In the days following the incident on the cliff, Norman and Carbon made great progress, coming out of the mountains one morning, the plains ahead of them shadowed by the peaks from the rising sun. A highway stretched off into the distance and as Carbon had suggested, they stayed clear of it. Norman seemed to be getting used to the walking; he no longer complained about his feet and seemed to be walking at a faster pace. They had had no further arguments, and conversations between them had moved from sparse and mostly focused on where they were going that day, to actual conversations.
Norman found himself warming up to the intimidating woman to his right. On one occasion he almost opened up and laid out Arachne’s entire plan, but lost his nerve. He held no illusions that she was going to kill him eventually; she knew he was involved somehow in the destruction, but he was not in a hurry to die, and there was at least a small chance for eventual escape. When they got to the rumored village that had sprung up near the ruins of the old City, maybe he could disappear into the crowd. But a big part of him wanted to tell her. Perhaps he could cathartically excise some of the guilt he’d slowly been feeling as they moved across the ruined landscape and he listened to her stories of the devastation and horror that followed.
His growing esteem of her turned to outright admiration when she shared the story of living on the roof of the Smoky Mountain facility (although she didn’t disclose its location) for several days and almost starving to death.
They were in a small copse of trees one morning when he decided to get up before Carbon and see if he could lend a hand with stocking up on supplies like water and any canned food that maybe he could scavenge. Carbon woke up to find him gone, but a quick look over at his bedding told her all she needed to know; it was obviously slept in, but his water bottle was gone. She’d shown him how to collect and sanitize stream and pond water, and she smiled in spite of herself that he actually seemed to be trying to help.
He returned a few minutes after she rekindled the fire so he could boil the water. “Hey! Good morning!” He shouted. She waved back and set up the small pot they used for purifying the water. When he got closer she started to ask him a question, then saw he was taking a long drink from his bottle. “What are you doing?” She asked.
“Having a drink.” He replied, with an implied “Duh.” at the end. “Why? Did you find an abandoned convenience store or something?” He looked at her funny. “No, it was from a pond over there.” He motioned back toward the city in the distance. “Clear as a bell. tastes way better than that boiled crap. here, have some.” He held the bottle out to her, but to his surprise she slapped it out of his hand and stared at him with a horrified expression. “How much have you had to drink?” She asked.
Not understanding, he shrugged. “That was probably my third bottle. I can’t remember the last time I had a drink that didn’t taste like pond scum. Why?” Carbon rushed over to her pack and pulled out a small device, a GPS locator. She turned it on and waited for the screen to load and show their location. When it zoomed in on where she was standing, she swiped the screen to zoom out. Her shoulders slumped. She looked at Norman with what appeared to be genuine pity. “You need to go puke that up, now. it might not be too late.” Norman’s brow furrowed and he looked at her quizzically. “What are you talking about, I…”
“The reason that water is clear is because nothing is living in it. Nothing CAN live it it because it’s radioactive runoff from the nuclear plant that powered this city.” She showed him the GPS.
He laughed a small, fearful laugh. “What…?”
“The water you just drank is radioactive as hell, which is why there is no algae, or mosquitoes or fish, or turtles… We need to get it out of you before you absorb too much. You can go over there.” She pointed at some trees “And take care of it yourself if gagging on your own finger works, or I can give you a good sock in the stomach if that’s better.”
Norman was as white as a sheet. “I think I can… Are you sure? I mean… Shit. Shit!” he ran over to the trees and stuck his finger down his own throat. He gagged several times. he could feel the heat rising in his face and blood vessels breaking in his forehead as he strained. For a brief moment he panicked, then a loud burping sound erupted from what sounded like hell, only in his own stomach, then he threw up. Water and stomach acid rained all over the roots of a tree and he was left with a horrifying bitter taste in his mouth.
He stumbled back to the camp where Carbon had prepared some water and his tooth brush. “Here, brush up and then have some water that won’t cause cancer.” He nodded thank you and accepted both from her. A little while later, he’d drank several pints of boiled pond water and had brushed his teeth, he was starting to feel better. Carbon motioned for him to come over, then lifted his eyelids to look in each eye, and investigated his face. Small spider veins showed here and there where the effort of throwing up had produced too much strain. He was pale, and he looked scared.
“Are you okay?”
He smiled a little. “I don’t know, am I?” Carbon chuckled a little. We’re going to be leaving soon, but you tell me if you’re not feeling okay, you got me? We’ll do half the original distance today since you’re in rough shape. Your throat should feel better soon, if not let me know. I have no way of knowing how much radiation you downed, so we have to take it easy for a bit. if we’re lucky, you’ll just get throat cancer. When you’re old.”
They packed up their camp and set off across the plains at a slower pace. Norman felt weak, and he was hoping it was just the throwing up and exhaustion catching up. From the sound of it, she had no intention of killing him any time soon.
Al watched as Cobalt and Kronos punched data into Big Mac. They were working on a project for Carbon, something that had been half mentioned in the years before, but they were now working on in earnest. Carbon didn’t know about the project but they were certain she would find it exceptionally useful once it was finished.
Her height and build were among the data they entered, along with footage of her fighting. The supercomputer assimilated the information and assisted Cobalt with the engineering he was working on. Over the years, Carbon had proven herself to be a most capable asset and friend. While she lacked String Theory’s mobility, she was an indispensable tracker, a great tactical thinker and probably the most adept warrior alive.
Since the world ended she’d dedicated her time to perfecting her art with the sword and keeping herself in perfect fighting fitness. What they were making her was the perfect gift for the perfect warrior. As soon as it was ready, String would fly it out to her, wherever she was. Once she donned their gift, she would be unstoppable, but they knew they would never need to stop her. Cobalt sat back for a moment and looked at their work. he smiled and wished he could be there to see the look on her face when Al gave it to her.
A few days later, shortly after crossing the Mississippi river, Norman suddenly stopped walking and began coughing uncontrollably. Carbon stayed back until the fit passed, but neither was expecting what happened when he was through. A few seconds after his coughing subsided, Norman fell to his knees, his stomach buckled and he made a pained, half-scream/half-retch and coughed up easily a half a cup of blood. He was shaking and swooned, Carbon ran to his side and helped him to his feet. Norman leaned against a dead car and collected himself.
After wiping his mouth on his sleeve. He gave a helpless chuckle. “After everything. After all these years, dodging zombies and robots, keeping a low profile, I get done in by poison godamn water…” He looked over at Carbon and saw genuine concern. “Or radioactive or whatever…”
The weakness and nausea passed, but Carbon insisted they rest for a while anyway. “Who knows what we’ll find in what’s left of the city? Maybe there are people with new abilities or some that we just never knew about before, that can stop this.” Norman mused. Carbon nodded, but she felt the same lack of conviction he had in his voice.
He stared at the red stain on the ground for a few minutes, then blurted out something that surprised both he and Carbon. “I was part of all of this, a major part. I didn’t plan it, but I was a huge piece of it.” Carbon was actually shocked for a moment. Despite the fact that the two of them seemed to be almost friendly, she expected a confession of any kind to take weeks of prodding. Apparently now with an unpleasant death likely on the horizon and the respectful treatment he’d received, he seemed to need to come clean.
“It took almost a year to organize, but Arachne dreamed it up. She invited a bunch of us together and asked us if we’d help, and everyone did. Golem helped her organize it and worked out the finer details. Some of us caused ‘minor’ problems. All those plane and train crashes? And car pileups? That was Glass and Indigo Shift.” Carbon snorted a little at the mention of Indigo.
“What’s funny?” Norman asked. “I stopped Indigo the same day everything went down.” Norman seemed impressed, he knew how fast the woman was. Carbon smiled humorlessly. “I cut her in half as she ran by.” Norman blew out a low whistle. “Wow. And gross.” Carbon just shrugged. “Continue, please.”
Norman took a steadying breath, then continued. “Murder Zoo traveled around the world.” Carbon looked at him quizzically. “Sorry, they were pretty unknown outside of our circles. They were a gang of psychopaths that could change into animals, in some cases monsters. They spread around the world killing a partially eating people everywhere. Do you remember those ‘griffon’ attacks in France? Or the “Kraken” killings in Australia? Those were them.”
He wiped his now sweating palms on his pants. “Vicissitude made those abominations that attacked the cities. Plague, Pestilence and Carrion engineered the zombie plague. Cyclone and Booster worked with a satellite from Golem and Arachne to conjure up the hypercane. The two masterminds also moved the moon.”
“What was your part in all of this?” Carbon asked. Norman let out a long, ragged sigh, then coughed a bit more, spitting out some blood. I worked with Psimon. I copied his power, then the next day he and I Took over millions of minds. When people should have been inside hiding, or preparing, we took them over and walked them outside. Thousands were blinded by the explosions that moved and slowed the moon. Millions in coastal areas were drowned in the ensuing tsunamis.”
“Millions more were swept up in the hypercane, or attacked by robots or zombies.” Norman spit on the ground. “The robots were Golems. He has an automated facility that builds them. When the main work was finished and it was relatively safe to go out again, we all went our separate ways to start our own empires. Golem had made seeds for entire cities based on what we wanted. Mine looked like animals from the sea and was near the mediterranean…” Norman looked off wistfully.
Carbon cleared her throat to remind him of where he was. “What happened?” Norman snorted angrily. “The Mob happened. It turns out that a lot of La Coza Nostra are nationalists and when they find out you had a hand in destroying their country and planet, they organize into vigilante groups rather quickly. I was deposed in no time and my city became the only one not run by one of the conspirators.”
“They all communicate through an underground network. That’s not a clever descriptor, either. Literally all of the cities grew filaments underground that connect them. They have almost instant communication with one another. I Know they cut off my city within minutes of its fall, and I was marked as a liability. No one will take me in, and I am sure that if they recognize me they will kill me. That’s why I was hiding at Ward’s.” He sheepishly glanced over at Carbon. There was no emotion on her face at all. She just nodded and said “I am going to need some time to process all of this.” Norman nodded as she walked off.
He fully expected this to be his last day on earth.
During the meeting to discuss how best to use Nicole’s new found abilities, William shared his power with the community as well. Again, there was no fear, only excitement at the possibilities it provided. There seemed to be little ill will that he’d kept it hidden, given that he’d been run off before.
In the same meeting, a young woman named Angel revealed her ability to sense the future. Everyone was excited until she revealed that she had been crying a lot lately. Something bad was on the horizon, she said. Unfortunately, they were just impressions of what could be, she couldn’t say exactly what would happen, although she did think it would likely come by ground.
William had an idea; build a wall around the village. Nicole had an even better idea; grow a wall around it. “I don’t know how hard it will be, but it seems like we have time to prepare, so let’s at least try to get started.”
They started later that day, and the work would continue day after day for almost two weeks. They started with hickory seeds, knowing the wood they produced would be rock hard. They found Nicole could make a seed grow into a thick, full sized tree in a couple of hours. It was almost as if she told the seed to grow into a full tree, so the seed obeyed. Soon a circle four miles in diameter and thirty feet tall of thick hickory trees surrounded the village. There were gates at the four cardinal points, and the wall was shaped so the outer edge was lined with sharpened spikes, and the interior was molded into two railed balconies leading to the top and connected with stair wells.
When the wall was finished, the village was surrounded by a five foot thick wall of living hickory. The outside was unclimbable and the interior sported portholes and slts for firing out. the top was a thick canopy of leaves that obscured defenders that might be lining it from being easily spotted. Throughout it all, Nicole seemed to grow stronger and more vibrant.
She also grew several large, much taller trees throughout the village, and the more industrious people set about building bridges connecting the trees to the buildings and the wall, not for any practical purpose, they were thinking, but because it seemed like the natural thing to do. Nicole would often work through the night, the sudden explosion of growth seemed to be powering her and she did not seem to need sleep. Often, she would lay down with William just to be close, but she didn’t sleep.
Cavalier had watched all of this from his castle. Crater seemed to be getting slightly better, but the elite soldiers Arachne had loaned him had to hunt unwary people at night to not be caught. As soon as the rest of his militia arrived, he would become more forward about his need, and the villagers would send volunteers, or he would simply take them.
Let them build their wall. When his militia arrived and crater was better, it would become their cage. He had no idea how they had managed to accomplish such a thing so quickly, but he would find out and put them to work for him. Arachne wanted trade, wanted the fresh, clean food they produced. He was more than happy to provide it, especially if it meant more visits like the one he’d shared with her.
Crater seemed to be improving somewhat. His fever was gone, and some of his lucidity had returned, but he was suffering terrible headaches and was suffering from dementia. That soldiers that were administering the treatments assured him that the symptoms would pass when he was completely cured. Cavalier hoped so. He wanted his friend at his side when he subjugated the town below.
He’d tried to help the people of the City in the days before the apocalypse, and String Theory had told them to stop. They complied, and the world ended. Now they owed him. They’d sacrificed, now they would pay him back. In this new world, strength ruled. He’d seen that with Arachne. Her soldiers were completely loyal to her, and they gave her the muscle to enforce her will on the people of her city.
He would do the same. They would produce food for Arachne’s city and any others that she maintained trade agreements with. They would produce their delicious ales and Cavalier and Crater would collect a tariff that would keep them warm year round. And as a bonus, Arachne was going to set them up with a fusion reactor. For the first time in years, they would enjoy lights, heat and running water.
He’d known the tall, exotic woman to be a villain in their former life, but he had a hard time seeing her as anything but a hero now. Her people enjoyed warmth, light and safety. They lacked a great deal of freedom, but as far as he saw it, it was a worthy sacrifice for safety. Freedom was a false luxury for common people anyway, he thought. America had enjoyed almost limitless freedom; freedom of speech, freedom to own guns, freedom to assemble. And what did they do with it? They raped, murdered, did drugs and stole. Not everyone of course, but there was a reason you didn’t trust civilians with nuclear weapons; they lacked discipline.
Only those with power and the will to use it deserved power. And now that he had it, he would use it