It was difficult to underestimate the devastation that had been wrought upon the world. The roads were mostly buried, the majority of the infrastructure had crumbled, and only the skeletons of the tallest buildings remained, and had mostly collapsed. Most of the time the flooring and walls had completely disintegrated and left lonely scaffolds of steel standing, leaning, or having fallen over. In only a few exceptions did any glass remain, like the popular Hyperglass products of the previous age, or the odd metal flooring in some buildings. It was nearly impossible for most people to believe the stories about the wonders and wealth that had come before.
Of course, Elena Marie Price was not most people. She had witnessed with her own eyes, for precious few years, the splendor and majesty of the world left behind. Tall and slender, the daughter of the former Liberated States of Columbia President had truly come into the nickname that was given to her particular variety of genetic tampering, the Old Ones. She is a positively ancient three hundred ninety-three years old, and doesn’t look a day older than fifty. Her doctors had tried and failed to assist her in having children in the early days after the Cataclysm, but she’d resigned herself to fate and dedicated herself to leading the remaining citizens of the LSC presidential bunker into the future.
Fortune, rather than wisdom, had proven to be her ally in those early days. Her decision to not utilize the LSC’s nuclear arsenal had allowed her people to collect nuclear material from the unused weapons to help power their generators back at the bunker. By the time the unknown people of the Phoenix Clan were nearing Redding, though, the LSC was running out of that precious fuel. It was that need for resources that caused them to set out on a similar journey south, specifically to the areas around northern California to gather more fuel. Their population was a great deal smaller and the majority of them that remained at this point were also Old Ones born from the initial generations of survivors of the LSC. While the doctors were unable to assist Elena with having her own children, the same complicated procedure that created her had been done to the unborn children of mothers that could bear children after it became evident that the Old Ones did not suffer from the despair of living in such bleak, isolated conditions over long periods of time..
While some of them had managed to pair off eventually and reproduce, more than half of them proved to be medically sterile, proving the procedure was terribly flawed. The chances for an Old One to be capable of producing viable offspring seemed to be about twenty percent, and that essentially meant that over time they were probably a doomed offshoot of the human race.
They were a long-lived offshoot though. The presidential bunker dwellers’ ancestors came from an unfortunate combination of professions including bureaucrat, diplomat, soldier, physician, geneticist, nuclear engineer, and celebrity. While some of these did prove to be useful over the long term, they were not farmers and they were not survivalists. The bunker was not intended to house people over the long term, nor had it the resources to easily expand. Their ability to feed and clothe its population had ended up being unfortunately limited, so by the time the Phoenix Clan caravan was making its way to Redding in the spring of 2507, the population of the LSC bunker had ended up being a mere thirty-two people. Thirty-one of them were Old Ones, and one of them was the entity formerly known as Megan Clark.
Megan Clark was a damaged woman to begin with, the gene therapies performed on her with the intent of augmenting her future children having inadvertently rendered her barren and had caused deep psychological damage. Her desire to survive and her ambition to remain near positions of power were most of what remained. It was no surprise to anyone who knew her when she had made requests of the engineers and doctors of the LSC bunker to begin replacing parts of her body. She had proven to be a resilient candidate, her flesh abnormally accepting of foreign implants, and over time she had been rendered effectively immortal. She was more machine than woman at this point, with parts of her brain and all of her organs having been replaced or augmented with bio-electronics. She appeared roughly human, but the way she moved, spoke, and thought had all lost the natural inclinations of a conventionally living human. None who remained considered her human at all.
Megan was, at this point, a shell of her former self. She lived to serve President Price. She provided statistical analysis, advice, and sleepless protection over the woman she’d designated as the most powerful person she knew. Whatever her original motivations had been were eventually entirely subsumed by a desire to survive and keep those responsible for maintaining her body alive. Elena found Megan very unsettling, and not even remotely a true friend, but she was nevertheless helpful, reliable, and trustworthy.
Elena had led her people across treacherous terrain to break into the old missile silos east of Redding with the intent of making their way back to their bunker once they had the new fuel they needed. Their all-terrain vehicles were almost all battery-powered, with their ‘mothership’ vehicle Alpha One being much larger and containing a small nuclear power plant that the other ATVs used to recharge. Each of the vehicles had their own small greenhouses, and were thus responsible for producing a quantity of food which they all shared with each other to keep their variety of food as high as possible. It was a way of living that anyone would consider tenuous at best.
All of them, save for Megan and Elena, were very well armed as well, primarily utilizing charged energy weapons, though their vehicles had more conventional projectile weapons. The majority of them were working on breaking into the silos, while a handful had been scouting the area for possible supplies while Megan and Elena coordinated both groups from a central point. They had lost one of these scouts in recent years to an unexpected attack by one of those hulking roach beasts, centuries of knowledge lost to a strange creature’s lucky assault. A pair of scouts had been dispatched to slay the beast, and their success brought great relief to Elena’s people. It was one of these scouts that had made a discovery that he absolutely had to bring back evidence of.
Vasille Tzen, aged two-hundred fifty, had witnessed the most curious thing he’d seen in his long, long life working under President Price. The tall, balding, but still young looking man appeared to be in his thirties, and he was peeking over the edge of a hill with a pair of military binoculars. Strange people were down there, near the outskirts of Redding. A long, snaking vehicle was arranged in a circle, something of a defensive posture, with the walls of its various compartments opened up on the sides and providing shelter to the people who occasionally peeked out from under those steel awnings. Fabric was draped between the gaps, and the sounds of abundant life filtered up to him in a most entrancing way. The laughter of playing children, shouting of adults, and the various bits of clanging of those at work filled the air. What really got his attention, though, was the smell of the food they were cooking. He’d never experienced anything like it.
Humans. Real live humans were down there. They seemed to be technologically advanced, with all of them wearing some kind of plant-fiber clothing, though a number chose to go topless. The children seemed to be happy and healthy, and while the adults were not as large as the videos he’d seen of the old world, they seemed like they were getting along just fine. There were a handful of weapons mounted atop some of the cars in the train of vehicles, seemingly intended for large game or lightly armored vehicles. Considering the look of the people, they likely had no concept of how to use them. He had to encounter one of them, but he couldn’t afford to engage the whole group at once, so he waited.
As the day dragged on, he saw a group of them leave, four of them, spreading out and heading in towards the city. He saw one of them give the others orders before they split up. They were all armed, clothed appropriately for being out alone, and stayed within earshot of each other so they could defend each other. Vasille wondered what had happened to make such innocent seeming people so careful.
Still, he was confident he could take one of them. He got his eyes set on what he thought was the leader, and stalked down from his hill and made his way down towards Redding. He used the rubble to sneak through, always keeping an eye out for one of those roach creatures, his AR contacts set up to overlay warmer thermal signatures onto his vision. It was just that setting that he’d used to hunt down the last one of those monsters who’d killed his late mentor. The three-hundred twenty-three year old master scout had been found bashed, burned, and drained of his blood, his organs eaten from his body cavity and his skull cracked open and his brain eaten as well. Slaying that beast had been the only time he’d ever had to kill, and the feeling of that revenge was a sweet thing indeed.
Moving with remarkable grace and stealth for someone nearing seven-feet tall, Vasille stalked the green-eyed man. He’d drawn a veil down over his face from his hat to protect from the sun, not unlike the layers of fabric that hid Vasille and the other scouts from the brutal star. The darkness of the fabric allowed him to blend into the shadows of jutting girders, fallen slabs, and collapsed sewers, all caked in thick mud from centuries of erosive forces. Who knew how much city and infrastructure was actually buried under all that? With a sudden drop from above he was upon him, a long arm curled around him and a stun pistol jammed threateningly up against his back. “Don’t move. I do not wish to harm you.”
His target seemed to understand him as he froze up, his hands stopping in their pursuit of the gun slung around his shoulders by a long strap. “Good. You understand me. Listen, I’m going to bring you to meet someone. I am not going to harm you, but I can’t risk you revealing me to your companions. Please do not make any sounds and just come with me.” He loosened his grasp, but still held that weapon against the man’s back. “Stay in front of me, but come this way.” He had him start heading east, carefully keeping to the shadows, avoiding the other scouts. “I am Vasille Tzen, and I am a scout for my people, just like yourself. It is only natural that we would be the ones to make first contact between our peoples.”
The captive dared to speak back to his captor. “Then why pull a weapon on me? Why can’t we talk like men?” Vasille chuckled softly. “We both know what men did to this world. We both also know men can do better. I am only being as careful as you would with me if you’d seen me first. I took you because you are the leader of your scouts, which means you are the most seasoned and understanding among them.” The man shrugged, climbing up some concrete. “Well, my mother is probably be a better candidate, but she’s busy leading the others now.” Vasille smiled, reaching out to pat the man on the back. “I like you, you do not lie.”
Vasille had returned from Redding quite a bit early, and as he entered Elena’s quarters, which amounted to a tent extending out the side of Alpha One, he was looking pretty excited. “Ma’am, I have something to report. I’ve located a lifeform.” Elena raised a slender brow as she sat up in her chair. Megan had been going over the maps with her and had been estimating the location of other silos in the area. “What is it, soldier? What’d you find? Not more of those disgusting roaches I hope?” “No ma’am,” he replied, the tall, balding, slender soldier standing at attention, “I have located humans and captured one of them.”
Megan looked up in a jerky, mechanical way. “Impossible. Humans are unsuited to surviving the environment the Earth has become.” Elena rolled her eyes. Megan was a former media executive, her opinions on survival could not be trusted. “Good, bring him in, I want to talk to him.” Vasille nodded and ducked back out of the tent. Megan seemed to be lost in thought, muttering to herself about ‘the odds’.
A reasonably healthy looking, olive-skinned, blonde man with with green eyes was gently coerced inside at gunpoint. His arms were tied behind his back, and a gag was tied over his mouth. He was wearing clothing that covered most of his skin made out of a strange plant-like material and a hat covered his neck and head. A thin veil was pulled back from his face. “Remove his gag, let him speak.” Elena crossed her long legs, her suit fitting lightly on her slender frame. “What’s your name, boy?”
The young man huffed, annoyed at the treatment he’d received by these… strange creatures. They didn’t look like any humans he’d seen in all his thirty-one years. “I’m Hawthorne Crenshaw, ma’am. What ar-” He flinched, interrupted by Elena shooting up to her feet shouting a loud, “What!?”
She was moving forward instantly, fast for a woman nearing four-hundred years old. “How do you know that name? Who are you really? Where did you come from? Did Hawthorne send you? Is he not satisfied with taking my father from me?” Thorne blinked, startled, the woman towering over him by almost a foot, though she was almost certainly lighter than him. He could probably snap her bones like twigs if he was of a mind do. “I told you, my name is Hawthorne Crenshaw. My father Clint changed his last name to Crenshaw to honor the man who has been helping us for something like thirty-four years. I believe you are aware of that man. My mother first found Doctor Crenshaw back then and he’s been helping us ever since 340 AC or so.”
Elena reached out and poked at his chest with a thin finger, humming softly, her elfin eyes narrowed. “Yes… of course.. You don’t look anything like him. Far too short. Far too much spine.” Megan had stiffly stood and moved up to Elena’s side. “The existence of Doctor Hawthorne Crenshaw is likely. Considering his lack of aging the last time we saw him, it is likely he remains alive. His intentions at the time seemed to be benevolent. There is no reason to think his attitude has changed.” Elena scowled at Megan’s open support and sympathy of Doctor Crenshaw. Still, she wasn’t wrong, and while she wanted to push her over or pull some piece of electronics out of her hide, it wasn’t like she was unaware of how the Cataclysm came about. She’d been there at that fateful meeting, applauding her foolish father’s plan like the rest of the yes-men present.
Thorne nodded at Megan’s words. “That’s right. He told us about the ice age that’s coming, and helped us get ready to head south. Is that what you’re doing out here? Is your bunker in danger of failing too?” Megan froze silently for several moments before resuming her strange movements. “It is eighty-four percent likely that Doctor Crenshaw’s estimates are accurate. The withdrawal of the roach creatures suggests a climate change they are aware of that we are not.” Elena chose to compose herself, standing calmly and stately as she thought for a moment. “Yes, young Hawthorne, our bunker is failing and we are heading south.” Megan tried to interrupt, “But presiden-” “Shhh…” Elena stopped her. “It’s time I got over myself. Mr. Crenshaw, if I have you brought back to your people, could you arrange a meeting with your leaders? I believe it would be wise for us to consider joining forces. My people are likely inferior to yours at surviving this harsh environment, but we are well armed and long lived and can defend you as we travel together.”
Elena Marie Price had not been left as President through some power grab, or the failure to maintain popularity during elections. She had shown herself to be a calm and wise leader, and while she and her people had lacked the knowledge and resources to thrive in what the world had become, she wasn’t about to let a centuries’ old grudge over the death of a fool and the failures of his machinations stand in the way of the survival of her people. “You have no guile to you, young man, but I suppose there’s not much value to that ability anymore. We’ll be here for about a week before we move on, so I anticipate meeting you and your leaders.”
Thorne glanced between the strange people he found himself in the company of, and nodded. “Alright, I’ll tell my people, but I can’t guarantee they’ll agree. We’ve already sacrificed a lot, but we have no confidence when it comes to those roach-things, so if you have anything to prove you can handle them or any knowledge you can share about them, I think they would appreciate that.” Elena gestured off to the side, and Megan moved to bring over a box. Elena also gestured to the guard, and Vasille untied Thorne. The box Megan brought over was summarily opened, revealing the stripped head of one of those roach-things. A large hole was in the front of its head, and as she handed the box to Thorne he found it was rather heavy. “Alright… well… that will probably do it.” Elena smiled a bit. “Indeed.”
Thorne cleared his throat, speaking up. “Well, we recently lost someone to one of these things. It pounded her into paste and had been eating her as far as we can tell before we managed to drive it off. I… I think if you managed to do the same to that one as you did to this one, it would go a long way to earning the trust of my people and putting the poor girl’s soul at peace.” Elena pondered the offer for a moment, and nodded. “Alright, you’ll have your monster hunt. We can’t have manslayers about, no matter what they are. We lost one of our people to those things recently as well.”
Thorne sighed and shook his head. “I’m sorry to hear that. It doesn’t even make sense that something so big can move so quickly. Smashed poor Tabby before we could come help her. We’ve been keeping a close eye on her sister Emily ever since. I think she’s only still eating because of her pregnancy.” Megan spoke up again, lumbering closer and peering up at Thorne. “Your people have children? How many? Are they all as healthy as you? How do you feed the-” “Shhh, Megan, don’t badger the poor boy.” Again, Elena interrupted the cyborg. “This isn’t an interrogation. I’m sure we can have plenty to share with each other about the last few hundred years if we avenge this miss Tabby. Vasille, you can handle that, can’t you?” The balding Old One nodded, “Yes ma’am. I’ll kill any number of them now that I know definitively that they eat people.” Elena nodded. “Take Hawthorne here back home.” Vasille gave a smart salute, and led Thorne outside.
After Thorne was led back out with the box, Vasille’s gun holstered, Elena turned to Megan. “Recall the rest of the scouts and radio back to the bunker. Have them gather all remaining vital resources, computers, and documents and bring Alpha Two out here. Tell them we’re abandoning the bunker, and that we have friends.” Megan turned towards the radio, then paused and looked back. “You were serious then? You were not lying?” Elena shook her head. “Like I said. There’s no room for guile left in this world, Megan. We must submit to our betters and contribute what we can to survive the dangers ahead. We barely made it this far, we certainly won’t survive an ice age on our own. We need them.” Megan stared for several moments, then approached the radio to share the communications. If Elena was saying she was not the most powerful, then Megan needed to ingratiate herself to whoever was. “Attention LSC Bunker, this is a priority one communication from President Elena Price…”
Outside the tent, Vasille led Thorne back to his ATV. Thorne broke the silence first. “I’m coming with you after that monster.” Vasille nodded, smiling down at the much shorter man. “I know.”
The LSC scout and Phoenix Clan scout slipped their way through the rubble. Their weapons were kept at the ready, and they carefully signaled to each other silently. They had shared every piece of information they’d managed to gather about the beasts in their few encounters with them. They moved quickly, they seemed to respond to movement, they had great physical strength and seemed to have no sense of pain. They have somewhat large, vulnerable brains in their heads, and their carapace is made out of tough minerals, including a high percentage of iron. The spiny hairs on their body are all made primarily of chitin and iron, with the tips actually rusty. Their diet seems to be mostly of metals, the poisonous scrub plants on the surface, and whatever flesh they can get their hands on. They retreat immediately upon detecting danger to their lives, and can see in the dark.
As far as anyone could tell, they seemed to be able to smell the iron in people's’ blood, and made a point of trying to devour it. In truth, it was actually the oxygenated blood they were after, for their primary food source was actually rust. Their high temperatures seemed primarily due to the way they let themselves bake in the sun, though they produced a large percentage of their heat internally as well. They were like walking ovens. Considering their diet, propensity for standing in the sun, and their temperature it was also easy to imagine they were actively radioactive.
“We should try to lure one out with bait then.” suggested Vasille, having done just such a thing when he’d hunted the last one. “Alright, I’ll gather small pieces of rusty metal as we go, but they’re hard to keep quiet.” responded Thorne, starting to pick up odd reddened hunks of old steel. It slowed him down a little as well, allowing Vasille to advance with his augmented vision. He had to carefully align his line of sight to avoid catching too much sunlight due to the fact that his thermal vision drowned out his normal vision. It was nothing he couldn’t compensate for, but he didn’t want to miss their quarry just because he got dazzled momentarily.
Thorne found scouting to be utterly fascinating compared to growing up in the bunker. The sounds echoed completely differently, the lights and shadows interacted so much more dynamically. The sun itself was so much brighter than any of the artificial light’s he’d grown up with, and it had the effect of laying everything in sight bare, naked to all who could see. It actually had taken him a long time to adjust to such things, but he’d spent so long being paranoid after seeing that first roach that he kept his eyes constantly moving to try and catch a glimpse of one of them again. And now, one of them had killed Tabby.
Thorne clenched his fist as the memory of finding his student, subordinate, and once-considered potential mother of his child dead. The ghost of a memory of her happy smile as she sat out and enjoyed the wind blowing through her hair for the first time made him tremble with a rage the likes of which he’d never felt before. He had advocated for her having the freedom to turn down being picked during the recent round of mother selections, and the fact that he’d inadvertently denied himself the opportunity to have a child as well was not lost on him. He wondered if she’d have been a good mot- “Hey, you’re getting distracted. Watch your ass, I don’t want to have to drag your heavy ass out of here.” Vasille had completely caught Thorne off-guard, confronting him between some old concrete walls.
He nodded back in response, letting out a sigh. “Sorry, just thinking about what that bastard did to her.” Vasille narrowed his eyes, then reached out to punch the much younger man in the shoulder. “The last one I hunted, the one from the box, it killed my mentor, someone I’d known my whole life. I understand how you feel, but we’re not just doing this for her, we’re doing this to show that our peoples can work together. We’re going to get this mother fucker. Not the first, and not the last. I’ll kill every last one of those man eaters, so help me god.” Thorne chuckled, reaching out to punch Vasille’s shoulder as well, his hand holding three chunks of steel between his gloved fingers. “Now who’s getting distracted? Come on, there’s a collapsed road ahead.”
The scouts nodded at each other, and crept up to the edge of an old collapsed overpass, which now formed mud-caked ramps up either side. At the center was a huge pile of old cars, seemingly having slid down from either side over the course of centuries. There wasn’t a whole lot left of them, really, but the sturdy plastics, glass, and more corrosion resistant metals still remained. A black form was leaning down among the wreckage, a trail of thick fluids oozing from three holes in its central carapace which led back to a hole fifty feet away. The men froze, and Vasille did his best to talk quietly without visibly moving his jaw. “Very slowly, move the bait to the edge, and let some of it roll down.” While Thorne’s hand lifted at a crawl, careful to avoid making sounds, Vasille carefully levelled his arc rifle.
He hadn’t ever had a chance to shoot a live one with the high-amperage electricity emitter, but after he’d killed the last one with a carefully aimed shot from the mounted gun on his ATV, he’d taken the time to experiment with this weapon on its corpse. Its high-iron content seemed to attract the electricity extremely well, though he had no idea if it would disperse through the ground before it could have an effect. He hoped the damage already dealt to the thing left its insides more vulnerable to the effect. Thinking on it while Thorne prepared to drop the chunks of steel, though, he wondered if these things ever got hit by lightning.
Clink, clunk, the metal tumbled down the concrete ramp, Thorne’s other hand having pulled his gun to his side, several seconds behind Vasille in preparation to fire. The very moment those pieces of metal started tumbling down the roach’s antennae lifted and its body jerked in alarm. Its head lowered down, its large upper arms bending to allow it to crouch as its antennae wiggled back and forth in the direction of the hunks of metal that had settled near its feet. A soft click and a flash of light preceded the sudden appearance of a fifty-foot arc of electricity, which attached itself to one of those antennae and the rifle firing it. Both ends glowed brightly from high levels of heat while Vasille yelled out, “Now! Shoot it!”
The roach had stiffened, one of its primary sensory organs struck with the blast of electricity. Its insides started cooking, in particular the brain inside the metal shell of a head, only for Thorne to brace himself up on a knee and start unloading his own gun. Slug after slug raced towards the hulking monstrocity, the first bouncing off the carapace on its back, but the second and third struck one of its huge eyes and blew off its other antennae. Another bolt of lightning lanced out and caused the monster to seize up and collapse to the ground, shuddering violently while Thorne carefully aimed two more shots. One hit the narrow spot at the back of its neck, ricocheting around inside its body upon penetrating, and the other drilled into the top of its head, the gunshots almost being drowned out by the shouting of two men out for vengeance.
Once the two weapons quieted, the men watched for a moment as the roach lay there twitching, fatally wounded, if not dead. Foul-smelling, sizzling smoke came from inside of the holes in its body as the men started yelling and laughing together. Miss-timed and poorly aimed attempts to slap hands together between them, grab at shoulders, and slap at chests spoke a great deal about the differences in the way their cultures celebrated. In the end the two hugged each other, hands slapping each other’s backs as they laughed and shouted. “Yeah! Fuck you roach! That was for Tabby!” Vasille answered back. “Tabby and Dekka, and anyone else you foul beasts have eaten!”
That seemed to sober the men for a moment though, and they stepped back from each other. “You… you don’t think…?” started Vasille. “Those things have been eating people out of bunkers all this time, haven’t they?” finished Thorne. They looked back to the smoking corpse, dread filling their hearts. “You know, Vasille, when Doctor Crenshaw told my clan about the coming ice age, I had only just seen one of those things for the first time before they vanished.” Vasille chewed on the inside of his cheek for a moment, thinking. “It’s warmer south, and it had been getting warmer up north where we are. These things have probably been to the south for decades, maybe centuries.” Dread filled Thorne’s face. “Oh my god.” Vasille shook his head. “God gave up on us a long time ago, my young friend. Let’s go see our peoples.” Vasille stalked off, shouldering his weapon while radioing back to base about their success.