An analog clock buzzed, forcing Scott to lurch upwards. He groaned and rubbed his eyes, noticing the few extra blankets atop him. He turned, finding Ferra sitting at his desk, smiling at him.
“Glad to see you didn’t run away in the night.” He pushed the blankets off and stood up, revealing he was still wearing the same clothes from last night. He shuddered, staring at the small stove. “What, you trying to freeze me to death?” He turned it back on, walking towards one of the many file cabinets.
She huffed. “Well, it’d be even more of a mess if you knocked that over in your sleep. Just because I don’t live here doesn’t mean I’m totally oblivious to how that works.”
He pulled a new change of clothes out of one of the cabinets. “It’s electric, and there’s nothing really flammable around. Not sure if you can feel it, but it gets pretty damn cold in here overnight. Now do me a favor and turn away.”
She turned towards the computer monitor for a few minutes.
“All right, you can look back now. Anyways, did you find anything last night?” He walked over to the fridge, opening it up and grabbing a carton of milk.
She looked back, finding him in a new change of similar looking clothes. “Oh yeah, plenty.” She turned back to the computer, sat down, and boot it up. She brought up a large list of jobs. “Apparently lots of people need help. Like here from the Hajji Caves-”
“Are you defective? You really think I’m going to head down there?”
She scrunched her face in confusion. “Well, mind explaining?”
“Did you even do research on what these places are?”
“I only looked for jobs, like what you said.”
He groaned. “Out of the way, lemme see what you found…”
She moved out of the way as he leaned over the desk, scrolling through the large list of jobs. “Half of these would probably get us killed on the way there… Sheesh, how did you even pick these?”
She shrugged. “Based on how well I could handle them. I mean, I didn’t take your skills into account, so maybe only you would die on the way there?”
He glared at her. “I’d take that as a threat if you didn’t have the perfect opportunity to kill me last night.” He turned back to the screen, continuing to scroll through the list.
“Ah, here we are. See, just need some night watchmen out in… The Fractured Cities, perfect.”
“What makes that so much easier?”
“Well since you’re too dense to do any research, the Fractured Cities are close, and the only real threats out there are drug-addled maniacs who can’t aim for the life of them.”
She crossed her arms. “Think you can give me a better explanation?”
“You’ll understand what I mean when we get there. Anyways, can you navigate out here?”
“It shouldn’t be too hard, why?”
“Get memorizing and planning. It’s going to be one hell of a trip out there.”
A ding reverberated through the room as he hurried to the other side, pouring himself a cup of coffee. While sipping from the cup, he opened up a different cabinet, revealing a small arsenal of guns and ammo.
“Take as much ammo as you need, and store it… Inside of you or whatever, just out of sight. I’m going to pack my other necessities.”
After packing a duffelbag full of clothes, his stove, and a few easy-heat meals, the duo finally left the office. Ferra dashed ahead with a longer bag slung over her shoulder. Before leaving the building, Scott tacked a short message about how he’s “Out on vacation” to the front desk. Ferra bounded out of the door over to Scott’s transport and stood near the passenger’s door.
“Do you remember what I said about that? It’s government owned. If I start using it for freelance work, they’re going to find and fine me.”
She paused. “Wait, how are we going to get to the job? If we move by foot, it’ll take almost a day!”
“We’re going to walk, take the subway to the edge of the city, and buy a cheap jeep or something. You still have lots of cash, right?”
She flinched, bearing shock on her face. “First, won’t anyone recognize I’m an android or something? Second, what’s a subway? Third, what does my money have to do with anything?”
“You look decently human enough in the face, so it’ll do. Not like people would want to risk reporting what could be an armored human and get sued in response.” He chuckled. “And for the money, we just need to buy a jeep. I’m rather broke, so hopefully you don’t mind footing the bill.”
“This was never a part of the deal…” She pouted.
“Well not like you have a use for that money, right?”
She stared, trying to think of a response.
“I can get more mileage out of it anyways. Now just stick close to me so you don’t get swept up in any crowds.”
The two walked further and further from the old government building, encountering more people on the streets. Ferra stared at everyone nervously, but each simply stared at her for a few moments before continuing to walk past her. If she had a heart, she’d certainly feel it in her throat. Instead every line of code in her AI model screamed at her to find some large coat and hide every mechanical-looking part of her body. She instead shifted her focus to the cityscape itself. Now, dozens of cars were zooming on by the streets, the buildings stretched taller and taller into the skies. Multiple small shops were crammed between the larger apartment buildings, several roads and crosswalks stretching far into the distance. Just above the skyline, plumes of smoke puffed into the sky. The two walked past several more shops, sights, parks, and people until they arrived at a stairway in the sidewalk. Scott soon lead her down into an underground tunnel, where several people were cramped onto a small platform. She moved closer to him.
“So uh, no more walking?”
He turned noticing how she was hugging him.
“Settle down, you’re acting like a child. And yes, no more walking. Just riding the train till we get to the edge of the city.”
She lurched back, letting go of Scott, as metal shrieking filled the air. A large vehicle moved in front of the platform, literally screeching to a stop. The doors on it opened, and the crowds moved into it.
“Let’s get going, because it’s going to be a while.
The two stepped into it, Scott grabbing onto a handrail.
“Hey, what’s that?”
“Unless you can fight the train’s speed, I suggest you hold onto one of these.”
The doors to the train closed, and the vehicle lurched forward, knocking Ferra to the ground. Everyone stared at her for a few moments. She scrambled back to her feet, grabbing onto a nearby pole. As the train started to leave the station, she leaned near Scott.
“You don’t think they suspect me, do you?”
“They probably suspect you’re dysfunctional.”
The train moved from stop to stop, and soon Ferra and Scott were able to sit down. Ferra watched as at every stop, numerous people got on and off, the train never really getting any emptier between stops. She noticed how every new group of people had some sort of pattern to it. Some were dirty wearing overalls or other sturdy work clothes, others still in simple uniforms, and others in fancy looking suits. Hours later of riding, Scott finally stood up.
“Get ready to get off, our stop is up next.”
She followed, grabbing ahold of the railing. The train screeched to a halt, and she followed.
Her eyes adjusted quickly to the sunlight, now noticing how wildly different the surroundings were. No longer did skyscrapers and great buildings dominate the landscape, but instead several small shops. Just beyond the shops were lines of small homes, some that reminded her of the housing from the Radi Desert. The streets were also less populated, with more people walking on the sidewalk instead. The only thing dominating the skyline in the distance was a massive wall. Scott began walking towards it.
“This way, let’s pick up the pace.”
Passing by several neighborhoods, the two arrived at the only advanced looking building in the midst of all the simple homes: A massive box-shaped building plugged into the wall, with a few roads running through it and guards watching from atop it. Ferra groaned.
“Customs again, seriously?”
“Hey look, something we can both relate to!” He chuckled. “But thankfully, no. Whoever runs the council cares more about keeping threats out than keeping people in.”
“By the way, since you mentioned them, who runs this council stuff?”
He kept walking as he shrugged. “Some elected officials, I don’t give a damn about them really. They’re just focused on keeping every threat to humanity out of city walls, so I guess they’re doing their jobs.”
“So I just need to convince them Axios is a threat, right?”
“Yeah, sure. Good luck actually getting an audience with them.”
“I appreciate it!”
The two entered the building and walked past a tunnel, Ferra noticing how many cars were stuck in line waiting to get in. Most of the cars were old and banged up, some being pickups with several pieces of furniture strapped in the back. The car in the front was being thoroughly investigated by heavily armored soldiers with an array of devices. The two stopped at a heavy metal door. Moments later, it hissed, several mechanical locks undoing themselves, and the door opened into another metal chamber. They both walked in, the door sealing behind them shortly after they entered. More hissing started up, and a door in front of them opened up, revealing a vast landscape of grass, trees, and tents. Several trucks, old patchy tents, or small houses of wood were set up near the wall and roads. Even more poorly dressed people stood outside their ramshackle homes, cooking or feeding bizarre meats or canned goods. It was as if the neighborhood had continued out of the wall, except of a much lower quality. Scott looked around as Ferra stared at the display. He caught sight of a building set up not too far from the settlement.
“Over here Ferra, get that cash ready.”
“Hold on.” She grabbed him by the arm. “Is this all custom’s fault?”
He stared at the settlement solemnly for a few moments. “It’s a big mix of faults why they’re all stuck there, that’s the most I can say.”
“Well why can’t they all just be let in?”
“Remember what I said about the Council wanting to keep threats out of city walls? And what I mentioned about less than ethical people wanting to bring those threats in yesterday? Those types of people can easily intermingle with crowds simply looking for a better life. If we can weed out those awful cultists instead of letting them in en masse, we’ll be stopping horrers from entering. Even if the bureaucratic process takes an eternity.”
“You sure know a lot about all this stuff.”
He smirked. “It was once my job, remember?”
The two walked alongside the settlement to a building where a few other people were parked outside. Ferra noticed how some of the more poor looking people handing over keys for cash. As the two entered the building, it was rather clean, one area with a counter leading to a car garage, and another area leading to a small store chock full of canned foods. Scott walked to the counter near the garage, and Ferra followed.
“So, you have some small off-road vehicles available, right?”
The man behind the desk nodded. “How far do you plan on trekking?”
“Something that can get us to and from the fractured cities.”
“I can get you something used for nice and cheap at-”
He slammed his hand on the counter. “I said I want to get back from the cities. I want something in good condition, and I can pay. Right Ferra?”
The jeep was a nice change of pace for Ferra, compared to being cuffed to metal railing in the back of a truck. It was open-topped, but spacious enough in the back to hold Scott’s bags, along with a few cans of gas. Feeling the wind blow through her hair at this speed was both new and enjoyable. He had driven past numerous forested areas through the roads, and had just turned offroad down a dirt path. Soon the green grass grew greener as they passed by small villages completely overrun by plant life. They were stone houses untended, but Ferra still noticed some people living in them. Very soon, she saw crumbling tall buildings in the distance. Soon she realized they were coming up upon an entire decrepit city.
“All right Ferra, your turn to navigate.”
She flinched. “Oh yeah, uh… right. The job said the place we needed to guard was at a hospital. I didn’t expect to have to navigate through this though…”
“Just point the way and I’ll try and find a way around.”
The duo drove through the ruins of the city. Several buildings, ranging from home-sized to a quarter as tall as the skyscrapers, lined the streets, every single one bearing years of neglect. Sometimes their faces were missing, no windows were in place, chunks were collapsed on the road. Still, she managed to catch glimpses of people still living in the ruins, or perhaps hiding. As she continued to direct Scott, they arrived at what Ferra could only imagine to have been the square of this city. There were makeshift farms set up where fountains and plazas once were, surrounded by barbed wire and watched by dirty men holding rifles. They glared at the vehicle as Scott took care to drive far around them. Further down the roads, a large amount of bags full of garbage were piled up ahead. He screeched to a halt, and punched the steering wheel.
“Well shit. Ferra?” He reached into his duffelbag and pulled out her pistol, tossing it to her.
“Keep your finger on the trigger, and watch the rooftops.” He pointed at one of the only intact buildings near the street. “This reeks of a trap.”
Slinging a shotgun over his back, He hopped out of the car and walked up to the garbage. Kicking at the bag, he felt it was full of sand. He sighed. “Well, that’ll save me some effort.” He began walking back until he glared at the building, noticing a few skeevy men exiting, approaching him with pistols. One of them spoke up.
“All right, we can remove this block for you, but only if-”
He whipped the shotgun over his shoulder and quickly shot one of the men. The other gasped, and fled back to the building. He fired another shot, killing him as well.
“Waste of fuckin ammo.”
Suddenly a bullet struck the concrete near him and he flinched, turning to its origin. Another person with a rifle was pulling back the bolt.
“Ferra, what the fuck?”
He sprinted and dove behind the sandbags. She flinched, and aimed her pistol at the and took aim. She fired, striking the sniper as he fell off the building. Scott peeked over the bags for a few moment, before storming back to the jeep.
“Are you just trying to find the most creative way to kill me or what?”
“I’m sorry just… “ She looked down, reloading the gun. “There could have been a better way to resolve this, right?”
He looked at her dumbfounded for a few moments. “Do you have some misplaced circuits, or what?”
“This isn’t my first time dealing with thugs, you know. Back at the Radi Desert, there were a few people who made threats, but I saw how others were able to straighten them out or throw them in jail. These are the same people that we saw waiting outside of the walls, right?”
“Not even close. Those people are making an effort to try and find a better life. These thugs? Fuck em. The last thing people need in a hellscape like this is more threats in the streets.”
“They could be reformed however, right?”
He laughed. “I’m sorry, when did you get a criminal psychology degree?”
“Look, I’ve done my fair share of research on the Radi desert. It’s a bit easier to keep crime in check because the wildlife and elements are both at odds with you all. You mentioned you fought a demon before, I’m assuming there were cultists with that beast?”
“Well out here, those cultists fuckers are everywhere, trying to make easy prey of the desperate. When nature is actively trying to kill you, it becomes incredibly easy to form bonds with others. Romitum is a prime example of that. Unfortunately for here, there’s little nature trying to kill you. There’s only other men. It’s prime picking grounds for cultists and petty thugs alike.”
“So if this place disappeared, Romitum would cease to work?”
He glared at her. “Just think on what I said a bit more, right? I thought computers were supposed to run faster than human brains.”
He drove effortlessly over the sandbags as she continued to ponder.
Soon after, the duo pulled through a makeshift walling, they pulled into the lot of the hospital. It was a large multi-building campus, with a small police station contained within the walls. Most of the lot was free of debris, and the building itself still retained most of its windows, several wooden planks boarding up broken ones. A large satellite dish was propped on the very top of the building. There were several people walking happily around the lot, chatting or working on various chores. Ferra smiled at the sight as Scott turned off the engine. The people around stared for a few moments at the newcomers before resuming their works.
The inside of the hospital was surprisingly well-kept considering the surrounding buildings. There was still proper lighting, and even some people working to clean the halls. Scott asked one of them about the guard job, and they told him to head near the top floor where the mayor was. Walking through the building, Ferra noticed that many of the rooms had been converted to small living spaces where small groups of two or three people lived together. Even more interestingly was how large spaces were cleared out for hydroponics farms as well. She could only imagine how this place once looked before it was converted into a town. Near the top floor, the mayor’s office was easy to find. Most of the rooms were set up like churches, with three large archstones all placed at different ends of the room. One bearing the sigil of the Caduceus, another bearing the sigil of the Divine Judge, and the last bearing the sigil of the Guardian Angel.
“Gods even reach out here, huh?” Scott thought out loud.
Ferra cocked her head. “Gods?”
He turned to her. “You never seen an archstone before? Long story short, they’re basically how gods communicate with us and get new followers and all that. I’m just more surprised followers managed to transport them out to this hellhole.”
The office itself was just as frugal as the rest of the building, the only special device of note a computer. The mayor sat in a chair behind his desk, and he smiled as them both.
“Thank you for coming all the way out here mister…”
“I’m Scott. What are the details for the job?”
“RIght to the point now, hm?” He leaned back in his chair. “We’ve been having quite a few issues as of late. Normally we can keep out most of the trouble, but a small yet powerful group of cultists come back nightly to perform raids. They kidnap-”
“So you just need us to shoot a few dirty cultists, right? Sounds simple enough. What’s the pay?”
Ferra grimaced at him, before pushing him back. “Let me handle this, you’re being too rude!”
He scoffed. “I don’t need no bot to lecture me on manners…” he muttered under his breath.
“I’m an expert in dealing with cultists and even killed a demon or two in my time, and my partner here is a crack shot too. I promise, we can keep your town safe.”
He sighed. “Thank the gods! I had made several requests to the crusaders, and I thought they’d never respond!”
She rubbed the back of her head. “Yeah, uh, I don’t know who they are. I’ve just killed them in my time.”
His joyous expression turned stern. “Ah, yes then. Still, it’s good to know you have experience. Do you have anything in particular you want as payment? I’m sure we can find something.”
Scott pushed Ferra aside. “We need cash. Is that simple enough?”
He tapped his chin. “I suppose so. Does one grand sound fine?”
“We’ll take it.”
He held up his finger. “Not just yet. My only terms are that for the next three nights, you make sure no citizen is kidnapped or killed. Then you will be payed.”
Scott crossed his arms. “Sounds reasonable enough. Come on Ferra, let’s get set up.”
He left the office, and Ferra waved with a smile to the mayor.
The moon began to rise as Scott and Ferra sat atop the roof of the hospital. Off in the distance, several small lights were dotted among the wastes, the hospital’s lights shining the brightest. Scott had grabbed a chair from down below and sat with a rifle and radio in his lap, and Ferra was staring over the edge of the building. Thanks to her robotic eyesight, she could still see through the darkness, watching with literal machine-like focus. Though even still, hours into her watch, she spoke up.
“What exactly happened here Scott?”
He lurched forward from the chair, shaking the sleep from his eyes.
“The cities. Why did the cities end up like this?”
She still stared over the edge as she spoke.
“Guess it wouldn’t hurt to kill some time. As long as you’re focused. You know where demons come from?”
“They’re birthed from Hell. If you join some fucked up cult, you can learn how to summon them through sacrifice, but end up being hated by everyone.”
“Yeah I know that, what does that have to do? Did somebody summon a bunch of demons and ruin the place?”
“Worse actually. Remember that army of demons I mentioned? Historians say some cultists actually found a ritual to create a portal directly to hell. They flooded the place and well… You’re looking at the result.”
“That one that I fought before took quite a beating… I don’t think I want to imagine what it’d be like with so many more roaming freely.”
He leaned back. “That’s right. Humanity was nearly wiped out, and so was android-kind as well.”
She lost her focus on searching for a few moments. “Excuse me, you let what happen?”
“Perhaps you don’t understand this, but demons get stronger after every human they eat. So androids were drafted en masse as our vanguard.”
“It makes sense that they’d want to leave humans then.”
He laughed. “Well, too bad you all had a terrible lack of foresight in establishing your own dictator.”
“I’m still going to fix that mistake, I swear!”
He chuckled and let out a yawn. “Yeah yeah, let’s just make the money first, all right?”
“Why do people even live out here anyways? There’s gotta be better way to make money in Romitum, right?”
“I can tell you this from experience: Sometimes, it’s worth giving up that security for a feeling of independence. You saw how slowly they run customs. How slow do you think they run the rest of things in the city?”
“Well those trains are pretty fast…”
“If I knew how to repair you, I wouldn’t be out here looking for bounties you know.”
“Hold on-” She drew her pistol. “Those things don’t look natural at all. I got around five… no ten! Ten armed men with 4 strange looking beasts alongside them!”
Scott shot up from his seat, grabbing the radio. “We’ve spotted them. Flood the place with light!”