Winner of RPGC #19: Beware The Metal Age
The silver light of morning wakes you, just like it always has.
A gentle breeze ruffles the blinds of your room, casting shadows like barcodes on the bare plaster walls. The draft sends a chill down your spine and you rise from the floor, discarding your thin, moth-eaten quilt. Somewhere in the distance, a raven cries out in fear or elation. You brush aside the blinds and close the window with a yawn.
The living room is empty, which comes as little surprise. Clover and Tom are probably out foraging, or they might have woken Mary in her hammock to make breakfast. She hasn’t slept indoors since you found the rat nest. You want to tell her that the forest is full of far less pleasant creatures than a rat, but doing so would likely spark another nervous breakdown, and that wouldn’t help anybody.
The door creaks open in the wind, causing the hair on your arms to stand on end. The moment of apprehension passes when you remember that the archaic latch on the cabin door rusted through weeks ago. Tom said he’d fix it. He hasn’t yet.
You tread softly across the wooden floor, over the cots and past the wood stove. Clover rigged the chimney to diffuse the smoke, marking a dramatic improvement from life in the woods. It made the cabin smell like burnt oak almost every day, but it greatly diminished the heat signature and was virtually invisible from the air. You learned long ago that Clover was a useful and skilled survivalist. You push aside the open door, a reminder that Tom is not, and step outside.
The air is chill with dewy frost, and you shove your hands into your pockets involuntarily. Through the trees, you can see the wooded curves of Batten Valley. Or, at least, what Mary pointed to on the faded maps in her backpack and referred to as such. Topography confuses you, so you took her word on it. Batten Valley is remote and serene, somewhere in upstate New York. It’s the sort of place that people like you had always hoped to find. The abandoned cabin is the only sign of civilization for miles around. Perhaps that’s why you’re still alive.
You were too young, perhaps not even born, when the war started. Both memories and stories are fuzzy, contradictory. No one’s ever been able to give you a clear impression of the last century. Mostly, you’ve pieced it together yourself, a patchwork of narratives at times fantastical, more often disturbing. Some stories tell of metal behemoths crawling over hillsides, crushing entire cities beneath their treads. Others whisper of an intelligence gone mad, bent on wreaking havoc upon its helpless creators. The concept that sends shivers down your spine is that of mechanical doppelgangers, indistinguishable from their human counterparts, slipping into an unsuspecting society until there were no humans left.
You slip your hand along your belt until it finds the hilt of your knife, and you feel a little better.
Stepping carefully around the rocky peak, you pass the front of the cabin and clamber up to the stand of chestnut trees where Mary set up her hammock. You like Mary. She has a laugh like water falling over rocks, and she can read. Most of the stories you’ve heard came from her. As you pass under a low branch, you can see her hammock swinging softly in the breeze. Perhaps she’s still asleep after all.
A twig snaps under your feet as you approach the hammock. She won’t mind if you wake her. She’s always been easygoing and cheerful, even in the most harrowing circumstances. Maybe she’s curled over on her side already, reading a book by the light of the morning sun. She’ll smile at you with her lemongrass eyes and offer to read it out loud.
The hammock is dripping with blood.
You gasp in shock, frozen for only a moment before lunging to the side of the hammock to peer inside. Mary’s lifeless body swings back and forth, her skin a shade paler than you know it to be. Her throat is open; no other word for it arises in your mind, just open
. The wound is jagged--- claws? A blade? Your eyes drift down to her torso, where several smaller wounds perforate her body, soaked in blood. It’s your worst nightmare. It must be a nightmare. You want to wake up, wake up, wake up
Tom’s baritone laugh ricochets through the forest.
“Clover!” you yell, hoarse with fear or grief or just the mundane throes of the morning. “Clover, come here quickly! Come…” your voice trails off, replaced with a series of staccato sobs.
In seconds, Clover comes bounding over the rise and into the glade. She has a dead rabbit draped across her shoulder, a bundle of kindling sticking out of her backpack, and a rusted hatchet in her hand. She comes straight to your side. The words stick in your mouth as she stares at Mary’s bloody body in the hammock. She doesn’t need you to say anything, though; Clover’s always known what to do in every situation. Her gaze lingers a few moments longer on the corpse, then she pulls you close to her chest and hugs you tightly. You feel a tear run down her cheek.
A few moments later, Tom crests the hill, carrying a basket of dark berries. He takes one look at the hammock and drops the basket. His eyes bulge, and he looks more helpless than the rabbit over Clover’s shoulder. He staggers towards the hammock, barely even glancing at Mary before turning away. He seems like he might vomit.
Clover steps back from you, clearing her throat. “When did you find her?”
You manage to collect yourself enough to answer. Clover has that effect on people.
“Just now. I found her and I yelled. Just now.”
Clover nods, still looking at the body as if turning it over in her mind, searching for a hidden message. She looks at Tom, who’s begun to scoop the berries back into his basket, apparently trying to distract himself.
He drops the basket again, looking up at her in silence. She addresses him again.
“Tom, did you check on Mary before we left to check the snares? Did you talk to her, or even come through the grove?”
He shakes his head. She looks at me, guessing I’m more alert than Tom at the moment.
“She might have been like this all morning. God, she might have been dead all night. And we didn’t hear a thing.”
“What do you think killed her?” I hear myself ask. We’re years past ‘who.’ It’s a what that killed Mary.
“I don’t know, but I don’t want to wait around to find out. Vance, I need you to get anything useful out of Mary’s bag. Don’t get any blood on you; they might be able to smell it. Tom, take down the hammock as carefully as you can and search her pockets. When you’re done, find me in the cabin. I’m going to break down anything we can carry.”
She doesn’t wait around for a reply. She turns on her heel and marches towards the cabin. You wouldn’t be surprised if Clover remained as the last person on Earth.
You kneel down and unzip Mary’s bag. Unlike yours, everything is tidy and organized. In the front pocket, you find a flint and steel on a keychain, attached to a metal fob that resembles some sort of tower. You take the maps as well, and a bundle of dried meat from the bottom of the main pocket. It feels wrong to pilfer your friend’s belongings, but it’s the way of the world. You decide to leave the books. She was the only one who could use them, anyway.
Next to you, Tom fumbles with the knot of the hammock and it slips off the tree. Mary’s head bashes unceremoniously against the ground. Tom mumbles a curse under his breath and shrugs the hammock aside, his hands shaking.
“What the hell was that?” you demand. “You dropped her, you fucking idiot! Be careful!”
He doesn’t reply, instead continuing his task with shaky persistence. You watch his bony hands pat down her shirt, her chest, her legs, looking for something to steal. He reaches into her pocket and pulls out a wooden tobacco pipe. You both look at it in mild astonishment. You never knew Mary to smoke; where would she even find the leaf? Going through the secrets of her life seems a violation of everything sacred. Tom throws it over his shoulder and continues his search.
You grab his wrist. He looks up at you with shock and fear.
“You treat her with respect, you hear me? She was worth ten of you.”
To your surprise, he jerks his hand back. He picks up the half-empty basket of berries with a huff and starts to walk away. He doesn’t seem the least bit remorseful. In fact, you can’t tell if he’s upset about Mary in the first place. You stalk up behind him as he passes out of the glade onto the overlook and smack the berries from his hand. He whips around, anger in his eyes, but says nothing.
“Maybe you don’t miss her at all,” you say, the gears in your head turning. “Maybe you’re glad she’s gone. One less mouth to feed, right?”
“You’re crazy,” he says, and picks up the basket. You smack it down again.
“No, no, you’re right, that’s not it. There’s always been something off about you, Tom. Something wrong. And you’re going to tell me what it is.”
“You’re talking nonsense, Vance,” he says, looking over his shoulder. “I’m gonna call Clover.”
“Why, so you can kill her too?”
“Shut up, shut up
!” he yells. You’re starting to get to him. He tries to walk past you but you shove him back, and he almost falls. To your surprise, he swings a fist at you. You sidestep it effortlessly, hooking your own arm around to punch him in the jaw. He staggers backwards with a shriek, but it’s not good enough. You punch him again, and again, then grab him by the shoulders and push him backwards.
He tumbles over the edge of the redoubt, his screams silenced seconds later by a resounding crunch that seems to echo across the valley.
You turn, and Clover stands a few yards away. Her bag is on the ground and she brandishes her hatchet, her raven hair ruffled by the breeze. She looks at you with horror.
“It’s not what it looks like,” you say. “He was one of them, he killed Mary!”
“How the hell do you know that?” she shoots back. You’re startled by the tone of her voice. You’ve never heard her so angry.
“He… you’ve seen him! He’s never been right. Always glancing over his shoulder, never talking unless we asked him something. He’s been plotting this whole time, and I fucking knew it!”
“You’re a madman, Vance. If he ever looked frightened it was probably because of you.”
You seethe with anger. Clover should know better, she’s always known what to do. But now she looks at you with revulsion. She points her hatchet at you.
“Don’t follow me,” she says, her voice dripping with violence. “Don’t take a step towards me, or I swear to whatever monster that runs this world that I will kill you where you stand.”
No, not like this. You won’t last a week without Clover. She knows how to set snares, how to clean water. She’s the only reason you’ve made it this far. But she’ll see reason. You take a step forward.
“Clover, just listen---”
“Not another step!
” she screams, and cuts a wide arc across the air with her hatchet. You instinctively reach for your belt and draw your knife, holding its protective edge between you and your companion.
The morning sun glistens on a film of red. The blade is caked in dried blood.
“No…” you whisper. “No, no, it wasn’t… I didn’t, I swear I didn’t…” You gesture wildly over the cliff. “He
did it! He killed her while we slept and he, and he put the knife in my---”
Clover turns and runs, leaving her bag and the rabbit and you behind. You scream out in desperation.
You drop your weapon and run after her, the cold air like a jagged knife, stabbing your throat again and again and again. You've lost sight of her already. Tears stream down your face as the trees fly by. You're running out of air, you must be, your head screams with the most bizzare
08:13:44 aug. 17. 2170. remote.trace/[Batten Valley] (42.990612, -73.349759)
Error // Unit Compromised // Recall To Facility [omitted]
Error Code 110833246-B // Hostile Discovery