I couldn’t see two feet in front of me as I wrestled against the roar that had suddenly appeared out of thin air. The gale was whistling so hard that my face felt like sandpaper. The ferocity of the storm clung to me as I howled to Vanity, “I can’t go on this way.”
In the face of nature’s wrath, Vanity hollered, “We shall not stop.” The buildings that once stood here are now decayed and rounded bodies. The dead, many with expressions of immediate dread, a few animal carcases remained out of the ground. It was a graveyard that had melted to the ground. At the tail end of its fury, a simple kiss of nuclear power fluttered through this city in its blatant embrace. In the street there are an array of tank-like war machines serving as obstacles, limits, and things to avoid. These machines, too, were nothing more than dead to remind someone of a vicious battle that was terminated with a single shot.
My face was barraged with sand as I yelled, “I cannot open my eyes.” The retched sand was so awful that I could not stop it from stinging. It was impossible for me to mitigate its blow. Vanity’s wings were boney and large, and when a shadow settled over me, I could see their large boney timbers. I peeked at them and said, “Thank you.” I felt moved by this gesture.
In all, we continued to fight for an hour and the surface storm didn’t show any signs of letting up. “Prina, up ahead, I think there is some shelter. I am picking up readings of several biological life forms that appear to be humans.”
“Biological readings?” I asked myself, hoping for a clear answer. “Is it safe?” I inquired.
“The storm is going to rip us apart if we do not escape. We must accept the risk. This is our only chance to find shelter.” she was right. As much as I loathed the idea of placing myself in danger once again, if I did not do so, we might have to die together.
“It’s worth a shot, but the idea of going through another nightmare doesn’t sit well with me.”
We continued marching forward through the turbulent earth. “Don’t worry, I’ll protect you.” she assured me as she protected me from the sandstorm.
As the fangs of the aged continued to gnaw at me, the sand became increasingly painful as it split my skin in two. It clattered and thrashed against me. “Up ahead!” Velora shouted to me as she yelled. I tried my best to see what was up ahead, but I could only see shadowed objects; perhaps a wall? As we approached, however, it was apparent. It was enormous, like an aircraft carrier, but not. Although it was motionless, its enormous wheels appeared to move despite being very slowly.
The twirls of the grand warship were adorned with tank treads, and a border of shiny silver stripes covered its rich blue enamel, where there was paint. Its timeworn paint had been scraped off and rust had developed on the alloy, which was sure to not be made of nanomechanical components.
A sputter of “Wo.” could be heard from me. The thing dwarfed us. “What is it?”
“An Almighter, maskers drive them.”
Despite feeling foolish, she went on to say, “Maskers hide themselves from outsiders.” She gestured with her hand peeking through her fingers. Then she continued, “It should be fine for us to approach them.” I spotted a few people after that. They were completely covered in cloth from head to toe, aside from the hood covering their masks. They carried something that looked like spears. The “Maskers” would raise their weapons as we approached, indicating that they were in a combat situation.
As I snuggled up next to Velora’s femur, I had to keep an eye on her steps or, more specifically, I had to take care of her steps, as she did not seem bothered by me adhering to her like a child. I concealed myself behind the ram’s scalp. “Velora, they look violent.” I said, she caressed me on the head as if to assure me.
“They aren’t; they are pilgrims. Those masks are used to disguise their deformities among themselves, and the weapons are used as intimidation methods to deter would be attackers.”
It was evident that Velora was dead in her eyes. Confident, yet dead too. She knew better than I did, but these were the first “people” we had seen; or at least anything remotely human. They pointed those large, makeshift spears at us as we approached, and when we were a few yards away, one of them yelled, “We don’t want any trouble. Go on your way.”
The moment I saw Velora, I froze in place. My body was clenched against hers. “We are not here to cause trouble.” she said.
Upon starting to converse among themselves, I assumed that the two masked men were men. They did not appear to distinguish themselves as individuals, but I also observed those who gazed down from the deck without any signs of identification. Despite the lack of sound, one masked man dressed in brown rags greets us as soon as they have concluded their work, “Then why are you here?”
I feel Velora pushing on my back, pricking me to speak, “Shelter.”
The masker bowed down to my height. His body was gaunt with the spear resting on his shoulder. He was also steep. His mask looked like that of a carved tribesman, but I could tell they made it from scrap iron, and it was stained with rust. “Ah’ replica human, that is a strange thing to have.”
I am not a replica.” The masked men laughed at my dismay. “I am not a replica.”
It was immediately apparent that his laughter had ceased and he stood up straight. “I don’t know what you are trying to accomplish. We will not fall for your trickery, devil. You must go before I become angry.”
In response, Velora stamps her hooove on the ground. “We have food and water. But the dust storm is unavoidable. She will die as a result.”
“Alright, let’s assume you are a human. What are you doing traveling with a devil from below?” One of the maskers goes up and pulls him aside. One of them whispers to the other. Again, it is impossible to hear them.
‘Velora, they’re not going to let us in are they?’ I remarked to her.
It does not seem as though she missed a beat and never diverted her gaze away from the maskers as she replied “We will walk in their wake until the storm has passed.”
Two men are still chatting. Several of them have gathered at the ship’s gates. The Masker from before returns this time with four others. “Ha ha, so you want to come on the ship.” An intimidating Masker says.
As I timidly chirped, “I would… just until the storm ends. It has been extremely harsh on me.”
Masker gave me a simple glance. He then gathers in a deep breath and lets it out gently. “You are very convincing, even got some errosion on you, thin thin layers of skin too.” He twisted his head and nodded.
“Alright, wait here a minute. Let’s check something.” One of the other Maskers said. They wandered away from us, leaving us alone with the first Masker.
My words were veiled under the cloak of Velora’s insurance policy, as I confided, “I am not happy about this.”
As Velora glances down at me, she takes a deep breath. “Where are they going?” she asked the lone Masker that was left to guard.
“They are going to get a bio-scanner.” The Masker said leaning on his spear. “If you two are lying and wasting our time, you will pay with your lives.” Velora stamped forward at the assertion, her face expressed her clear distan for such words as her face transformed into something more animal like. “But if you want to leave with your lives, you can. Just do it before he comes back.” The man croaked.
Not wanting to watch the man be slaughtered, I walked between them. “It is fine, we can wait.” I said.
I saw the Masker tighten his grip on the large pike, looking down at me he said, “You’re serious about being human,” locking each joint of his body.
I softly uttered, “I am human.” I could tell by the way the Maskers held onto his spear and moved it from side to side that he was nervous, but why? I had no idea if it was me, or if it was Velora.
In the wake of the torn out wall of the Almighter, the other Maskers collapsed back into a huge hole in the wall. Observing in silence for what seemed like an eternity, one of them finally returns, while the others remain in the foyer. The man was carrying a strange device that reminded me of a camcorder. He casually strolled over, giving us the opportunity to give up. Velora, however, was certain that this was true. I slipped into her arms, though what if it is defective? They would surely come upon us with their spears, a troop of them stabbing at us as they approached.
“This is old tech, but I will see if you’re telling the truth.” He said before pointing the thing at me. He corrects some nobs on the side of the camera-like machine. I listen to an exclamation through the other end of the machine. He looks at the instrument. The other man jumps over to him almost knocking his fellow over. He stares down at the apparatus and glances up. “No way. Get a load of this guys! She is clean, like, completely clean.” He looks at the instrument again as the other Maskers rush over to see it.
A layer of orange red corrosion covered the surfaces inside the Almighter. Three Maskers guided me through the creaking giant, the narrow halls resembling a maze of metallic intestines. A broth emanating from the leaky pipes along the walls reminded me of mucus. Velora followed behind closely, squeezing her body through the narrow passageways with difficulty. I could not make out the color of the iron pivots and boilers, which were coated in a dense coat of green patina and the floor had nothing better than scaffolding and cables under the scaffolding. “Watch your step.” one masker instructed me as he looked at me with that considerable iron mask.
Keeping in the wake of his rags, I reply, “I will, thank you.” As we reached an enormous staircase, it opened to a strange room at the top. In addition to the large size of the chamber, several more Maskers are working on shifts and crowbars in the chamber. A large glass window provides a view of the surrounding areas for the inhabitants.
A masker shouted, “Captain.” He turned toward him in a broad, torn coat. It was clear that his face was also masked, but he wore a cloak that suggested nobility declined. It was damaged and tethered. The gold on the hems was tarnished, and a palm of dirt with mud, and mold blemished his wardrobe. Large stretches of bloodstains also sprayed the clothing.
“My lord!” The man shouts startled as he stares straight at Velora. “What in the world are you thinking allowing that horrible thing in here?” I peered back to see her straighten up.
One guard explained, “She is the girl’s guardian, and she requested that this… thing be kept with her.”
I could see he was scanning Velora as he came closer to me. “How did you survive out there?” he whined, disregarding her. He took several steps towards me to get a better look at me.
A blue eye regarded me in the fissures of his mask, a sleek white complexion. One eye was shadowed while the other eye was white. I lied to the captain, stating that I was from a colony of scientists with a strict no contact policy. The captain rubbed his mask in delight. Despite the fact that people have changed significantly, one thing has remained the same. It is those subtle human ticks. It is the ways in which we communicate through the most primitive vocabularies. Why do such things? Even so, the stroking of the chin spoke to me. He spoke even without intending to do so.
“What are you doing outside of your colony? I would assume that you do not leave it very often.”
I froze, fear encroaching on my mind. Velora says, “The systems are failing. We are collecting supplies.” Thank goodness she saved me from lying, though I would do so plenty before we had finished. “We require rations and water as well.”
“I am delighted to discover that you are standing before me. Of course, we have plenty, and hey, we mostly use water for cleaning anyway. I will exchange for it.” the captain replied. “I am glad to help.”
“How?” Velora asks. He stabilizes his footing and begins walking towards us.
“She needs to eat?”, said the captain to me not even giving Velora any creedance at all. He placed his hand on my shoulder. I glanced over to Velora, who did not appear concerned. I looked at an inscrutable mask, tribal in nature, with gold accents, which reminded me of some ancient kin of some jungle tribe. “Isn’t that why you need the rations?” he asked.
As Velora said with satisfying precision, I really believed she was telling the truth. “Everyone in the colony is 100% biologically pure, with no nanomachine systems.” I could not see past the mask that hides his every detail.
The captain exclaimed, “Impossible!”
“It’s true. We have a disease, it is caustic to nanomachines.” I impressed myself with my jargon. Would the rouse remain, however, I was not certain, and with no way of seeing their expression, it was impossible to tell. Though I must concede, it was entertaining. These people put on masks, and I enjoyed one of my own. Somehow in that I found that my anonymity gave me something more, a power I carried, and in it I developed a secret vulnerability. The truth.
In light of this additional knowledge, the maskers all shifted towards me. One could practically see the bewilderment on their faces. Though it persisted well sheltered, the absence of stillness suggests they were astounded. “How? How can this be?” they asked.
In response to Velora’s question, she replied, “We keep them well.”.
A masker blurts out, “But, but, how are they alive?”
As she lightly placed his hand on my back, Velora continued to speak. “There is reproduction within the colony. They live and die. This one is young but she is almost ready to reproduce as well.”
The captain stared at them and back at me as he said, “We must know where the colony is. I must see the people.”
My gaze returned quickly to Velora’s face. Her pompous grin stretched across her lips. “I am afraid we cannot tell you. We must keep such things secret.” The captain’s shoulders slumped, his expectations shattered instantly. “They hired me as a guard for this reason. However, I am surprised that you have rations. I do not understand the reason for carrying such useless items around.”
“Hoping to find a living human.” the captain gruffly states. “You give us hope. If there is one colony, then there is bound to be more. We have searched the earth for a living human, collecting what we can to make them stronger.” The captain turns away from us. “I should hope my disappointment is understandable, however. Such treasures must remain secret. We will need to discuss your home in great detail. I am envious of you.” I could hear saliva dripping down his mask as he spoke. “I never thought anyone survived. It is good to know that somewhere in the world, something is being done to restore the situation.”
“You must be tired. Rest assured, you are safe within these walls. As for food, we have plenty. You are welcome to consume as much as you like.” In the last moment, I wished I could discuss with him so much more. I wanted to let him know about my true mission to destroy Asergile.
My gaze drew to a desolate landscape as I gazed out from the balcony of the incomprehensible machine. The horizon was filled with destroyed buildings. There were many decaying and dark areas throughout the scenery. Large sections had that fleshy glaze. From a distance, you could see the great nerves pumping blood from the massive arteries. There was a crimson haze accompanied by occasional flashes of lightning.
Velora was chatting with a few of the maskers downstairs about weapons. She seemed to be at home in a place like this, as if Velora were acquainted with a place like this. Made me wonder, where did she come from. Who was she exactly? I shifted turning from the balcony and found a bleak stare. I jumped! Masker! A woman in a threadbare gown, sullen and grim. I seized my chest as I faced her with alarm. “I am sorry deary, I did not mean to frighten you.” I took a moment to catch my breath as words would not crawl from my throat. “I had to see you for myself. I do apologize.”
After a moment of confusion, I gathered my thoughts and replied, “It’s no problem.” The alien woman made me feel different, yet I must admit, it made me feel special. “I am wondering. Is there really no one like me?” I asked.
She slowly goes over to the porch, dragging the hem of her dress as her feet suggest it stashed away horrors under those rags. “It has been so long since I have a seen a someone with so few blemishes, I almost forgot what someone looked like without them.” She replied as she got closer. “Can I, can I touch your skin with my hand?” It was an odd request, though one I was happy to grant. I nodded my head to her. She took off a patchwork leather glove from her hand as she reached. Three claw-like things with steel cables traveling up the arm, veiled by her cloths. Her hand was wilted and felt like sandpaper across my skin. “Your so smooth. I had forgotten. So this is what we had.” She hastily stuck her glove back on.
“May I ask something of you,” the masker slowly bowed. “I want to see you without your mask?”
She swings the expressionless mask towards me. “I could not bear it. This mask is my face now. The abomination that I have become. I was once human, whether you believe it or not, at least that’s what they say. Memory is a funny thing. It comes and goes as it pleases. Now I can hardly consider myself human at all.” It was there with her canvased between the bankrupts and the red sky, that I realized it. There was no hope in her. “I know you lied darling.” It disturbed me, I curled my hand inward hiding my palms. “I know you are not part of any colony that has others like you. You would not ask if there was any other like you if it was true.”
With a heavy throat I quipped, “I didn’t lie.”
“That is a dream too perfect to be true.” the masker replied, looking at me with that expressionless mask.
“Then what do you think I am?”
“A haunted memory from a past long ago. A past where there were cities, and flowers, and all the things you remember.” She angled herself to stare off the balcony. “But now, you’re a ghost. My eyes have lied to me, yet you stand. You are an unfortunate soul. Forced to walk and toil with death. You walk in a land that hates you. Your very existence insults this world. You are not supposed to touch the ground here. You walk where fear treads. I feel sorry for you.” There was a silence we shared. The futility of my plight was becoming heavy on my heart… yet I planted my life in Velora’s arms. She was my guardian angel sent by God, at least I believed that was true.
“I hate to be a bother but I am getting tired.” She slowly bends her neck. I realize she did not expect to be cruel with her words, but they cut deep all the same.
She shifts to regard me. “Yes, that’s right. I forgot what it was like to slumber. As I said, a dream too perfect.” A long sigh exits the woman’s nostrils. “Tomorrow, before you leave, come to my room below. I have a gift for you.”
“Of course.” I nodded and she disappeared, as I trudged over to the makeshift bed of cartons and boxes and lay down my head against the lumber and closed my eyes.
I awoke to fear creeping between the sodden sheets as I laid slumber. Startled, it forced me out of my bed. The covers rolled off my body, now sitting up in the dim chamber. My left hand trembled and floundered. The flesh raised up and coiled as something was rolling under Vanity’s arm. I flipped the borrowed hand over to look at a crack in my palm exposing a cavity. The teeth spread wide and delivered a wail I quickly joined. My fingers disjointed, rupturing the meat from my bone as rods of metal coil out of them. My forearm also gives way, turning into razor wire. It latches onto the rear of my head cutting deep, leaving me shrieking.
I opened my eyes to be lying quietly in my makeshift bed. I was sweating and my heart was pounding. I knew I would not be having any more sleep that night.
I rose from my rusty bed and drove the whole slathered rag off me. Sitting up I noticed Velora standing in the room brooding over me. “Have you been watching me all night?”
“I don’t sleep. You know that.” she reminds me. I delivered a long sigh in this humid heat. The sky was still thick with red clouds, but they were brighter. The sun must be out. Turning my legs over the bed, I stood up.
“I must go do something.”
Traveling through the network of iron tunnels; narrow arteries, channels in which the machine breathed, was difficult. The maze became more complex as the trail narrowed from moaning cogs and pumps. I showed up at the terrace soon after. The masker was waiting for me; hunched over the rusty railing. She reminded me of an injured bird hunched over like that. The room was not unlike the one I settled into. There were no decorations at all. Nothing… aside from a few trunks to hold her things. The cabin was soulless. She gestured to me and that impassive mask stared back at me. “Oh good you came. I was starting to worry you would not show up.” I continued my walk over to her along the withered plating. She reached under her cloak and drew out a mask. “Here take this with you, it will protect you from the elements.”
It looked akin to a face guard with goggles. It was all one piece with a ventilator around the mouth. It strapped on from the back and allowed my hair forehead and hair to lay over the covering. “That is mighty kind of you.” I managed before she held my speech with the flap of her hand. The lady then moves over to a box. She leans in and captures a hard piece of metal. Yanking it from the box, she reveals itself to be a complete set of armor. It is sturdy and the metal portions are kept together by cloth. The elegant structure had my eyes looking all over the thing. The fibers of the cloth looked curious but remarkably durable. It looked untarnished, like it was factory produced. “I.. I can’t!”
“Don’t be silly my dear, of course you can, and you will!” the masker sternly says. “You are not traveling to get food for your colony now are you?” She was right. “Don’t worry my dear. I won’t out you. I don’t know what your true mission is, but you are going to need some help. That demon you have out there bruting around for you, can’t always keep you safe.”
I hesitantly reach towards the costume. “Are you sure?” the woman softly nods. I stick my arm in the suit. Then my other arm and step into the legs. The trunk of the armor folds over mine. It dips at first, but suddenly the armor springs to life and fits snuggly against my chest. I grab the mask put it on my face and fasten the back. The suit automatically adapts to my size binding itself against my skin thoroughly. The large cloak would be plenty sufficient to stop the desert sand. The mask fit well too. It was more like a gas mask. It covered my eyes perfectly and ended at my forehead. “There, don’t you look the part of a wanderer now.”
The full assembly fit very finely. Almost as if I was not wearing any of it. Only the extra weight, I noticed. “I cannot thank you enough for this.” I said to her.
“There is one last thing I want to give you.” She turns around and combs through the trunk. “Ah, here.” with her outstretched hand she displays a narrow cylinder to me.
I reach out and pick it up. Studying the thing, I cannot figure out what it is. “I dont ’t understand.”
“Hmmm, strange.” She made for the cylinder in my palm. “It’s a beam sword.” the masker lifts it from me and presses a small switch on the side. Instantly out of the edge of it a spark reached out. It displaced a faint light gleaming from it and the circling area.
“Wo.” is all I could muster. She renounced the laser sword and then handed it back to me. A slithering sound from the hall directs my attention. I swiftly turn to look at a bunch of slithering cables and body parts coming from the hall. “What is that?” the masked woman steps in front of me, as if to guard me.
However, as the body parts and cables came into the room I could make out Velora’s face. The confusion of tangled parts reform her body as she is growing together she peers at me. “Prina! What are you doing!?”
“What the hell Velora?” I say shocked and a little frightened if I am to be honest.
“You are a devil are you not?” the masker says to Velora.
She regards her for a moment, stern faced and almost, almost haunting. “Maybe.”
“Take care of her.”
“I wouldn’t harm her.” Velora growls quietly, clearly offended by the maskers bias. “Did she give you that armor?” I nodded my head sheepishly. “Thank you, it is very kind of you.”
“I dont know why? She reminds me of my daughter. It was the least I could do.”
“Your daughter?” I ask.
For a moment the masker paused to look at me. She swiftly turns away lowering her head. “You take care of that girl. You don’t want the blood child on your vile hands.” She continues into the hall without even looking back.
“Come Prina.” Velora says as she makes her way down the staircase to the desert below. I turned to look back at the woman as she walked away. Into the shadows far from my sight she left and I too walked my own path following after Velora, gripping the beam sword in hand.
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