As I work on the sequel to A Cold Black Wave I decided to try a bit of an experiment: post a few chapters as I write them. There’s some risk here, I think, in presenting an unfinished and unpolished work. But with ACBW and Dustland, I didn’t dramatically change much from the initial versions. For those interested in following the development of a story and those waiting for the sequel, you can watch the drama unfold for a few chapters. Enjoy!
Josh awoke to thunderous explosions. Glass shattered windows and sent dust and smoke billowing down the street and through every crevice in the room. His eyes stung as he tried to shield them. Coughing, Josh tried to stand and felt a tug on his arm. A thin tube ran from a metallic wrap around his left arm to a cylindrical machine that sat next to him. He groped with his other arm to disconnect the tube when an explosion sent chunks of wood and tile showering down from above, just missing his head. Gunfire smacked into a building nearby and voices called out to each other amid the firefight.
“Leah?” He groaned. His voice came out dry and raspy. “Leah!” God, where is she?
A heaving explosion sent the ground rippling and knocked Josh sideways against a wall. Someone outside screamed in pain. Josh managed to undo his wrap and release himself from the device as he rolled away from another piece of ceiling coming down. He looked around for a weapon. Nothing. His leg hurt and he had difficulty walking.
A soldier appeared in the doorway covered in blood and dust. She wore armor that contoured to her body and a metallic apparatus covered her left ear and ran down her face and to one side of her lips. It was flush with her skin and moved just like it as she spoke. “We need to go. Come on.”
“My leg. I can’t move very fast.”
She went and held him around the waist. “Put your arm around me. Let’s go. My name’s Jayce. Don’t die,” she warned. “Or everything is lost.”
Amid the fighting and confusion, a lucid thought crossed his mind. How can I understand her?
Jayce helped carry Josh across the street as streaks of light passed back and forth in the air around them. The sun retreated from the sky behind a grey haze that cast the land in a dreary light. An explosion rocked the third story of a building not a block away, sending up a voluminous cloud of black and fiery ash as wood and concrete blew out in every direction. Shrapnel of all types whizzed through the air and fell from the sky around them as they dove inside another building and lay breathing in gasping breaths on the floor.
“Where’s Leah?” He asked between pauses in the fighting. “The girl, where is she? I’m not going anywhere without her.”
“She’s safe. Deas has her at the pickup site.” Jayce touched her ear and spoke to someone else. “Rechtel, this is five one, do you copy?” A pause, then, “I’m two clicks away from extraction. I have the boy. Pull your people back immediately and return to extraction point. Do you copy?”
Two shots pierced through the wall just above their heads, leaving a clean burn the size of a fist that glowed orange and then died away.
The room spun and Josh’s vision distorted as objects flickered into and out of existence. The world turned jagged with sharp edges and a grainy texture filtered through everything. Josh lifted his hand and examined it but everything appeared normal. He looked up again to see if the distortion returned. Nothing. He squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his fingers just above them to dispel the sensation. It passed as he found Jayce reaching down to lift him up. “Come on,” she said, standing over him.
She grabbed Josh by the shirt and lifted him to his feet. She pulled him along. “Keep your head down!” She yelled before crossing another street and entering a narrow alley.
As they neared the end of the alley, she looked at her forearm. A hovering projection displayed a clear, 3D digital image of the surrounding topography. Red dots emitted near their position. She turned to Josh. “If something happens to me, keep heading in that direction.” She pointed towards another alley across the street. “You’ll find the extraction point.”
“How will I know?”
“You won’t miss it.”
She checked her weapon that was attached on her arm and pressed a button. They both watched as the red dots converged on their position from both sides of the street. Jayce took a deep breath and knelt in the tight corridor of the alley, leaning out from behind cover. She fired on her target and a concussion of light and debris sprayed through the street. A three shot burst slammed into the wall near her head and sent Jayce onto her back as fire caught on the walls and along the left side of her body, a slick, crawling, and liquid mass that stuck to everything it touched.
The viscous fire ate away at her armor. She pulled hard on a release pin near her collarbone until it clicked, and the armor opened up and fell from her body in a rapidly dissolving pile. Underneath her armor, she wore olive drab clothes matted in sweat. A humanoid machine ran into the alley and fired on Josh. Jayce grabbed its neck and arm, slammed it into a wall, and caused the shot to go errant.
“Run, now!” She yelled as the machine emitted a concussive blast that knocked Jayce backwards and Josh flat on the cement. Jayce leapt to her feet as the machine swung its arm at her to fire again. She used a straight palm to its wrist to deflect his aim and a honeycomb of needles blasted into the wall next to her. It turned a shoulder down and rammed her against the wall as a cough of air expelled from her mouth. “Run!”
Josh did, running behind the machine and into the street. Pain streaked up his leg and through length of his body. He hobbled as he went, but the adrenaline overtook any physical limitations. He didn’t look around. He didn’t check for safety before continuing. He just ran. Leah would be there waiting for him. She had to be.
As Josh entered an open plaza, he stopped. A grey, sleek helicopter hovered twenty feet off the ground. It was devoid of any rotors and used small, gyroscopic engines to hover and turn. Its engine hummed not unlike that of the machines they’ve fought against, but at a higher pitch. Two soldiers kneeling behind cover noticed Josh and scoped him from afar through their rifles. One signaled the other and he ran to Josh’s position while the other covered his advance.
Josh hobbled to meet him and as they met, the soldier knocked Josh to the ground. A projectile hissed by and an explosion knocked the air from their lungs as chunks of a nearby building blew out into the plaza. The helicopter rose in the air and pitched right as a concealed door gunner sprayed the enemy’s position with a steady hail of streaking light that cut a building in half and sent parts of the pursuing machine whirling in every direction.
“Get up!” The soldier ordered as he lifted Josh and ran for the copter. It dropped down above ground level, and as they neared it, a door opened for them to enter. The soldier shoved Josh inside while he called his friend over and they both climbed inside the cramped space. There were other bodies inside. Two wounded soldiers bleeding from wounds suffered in combat lay prostrate on their backs.
Leah. She sat in the corner with her legs up to her chest and face buried under her arms. She didn’t realize Josh was sitting across from her.
“Leah!” Josh called, reaching over and shaking her. The hum of the engine and the whirl of the door gun as it laid waste to encroaching machines overwhelmed his voice. He shook her harder until she raised her head. “It’s me. Leah, it’s Josh!” She couldn’t hear his words but her face sunk in relief when she recognized him. She leapt forward and wrapped her arms around his neck. He kissed her on the forehead and squeezed her tight.
The helicopter took to the air and banked around the combat zone as the door gunner seemed to exhaust a limitless supply of ammo on the enemy. Empty cylindrical canisters rolled around inside the cabin, and when the gunner needed to recharge, another canister popped out of the gun chamber and he grabbed a new one next to him to reload. Josh noticed a small porthole on the gunner’s side and peered out into the burning city below. Black, curling smoke rose in slanting columns from pockets in a two square mile radius below. Lines of cyanic light streaked chaotically in the air as targets below fired on the helicopter. Josh spotted seven machines pursuing two survivors through the streets, one wounded and carried by the other.
“Hey!” He called, pointing outside. “There’s survivors down there!” The soldier next to him couldn’t hear and stared as he pointed. Josh slammed the back of his fist against the soldier’s chest and pointed for him to look. He looked down on the battlefield and then covered his mouth as he radioed the pilot.
The helicopter banked harder to the right and swooped low over buildings to give the gunner an angle on his targets. A spark blew through the left cabin door and exited the top of the helicopter as dripping hot metal fell inside. Some landed on one of the wounded soldiers and he screamed as it burned through his leg and the smell of singed flesh and sulfuric metal filled the cabin.
Leah tried to help the man by using the butt of a rifle and scrape the hot mass off his leg. The attempt was futile as it ate through flesh and muscle, and the man gave one last moan before passing out. The helicopter rattled and a moment later, Josh realized they landed back in the plaza. The cabin door opened and the two healthy soldiers jumped back out and ran into the dark plaza, the sun all but a red ember on the grey horizon. A spotlight burst on from the top of helicopter and aided the soldiers as they ran to help their comrades. Two bodies appeared at the far end of the plaza.
It was Jayce.
A spider drone jumped from a rooftop and skittered along the ground towards the two soldiers. The door gunner fired errant shots but he gave up once the machine came within ten feet of the men. The drone jumped with a burst of speed and hit one of the soldiers, knocking him flat on the ground. The machine pierced his eye with one of its legs, the metal apparatus going through the back of his skull. The other soldier shot rounds through the machine, breaking its dome and disabling it as choking black gas shot out in a bursting cloud. The soldier tossed a grenade at it. A strange burst of light, like that of static electricity, crackled through the air and the black cloud disappeared as if it never existed.
The soldier met Jayce and her wounded comrade and they made for the helicopter. The door gunner laid down a ferocious covering fire as it tore through and collapsed entire buildings before the oncoming machines. A cloud of dust and smoke expanded violently throughout the plaza. Still, the enemy fire streaked over and past the helicopter in any attempt to keep it from taking off. Jayce and the other soldier dragged her bloodied friend along as fast as they could until they made it to the cabin door. As they lifted the wounded soldier, the cabin exploded with warm, red liquid as he took a direct hit through the chest. It left a gaping, smoking hole that was so hot his wounds cauterized. He slumped to the ground as the other soldier grabbed Jayce, who was stunned and unmoving, and pushed her inside before following her in.
The copter rose in breathless ascent as pieces of metal and molten iron burst forth from inside the cabin as enemy rounds tore through the hull. The copter shuddered and the engine gave out a final, worried moan before turning silent. They suspended in the air for a moment, weightless, as the craft nosed forward and took a fatal plunge towards the earth. The pilot fought the controls and the copter rumbled with such force that the bodies of the dead soldiers animated and slid about in macabre display. Jayce fell forward into the laps of Josh and Leah before fumbling with their safety harness in an attempt to get them secured.
Warning bells banged in their eardrums as the earth approached. Smoke roiled out from the copters wounds and left a trail in the sky. The pilot angled down a main road like a runway, but as he approached, the nose drifted left and he lost control of the yaw. They spun in rapid circles that pressed them motionless against the walls. The copter hit the ground with such force that the hull bent outwards and collapsed the roof down just above their heads. Smoke and dust went up in a blinding cloud that thickened the air and covered everything in a fine gray soot. The concussion from the sudden crash gave way to an unnerving silence.
Leah sat unconscious and Josh struggled in a daze with his harness. Blood ran from Jayce’s leg. A metal rod from the threshold of the door broke free and drove through her thigh. Her head knocked against the back wall on impact and blood trickled from her right ear. She tried to move but in her slow confusion, she didn’t realize she was pinned by the rod. Josh freed himself and unlatched Leah from her harness. He stuck his arms under hers and dragged Leah out into the street before lying down next to her in a drifting haze.
Josh coughed as he sucked in dust with each breath. Jayce moaned in pain and struggled to free herself from the wreckage but she couldn’t figure out why her leg wouldn’t move. Josh covered his mouth as he rose to his feet and saw movement coming at them from the end of the street, some two hundred yards away. They’re coming.
He grabbed Jayce’s leg and lifted it until the rod slid out. She let out a scream and her hands shook as she gripped her wound. She clenched her teeth until she could bear the pain long enough to talk. She pointed weakly. “Get the bag there, and the rifle.” Josh reached inside the cabin and grabbed both and Jayce wrapped her arm around him as he pulled her out. They stumbled away, clearing the crash site.
“Check for survivors,” Jayce told him as she sat down and pulled a metal wrap out of the medical bag. Blood dripped from the hole in her leg. She covered it with the wrap, touched the side and it shrunk in size as if vacuum-sealed. Jayce leaned her head back as sweat dripped from her face and fought the pain, but the bleeding stopped.
Josh ran back to the helicopter and checked the cockpit, but the pilot was dead. The others in the cabin were, too. Leah stirred and he helped her to stand and get out of the street. Streaks of light came at them from the machines, blowing pieces of metal off the remains of the helicopter.
Jayce forced herself to stand and pointed down an alley, her face drawn and haggard. “Let’s go, down here.” She said, waving them forward. The grim sound of her voice wasn’t lost on Josh. There wasn’t anywhere to go.
Leah clung to Josh’s neck as they staggered. Jayce brought up the rear and told them where to go. Bloodied and dazed, they staggered their way through back alleys and across streets. When they reached the end of a street lined with rusted vehicles, Jayce stopped and leaned against a building. Leah and Josh breathed in sucking bouts and looked to their new friend for direction. They all knew they couldn’t keep running in their condition. Jayce looked about. “There, go up there,” she said, pointing to a multi-story building.
They climbed the steps to the fourth floor, grimacing against the pain with every step. Jayce pushed open a door to an office that contained decomposing paperwork stacked neatly in bins, and computers left untouched for decades and covered in thick dust. Pictures of loved ones sat in frames within each cubicle.
“In that office over there,” Jayce pointed to another room. Josh pushed the door open to a separate office with a window view of the street below. There was a single desk in the room and bookshelves along both sides. A clothed skeleton slumped in the chair, its skeletal head resting on the desk. A gun lay on the ground and brown stains covered his suit. “Lie down and be still,” she warned. They did as she said.
“Do they know we’re here?” Leah asked with worried eyes.
“They’ll find us. That’s what they do.” Jayce said. She stood to leave, pulling two cylindrical grenades from an emergency belt she wore in case she ever had to shed her armor. “Wait here.”
She left and they listened as her footsteps disappeared.
Leah grabbed Josh’s hand. “What’s happening?”
“I don’t know.” Josh sat up to look out the door but didn’t see anything. A pin-drop silence filled the room. He glanced at the dried, rust-colored blood lying on the ground beneath the man’s chair. “She’s our only chance to survive now,” he said, turning his gaze to Leah who tightened her sweaty grip around his hand.
“I thought you were dead,” she whispered. “I thought they left you out there.”
“So did I.” Josh said. He gripped his head and winced as a pain ebbed up through the back of his skull. The room spun in a slow, dizzying pace. Colors faded and washed out. Pieces of the world fell away and blackness replaced them like missing elements of a puzzle. He heard Leah’s voice but it was distant and tinny as if she were falling away. What the hell is happening to me? Sweat beaded on his forehead. He raised his hand and looked on as his palm disappeared from his fingers and returned again, and then whole blocks of the room flickered into and out of existence.
An explosion rattled the building and dust unsettled from the room and hung about. A pen rolled off the desk. Josh felt something jolting him and noticed Leah speaking, but no sound came from her mouth. He only heard a calming buzz in his eardrums and then the world turned black.