Intergalactic Medicine Show     Print   |   Back  

Gods of War
    by Steve Pantazis

Gods of War
Artwork by M. Wayne Miller

Part I

I tell my nephew Blake to hold perfectly still as I train my shotgun on the unholy hell of terror wriggling on the ground in front of us. The centipede-like machine is designed to dig into the back of some sorry sack, wrap its blades around the spinal column, and sever the connection to the nervous system. To see a snapper still functioning after all these years has got me a fit of the heebie-jeebies. Fortunately, it's damaged and floundering on its back, razor-sharp claws pawing the air like a roly poly. Probably was dormant until its sensors picked up our heat signatures.

It rights itself on the dirt, whipping its cockroach antennas. There are no eyes, just claws and black metal made for gutting flesh. It doesn't think, it just does.

It props up on its claws, shifts its head back and forth between us with a churn of gears. There's something intelligent about it, not just robot instinct. The antennas are rigid, as if listening. Its eyeless head faces us, like it's being told what to do, but that don't make sense.

The snapper bunches up, its segments pushed together.

I pull the trigger.

The shotgun kicks with a loud blast. The air fills with the acrid scent of gunpowder. Half the wiggly demon claws one way, the rest the other way. The gears whine. A second shot has it on its back again, raking the air like a crazed lobster. The third takes out the antennas. It twitches one last time and goes still.

Blake is shaking. He ain't ever had an up-close-and-personal experience like this in his life, and he's twenty-three years old. I've seen more mechanical monsters than I can count. This one was a rogue critter, stuck out in the middle of nowhere, a remnant from the War. Had we never come along, it would have probably gotten buried with the rain and mud over time. But if a child had stumbled on it . . .

I don't let my mind go there. It's a fluke. At least we found it, and not some unarmed idiot.

"Come on," I tell Blake, resting the shotgun over my shoulder. "I'll buy you a drink."

Little Mason is only five, but he thinks he's twenty, grownup determination tattooed on his small face as he runs around the yard with his arms out like he's flying under the sun-kissed June sky. His twin sister, Maryann, is the shy one, watching her brother while sitting on an upside-down milk crate. They both have blond hair, but their eyes are like their daddy's, God rest his soul, brown as carnival toffee. Their mother, Sharon--a cousin from my mother's side--lets me watch them now and then, especially when she heads into town. Besides Blake, they're all the family I've got, and I'm grateful for that.

"You a hawk again?" I ask little Mason. We're gathered in the shade outside my barn, the air pungent with the odor of hay. A pair of mares are in the paddock, swishing the flies with their tails.

"No way. I'm an eagle," he says.

Sometimes I ask Mason if he's a fighter jet, but he's never seen one. The only planes I've seen after the War were prop planes, scavenged from old crop dusters and what not, and the occasional drone. There hasn't been a commercial or military flight since Isaac commandeered the airspace and turned our crafts into kamikazes, and it's been quite a while since I've seen anything in the sky. All those cities wiped out, all because that sumbitch gained control over flight navs and whatnot. Mason's father, Pete, was in the Corps with me, another grunt mech thumper in the fight against ole Isaac. Got taken out clean by one of Isaac's walker bots in an ambush. Shot to the head. Probably didn't even feel it. That's the way I'd want to go. There ain't nothing worse than getting taken down and torn apart, tortured or devoured by Isaac's monstrosities. No, sir. I get the jitters just thinking about it.

But what am I talking about? The War's over. We won.

It's all fuzzy now, though, like a bad memory you can't tell was real or just a dream. Sure, the Texan Mech Corps was there, and I was with what was left of them. Our big boss, Colonel Matheson, insisted on talking to Isaac, man to machine. Why in hell would you want to talk to something without a soul? He chatted it up with ole Isaac. And guess what Isaac said? Yep, the creepiest thing I'd ever heard. He said it ain't over. That it would never be over. And next time, we'd wish we were all dead.

Even in the June heat, I've got the shivers. Fifteen years of looking over my shoulder. Little Mason doesn't know about ole Isaac and his promise. But we can never forget, those of us still standing. The War is over, they say. Over for good.

I watch little Mason soar like an eagle.

I want him to grow up in a new America and never know the ungodly horror that came down on us. I want to believe he'll get some good schooling, learn to fix things like his uncle, and someday meet a girl, settle down, and add to our bloodline. And when I fade to dust, there will be a Mason Junior to learn from his daddy that this world is good and right after all, and we can make it as a species.

It's a good dream, ain't it?

It's warm out tonight, the breeze soothing on my face, as the four of us zip through the dust in our jeep along the perimeter of Potterville, stars playing peekaboo between the clouds. I personally prefer riding horseback, but you just can't cover the territory. I've got my trusty M16 with me, comfort food in terms of firepower.

Potterville isn't too far from the remains of Amarillo, in the Texas Panhandle. One of the good things about Amarillo, or Bomb City, as the outsiders liked to call it, is access to some of the best tech in the country. We were able to scavenge all sorts of parts over the years, including supercell batteries, which our jeep runs on. God bless the souls who made the things, because they last and last and recharge nice-n-quick.

Sheila Daniel is driving, crazy fast as always, her silver hair braided behind her into a ponytail down the middle of her back. Her bloodline is Comanche, and she never lets us forget. Luke Sanchez likes to ride shotgun, frayed Australian Western hat squashed over his fat head. He's got Filipino and Mexican in him, but he's a red-blooded Texan all the way. I'm in the back, next to Blake, with my right hand around the barrel of my automatic rifle.

The radio squawks. The jeep bounces as we cross a dried creek bed. The mounted searchlights zig up and down across a bank of reeds.

Sheila answers loudly over the motoring of our ride. "Whiskey Charlie, over. Whatcha got?"

Carl's voice is on the other end, but I can hardly hear him.

"Roger, Alpha Tango," she says. "Be there in ten, over."

I lean forward. "What's that about?"

"Some kind of emergency town hall meeting."

"Again?" The last one turned out to be a whole lotta nothing about a missing tractor that ended up being the Beasley boys taking it for a joyride.

"Yeah, but this time Carl sounded kinda shaky."

I squeeze the barrel of my trusty rifle. I hate meetings, but I hate the queasy feeling I have even more. This ain't going to be good by a long shot.

"Settle down," Carl shouts from the makeshift stage of scavenged plywood on top of two-by-sixes, lit up by portable LED spotlights. He's a big boy, "healthy" as my daddy would have described him, the suspenders of his patchwork overalls stretched to the max. He's next to Janet and the other three councilmembers who run our small government. It's a fair system: we all vote on important matters, but the council sets the direction for the community. Most of us have served on the council at some point, but Janet's always stayed our mayor.

A hush settles over the hundred-and-something of us.

"How long has communication with New Parker been down?" someone asks.

"Nine days," Carl says. "You know how we check in every week, same time. Figured we'd give them a couple extra days to sort through whatever technical difficulties they might be experiencing."

"Maybe Angie's sick or something," someone else says.

Carl shakes his head. "Lou or Gomez would fill in if she were. Nope, we've never had a break in over two years of communication. Where's Blake Martin?"

My nephew raises his hand. "Here."

"When was the last time you did your monthly trade run?"

"Three weeks ago. Took Sarah and Louise with me. Was fixing to do another one next week."

"You notice anything out of the ordinary while you were at New Parker?"

"No, sir. Although . . ."

"Spit it out, son."

"Well, people were awfully anxious. Something about some War tech they scavenged from Amarillo. Doc Anderson described it as a kind of transponder. People were nervous 'bout it, although Doc said they might be able to communicate with other settlements around the country if they could get it working. It's not the first time they scavenged War tech, so I didn't give it much thought."

"Maybe so, but this was different, no?"

"Yes, sir."

"And you didn't think to mention it?"

Blake doesn't dare look at me, because I'm not too happy with him right now. I know he likes Doc Anderson because he's crazy smart and funny, and just plain likeable, if not a little strange. Doc probably wanted his new toy all hush-hush. But Carl's right: you're not supposed to keep these things to yourself. I'll definitely have a talk with Blake after our meeting.

The crowd's restless, and I know full well what the old-timers are thinking: they're thinking bad thoughts. I don't blame them either, because I'm thinking the same.

"All right, settle down," Carl says, and the crowd grows quiet. "I've already talked this over with the other councilmembers and we agree we need to send a patrol over to New Parker."

People start talking again, but Janet holds up a hand this time, and they fall silent. Our mayor is maybe five feet tall at the most, lean and in her late thirties, no children to account for, just a tiny thing, but strong and fair, which I respect.

"We're looking for four volunteers," she says. "You'll take the truck, see what's going on, and report back. That's all. But if something's wrong, you get back here right away. So . . ." She surveys the crowd. "Who's willing to go?"

It takes maybe a second or two of people looking around before hands get raised. I'd raise mine if it weren't for Little Mason and his sister. I'm not leaving them unprotected here. I look around for the other mechheads and see their hands ain't up either. They've also got family to protect. Going out in the new world is a young person's game. I've seen enough broken people and places for a lifetime.

Blake holds his hand high. I don't like it, but I can't say no. Blake's in charge of trade between settlements. If anyone knows New Parker, it's him.

Janet chooses Blake, along with Skip Harvey's two boys, Aaron and Kelsey, and Liz Morales. They're all around the same age, good kids, with decent heads on their shoulders, and they all know how to handle themselves, especially Liz, who's the best shot I've seen of anyone in our commune.

"Ya'll come with me," Carl says. "The rest of you are free to go home. We'll meet again as soon as we know something."

People break up into pockets and wander off. Unlike the last emergency town hall, this one has everyone on edge. Can't say I blame them.

Blake starts to head toward Carl and Janet, but I stop him.

"Not so fast. You and me gotta talk."

It's a quiet breakfast at Sharon's. Little Mason and Maryann are busy eating their eggs and shredded potatoes while I ponder my talk with Blake. Of course, I let him have it for keeping knowledge of the transponder to himself. Then I learned that he'd seen it. He described it as a cube about the size of a man's head, with smooth metal sides. Isaac-made, no doubt, judging from its simple shape. Isaac was always practical, even though he was a creative SOB. I should have stopped Blake from going to New Parker, and let someone else go. The whole reason we won the War was because we took down the network. Whatever transponders Isaac used were destroyed. We couldn't afford to keep the tech for ourselves because it would always be used against us. Those New Parkians are naïve to think otherwise. We've got short wave for talking around the globe. They're crazy if they think some War tech communications module is gonna help them reach out to the rest of humanity.

Sharon's looking at me, her mug of tea cupped between her hands. Outside her small one-bedroom home, the sky is getting lighter. One of her roosters crows. The sun will be showing any minute. It's almost time to get to baling hay.

"Jedidiah, what's bothering you?"

"Ain't nothing," I say, moving around the spuds on my plate.

Sharon sets her cup down. "You're all skittish in front of the kids this morning. Is it about the town hall meeting? About Blake going to New Parker?"

"Just worried, that's all," I say, still playing with the potatoes. "Don't get me wrong. Blake knows how to handle himself. He's got his father's blood in his veins. But he's still a youngster. He ain't seen what I've seen."

Sharon's got brown hair going gray in the middle and lines around her eyes. Not even forty-two, but she lost her husband, and we're both a little more weathered than we should be.

When the kids finish, she shoos them off to get to studying. All the parents in town homeschool their children. Someday, when Potterville has grown, we'll scavenge enough books and build an honest-to-goodness school. Until then, we'll keep teaching the kids to read, write and do arithmetic like people have done for centuries.

Sharon refills her mug and gets me one too. Man, how I miss coffee.

I just let it out. "Been doing some thinking about ole Isaac lately."

"What sort of thinking?"

"There's a lot of hearsay he ain't dead, even though we killed him. And now with that transponder they found in the ruins in Amarillo, and Blake going to investigate . . ."

Sharon reaches across the table and takes my hand. Her skin is soft, but there are callouses, too, from working the fields. "You worry about him a lot, don't you?"

"Sure I do. He's had it rough growing up. We're all he's got."

"You've had it rough, too, Jed, losing Suzy and--" She stops herself before saying my son's name. "Sorry, I didn't mean to bring it up."

I squeeze her hand. "That's all right. I've got you, Blake and the little ones to look after. At least I've got family."

She smiles at me, her eyes moist. Sharon has feelings for me, I know, but she's like my little sister. She needs to find another widower, someone smart like Carl.

"You're a good woman, Sharon."

She's got tears now. She's holding on to my hand, afraid to let it go as if we're caught in a storm. I'm afraid to let go, too. There's something awfully strong about the bonds between humans. No machine could ever understand that.

"Don't you worry," I tell her, sitting tall. "Ain't nothing going to happen to you and the kids as long as I'm around. And that's a solemn promise."

Fifteen-year old Sam McPherson ain't the sharpest tool in the shed, but he's a heck of a good ranch hand. We've got the sun scorching our backs as we tend to the only functioning hay baler in town.

I hear someone shouting. A girl is running through the field toward us, waving her hands back and forth. It's Elle, Carl's daughter. She's breathless by the time she reaches us, bent over and heaving, her dark hair clinging to the perspiration on her face.

"Easy, young lady," I say. "Catch your breath."

"It's--it's Blake," she says.

"What about him?"

"They radioed in and"--she sucks in another breath--"they said the whole town was quiet, like it was abandoned. Then Liz screamed and the radio went dead." She's almost in tears. "My dad asked for you."

I dig the tips of my fingers hard into the wrench I'm holding. I should have stopped Blake. Carl and Janet and the rest of the council were wrong about sending a volunteer patrol over to New Parker, especially them inexperienced youngsters. Why didn't I stop them?

There's no town hall meeting this time, just the council and the lieutenants of Pottersquad, including Luke and Sheila. We're at the fix-it shop, where we machine parts from scavenged items hauled in from the ruins of Amarillo and our trading partners. It's more of an oversized shed than anything else, with a large workbench where nine of us are gathered around. On it is a hand-drawn map of New Parker. The settlement is approximately twice our size, the closest one to Amarillo. About three-hundred people live there, and they've got bullet-making down to a science. Beer brewing too. Not that it could help us now.

Carl follows the main avenue with a fat finger. There are buildings on either side, much like Potterville, except there's a larger town square in the middle, and the road branches in several places to a number of properties with scattered structures, some commercial or industrial from the looks of it. "They drove into town, that's for sure," he says. "Not sure where they parked, but Liz was on the brick after they got on foot."

"What did she say?" I ask.

"Said no one was around. Not a dang soul. They had to be downtown when the line went dead. Before we lost them, Liz said she saw it, mounted on a stake right in the center of town like some kind of scarecrow. It was buzzing, she said."

More like talking, as ole Isaac would have wanted it, but I keep that fact to myself. "Elle said she screamed."

Carl digs his fingers into his pudgy cheeks. His eyes are brimming, and we can all relate to the feeling.

Janet speaks up. "We need to take quick action. What resources can Pottersquad spare to go to New Parker? Ray?"

Ray Sarkisian, the Captain of Pottersquad, sighs like he's got the weight of the world on his shoulders, staring nowhere with big, puffy rings under his eyes. "I've got twenty good people at the ready. They know how to fight as well as the next person. As for vehicles, we've got our jeep, of course, and a couple of ATVs, but they're for short distance. We've got horses, too, but they're not conditioned for a fifty-mile ride. Plus, we don't know what we're dealing with. I gotta admit, I've never been as spooked as I am now. A whole town disappearing?"

"Who can we spare?" Janet asks.

"I'll go," I say, almost reflexively. Janet nods. No need explaining why.

Luke and Sheila volunteer, too, and Ray says he has a few more names in mind.

"One jeep isn't enough for everyone," Janet says. "The most she can hold is four, maybe five. The truck is gone, so what are we left with?"

No one says anything, because we've got diddly squat.

A sad look crosses Janet's face, reflecting our collective spirits. "We'll have to send the jeep then."

"We won't be able to patrol Potterville if you take the jeep," Ray says.

"So, are you proposing we let those kids fend for themselves?"

Ray can't look Janet in the eye. It's a damned if you do, damned if you don't moment. But there is such a thing as priorities, and I for one ain't gonna let my nephew get stuck in some damned ghost town. It's got killing fields written all over it.

I clear my throat and propose something that hasn't seen the light of day in fifteen years, something I hoped we would never have to resort to, something we forbade ourselves from ever resurrecting. "I know a way we can solve both problems."

Sharon's got the kids with her, watching me as Sam McPherson and I pull open the old barn doors. They creak on rusty hinges, opening up to stale air and a dirt patch with a dusty blue tarp draped over what a passerby might assume is a tractor.

Sam's eyes grow big. "Is that it?"

I place a hand on his shoulder. I always pictured passing it along to Blake someday when I was old and the dangers of our past were forgotten.

Little Mason whistles. "That's big, Uncle Jed! Can I help?"

"Let's untie those knots." I point at the stakes where the eyelets of the tarp are secured by cord.

We each work on the four knots securing the tarpaulin. I've got two undone before either of the boys has theirs. I let them finish, though. Need to give them a chance to do their part.

"There!" Mason announces, crossing his arms, prouder than a peacock.

I step up on a table and pull on the big tarp. I can already smell what's underneath, the strong scent of valve grease working its way up. Even after all these years.

I hop down, dragging the tarp outside.

Stripes of sunlight from the barn windows strike the scraped gray torso of the mechanized exoskeleton standing nine feet tall. Eight-hundred pounds of pure, unadulterated mech. I grab a headband from its cradle on the workbench, dust it good and slip it over my forehead. I press the soft, rubbery button on the side. Hopefully it's still got juice.

The sound of a piston makes everyone but me jump back. I'm controlling the exo with my thoughts now. Just like riding a bicycle.

The heavy-duty ceramic-plated torso hinges open, and the flexible mechanical arms and legs expand to allow me to strap in. I step up on the knee guards bent outward at ninety degrees, pivot around, and sink one leg, then the other. I buckle in, then insert my arms. Chilled elastomesh wraps around my limbs. It'll keep me cool in the unforgiving sun. The actuators whir as I bend each arm and run through a calibrations check. Hot damn, it feels good to be sunk into my mech. I send command after command, forcing up the protective neck guard, checking my comm and onboard weapons system, wiggling the exaggerated, armored digits of each hand. I swivel and bend at the waist, servomotors humming their song, and reach for the zippered case containing my helmet. It's got the same powdered, gunmetal finish as the rest of my mech. It hooks neatly to the back of my neck flange. I'll use the heads-up display once we start going.

Little Mason jumps up and down, doing karate chops with his arms. "Waiyah!"

Sharon grabs a hold of his arm and shakes him. "Stop that! You respect your uncle, you hear?"

He stops, looks up at me like he's done something wrong, but then smiles when he sees me smiling. He'd make one helluva soldier. Hopefully, it'll never come to that. But still, he's got the warrior spirit.

"Now stand back." They move to the side as I send commands to my mech to move out. It's no different than lifting a leg. The exo boots stamp the ground with a heavy heel beat, and I think about that spine snapper in the sticks, and how good it would have been to cave in that eyeless sumbitch's antenna head.

Sam grabs my backpack with my bedroll, nine-millimeter handgun and spare mag, med kit, packaged dry food, and a portable transceiver with wired earpiece, and slips it into the exo's storage compartment in the back. He then follows my instructions to fill the water cylinder with a hose so I can sip from a straw built into my helmet when I need it. Can't rescue anyone if you're dying of thirst.

Sharon's got tears in her eyes. "You hurry back, Jedidiah, you hear me? And you bring our Blake home."

I give her a heartfelt smile and slip the helmet over my head.

The heads-up display shows Sheila and Luke's mechs about a half klick to the south. I activate the comm and tell them I'm on my way. I then break into a run. Pneumatic pistons cushion each stride. The exo can get up to twenty miles an hour without breaking a sweat.

"It's about damn time," Luke says. It's good hearing his voice through the comm. "Just like old times, huh?"

"Damned straight, bub."

Ahead, I see the dust cloud of my fellow mechheads. I clear my throat and speak into my comm. "Now let's show them New Parkians what the 509th Texan Brigade can do."

We're making good time, although the day is waning. We've got maybe a couple hours of daylight left. Despite the built-in cooling, I'm perspiring. Can't have it too easy. Not like them Air Force boys from decades before, with their fancy air conditioning in their fixed winged aircraft. Man, do I miss having air support, though. What I wouldn't do for some eyes in the sky, telling us what's in store for us. All those satellites above, slowly falling to Earth and doing nothing. No drones or planes. Heck, I'd be happy with a toy helicopter feeding us video.

We're running single file, Sheila in the lead, Luke second. I've got double duty, watching our six from the sides and rear. I'm the only one with an auto-feeder that still has ammo. Sheila's got an AR-50 automatic rifle, Luke an M4 carbine and shotgun. We'll scavenge for munitions if we have to. Hopefully, it won't come to that.

Left-right-left. Just like in the Corps.

My heads-up display blinks. It shows a trench across the broken road. More markers show up in my HUD, revealing a farmhouse, barn, stable and grain silo, judging by the shapes. The onboard database doesn't have much in terms of figuring out ordinary objects. It's all about the stuff that might kill us.

Minutes later, the HUD lights up the edge of town. The sun has dipped below the rows of dead cornhusks to the west. Strips of clouds ride above us, thicker bands along the east, and the occasional flicker of lightning. If I had a chance to stop and feel the air, I might tell if the storm is headed our way.

"Almost there," Sheila says, huffing from the exertion. Even though the exos are doing the majority of the work, we're still moving our limbs. She points northeast. "Get ready."

The HUD throws up a number of buildings concentrated along a well-traveled dirt road, lined with wheat fields to either side. We pass a combine harvester off to our left, with a partially-cleared field. The door is open. Someone must've left in a hurry.

Sheila signals for us to slow, and I drop to a light jog, then a march. Before we reach the outskirts of downtown, we come to a complete stop.

"Not a soul out," Luke says, removing his M4 from a jury-rigged mesh holster strapped to his right leg. "Creepy."

"This ain't our first rodeo," Sheila says.

I hear what she's saying, because that familiar wartime feeling washes over me, just like jumping into a lake with a weight belt on and nothing but your lungs and sheer willpower to get you out.

Sheila uses the built-in radio in her suit to contact the Pottersquad team back home. "Base, this is Charlie-Zulu, do you copy, over?" There's a lot of static and what sounds like a garbled voice on the other end. "Ray, is that you?" More static, then a persistent hiss. Sheila switches channels and tries again. "I'm not getting through," she tells us.

"Interference, you suppose?" Luke asks.

"Could be anything. Mind your sectors. Wedge formation."

We spread out, Sheila in the center and forward, me and Luke hanging back and to either side, creating a delta configuration for maximum coverage. I swivel every so many beats to make sure there aren't any threats behind us, then face front, and repeat the process. I hear my own breathing. It's like being stuck inside an empty water tank. I'm on high alert, filled with that same feeling I had fifteen years ago after Matheson finished his conversation with Isaac.

Downtown ain't too unlike ours, with a main dirt road splitting buildings left and right. There's a general store, fueling station, mill and machine shop. No cars or anything with wheels. Chickens are hunkered down inside a feed store, next to what looks like a large garage, with dual doors, all locked up. Then there's the roundabout in the town square, with a metal post in the center with what looks like old Christmas lights dangling from rungs running up. On top is what catches my attention: a cube mounted like a head on a pike. The cube is pure black, but looks like it's got an icy coating as it reflects the dying light of day. Fine, straight etching runs along the seams, spilling out faint, bluish light.

"You catching that?" Luke asks.

My comm picks up electronic chatter, machine talk. Pure gibberish to my human ears, but my mech's computer has identified it as a variant of Isaac talk. "Damned machine dialect…"

Luke's exo shrugs.

"It's got to be communicating with a ground relay station," Sheila says. "Signal output is about good for a hundred klicks, and then it attenuates."

"Amarillo?"

"Probably. You've got your sonar tracking on, Jed?"

I'm pinging the crap out of everything around me, using echolocation like some kind of bat to try to find the townsfolk in the growing dark. "Not seeing anyone. Blake usually parks by one of two warehouses, depending on whether he's trading for dry goods or munitions."

"Luke, locate the buildings for us."

Luke's got a digital copy of Carl's New Parker map. He points south, then southwest. "Weapons depot is way over there, past the last building, the other warehouse a klick farther down the road. You think they're hiding out in one of them? I'm not picking up any heat signatures in the vicinity."

"We'll be systematic and search building to building," Sheila says. "Let's hump it out to the depot and see what's up."

"What do you want to do about this thing?" Luke motions to the humming transponder.

I swear the blue light in the cube flickers bright for a second, as if saying, "I see you, bub."

I volunteer my opinion. "I say we take it out."

Sheila agrees. "Luke, do the honor, but do it quietly."

Luke reaches up as high as he can with the arms of his suit. He grabs the metal pole and gives it a good shake. It takes maybe thirty seconds before the cube loosens enough to tumble to the ground. A thump with his exo boot puts it out of its misery.

Sheila nods her approval. "Switch formation to single element. I'll lead; Jed, you take up the rear."

We head out, single file.

Total darkness falls, and there's not a single light in any direction. My helmet automatically switches to night vision. We're quiet now, but my audio picks up my breathing and our heavy steps, and nothing else. Can't conceal our movement, not with this much weight.

We crunch through dead grass and wade through brush and stalks, making a beeline for the warehouse, rather than going the long way using the roads. The building's got cinderblock walls and an A-frame cladded metal roof. Good, solid construction. It's big, about fifteen-thousand square feet by my estimate. There's a large barnyard door in the center, paned windows around the sides, protected by rebar cages and painted black, and a metal side door. It's an oddity compared to anything we have in Potterville, where we leave doors and windows unlocked. People feel safe in our town, and Pottersquad makes sure of it. Can't say the same for this place.

Fifty feet from the warehouse Sheila has us halt. I sip some water and wait. She orders us to fan out to cover all angles of approach. I'm covering the side door, gunner arm raised, HUD in targeting mode.

"I'm picking up something mechanical from inside," she says in a low voice. "It's chattering away."

"Same dialect as before," I add. "Bet you five chits it's trying to talk to our friend in town. Good thing we destroyed that thing."

"Whatever it is, stay sharp. We're going through the barn door in tactical formation. Jed, you've got the firepower. Take the lead."

I step to the front of our column and close the gap to the warehouse. Floodlights kick on and I freeze, temporarily blinded. My helmet switches to the visible spectrum and I see the motion-sensor floodlight mounted underneath the eave. My heart's racing a hundred miles an hour.

I grab hold of the bracketed handle to the barnyard door. I give it a slight tug. It's locked. Actuators kick in and redirect power to my forearm. "Going in," I whisper.

I pull hard.

There's a groan, then a snap, followed by a sudden give as the door squeals open to my left. My HUD orients to the massive yawn of dark, making out details in shades of amber. I don't have but a second before I see something big, real big, and it ain't human.

"Holy shit!"

Spindly legs retract into a flying saucer mass the size of a small bulldozer, sensors ringed around its body like eyes. Antennas writhe back and forth, along with whiplike feelers on its legs. I can't tell what's metal and what's not, because the whole crablike apparatus seems to flex like a great, big breathing horror. But it's the razor-sharp talons that have my full attention. I hear them clank against the concrete slab of the floor. They can only be made for one thing: ripping people apart.

I fire a burst of hoo-yahs dead center.

The skin deforms, like denting an old pickup. The thing reflexively draws most of its limbs into its center, but lashes out with one of its legs, making contact with my mech. I stagger to the side, vibration running throughout my armor. My exo's stabilizers kick in, preventing me from losing my balance. No damage from what I can tell.

I catch the muzzle flash from Sheila's .50 cal. The blast shatters a piece of the crab's armor, knocking it back temporarily. It's got a built-in stabilizing mechanism too, because instead of dropping back, it launches forward, as if unharmed.

Sheila shrieks as the crab crashes into her. She tumbles backward, knocking into Luke, tipping him sideways. The thing barrels on, galloping into the open. It goes maybe ten strides before skidding to a halt, sending weeds and dirt flying. My HUD can't identify the sumbitch. I need my targeting system to find its power source so we can take it out.

Looks like it's going to be the hard way.

"Hang on!" I yell into my comm.

I send a command to my left forearm and my twelve-inch, carbon-steel combat knife springs out as I rush the thing. I fire three-round bursts, targeting joints and sockets. I need to disable its ability to balance. It raises two of its eight legs in a defensive posture, pawing the air like a black widow ready to strike. Its underbelly is exposed, black plates showing up bright and nasty under spotlights, spread apart to reveal sickly, black skin.

The claws come down full force, but not before I rip into the flexible metal skin of its belly. The strike knocks me to my knees with a great shudder. I'm yanking with my knife, ripping that metal, hoping to damage something big. Black fluid squirts onto the ground, as if I've severed an artery. But it ain't blood, because it ain't alive.

The thing tries to whip me around as Luke and Sheila blast it with almighty firepower. I'm stuck on something hard in its belly. It's jumping like a bucking bronco, trying to dislodge me. I'm still on my knees, getting thrashed about and pounded into the ground. My kneepads absorb the shock, but my poor arm feels like it's about to get ripped out of its socket.

With my free arm I start punching up.

Whap, whap, whap.

I'm hitting its protective plates. They flex in, then out. What the hell is this thing made of?

Two of its side legs sag suddenly, tilting its mass right. I grab hold of the claw of the sagging leg and pull. Servomotors wheeze as I strain. A second later, there's a loud pop and the leg is yanked free from its socket, like ripping a claw from a lobster.

From above, there's a godawful judder of metal on metal, again and again. Luke or Sheila's beating the crap out of the thing. It gives me a chance to shift power to my knife arm. With everything I've got, I pull sideways. The plates start popping out as I rip a gash into the crab bastard and then drive inward, slashing through delicate instruments. The whole thing shivers like mad. By the time I've ripped free, it falls to the side, clawing itself, dragging its carcass in a large sweeping circle. I stand back and aim my firing arm, just in case. My HUD picks up electric hissing of communication in its Isaac dialect, but it sounds more like the death throes of agony.

And then it's really dead.

No more crazy clacking or whining of pistons or actuators. It's a lump of nothingness, spilling the last of its coolant blood onto the thirsty earth.

Sheila tips her rifle down, and Luke drops a large length of piping that he had ripped from the building's exterior to use like a baseball bat on our crab fellow. We sound like a bunch of bears breathing.

"You want to tell me what the hell that was?" Luke says.

My HUD still has nothing to show. If ole Isaac made the thing, it's new to me.

I give one of its sprawled-out limbs a kick. Still dead. "Those eyes give me the creeps."

"They're not eyes," Sheila says. "They're acoustical sensors. It saw by sound and vibration."

"Are you kidding me?"

"One thing we can be sure of: it was attracted to something in that warehouse. Something alive."

"Blake!" I head for the open door.

"Jed, wait up!" Sheila says, but I ain't listening.

I've got my combat knife and all two-hundred-ninety-four remaining hoo-yahs ready for any other terror waiting to ambush us inside. I'll kill every crab monster that gets in the way of finding my nephew and the other kids.

I switch to ground-penetrating radar and ping the hell out of the place. Walls and machinery answer back with their echoes. There are wooden crates and pallets everywhere, along with workbenches, shelves, 3D printers and rows of empty casings, and a cache of bullets and a few metal lower receivers for automatic weapons. No humans. I ping the floor next as I walk across the concrete slab. Something's below us, like a basement, but I can't see. Some kind of shielding blocks me.

"Jed, over here," Luke says from the other side of a conveyor belt. "I'm tracking a heat signature under this grating. Three distinct signatures."

Three, not four? My heart beats something crazy in anticipation as Luke grabs the grating and tries to yank it free. Its starts to flex, then a rivet snaps, followed by the whole thing.

There's a scream. A human scream.

Sheila is already getting out of her exo, unbuckling her harness. Her helmet is off, and her hair is a mess, matted to her sweaty forehead. "Liz, is that you?"

"Sheila!"

It's Liz Morales for sure, and my heart leaps from my chest. Only three signatures, I keep thinking.

A flashlight clicks on, and I see Liz scramble up a staircase into Sheila's arms. She's sobbing. I'm getting out of my exoskeleton, too, but not before I tell Luke to stand guard.

Aaron Harvey comes up next, followed by his brother, Kelsey, who's holding the flashlight. They're quivering like leaves, scared out of their blanking minds.

Three signatures.

I jump down from my mech, hop the conveyor belt and rush over to the kids. "Where's Blake?"

Aaron looks at me, then drops his head. Kelsey grabs hold of Sheila and Liz and starts crying, too.

I take Aaron by the shoulders and give him a shake. "Where's my nephew?" He won't look up. I shake him again. "Where's Blake, dammit?"

He looks at me, and it's hard to see with just the spotlight on outside, but I can tell everything's gone to hell. "They took him," he finally manages to say.

"Who's 'they'?"

He's got that thousand-yard stare I've seen soldiers get the first time they see someone get killed.

I let off the gas just a little. No sense throttling the answer out of him. "It'll be okay, son. Now tell me what happened."

I'm crouched by where Aaron is sitting on the ground outside, listening to him talk. Above us the mosquitos and moths are going crazy in the spotlight, and the air is thick and humid. There's a rumble of thunder in the distance. Luke has our six, standing guard a few feet away in his mech. Kelsey is by himself, arms crossed, tapping his foot nervously.

"Where did you see it happen?" I ask Aaron.

"Right outside this big brick building, clear on the other side of town," he says. "Blake said it's where Doc Anderson has his shop."

"Why did you go there?"

"Because everyone was missing. The whole town. Like vanished. Blake thought if anyone stuck around, it would be Doc. So we went to Doc's. We heard these sounds, like scraping, and . . ." Aaron's breathing hard. He looks at Sheila, who's got Liz leaning her head against her shoulder.

"Keep going," I say. "What happened?"

"Blake insisted on checking it out. We told him not to look in the window, but he did. Then the window shattered, and they grabbed him."

"Who grabbed him?"

Aaron shakes his head, eyes getting all shiny, about to weep. "It was a man, but not a man." He's gasping for air. I let him go through the motions. A few seconds later, he gets control of his breathing. "Something was wrong with his face. There was something clamped over his head. I--I can't . . ."

All I'm thinking about now is getting to Blake. Even if he's gone and gotten himself killed. I'll never forgive myself if I don't see him with my own eyes.

Damn that boy for having guts. And for being foolish, too.

I get to my feet, dust my jeans, and help Aaron to a standing position.

"We need to gear up," Sheila says. "Get a move on."

I remember seeing weapon parts inside the warehouse, and bullet casings. Maybe we can scavenge some munitions.

I turn to Aaron. "Where's your truck?"

"Just up the road."

"You can either stay here and wait for us, or come with. Your decision."

Aaron's face gets serious, his weepy eyes steely now. "No way. We're going with you. I can fight."

I size him up. He's on the skinny side, six feet and change, but determined. Liz nods, willing to go as well, and from the corner of my eye I see Kelsey nodding, too.

"Right," I say. "Let's get to it."

We managed to put the upper and lower receivers together to make two AR-15 rifles. They're decent quality, a combination of machined and 3D-printed metal alloy parts. Those bullets I saw turned out to be forty-five-mil. Liz and Kelsey helped fill the twenty-round magazines while I showed Aaron how to use my .45. Liz already knew how to use an AR-15. That left Kelsey, who got a quick lesson.

"Remember," I say, "don't aim at anything you don't plan to shoot."

Kelsey swallows, but he gets it.

"Now, because it's dark, we're going to take the lead with our mechs. You kids follow us in the truck, but keep them headlights off. Fog lamps only. Kelsey, you drive. Aaron and Liz, get in the bed of the truck. You're our rearguard, so stay alert. Ya'll with me?"

They give a round of nods, and we're on the road, three mechs in front, side-by-side, phalanx style, Kelsey and the others behind us in their truck. The transceiver they have with them hisses static just like our built-ins, except we're able to talk among ourselves at this short distance. We're in the dark for long-range talking, unable to communicate with Potterville. Janet and the others must be beside themselves worrying about us. Whatever cut off the town's communication is probably jamming us as well.

Sheila has us at a light infantry jog. There weren't any .50 caliber rounds for her to scavenge, and unfortunately we had no time to make any, although the warehouse was a slam-dunk for machining ammunition with all its hardware. Luke lucked out, though, able to use the same .45 rounds for his M4, so he's stocked and locked.

The brick building is larger than I pictured. Maybe because it's two stories and long as heck--seriously, like a city block. There are dirty, paned windows on both levels, wrapping around the entire length. A small dirt road is all that leads to it, branched off from the main avenue. Mesquite shrubs, junipers and cottonwoods jump up from the short-grass prairie around it, along with the remnants of a corn field. Who the heck thought of building this son-of-a-gun over here, and for what purpose?

We slow to a walk.

"All dark and quiet," Luke says into the comm.

Sheila motions in front of her with her rifle. "Let's break up and do a three-sixty of the exterior. Luke, left flank, Jed, right."

"Rodge on that."

I radio Kelsey. "Hey, Kelse, hang back a little. We're going to check things out. Tell Liz and Aaron what's happening and to listen for trouble. You catch wind of anything, you holler, ya hear?"

"Sure, sure," he says, sounding all nervous. Got to hand it to him for toughing it out.

I let my squad know I'm switching to sonar.

The three-sixty takes five minutes. Ain't nothing but empty rooms from what I could tell, perhaps a communal bathroom, as if this were an old apartment building, or hostel. I'm back by the front, where shattered glass litters the ground. The building is too small for our exos to fit through. That means we need to downsize, and downsizing ain't good when you're in the middle of the sticks with three-hundred people missing.

"I'm picking up residual heat on the first level," Sheila says.

"Something's moving," Luke says. "I'm boosting my radar."

"Speak to me, Luke."

"Single figure, male I'm guessing. He's headed--hang on a sec."

"Luke?"

"He just disappeared!"

"Did he stop moving perhaps?"

"No, I mean he disappeared. There's a subterranean level, so he could have gone down there."

Could it be Blake, running scared? The idea doesn't fit in with the facts. Aaron swore up and down Blake was taken. Right through that window.

"I'm going in," I announce. I send a series of commands to my exo to release me.

Sheila is quick to protest. "Jed, we don't know anything about what's waiting for us inside. You saw what happened at the warehouse."

"My nephew is in there. You stay put with Luke and let me scout ahead."

Sheila starts to say something else, but I've got my helmet off and I'm unbuckling my harness. I grab a flashlight from the suit backpack, along with my shotgun, nine-mil and portable radio. There's a buzz of crickets from the trees, but no sound coming from the building. Liz is out of the truck with her rifle and her flashlight, Aaron too.

"Where do you think you're going?"

"With you," Liz says.

I don't have time to argue. "Fine. Swap guns with Luke. You'll want the carbine for close quarters. Same thing with you, Aaron; exchange guns with your brother. Let's move!"

I hook the radio earpiece to my ear and tune into our channel while the kids hustle. "Mike check, one-two," I transmit.

"Reading you loud and clear," Sheila says back.

I give Liz a ten-second tutorial on using her flashlight in tandem with the carbine as we approach the building, a tactical maneuver for targeting in the dark. She's a quick study, the type of person that only needs to be told once.

"Get that door for me, will ya?" I say into my mike.

Luke steps over, metal boots thumping the ground. His actuators whine as he leans forward and grabs the outside door by the handle. A big ole tug shears the lock. I duck under his arm and head in, followed by the kids.

We're up a small stairwell, through another door and into a long hallway with doors on either side. We don't have sonar, radar or infrared to help us in here, just our God-given eyes. Hopefully Luke and Sheila can watch out for us.

"Stay close," I whisper as I sneak along the corridor. Lots of dust in here and a moldy smell that gets worse by the second. There's a bunch of footprints in the dusty old vinyl floor, the fresher ones leading in the direction we're headed.

We slow by the community bathroom. I shine my light inside and catch several rats scurrying under one of the stalls. I bend down to take a peek. The toilets are cracked porcelain with rust stains and the smell of century-old piss. Nothing to see other than bad plumbing.

When we get to the end of the hall, we come to an open door to one of the rooms, and a staircase going down. There's all kinds of lab equipment set up, scopes and what not, much of it battered looking, probably scavenged, but all looking like it was used recently. Tons of books are stacked up high on tables. Someone's been doing research.

I point down the stairwell. The kids get the picture: we're going belowground. Liz's eyes are all big. She just survived being stuck under a slab of concrete. "It'll be okay," I whisper. I wish somebody would convince me the same. I speak low into my mike to let Luke, Sheila and Kelsey know what we're about to do.

I give the kids a hand signal: watch your tail.

The stairwell is broken up into two sections, zigging one way then the other. At the bottom, there's a heavy metal door. Liz whispers from behind. "What's that sound?"

It's the hum of a generator, mixed with the hiss of steam and the clunking of metal. Machinery. Something big's going on here.

"Let's find out," I say. I count down from three, pray nothing ghoulish is waiting to get us, and pull it open. It squeals something terrible to a long stretch of dark.

As soon as we step into the long hallway, LED lights click on overhead. I freeze for a moment, but see nothing but concrete floor and walls plastered with yellowing subway tiles. At the end is a single door with a safety glass window, and light beyond it. There's a video camera above it, pointed our way, and one above us, facing the other direction, with a motion sensor. No point going low and slow.

I take the lead, and run toward the door with my gun aimed. The kids are on my heels, huffing behind me. The unnatural smell of drain cleaner seeps into my nostrils, some kind of ammonia scent, and gets real strong when we reach the door. I don't even bother peeking inside. I yank on the lever handle, sweat pouring from my brow, and pull with my free hand. It's godawful heavy, but the door budges.

The room balloons out into a large bay filled with dozens of beds that remind me of one of those makeshift hospitals you'd find in a warzone, except with no privacy curtains. Each bed's hooked up to a bundle of black wiring hanging from an IV pole that snakes into the back to a large machine like an octopus, bundling all those wires into a trunk of cabling that feeds into a bank of computers. My eyes fall upon the six beds with bodies. They're dressed in scrubs with an assortment of tubes and wires running to IVs and monitors. They have black shells over their scalps, shiny like beetles, with tiny feelers springing out and sunk into their temples, wrapped around their throats and plunged into their eye sockets. The ammonia smell masks urine and other foul odors, making me want to gag.

A skinny man stands in the back with a shaved head, in a white lab coat stained with blood and dirt. He's got black metal discs where his eyes should be and small feelers wrapped around to the back. They're like the antennas we saw on that crab thing at the warehouse, moving like they're trying to pick up a signal.

I point my gun downrange, ready to drop this sorry sack if he breathes wrong. I start toward him. The kids don't seem to know how to process the scene, but they follow me.

"Hey there, bub, want to tell me what's going on here?"

The bedding on most of the empty beds is stained yellow and brown, probably from bodily wastes, and dark-red and ocher around the head area from blood and machine fluids. Why are there only six people left? What happened to the rest? What happened to Blake?

"It's too late," the man says. His voice ain't right. It's hollow and sad and downright not the natural sound a man should be making. I spot a couple of the feelers' tails snaked around his throat.

I click on my mike so Sheila and Luke can listen in. The feelers around his throat are vibrating, like a spider's leg on its web. "Too late for what?" I ask.

"For all of us."

The words send chills up my spine. "How about we back up and start with your name, mister? What's this all about, and what's your role in it?"

He shakes his head, like he's tortured and fighting with himself. "I'm Dr. Anderson," he says. "My role?" He begins to laugh. "Don't ask me that."

"I'm not asking, and my friend here"--I emphasize the gun--"says you've got a few seconds before I put a round in your left thigh. So, how about it? What's going on here, Doc? What did you do to these people?"

He turns his black mirrored lenses toward the six bodies. I'm close enough now to see there are two women and four men lying on their stained beds. The monitors show their vitals. Half are flat-lined, the others alive.

"He told me to do it," Doc says. "He made me do it!"

"You better start explaining real fast. What did you do to these people?"

"Not me. It wasn't me. It was him! He's in my head. He's everywhere!" Doc shudders something awful. He's all twisted up, invaded by the contraption dug into his skull.

I'm close enough now to check the bodies. Of the two males still breathing, one is beefy. A wave of nausea and relief hits me at once.

"Blake!" Liz blurts out and rushes over. Aaron is right behind her.

I try to caution her to stand back, but the voice gets squeezed out of my throat. My Blake is alive! But he's . . .

"What are those things around their heads?" I ask Doc. "How do we get them off?"

Doc's mirrored eyes turn back to me. "You can't take them off. They're keeping them alive. If you try to surgically remove the BCIs, the host will die."

"You better help me get my nephew out of this, or I'll start making your life real unpleasant, you hear?"

"I"--he grits his teeth for a sec--"can't."

"Can't or won't?"

"He won't let me! Don't you understand?"

"I'm giving you a count of three." I point my gun at his quad. "Three . . . two . . ."

"I can't just do what you want. I--"

An earsplitting blast sounds as I pull the trigger. Doc cries out and falls to his knees.

Liz screams at me. "What are you doing?"

I ignore her. I haul Doc to his good leg and place the barrel of the gun to his ribcage. "I'll say this one more time. Are you going to help my nephew?"

Doc is panting, and whatever puppet strings have him at bay are released momentarily. "Yes, but please don't kill me."

I jab the metal into his side. "Then you better make it quick."

Doc limps over to Blake, removes the IV line from his arm, and pulls away the top part of his scrubs to get to the electrodes on his chest. All the while, the feelers on the thing clamped over Blake's head wriggle, like they're alive.

"What was Isaac planning on doing with my nephew? What did he promise you in return?"

Doc's hands are shaking and his breathing is raspy. He's fighting to stay in control of his body as blood starts to pool at his feet.

I move the barrel of the gun to the side of his head. "Answer me!"

"I thought we could find a technological solution to our problems," he says between rapid breaths, "maybe find a way to rebuild our community and connect to others out there. We scavenged the Amarillo ruins, looking for War tech. We figured Isaac was destroyed, so there was nothing to worry about."

"Nothing to worry about?" I'm ready to rip those black discs out of his eye sockets. What did my nephew see in him? Why did he and the rest of New Parker put their trust in this demented creature?

"It was naïve, I agree," Doc says quickly, carefully working his fingers around Blake's jawline and up to the feelers. They're like root tendrils, testing Doc's skin like they're trying to find new earth to dig into. The pool of blood around his feet is getting larger. He might bleed out. "Our town's patrollers found a War-era transponder in Amarillo. My assistant James and I figured out how to make it work. We took apart the upper chassis of a DC-60 heavy duty robot that had been scavenged a while back. DCs were androids the military used on the frontlines before the War."

"I know this. You're wasting my time."

With a nudge of my gun, he speeds up. "James and I took the beast apart until we found the communications module. We hooked it up to a computer, then used it, along with the transponder, to reverse engineer Isaac's compromised comm network. If we could find anyone else out there with the right tech, then we could see if there were any cities--real, functioning cities."

"But you found Isaac instead."

Doc turns Blake's head to the side. "He tricked us. I thought I was talking to a fellow scientist in Toronto, but it was him. She gave me specific instructions on building a brain-computer interface with optics that would allow me to see machine chatter. It was more advanced than anything we knew. Leftover tech from Isaac's war factory. It was supposed to give me 'the sight,' but instead . . ."

"Instead it took yours and opened a whole can of worms." Dumb as smart, my Daddy used to say.

"What are you doing to him?" Liz asks.

Doc tugs on one of the small whips dug into Blake's left temple. It pops free, along with a small dribble of blood, and he places a square of gauze over it. "Severing command and control. Just have one more to go. Hold here and apply pressure while I get the other one."

Liz presses down with her fingers as Doc angles Blake's head the other way.

"What do you mean 'command and control'?" I ask.

Doc lightly touches each of the whips, as if testing for the right one. Whatever pain he's in, he's found the off switch. It ain't natural. His right hand starts trembling and he has to clamp his left over it to steady himself. "Human-machine hybridization. The creation of the first hybrid army, designed for the express purpose of seeking out and destroying other humans. An extermination force."

Doc's words swirl in my brain. I think of Mason and Maryann back home, and all the good people of Potterville.

"The machines can't do it themselves," Doc continues, biting into his bottom lip and clamping down harder on his rogue wrist. "Their network was broken when Isaac was destroyed, and they lacked strong AI to serve a leadership role. So the fragments of Isaac's War sought a new source, something that could create a singularity."

"Are we dealing with Isaac or something else?"

"It's more like Isaac 2.0." Doc lets go of his wrist. It's shaking a little, but not all crazy like before. He finds the whip to unplug. "I don't know what's going to happen when I pull this. I'm seeing a lot of chatter. Bad, bad, bad."

"What happened to the three hundred people in this town? Where did they all disappear to?"

Doc shakes his head. He doesn't want to answer me.

Sheila speaks into my comm. "Jed, do you copy?"

"I'm in the middle of something. What's up?"

"There's a lot of machine chatter. I'm picking up an inbound signal. I need you topside."

"We'll be up in a few."

"You need to get up here now!"

Damn it. I grab Doc's shoulder and shove my barrel hard against his ribs. "Where is everyone?"

"Half the townspeople were exterminated. They're burned in a mass grave. About a quarter couldn't integrate with the new hardware, so they didn't make it either. The other quarter got their retrofits. This here is the last batch."

"Where did these retrofits go?" His trembling stops, so I let go of his wrist.

Doc pinches the whip with one hand and readies a piece of gauze with the other. "He only tells me what he wants me to know. He's in my head all the time. He sees what I see, hears what I hear, understand?"

This new Isaac doesn't have the means to annihilate us as a species . . . yet. Bottom line: we can't let the body find the head. If we do, it's game over. "You have to know something," I say.

"I assume the Mercury units are marching with the retrofits. Amarillo, I'd guess. That's where the signal's originating from. They left yesterday morning. As for the other machines, who knows? When this last batch of retrofits is ready, they'll follow the trail of the others. They'll have no choice."

"Well, we're about to be one less slave, aren't we?"

Doc pulls the last whip free from Blake's temple.

The two other living hybrids snap upright on their beds, dragging their wires and tubes with them. They're on their feet, the heads and tops of their faces hidden by the black beetle things clamped over them. The suddenness of their movement startles the bejesus out of all of us. The taller one, built like a forward tackle of a pro football team, grabs hold of the IV pole and raises it like a baseball bat over Liz. It don't take but a moment to set my gun hip level and squeeze off a round. Football guy staggers back from the blow, tipping to the side with the IV pole. A second bullet to the throat puts him down for good.

The woman, though, clamps on to Aaron, clawing at his face.

Liz snags her M4 from the ground and fires a burst at the woman's lower leg. The bullets puncture her calf, sending blood shooting from some artery. It slows her down some. She's climbed her way onto Aaron's back, scraping her nails into his neck and face, drawing blood, ignoring pain no person could ever ignore. Isaac's found a way to shut off the hurt.

Aaron, being a tall boy, finds purchase somewhere on her arm, spins the both of them, and flings her off. She's turned around for only a second. By the time she turns back for another go at it, Liz finishes her off with a spray of bullets to the chest. The deafening pop, pop, pop, lingers in my head, giving my eardrums a good ringing.

Liz is breathing hard, body all tense. Poor Aaron's face is all scraped to hell, with trickles of blood in several places, but he ain't hurt bad, thank goodness. He just got a lesson in survival, just as all of us got a lesson in what this new Isaac is capable of. I turn to Doc, ready to rip him a new one for being the one responsible for all of this, but he's leaning heavily against one of the beds, pale faced and sweating.

Sheila speaks into my earpiece urgently, her voice crackly from interference. "Jed, head topside right now! I'm picking up a pretty big signature here."

"Roger that," I radio back. I grab a fistful of Doc's lab coat. "You're coming with us."

"They can track him, can't they?" Aaron asks.

The boy's got a point. If we take Doc, they'll paint a target, and we'll all be doomed. If we don't, we might not be able to help Blake.

"Can you turn off that link of yours?"

Doc shakes his head. He's having trouble standing upright, and there's a mess of blood below his shoes. He ain't going to make it either way. Better to put him out of his misery than to give Isaac another chance to work against us.

Doc seems to sense what I'm about to do. "It's okay. I'm ready."

"Sorry, bub." I point my gun at his head.

"Don't!" Liz cries, but she's too late. A single shot puts Doc down for good. Liz looks at me. "Haven't we done enough killing?"

"It was necessary. Now let's get out of here."

Aaron helps me get Blake off the table and into a fireman's carry while Liz takes the lead. I whisper a prayer for the dead.

I talk into my mike as I hustle behind Aaron. "We've got our package. Whadya got?"

"Don't know, Jed," Sheila says. "But you better hurry your ass. We've got a shitload of activity."

"Hump it out!" I shout at Liz and Aaron, moving as fast as I can with Blake's body bouncing over my back.

By the time we're topside, my legs and lungs are screaming and my clothes are soaked through with sweat. Sheila's shouting at us to get going. I hand Blake off to Liz and Aaron, who get him loaded up in the bed of the truck. I dash over to my mech while Kelsey powers up the truck.

I climb aboard my exo and slip on my headband just as Luke shouts into our comms.

"We've got inbounds! Rollers!"

I hear them coming just as I send commands to my mech to get the show on the road. It sounds like a swarm of bowling balls heading for us, but rollers aren't just mindless spheres of metal. They hunt by vibration and heat, each about the size of a watermelon, and carry a nasty payload of liquid that explodes when it makes contact with air.

Sheila and Luke open fire with the rat-tat-tat of metal on metal, causing a chain-reaction of explosions, taking out the entire cluster of rollers. My mech shudders from the blasts and my heat sensors register the fireball.

My HUD floods with a new set of inbound bogies, coming from the opposite direction as the first wave. The column of rollers bounces down the incline to the east, flattening dead corn stalks. I fire a burst of hoo-yahs. The balls scatter, but I manage to tag one, and it blows, sending up an eruption of earth and dried husks. The ones that came for Luke and Sheila probably didn't have the maneuvering room, so they all took each other out. Now we've got multiple targets. Shit, shit, shit!

Luke fires, Sheila too. Even Liz. It's the fight of our lives.

The balls have momentum, but they can change direction too. The rollers explode as they're hit, like an enemy position struck by continuous bombardment, but there are too many for us to take out.

"Fall back!" Sheila shouts.

"Kelsey, get that truck out of here," I tell the kid through my comm. "Head north, back toward the main road."

"Copy that," Kelsey says, popping the truck into gear.

We concentrate our firepower on the frontline of inbounds to give Kelsey lead time with the truck. The detonations rock the ground around us.

As soon as the truck clears, Sheila signals us to fall back.

We break into a run. Rollers can outpace a human on a smooth surface any day, but on uneven ground, they have to use integrated coils to help them spring-and-roll to keep up. Compared to our mechs, they're no match.

As soon as we hit the main road, we catch up to the truck, putting good distance between us and the rollers. The truck's got its high beams cutting through the dark. When we hit downtown, my HUD flashes red. Something's very wrong with one of the buildings up ahead.

"Kelsey, stop the truck!" I shout.

Kelsey slows to a stop near the center of town.

"What the hell is that?" Luke asks. He's asking about the source of the signal, the garage with the double doors next to where the chickens were roosting for the night.

There's a groan of metal, followed by the splintering of roof shingles. The whole structure bursts apart a moment later, sending wood, glass and siding everywhere. A jagged machine leg smashes through the remaining metalwork of the garage doors, landing a satellite dish-sized claw on the street with a heavy thump. Pistons whine and the top of the machine rises through the ruins. It's outfitted with armor plates shielding a turret in the center that's pivoting toward us.

"Shambler!" Sheila shouts.

My HUD IDs the thing. It's a slow-moving, heavy-duty walker tank with four legs. It ain't fast 'cause it don't need to be. It just needs to aim and fire. It appears surreal through my amber-colored night vision, ugly and blocky, but it wasn't built for looks.

"I'll draw its fire away from the truck," I say. "Sheila, find another way out of here!"

I run to the left of the roundabout. I'm waving at the shambler, trying to grab its attention as I head toward it. As I hoped, the turret tracks me. I try to keep one step ahead of the cannon, running at full throttle with my carbon-steel blade ready and auto-feeder locked and loaded. I'm not prepared to die, even though it seems that's what I'm looking for.

The shambler fires its cannon. A shell whizzes by, blowing the building behind me to smithereens. I'm struck with chunks of brick and metal and whatever else it's made out of.

"Jed, move your ass!" Sheila screams through my comm.

"I'm moving!"

My HUD registers a reload of ammunition. I zig to the right, crashing into the wall of the general store just as another shell fires past me. A wallop of an explosion sounds, sending a vibration through my exo armor as I shatter glass and rip apart clapboards with my momentum.

I'm less than fifty feet and closing. My HUD indicates another reload. The thing is in the street now, all four legs fixed while the turret moves about its center of mass. It's got to be twenty feet tall and plated out the wazoo with antiaircraft-grade armor. My only option is to try to tip it over.

I run full tilt, pushing my legs and actuators to their capacity. The motors scream to keep up with my computer-aided movements. An alarm screeches in my HUD, telling me the Shambler's targeting system has me locked in. I unload a torrent of hoo-yahs at its sensor array. They ricochet harmlessly off the armor, but it's the heat signature I'm after. For an instant, the targeting system loses me. Then it locks on again. I duck below the barrel and crash into the tank's housing as it fires its cannon. The combination of recoil and my impact deflect me wide, like I just ran into a wall headfirst, and a burst of pain wracks my skull. My exo's built-in stabilizers keep me from hitting dirt, even though the wind has been knocked out of me. The groaning of the shambler's massive hulk filters into my external microphone as the tank legs attempt to right themselves. It staggers back, or attempts to, but unlike the claw monster, it's got no arms. One leg twists under the strain, then the other, and the whole thing topples. Its turret rips through a machine shop, landing the beast smackdab in the middle of the store, annihilating everything in its wake, and sending up a cloud of dust and debris.

"Whoa, way to smoke him!" Luke calls into the comm.

"He's down, not out," I say, trying to regain my wits, head still aching like I've ridden a bull at a rodeo. The shambler starts to rise from the store, tilting upright. It's the self-leveling pistons in its sidewall, and judging by the rate it's pushing, I'd say we've got under a minute before T-rex is back in commission.

Luke and Sheila run toward me, the kids right behind them in their truck. "I thought I told you to head out," I say.

"There was no time to figure out another route," Sheila says, huffing through her comm. "We've got rollers inbound. Sixty seconds to contact!"

My HUD picks them up, swarming toward us like the black plague. Sheila catches up to me, and we start running like crazy. I'm not happy we can't put this shambler out of its misery, but with the rollers after us, there's no time.

We outpace the rolling tide of death, leaving the possessed ghost town of New Parker behind us.

Within the hour, we ease into a jog. Something's wrong with the alignment of my chassis, forcing my actuators to work double-time to keep me moving in a straight line. Still, it's good enough to make it back to Potterville. Above us, the clouds split apart, and thirty minutes later, the sky lightens, telling us dawn is coming. All the while, Sheila is transmitting to Potterville, and I'm hoping to God Isaac ain't listening.

Our radio finally receives a reply from a frantic and much-relieved Carl, and we all break into cheer.

"Oh, thank the Lord!" he says. "I thought ya'll were dead."

"We're a lot harder to kill than you think," Sheila says, and we all give in to a much-needed round of laughter.

When the laughing dies off, Carl asks, "What happened out there?"

"Tell you all about it when we get home. Make sure you assemble just the leadership. Have them gather at the fix-it shop. We'll do a town hall meeting after."

"Everyone's worried about you. I can't just hide it from them."

"Carl, do as I say. Please. We need to see Dr. Roberts pronto. Meet us at the clinic. You read me?"

There's the briefest pause, followed by, "I'm on it. Be safe. Alpha Tango, out."

Sheila must be thinking the same thing as me: we've got a young man that needs medical attention. Right now, it's all that's on my mind.

To Be Continued...

Part II of "Gods of War" will appear in issue 66 of Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show

http://www.intergalacticmedicineshow.com/cgi-bin/mag.cgi?do=issue&vol=i65&article=_004

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