Witington quickly changed out her clothing from the whites she wore in the sick houses. It was almost time for the small council to convene. There wasnt hardly a stain on them, of blood or pus, but the Colony wasnt immune to its superstitions, and everything would have to be disinfected.
There were only two cases of serious rot in the houses at the time. Five travelers had come from far across the wastes, to join the colony. All five were in the houses, sick of one thing or another, dystentery or malnutrition. Of the two that had rot, one of them had limbs that were crusted black streaked with red, with bits falling off. That one would surely die. The other was lucky enough to only lose a foot, and would most likely make it.
In the early days, when the Colony had opened up from the habs and the dome, to accept the folks living on its fringes, there had been many more serious cases of infection. There was a frantic struggle inside the colony, on what to do. The new council had been converged, the voted-on council, and people were just beginnning to accept a different way of doing things. But the thought of infection sent a jolt of terror to almost everyone that lived in the Colony. How could you let a disease that had destroyed an entire world, back into the one place that was supposed to be safe?
She had retrieved the old Kindle from Mona, during one of her finds. One of the travelers was only a child. She read him a story, every time Witington made rounds. Last time she had read the Lorax, by Dr. Suess, and the boy had liked it so much he asked for it again.
"Who is the once-ler?" the boy asked.
"He's in the story." She told him.
"I know that. But who is he really?"
The question startled her. It took a minute to gather herself. The ones before. They were the once-lers. They had sat on a world of endless riches, and let it go to hell. It was nothing she could tell the boy.
There wasnt as much of a change from outside the dome to inside it, anymore, the way it was before the Droid. But the air was still cleaner. There was an actual entrance, instead of a secret one, that was loosely guarded, but any citizen of the colony could access the dome, if they chose to. Most of the new ones spent a lot of time here, in between whatever duties they were given, staring at all the wonderment. The presence of towering green, and animals. Hoping to catch a glimpse of the fabled Droid. She was used to it a little more than before, but still, it was different. A bubble of hope. The fact was, spending a lot of time inside the dome left you feeling a little claustrophobic. It also filled many people with hope, hope that if this was possible, than almost anything could be achieved. Food and shelter for all being the first of those priorities. All around her techs went back and forth from one project to another, to make things a little easier on the colony.
The council convened in an old boardroom used by the first, deceased council. It was a little more slick than Witington enjoyed. The chairs were fancy and metal, but not overly comfortable. There were eight members, besides her, all duly elected, except for the tenth. The tenth was Markus the Droid.
The Droid sat at the end of the table. Although this was not an intentional slight, or a grasp for power, it was sometimes percieved as such. It was tall and seemed to exude an aura of the past. With its red eyes and the whirring noises it made with its movements. It had human like features, but almost in the way of rubber, not flesh. The head of the Colonial Guard, General Veers, cleared his throat and called the Council to order.
"I'd like to begin." He said, "By bringing to attention the situation on the outer perimeter."
"You mean the fence." Yaryl Rogers, one of the traders said.
"Thats right." Veers added. "The incomplete fence. Which, as it stands, leaves us vulnerable to attack."
"But we havent been attacked in years." Council Berks said. Berks was a friend from long ago, and the trader that had introduced Mona to the Colony. From there it broke down into the usual bickering, until Witington interrupted.
"What if this is all there is?" She said.
"What on earth do you mean?"
"I mean this. This Colony, and us, and the junkpile. What if were all thats left? Are we ever going to find out?"
"That is an excellent point." Yaryl said.
"We worry about keeping others out." She said. "But the raiders are gone. What else is out there?"
"Let me show you." Veers said. The smart display on the table beneath him lit up, as he went through the controls, and pictures lit up on the walls around them. Burned out habitats and ruined tents, and Guardsmen walking past corpses.
"We've started an Expeditionary force." Veers said. "And started to push out in every direction. Starting with the known areas whereas refugees have come trickling in. This sort of thing was not possible while under partial assault from the raiders, a condition we lived in for years."
"And this is what you found?" Witington said.
"Yes ma'am." The general replied. "In every habitation that was found, for over thirty kilometers." He counted on his fingers. "No usable supplies, no water source, no known survivors. Little cover from the elements. A low likelyhood of survival."
"Weve been existing in a vacuum?" Berks said. "Surely, thats not possible."
The Droid spoke."What you refer to as the junkpiles." It said. "Is a treasure trove of resources, that has been keeping this civilization alive for years. And now it is finally starting to run low."
"I dont think-" Yaryl began.
"Where have you gotten your MRE's?" The Droid said. "Your rations? All the food that has been keeping you alive has come from one of two places: this habitat, that you call the dome, or the resource you call the piles. The soil has been poisoned to refuse agriculture, for every bit of land save for the dome. All animal life is extinct, save for the ones that come from the dome. We have to consider what all this is."
"And what is it?" Witington asked. "In your opinion."
"A treasure." Markus said. "A treasure that can be seen or whispered about from any direction. And a beckoning resource for anyone that would take it."
The wall displays shifted, showing a small flying robotic device. "I have perfected a series of autonomous drones." The Droid said, "Based on schematics found in the archives in this habitat. With their help I have been able to establish a far larger perimeter than your patrols, General Veers. And my searchs have yielded interesting results."
The displays shifted again, showing the drones camera as it flew through the wastes. Dead Earth and clear sky could be seen beneath it. Then, out of nowhere, the city.
"Good lord." Veers said.
"What is it?" Yaryls asked.
"This was one of the primary habitations of the time before." Markus said. "The archives refer to it as a mega-city."
"How many people lived in one of these?" Witington asked.
"Nine hundred million." The droid replied.
The council broke into murmers. "So many!" Berks said. "Is there a chance..of further habitation?"
"Unfortunately, yes." Markus answered. "As you can see."
The drone flew into the city, and its camera picked up the streets filled with screaming men. Many of them were raising Kalishnikov's or other AR's in the air and firing them, and all of them wore the colors of the Black Century.
There werent animals in the piles, but at nights, there were the freks.
The freks were a sort of mammilian mutant. Yellow skinned, and hairless. Eyeless as well. They possessed two overgrown incisors like rats, and nasty claws at the end of pink hands. The howled to each other in gutteral words that made no sense.
"Yap! Yobber! Yarl!"
The first frek they had seen was gnawing on an unknown substance, before Sgt. Aleph pumped it full of bullets. Its blood smelled bad, like pus and corruption. And after that It was hard for Mona to see the mutants anymore, but she could hear them. They were skittering on the outskirts of her vision, beyond her flashlight.
"We need to find him fast." Aleph said, unnesecarily adding, "Those freks will rip him to pieces."
At the next step the junk caved in, and they fell.
It was the sort of misstep Mona never would have made in her younger days. A junker memorized her footsteps, and traced trails through the rubbage, in order to prevent any sort of accident. But she was seven years removed from all that now. She had been on unfamiliar territory all evening, and as she was falling she thought to herself, this is it. This was the end of everything she had done. But her fall was short, and when she slammed into the hard floor below, she was bruised but not broken.
When she looked up, and found herself at the bottom of the shaft, she could see the freks above. They were gibbering to each other in their language, "yip, yip!" Aleph was already on his guard, with weapon drawn. He fired a few rounds. Mona put her hands over her ears, the shot echoed in the shaft. When she looked up the freks that had slunk off were making their way back, and there were more of them.
"Are you okay?" Aleph asked.
"Yes." Mona replied.
"The walls here are slick." He said. "No way to climb out."
"And if we did." Mona told him. "Those freks would be waiting for us up top."
They looked around for a while, and then reluctantly realized they could do nothing. So the pair decided to sit at the bottom of the shaft. Above the freks made noise, but somehow they also seemed to stare, with no eyes, and those horrible toothy mouths. Bits of junk fell in from the edges.
"This isnt fun." Aleph said.
"Not what you expected." Mona said. "When you signed up for this detail?"
"I dont know." Aleph said. "I remember how it was before. The piles were a pretty rough place."
"So in other words, I'm an idiot, for bringing kids here."
Aleph looked her in the eye. He was handsome in a sort of rugged way. It had been a long time since Mona had been with anybody. There was a stranger here or there, in the matter of scratching an itch, and there was that thing with the Droid. But Skip had been the only one she cared about, and he was long dead. A horrible thought darted through her mind. Were going to find the body. Skips body is waiting down here, in all this garbage, and were going to find it, right before we die.
"I also remember the battle against the Piss Yellows." Aleph said. "I was there."
Mona said nothing.
"What the Droid did that day was incredible." He said. "The power it had. We would have lost the battle, if not for the Droid. And the plasma weapons. Which he engineered."
"It, not he."
"The Droid is an it."
"If you say so. But what mattered was we won. And all of this was possible. And all of that was possible, because you found him. Found it. And if another kid, a young boy or girl, can find something anywhere near as good...." He sighed. "People talk all the time about the rationing. There's so many of us now, more than there used to be."
There's more to it than that, Mona almost said, but at that moment she saw the panel. It was the sort of touch control found often inside the dome. "There's something here." She told Aleph, and then pressed it. With a grinding screech, a hatch slid open in the side of the shaft.
"Do we go inside?" Mona wondered aloud.
A frek shrieked from above and threw itself down the shaft. Mona let out a startled scream. With the smell of burning ozone, Aleph unleashed a torrent of fire from his plasma rifle. Behind the body of its fallen comrade, two more of the mutant beasts fell down, howling "Yibber-yip? Yibber- Yeb?"
"Get going!" Aleph yelled. Mona scrambled through the hatch. Aleph was right behind her. The freks had gotten bold in their numbers, and now filled the shaft. Aleph was firing, but he would run out of ammunition before the freks ran out of bodies. Mona searched the wall, panicking. There had to be another panel. Where was it? Suddenly she found it, and with a loud beep the hatch ground shut, amputating a frek appendage as it did so.
There was a loud clacking coming from above. The lights were coming on in the tunnel, from the opposite end.
"What the hell?" Aleph wondered aloud.
"Welcome, traveler." A soothing voice intoned. "Please make your way to the travel pod."
"Can you feel that?" Aleph asked.
"Its fresh air. This place, whatever it is, is climate controlled."
Mona saw something on the ground. It was a small footprint, from a childs shoe. Etched in red. " Arril came down here." She said. "Look at this."
"Looks like he's been hurt."
"We need to get him back to the colony." She said. "Before any kind of infection sets in." And with that, the pair of them set off running down the well lit, clean hallway, that ran underneath mountains of trash.
When they found the travel pods, it was almost as overwhelming as the moment of discovery of the Droid itself.
There were dozens of them, arranged out in a large chamber. They were dark and smooth, with no distinguishing characteristic. Each one of them looked to be nearly the size of a residence in the habs.
"All of this." Aleph said. "How long has it been down here...."
Mona noticed that one of the pods was open. A small form was inside, slumped over. "I see him!" She shouted. Her footsteps echoed off the metal floor as she ran, and behind her Aleph came as fast as he could. The boy was unconscious inside the pod, on a large white leather seat. There were three rows of these seats. Mona was somewhat aware the front of the pod was a screen.
"Arril." She said, shaking him. "Arril, wake up!" terrified, she held a finger to the boys neck. A pulse throbbed faintly back at her. When she held her cheek underneath the childs nose, she could feel his breath. He was alive. Hurt, but alive, and that was good enough for right now.