My middle-school gym teacher who gave me $20 when I told her I was writing a story and could print out a copy for her but never ended up doing it. Sorry.
The scream, tragically dipped in surprise and deep fried in hopeless surrender echoing down the empty corridor from the infirmary told Marcus Godfrey that he was all out of allies. In his new life, the death of a friend was something that happened often. But that didn’t make it suck any less. Gritting his teeth, Marcus ripped the last of the color-coded wires from the elaborate motherboard and inched on his elbows out from under the control center.
Heart thudding in his ears he pulled himself to his feet and bounded for the door across the room, still whirring and blinking with complicated security and electronic systems. His brief, kind of pitiful training was the only thing that kept him from knowing which motherboards held control over the security cameras and alarms. “Yeah, they’re usually in the back of the room...and I think they’re labelled Celltron or something like that. They’re blue. I think,” Marcus’s superior, a veteran system disabler let him know before he was sent out. They’re blue. That’s fucking helpful.
Marcus ducked under the window in the door for a brief minute, his ears tuned and ready for the inevitable distant thud of robot marching. Trying not to think too much about it he peeked over the edge of the window. The corridor was empty. This place used to be an old office building. Used to as in seven years ago.
They were probably most definitely right around the corner, but even with those odds he knew this was his clearest shot. Marcus opened the door and bolted down the way he came. He had no one left to wait for, so it was straight homeward bound. Ari was shot down as they got in. He knew because he heard it over the walkie-talkie. “Requesting backup REQUESTING BACKUP OH GOD!!” Anthony and Desiree died fighting, declaring their nauseating devotion for each other at the top of their lungs as they machine fired at the circle of encroaching Bots. Marcus recognized the sounds. He could paint his own pictures. He tried not to, but it happened.
Tony, Lily and Joseph had longer deaths. It was a mess down in the infirmary. Tables overturning, shots hurled through the air. The calm, delegating voices from the Bots programmed at a deafening volume to be heard over the noise. Marcus knew they were gone when there was silence. But Mamie had gotten away. He’d known because he never heard her scream. Marcus recognized that scream. He recognized everything about Mamie, and for the brief glory of thirty-five seconds, he knew she’d crawled to safety, praying to wait out the Bots, who would decide their work in the obliterated infirmary was finished and it was time to report back to headquarters about the mess.
But now she was dead. She’d been the last to die, but that doesn’t count for fucking anything when the dust clears. And now Marcus was sprinting through the hallways alone, headed back for camp empty handed, seven more friends dead and trying desperately not to think about it all.
He zipped around a corner so fast he was almost parallel with the ground and almost barrelled into a fleet of Bots that had already assembled themselves in a neat four-by-five block, waiting for him. His heart jumped into his throat as he skidded to a stop. Protocol! What the hell is protocol!?
Don’t do anything right away, somebody suggested. Let them think they can negotiate with you. When they go into monologue mode, it can buy you a few seconds of escape time while they switch back into murdery mode.
Marcus gasped for breath, sweat collecting furiously above his brow, trying to think of something sassy to say. If this was his big moment, he wanted to go out like a superstar. At least that’s what he used to tell Mamie, on the nights they both stayed up too late.
All that really came out, though, was: “Wow--tha...you...please! Please don’t hurt me!”
Front and center, the lights behind the slots that served as the Bot’s mouth fluttered as it spoke. “YoUr CoOpErAtIoN iS EsSeNtIaL tO yOuR sUrViVaL. wE dO nOt InTeNd To HuRt yOu.”
Marcus’s throat gave a funny little choke, either a sob or a laugh. “Twenty guys is a big group of robots that aren’t gonna hurt me!” Finally! Finally he got his line. Quietly he congratulated himself.
As the Bot began to reply Marcus took off in the direction he’d come, the sure and steady march of his murderers hot on his tail. Around the next corner, an oncoming fleet’s shadow was cast down the hall. Marcus dove for the first door he saw between the two armies.
Short-term survival. All of them would be right behind him. Marcus quickly took in his surroundings. It was an abandoned conference room. A table to hide under, if he decided he was totally done. A desk in the far corner. A wall of windows on the left, displaying the indoor plaza and a five-floor drop.
Sighing in panic, Marcus gazed up at the ceiling. Cheap tiled drywall. One of the squares was devoted to a long-since forgotten fan. He sprinted to the back desk and hurled himself onto it, standing and stretching his arms above him he could reach the tiling. With a jump and a shove one of the squares dislodged itself and shattered over the desk. Marcus jumped again, grasping for the lip of the hole in the ceiling he’d created. He heaved himself up and into the vents just as the door burst open below him.
With each movement he made everything trembled. In the thin, aluminum ducts his shoulders crunched together and his pace was an inch for every stride. He had no perspective for the exit from where he was. He could only move away from where the Bots had been.
Just when he thought he was in the clear he heard a sound that made his stomach turn. The sour twang of a Bot’s laser from below. This same laser had sawed his mother in half four years ago. The laser that can cut through flesh, wood, granite, steel, and most certainly half an inch of drywall and a slat of aluminum. Marcus knew exactly what was happening. He squeezing his eyes shut, he wriggled fervently to escape it, but he wouldn’t get far. He knew he wouldn’t.
The laser drew a patient outline around his place in the ducts and quickly gave way beneath him. Marcus dropped twelve feet from the ceiling and crashed to the floor of the hallway he’d just been in, with only a few crumbs of drywall to cushion his fall. Air was sucked from his lungs. His head throbbed. Everything felt instantly bruised. His vision was gone. But the panic remained.
Clumsily Marcus drew himself to his feet and the Bots, now in a tight circle around him waiting patiently. Splotches of light reappeared in his sight, until the unwelcome sight of his polite murderers returned completely. Without much left to do, he panted. Staring at them. They stared at him. Bots would not retaliate until they were threatened. If they think you can go down without a fight they won’t waste their technology on you.
Marcus thought for a minute how long the Bots would be willing to just stand there and stare back at him as he pretended death wasn’t so close and tried to come up with another plan. Maybe if he just did nothing they would just do nothing. And they could sit there doing nothing at each other. That might actually be nice, he considered.
Just as he was prepared to dive into the fray something happened behind the Bots in front of him. Marcus couldn’t see it right away because his vision was shrouded by robots, but it looked like something else just fell from the sky. A loud, single shot reverberated through the hall and a Bot fell. It actually fell! Bots’ systems would only shut down after a massive corruption in their steel exterior, which usually takes at least forty rounds. That was the only use for guns anymore. If you shoot long enough, maybe one will fall down.
While Marcus was marvelling over this stranger occurrence another shot went off and another Bot fell. It then occurred to him that he should maybe move. He dove out of the way and wedged himself against the wall and threw his hands over his head as the other Bots became more interested in this intruding force. Four more shots were fired and four corresponding robots fell. Marcus realized it was his moment to escape.
Back on his feet he could literally high-five the Bots he passed as he sprinted in the opposite direction, and none of them paid him any attention. He made it through the mob. He made it through mob! He was on his way down the corridor, his feet like springs, loaded with the new energy of the restored possibility of life when another thought occurred to him that made him hate himself for stopping in his tracks.
There’s a human on the other end of that marvelously successful gun. And they’re gonna have to find their way out of here by themselves.
The devil on Marcus’s shoulder lept across an tackled the angel, strangling him. Dammit! Marcus was headed back into the fray.
The collective fleet of what seemed to be about thirty soldier bots were closing in on this miracle bazooka, all their backs to Marcus as he hopped on one foot, popped off his shoe and hurled it at the closest head. The Bot instantly swivelled around and advanced him. Doubting it would work, Marcus slid beneath the robot and avoided him completely. Dutifully he made enthusiastic work of drawing the attention of as many Bots as he could, to the point where he could see the other end of the fleet.
All that remained, was a little blonde girl. No older than ten. Big wide eyes, two long pigtails. Looking at him as if she couldn’t understand what he was doing. Like the tooth fairy had arrived on Christmas Eve.
“Run!” Marcus howled at her as rough robot hands closed in on all his delicate, fleshy appendages. “Run little girl! Get out of here!”
He thought her confused expression had contorted into annoyance before his gaze was torn away by the rough grip of a robot pincers around his neck and forced him to look up into the empty Bot eyes. Desperate for the tiniest shiny glimmer of survival on Marcus’s horizon, he struggled and thrashed madly. Fluorescence from the ceiling silhouetted eight robot heads, consuming Marcus’s vision as if he was waking up from surgery. He knew what happened next. They would put him to sleep. Nobody alive knew what it felt like but a lot of people liked to say it was like lethal injection. The first dose goes straight to numbing the nerves in your face so you can’t show how much it hurts to set all of your internal organs on fire.
With a resolute scream Marcus twisted toward the floor, breaking free from about half of his vices. Without any explanation, one of the Bots crashed to its knees and then face-planted right next to him. Two more did the same and the other poorly multitasking Bots were distracted enough for Marcus to break free. He crawled on his belly through the forest of legs of the Bots and returned quickly to his feet.
Now it’s time to go.
Only a few Bots remained between him and the promising turn in the hallway. The first he ducked beneath. The second wouldn’t have any of that. With a wild scream Marcus leapt into the Bots’ arms, clinging to him for dear life. His feet wrapped around the robot’s waste he got the big metal skull in a chokehold, and yanked. It’s pretty bare-hand proof. These aren’t little aluminum gingerbread. They were designed to withstand all kinds of wear and tear, but Marcus had seen it happen. And he needed it to happen, and so he didn’t give up.
The Bot flailed, annoyed while Marcus pulled and twisted and jerked. The aluminum exterior was cracking and wheezing. The wires he knew were inside started to zap and twitch. The Bot backed into the wall and slammed Marcus against it. His head spun with mad stars as air again was sucked from his lungs. Something in his chest gave an audible snap but he still held on. With another yank the Bot’s head popped free from its neck. Electricity hissed and nipped at Marcus’s fingers, hot and shocking until he chucked the disembodied head. The dead Bot buckled under him and was now being hurled back to the ground from his eight-foot advantage.
His nose smashed into the tiles first and for a minute he was blind again. But by the sounds of encroaching stomps and marching feet he knew he had no time. Marcus threw himself toward the end of the hallway as a dangerously thick warm stream began to seep down his face from his nose.
Splotchy vision only barely returned to focus as he rounded the corner and he almost skidded to another stop when he saw what was waiting for him halfway down the next hall. The same little pigtailed girl stood behind a complex system of armory, and one monstrous sawed-off rifle cocked and aimed in her thin arms.
“Get behind me!” She snarled when she saw him.
Obediently, Marcus dove for safety, sliding on his belly for the protection like a baseball player sliding into home, throwing his hands over his head as an earsplitting storm of machine rounds spat out at the steel parade on his heels. The floor reverberated. The lights shook. Metal squealed. Arms still clenching his skull Marcus twisted around and watched as the Bots behind him were dancing like sizzling pieces of bacon, their aluminum exterior eroding violently.
He’d never seen anything like it. No one had the ammunition this little girl did. No one could afford to stand and fight. Guns were for protecting yourself: a supplement to surviving as you fled. But right before Marcus, thirteen Bots received enough rounds to turn their once gleaming, pristine models into compressed car parts. Something inside him healed, watching this.
Quickly the flood of exploding shells created a thick fog that ate up his line of sight and the firing shots ceased. Marcus hadn’t realized until that moment of furious silence how profusely his heart was pounding. His breath was so heavy he could barely accommodate it with his jaded lungs, sore from falling and crashing into walls and falling again. Slowly, he got to his feet.
The smoke of the heavy massacre was clearing, and there were nothing left in the hallway except for the obliterated bodies. Had it really happened? Had he survived? Was he actually going to make it out? Marcus didn’t even believe he would going in.
Thinking of the bizarre child, he turned around to find her in the choking smoke, but instead came face-to-chest with a Bot: one he hadn’t heard approach. Before he could even yelp the extended hand of the Bot, carrying the standard taze box rammed into his chest. Volts of electricity lit him up and his body jerked uncontrollably. He stumbled and fell backwards. Out of the corner of his eye Marcus saw about the same thing was happening to the little girl. Two Bots standing above her, waiting as she flipped back onto her feet.
Marcus scrambled up to his own. The same Bot was marching toward him, the taze zapping hazardously in his pincer. Marcus backed up, tripping over the rubble of the Bots behind him. You don’t fight a Bot when it has a weapon drawn. You actually just shouldn’t fight a Bot at all.
His thoughts flying apart, for lack of a better plan Marcus took a heavy stride forward and hurled his foot at the meet point of the Bot’s legs: right in the crotch.
His foot smarting, he rocked back on his feet to regain his balance and watched while the Bot processed this course of action. For a minute it just stood there. Marcus hadn’t thought it would have deterred it in the slightest: he just couldn’t think of anything else to do.
Slowly, the Bot drew its hands in to defend the tender region, dropped its head and whimpered quietly, “Owww.”
Marcus’s jaw dropped as the Bot dropped to its knees and smashed down head-first in front of him. Its gate now on the ground Marcus could now see the little blonde girl, standing between two other fallen Bots, watching him.
“Nice going,” she commended him, in a cute, tiny voice. She stepped over the rubble at her feet, lunged over to the elaborate gear and began to pack it up. “We gotta get outta here. Help me with this shit, will you?”
Not sure what else to do, Marcus stepped forward and let the child fill his arms with weapons. She slung the sawed-off rifle over her shoulder and locked what he was deciding was a bazooka under her arm and marched off down the hall. The gun was longer than she was tall. Too many weird things happened in the last few minutes, Marcus didn’t know what to think. So he didn’t. He followed the little girl, and didn’t ask her any questions. The two of them ducked around corners and stayed low and quiet. Occasionally a platoon of marching feet would draw nearer, and then subside. Maybe a floor above, or a hallway down. Marcus’s pulse wouldn’t slow. It didn’t slow even after they’d made it out of the cities headquarters and began barrelling for the woods at the other side of the old office park.
Marcus fell into step with the strange little girl, but still didn’t say anything. She wasn’t taller than four feet. Her shimmering blonde pigtails hung out below a black beanie. She wore a dark leather jacket, dark jeans a combat boots. She looked like the miniature version of a Mission Impossible acrobat.
“I’m Janey,” she introduced herself gruffly.
“Marcus,” he answered quickly, trying not to stare at her. “Thanks for everything back there.”
“So how’d you know?” Janey demanded, ignoring formalities.
“Know? Know what?”
“About the disabling pressure points for the newest Bot update.”
Her pace slowed, looking over at him, searching his face. “So you don’t know? You were just...kicking a robot in the balls to see what it would do?”
Finally figuring out what she was talking about, Marcus caught up. “The--oh yeah! I didn’t...I panicked, I didn’t know what else to do.”
Janey threw her head back and laughed. Marcus jumped, glancing around them for any signs of movements, paranoid.
“That’s awesome! Well, you got lucky. The update was made a few months ago. Apparently that’s the center of their energy and they had to place a control equalizer in their gonads to distribute battery life easily. Just takes a rattle to shut them off and need a thirty-minute reboot.”
Marcus gaped at her.
She looked over at him, that same look of harsh irritation coming over her little face. “What?”
“How old are you?”
Her expression hardened as she rolled her eyes. “I’m eight. Okay? How old are you?”
“Wow,” Janey snapped sourly. “That’s like, really interesting. Isn’t it? Like, I can’t even think of anything else to talk about!” She shouted words, unafraid. Whenever Marcus or anybody he knew went outside, their voices were kept to a mumbly whisper. As Janey sassed and echoed, birds flittered out of trees, fleeing the harsh disturbance.
“Where did you come from? Was anybody else with you?” Janey nodded at him after she decided to let the whole age thing go.
Finally Marcus remembered everything. All his friends that he left back in the office building. Fighting the tears springing to his eyes, he swallowed and nodded quickly. “Yeah, we were from the Greenlake settlement a few miles south. There were eight of us, but the rest of them are gone.”
Janey just smacked her lips irreverently. “Tough break, kid. I take it you were security disabler guy?”
Marcus blinked. “Y-yeah, how did you guess?”
She shook her head patronizingly. “That’s one of your biggest stupid mistakes you all make. That’s why all of you are starving! You don’t send in some douchebag to cut the cords to the security cameras! That’s how they know you’re in the building is when all their computers bluescreen at once! You might as well be dancing naked at their front door scanners.
“No! You wait till they go into recharge mode and you cut the power. The main electricity line, Sherlock, the one that fuels their recharge so they can’t wake up. Take out the four or five-something sentries and then you got three hours before they miss their basecamp check-in.”
He stared at her. “Have you done this before?”
Janey rolled her eyes again. “Yes. If I was from your settlement I’m willing to bet I’d blow under the limit for missions by a couple years.”
“Just a few.”
“Well, I’m not from your settlement.”
“What kind of settlemen--”
“I’m not from a settlement.” She puffed out her chest proudly. “I’m a lone wolf.”
Marcus stopped walking. Janey was a few strides ahead of him before she turned around.
“What?” She said again.
“It was just me and my dad. I was born four days after the world ended, and without a hospital to go to for delivery, my mom died. My dad knew I wouldn’t survive if I didn’t know how to. So he started me out at a very early age. Sobered me up to what life was. No lies. No pretending things were better than they were. He taught me how to fight, how to find guns and supplies. And I hated every minute of it,” Janey’s nose crinkled in the memory. She told her story somberly, her eyes lost in the flames of the campfire she’d built. Marcus watched and listened quietly.
“I wanted to be little. I never got along with my father. We always fought, and the more I fought with him, the better I got at fighting. Once he figured this out, he just kept encouraging me to get angry. I hated him for that, but he knew it would save my life.”
Janey paused, taking her time as she reminisced about memories she would never share. Then she looked over at Marcus. “And then one day he made a stupid mistake. Because that’s all it takes. he fell asleep while he was on sentry, and I woke up to the sound of Bot’s march. The first thing I saw when I sat up was his body limp and slumped against the tree he was watching by, blood oozing from his mouth and open eyeballs, tased to death.”
“Wow. That is the most unimaginative way you’ve ever killed me, Cupcake.”
Marcus jumped and whimpered as the voice announced the presence of someone walking up to the fire from behind. He’d been too enamoured with Janey’s story to have heard any disturbance at all. Behind him was a tall, gaunt man in about the same kind of attire Janey was wearing. His face furry with a few days without upkeep, and some furious smiling wrinkles outlined his eyes. He stepped forward and offered his hand to Marcus.
“Hi, I’m Nicholas McDonald, Janey’s dad. The guy who’s not actually dead.”
“I’m Marcus,” Marcus panted. “The guy who almost cried listening to that story.”
Nicholas chuckled, pulling a large pack off his back. “Well it was a nice performance, and I didn’t hear it all, but I’m pretty sure I can assure you everything she told you was a lie. We get along fine, and we’re all alive. At least we were this morning.” Nicholas’s hand went to the radio on his complicated looking utility belt.
Marcus looked at Janey, who winked chastisingly, then she nodded at her father. “How was Plainfield?”
“Pretty good,” he sighed tiredly. “Though I guess not as good as yours, since I didn’t make a friend.” He then spoke into his walkie-talkie, and Marcus noticed his voice played back on the radio on Janey’s hip. “Old-McDonald to Farm, report Farm.”
“He’s from the Greenlake settlement,” Janey introduced for Marcus. “Ran into him at the Valley office building.”
Nicholas raised his eyebrows, genuinely interested. “Greenlake? Now how about that. I don’t believe we’ve ever paid visit to the Greenlake settlement, have we Cupcake?”
She shook her head no as a voice crackled over the radio. An older woman, by the sound of it. “This is Mother Hen to Old McDonald. ETA in ten, honey.”
“Thank you, Mother Hen,” he replied, and then continued to talk to Marcus. “So Greenlake, huh? That’s about thirteen-hundred people, am I right?”
“Just a thousand, now,” Marcus answered. “Winter was rough.”
A sorrowful crease appeared in Nicholas’s brow. “I’m sorry to hear about that. And I’m sorry about your mission going south; there’s not any other reason for Janey to have found you if it didn’t. You were on camera duty, weren’t you?”
Marcus gave Janey a sideways glance. “Y-yeah, I was.”
Nicholas tisked sympathetically. “Big mistake, I’m telling ya.”
Another voice checked in, a deep masculine voice. “Small Fry to Old Mikky. Be at homebase around sunset.”
“Thank you Small Fry.”
“I was gonna escort Marcus home in the morning,” Janey said. Marcus thought about getting offended by the notion that an eight-year-old girl needed to protect him on his way home, but then he changed his mind.
Nicholas nodded supportively. “Alright, no worries. We’re glad to have you for dinner, Marcus.”
“Thank you, Sir. I really appreciate it.”
Nicholas grinned at him, then grinned at Janey. “Oh, look at that. Look at the manners on this one. I’m liking the sound of you Greenlake kin.”
Janey nodded in agreement. “We ran into some toolbags in the northern region. Some real know-it-all asshats coming from the Maryland settlement.”
“Janey,” her father scolded, his brow folding down now into disappointment.
“What!” She exclaimed, unapologetic. “You can’t even deny everyone we ran into was so bothered and butthurt about the fact that even after their fancy training they were bragging about an eight-year-old could still lay them out in five-flat! Titty-sucking pansies.”
Nicholas threw a warning finger at her. “You are a showoff. And a potty-mouth.” He picked up his radio and addressed it again. “McDonald to Storybook, come in Storybook!”
Marcus and Janey waited in silence when there was no response. He watched the look as it happened on Nicholas’s face. A form of panic interpreting into cool concentration. His laugh lines looked somehow menacing, now. He was the funny guy: the friendly neighbor. But as soon as his Storybook was threatened...shit was going to happen.
“Come in, Storybook!”
“I’m right here, Dad! God!”
Marcus jumped again as the radio’s voice was doubled by the presence of someone else approaching the fire. Across from them, a beautiful girl, late teens maybe was trumping moodily through the brush to the fire to take off her bag.
“I don’t care where you are, young lady, when I do role call you answer right away, is that understood? You know you’re not to ignore that.”
“Whatever,” she snarled, kneeling beside her bag and unzipping it.
“Marcus, this is my bitchy collective clump of raging hormones sister Paige. Bitchy collective clump of raging hormones, Marcus.”
“Shut up you little snot!”
Feeling awkward, Marcus turned to Janey. “So Old McDonald, Mother Hen, Small Fry and Storybook are your family? And that makes you---”
“Mama Hen to Happy Meal, are you with your father?” The suddenly hazardously stressed voice on Janey’s radio answered for him.
She picked it up, smiling at Marcus. “Copy that.”
“You’re Happy Meal? Like you?” He said.
Her expression turned suddenly dark. “Is that a problem?”
Marcus looked back at the fire. “No problem.
Nicholas was pulling a chopped tree stump up to the fire next to Marcus. “Whatcha got there, sweetie? How’d your supply run go?”
Paige was pulling a can of soup from her bag. She fished around the campsite for a pot. “Lousy,” she muttered. “There was like no food and I got there right when they were all waking up for recharge. And then when time came around again two goddamn days later I found out they recharged in waves. I had to go in while eighty-percent of them were still awake and I had no time to get anything.” She pushed her long silky hair out of her face in frustration, dumping the can into a pot and pouring a slosh of water from the gallon that was sitting next to the fire. “I just wanna eat dinner and go to bed.”
“Aw honey, I’m sorry,” said Nicholas. “Well maybe we have something that could cheer you up. In the morning you can go with Janey.”
Paige glared at him, in that horrifying way that only teenagers can truly accomplish.
Nicholas went on. “She has to take Marcus here back to his settlement. In Greenlake! We’ve never stopped by Greenlake! I might come along with them just to see the people.”
Paige gave him the most demeaning eye roll. Then she nodded at Marcus. “Sorry about your platoon, kid.”
Marcus gave a tight-lipped smile. “Thanks.”
“If it makes you feel any better, you’ve gotten the shorter end of the stick than them.”
She gestured to the circle seated at the fire. “Spend enough time with these people and you’ll wish you were dead.”
“Paige!” Nicholas howled. “That is inappropriate and insensitive! Apologize right now!”
“I’m sorry,” she smiled sweetly. “I am so sorry. And you’re gonna be too, pretty soon.”
The night went on. Eventually the other remaining members of Janey’s family arrived at the campfire and the circle was complete. Marcus studied each of them while they talked together about things he could barely understand. Small Fry turned out to be Robbie, the brother: older than Janey but still just barely younger than Paige. His voice was deep but he was thin and tall and sensitive, almost as if he was compensating for Janey.
Their mother was the last to arrive. She had big curly hair and broad wide shoulders but still the kind of lap that you fall asleep on when you’re little. The moment she broke into the circle and laid eyes on Marcus she rushed to his side and asked him every question about his comfort and safety and sanity. So far he was fine as long as these people kept talking and being weird. Not giving him a chance to actually think about the day.
“I saw the most unbelievable thing today you would not believe me if I told you,” Robbie announced enthusiastically, halfway through dinner. The six of them had worked together to make it: smoked elk with a side of hash browns and apple slices. It had been the first fresh meal Marcus had eaten in five years. And the best meal he’d had in eight.
“A dead body!” Janey ventured a guess.
Robbie looked grossed out for a second, and then shook his head. “Nope, much less commonplace than that.”
“The abandoned and deteriorating bits of a landing shuttle?” Nicholas asked eagerly. Marcus had already gathered he was a build-it fix-it guy.
“Ew, no!” Robbie shuddered.
“It was Batman!” Nicholas tried again.
He giggled. “No! Guys! I saw cows!”
The bowl of food in Marcus’s hands dropped.
“Yeah! Real live cows just standing in a pasture behind a fence on the way to Mukilteo!”
Everybody listened, frozen for a second. Then Nicholas sat back, crinkling his nose and shaking his head. “No.”
“Yes!” Robbie argued. “They were just plain old cows, minding their own business, chewing some cud. They weren’t scientifically enhanced or anything like that. Just cows.”
“The Bots exterminated all plant and animal industries two years ago,” Marcus said. “And not just halted their product but they steamrolled all the previously owned growth. Injected and incinerated the livestock for fuel.” He knew enough about this. It was the reason his friends had died today. The reason for a lot of things. The need for food, when it’s not supplied right away ends up taking over your whole life.
Robbie nodded at him in agreement. “I know, that’s what I thought. But then I remembered that the motion for the extinction was made because factories and farms were taking up too much space. Two years ago they were still industrializing: figuring out where to put everything. What about all the places, though that weren’t in the way?” Robbie offered the idea with a spark in his eyes. The rich orange flavor of the fire glowed mysteriously on his chin. “The road to Mukilteo goes through a mountain pass: that’s where I found them. There is no signal in the mountains! And the Bots already figured out it’s infertile for their business. That’s why half the settlements we run into are up high in caves and higher precipices, because the Bots don’t go there! If human beings were smart enough to--ready?--head for the hills, then I guess a bunch of cows were smart enough to stay there!”
“Head for the hills,” Paige smirked, an eyebrow lifted.
“Yes, I’ve been working on that one all day.”
“That’s not right,” Marcus still refused to believe. “Bots destroyed food sources because they were major assets to keeping humans alive. They cut off our life support, getting rid of everything.”
Robbie shook his head. “That might have been a perk, but it wasn’t the objective. The Bots couldn’t afford the time spent scouring the whole planet for every life source; if they did...we’d all be dead!” Robbie summarized cheerfully. He was trying to deliver interesting, quirky news for the day. But Marcus wasn’t smiling.
“We are all dying! My sister and I eat two meals a week and we’re middle-class! If there were giant slabs of meat and milk just standing out in a field somewhere, I would know about it!”
Without intending to, Marcus had terminated the light dinner table talk. Now everybody was giving him the same look. Like they were his school counselor and worried about him.
Nicholas sat forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “Two meals a week?”
Suddenly Marcus felt very self-conscious. “I...y-yeah...I mean it’s not like that’s all we eat. We have a little extra food. You have to buy tickets for the Mess Hall. That’s as often as I can get us in.”
“How old is your sister?” Mrs. McDonald asked gently.
Marcus rubbed his hands together, and again swallowed the tough spot in his throat. “She’s four. Her name is Jasmine.”
“What about your parents?”
“Dead,” he said quickly, not intending to talk about it. “My mom was murdered, but my dad starved to death. I watched his body shrivel and decay while his insides started to eat themselves. He was in so much pain he couldn’t breathe, but he still gave all his meals to me. He refused to take any of them. And that’s how he died. So you had better not be telling me there are a bunch of cows, just standing around eating grass a twenty minute walk from my home.”
The silence was tense. Marcus glared across the fire at Robbie, who looked sick, nervous and lost. The rest of the family listened, not sure what else to say.
Finally, Robbie mumbled. “Well, if you say you’re from Greenlake it’s actually more like an hour or two--”
Marcus lunged across the fire, his arms outstretched. He’d tackled the sizably bigger boy to the ground before the family could get up and shout in protest. His hands wrapped around Robbie’s throat, this wide, unprepared gaze in his eyes. But it didn’t last long. A fist with a mystery owner swiped Marcus’s face and knocked him to the ground as, protesting madly, Robbie wriggled free and hopped to his feet.
Marcus was up quickly too. Hot, livid energy still pumping through him and controlling his decisions. Robbie had backed away but Paige was standing right in front of him, teeth bared, fists clenched, standing with her feet spread and her shoulders wide to make her seem bigger. She was probably older than a teenager, he decided.
“You have got to get your shit together, little man. Or I will end you,” she threatened calmly.
“Paige, that is enough! Everybody, sit down!”
“We do not need to fight about this!”
“Bite her head!”
Marcus should have backed down. He would have backed down. But something rubbed him the wrong way. Something he refused to believe, even though it was the inevitable: that he would need to listen to a girl before getting brutally mauled by one.
“You will not tell me what to do with my own shit. Complaining about all the members of your family that are alive! You spoiled, ungrateful princess of--”
Marcus went down with blood in his mouth and a dent in his cheek. The family erupted with protests and reprimanding and maybe spin-off fights. All Marcus knew was he wanted to go to sleep.
“We must have all gotten off on the wrong foot,” Nicholas explained calmly, pacing back and forth in front of the them. Robbie, Paige and Marcus were sitting on stumps next to each other, a black eye here, a bloody nose there. All Paige seemed to have walked away with was some ruffled hair.
“None of us are bad people,” Nicholas went on. His arms were folded tautly over his chest. “But we are not always the best versions of ourselves. Robbie and Paige both got back from long and draining missions, and our new friend Marcus here has had probably the worst of his own today. We don’t mean to offend, but we don’t all understand each other.
“In a world where the remainder of the human race not should but must cling to each other for survival--”
“Heeeere we go,” Paige rolled her eyes.
“Shh! We all have to work together to fight for our world. We cannot afford to fight amongst each other. Now, you are the next generation! You have to set mature, realistic examples if you ever want to see this world flourish. I know it is a huge responsibility to put on your young shoulders, but it starts with this. The three of you are going to apologise to each other and talk about your problems like adults. Robbie, you start.”
Robbie sighed reluctantly. This appeared to be a much revisted ritual. He turned to Marcus. “I’m sorry that I undermined your very serious problems. I get uncomfortable when people talk about that kind of stuff.”
Marcus opened his mouth to forgive him, but Nicholas cut him off. “Good, now Paige. Go.”
With more resistance than her brother, she looked over at Marcus. “I’m sorry I punched you in the face. And kicked you in the face. And hurt your feelings talking about things that you think I take for granted even though you actually don’t know the half of it and--” Robbie elbowed her in the ribs. She cleared her throat, flashing a dangerous pretend smile. “Anyway, I’m sorry. I’m on my period and I’m grumpy. Also you were attacking my brother.”
Nicholas rubbed his temple. “Good enough. Now Marcus, if you wouldn’t mind…”
Marcus cleared his throat sheepishly. After the adrenaline had worn off he was sick to his stomach with guilt after having assaulted someone who was taking care of him. Also the first fresh meal in years was turning his insides all upside down. “Well, like Mr. McDonald said we all might not be on our top form; I’m really sorry Robbie for arguing with you and choking you. And Paige I’m really sorry for saying my problems are worse than yours. My nerves are a little hotwired today because seven of my friends just died.”
“Good!” Nicholas congratulated him quickly. “I’m glad we got that out of the way. Now. It’s time to come up with a plan.” He rubbed his hands together.
Paige glared. “Excuse me? We already have a plan. We’re getting out of the tri-state area as soon as we have supplies and disabled the Darwin headquarters.”
“And we will,” He reassured, and then gestured to Marcus.“But things have changed a little bit. We’ve encountered a fellow traveller on his own mission. And if we can do anything about it we won’t let him go home empty-handed.”
Rolling her eyes, Paige dropped her forehead into her hands.
Marcus shook his head quickly. “No--no, you don’t have to do that. I can find my own way home. I wouldn’t want to--”
“We do have to do it. I wouldn’t feel right about sending you back to your family with nothing. Tomorrow we go back to headquarters. We teach you what we know about supply runs. We get more food than we can carry to take back to your settlement. We bring you home and then we’re all on our way.”
“We’ll show you how to break in the right way,” Janey assures him enthusiastically.
“No, Dad!” Paige whined. “You promised we could get out of here as soon as we were done!”
He shook his head authoritatively. “We don’t leave other people in need.”
“What are you complaining about?” Robbie snapped at Paige. “You have somewhere to be?”
“Away from here! This place is miserable! No offence,” she disclaimed, looking at Marcus briefly. “Also aren’t we out here to do something in the first place? Isn’t that why we’re not already shacked up at a settlement?”
“We’re out for research,” Nicholas replied calmly. “Getting information. You can’t fight your enemy without learning about them. This is also research. Taking note on how they are affecting others.
Great, Marcus thought. Now I’m research.
After an extended lecture about humanity and generosity and also some more about knowing your enemy, everyone was dismissed. Marcus watched at a loss as they all seemed to independently do the same thing. Each member of the family was equipped with their own hiking backpack. Janey had located hers in the brush near the office park on their way back. Everyone was pulling out tarps and tent links and sleeping bags. Mr. and Mrs. McDonald shared but everyone else had their own one-person tent to sleep in. As he was watching Nicholas tossed him an all-in-one drawstring.
“I always keep an extra around in case we get a visitor. Or we have beans for dinner.” He laughed at his own joke.
Everyone set up around the fire. Marcus was put himself between Janey and Robbie: not that it would save him if any one of the McDonalds decided to kill him. The mouth of each tent faced the fire, except for Paige’s, who was pointed toward the outside of the ring and already tucked in for the night, ignoring everyone else. Janey and Robbie argued briefly about who stole the spot where the smoke didn’t go. Pretty soon Nicholas poked his head out of the flap of his tent. “Alright goodnight family! Get some good sleep. It’s an early morning tomorrow.”
And then it was quiet. Everyone disappeared beneath their tent’s flaps and were on their way to sleep. Marcus rolled over onto his stomach and tried to sleep. He was exhausted. His eyes were heavy. His body groaned and ached from all the times he’d fallen and been attacked over the course of this very long day. And an insufferable headache had accumulated just above his left ear from the adrenaline overload.
But he couldn’t go to sleep.
Marcus was powerless to stop the events of the day playing back in his head, like a TV program he couldn’t turn off or stop watching. He wasn’t trying to: he wish he could stop it. Sometimes Marcus let himself believe the Bots were something onto something. Wouldn’t it be nice to just shut down for a recharge and turn off your brain when it was time to turn off your brain. Marcus didn’t want to remember.
He began his day early: three-thirty in the morning. Anthony was let into his and Jasmine’s room of the shack he was sharing with a few other kids to wake him up. Instantly, Marcus felt sick to him stomach and that feeling came over him. The one when you wake up and you know the day is gonna suck and you would do anything to just stay in bed.
“Come on,” Anthony persuaded, tugging his sheets off him. Marcus whimpered and curled up, instantly shivering. “Sorry, dude. It’s gonna be worth it, bro. Six tickets, remember? We can do this.”
Marcus got up. When Anthony knew he was awake he left. Marcus crossed the room in the dark and knelt next to his sister’s bed. He couldn’t see anything, but he could feel her there. That was the strangest new thing that had happened after his dad died. Whenever Jasmine was away from him he always just knew where she was. Like right now. Jasmine was supposed to be in bed with their friend’s mother, whom she was staying with while Marcus was gone. But he knew without question that she wasn’t in bed. She couldn’t sleep any better than Marcus, and she was up in Mrs. Drake’s oversized homemade rocking chair, slouched down so her toes just barely brushed the floor, pushing herself forward and back as hard as she could.
Marcus smoothed Jasmine’s long dark hair out of her face and called her name quietly. Jasmine emerged from sleep faster than a four-year-old is expected to. She sat up in her bed, massaging her eyes with her fists. “‘S it time to go?” She murmured drowsily.
Marcus wished he didn’t have to think about the magnitude of the situation. He wish he didn’t in any situation. As his dad was dying he was still just taking one moment at a time, pretending he was a ghost spectator, observing every serious or uncomfortable or important moment in his life as someone else. He wanted to, but he knew he shouldn’t do it now. This might be the last time he sees his sister. Worse, this is the last time she sees him.
“Are you gonna be good to Mrs. Drake?”
He couldn’t see, but still Jasmine nodded her head.
“Good. She’s fun, right?”
Another nod. “She’s nice.”
“Good.” Marcus was running out of non-monumental things to say. “Mind your manners, do what she asks, and don’t forget to thank her for letting you stay with her.”
“You can go back to sleep for a little bit longer. Jolene will bring you over there when she wakes up.”
Marcus hesitated. His stomach churned, running out of procrastination. “I love you,” he said.
Jasmine wrapped her arms around his neck. “I love you too, buddy.”
Marcus’s dad had always called him buddy. Jasmine picked it up, because she liked it.
He tried not to cry.
“Mark,” she stopped him when he’d gotten up and was just about to leave. “Come back, okay?”
The platoon was to meet in their settlement’s gym. Tony tried to generate enthusiasm, but nobody was really up for it. They were given their packs and their breakfast: Crackers and water and dried fruit. When they’d eaten and had been pathetically debriefed, they were all on their way. The walk was almost three hours. They walked into the sunrise, and Marcus let his mind wander aimlessly to mundane things that he normally thought about. He would have felt bad about it, but the stomach ache he got when he focused on the things that were happening wasn’t even worth it.
Marcus got up: out of his tent. He pulled a stump back up to the fire and sat there, staring at it. Stop it! Stop! It! But the movie went on, and he couldn’t control it. When the platoon arrived at headquarters they regrouped and debriefed again. Then they went in. Anthony and Desiree made out. They scooted around the building for an open way in and once in the corridors they split off. Everyone else, and Marcus.
Tic-tac-toe! Bon Jovi! Really small dogs! Marcus wracked his brain for anything that could keep him from thinking about what was gonna happen next.
The sound of the attack happened in slow motion. Ari’s scream. Mamie’s small survival. A tear rolled down his cheek that he couldn’t stop. Suddenly he was thinking about Mamie again and everything she meant to him, and an actual sob escaped from his throat. He threw his hands over his mouth, but it was too late. Some rustling from the McDonald’s tent made him hurry to scrub the tears away. Mrs. McDonald emerged, and upon finding him there, an overwhelming look of pity and concern was on her face and Marcus just wanted to run away and hide.
“Can’t sleep, honey?” she asked softly.
Marcus nodded quickly as she climbed out of the tent and pulled up a stump next to him. She wearing cotton pajamas, white with some kind of faded print that were not at all warrior like.
“I’m sorry, I just---” Marcus could think of absolutely nothing to say.
Mrs. McDonald put her arm around Marcus and said, “It’s okay. And...it is most definitely not okay, sweetheart. But you know what? That’s okay too. Okay?”
Marcus fell apart.