Thursday, August 15, 2013

the wager

"Guys. I'll handle this. Watch Ryan. Gag his mouth in case he gets bitey."

Neobrokrug was cordial enough whenever he showed up. But if you ever asked for help with something that wasn't rent related he usually talked right past you. It's not that he's cruel. He just doesn't care about organics. I think he's just not programmed to care. Or maybe that part of him got lost. Or maybe there was another robot built by whoever built him to care for the survivors and he broke down. Doesn't really matter at this point. I just know he's got no heartstrings to tug.

I tiptoed over the daisy chain of junk that looked like it fell out the back of an airship shipping rejects from a mad scientist's fire sale.

"Um. Hi Mr. Neobrokrug."

"Hello Koen!"

His voice was...nice, but creepy. Too nice for the hell he managed. He didn't look at me. He was too busy tapping on a broken pane of glass. I think they called them "App-tablets" or something. I peered over his shoulder. It looked like he was magnifying on the robot dude with the bad haircut. Kind of an X-ray...something in his chest, pulsing blue.

"Is that a reactor core?"

"Yes, cold fusion. You know people will spend centuries trying to build it. One day they will and they'll learn the way this fellow will. With a cataclysmic explosion."

Aw Bast. He's way too casual about this.

"Well y'know...New Babbage won't mesh too well with the rest of this place."

"I wouldn't say that. We have more than enough room...more than enough room..."

Did I mention he was creepy? I had to keep my spine straight just talking to him.

"So there's no chance of disconnecting his core before it explodes?'

"It is possible..."

"I could!"

"I have gone through a lot of trouble to get ready."

I rolled my eyes.

"Look...Neo...can I call you Neo?"


"Do you know what will happen if you phase New Babbage into the Wastelands? You're going to have survivors, right?"

"Of course."

"And there's going to be Sparks in there, I guarantee it."


"Steampunks. Mad scientists. Gifted engineers. Maybe even the Clockwinder."


"And I haven't even mentioned the Bolsheviks and the Church of the Builder and Cult of Dagon..."

"Rule #48: No summoning of beings from the outer planes..."

I edged closer as he leaned over to twist some dials on a half-melted block of plastic.

"And do you know what steampunks do when they lose everything? They start over. They'll drink cactus-juice tea from broken china and throw formal balls in tattered gowns like nothing ever happened. And one thing about steampunk's infectious. People start being NICE to each other, at least in public. No more people fighting each other for scrap that you bury in the sand in random places for us to find. You're gonna need a new distribution model."

"That...will take some minor adjustments..."

"And with the Sparks? They'll just take the scrap and build more stuff. And I'm not talking nailguns here. Unless it's to build a Tesla tower. And then everything else to run off of the Tesla tower."

"I won't allow that."

"They'll keep trying. They won't just survive. They'll rebuild. With their manners and their technology they'll bring something we still don't have."

"You have everything you need here. You just need to find it."

"They'll bring civilization."

Neo's tablet thing sputtered with sparks and he dropped it from his free hand.

"This won't be the Wastelands anymore. It'll be New New Babbage. Not your Museum to the Folly of Mankind or whatever you want this to be. This won't be your limbo anymore. This will be a place..."

He turned his head and looked straight at me. Mismatched robotic eyes clouded by the exhaust seeping out from under his helmet.

"You are welcome to try."

"How much time...?"

"Two hours at most."


They rushed up and lined in formation. Just like I taught them to. I watched enough of that militia across from the slough (mulisha they call it) to learn a bit about keeping a unit together. Two of the kids in the back were carrying Ryan.

"Say Neo, is that a hover-board?"

"It is an antigravity conveyance. I used it to carry..."

"Thanks!" I jumped on and kicked the switch on the engine. The back of it started glowing as I fought to keep balance.

"You two in the back? See that hill down there? Meet me there. The rest of you, knock that big thing down. Pry it open if you can. If you open it don't smash anything. Just pull stuff out. Lay it on the ground. Hopefully my Dad can defuse it in time. EVERYBODY MOVE!"

I've never seen a bunch of kids look so fierce. I plowed way ahead of them on the board. Just as I got close enough for them to see me they both started running!


Sunday, August 4, 2013

the stakes

“WE’RE THE SPIDERS! YOU’RE THE FLIES!” they shouted as they laughed and chased me from the scorching desert into the shadowy ravine.

I was running on all fours, bounding from one wall of the narrow fissure to the other trying to dodge the nail gun. I felt one slam into my shoulder and knock off the metal bowl I was wearing for armor. I spun and arched my back as the crunch of boots sprinting through sand and grit grew louder. A couple of Spider gangers trotted in, blocking my exit. One of them had clammy yellow skin. A ghoul. He was carrying a stick with a sharp bird beak wrapped at one end as a weapon. The other one had his face wrapped up, but I’m sure he was human. That was the bastard with the nailgun. I shoved my paws into the loose dry dirt and pulled out the rusty machete I hid there last night.

“Oh clever manimal he is!” taunted the ghoul. “Y’claws ain’t enough? I got me own!” That was true. Even in this mutated form I still didn’t grow claws. Not that they’d come close to being as nasty as those bony bloody fingers the ghoul was stretching. Ghoul-boy flicked his tongue like a snake. “Let’s have at it then!”

I let out a deep roar that echoed through the ravine. That’s when the rest of the kids pushed themselves out of the nooks and crannies in this rocky passageway. They were all the same dry red clay color from their camouflage. The three kid gangs were always chasing each other off, but we had a common threat. So I was able to get them all to hid in one place, and armed to the teeth.

“We’re onto you!” I pointed at the two Spiders. “Luring kids into your parlor or whatever you call it with a trail of candy! You! You’re a ghoul...I’m not judging you for WHAT you eat. But when you don’t gnaw on people your own’re gonna PAY. But YOU!” I pointed at the guy with the nail gun. “Corwin is it? Corey? Doesn’t even matter because you...and your undead buddy right here...are officially SCRAPPED!”

Bleue and her NPAKs - the older kids - laid in with the missiles. Crossbows, nailguns, and I think I even heard some gunpowder. Those two bastards dropped pretty fast. Once they ran out of ammo then Kira...I mean...Kira junior...just call her Sprog... and her Runts moved in with their spiky clubs to make sure they weren’t playing dead. Finally the youngest contingent...Pea and her Sand Brats...moved in with their knives and cleavers. I looked away for this part.

That’s when I heard the scream.

“Mistah Koen! Mistah Koen!” I was still getting used to being called Mister. But in the Wastelands when you’re sixteen you’re practically middle-aged.

“The ghoul bit Ryan!”

“OH HOLY...!”

I rushed over. The two spiders were...well, out of commission. But Ryan...shit, he’s just this little blond boy with bad teeth, kinda Russian accent. Always hyper, But now he was lyin’ still. Bad sign. I started wiping down my blade.

“I’m sorry kid, but we’re gonna have to ampu...tate...?”

The bite was on his neck. That wasn’t gonna work. And he was already getting jaundiced.

“Aw no no not you Ryan not YOU...”

I’ve gotten used to a lot of crap in the Wastelands. Humans eating each other. A robotic landlord named Neobrokrug that didn’t care if you lived or died. A robot ice cream truck that still gave out ice cream. But the ghouls still scared the shit outta me. I knew a couple that didn’t attack living folks on sight, but still it’s a horrible way to exist.

Pea stood behind me, looking down at him.

“Pea?” I asked. “He’s gonna turn. He’s one of yours...if you guys wanna put him out of his misery you better...”

And that’s when the ground started to shake. Boulders started falling into the ravine. We were blinded by a cloud of dirt and sand.


But of course that’s not what happened. We all huddled together crying and screaming. Well I wasn’t crying and screaming. Well it was so noisy it was hard to tell... By the time got the grit out of my eyes I could see the sunrise. Wait...we’re in a damn ravine...where the HELL is the sun coming from? Hmm, the end of the ravine opened up. What is this, a crater?

“Mistah Koen? I think that’s Neo...”

I’ll be damned if it wasn’t. Imagine a skinny robot made of junkyard scrap, with a fake plywood cube over one hand and a dented army helmet. That’s Neobrokrug. You never saw the guy unless he was collecting rent, smacking someone down for illegal weapons or...
“Aw shit he's pulling in more Wastelands!”

Remember how I said this place was an ashcan for destroyed cities? Somewhere in time a city is on the brink of annihilation. It’s Neo’s job to rescue...well maybe preserve is a better word...a good chunk of it before disaster wipes it off the map. He was surrounded by cobbled-together machinery that looked even dicier than him. Bleue pulled out her binoculars and peered down the crater.

“Koen. You really need to see this.” She passed the binocs to me.

“The girl in the pink dress?” Bast, she was dressed like one of my dad’s clockwork dolls.

“To the right of her.”

Some kinda flashing was a battle. Some giant robot with scraggly beard and hat like a Jaegermonster...and a guy in a soldier’s uniform fighting him. Aether saber....medic’s belt...aether goggles...mustache...

“Holy crap that’s my DAD!”

I lowered the binocs, trying to make sense of what I just saw. Were we back in the Steamlands? No, this was an overlap. A huge chunk of the Steamlands was on its way to us. Everybody knew about the Caldon remnant. That was one of the first regions that made up this hellhole. Finally enough of the dust cleared that I could make out the outline of the city on the horizon.