And in room of the Speculative Philosophy usually taught in the Schools, to discover a Practical, by means of which, knowing the force and action of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies that surround us, as distinctly as we know the various crafts of our artizans, we might also apply them in the same way to all the uses to which they are adapted, and thus render ourselves the lords and possessors of nature. And this is a result to be desired, not only in order to the invention of an infinity of arts, by which we might be enabled to enjoy without any trouble the fruits of the earth, and all its comforts.
~ René Descartes, Discourse on Method
The three figures – two men and one woman – left the noodle shop, the last one letting the metal door clang shut behind them. A few strides and they were piling into a waiting van and out of the rain.
The last of the three paused with one foot into the van and glanced over her shoulder. Some kilometers away was downtown Detroit with its half-dozen towers whose upper reaches disappeared in the low-hanging clouds. She reflected that if the cloud bank was thin enough, the people in the upper reaches of the tower could be basking in sunlight right now.
She hopped in the van and shook her head. The people in the upper reached of the towers did not need real sunlight. They could generate artificial sunlight any time they wanted.
“Alright Sammy, let’s go,” one of the three said as he took off his black trench coat to reveal a blue jumpsuit, the logo of the Bernard Corp emblazoned on its chest.
“Roger that, Chief. Next stop Gate 21,” the driver said and gunned the engine.
The second man who had climbed into the van grunted, and said, ”When you told me what my cut would be, I figured we were going over the wall.” He opened the olive drab bag at his feet, pulled out a vintage semi-automatic shotgun, and began to load it.
The man in the blue jumpsuit – Chief – whistled. “That’s a beauty. Did you lift it from a museum?”
“Quit the sweet talk,” said the man with the shotgun. “What’s the job?”
Chief shrugged. “Shortly after six-hundred hours a VTOL went down in Sector 8. We’re going to retrieve its cargo.”
“You dragged me out of bed for that?” he asked as he continued loading one shell after another. “Just get one of your net-heads to retrieve it.”
“Actually, that won’t work,” the woman said. “The VTOL was running Watch on the Rhine.”
The man shook his head. In 1944, during the preparation for his last offensive, Hitler had become so paranoid that he would not use radio communication. Instead he mandated that orders be written and delivered by courier. The operation’s code name was Watch on the Rhine. One hundred and fifty years later, governments and corporations finally learned that the only certain way to keep something a secret was to have it completely disconnected from the net. In some corner of the net, someone with an interest in ancient history, christened these set-ups “Watch on the Rhine.” And it stuck.
Chief looked from the woman to the man. He said, “Ricco, this is one of my net-heads, Em. Em, this is Ricco, one of my gunsels.”
Em said, “Hey.”
Ricco looked at Chief, “So what are we talking about crew-wise?”
“The craft was a surveillance or courier model. So, two max.”
“Well, that’s encouraging,” Ricco said. Turning his attention to Em he said, “You ever been over the wall?”
Em shook her head no. And then saw Ricco shoot a glance at Chief.
Looking back at Em, Ricco said, “You ever shot a gun?”
Now Em looked at Chief, and then back at Ricco. “Yeah, I’ve used a firearm,” she said.
“Good,” Ricco said. Cradling his weapon in his lap, he reached into his bag and retrieved a machine pistol. After loading it, he handed it to Em. “Here,” he said.
Em took the offered weapon.
“There are a few rules when you’re over the wall,” Chief said. “First one is, if it walks on two legs or crawls on four, shoot it.”
The Chief said, “What’s the status of the crash site?”
Em pulled back her sleeve revealing a tablet affixed to her forearm. Using a back door she had constructed some time ago, she slipped into the Detroit Safety Committee’s network of surveillance drones that constantly hovered over the city. Finding one that was in the vicinity of the crash she nudged its camera’s and sensors in the needed direction. A few moments later she looked up. “Any fire has died down – probably the rain. The surveil drones aren’t picking up any heat signatures,” she said. “It looks like they were trying to land. It’s in the middle of an intersection – or what’s left of it.”
“So it’s on concrete?”
“Yeah, the rear of the fuselage at the very least. Some interference is obscuring the front.”
Chief slapped Ricco’s knee. “See? Easy money,” he said. “We dismount. Em extracts the data. We mount up. 120 ticks max.”
“Em, send that info to Sammy up front,” the Chief said.
The trio rode on in silence.
After some time, the van approached a tall grey wall surmounted by razor wire and slowed down. The Wall was only a generation old although it had been upgraded almost constantly since its hasty construction. As large swaths of land at the equator became uninhabitable, refugees began to move north looking for food and water. The Great Lakes became prime real estate. When it became clear that it would be impossible to stop the refugees from entering the area, those in charge hatched a plan to control access to the water. In Detroit, that meant walling off the areas along the Detroit River and Lakes St. Claire and Eire. Those who were lucky to live inside The Wall had the luxuries of running water, electricity, and policed streets. Those outside The Wall did without those things.
A long stretch of The Wall in old Detroit even had a moat. As an expedient during the First Panic, those in charge flooded a below-grade expressway that ran parallel with the Detroit River. The van and its occupants came to a stop at a check point guarding one of the few remaining bridges that spanned the moat.
“Where ya headed?” A guard in full body armor and assault rifle asked once Sammy had lowered the window.
“Client’s VTOL had to make an emergency landing. We’re the extraction team,” Sammy replied.
“In case you haven’t heard, we’re at Orange level,” the police officer said. “So you’re on your own. We ain’t crossing The Wall if you run into trouble.”
“Understood,” Sammy said. “Thank you officer.”
The officer signaled to his partner to open the gate. “No problem. Have a good one.”
Sammy eased the van through the obstacles on the bridge, and with a bump was officially over The Wall.
Em looked out of one of the portholes. At first, the street was lined with small houses, but quickly the number of houses dropped and in their place were hovels made of sheets of plasti-steel and plasti-tarps. Here and there were scattered the concrete foundations of twenty-first century buildings overgrown with brambles and junk trees. Occasionally, Em would see a dirty face peering out of one of the hovels. Once, she saw an adult herding a child into one of the hovels as she cast a frightened look at the van.
On several of the hovels, Em noticed a symbol painted in bright red usually on or near the entrance. It was a circle surmounted by a pair of antlers. Curious, she took a picture of one of these images flipped it to here tablet and ran a net search.
A video was one of the first hits. Em hit play.
The image flickered and the vid began. A young woman stood looking directly into the camera. A dirty tarp hung curtain-like behind her. She was only wearing a mask made of green leaves adorned with antlers of some kind, and a piece of white cloth tied around her waist. On her chest was a circle surmounted with antlers. Was it a tattoo? Was it a brand? Or was it drawn with fresh cuts. Em could not tell.
As the woman began to speak, the comments on the vid started to autoplay over her. The original image was quickly blotted out:
bigwaller: What joke. Stupid towerite proly got on the wrong lifter and ended up street level. Saw a prole and got all guilty feeling.
techKNOmancer: Conquering Worm? She reads a book and thinks she knows something.
bastardSWORD: Nice tits tho.
magatower: ??? seen better. and she’s wearing a mask. proly ugly as fuck.
Em stopped the playback, muted the comments, and started the vid over again.
“Greetings. I am Bridget priestess of the Great Mother. I come to you with a warning, but also to offer you hope. The Conquering Worms are coming. They will seek out the bloated bodies of the ultras, the tower-ites. The ones who have wallowed in luxury sucking the life out of the poor and Mother Earth herself…The Conquering Worms are coming for you and they shall feast upon your bloated bodies. There is no escape. The Great Mother and her children shall devour superfluous humanity.
“But there is hope. Give up your luxury. Destroy your tech. Come down from your towers. Walk in nature while there is still time left. Mark your body thus. And the Conquering Worms will pass you by.”
Here the woman rotated her arm so that insides of her forearms were visible to the camera. The circle with antlers symbol was repeated on both forearms. Em’s earlier question was answered. From the symbol, fresh blood flowed toward her wrists.
Then something happened that surprised Em. These Earth First-ers hated tech used some effects to create a glowing triangle – a point rested on each of the symbols. The glowing triangle faded and the vid ended.
Sammy’s voice brought Em back to her current situation. “Chief, I need you up front.”
Chief moved to the seat next to Sammy, but Ricco and Em moved forward as well. The four peered through the windscreen as Sammy slowed to a stop. The intersection before then was crowded with people on foot. Some were dressed in little more than rags. Although Em could not make out the words, the group was chanting. At regular intervals members of the crowd rang bells or beat make-shift drums, and then crowd would become silent and continue their march.
“Why don’t you dismount and hurry them along,” Chief said to Ricco.
Ricco snorted. “No thank. We can wait.”
Em was about ask how dangerous the crowd was, but then decided if Ricco wanted to let them proceed unmolested, there was probably a fair amount of danger in molesting them. As she scanned the group she noticed some carried metal globes pierced with intricate designs. A blue smoke poured out of these enclosed braziers. Em also notice the symbol she had seem earlier painted onto the dirty cloaks wrapped around some of the marchers.
Without thinking, Em scratched her arm. She could not wait to get back on the other side of the Wall, get back to her cube and shower. The dirty, ragged people made her skin crawl.
Finally, the procession passed and the van was able to proceed. Within a block of the intersection, the environment changed precipitously. There were no more occupied dwellings. Junk trees and brambles closed in on the road which was becoming more pothole than road.
Once again, the van slowed to a stop. “Sorry Chief. I think this is the end of the line,” Sammy said. “Those poles look like they’re driven into the concrete. And the ground looks too soft to drive around it.”
Em once again perched over Sammy’s shoulder. In the middle of the road someone had driven two metal poles into the road at an angle forming a triangle. Each side was about three meters long. Brambles grew right up to the edge, but the way through the triangle was clear.
Chief cursed. “How far away are we?”
“About a hundred fifty. You could probably see it if it’s wasn’t for the mist,” Sammy said.
“Anything on IR? Motion sensors?”
Sammy hit a couple switches on the van’s dashboard, and her eyes got that far way look as they focused on her integral retina display. “Negative.”
Chief rubbed his cheek. “Ricco?”
Ricco turned to Em. “How long with it take?”
“I don’t know for sure,” Em said. “But generally not too long. I mean it might be booby-trapped. You don’t want to rush or you might lose the data.”
“Alright,” Chief said. “Sammy. Turn us around so we can get out here quick. The second something pops up on the scanners let us know.”
As the van made a three-point turn, Chief looked at Em. “We’re going right down the middle of the road. Watch your footing. When we get to the site, work as fast as you can. Stick to the center.” Then looking at Ricco he said, “You take the left, I’ll take the right.”
“Roger,” Ricco said.
A moment later the van had stopped and the back doors popped open with a loud hiss. The three jumped to the ground and headed toward the triangle.
“What is it?” Em asked.
“Some kind of tribal boundary marker,” Chief said.
Ricco grunted. “It’s like the Stone Age out here.”
The three started forward, and a few strides brought them under the metal arch. When they were directly under it, Em felt something warm and wet hit the back of her neck. “What the–“ Her hand shot up to her neck and wiped it twice. She looked at her hand. A reddish-brown liquid covered her fingers. She sniffed it. It smelled of iron. Em looked at the metal polls. They were wet from the rain and mist. Must be rusty water. She looked at Ricco and Chief. “Sorry,” she said and the three proceeded down the road.
On the other side of the boundary, the trees and brambles closed in even closer. Here and there grasses and vines had pushed there way though the concrete. Occasionally, Em could just make out the remnants of a single family dwelling from the last century.
About half way to their target they slowed to make their way around an apparent sink hole that had filled with water. It had destroyed about half of the road and went some distance into the vegetation. Em noticed an occasional bubble surfacing here and there, and wondered what kind of pipe was leaking what kind of chemicals into the pool. After carefully skirting the the end of the sink hole they found themselves almost to the VTOL.
Chief signaled them to stop. Chief cupped his hand to the side of his mouth and shouted. “We’ve been sent by your employer to extract you and your cargo. We’ve got transport about 100 meters down the road.”
The three waited. There was no response. “Give your weapon to Ricco,” Chief said to Em. Then he once again cupped his hand to the side of his face. “I’m sending one of my team forward. She is un-armed.” Turning back to Em, Chief said, “Walk up slow. Keep your hand visible. Show ‘em the I.D. They’re probably shitting themselves.”
After taking a deep breath, Em walked toward the VTOL with her empty hands visible as Chief had instructed. The grey vehicle was not much larger than the van Em and her companions had left a hundred or so meters back. One of its engines was blacken – clearly this was the cause of the unscheduled landing. And the landing had been hard. The front landing gear had collapsed on impact and the craft had skidded a few meters across the pavement.
Em came to within a few meters of the open side hatch and paused. “Hello,” she said. “We’re here to extract you. We’ve got a van waiting.” She waited in silence peering in the darkness of the open hatch. After a long minute, she looked over here shoulder. Chief stabbed his finger at the VTOL and nodded.
Em turned back and after taking another deep breath walked that last few meters to the vehicle and looked in. “Hello?” She could see nothing. Em slowly raised her hand to her temple and adjusted her headset to the low-light setting and then to IR.
Nothing. The VTOL was empty. Em turned around and called out, “It’s empty.”
Chief and Ricco rushed forward. Chief took up a position next to the hatch and Ricco circled around to the far side of the craft. Chief stole a glance into the craft and then hopped in. A moment later he hopped back out. “Ricco?” he said.
“Nothing over here,” Ricco said.
“Alright kid,” Chief said. “Show time. Make it quick.”
Em climbed in and moved to the front the VTOL. After a moment of acclimating herself to the controls she found what she was looking for – the data cargo hold. She popped open an access panel just to the right of the holding devise and peered in. She sat back on her heals for a moment and then reached into the side pouch of her fatigues.
“Talk to me,” Chief said.
“It’s locked in a titanium case,” Em said. “I don’t have a cutter. I’m going to have to download it onto my tablet.” Em carefully attached the touch-less reader to the holding devise and her hands flew across her tablet.
“How long will that take?” Chief asked.
“About four minutes,” Em said. “There’s a shit-ton of data here.”
“About four minutes Ricco,” Chief called out.
“Roger that,” Ricco called back.
A minute passed in silence. The progress bar slowly advanced across Em’s screen.
Then Em heard Ricco called out again. “Hey Chief, I got a bunch of empty shell casings over here. Looks like one of the crew emptied a full clip.”
“Probably got nervous and started shooting at shadows,” Chief said.
Another minute passed.
And then another.
“Chief we’re not alone.” Em heard Ricco call. Chief’s shadow disappeared from the hatch. She held her breath to listen.
“Where?” Chief said. There was a pause. “The undergrowth is too thick. It’s probably just some animals.”
“I figured that, but it’s big what ever it is,” Ricco replied.
“Well if it gets too close persuade it to go somewhere else.” Em thought she heard a note of frustration in him voice.
It sounded like he was coming back to the VTOL so Em returned to monitoring the download. When she felt the shadow return to the hatch, she said, “Almost there.”
“Good,” Chief said.
Another minute passed. Finally the download was complete. Em detached the touch-less reader and returned the reader to her fatigues.
Em was at the hatched about to jump to the ground when Ricco’s shotgun roared to life. “Chief,” Ricco shouted and then let out a string of curses. Chief was gone. Em heard a cacophony of gunfire. Unable to arrest her forward motion she half-jumped, half-fell to the ground. Instinctively she crouched down and covered her head with her arms.
Then the gunfire stopped. Em looked up to see Chief rounding the rear of the VTOL. He was shouting. Em started to stand up. Chief grabbed her by the shoulder, propelling her up and away from the crash site.
“Run!” Chief yelled over and over.
Em ran. The seat of her rational thought wanted to demand from Chief what was going on? Where was Ricco? But the wild look in Chief’s eyes caused any questions Em might have to die on her lips.
They reached the sink hole. Chief did not slow down, but some movement in the pool caught Em’s eye and she broke stride.
Chief slowed and reached back and grabbed Em once again. “Go!” he yelled. “Don’t stop!”
Turning back toward the van Em started to run again.
But then she stopped and turned when she heard Chief curse. For a moment, her mind could not process what she a seeing. Chief was standing and somehow what looked like a slimy tarp was rising out of the pool and wrapping itself around him like a blanket.
But it was not a blanket. It made her think of what a box of tangled cables and wire looked like if they were dumped in a heap on the ground. But these slimy, mottled cables were moving, twisting and turning over and under each other. And the mass progressed up Chief’s body. It covered his legs and was moving steadily above his waist.
Chief’s curses turned to shouts and then to a long continuous scream. Em took step toward him. What she was going to do she did not know. But then she stopped. Chief had somehow gotten one hand and his pistol free from the clinging things. He placed the barrel against his temple. But there was no shot. The mass surged over his arm and the gun, and then covered his head.
Em was revetted to the spot. For a second the mass parted enough for Em to see Chief’s eyes. The skin around them was bloody and his eyes bulged. Then his eyes were covered again.
A detached part of Em’s brain noticed a change in the writhing mass – it had started as dirty white in color, but it was now slowly darkening, as if the cable-like things had been hallow and were now filling up with something reddish-brown. Then Chief and the mass of whatever it was toppled over into the pool which erupted into violent churning.
Em turned and ran. She did not hear anything. She just saw the van in the distance. It seemed to stay the same distance away from her. Was Sammy leaving her? Em screamed and tried to run faster.
And then she was at the van clamoring in and slamming the door behind her. “Go!”
“What’s going on? Where’s Chief and Ricco?” Sammy asked.
“Drive! Get me the fuck out of here!”
“I ain’t leaving without Chief and Ricco.” Sammy left her seat and grabbed an assault rifle from an overhead rack.
“There dead! Gone!” Em took hold of Sammy’s arm. “Please! We have got to get out of here or we’re gonna die.”
“The cultists? How many?” Sammy asked. Em was looking out the back porthole. Sammy wrenched her arm from Em. “How many goddammit?”
Em shook her head. “Thousands. Thousands.”
“Fuck,” Sammy looked up at the roof of the van. “Come on. We gotta at least get their bodies.”
Em took hold of Sammy’s arm again. “No, no, no,” Em said. “All gone. They’re gone.”
“What did they do? What happened?”
“All gone. They’re gone,” Em repeated.
Sammy pounded the roof of the van. “Fucking savages!” She returned the rifle to its rack. “Oughta nuke everything this side of The Wall.”
Em pawed at Sammy’s arm. “Please we gotta get out of here.” Her voice was a whisper.
“Fuck,” Sammy said, and the climbed back into the driver’s seat, and accelerated down the road.
Em was not aware of the trip thought the shanty town or over the bridge. She did not hear the guards questioning Sammy. She knew the van was moving and that was enough. Not long after the van left the guard post at The Wall, the van came to a stop.
Sammy got out of the driver’s seat, went to the back of the van, and crouched next to Em. “Do have the data?” Em looked up at Sammy and blinked her eyes. Looking at Em’s tablet, Sammy took hold of Em’s wrist. “Is it on here? Is what we were hire to get on your tablet?”
“Are you –“
“Is it?” Sammy’s voice was getting louder.
“Yes, but that really doesn’t fucking matter.”
“Yes it fucking does,” Sammy lifted Em’s arm and tablet. “This could save our lives. Can you get into Chief’s comm files?”
“Why? What for?” Em said. “He’s dead!”
“Listen to me,” Sammy was quieter now. “If we don’t get this to Chief’s client, they’re going to assume we double crossed ‘em. And then the only place we’ll be able to hide is over The Wall. You wanna go back over The Wall?”
“I’m never going over there again.”
“Alright, then I need you to break into Chief’s comms and find out where the meet is so we can drop this off. Get out money and live happily ever after.” Sammy released Em’s arm. “Now can you get into his comm files?”
“Alright. Get on it quick.”
Em looked down at her forearm and was somehow surprised to see her tablet in its usual place. Sensing Sammy’s staring eyes Em raised her right hand and put her fingers to the computer. And then muscle memory took over. A few minutes later, she had entered Chief’s comm account, found the contact, informed the contact that Chief was sending Em and Sammy to complete the transaction, and had confirmed the meet location.
“Good work, kid,” Sammy said. “Alright, a short drive and we ditch this van, pick up our next ride, and then we’ll be on our way.”
Em nodded silently.
Sammy climbed back into the driver’s seat and accelerated down the rain-covered street. For a moment, Em sat silently, swaying a little with the movement of the van. Then she looked down at her forearm and shivered. With a shaking hand, Em disconnected the tablet from her forearm and tossed it on the bench next to her.
She then reached down and pulled a pen knife out out of her boot. Taking a deep breath Em started to carve into her forearm. A few minutes later, Em held out her arm and looked at the shape she had carved. She nodded to herself. It looked as she had intended – a circle surmounted by antlers.