When you sign up to join the Federation there's this really adorable icebreaker they run you through. Candidates are broken into two groups -- those with powers and everybody else. If you're normal you get a tour of the 'campus'. A trip up to the central tower, a basic layout of Bastion, maybe a cake and some downtime so that everyone can get to know each other. I heard it's actually pretty nice.
If you've got powers, if you were considered 'gifted', that's a different story. They'd group us up in small teams. Five or six, depending on what kind abilities we had. Variety was key. They didn't want a whole team of flying badasses that would get picked apart without ground cover.
We all meant to be like some kinda special ops squad. It didn't matter if we were going to hunt down terrorists or provide aid for hurricane relief. Every man and woman had to perform a specific job in concert with the unit.
You were lucky if you got grouped with someone you knew. Most of the time it was you, a group of total strangers, plus a marketing rep from the Federation. They were there to guide the icebreaker dinner.
See, in the early days of the Federation everyone got to pick their own code names. Some got them from the media. Helios, Titan, Miracle. That whole trio got their name from a bunch of journalists who probably worked as a team. A superhero marketing division or something like that. Then the standard was set.
The second wave had to be just as interesting. Just as exciting. Breaking Point, Mindbender, Dynamo, Daybreak. There were a ton of people that just broke stuff.
So what happens when you get two people from two completely different parts of the country who both want to be called "The Drillinator"? Welcome to the third generation. Helios would have none of that on his watch. We had to look professional.
Orientation was just that. We would gather together in a room, sat down at some crazy fancy dinner, crack a beer, and just talk. About family, where we were from, what we were going to miss most. Then we'd talk about our powers. How we discovered them. When they manifested. It would go around the room, one at a time, and once you were done telling your story everyone would take turns trying to find a name that fit you
Sometimes it meant everyone coming up with a name like Southern Bramble, or Wick. Maybe you didn't look like an Egyptian god, or maybe your name didn't quite match your posture. It didn't matter. That name was yours. Completely and absolutely, you owned it. I can't speak for everyone, but for me the icebreaker was a cathartic experience.
It's funny thinking about it now. But I guess that's what people do, right? Once everything comes crashing down you try and go back to the parts of life that seemed to really make sense.
I first discovered my gift in high school. They say that a full manifestation can occur any time during puberty, but there are always signs when someone starts showing a talent for the extraordinary. I could always tell when storms were coming. Bad ones would keep me up all night, like I had eaten a bag of sugar. Mom used to call me her little thunderbolt because I'd be off the walls anytime the sky got dark. I tried pitching that one, but LeAnn from marketing told me it was already taken.
It was math class, and I lived in a pretty good school district. The kind that had enough money for tvs in every classroom, and not just ones that are strapped to those wheel-in tables. My friends and I used to fight to sit closest to this old, spare tube tv near the front of the room. The kind that would make that digital clicking noise anytime to turned it on or off. Sitting in your desk, if you leaned in close, your palm could touch the screen and sweep the static electricity off it.
Most of the time you'd sit and try not to get called on to answer some crazy quadratic equation, but if you sat in that special chair you were only worried about one thing: the perfect shock. You had to time it right. One or two hand sweeps would do, but it had to be when the teacher wasn't looking, otherwise it would just be a waste. Then you couldn't touch your desk, or you'd lose the charge. The stakes were about as high as you can imagine for a 10th grader, but if you could navigate the risks the reward was a static shock so bad it felt like a bee sting.
One fateful day the stars seemed to align for me. I got the seat. I swept my hand across a few times. Felt that bristle of static against my hand. Didn't touch the desk. Even ran my shoes against the carpet a few times for good measure. The girl beside me, Carla, knew what I was up to. She was bracing for it, I think.
The first thing that hit me was how awful the air smelled. That's what I'm reminded of now. Burnt flesh.
The first electrical shock I released tore through her body faster than I could see. But you could tell where the initial burst of lightning traveled. It left a spiderweb of burst blood vessels up her arm and through her neck before rupturing her eyeball. I wish I could tell you that's where it stopped.
Twelve students were hospitalized from my little episode, mostly with superficial cuts or burns. Some had suffered scalding from superheated metal. Necklaces, earrings, bracelets, or anything metal that was touching skin. A few had to undergo cosmetic surgery to remove shards of glass that had been blown into their face. Electrical discharge across the building affected computers, televisions, appliances; basically anything plugged into a wall socket exploded or was shorted out.
Carla died. She took the brunt of every bolt of lightning that I couldn't control. It all passed through her, again and again. I think if it wasn't for her more kids would have died that day. Not that it's any consolation.
I thought I had put that life behind me, but here it is happening again. At the gates of Bastion, alongside friends and family, I've lost control. It happens in slow motion. I can feel each bolt pass through me and through everyone around me. I try my hardest to control myself, but the focus and self discipline I've learned from years of training all seem so far away. I am a danger to those around me, but I cannot stop. Somewhere in the back of my mind I realize that no one is standing close to me anymore. They're all so far away, or laying down.
Please, let them live.
Then the pain hits me. It feels like I'm being peeled apart, layer by layer. My skin is on fire, until it suddenly isn't anymore. I open my eyes and can see my arms wither and scatter to the wind like ash. I'm blinded as another white streak of light erupts from within me. I can no longer hear the crack of thunder that sounds off from every bolt. The ringing in my ears fades to silence. I know that if I can still make sound, I'm screaming.
If this is what death feels like, it's fitting. A tremendous amount of pain, followed by blackness. Did Carla experience this? Was this the last thing she felt before I killed her? It was an accident, but it doesn't matter. I understand if I still deserve this.
Somewhere in the distance there's a thunderstorm. I know because I can feel it. The magnetic tug of ions in the air that used to make me feel so refreshed.
I don't know how much time has passed since it all went dark.
I think I'm still alive.
Have you ever been to the beach? Most people know that if you decide to take a step in the ocean it's important to keep your eye on the shore. It can be easy to lose track of where you are when you're having fun. One moment you're going for a swim, collecting shells or just trying to avoid a wave. You look up to try and see if you can spot your beach blanket, only to find yourself pushed somewhere down the coast.
That's the dangerous part of a current. When you don't feel it, it just takes you.
I don't know how far I drifted. How far my current dragged me. It was hard to focus, hard to pay attention to anything. I struggled to piece together the last few moments before my world fell apart. Before my body seemed to burn away, along with everything around me.
I must have travelled for miles stewing in a jumble of thoughts before I felt that same tingling pulse of electrical current in the air. I couldn't quite see where. In fact, I couldn't see anything. But I could feel it. The world was like flashes of contained fury vibrating in place, pierced by large gaps of nothing. There were objects, but it was hard to say what anything could be. It either was, or it wasn't.
Something below me was. I had to know what.
When I finally tried moving my body things started to come together. I knew where my limbs were, where they should have been, but nothing seemed to work. It was like having phantom limb syndrome, only with everything. So what do you do when your body is missing? I stopped trying to move the way I was used to. Instead I thought about the first time I used my powers. I thought about Carla, and the way I took her life.
There was energy gathering in the air all around me. I knew the sensation well. It was comforting, even. Like riding a bike, or talking to an old friend. When I had a real body I would try and focus it to a single point, then release it like one of those snake-in-a-can pranks. It was never about containing the energy I drew in. I just held it long enough to direct it where I wanted it to go.
This was different, but almost the same. I felt coiled to pounce. Below me was a world of possibility.
My first jump nearly killed me. I think.
It wasn't quite like falling, but there was definitely a sensation of movement that left me disoriented. A single lightning strike burst from the heavens. It was incredibly draining. I felt parts of me split off and arc through the sky, ripping energy from my being down ionically charged roads I never wanted to travel. It probably made for one hell of a light show.
The power transformer I hit was demolished instantly. I felt the spark of an explosion in the air, and as it died the world around me suddenly came to life. I was suddenly tethered to the modern world again. Rejuvenated. Every power line travelled somewhere, and I could see it all like an endless highway.
The storm had pulled me far from Bastion, probably miles away from where friends and family fought to the death. From where my body turned to dust. I could feel power lines branched out like a web across a network. Thin ones that passed electricity to small towns. Large ones that stretched across highways over the continent. I reached out to touch them, but was struck by a sudden fear. If I were energy, electricity, could I be dispersed into nothing? Could I be grounded? Drained?
I reminded myself I was living on borrowed time. I should have died standing. Fighting. Reaching out to touch a single line I felt strangely in control. Maybe just being here, I could still make a difference. I could explore this world freely. Find out what happened. Maybe there was still a way I could help. I just had to be careful.
I learned a lot of tricks after that. At first I stuck to exploring roads along the grid, like a wallflower in high school. The first thing you learn in the Federation is that every gift is a double edged sword, and I didn't want to push my luck and fade into nothing trying to explore some suburban two story. There were limits to every power.
If it could conduct an electrical current, I could move through it. Appliances became safe havens that I could reside in. Storms could help restore my lost energy, but I could drain power from batteries or power generators too. It was a lot like being a ghost, if ghosts only haunted things like toasters or hardware store generators.
I spent a week as an electrical parasite in a ghost town, drawing life from where I could. Some days would just be a matter of testing the limits of what I could do. Through surveillance cameras I could inspect abandoned stores and roadways. Places that looked safe, but abandoned. Preventative evacuation was a big M.O. of the Federation. Everything was meticulously organized to help reduce panic and fear. You could tell people must have been scared leaving so much behind, but there was an order to it all. Minimal looting.
Other places were less lucky. There were signs of battle -- gunfire and superhuman alike. Burnt homes. Cars ripped apart, warped or shredded by some kind of force. Fires. It's strange how long a fire can last. A busted up jeep could start a fire on one side of town that would take days to reach the other.
Most of the time it was stuff I could explain, or piece together. But every now and then I left with more questions than I had answers. Bodies bent or twisted in ways that didn't make sense. A pack of bodies huddled in a dark corner, dried like husks left out for months in the sun. One town was entirely gone. Missing. The best angle I could catch was from a security camera at a highway gas station. It was like a black spot on the horizon. A second sun, setting as a shadow underneath the first.
Once, in half-collapsed wreckage of a shopping mall, I found survivors. They must have been family. A mother, father, and three kids. The oldest couldn't have been more than a teenager. She carried the youngest, who was three or four at most. The group had just finished searching a clothing store when they'd wandered into Digital Boutique. The father was ruffling through the shelves, probably looking for batteries. Or anything useful, really.
I watched them from an old security camera as they scavenged through used handheld games. The group hadn't seen a good bath in weeks but otherwise were no worse for the wear. Whoever mom and dad were, they had gotten good at scavenging. Tired but well fed the pair turned over every inch of the store while the kids helped themselves to some portable games.
Their hunting had almost come to an end when the father began struggling with a locked door at the far end of the store. Employees only. Jumping through the grid I felt an electronic security system that kept the door shut. The power had died long ago, setting the lock in place. It takes a small part of me to activate the mechanism for a brief moment, causing the father to stumble through the doorframe to the other side.
It's a brief moment of respite for all of us. He called his family over to share the good news. Batteries. Stale snacks. Unopened games that had never made it to the display behind the counter. It was nice to let the weight of their good fortune and relief wash over me for a time.
I was too distracted to notice a group of men and women in emergency response attire make their way through the ruined mall. A mismatched collection of police officers, firemen, EMT, and military fatigues. It was hard to tell who they were or if they knew the family. These days almost anyone can walk around with a special forces uniform. All you needed to really do was find the body of a special forces officer.
The father spotted them right away. He took a lucky blind shot from a sidearm that clipped a police officer in the shoulder. The invaders fired in response, forcing the family to duck for cover in the back room. Electronic cases shattered in a violent mix of plastic and drywall that filled the air with dust. Too afraid to enter the family's line of fire the invaders waited a moment for a member of their team to pull something from their bag.
There was some deliberation among the group. One of the men seemed to shout passionately before walking away with his hands in the air, argument defeated. The others kept their defensive position.
Cameras inside the electronics store were video only, leaving an eerie silence while the ringleader poured a bottle of something vigorously across the store. He shouted to the family, arms flailing in open furious gestures. The others turned away as their leader tossed a match into the store, causing a burst of light to blind my camera's vision for a moment. I winced at the sudden bright flare.
Wait, could I wince? No. I changed to a security camera in the main hallway instead.
The fire grew strong and fast with plenty of fuel to burn. There was a visible tension as the group lingered just outside the store, watching the flames as it spread throughout the interior. Their leader was still screaming enthusiastically while the blaze continued to grow. Something pressurized must have gone off as a flashing spark caused the group to take another step back, only to finally retreat when licks of flame began to snake toward the store's ceiling.
I waited as long as I could in that camera, watching for any sign of the family. When the fire slowly crept out of the electronics store I moved to another. I had to abandon the interior cameras as the interior of the building became impossible for me to traverse. While the mall became a pillar of black smoke I felt those copper highways running through the walls slowly fade away like the nervous system of some great beast.
From a security camera posted in the mall's parking lot I watched as it bellowed dark ash for hours. No one ever came out.
I left that town just as aimless as I'd ever been. All of this power and nothing to show for it. Trapped, haunting whatever lens I can find just for the chance to watch over a world I was no longer a part of.
It was probably days before I saw another survivor. So many empty towns. Vacant cities. It didn't seem worth searching for signs of normal life any more, so I went elsewhere. I was still determined to try and do something with whatever time I had been given.
When I arrived at the lonely Fort Derringer I didn't know what to expect. If it weren't for Zachary Gilbert, I may have lost my mind.
I think it's when we fall into routines that we slowly start to die.
Not immediately, of course. It's not like there's some time bomb countdown clock ticking down, waiting for the right moment. More like a restlessness. We become too familiar with our surroundings. We get too comfortable. We start to get bored. Then it sets in and you start wondering if maybe there isn't something you're missing out on.
It happens to everyone, I think. Doesn't matter if you climb mountains for a living or file taxes in some dark office. Eventually the routine of it gets to you. We started out as nomads, and the moment we deny that wanderlust for too long it just eats away at our spirit.
People start questioning who they are. They make dumb decisions. Buy fast cars. Take vacations to places they don't even care about. Maybe they'll cheat on a spouse or suddenly take up a hobby like converting the entire garage into a custom tool shed. Something they can spend thousands of dollars on just to give to their kid before they pass on. As if that will be the thing that really defines their existence.
We get so caught up in trying to complete our day-to-day tasks that the moment we realize what we're caught in, it's a scramble to try to escape. Some people wake up too late and wonder where it all went wrong. Others figure it out early and crash and burn anyway.
I'm not sure which happened to me, but that's only because I don't think I'm qualified to say I'm alive.
After that family burned to death I swore I'd find a way to make a difference. To turn this curse into a gift. I knew what I wanted to do, but had no clue where to start. So I did the next best thing: explored.
Like a ghost I haunted power lines and electrical grids across the country, stopping only to draw in energy when I felt my own reserves run low. I explored construction sites, office buildings, and abandoned homes for survivors. Every now and then I found what I was looking for.
I helped a man start a car he was desperately trying to get moving, sparking its battery to life with a delicate touch. I threw a neighborhood into pitch-black silence to help a young couple hide from some sort of gang. Maybe raiders. They hunted for hours in the dark before calling off the search.
It wasn't all bad. I found towns untouched by the chaos on more than one occasion. Settlements of order that banded together when everything else seemed to be so crazy. I tried to keep my distance. They worked so hard to maintain a sense of normalcy aside from the chaos my kind inflicted upon them. It seemed wrong to sneak within their ranks just to satisfy my need to reconnect with humanity.
So I opened myself to the ruins of the world in my search for a way to help.
Fort Derringer was the last stop for Federation troops before hitting the Canadian border. As a military outpost it was more or less a checkpoint for large shipments of weapons, building materials or aid supplies. Civilians were largely kept out and sent down side roads arcing wide around the facility. Fort Derringer wasn't built for siege or secrets, but to hold and distribute valuable cargo across the Federation's midwest.
The entire region was all flat land and farming community before the Reforestation Initiative kicked in. Then a man-made lake was built, complete with its own fancy bridge that traveled straight across the middle. Reinforced glass and thousands of lights lining the bottom of the bridge would make Faith's Highway a popular tourist trap only miles away from the military installation. Take a slow stroll across the near-invisible walkway and glance down at the crystal-clear water below. Or drive, if your car met the rigorously-monitored weight limit. It was a romantic spot. Popular with young couples.
Fort Derringer itself was largely self sufficient. Towering walls and a steel reinforced gate. Climbing in would have been an incredible challenge, but I was lucky to have my own little shortcut via the concrete enclosed power lines feeding into the military facility underground.
The fort was a mess, but one filled with possibilities I had never considered. Here, in a facility hard-wired for electronic control, I had more than just a small measure of influence. Light firearms, ammunition, and food supplies had been looted long ago, but no attempt had been made to remove or disable the automated weapon turrets that lined the exterior walls. Cameras throughout the entire facility let me explore my surroundings with remarkable precision. In this place, made to serve the immediate needs of the digital age, I felt like I could make myself right at home.
So I did. I locked both gates into the facility, and set cameras to watch the perimeter. Solar panels and wind turbines along the exterior helped provide me plenty of nourishment. Enough to even feel comfortable testing the limits of my new form. I used to believe I was confined to wiring or circuits, but with enough strength and focus I could do so much more.
I could power more than just simple appliances, but complex ones as well. Short jumps between electronics was possible, though it was far from a subtle process. Assembly-line robotic arms. Cars. Trucks. Even those smaller mobile weapons platforms. After a few days of practice I started to understand how to manipulate circuit boards. I could even type -- although it was slow and difficult. Even still, it felt good to emoji again. A small, human thing.
A small part of me was hoping there would be more. A secret weapon. Some sort of tank or robotic prototype that I could learn to navigate and use to reconnect with the world. Bring order, represent justice. That sort of thing. But the truth is there was nothing there. Nothing of real value. I spent three months, alone without purpose or a real plan. I stopped exploring. Stopped caring.
Then came Zachary Gilbert.
He wasn't really anybody important. A lone wanderer. Zach, as I would come to know him, was a street artist from Chicago. I found him through one of the perimeter cameras as he was exploring the outer walls, trying to find a way in. Once or twice he caught my cameras following his exploration, which only made him more determined.
I'm not sure what prompted me to let him in. Maybe it's because I forgot why I locked myself inside to begin with. All I know is that once he stepped through that main gate, I had to find a way to communicate.
He was a young man. Tall, dirty, and clearly thin from weeks without a full meal. Wearing hiking gear that was well worn I watched from a distance as he tried to make himself somewhat presentable. When no one came to greet him, he worked to find signs of inhabitants. The usual amount of yelling. A healthy amount of skeptical fear.
But it was curiosity that drew him further into the base, and I wondered what would be the best way to reach out. I wasn't a ghost, but I may as well have been. Sure I could start a car or close some blast doors, but what good would that do beyond scaring the hell out of him?
It took a few hours of wandering aimlessly about the facility, but it gave me time to think of the perfect way to catch his attention. When Zachary stepped into the main communications hub I finally made my move.
I flashed my message on the monitor nearest to him. White letters on sitting in black space.
He paused for a moment, looking around to make sure he was truly alone. Then, unsure how to properly respond, he leaned forward and typed into the keyboard I was trying to manipulate.
"Hey there. Anyone home?"
Yes. And no.
"Is this like a hacker?"
No. I'm here.
"In the building?"
"I don't want any trouble. I'm just looking for others. Maybe a group."
If I had to be honest, I was scared. We both were. I could see him through a webcam at his terminal. Coiled tense, eyes darting for the door. He was ready to go at any moment, but I wasn't ready to let him leave. I had to do something. The words came slow.
There's some food. Shelter here. We can meet when you're more comfortable.
I could see the uncertainty on his face. He leaned in to type.
"Alright. What have you got?"
I unlocked ration stores in a sealed part of the Fort, and guided him with a subtle light show along the ground via the emergency evacuation guidance panels. He seemed to accept that I was just in a separate part of the facility. We talked via information terminals. I played the part of the helpful hacker. He, the confused but appreciative wanderer.
Together we explored Fort Derringer's looted remains. It took a few nights to review the place top to bottom. I told him I was working from the primary server room, working around firewalls and complex subroutines. Anything I could think of that sounded high tech. If he didn't believe me, he never said a word against it.
Our thorough inspection of the facility turned up some valuable supplies. More food, which was good for him. A portable generator, field radio system, and everything else you'd need to have a shitty family camping trip. Or, a few good weeks alone on the road.
We spent a few days planning the trip. He'd talk with me via computers across across the base. I'd watch him from security cameras, unlocking doors or providing light in rooms without windows. Like his personal flashlight, I guess.
Loading up a jeep with food and fuel we could make our way along the Canadian border, keeping to farmland and small communities until we found a group we could trust. He even volunteered to siphon gas from a few other cars that were left behind. Fewer stops meant fewer risks.
It was nice pretending. I mean, it was nice helping him too, but it had been so long since I'd had a chance to be normal. I knew as our planning came to an end that I'd have to try and find a way to tell him I wouldn't be going. I never needed to. He brought it up in conversation one day. Just mentioned it while packing a duffel bag, instead of typing.
"You know, I've been all across the base twice over. Never found a room I couldn't get into."
A silence settled between us. I didn't know what to say. He kept talking while my mind raced to find some sort of means to excuse my behavior.
"I've seen some shit out there. Bad stuff, but stuff I could explain. Desperate people doing desperate things to survive." Zachary spoke softly, his hands kept busy folding supplies methodically. "One thing will really stick out in my mind though. Few weeks ago I was hiking. Thought I might have some luck finding friendly folk out of the cities. Climbed up this big ass hill, nearly broke my ankle."
"Anyway, I get to the top and I look down across this valley and that's when I see this wolf. Only, I know it wasn't a wolf. It was green. Made of leaves and vines, all wrapped up. Even had these little lilies blooming on it. I know shit like that doesn't exist. But there it was. Some kind of forest creature looked right at me, then ran away like I was in a fucking fairy tale."
He zipped up the bag calmly, then looked around the room. There was a weariness in his expression I never noticed before. Maybe I had been just too busy playing pretend.
"I'm not gonna pretend I'm well traveled, but that shit is clearly unnatural. And about as weird as talking to a mystery hacker in the middle of an abandoned Federation whatever-this-is. So, straight up then. Are you real?"
Was I real? If there was any time to be honest with who I really was, this was it. I flickered the screen so he would know where to look.
"Are you a ghost?"
So much for being honest. But was it really that far from the truth?
"Did you die here?"
No. Someplace else.
"Can you come with me?"
I thought about that question long and hard. There were limits to what I could do and where I could go. I would never be whole again, but a lifetime ago I signed up to join the Federation because I wanted to be more than what I was. I wanted to be a hero.
That's why I'm leaving this log. Once I leave this station the power will shut down for good, but maybe in a few years places like this will be back online. You should know I'm one of the lucky ones. If you find others like me, if there are others like me, I hope they're still trying to stay connected with this world. We can still make a difference.
I have to go now. The truck is packed. I'm nervous, but I think this is for the best.
Wish us luck.
-Kenneth Howard, a.k.a. Discharge
Chapter 4 - 05/10/2017
It had been an unusual month for Zachary Gilbert. A week in the woods quickly taught him how ill prepared he was for travel. After nearly breaking his ankle climbing downhill it was only through dumb luck that he stumbled across a small cabin. The place was already looted save for a few sparse cans of food, but it gave him shelter and some time to make a plan.
He wasn't cut out for the life of a wilderness explorer, but if he could find a car, or friendly town, Zachary was sure he could prove his worth in other ways. So he traveled west. Slowly and carefully, taking no unnecessary risks until he had finally reached his destination: Fort Derringer.
"I think we've got enough space to pack a movie or two, if you want. Rec room had a few good ones."
Zachary turned his attention to a nearby screen. Maybe once it had been a source of information for soldiers and military personnel passing through the halls. Now it was just a blank canvas. Pitch back, save for white letters that would crackle to life in the center.
"Suit yourself." he chuckled, hauling a tightly-packed bag over his shoulder with a grunt.
A part of him still wondered if he was going crazy. It wasn't the first time he had seen something he couldn't explain, but unless he had stumbled into the world's most elaborate prank show Zachary was pretty well convinced he had made friends with a ghost. Or, at the very least, they were on relatively friendly terms.
The two made an unusual pair, but after weeks of travelling alone Zachary was glad to have someone to talk to. He never brought up the ghost's history, or how it may have died. It seemed like that would have been a rude question to ask. Not like he really wanted to talk about his past either. Instead he just took to calling the ghost a more suitable name. Bee. Because it always made this annoying buzzing sound before taking control of an electronic.
It had taken a while to figure out a way for Bee to travel with him. At first they thought Bee could power a car and drive, but it proved to be a little too difficult for the spirit to manage. They considered everything from a generator to batteries, but nothing really seemed to fit. Sure, Bee could literally fit inside any of those things. It just wasn't right. There was an agreement that the pair would be travelling companions. Companions needed a way to talk.
That's when they stumbled upon their solution.
Zachary stepped out into the daylight, bag in tow. Loading the stuffed duffel into an equally packed jeep he took one last moment to appreciate his surroundings. Fort Derringer wasn't quite home, but it had been damn close over the last week. He was certainly going to miss it.
He heard the crackle of electricity nearby as Bee found its way from an outdoor electrical socket to a nearby scrolling electronic sign. Ready any time. The letters scrolled from right to left across the information board, looping from one side to the other.
Thick clouds had begun to roll in overhead. Sooner than either expected. They had debated waiting for any potential storm to pass but decided against it. There would be a dozen reasons to postpone their trip. Better to start the journey now than spend another day waiting for the perfect time to travel.
"Well then, let's get going." Zachary said, fondly patting the jeep before taking out a cell phone from his jacket pocket.
Their solution seemed perfect. Something portable that could show text, with a camera to boot. Federation-assigned phones were durable, held a charge for days, and were relatively water resistant. The phone couldn't run any games or third party apps, so hardly anyone had one for personal use. It was no surprise when they uncovered an entire stockpile unopened. Unexpected good fortune in the dark of an abandoned place.
Zachary could feel the tug of static in the air. It was startling at first; watching Bee make a leap into a physical object. A flash of light, sometimes even the sizzle or pop of loose wiring. Like witnessing a miniature lightning strike. Zachary turned to look away, not wanting to be blinded by the light, but looked back when the familiar flash never came.
Instead he heard an unfamiliar rumble in the distance, from beyond the southern gate. It sounded like cars at first. Maybe a group of trucks, or something bigger. A loud clanking noise, like metal scraping against concrete, until it all came to a sudden halt. The solid metal barricades of the southern gate made it impossible to see beyond, but it was no doubt they had visitors.
Confused, Zachary turned back to the scrolling sign to see a new message scroll across the board.
There was yelling outside. He couldn't really understand about what, and was straining hard to hear when a loud scraping bang began to ring against the gate. Four feet of reinforced steel began to buckle inward. Large, noticeable dents that slowly began to twist and push the gate inward with each violent pounding.
"Man, we've got to go! Come on, come on!" Zachary held his phone out to the scrolling screen again only to find it blank, lifeless.
All across the southern wall of Fort Derringer things began to move. Automated weapons Zachary had never even given a second thought sprung to life, twisting and uncoiling like serpents. There was another bang at the gate, men shouting, then the overwhelming hum of weapons fire filled the air with a single, mighty roar.
As the fort's defenses sprung to life above, something behind the southern gate redoubled its efforts to break into their makeshift sanctum. The banging intensified not just in tempo, but also with force. Huge panels of the gate had already begun to twist away. Something large was working hard to widen the growing breach, warping and manipulating the metal from the other side. For a moment Zachary could have sworn he saw someone dressed as a firefighter try to crawl through the hole.
Something beyond the southern gate violently exploded, spouting a gout of flame through the breach that caused Zachary to stumble back in fear. Screams of agony burst from the hole, clear as day. Within a cloud of smoke and flame the invaders began to move. Another slam and the hole grew wider. Another, and the hydraulics holding the metal in place began to buckle.
Covering his ears to block out the turret's deafening assault, Zachary sprinted for the driver's side of the jeep. Bee was buying him precious time to escape whatever was beyond the wall. He couldn't waste it.
It was impossible to hear the car start over the roar of weapons fire. Zachary prayed this would be to his advantage as he slammed down on the accelerator, making his way for the northern gate. As if expecting his escape the gate immediately began to open, thick steel reinforced doors slowly swinging outward. A sigh of relief escaped his lips the moment he passed through, speeding into open road.
Tearing through Fort Derringer's unmanned checkpoint he risked slowing down for a moment to look behind him. The gate doors were already starting to close. A tremendous boom sounded off in the distance. Black smoke, then suddenly the sound of automated whirr of weapons fire became more pronounced as the northern wall's weapons sprung to life.
"Come on Bee...come on..." Zachary slowed the jeep more, swerving around abandoned cars while keeping a close eye on his rear view mirror. "We can go. Just go!"
A flash of light and the high-pitched whistle were the only warnings given before a series of explosions rocked the top of the northern wall. Chunks of concrete and metal were flung far in every direction. A second round of explosions rocked weapon emplacements, creating thick black pillars of smoke.
Crawling from the blend of dust and debris was an arachnid shape, heavily armored in metal plating. Clamps at the base of each leg acted as stabilizers to keep the machine balanced; gripping hard into Fort Derringer's walls as it scaled down the northern gate. Flat-backed like a tarantula, the armaments laid across the walking tank seemed to bristle at a distance. Weapons designed to cut through flesh or pulp apart metal with relentless precision.
It turned, body swaying to track Zachary's jeep as it rolled down the highway.
He hit the gas hard, focusing his attention on getting as far away from the fort as quickly as the loaded jeep would take him. Amid the cloud of dust and debris in his rear view mirror the walking tank was just beginning to make its way down the wall. Ahead, miles of clear highway stretched toward the Canadian border. If the tank was planning on crawling its way in pursuit, Zachary hoped that was as fast as it could go.
A loud KA-CHOON was the only warning given before an explosion nearly tossed the jeep into a headlong spin. It was through sheer luck that the momentum of the blast tossed the vehicle into a steel lane divider. Metal ground loudly against metal as Zachary fought to regain control, mind racing with what to do next. Dark storm clouds above thundered ominously. Or at least, Zachary prayed that's what he heard.
He looked at the road signs ahead, searching for one that would guide him to safety. Water had already begun to fall. Hard drops ringing on the roof. Slowly turning the highway's flat grey into patches of slick wetness.
Floodlights in front of an upcoming exit suddenly sprung to life. Faith's Highway. Bold white reflective letters suddenly tossed into illumination. The sudden flood of light startled Zachary, who nearly swerved off road the moment they flashed on. Highway lights ahead began to flicker, pulsing one after another in a rhythmic pattern.
"Bee! Hell yeah, where ya been?" Zachary shouted while steering around scattered debris, following the trail of lights to the exit sign.
Scrambling for the cell phone in his pocket he slowed the Jeep just enough to make the sharp right turn off the main highway. The road curved back around and into a tunnel that cut underneath the main road. As the jeep rolled into the pitch darkness of the underpass, another KA-CHOON sounded off in the distance. An explosion shook the earth from somewhere above just as the Federation-issued cell phone sprung to life.
You have to keep going.
Words scrolled into the device's notepad app. Zachary couldn't help but smile. He was far from safe, but at the very least he was in good company.
"Can you hear me? I'm not supposed to text and drive." he said, trying hard to keep the jeep steady while navigating the underpass.
Get to the bridge. The tank is too heavy to cross.
Speeding out of the underpass into a sheet of rain the pair tried to ignore the thumping slam of heavy metal somewhere behind them. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Neither could tell if it were lightning or an explosion sounding off in response to the tank's main gun. Zachary was too busy trying to swerve around parked cars and loose debris to give it much thought either way.
Faith's Highway was a tourist trap, and true to the title many of those who had come to visit the wondrous glass bridge never left. Cars were abandoned along the main road, while others had become stuck in the grass trying to find an alternate route to their destination. At some point a plow must have come to cut through the traffic, flipping smaller vehicles while pushing aside others to form a clear path. A plow, or something as strong as one.
Whatever had cleared the main road had mercifully cleared Faith's Highway as well. Streaks of damage marred the floor of the glass bridge, ruining the illusion of its travelers floating effortlessly on air. Some cracks across the large panes made Zachary feel a little nervous, and he took extra care to guide the jeep's weight around any pane of glass that could give way.
KA-CHOON. Zachary's eyes settled in the rear view mirror at the sound of the noise. There was barely time to register the spider-tank looming in the distance before his attention was suddenly torn in half.
Ahead, the ground detonated in front of him. Thick shards of reinforced glass were thrown in every direction. A gaping hole quickly surrounded by a spiderweb of cracks was left in the aftermath. Zachary gripped hard on the steering wheel, cutting wide to avoid the growing chasm, only to find the jeep's tires had tore free of the ground. With no grip to purchase on the glass road, momentum and gravity easily tossed the vehicle onto its side and into a roll.
Zachary tried hard not to panic. He fought to keep his bearings as his world spun wildly. Loose baggage in the back of the jeep danced freely through the cabin, and something struck him in the arm with enough force he was afraid a bone had broken. Somewhere in the back of his mind he could picture that damn tank, crawling forward, spitting superheated death wherever it roamed.
The cell phone began to ring. A spark activated its alarm timer. GET UP GET UP scrolled across the screen alongside a pair of tiny bells, dancing back and forth.
Bee. Zachary undid his seatbelt. Every inch of his body hurt, but something inside him screamed that he was in danger. Danger that was getting closer. Bee knew what was best. He dragged himself out of the shattered front window and into the pouring rain, trying hard to avoid cutting himself on jagged glass or twisted metal.
Pulling himself from the wreckage he could see just how close he was to the end of the bridge. Fifty yards at the very least. A loud crack behind the wrecked jeep reminded him of the growing web of glass beneath his feet. In the distance, the spider. It was shockingly fast, maneuvering over uneven terrain and abandoned cars with the crushing force of its metal legs.
KA-CHOON. Zachary was just gathering his courage when the sound made him freeze in terror. He waited agonizing seconds, expecting to die at any moment when the mainland exploded into a cloud of dust and fire. It was trying to seal off his escape.
Risking a glance back at the tank he was just in time to see it reach the bridge, gently testing the weight of a metal leg against the first reinforce glass pane. It seemed to hesitate. The rain made it hard to see, which only grew worse with each passing second. Thunder rolled overhead, causing Zachary's heart to reflexively seize with fear.
The cell phone's alarm went off again, buzzing as its vibrate feature hummed to life.
Get to land.
"I don't think I can make it. That thing's waiting for me."
Zachary turned to look again. It moved, but seemed to be searching for something. Three figures were approaching. It was difficult to see through the thick curtain of rain, but their flashlights clearly marked them as three dangerous blips on the road.
You've got to run. I can't help if you stay on the glass.
"They have guns Bee. If they start shooting--" Zachary was interrupted by the phone's sudden vibration. He could feel Bee's electric impatience tickling through the device.
I won't let them get you. I can do this. Trust me.
Zachary only had a moment to read before the screen flashed a bright white, then suddenly cut to black. He knew Bee had left him. There was no time to argue. He was afraid to look around the corner and see how close the figures were now. So he didn't. Instead, he ran.
Pushing away from the jeep's wreckage Zachary tried his best to keep hidden in the shadow of the overturned vehicle. He felt his boots struggle to find traction against the surface of the bridge. It was hard to walk, harder to run, but somewhere between he found a balance.
Thirty yards. Light flickered from behind, focused on him. Men were yelling, but he couldn't understand what they were saying over the roar of his heart pounding in his ears. Each wet slap of his boot against the ground felt more unsteady than the last.
Twenty yards. Gunfire. Someone behind him was firing single rounds. A bullet ricocheted nearby. Another struck the glass floor with a wet tink. After the third he felt his leg give way suddenly, as though it couldn't hold the weight of his body any longer. Zachary hit the ground hard, sliding forward across a slick pane of glass.
Ten yards. Looking down through the glass bridge he could see the lake below, calm and untouched by rainfall. It was dark blue and seemed so pure. Unlike the rainwater that pooled around him, clouded in blood. He tried to crawl but could find no grip. His right leg could move, but the hole just above the ankle told a primal part of his brain that he wouldn't be running anywhere. Somewhere in the distance, a tremendous boom cracked through the sky.
The sky flashed brilliantly. Zachary had never seen anything like it before. Streaks of white jetting through the clouds. It reminded him of those science shows he used to watch before everything had become so damn hard. The synapses of a mind, lighting up. Memories. Motion. The human will at work.
Stubbornly, he forced himself to his hands and knees. The pain was immense. He could hear footsteps splashing nearby in the water. Three men, their attire an ironic mix of weapons and Federation EMT attire. Ammunition bandoleers slung over the protective cross that once signified help. First responders of violence.
"You think you're pretty fuckin clever, don't ya?" said one, stepping ahead of the others with machete in hand. "Where's the rest of your group?"
Zachary was about to answer when he felt it. The pull of static across his arm. The others must have noticed the feeling as well, as they paused to turn to each other in confusion.
A single white bolt of lightning tore from the sky. The first man was struck with enough force to rip him from the bridge. Ammunition kept across his body violently exploded into bursts of shrapnel, pulping his corpse into a cloud of red. Then, like a wave, the light ripped across the bridge.
Jagged arcs of lightning sunk into the other two raiders like the teeth of a predator, scorching their bodies while fusing their flesh and cloth into a blackened coal. Glass panels cracked or shattered as strands of light streaked across the bridge, rising like a chorus into a single crackling scream.
The bolt of lightning ricocheted across Faith's Highway until reaching its destination. At the far end of the bridge the tank twitched for a moment, metal plated armor turning white with heat before sinking to the ground unceremoniously.
Zachary blinked. It had only taken a second. It felt like an eternity had passed.
Using the knife at his side he cut a strip of cloth from his jacket, tying a hard knot around his leg wound. He crawled to the edge of the bridge. Slow agonizing movements that made him want to cry.
"Bee! Coulda used some warning there, buddy!"
He called out into the dark. Ears ringing, eyes still trying to blink away the white glare of light that had undoubtedly saved his life, his hand finally found a grip on pavement. The glass floor came to a sudden end.
"Bee. You did it." Zachary didn't try hold back the relief in his voice. "That's it. It's over."
The town ahead was dark, and no doubt looted. But maybe something had been left behind. He had been lucky in the past. There was a long crawl ahead, but it was one he didn't have to make alone. Already the rainstorm had begun to subside. Clouds above had slowly begun to disperse.
Zachary checked his phone. The black screen stared back at him quietly. Raindrops ran across its surface. Unpredictable streams of water, flowing down into his hand.
He held the phone up to the night sky as long as he could. Cold and shivering in the dark, Zachary began the slow crawl into the abandoned town, stopping only to check his phone for a sign of his friend.