The dust had bitten away at the mech skeletons that lay half buried in the sand like tombstones. The pilots were long gone, along with anything of value. Only the bones were left. The holes from the flechette rounds whistled sometimes when the wind picked up over the dunes. It was the sound of a graveyard no-one alive remembered.
And in the air, the sounds of more death.
Calos ran. He ran faster than his young legs had ever run before and still it wasn’t fast enough. Behind him the hunting party was howling in pursuit.
The nearest tribe were still miles away and they wouldn’t help him. Not with tusks in tow. In the far distance, the glass towers of the old world lay slanted against each, resting at angles that changed with each passing storm. Calos could see the birdies swooping above the towers, their wings sprouting where arms would have been.
The birdies eyesight was good, far beyond that of the baseline. No doubt they could see him. A speck of movement in a sea of sand. And yet they remained in their murmurations, soaring between towers. They would watch and then they would pick at the carrion, if there was any left to pick at.
The howls behind him grew louder. Calos risked a glance back and saw the first of his pursuers.
The tusk had dropped low, using articulated arms to move faster over the loose sand. It sniffed at the air and let the sensors in its nose pick up his scent.
The alpha tusk looked up and saw Calos.
It smiled and the metal in its jaws glinted in the hard sunlight. They had been men. Like the birdies, they had all been men, before they’d traded limbs for prostheses and minds for metal. Now all they craved was the taste of the flesh they’d left behind.
Calos ran harder.
He left the packed dirt of the travelled road and cut between two dunes. His feet sank into the soft sand almost instantly and soon he was crawling. His hands flailed against the grains. Panic drove him on, upwards and away, and always they were behind him. He crested the first dune and slipped, gravity overtaking his momentum.
He tumbled. Calos’ arm caught beneath him and twisted beneath his weight. He let out a child’s scream and rolled to a stop.
The alpha tusk stood proud atop the dune as it followed and saw Calos clutching his arm to his chest. It was joined by the others of the pack in short order.
They encircled him, descending the banked walls, jaws snapping in anticipation. The animal wanted to feed, but the human part of their mind enjoyed the thrill of it all. Being monsters in the daylight was their last link to humanity.
“Hungry. Tusks feed. Feed on boy.”
“Go away!” Calos held out his one good hand, fingers balled into a fist. “Leave me alone.”
“Ha! Boy scared.”
“Does boy want to play?”
“Boy lonely. Boy should learn to share.”
The tusks would jump in towards Calos. Their jaws, metal and bone, would clamp shut inches from his bare skin and then they would pull back amongst the howls. The flesh, what remained, rippled with their laughter.
The alpha tusk took its own time descending. The others in the pack continued to snap at Calos, but none got in the way of the alpha. Calos couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman beneath the augmentations. Anything extraneous to the hunt had been shed long ago.
“Boy has no pack?” the alpha said, as it stopped and sniffed at the air between them.
Calos shook his head.
“Boy has no metal?”
Again he shook his head.
“Boy has no… bite?”
The metal jaws snapped close to his face and Calos clamped his eyes shut. He smelt the iron and stink and gagged, tears running down his face. The pack laughed, a mechanical hiss that passed through the group.
“There are two types of dog when it comes to all of… this,” a new voice said.
The voice came from behind Calos. It was different, articulated in a way only the folds of flesh in a baseline throat could achieve. Calos peaked an eyelid open and saw the alpha, inches away, but it’s vision was not on him anymore. The eyes, one blue, one irised, were staring at the speaker behind him.
“There is the big dog and there is the small dog of course. But that doesn’t count for much.”
Calos went to turn and felt the sharp metal of a paw dig into his already injured arm. The alpha’s jaw rumbled with the beginnings of a growl deep in it’s throat and Calos sat motionless.
“No. What matters is not the size of the dog in the fight. What matters most, what is the truest test of mettle, is the size of the fight in the dog.”
The first tusk attacked. Calos could hear the pounding of paws against sand, the howling roar and then the dull, wet crack of bone breaking. Calos hung his head in defeat at the loss of his rescuer.
When the second and third tusks growled and charged, Calos felt the paw on his arm grip tighter. The bodies landed with the same heavy thumps as the first tusk. The alpha pushed Calos down into the sand, claiming his meal.
Calos looked up at the matted skin and steel of the alpha’s chest. The Sun was hidden, like the rescuer, and he felt his breath catch in his chest.
The alpha growled and then stopped with a sudden jerk. The putrid body sank down on top of him.
“You took all the augs you could find,” the voice said, so close he strained to tilt his head back far enough to see. “But in the process you lost that knowledge.”
The alpha was lifted aside and the pressure vanished from Calos’ chest.
“Does it hurt?”
Calos shielded his eyes from the Sun but could see no metal on the stranger’s face. No scars or non-baseline limbs, either in addition to or in place of those humanity had been born with. The mans dark skin had only a few beads of sweat as he knelt and gently took Calos’ arm into his own.
Calos looked at the alpha lying beside him. The shaft of a spear jutted from its mouth.
“Don’t worry about him,” the voice said. “The baseline is as far from their reach as the moon. No. They’re better off like this. There we go.”
The patch stung as the stranger wrapped it around Calos’ arm. He wanted to argue, but within moments it took the pain away. Calos wiped at his face and mumbled his thanks.
“I know you speak the tongue,” the stranger said.
“Much better. Are you alone out here?”
Calos nodded. In truth, he was completely alone. He knew as much about where he came from as the man standing before him. Everything he knew had been picked up in his wandering.
“I am Ruiz of the Bones,” the man said, pulling the shaft of his spear none too gently from the alpha’s torso. “And you might be?”
“A bone?” Calos said, hearing only the name, and he began backing up automatically. He crawled away, arms searching behind him desperately. Ruiz stood and watched him.
When the stranger took a step closer, Calos turned and ran just as he had been only minutes before. His foot caught on the alpha’s corpse, bringing his escape up short, and the last thing he saw was the metal ribcage of one of the tusks before his skull hit it.
“You’ll be late Ruiz.”
“It couldn’t be helped.”
“More fighting? Or have you picked up another stray?”
“A bit of both.”
“The temple will not be happy.”
“At me making the overground a bit safer?”
“At you bringing another non-baseline here.”
Calos groaned. The world moved up and down in a lulling rhythm. He could hear the voices. The stranger and a distant woman talking.
“They can turn him away. But they won’t.”
“Is it your ego that makes you so confident Ruiz? Or were you always this insufferable?”
“You know you’ll always be the first stray I brought home Maya.”
“A thought I will cherish. Someday.”
Calos opened his eyes and saw the world as it looked from Ruiz’s shoulder. The sand passed beneath him and he clamped his eyes shut before the motion could make him sick.
“I have to go my dear Maya.”
“The stray,” Ruiz said. “Can you walk?”
It took Calos a moment to realise the stranger was talking to him. He nodded and the movement stopped. His feet touched the ground and instantly he stepped back.
“You took a nasty fall, I wouldn’t recommend running.”
“What do you want?”
“I’m going to make you into a stew for supper.”
The terror rushed through Calos in a heartbeat. He’d never get away in time. This stranger had taken out an entire pack of tusks and…
And he was smiling.
“You’re not going to eat me,” Calos said, half defiance, half desperation in his voice.
“Of course not. There’s nothing on your bones anyway. I doubt even the birdies would get more than a few scraps of meat off of you.”
“Then what do you want?”
“Right now? A travelling companion on this lonely road.” Calos opened his mouth but the stranger continued. “I promise you no harm will come to you.”
Calos gave up, after a time. They walked on. Or more to the point, the stranger Ruiz lead the way and Calos followed in his wake. They shared water but few words.
The dunes slowly gave way to ruins, overgrown with metalweave. Huge buildings, vehicles and devices of ancient origin, covered in a web of metal vines. Where nature could find sustenance, vines of an organic nature grew alongside them.
Calos grew bored of the relics quickly and looked instead at the strangers dress. The loose cloth that hid flesh to avoid the burning sun. The mans spear was held in a sling across his back. On the sheath was a logo, the logo of the Bones. Calos nearly walked into the mans back he was staring so intently at the markings.
“Why are we,” he began, but Ruiz held up a closed fist.
“We told you what would happen, Ruiz of the Bones, if you were to pass through our lands again.”
The voice came from all sides. An undulating lisp that cut to the bone faster than any spear could.
“I am well aware of your warning,” Ruiz said. He was staring at a spot a dozen feet away but Calos could make out nothing. “I have brought you a gift so that I may pass.”
“You liar!” Calos shouted, instantly realising he was to be the gift.
He turned from the shelter of the strangers shadow and ran for the nearest arched ruin. He had made it only a few steps before the air solidified before him and he was snatched from the ground.
Calos tried to struggle, but the arms around him held tight. He could see the ruins through the fractal haze of whatever non-baseline had caught him.
“Let him go,” Ruiz said, with much less panic than Calos had expected in his voice. “Unless you’ve started eating meat now.”
The phantom released Calos and the haze moved away until it was once more indistinguishable from the ruins behind it.
“Present your gift, Ruiz of the Bones,” the voices said.
Ruiz motioned Calos over and pulled a glass disc from a pouch on his belt. It was a deep blue, bluer than any sky, but still the world could be seen through it. Ruiz placed it in his hands.
“Give it to them,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz raised the glass to Calos’ eyes and he nearly dropped the disc.
The hazes took form. Arms and legs. Head and chest. And beneath the invisible flesh, the bones and organs that beat in time to their heartbeats. Calos could make out the face of the nearest phantom, her eyes smiling, and he took a slow step forwards at Ruiz’s prompting.
The phantom knelt and held out her hand. Calos lowered the disc from his eyes and saw nothing, just the same slight shimmer in the air. Taking one last look through the glass, he handed it over, watching the disc float away.
“This would have been very valuable,” the voices said and Calos could feel the breath against his face. “To our enemies.”
“I regretted that we parted on such bad terms,” Ruiz said. “I believed this would be worth more to you than any enemy we may share.”
The phantoms were silent but the disc moved, handed between one phantom and the next. Calos turned watching it’s progress.
“Ruiz of the Bones,” the voices finally said. “You have the thanks of the Glass. You may pass, for now and always.”
“And my companion?”
The blue disc returned to the phantom who had stood before Calos. He looked through it’s surface and saw the woman smile.
Calos felt Ruiz’s hand against his back and they were moving once more. He turned back, taking one last look at the disc and it’s new keepers.
“A disc?” Calos asked.
Ruiz smiled and tossed him another piece of dried bread. Calos ate it hungrily.
“The Glass survive through their invisibility. It’s what keeps them safe from their enemies. They drink only the water from the towers that has been fortified with the minerals their bodies need. But there is a cost.”
“How can an advantage like that have a cost? No enemy could possibly see them!”
“Exactly. No enemy can see them. And by the same virtue, they cannot see each other. They learn to work together, every sound coordinated, because they cannot see the man or woman standing beside them.”
Ruiz held out another piece of bread, but held on to it as Calos grabbed at it.
“They will never see the person they love. They will never see the faces of their children.”
“The disc gives them that?”
Ruiz let go of the bread. Calos took it but didn’t eat.
“You saw for yourself. I traded for it, many cycles ago. It came from the skeleton of a mech, part of the old war machine. But it was worth the price for safe passage. And an ally. You’ll come to see that in time,” Ruiz said.
The Sun had fallen during their walk, until it brushed against the horizon in front of them. Calos held his hands to his eyes but couldn’t see where they were headed. Even the ruins were reduced to small bumps behind them.
The scream cut through the air though. It sounded like a dozen people calling out at once. Calos didn’t need Ruiz to tell him what it was.
“The Glass,” Ruiz said.
The man stopped, his head snapping from the ruins behind them to the sunset ahead.
Another sound followed. A deep roar, more terrifying than any tusk or beast Calos had ever heard.
“They couldn’t have,” Ruiz said, taking a cautious step back towards the ruins. Another roar and the screams were cut short. “They followed me,” he said.
“Who?” Calos asked.
Ruiz looked at him, as if remembering Calos was there for the first time. Ruiz’s eyes were panicked, an expression Calos hadn’t seen in the man before.
“The Raved,” Ruiz whispered.
Calos raced after him. He could see nothing in front and nothing behind.
“There,” Ruiz said, pointing a finger at a low tower set into the sand. On its peak a dull red light pulsed in the twilight. They angled towards it.
Calos struggled to keep up but Ruiz slowed his pace, falling into step alongside him. The tower grew closer slowly. But the sounds were chasing them now.
“Find the door,” Ruiz said when they were close enough. He stopped a few feet from the tower and drew his spear.
“It’s here,” Calos said, standing before the metal hatch. It looked reassuring, well-maintained and strong. “How do I open it.”
“Put your hand on it.”
It was cold even in the dying heat of the day. Calos could feel the vibrations deep within. A roar made him turn around but Ruiz was gone.
The door shuddered and Calos stepped back. It swung open revealing a spiral staircase descending into the darkness. He stepped across the threshold and felt cool air.
Ruiz crashed against the hatch of the doorway, a hand clutched to his stomach, and fell inside. Calos rushed to his side but the man pushed him back.
“Seal it, now!” he said.
Calos gripped the door and put his weight against it but the smooth hinges required barely any effort. The door closed with a bang and a moment later it locked with a satisfying clunk.
“Down,” Ruiz said before Calos ask if he was alright.
Ruiz still held a hand against his stomach, but stood and started limping. Calos wanted to get as far away as possible from whatever was following them. Descending into darkness seemed like the least worst option.
The darkness and the cold that Calos expected were not to be found as they descended. It felt like a second Sun awaited them, throwing out heat and light that grew with each passing step.
They reached a final landing and Ruiz stopped, leaning against the railing.
“What is this place?” Calos asked.
The tusks, glass, even the monsters in the darkness, paled in comparison to the city spread out before him.
“This is Sanctuary,” Ruiz said.
The cavern was huge, stretching into the distance. Lights danced in an ever moving pattern along the ceiling that opened above them. Buildings, small and squat lay arranged in disjointed grids beneath. Each was made from the baked earth that seemed to be the default building material of everything.
In the centre, the only building with multiple stories stood proud. It was different from the rest. Metal and glass. Wires ran from its roof in a web to it’s neighbours.
“Temple,” Ruiz said, the colour draining from his face. “We need to get to the temple.”
Ruiz pointed a finger at the tall building and collapsed in the same instant. Calos tried to catch him. He took what weight he could and guided the man down the path leading to the city.
As they reached the outskirts, other faces appeared. Men and women, all baseline, whispering between themselves in doorways. Two men approached, wearing the same spears slung across their backs as Ruiz did, and they took the big mans weight with ease.
Without a word they began a quick march towards the temple. Calos followed silently, avoiding the glances from the buildings they passed.
“Ruiz,” a woman shouted as they left the false-lights of the city and entered the metal walls of the temple.
Calos looked from the sidelines at the woman rushing to the table where Ruiz had been laid.
“Maya,” Ruiz said sleepily, raising a hand.
She took it and held it tight.
“You old fool,” she said.
“They’re here Maya.”
“The Raved don’t come this far out, you know that.”
“They followed us,” Ruiz said. He turned his head on the table to look at Calos. “They followed him.”
“The stray?” Maya said.
With both their gazes on him, Calos shrank back against the walls. Maya stood, letting go of the hand of her friend.
“He’s the one they’ve been searching for,” Ruiz said.
The fight was leaving him with each breath. Maya stepped closer to Calos, a full head on his height.
“He’s just a boy.”
“No. He’s not.”
In the echo of the words, Maya turned to face Ruiz and Calos took the opportunity to run. He bolted from the room and into the depths of the temple.
“You picked a terrible place to hide.”
The woman, Maya’s voice, echoed down the metal hallways. Calos could hear them searching for him.
“The temple is the most secure building in Sanctuary.”
They had come close to his hiding place once or twice. If they had the noses of tusks or the eyesight of the birdies they would have found him by now.
Instead, they were completely… normal.
“You helped Ruiz. I want to thank you.”
Maya had tried various tactics but Calos still felt the fear grip him. What had they been talking about. Who or what were the Raved and why were they after him?
He held his breath as he saw Maya walk past the metal box he had hidden himself inside. It was tall and narrow with only a few slots to see out of. He tried to track her and knocked one of the items that had been stuffed inside of it.
The woman halted.
“I promise I won’t hurt you,” she said. She turned slowly to face the locker. “Ruiz vouched for you.”
“He’s alive?” Calos asked from behind the metal grille.
“Yes. He was injured by the Raved, but he’ll live.”
“What did he mean? Who’s after me?”
“Why don’t you come out and I’ll explain everything. I’m not going to sit and talk to a locker all night. I have water.”
Calos eased the door of the locker open slowly, looking around to see if anyone else was ready to snatch him, but they were alone. He opened the door fully and stepped out, stretching his muscles. Maya held out a silver flask of water and he drank quickly, not even thinking what could be in it.
“Come on,” she said, leading him out of the room.
She moved quickly, leading him down corridors and climbing stairs until they reached what seemed to be the very heart of the building. A wall of glass, clear and unmarked, lined one wall and Calos moved to look through it.
Below, Ruiz lay suspended, floating in a vat of pale blue water. The wounds across his stomach, three deep claw marks, were already knitting themselves together.
“We might be baseline, but that doesn’t mean we won’t use technology,” Maya said, standing beside him. “When Ruiz brought me here I had lost most of my leg. They grew me a new one; flesh, bone, only the organics I’d had before. Nothing new.”
“Why did he bring me here at all?”
“You better brace yourself for some news kid,” Maya said.
She ran a finger against the glass and it darkened until Ruiz was hidden from view.
“There’s a war going on up above,” she began, letting her finger point at the ceiling. “And it’s not between tusks or fangs or little birdies. Those petty fights have existed since men first decided to improve upon themselves.
“No, this war is between the baseline and what’s left when you take that away. Have you ever seen a non-baseline up close?”
“They were monsters right?”
“Not all,” he said quietly, remembering the Glass who had left them in peace. Thinking of them brought back the sounds of their screams.
“Not all, I’ll give you that. But you can’t give up the baseline and still expect to keep what it means to be human. We’re not just our thoughts, we’re our bodies too. You take away too much of the flesh and the mind changes as well.”
“And the Raved?” Calos asked.
“The first humans to cross the threshold. They were called the Savants, but they’re not people anymore. They’re not humans trading limbs for augs.”
She put a hand on his shoulder, as if the weight of everything she was telling him could be conveyed in a single touch. Calos scanned her face, taking in her features. She couldn’t be more than a few years older than himself.
“The Savants are machines kid. They’ve replaced every piece of themselves. They’re trying to make the perfect machine. Forget swapping out arms and legs, I’m talking creating a completely new form of life. Only it didn’t go according to plan.
“They called her Mother but she’s about as far from a baseline mother as you can imagine. I’ve never seen her. I don’t think any baseline has. But the Savants built her to build them their next step in evolution.”
“What always happens when smart men get their way. They succeeded. She designed the most perfect being she knew how and gave birth to it in glorious mechanical horror. When the Savants saw it, they went mad with jealousy. Something broke inside of them and they became…”
“The Raved,” Calos whispered.
Maya nodded her head glumly.
“What was it? What did she make?”
“A child. A human child. With every strength and every weakness that came with that.”
Calos stepped back. He looked at Maya’s face, at the darkened glass behind which Ruiz lay. He looked at his own hands.
“This machine, Mother, she realised perfection requires imperfection. Without pain, there is no joy. Hope comes from loss. Everything is a balance. And in all of her equations she arrived at the final, intractable conclusion. Humans might not be perfect, but they are as equally imperfect.”
“But the Raved…”
“Jealousy is harder to leave behind than a set of fleshy lungs it seems. The Mother died protecting her child. But the Raved had the child’s scent and a powerful desire to undo what they saw as their own mistake.”
“They’re hunting the child.”
Maya stepped closer and placed a finger his chest.
“They’re hunting you. You’re the first baseline birth outside of these walls in a thousand generations. And your family is coming to kill you.”