The Lonesome Road

The taste of rotting flesh

Her teeth sank deep into the rotting flesh at the back of his neck. She heard him give a guttural grunt of pain as the blonde woman barrelled into him and knocked all three of them to the ground.

His weight was crushing down on her, making it difficult to breathe. She bit deeper, feeling necrotising sinew give way beneath her mouth and her teeth splintering bone into shards. Blood and spinal fluid and scraps of putrid muscle coated her throat and her chin.

His body spasmed above her as his nerves failed at her touch, the back of his head beginning to melt into a pulpy mess of blackening skin. Then her teeth finally met as she severed his spine and he went limp.

She bit harder for a second, just to make sure. The smell was foul and the acidic poisons of her saliva were already dissolving the bone and tissue. Her hand was clenched tight on the back of his skull, fingers rigid amid the increasingly slippery mass of deep brown and red and black as the rot began to spread down to the rest of his body and the rancid liquids dribbled down her arm.

The blonde woman – Belial, was that what the Duke had called her? – rolled off the decomposing corpse, clutching at her sides and wheezing. Lili ignored her. She could hear Snowy’s laboured breathing somewhere nearby, punctured with sobs. She shoved the rotting remains of the ‘Could-have-been-King’ off her, staggering to her feet and moving swiftly to the edge of the platform.

Below her the body of Mr Echo lay split from sternum to groin, innards spilled out in a stinking pile atop him. She would have gagged, if she were not capable of doing so much worse. Cornelius was fighting Wrench. The man who had been sent to kill them was hideously wounded – no doubt the work of Mr Echo before things had turned sour. It was clear that things had not gone well for anyone involved, judging by the amount of blood and viscera splattered across the room.

The rage in Cornelius’ eyes was almost palpable as he glanced up at her briefly atop the platform. They looked at each other and there was a moment of understanding between them. She nodded. He grabbed Wrench, roaring and pulling the man’s head back sharply.

She stepped gracefully off the platform, her full weight landing sickeningly hard on the assassin’s neck and dropping them both to the floor.

Somehow, he survived it. Wrench gave a hoarse roar, attempting to turn and rip his way through the people surrounding them with his wicked knife. His legs were a mess, dripping blood and bent wrongly like his neck, and his face was similarly fucked up. Clearly the tables had turned too far from his favour and he needed to get out

He didn’t last much longer. Cornelius was a vengeful man, and he had a laser.

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He Hath Spoken -The lord Glork Lives!

A searing Light pierced the husk of the slime monster and Cornelius out of the now bunring husk of the monstrosity that had devoured him. It slumped to the floor with a muted thud and Cornelius stepped forward. The fiery blaze created a sinister back drop and Cornelius spun and took in the site of Glork’s Children.

He smiled a gentle smile, like that of old Mama Escobar when she talked of old times. He shook his head to get rid of the fake memories. He would deal with those later

“The Great father has spoken to me!” He exlaimed

Glork’s chlidren splutterd and coughed as they came to their senses and focused their gaze on Cornelius, dazed and slightly confused.

“Do not fear, for you are now awaken. The world as you may have known it is no longer the same. The world out there, has been destroyed by the flithly vultures of humanity, picking what is left from the rotting corpse of society.”

Some rolled their eyes, others looked teriifief and held close to each other and others still just stared, gaping.

“But Glork has spoken to me, and you are his children. You are the hope, the light at the nd of a very dark tunnel. A tunnel that we built around ourself. So many have taken from the bounty of this world, and have caused a terrible tax. We have tipped the balance, and Glork, Glork will balance it; and for that he needs your weight behind the re-establishment of the equilibrium. For you are his children and he the father of all will give plenty to those that bring back the balance.”

Cornelius looked around at the faces around him and proclaimed
“Step forward to me, those who will see their destiny through.
Sep forward to me, those who will set things right for our world.
Step forward to me those who are lost in the light for Glork has has asked me to carry his beacon to shine through the blackness and purge the world of its terror…

Brothers and Sisters, we are all his children , we are the dawn that is coming following the night. Let us ride forward like Helios and sieze the day back!"

His cloak bellowed, carrying the weight of his words on the breeze through breeze escaping the air ducts

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People in Tubes

The Duke watched the six tubes of red goo. Six people with intimidating names, four of which he was pretty sure he had met, but with much less intimidating names. One of them even had two.

Is this what we came here for? To discover the origins of the four people who keep forcing themselves into our lives?

Slightly confused, he began walking in a circle around the tubes. He scratched his head absent-mindedly. He had been led to believe that this vault was connected to Vault 98 somehow – but he couldn’t see the connection. Not with the scientists, and not with these super-people. In 98, they were all just mutants. None of them had psychological profiles that went on for days, or strength enough to punch through a wall – most of them just looked a bit odd.

The Duke frowned. He had come here looking for answers. All he had right now was more questions.

One of which is, why are you two not out playing with your friends?

Seeing as the scientists were pretty definitely dead, Duke had kind of assumed that the four awake ones had escaped on their own – or at least one of them had, and then freed the others. And they obviously knew the way back here, and they very likely knew that there were two more like them. Were they not friends with these two? Were none of them friends, and the fact that four of them were out right now was just coincidence or carelessness?

Belial. Charismatic and friendly – guess that makes her stand out from the others. Maybe they hate nice things. But if she emits stuff that makes people like her, shouldn’t they like her by default? Maybe they’re afraid she’ll turn them decent?

He walked around to the other populated tube.

Forneus. Extra super-duper-psychotic. Sounds like someone they’d get along great with. Or is he too violent even for these guys?

Faint screams echoed down the corridor. The Duke frowned. Sounded like things were going well for his friends.

I’d better go see if they need help. he thought to himself, and turned to leave. Then he stopped himself, as an idea struck him.

…After getting some help. Wrench has promised to try to kill us when we’re done here, so why not even the odds a little.

He turned back to the tubes.

Now, who do we want? Friendly lady or angry dude? Ennie, meenie, miney- Ah, who am I kidding. There’s too many psychos around as it is.

He initiated the release sequence for Belial, and stood back and waited for her to wake up.

Please don’t be mental, please don’t be mental, please don’t be mental, please…

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The box

The box was a nice place, a cosy place.

THe unpredicatable and every in chaos wasteland had made cornelius weary. The recent shock of his lie of a life had sent Cornelius to a bad place. There was a sstranger in his own mind and hadny even known about it. This made Cornelius question everything and it had drained him.

The box was constant in its darkness. He knew what he was getting to whilst in there and it felt good, the nothing, the blank. Maybe if he spent enough time there he would soon havea canvas onto which he could start to assemble his real life again.

Surely Glork will balance his misfortunes..Surely there would be some resolution to all of this hell. He only wanted the best for this place, and Eli was the only one that could provide it.

Cornelius Took out the Mysterious ball reecovered form the mine and fondled its cool exterior and peered further into the balck abyss within. It felt good. and his mind became clearer in between his unexplained moments of unconciousness…

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The touch of a woman

The maw of the creature engulfed her as Mr Echo flung her into the grinding jaws. Her outer clothes caught on the edges of the teeth, tearing her shirt to ribbons. She landed hard against the back of what she could only assume was its throat with a wet thud, rapidly becoming coated in a fine layer of dust and earth.

Lili scrambled to her feet quickly. There was no sign of blood, which was good. That probably meant it had swallowed Duke whole, so he had a better chance of having survived – assuming that the tons of earth and rock that were presumably being filtered through the worm’s internal organs hadn’t crushed him to death. She stared at the hole ahead of her for a fraction of a moment, dark and stinking of wet dirt. Did she really want to go down there? Was he really worth it?

How would I explain it to Eli if I didn’t?

Fuck.

The choice was made for her mere seconds later. Bright glaring light enveloped her from behind, the blaring horn of the war rig exploding into the darkness. She half-turned in shock, stunned that anyone would do something so stupid and reckless, and the grill of the rig slammed into her, throwing her back into the creature’s gullet. She could hear a horrifying grinding as the worm tried to bite down and chew on the vehicle as Snowy rammed it further down the throat over row after row of brutally efficient teeth, wheels and engine screaming with the effort.

Lili picked herself up in disgust, dripping in some kind of sticky mucus that she could tell was beginning to eat into her clothes. She wasn’t going to navigate the entirety of the worm’s intestines on the off chance that she might find the crushed remains of Duke’s body somewhere amid the tons of rock and dirt. But every second she spent waiting here or pushing through its guts was another second that Snowy destroyed the war rig in the creature’s maw. She needed that damn war rig to get to her brother! She hadn’t wanted to have to do this, but he left her no choice.

Carefully she found the seam of her protective undergarment and peeled the glove off her hand. She pressed her palm against the soft flesh of the creature’s mouth, wincing a little at how unresisting it was against her fingers. She concentrated and then… let go.

The rot spread out from her palm, the meat of the creature’s throat rapidly necrotising and melting into thick sticky mucus. The decay swiftly poured down into the darkness, until everything around her was a rapidly blackening mass of putrefaction and crumbling bone. It thrashed and roared beneath her, a high-pitched grinding scream as it tried to rear up. Its head smashed against the roof of the cavern, war rig making a sickening crunch against the stone roof and sliding a little further into its mouth as the rough hide and muscle of its body melted and collapsed around the vehicle. She barely held on, but at this point it didn’t matter. The beast was all but dead as the rot destroyed its nervous system and ended its final spasms.

She stood amid the melting slime inside the crumbling structure of what had once been teeth. Slowly, bitterly, she pulled the glove back on and refastened it to the rest of the material. It wasn’t lost on her that this was the only way she would ever get to make direct skin contact with anything living except her brother, that everything she touched would end up like this.

It’s nice to be reminded that I’m a monster.

Snowy staggered out of the war rig with a clatter, wrenching the driver’s side door open and causing the teeth embedded in it to crumble into dust. She turned to say something angry, about how stupid and reckless he was, him and his friends. But he ignored her, pushing past and stumbling frantically towards what had been the back of the worm, towards the wetly bubbling piles of skin and muscle and death.

“Duke! DUKE!”

The man’s scream echoed down the tunnel, bouncing off the walls. It was met only with silence. She felt an overwhelming surge of pity, as she understood the real reason he had turned the truck around, risked driving into death. And then…

“Guys, I think I killed it…”

A familiar figure appeared out of the darkness, covered in gore and dirt. The Duke seemed fine, apart from the extensive coating of melted worm flesh and intestinal juices. A strange feeling of relief hit her, one she had not expected to feel. She raised an eyebrow but said nothing. If he wanted to believe he had found the special part of its innards that caused it to self-destruct, he was quite welcome to think that for now. At least they were all alive, and by some miracle the war rig was not actually that damaged. These machines were designed to take a beating. She smiled slightly as she watched Snowy run forwards and hug his friend, the relief almost palpable.

Her other eyebrow swiftly followed the first as Snowy threw caution to the wind and kissed the Duke.

Lili turned away awkwardly and went to move the truck out of the last crumbling fragments of the jaws of the worm. She should leave them alone.

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Burning skies

The flames erupted in a violent, roiling wall behind her, the force of the explosion flinging her out the window and over the gap into the valley below. She landed with a crash on the roof of the war rig, spared more damage only because that she had already been mid-jump and by the reaction of some reflex she hadn’t known she had.

Lili turned her head sharply, the singed ends of her hair wafting beneath her nose with an acrid burning smell. She looked up at the charred black outline of the window behind her. Smoke was belching out of it in thick plumes as the flames consumed the room inside. Far above, the rocket was slowly ascending into the sky with a white hot tail of fire behind it.

Holy shit.

What happened?

How could they have survived that?

She had been leaving the facility, going back to wait for them all in the war rig so that once the men had finished with whatever looting or poking around the building they had wanted to do, they could get moving. There was nothing here that interested her. It had only been a brief stopover anyway – she hadn’t really wanted to come here, but it was in their path and it shouldn’t have taken all that long. She was trying this whole ‘being friendly and trusting’ thing, and after they had started to get on a bit better she had been more inclined to help Snowy out. They had stopped here so that he could try to murder a stranger, to get his revenge. But then it had all changed. The rest of them had convinced him to be a better man, for himself and his friends and the ‘son’ he was trying to save, and the spaceman had been allowed to live.

Well, except the big guy. Eli’s memory of him seemed to be very different to the man she saw – but then her brother always saw the best in people and had a strange knack of getting people to open up and befriend him. The man she saw was at best uncommunicative, and at worst downright sociopathic. He would bear watching.

Well, if he survived…

She sat on top of the rig and massaged her injured arm, staring up at the fire as it continued to flicker in the window frame. Dammit. She didn’t have Eli’s healing powers or his reckless sense of bravery and self-sacrifice. She wouldn’t be able to help them even if they had survived. She wasn’t sure how they could get out of that. Had the spaceman betrayed them after all, burnt them into little scorch marks against the wall?

She didn’t need them anyway, could travel and survive quite easily by herself. She could eat whatever, walk as long as it took. She would be fine alone, if they had all died in the fire. She would get by on her own again.

But she did need them. Not really, not technically. But if she wanted to get to Eli fast, if she wanted to have a chance of reaching him before the facility fucked him up beyond repair, she needed help. She needed backup, she needed wheels to get there faster, she needed people who cared enough to do something. She knew Eli would have left a trail of people behind him that he had helped, that could maybe offer her help if she asked. But they were far away and it was uncertain if any of these people would be able or willing. Here and now she had people that she knew wanted to help.

And as much as she hated to admit it, they were decent people. Taciturn, frequently stupid, erratic, confusing and frustratingly oblivious to so many things. But of all the shitty people she had met in her life, they were among the least shitty. She could see why her brother had become so attached to them. She could see why people wanted friends in this wasteland, why you needed sometimes to be able to rely on somebody else.

What if I’m alone?

Above her, the sky burned as the rocket became a pinprick of light in the distance.

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Distractions

The Duke regarded Excelsior Perseus as his friends were talking to the man…robot…person…thing.

He didn’t know he was a machine. He still doesn’t. It he even a ‘he’, technically? Can machines be people? He sounds like one, acts like one, and – mostly – looks like one, so I guess yes? Then again, maybe it’s just a machine that has been programmed to deny being a machine. All of this could be pre-programmed
…but even if it is, if it is a machine that is sophisticated enough to respond naturally to our various questions and actions, doesn’t that make him close enough to ‘live’ that he can be considered living?

Duke wondered what the man had experienced before he was reactivated by Cornelius and Lili. Was he dead? Was he asleep? Did he dream of electric sheep?
More importantly, would he have been better off being left that way? All he had gained from being reactivated was that his entire world view had been shattered, and he found himself at the mercy of a group of strangers who for all he knew could have been the ones who attacked him in the first place. It couldn’t be a great situation to be in.

And he’s another delay. he thought to himself, mildly annoyed.

They were going after Eli, and this Excelsior fellow did not seem to be involved with that in any way. The group had a tendency to get distracted with less important things – he knew this, and had on occasion been guilty of it himself. But it still bothered him that even Lili, Eli’s own sister, was willing to waste time chatting to androids or haggle.
She had looked at the Duke like he was an idiot after they had left Rusk – how was he so incapable of bartering, she probably wondered. Did he not realise the worth of what he was offering?

In truth, he just didn’t care what it was worth to others, only what it was worth to him. If the Duke was offered as much as he needed, he saw no reason to ask for more. When he ran out of resources he could strike a new bargain as needed, and if he had agreed to be ‘under-paid’ for previous jobs, chances were good that people like Rusk would be happy to trade with him again.
But, whatever. They had the money, food, water, and fuel. And now they had a robot passenger.
Once they had dropped the latter off, maybe they could return to the task at hand.

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Homecoming

The vertibird landed with a roar on the ground, its engines slowly winding down as the dust settled. The crew started scrambling to pick up the boxes and equipment that they had picked up on the way here, to start unloading their previous cargo. Mathew grabbed Eli’s arm and pulled him to his feet. He pushed the boy towards the opening doorway and out into the world again.

He stepped out onto unfamiliar ground – and yet so very familiar. He had never been outside any of the buildings before, never seen the sky or the grounds or anything outside of rooms and corridors. The buildings were tall, some of them stories tall and far better maintained than most others he had seen in his travels. It was cold and clinical and it made him shiver.

But he recognised the guards and the pristine white uniforms they wore. He recognised the weapons they carried, although he had never known they were weapons before. He recognised the smell from the nearby building as a door opened, and he recognised the face and feeling of one of the orderlies as she hurried across the tarmac towards the landing party.

The woman crouched in front of him, a huge smile on her face. She had lipstick on her teeth, as if she had come out here in a hurry.

“Welcome home sweetheart! We’ve missed you so much!”

She ruffled his hair, her smile hard and brittle and fake. He stared at her blankly. He could feel eyes watching from everywhere – behind him, in front through the double doors, at the windows in the buildings around them.

“It’s been an awfully long time. It must have been so horrible and scary for you out there. But you’re safe now.”

“Is Dr Rattray waiting for me?” Mathew spoke from behind him, voice curt.

“She is, sir.” The woman looked up and behind Eli briefly at the other man. “We’ve been told to put you in the meeting room and she’ll join you once you’ve had a chance to make yourself comfortable. Her schedule has been cleared for several hours this afternoon, so you should have plenty of time to cover everything.”

“Only a few of hours? I suppose it will have to do.” Mathew radiated a feeling of annoyance and disdain. The woman smiled weakly.

“I’m sure you can discuss that with her too.”

She looked back down at Eli, face settling back into that artificial mask that played at friendly affection. He could feel her making herself touch him, a small involuntary flinch before her hand touched his arm. There was a hint of something almost… nervous in her eyes.

“The supervisors will be so pleased when we tell them you’re back. If you’re good, you might even get to meet them in person soon! You will be a good boy, won’t you?”

Eli didn’t answer her. The silence dragged on, becoming increasingly tense as her smile wavered. Behind them he could hear Mathew shout something at the people unloading the vertibird. He just stared down at the woman for too long, uncomfortably long. Eventually he turned his gaze straight up and to the right, towards the topmost window of the building behind them.

There was a shadowed figure standing in the window, angled and backlit with an eerie green light so that the face wasn’t visible. It was a woman, gazing down at him. He could feel her presence even from here, feel the cold emotion she exuded. He had never seen her face, but he had felt that presence before from the other side of walls and mirrored windows.
The orderly looked nervously at him, then up behind her. She glanced back down quickly, a hint of panic on her face before the artificial smile returned.

“Come in! Your room is exactly the way we left it, just waiting for you. We’ll get you settled in and then you can pick up right where you left off. Doesn’t that sound wonderful?” She put her arm around his shoulders and guided him towards the doors. He didn’t resist.

“Doesn’t that sound…” her hand clenched, nails digging tightly into his arm as she glanced up at the window, “… just wonderful?”

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The illusion of a past

Lili stared at the hole in the back of the machine, at the exposed wiring and the blinking circuits inside the torso. She reached inside carefully to touch the machinery, avoiding the fine layer of blood around the opening as it made muffled noises of complaint.

Is this your blood?

How could it have blood? It was a machine. That seemed like a wasteful design choice. How could the blood still be here, not smeared away on the sand? Perhaps it had belonged to someone else. Perhaps it was lying and there were others here – or had been recently, if this was their blood.

But then, synths were designed to look as human as possible, right up until the point where it turned out they weren’t. Synths were weapons, they were dangerous and they were never sent anywhere without purpose. In many ways, she was the same. She took her hand out of the chest cavity and stood up, stepping away and back towards the war rig with barely a second glance. If it was going to kill them, it would have already done it. Without function below the head, it was currently harmless – to her, at least. The others could pick it up.

She stared back at the ruins of the town behind them. It was a brown smear in the dust down the ridge, ancient and useless and forgotten. The more Cornelius had talked about his happy past, the more she had been certain that it wasn’t true. There were too many specific details, too much happiness and whimsy in the story for it to possibly be true. Human memory wasn’t that good, and neither was human life. A part of her had tried to prepare him for that eventuality on the way here. But for all his supposed intelligence, he was surprisingly obtuse – or possibly in serious denial until the obvious was placed in front of his eyes and he couldn’t pretend anymore.

When they had stood in front of the ruins of the town, ruins that were obviously over a hundred years old, she had seen something break in his eyes as he collapsed with a cry. A bitter sadistic part of her was happy to see his pain, to see that stripped from him the way his kind had stripped it all from her and her brother. Another part of her felt unexpectedly sorry for him. After all, for all his past, it would seem he wasn’t a terrible person now. He had tried so hard to get the funds to help them go find her brother, even if it had been somewhat fruitless in the end after she had stepped up and negotiated properly with Rusk. Cornelius was simple and optimistic, incredibly openly emotional to the point where she was surprised he had survived this long in the wasteland – surprised any of them had, had they just murdered everything in their way?

But he did not appear malicious. Not any more, at least. She wondered when they had done it to him. She wondered if his name was even Cornelius.

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Purpose

For several moments, Duke just lay on the ground, his eyes filled with despair as he heard the vertibird take off to who-knows-where with Eli.
Duke had fought, and fought, as hard as he could. It hadn’t helped. The Dragon had destroyed him effortlessly, would have killed Duke if Snowy hadn’t taken the shot for him.

Around him, hundreds of people cried out in pain, then fell mercifully silent. Duke continued to stare at the sky. Eli… he’s out there, on that vertibird. He’s no doubt being taken to whatever lab he came from. They will attempt to undo all the progress we have made with him, towards making him his own person, making him value himself. I don’t know what will be worse for him – if they succeed, or if they don’t.

The vertibird grew smaller and smaller in the distance.

Can we get to him in time to save him? Do we even stand a chance of saving him from the Dragon and his cohorts? What do we do? What can we do?

As the sound of the vertibird faded away, something changed within the Duke. He blinked, and when his eyes opened again the despair was gone. He rose to his feet, his face a mask of utter calm, not unsimilar to what he had been like at the beginning of his journey. There was a subtle difference however – where he once was carefree, he was now determined. What do we do? Simple – we kill the dragon.

…after freeing Eli, of course. Only before if we cross paths with him on the way to Eli. That might be better actually, as Eli wouldn’t have to see what gruesome stuff we do to the guy. But at this point, I can go either way.

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