Date Published: July 3, 2020
Publisher: Skyland Press
Incarnate Number Seven, a cybernetically enhanced young woman with no
memories and only a basic operating system, awakens to a devastated world
painted in blood, desperation, and genocide. Guided only by a moody
artificial intelligence program and scattered digital memories into the
past, Seven must traverse the perilous Gateway region, fighting past its
savage inhabitants and monsters to learn who she was and what happened to
her world. Maybe, if she’s lucky, she’ll even save what’s
left of humanity in the process…
I stopped behind a fallen tree trunk at the edge of the lawn and readied the carbine at my side. Peering through the scope, nothing was visible in the tower. All the windows, their frames absent of glass having shattered long ago, were dark and motionless. Then something moving on the front porch caught my eye.
It was a man.
Hunched over, the balding man was pacing across the porch over and over, occasionally changing course and descending the stairs, only to reverse course and ascend back to the porch. There was something erratic about his gait, though, almost as if he was shuffling. He was flailing and wringing his hands into his tattered clothes, bobbing his head, smacking his lips while he spoke to himself. I didn’t know if it was his spastic movements, the screaming, or both, but something compelled me to caress the cold metal of the carbine’s trigger. As he crossed the porch again, the man’s head passed through the crosshairs. I made sure the carbine’s stock was against my shoulder this time and then started to squeeze the trigger. I held my breath, trying to steady the weapon.
I kept ordering my finger to pull the trigger, but it… I couldn’t. I lowered the weapon. I couldn’t kill again, especially someone who wasn’t posing a threat to me. Listening carefully, I could now hear the voice screaming from the tower better. It was a girl’s voice – pleading for help.
“What should I do?” I cried out to KeepR.
“Shut up and get us out of here, I-Seven!” KeepR’s electronic voice snapped within my head.
But there didn’t appear to be anyone else present, aside from the man on the porch. Perhaps the girl was just scared of his erratic behavior? “Maybe I can reason with him?”
KeepR snorted, “Good last words.”
I moved from behind the tree trunk and started toward the house. “I’m going to try.” Maybe I could talk him into letting the girl go without any need for conflict, but even if he wouldn’t listen to reason, I was feeling tough in the 4300 armor. And I had a pretty formidable gun, so maybe I could intimidate him into… moving on.
The man continued his pacing routine as I approached, seeming unaware of my presence. When I reached the home, he was on the far end of the porch and just starting to shuffle back toward me. What I’d thought was speaking was actually more like… barking… or growling.
“Hello?” I called out to him, attempting to sound confident, my heart racing. The carbine readied at my side boosted my confidence a little, assuming I could use it correctly this time.
The dog-man reached edge of the stairs, stopped, and stared at me with bulging, bloodshot eyes. His eyelids were drooped and flapped open, red and raw. He moved a few steps closer, his pupils darting back and forth, examining me. The border of my visor began flashing red as he let out a low growl. I wasn’t sure how to interpret the visor’s flashing, but I imagined that it wasn’t good.
“You need to leave that girl alone!” I demanded… or whimpered. I wasn’t sure which.
The man’s lips curled, and the pitch of his growl rose, reverberating deep in his throat. Then he was airborne as he soared off the top step – coming right at me!
My mouth and eyes shot wide open as I realized what was happening. Suddenly, that familiar lucidity returned to me…
My perspicacity had activated.
As time slowed and the dog-man floated toward me, his once frenetic movements and twitches now seemed slow, his eyes bulging open, but barely moving. A stream of saliva drifted from his gaping mouth. But what caught my attention most was his outstretched arms and hands, which ended in sharp nails and bloodied fingertips. My visor began flashing a vigorous red, and the red outline of a rectangle surrounded the man’s body, but I had no idea what that meant.
A squeak escaped my lips as the terror struck. Why does everyone want to kill me?
Even as my mind raced for a solution, my instincts took over, and I started to fall backward, simultaneously flipping the carbine upward. As the dog-man fell toward me, I thrust the carbine in the direction of his chest.
I didn’t know much about guns, but even I couldn’t miss a target this close. I pulled the trigger as hard as I could, and four holes punched through the man’s chest as he barreled down at me.
Time accelerated again, and the dog man hit me with painful momentum, smashing me the rest of the way to the ground. The two of us lay there for a moment, motionless, his weight crushing me. He was bigger than I’d realized, and he stunk like excrement.
“So much for talking!” I squawked, still reeling from the tackle.
“Told you,” was KeepR’s only reply.
I was barely able to force the dog-man’s limp body off me. I couldn’t bear to look at him any further. This was going to do my guilt wonders.
So not lucky.
I didn’t have long to mope, however, as my self-loathing was then interrupted by a series of new cries erupting from inside the house. Not those of the girl, but deep, booming howls. “No time for guilt, now you’ve got more to kill!” KeepR noted.
Pulling the carbine to a ready position, I moved up the steps and rushed through the open door, quickly grinding to a stop.
Wait! Shouldn’t I check to see if it’s clear first?
My concern was instantly validated as another dog-man launched onto me, ramming a long knife into the elastic joint of the 4300 armor along my right shoulder. I spun and crashed to the floor, and when I looked back, my attacker had disappeared. Ignoring the searing pain in my shoulder, the knife still buried in my flesh, I managed to pull myself to one knee and examine the only logical doorway that the dog-man could have disappeared through.
Then I saw his balding head peek from the other side of the frame. A red, square reticle appeared in my visor, covering his head. I pointed the carbine at him with one hand and squeezed the trigger. The kickback from my carbine seemed exponentially stronger than it had just a few moments ago, making me lose my balance and fall to my backward again, the spray of bullets arching wide and high over his head.
“What the?” I cried out, trying to regain my stance. I was not very good at this. “KeepR, how do I get time to slow down again?”
“To your left!” was KeepR’s only reply as another dog-man emerged in my peripheral vision, wobbling down the stairs. This one, a violently flailing woman instead, was shaking and bobbing as she approached, waving something in her hand.
Is that a pistol? The two bullets she fired impacted my armored chest plates, sending me sprawling backward, and I tripped and fell to my back once more.
As I heaved to regain my breath, KeepR yelped, “I know I was right! Quit thinking about that and shoot it!”
Before I could get back to my feet, the dog man that had been hiding on the other side of the door was upon me again, pummeling me in the face. I pushed the creature off and forced myself up again. I tried to pull the carbine up to fire, but he was too close. He bore down on me and yanked the knife out of my shoulder.
I was in over my head…
Brandishing his knife once again, the dog-man lunged at me. His blade was deflected this time only by the armor plating of the 4300. I grabbed him with both hands, and we crashed into and cracked the wall, and then continued our spinning dance as I tried to force the knife back toward him. Then my legs came out from under me as we crashed over a small end table, causing it to collapse in the process. Fortunately, in our desperate roll downward, the dog-man broke my fall, and my weight did the rest, pushing the knife between his ribs at the sternum. He trembled and shook a few times, and then that was three lives on my hands.
“Better make it four!” KeepR reminded me as I turned back to face the dog-woman. This one seemed a bit calmer than the other two. It seemed to be pondering another approach than just lung and kill, a strategy that hadn’t worked so well for her companions. Rather than leaping at me, she seemed to watch me, her pistol held limply at her side. Gradually she crept toward me.
I wasn’t going to risk another close call this time. I raised the carbine at her, and she seemed to hesitate. “Sorry,” I gulped, propping the stock against my shoulder to prepare for the kickback this time. Then I pulled the trigger.
Click. Click. I tried again. Click.
So not lucky.
“Reload idiot!” cried KeepR. But I barely even had time to grasp a spare clip from one of the 4300 utility pockets and fumble with it before the dog-woman came howling at me. At least her gun apparently wasn’t loaded either, since she wasn’t shooting at me, but that didn’t dampen the stinging as she battered me with it. I tried hitting her back with my carbine, but I couldn’t get much leverage on it as she towered over me, swinging wildly. Again, I’d misjudged the creature’s stature due to her previous hunching.
She pinned me against the wall, grabbed one of my hands, and pushed it into my face. But I pushed her head back on the forehead with the palm of my left hand, at least interfering with her pistol whipping.
“I think we have a stalemate,” I spat at her. “Can we please stop?”
Her response? Burst forward again and start biting furiously at my face, spraying saliva onto my cheek – her bulging, bloodshot eyes darting back and forth.
What do I do now?
“Remember the bridge? Your visor can help you!” blurted KeepR, being helpful for once.
Oh, right! I looked at the balding dog-woman and did my best to “will” her to die, not really sure what the visor would do in response. A flashing red lightning bolt appeared on the left side of my visor. Not sure what that meant, but desperate to try anything, I “willed” an affirmative to the visor. At that moment, the gauntlet on my left hand pulsed with fluxing energy, and then something burst out of my left palm, snapping the woman’s neck back with a loud crack in the process. When the acrid smoke cleared away, I was still standing against the wall, alone.
I examined my hand, worried it wasn’t done pulsating, but it appeared as normal as ever. The woman’s body, however, lay motionless on the floor in front of me, the floor that was now visible through a cauterized hole right through her forehead, just a few centimeters in diameter. Smoke was still rising from the charred flesh surrounding the hole. I recoiled at the smell of… roasted meat.
“Excellent!” cheered a giddy KeepR. A bit too giddy at having just murdered someone…
The unpleasant churning in my stomach returned. Killing wasn’t getting any easier yet. Remembering the other two dead ones only made it worse.
My chest ached, but that pain was nothing compared to my still bleeding shoulder. Examining the black marks on my chest where the bullets had ricocheted away reminded me that such pain was actually good luck. It could have gone a lot worse. Although the armored plates covered most of my chest, had the shots been a little to the side I might not have made it. I was also a little sad to realize that my formerly pristine white 4300 was now marred, covered in drying blood and dirt.
But, at least it could shoot… plasma? I wished I’d realized that sooner…
About the Author
Wilder Page loves science fiction, cyberpunk, dystopian, and
post-apocalyptic worlds. Especially those with stories where the personal
stakes are high, and the costs of failure are very real. But he also
believes in the triumph of the human spirit, and whether the future will be
grim or bright, well… that’s a choice each of us has to make
for ourselves. When Wilder’s not writing or daydreaming he spends the
rest of his time running, traveling with his wife and best friend, or
playing video games with his two amazing little kiddos!