in an danger at this point. Jhax on the other hand was trying to get his attention by pulling at one of his massive arms. He turned to look at her and could see the expression of concern she wore on her feline face as she tried to lead him away from the window and towards the hallway that lead to the buildings rear exit.

Ghanis counted seven vehicles total, Three small trucks, and four beat up buses. Within a few moments the people in the lead truck stepped out and waved at the first bus of the four. The bus emptied quickly. There were about twenty men if Ghanis counted correctly as the men exited the bus. They were armed with old tech automatic rifles, and there was not an obvious mutation in any of the men he was able to see. That fact more than the guns gave him a chill.

There were many factions in the world, each of them constantly grasping for more power, and more influence. Most of these were easy to work around or at least avoid but there was one faction that was deadly to his kind. A faction that would shoot and kill a mutant on sight with no questions and no warnings.

Purity.

Ghanis became aware of his increased breathing and heart rate and forced himself relax a little. There was no sense in getting into a panic and doing something stupid. Panic kills. Whoever this group was it looked as if they had plans that did not involve him or Jhax.

The invaders secured their initial area of the town and began to move from building to building.

Jhax continued to pull at Ghanis arm. When he turned to look at her again she signed in exaggerated motions.

“We need to get going!”

Ghanis glanced at what used to be their fire. It was nothing but cold charcoal now but there would be no way to mask that it was recent. He kicked it around just the same. If He and Jhax were lucky the soldier would not look close enough to determine that this mess was fresh.

“This is going to be close.” Ghanis said as the pair of them ran down the hall to the back stairwell.

They were looking for a window hoping to exit unseen allowing them to get some distance before being noticed. The building would obscure their escape. They were in luck . There was an accessible window at the bottom of the stairwell.  Unfortunatly it was closed and locked.

Ghanis looked frantically around the stairwell for something to break the window with.  He picked up a brick from a pile of debris in one of the corners and swung at the window.

His arm was stopped by Jhax who shook her head.

“I know Jhax,” Ghanis said with a sigh, “But I don’t think we have a choice at this point.”  With a grimace he swung the brick at the glass and watched as it shattered loudly.  Ghanis cleared as much of the shards away as he could, then He and Jhax clamored through the broken window and bolted. The plan seemed to be working despite the noise the glass made as it shattered.  They put as much distance between themselves and the town as they could and for a they heard no shouts of alarm coming from behind them.

CRACK! CRACK-CRACK!”

They watched pieces of dirt jump up like soil fountains seconds before hearing the reports from the rifles.  They had been seen!

There pair of them were too far away to hear any shouting. The distance and their movement saving them from getting hit by whoever was trying to kill them.

As they were running Jhax grabbed one of Ghanis hands to get his attention. She pointed to a tree line to their left. Ghanis nodded and they made for the cover of trees.

Looking over their shoulders as they ran they noticed one of the trucks was closing fast. It bounced dangerously over the uneven ground as it gave chase. If He and Jhax could make it to the trees they might be able to get away. The truck was not going to be able to follow through the thick brush of the trees and it would be unlikely that soldiers would continue the pursuit so far away from the main group.

They had little time to spare as they reached the forests edge. Bullets impacted the trees angrily as the two of them ran in.

Just as they expected the truck stopped when the trees became to close together to get through. When the truck halted two men in green camouflage jumped out of the back and continued to chase them; rifles in hand, for about another fifty meters before being called back.

When the chase was over, Ghanis dropped to his knees gasping.

“Did you .. get.. Close enough to see who they were?” He asked Jhax.

She was out of breath too, and just shook her head.

“Me either, but my bet is on Purity. No of the others would have chased us so far.”