Rebel

“I don’t rightly know what you were expecting when you came out here, but this ain’t some kind of rebel base. Just a bunch of kids trying to scrape by.”
The lanky youth that spoke kept his hands in his pockets and his gaze level on the three uniformed men. But his eyes lingered on the patches on their uniforms, studying their unit designations and ranks. Behind him, a younger girl peeked around to look up at their faces. She was dirty and thin, but there was determination in her eyes. One of the men, the commander of their small unit, stepped forward.
“We’re not looking for trouble, just for help.” He hesitated, noting still more sets of eyes watching him from the delipidated barn. The rotten building leaned to one side like an animal waiting to die. “I’ve been lead to understand that your…group…can get behind enemy lines.”
The boy who seemed to be their spokesman nodded.
“If, by that, you mean we know the ways to get around the checkpoints that bunch have set up, then yeah. But how do I know we can trust you? Last I checked, the army’d been pulled to pieces with folks on both sides.”
The man tugged at his collar, revealing his unmarked neck.
“No ink. You know they mark their soldiers.”
The girl spoke up then.
“Not the spies. Not the saboteurs. But he’s alright, Trip. His mind feels free.” Her eyes were unfocused now. “He’s seen the badness and he knows it for what it is. So do his soldiers. We can trust them.”
“You’re sure, Kally?”
The boy looked down at his younger friend and she nodded.
“Very sure. Isn’t that right, Captain Malcolm Foster?”
Captain Foster blinked. Sure, she could have gotten his rank and surname from his uniform. But first name? Then she spoke again and his jaw dropped open in disbelief.
“And don’t worry, Captain. The prisoner you’re looking for is still alive.”

The Game

Okay, just a few more and I’ll be done with this level. Awesome.
I dropped the last of the soul crystals into the chest at the foot of my bed and stretched, trying to decide what to do next.
“Warning. System power failing.”
Looking around, I tried to find the source of the voice. There shouldn’t be anyone else here. I was in my Sanctum. Other players couldn’t enter your Sanctum and I didn’t have anyone keyed to be able to contact me privately like that. I wasn’t allowed to.
“Power failure imminent. Backing up system files. Please prepare to log off the system.”
“Log off? What the hell does that mean?”
I scowled with irritation as I took a few steps towards the door. Things were starting to feel heavy, odd, almost painful.
“Log off commencing in 5…”
I grabbed the back of a chair, pain shooting through my body.
“4…”
Stumbling, I fell and hit my chin on the chair as I went down.
“3…”
The ground swam up to meet me as I tried to catch myself. It was like my limbs weren’t obeying me.
“2…”
Everything went black then…
“1…”

Slowly, oh so slowly, I rose back up out of the darkness, wondering if something had managed to somehow get inside my Sanctum and kill me. But no…this wasn’t Resurrection. What was this place? It was only just barely lit, the lights running along the floor in a dull yellowish color. The ceiling swam as I tried to sit up and that’s when I realized I was being held down. Fingers fumbling, I scrabbled at the belt until it came undone and pushed the gloves off. Only then could I pull myself off this strange bed. No, it wasn’t a bed, was it? I stumbled away and tried to figure out where I was. Nothing seemed overly familiar, but it seemed reasonable enough to just follow the lights…
Once I was outside, I shielded my eyes, trying to adjust the lights. It was bright out and there were plants everywhere. There was even a tree growing in a crack in the street. A full blown tree. I glanced up, fully expecting to see my HUD just like I had all these years. But there was nothing there. No mini-map, no health monitor. Nothing.
“Is anyone there?”
Silence greeted my words, along with a slight echo.
“There….there…there…”
It rang off the buildings and came back to my ears like a curse. There should be someone somewhere, right? There had to be.

It’s been a year. I don’t know if there’s anyone else left. I found a few more of the Game, but the players…I think they died. The survival systems must have failed before the power went. How long do you think they played like that? Trying to eat virtual food and drink virtual water without ever feeling satiated. It must’ve been horrible. So, yeah. I’m alone. I don’t know how long it’s been or where I am. Most of the signs have faded and I…I just don’t remember.

Water

They say that in the days of our forefathers, the fields never moved. I can’t imagine what that would be like, to live in one place for all your days? Wouldn’t it get boring after a while? And how could you bring what you grew to trade with the people who have other things? They don’t know how to make the food grow, not in those cramped cities of theirs. But we do, in our caravans with the glass tops so the plants are open to the sun. I’m Farley, a weeder of age nine. Next year, I hope I’ll be fast enough that the scouts will consider me. I’m small enough for their ranks and I’ve memorized the tracking signs. I know how to spot a smudge of storm cloud on the horizon and how to trace a river’s grave. And none of my brothers or sisters are scouts. That should make it easier. They never pick more than one from a family to be scouts, too much risk. And never the oldest. That sure did sting Jarek like a thorn, him being oldest and all. He was too big anyway. He’s much better at driving the vans anyway.

When we were all still little things, not even big enough to do more than pop the seeds into the furrows someone else made, Papa told us stories about the scouts. And especially about his Mama. She was one of the best and fastest, clever and small. But once when she went out for a long run, she never came back. Papa says it must’ve been the ones who come to steal our water. She’d been running down a river’s grave to find the source when she disappeared. That’s why Papa hopes they won’t pick me even though I’m small and fast and clever, but they will. I’ll make it. And I’ll find the water that never ends, just like the stories say is out there.

Beneath the Waves

Ensign Jessalyn placed her hand on the counter palm down and swore when the display read out clearly LOW BAL. With a scowl, she pulled her hand back and shoved both into the pockets of her uniform. After a day like today, she’d really needed that drink. There had been five new leaks in critical sectors. Five! Turning away from the counter, she scuffed her booted toes against the steel beneath her feet. They would need to dock with another vessel for welding supplies at the rate this was going, and maybe even get an excursus team to go repair hull damage on the outside. Not that she really believed the senior officers would approve excursus unless it was the only option. Not after the last time.
“Yellow Blue Blue sector is cleared for recreational freedoms.”
The voice echoed through the shipboard comms and Jessalyn sighed. There was another thing her sector wouldn’t be getting anytime soon. Not with the critical failure rate on the rise. If water breached the hull, they were all doomed. Everyone on board knew that. Problem was, no one wanted to learn the skills needed for the Blue Green Blue sector advanced maintenance jobs. Either, they languished in Blue Green Purple cleaning the head and gathering refuse for the recycling levels or they went up to at least a Green start-code sector with a nice cushy desk job, a chance at officer ranks, and rec freedoms more than once in a patrol cycle. Maybe there were kids down in Purple start-code families who might want to come up to Blue, but she never saw any of them. They worked even lower in the ship than she did, down in the engine rooms. She’d heard once that, even though it was against ship life parameters, the kids down there worked too. Small hands were good for grabbing things that could get stuck in machinery, or so the stories said. Not that she had time to think about that. Not with her monitor buzzing again. She pushed the comms button on the side of it and then spoke clearly.
“Blue Green Blue, report to ship sector Gamma Seven. Situation critical level 2. Ensign Jessalyn en route.”
She had another emergency to clean up before Red Sector noticed.

Copper

“What are we looking at?”
The archaeologist frowned and turn to the historian. The historian poured over their notes, a matching frown on their face.
“I’m not sure. It appears to be a copper panel. I see signs of tooling here, but it looks much more advanced than I’d expect to see from pre-iron age people…”
The archaeologist nodded.
“That’s what I was thinking. Do you have any record of…anything like this?”
The historian skimmed the readout on the digital pad and then shook their head.
“We don’t have much information about this region before the Great War. But maybe this is the same structure as the torch we found on the seafloor? It’s certainly close enough. Maybe some sort of sun deity?”
After a long moment, the historian and the archaeologist stood together once more by the large green panel of copper. The archaeologist rested a hand on the copper.
“Did this place have a name before we moved in?”
The historian skimmed the digital pad once more.
“The only one we have left is…New Amsterdam?”

Wheels

“Titus!”
The dark haired boy turned back over his shoulder, looking at the other two who had come with him. Milla stood with her shovel still in the gravel by the old stump, Vesper stood beside her with his thumb in his mouth.
“Titus, you need to come look at this.”
Milla was shaking, her eyes huge in her small face. Titus jogged over, his curls bouncing as he joined her by the stump.
“What? Something wrong? You know we need to get this stuff back home before nightfall.”
“I…I know. But, I heard something.”
Vesper looked up at both of them, his dirty face solemn.
“It said ow.”
Vesper clutched Milla’s pant-leg as a sound come from under the heap of gravel again. Titus knelt, looking all around the stump.
“Could be anything…”
That was what he said. Inside, though, he was remembering the stories he’d been told all his life. About the war that had ended war, about how they’d all had to go under the earth to survive when death rained down from the sky. He adjusted his gloves and gave the stump a push. How far down were the homes under the ground?
“What did it sound like, Milla?”
“Like a person,” she hissed. “Titus, I think we need to go.”
He tugged at the shovel, trying to prize it from her hands.
“If you’re going to be a coward, then let me dig. You can go gather nuts.”
She grabbed it fiercely, refusing to hand it over. Then she jammed it into the ground again and they heard another cry of pain.
“See, Titus? Do you see now?”
He frowned and Vesper looked like he was going to cry. Vesper cried a lot. Milla had moved the shovel once more, trying to dig around the stump.
“There can’t be anyone in the ground, right Titus?”
Vesper’s voice was soft. For a long moment, Titus just watched Milla dig in silence. Then he scooped Vesper up and balanced the little boy on his hip.
“We don’t know. We won’t know until your sister finishes digging. So how about we let her, alright?”
It seemed like ages before Milla made a sound that wasn’t a grunt of exertion. The sudden scream tore out of her throat before she could stop it and Titus scanned the horizon in alarm. No movement. Milla had both hands over her mouth now. Vesper tried to fight to see past Titus but the older boy blocked his vision.
“Get Vesper out of here. Now.”
“Milla? What’s going on?”
“Just go, Titus! Now!”
Her voice pitched upward with more than a bit of fear and Titus looked at her. She was shaking from head to toe, her eyes wide and her breathing coming fast. Titus didn’t question her words, he just ran.

Milla looked into the shallow grave by the stump. That was what it was, wasn’t it? A grave. Only the poor wretch wasn’t dead. She knelt and offered her hands to the woman. She was broken and battered, her eyes blacked and her arm twisted unnaturally. Whoever she was, she was covered in dirt and looked like she hadn’t seen food or water in far too long. Coughing, she let Milla pull her out.
“What happened?”
The woman turned her ashen face to look at Milla and said nothing. Then she looked at the horizon.
“They will come back.”
Milla felt like her blood had turned to ice in her veins. ‘They’ could only be one thing around here and there was nothing that could be worse, especially not for her.
“Come on, we have a camp near here. We can help you.”
The woman’s eyes seemed to look through Milla, beyond her body, and into her soul.
“There was no help for me. There is no help for me. There will be no help for you.”
Before she could question what that meant, Milla heard the sound of engines.
“No. No. No. No. No.”
The simple word became a chant on her lips as she turned and ran. She ran as hard and as fast as she could. She could also hear the woman laughing.
“No help for you, girl. No help.”

Milla tore through the desert scrubland headed away from her band’s camp. She couldn’t return to them. Not with them on her heels. She glanced back and saw the green. There was no question then, it was them. Another vehicle came screaming out from the side, some little fast thing on two wheels. She screamed, dropping and hoped they would think she was dead. The thing skidded to a halt and the rider jumped off, pulling a helmet off to reveal a woman of middle years with her hair up in a tight bun.
“Damn it all to hell. Are you alright, girl?”
She knelt beside Milla, checking her for a pulse. Then she passed a little black box that fit in the palm over her hand over Milla’s body and glanced at it.
“She’s got a pulse and low rad numbers!”
She shouted those words to two men who had jumped out of one of the larger four-wheeled vehicles. With a nod, she began to direct the others and moved to help Milla to her feet. The girl was shaking again, fear overwhelming her.
“Please…please don’t…don’t hurt me.”
The woman looked confused and then sighed.
“Escher, Lincoln, grab a ration tray and a canteen for our new friend here. Girl, I’m Sargent Tycho and this is my unit. We’re friends, alright?”
Milla shook her head frantically.
“You’re the bad people. I know you are. My…my parents always said, only bad things come from the people on wheels.”
Escher and Lincoln returned, holding the requested supplies and then some. They offered a blanket and a first aid kit, even a small block of something dark and sweet that Milla had never seen before. But they exchanged worried glances with Tycho.
“Must be raiders in the area…”
“Explains the tracks we saw.”
Milla ate and drank what they gave her warily, watching them constantly from where they’d sat her on the back of one of the vehicles. Why weren’t they hurting her? Why hadn’t they done to her what they’d obviously done to the woman she and Titus and Vesper had found. She looked up, startled again. Had Titus gotten Vesper away? The camp would move soon if they knew the wheel riders were in the area again.
“The old woman.”
She blurted it out and then stopped, cutting herself off.
Again, the strangers exchanged that confused glance.
“Old woman?”
Tycho beckoned for Milla to explain, concern in her eyes.
“The…the woman. We found her buried, over there.” She pointed past her, regretting saying we and hoping they wouldn’t notice. “She wasn’t dead.”
Escher swore so harshly that Milla was honestly impressed. She’d thought her Grand’ther swore the best she’d ever heard, but this was just amazing. Blew him right out of the water.
“It’s the raiders again, Sarge. Has to be.”
Tycho pulled her helmet back on.
“Lincoln, new orders. Get this girl back to base on the double. Get her safe and settled. Escher, pull everyone in. We’re going hunting.”

Milla looked back as the desert she’d grown up in was lost to distance, wondering if she would ever see it again, ever see her band again. Lincoln was talking quite cheerfully, telling her about their base and how they had clean water and good food. He talked about how they were building the world again and how their leader had a vision of the future. She didn’t really listen. She would see soon enough if it was real. Maybe then, maybe she would ask if she could find the others and bring them. Until then, she was alone.