Carbon and Norman stepped out of the woods at the top of a hill, and both gasped. Carbon had been born and raised in the city. The only time in her previous life she’d spent any time away from it was when she was at college. She’d even received her martial arts training at a studio downtown.
The years had not been kind. The concrete buildings were crumbling and overgrown with weeds and vines. The steel structures that were warped by the nuclear blast seven years before were rusted and looked like they were ready to fall over. The streets that they could see were cracked and broken, with ferns and grasses growing from them.
Norman started to say something but Carbon held up her hand. She had not returned here since it was destroyed, and she had some surprisingly strong emotions to work through. “Let’s take a break.” She said in a small voice and walked away from Norman. He was thankful for that. They’d been walking into the sun for weeks and his condition had worsened significantly. Coughing up blood was a daily occurrence, and his hair had begun to fall out in clumps. Norman’s skin had taken on a grey pallor, and he very much looked like a walking corpse.
Norman sat down and drank some water. Carbon kept her back to him so that he couldn’t see her eyes turning red as she tried to suppress her tears and swallowed several small sobs. It hadn’t hit her quite the same those years before. Perhaps it was too close back then, but now to see it dead and decayed ripped her apart. She’d carried the image of the city as it had been before the bombs, before Ratpack and the hordes of walking dead. Now it was broken and rotting. The ribs of the buildings at ground zero still reached up to the sky, like the ribcage of some animal that had been ripped apart from the inside out.
One of the melted, crumbling buildings had been her home. As far as she knew, all of her old neighbors were dead. She wasn’t friends with any of them, but to the best of her knowledge, everyone was a decent human, and especially did not deserve what had happened. She sat down, taking it all in. This was the first time in almost a decade that she truly felt loss. The enormity of the devastation sank in as she looked at the shattered remains of her old home and she cried for the first time in over a decade.
Carbon stood up and started unbuckling her armor. For some reason, it now felt like a tie to this dead, broken place. Norman watched from behind and realized he’d never seen her without her armor or the cowl that covered her head. Long brown hair fell out. She was silhouetted by the grey sky. She dropped the plates to the ground and only wore the form-fitting flex-armor underneath. She draped the cowl over herself like a sash so she wasn’t just wearing the body glove then replaced her belt and sword. She left the armor in a pile and started down the hill.
Norman started to get up but she held up her hand. “Stay there, I’ll be back in a little bit.” He nodded, knowing she couldn’t see him. Dropping the armor was freeing. She hadn’t gone a day without it in years, and it occurred to her how silly the concept of her wearing armor was. She could heal from any injury, and didn’t mind pain. It’s not like it enhanced her strength or allowed her to fly. Those would be meaningful enhancements. She had no idea what it was she was looking for, she just needed to get a closer look, to see the destruction up close. Carbon crawled over wrecked, rusting cars and through a fern-cruste bus. Her hand was on her sword’s handle the entire time, but she had little fear that she would need it. This seemed like the land of the raccoon and rat.
The slight wind blowing through her hair was an odd sensation. She was so used to being wrapped in her armor and cowl that she’d forgotten how freeing it could be to just be outside. She walked up to one of the more stable looking structures and found the stairwell leading to the roof. She climbed them, reflecting briefly on the odd, earthy smell of the building as the land reclaimed the raw materials from the manmade structure.
She reached the roof after a few minutes, taking her time. It was adorned by TV antennas and small trees. She looked over her dead city the way she did when as Carbon she would sneak out of her apartment and hunt down criminals. Instead of a vast sea of lights it was now a vast sea of green growing things and the cadavers of twenty first century progress. She raised her arms and stretched and breathed in deeply. She drew her sword and moved through some practice swings.
She pretended the trees and antenna around her were enemies. Instead of just performing katas, she attacked them. A single slice took down two small trees and a pipe, another a much larger tree, then a thrust that severed the thin frame of an antenna. She smiled for a second, then saw something that took her breath. In the direction of the idiot Cavalier’s castle she saw the holking spire at the top of his cliff, but in the foothills below was a sprawling village surrounded by a wall of, what were those? Trees?
A smile cracked her face. “No kidding…”
Norman woke up just a minute before Carbon came trudging up the hill. He’d passed out, and apparently threw up blood all over his jacket. “Crap.” he mumbled.He pulled out a roll of paper towels he carried and began to mop up the mess. He tossed the dirty napkins to the side.
Carbon was walking up to him. She didn’t even glance at her pile of armor. He‘d never seen her so… feminine before. Her hair was blowing around in the wind and her bright blue eyes had a sparkle. She was smiling.
“Reap-” he started but she held up her hand. “Just Gwen. The rumor about the village was true. We’re going to head there now, you should see it. It’s amazing.” Norman just shook his head. Something very profound had happened to his travelling partner in the past.. How long had he been asleep?
“Come one.” She said and helped him to his feet. “It’s maybe a forty five minute walk from here. Let me know if you need help walking, I’ll give you a hand.” Thanks to a couple of coughing fits by Norman, the trip around the ruins to the village took a little more than an hour, but it was worth the journey. Massive trees encircled the entire town, edged with downward curving spikes. It was at once beautiful and and intimidating.They were maybe a five minute walk from the nearest gate when Norman collapsed. “Oh no you don’t.” Gwen said and hoisted him up on her back. “Just leave me.” he rasped.
“Not a chance, I still have to kill you, remember.” She chuckled. Norman managed a smile, but that was it. She fast-walked toward the nearest gate. A young, strong looking man was in the observation compartment built into the tree near the gate. “May I help you?” he asked. Gwen noted that he was very muscular, but had a kind face. “Maybe. I used to live in the city and heard that this place had grown nearby, although I had no idea you had done so well.”
The young man smiled. “This is pretty new. What brings you here?”
“My companion here is very sick. He’s dying. That’s not why we came here, but since he’s in this condition, I would like him to pass in comfort, if that is at all possible.” The young man’s face grew serious. “What happened to him?” She immediately knew what his concern was.
“Don’t worry, he hasn’t been bitten by anything. He accidentally drank some radioactive water…” The young man’s face immediately turned to a mask of shock and sympathy. “Oh no.” Norman chimed in. “Yeah, it’s the little things in life that kill you.”
They could hear the young man run down some stairs, then the gate opened a little and he stepped through. “I’m William. And you are…?” “Norman and Gwen.” She said.
Norman coughed. “Norman and Carbon.” He choked out. Gwen glared at him for a second, but she saw the wisdom in Norman’s actions as soon as she looked back at William. His mouth hung open and he whispered “no kidding…” as he inspected the sword hanging from her hip.”Ma’am, it’s a great pleasure. I never would have recognized you without your armor but…”
William turned into steel and rested his shotgun on his shoulder. “I’m a huge fan. I wanted to be like you as a kid.” Gwen smiled. “Must be our lucky day. Can you give me a hand with Norman?” William reacted as if he’d just woken up. “Oh, jeez! Yes! Sorry Norman, I didn’t mean to be impolite. It’s just not that often that we get visitors, and even rarer that they are heroes. Especially since Cavalier stopped coming around.”
Gwen helped norman into William’s thick muscular (steel) arms and gave him a quizzical look. “Cavalier’s around?” She asked, not able to hide the disgust in her voice. “A lot less that he was, thank god.” Said William, and there was a clear ring of anger in his voice.
Gwen smiled sardonically. “So you’ve obviously met him…”
William glanced over. He wasn’t smiling. “He used to see my girlfriend. He came back to try and rekindle that flame a few weeks back and it didn’t go well.”
“I’m no fan of his any more than he is a fan of me. Trust me, I’m on your side, it seems.”
William did smile at that. “What brings you two here? If you’re looking for medical help for your friend, I don’t think we have anyone that can help with radiation poisoning.” Gwen was shaking her head before he finished. “No, not that. I used to live and work in the City and heard there were people living nearby, so I wanted to come and see. I had no idea it would be anything like this.”
William laughed. “We’re still getting used to it. We just finished construction the other day. My girlfriend, Nicole did all of this.” Norman whistled. “How many years was she at this?” William practically glowed. “A few weeks. Give or take some days.” Gwen turned in a complete circle as they walked. “She can grow and manipulate plants?” She asked. William nodded, still smiling.
“Very useful talent. Especially these days.” Gwen felt oddly at home. Maybe she would call this place her home base, if they would have her. But that would have to wait; there were a lot of wrongs to right. “Where are we going?”
William pointed ahead. “We have an inn toward the back wall. We’ll set you guys up there for now until you’re ready to move on. Or move in.” he added with a grin.
Cavalier’s militia arrived later that same day. In all there were thirty six soldiers, six of whom were elites that relieved the five remaining to return home. Arachne had decided to be generous; a full forty robots were included in the ranks, two of which were the large cannon-wielding centaurs.
The robots made short work of the task of building barracks for the militia, building it into the side of Cavalier’s castle at his order. Once they finished with that work, they went about building the fusion engine Arachne had sent in Cavalier’s basement. Within hours, they had hot running water and electricity. His fridge coughed and slowly sprung back to life. The giant television flickered and turned on. Crater, still not fully in charge of his faculties, stumbled over to the couch and sat down. He just stared at the blank screen, mesmerized.
Cavalier’s first order of business was a hot shower. He spent an easy twenty minutes just letting scalding water pour over him. He bathed regularly, but in the streams nearby, where it was always brisk, even in the summer. He had declined Arachne’s offer for a shower after their third go in her bed, but he didn’t want to ask too much of her, and for some reason that seemed like pushing his luck. Now he realized he should have. Years of tension melted away in the steaming room.
His guard dropped for the first time in weeks, he barely registered the heavy footfalls that pondered across the giant bathroom until he could just make out a giant silhouette in the mist. “What the hell?” he shouted and grabbed his helmet, ready to use it as a weapon. “Cav?” came a very tired, very familiar voice.
“Crater! My friend, just a second you startled me!”
“Sorry, Cav.” he mumbled. “No need to be sorry! I’m glad you’re up and about.” Cavalier pushed past his large freind and toweled off. “I probably should not have taken so much time anyway. It just felt so good. You should have a shower, too.” Crater was bleary-eyed and seemed a little confused, as he had since he started receiving treatment. The cost of a person a day was going to start being noticed soon, but he didn’t care. To him, Crater was worth a hundred or even a thousand other people.
Crater nodded, and without even waiting for Cavalier to leave, he began to undress. The disgraced hero let himself out quickly to avoid any more awkwardness. Cavalier had plans for his militia, and he was prepared to put them in action soon, but not yet. Things might get messy for a while, and he wanted to relax for a bit, enjoy some of the life that had been left behind, and he wanted Crater to get better. When he became king, he wanted Crater to be his duke, or whatever the king’s right hand man was called.
Wearing only his underwear, he walked into the living room. He snapped his fingers and one of the bots walked over. He’d already discussed with the soldiers that they were not servants and were not to act as such. He gave them some access to facilities in the house; the rec room, lower level bathrooms, etc. He wanted them to be loyal to a fault to him, and he had every intention of keeping morale sky high. Although the robots were a different story. If they weren’t acting as guards or scouts, they were butlers.
“Put in a movie for me, and I want a beer. Forty eight ounce. And a pizza.” Three robots snapped into action as Cavalier hopped over the back of the couch and slid into a slouch on the seat. The screen flickered and the loading screen for the Blu-ray player displayed and he smiled. He didn’t care what it was that the bot put in, he didn’t own any movies he didn’t like, plus he hadn’t seen one in seven years.
The thought of beer, pizza and a movie seemed like heaven. Later that evening, halfway through the movie, beer and pizza, Crater appeared out of nowhere and slumped into the couch next to Cavalier. “Sorry I scared you, Cav. This zombie crap is messing with my head.” He sounded more clear-headed and lucid than he had in weeks.
“Is there more pizza?” Crater asked. “There will be. Here, have the rest of this one.” Cavalier handed over the other half of the sixteen inch he’d been eating. “You sure?” Asked the giant man. Cavalier smiled wider than he had in months. “Of course, my friend. Of course.” Cavalier snapped his finger and barked some orders, and within minutes, he and Crater had fresh beer and pizza. They finished their movie and put on another. They continued the same cycle for days; watching movies, eating, drinking and passing out for hours, just to wake up and do it all over again.
While Cavalier and crater were reliving their relaxing, pre-apocalyptic lives, Norman and Gwen were getting to know the people in the village. She found she really enjoyed the company of William and Nicole. They were young and incredibly sharp. Nicole had been a physics student, and fit the part well. She had a sharp mind and wit that Gwen truly enjoyed being around. Since discovering her ability just a few weeks before, the young woman had tirelessly worked to protect and improve the village.
The crops grew tall and healthy, and the wall around the village was a masterpiece. Through it all, she maintained an enthusiastic outlook. She’d voraciously devoured every bit of knowledge they could find on plants to utilize her abilities to the very edge. All plants within the walls were growing tens of times larger than they would in ideal conditions pre-apocalypse. Seemed as if once she discovered her power, the plants were eager to fuel it.
The townsfolk were still trying to grasp how completely their lives had changed in the past few weeks, and shared Gwen’s enthusiasm to see how things would change in the coming months. They also shared her concern about Cavalier. Everyone had noticed that the castle was now lighting up at night, not an inconsequential detail. It appeared that he had some new allies, someone with access to advanced technology.
Additionally, people were turning up missing. They were growing suspicious, but no one wanted to tangle with Cavalier of Crater on their home turf. Besides, there was a consensus that he would be back soon. There was no way that someone with his ego, with his sudden influx of power, was going to just let the village at his doorstep exist independently. Gwen provided a great deal of insight on who he was, and was not burdened by any past feelings of awe or even respect for him.
Fortunately, most everyone in the village had combat experience. The combined robot and zombie plagues had prepared most of them for brutal fighting, and a few years of agriculture had done nothing to steal their edge. Even in the best of times, swarms of zombies would approach the village and need to be put down. Anticipating the potential/eventual attack from Cavalier and whoever he had with him, they trained and stockpiled weapons.
Gwen took time to give everyone a crash course in martial arts. They had to be prepared, because one way or another, a fight was on the horizon. They made it look like they were farming, integrating Carbon’s lessons into their routines and practicing when they worked, always assuming Cavalier and his allies were watching. It was like the slaves in Brazil, hundreds of years before practicing Capoeira in front of their captors, pretending it was just dance.
At night they practiced shooting with bows, crossbows and silenced weapons. The cracks of the guns were muted only slightly, but it was enough to not arouse suspicion. The villagers were amazing learners. It was surprising for Gwen to find out that a vast majority were college students or graduates; the city had been a haven for learning so most of the survivors had managed to do do by being smart. That made them perfect students.
When the day came that Cavalier and his militia arrived making demands, the village was prepared. Cavalier was not.
Norman watched Gwen practice her katas. Every movement was practiced and direct. There was no wasted movement, and every thrust, jab and parry was backed with incredible power. He had no idea how anyone could be so disciplined. But there she was, every day, moving through the motions, pretending to fight unseen opponents. He had no doubt that even without her magnificent black sword, most anyone fighting her would regret their decision to engage her. Norman had never seen anyone as pure a warrior.
That title was usually reserved for large men who killed for a living, but he had never seen anyone for whom the title was more apt. He also knew her to be just as adept with a gun with a sword. He almost pitied Cavalier’s soldiers when they decided to move against the village. Carbon alone was a force to be reckoned with, but on top of that, they had an army of people motivated by the safety of their homes, not to mention a woman who could bend plants to her will and a man who could turn to steel and could not be moved.
Something profound had changed inside of Norman. The weeks he’d spent with Gwen had been eye opening. She had no reason to trust him, especially after he had tried to push her off a cliff, and was complicit in a global catastrophe, but she’d shown him respect and was never particularly cruel to him. In fact, he had almost started thinking of her as a friend. A friend that would one day kill him, if the radiation poisoning didn’t finish him off first.
So be it, he thought. Somewhere along the line in the past several weeks he’d developed a conscience. Maybe it was because he never really had the time to enjoy his spoils and his kingdom. if he was being honest with himself, he would probably be as despotic as the others had he not lost it all. He didn’t feel lucky for developing his new found morality, it was just a side effect of his company and being forced to see what his actions had caused.
But it was there. Gnawing at him, making him hope that the gradual disintegration of his body would speed up and kill him so the pain, physical and emotional, would stop. How could he live with himself if he somehow survived?
He decided he wouldn’t. In whatever conflict was around the corner, he was going to fight, and likely die very early on.
So be it.