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Last Stop for Salvation

by Dan Ormerod 4 months ago in Fantasy
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I Come In Pieces

Last Stop for Salvation
Photo by Ishan @seefromthesky on Unsplash

“Good, you're awake, we haven't got much time.”

I jolted upright from the cot at the sound of the voice. A panicked feeling washed over me like I was late for an exam. My head began to tingle and I felt like I might throw up. I must have gotten up too fast. I sat back down and tried to steady my breath so I wouldn't pass out.

“Easy Bob, there’s a little time yet” the man said, “not much, but some.”

The first thing that came into focus was the man’s square jaw, working over a cigar that had long since burnt down to a stub. He was hunched over me in close examination to see if I was coherent. He casually rolled the smelly chub to each side of his mouth, occasionally chomping down so it didn’t escape. A pit bull with a chew toy. It definitely wasn’t helping my nausea. The shadow of hair on his face was grey and wiry, and twice as long as the hair on his head. A thick brow topped a piercing glare that bore right through me. I quickly averted my eyes, in case holding his gaze might enrage him.

“Where am I?”

The man stood up to give me some space. He was enormous. He unhooked the clipboard that hung from a nail by the door. It looked small in his hands, his biceps rippling as he flipped the page up and back down. He checked his watch, ticked a box on the page and returned the board to the nail.

“The M-Trax”, he said, and offered what I can only assume he believed to be a reassuring smile, “You’re on the M-Trax Bob.”

He stood there in the most relaxed way he could manage, his oaken legs supporting the truck tire he had for a chest. Intimidation from head to toe - and the smile only made it worse. His haircut read army but his demeanour implied bouncer, the type that could easily toss you out of the bar to land on the sidewalk… the sidewalk on the other side of the street.

I finally took in the whole room and realized that I was indeed in a train’s passenger car, but not like any I had seen before. It was longer than a regular cabin with bunk cots at one end and supply cabinets at the other. The only window was set in a sliding door on a side wall, like the doors that separate the cars of the train, only much wider. From the window, I could see the terrain screaming by. The close objects were a blur but the landscape beyond was steady and recognizable. We were heading into the city. I walked to the window for a better look and the smoke and destruction of the cityscape came into view.

“Quiet, isn’t it?”

“What?”

“The train” he said, “It’s all magnets I guess. Got something to do with the earth’s core and negative charges or something. Science eh? It’s not so good over swampy stuff but it hauls ass over hard ground”

“We’re going into the city?”

“Well, that’s what you signed up for isn’t it, Bob?”

I remember signing up. I remember all my friends piling into my crappy old Tesla and we enlisted together. After the second invasion there really wasn’t any choice. Everyone who could fight, needed to fight, or soon there wouldn’t be any earth left to fight for. That was… I can’t remember when that was. I can’t remember how I got here on this train.

“It’s your first mission. It’s very stressful and sometimes people experience memory loss as the brain tries to cope. It’s normal,” he said, obviously aware of my confusion. “But we haven’t got time to sort everything out.”

I can remember signing up, but I can’t remember…

“BOB! Are you with me???”

“My name’s not Bob!” I shouted. I may not remember how I got here, but I know my own name, “It’s Mark.”

“See, you’re starting to remember already,” he said, “ You can call me Val.”

A voice rang over the Intercom, “T minus 15 minutes.”

“We better hurry this along,” Val said, making his way over to the supply cabinets. Val ripped open a door and gear started to spill out onto the floor. “Put this on,” he barked.

Boots, vest, headgear, goggles, mask and gloves accessorised a set of camouflage fatigues lined with clips, hooks and more pockets than you might have guessed. Another cabinet contained grenades, shells, magazines, ammo strips and thousands of rounds of varying calibre while the last cabinet held all the different devices that fired them. There were enough supplies to outfit a small army… but then again, Val was a small army.

We started to suit up while Val brought me up to speed with the invasion and briefed me on the mission strategy, while the countryside blazed past in a blend of colour. I barely noticed the train accelerating as I tried to keep pace with Val.

“... kicked their ass the first time. Missiles, drones, dogfights - they couldn’t take us from the air. It was over in three months. Earth defence 1, Aliens 0, right? The ones we didn’t shoot down took off and the world celebrated. But as you know, they left, but they didn’t go away did they?

“Less than a year later and they were back. Again we fought them off and again they retreated. Before we could pat ourselves on the back, we realized they didn’t return to fight. Targeting major cities of the world, they came back to drop off their pets. Now they are sitting at the edge of the galaxy somewhere, patiently waiting, while their vermin predators feed and breed, growing in numbers and killing everything.

“We can’t rid the cities of the infestation. They nest underground in the tunnels and basements, too deep for our bombs to reach. Perimeter walls are being built in an effort to contain, but cities are big and they breed so fast. We need to get in there and take them out individually, destroy the nests and slow them down. Their masters are content to wait… but we don’t have that luxury. This war was always going to be won or lost on the ground.”

Twelve minutes later, Val and I were locked and loaded, two commandos fit to star in any apocalyptic blockbuster. The fast approaching city soon jolted me away from that make believe setting and into the reality of now.

“Do you know what this is?” Val asked.

“Plasma Rifle. Three millisecond charge. Mid range. Very effective.” The words felt foreign leaving my lips

“Good… good, you know your stuff.” Val handed the weapon to me. “Ever fire one?”

“No,” I said, “But I’ve played a lot of video games.”

“Of course you have,” Val remarked, “ Isn’t that all you young people do?”

The Intercom chimed, “T minus 2 minutes.”

Val swung open the car door and the wind knocked me backwards a step. I finally grasped the speed now. Fast. Faster than anything I have done in the Tesla. Stepping closer to the door, I could see that we were the only car besides the engine. It glided silently over the land, carving its own trackless path through the light underbrush. In the distance the perimeter wall of the city raced nearer, abandoned and incomplete.

“Soon, the train is gonna bank hard,” Val shouted, his voice raised to meet the wind, “the wall isn’t finished here. The train has to keep moving.”

I nodded, my mind starting to race to keep pace with the train.

“When it turns, we will be thrust forward. Let it happen. We will be ejected and our chutes will deploy.”

“OK,” I choked. I was having a hard time catching my breath.

T minus 1 minute.”

“Get over beside me,” Val shouted.

I stepped up to the open door of the car. Val checked the line securing our chutes. How could the train be so noisy and so quiet all at once. The weight of my gear seemed to hit me now and I felt weak in the knees.

“Ready?”

I was pretty sure I was going to throw up for real this time.

“Hey, I forgot to ask you,” Val shouted as he grabbed my shoulder to get my attention. “Have you got your train ticket?”

Panicked, I instinctively started to check my pockets when I saw Val smile.

“I’m just fuckin with you.”

I could feel the muscles in my face relax and settle into a smile when the train banked and I was sucked out of the car. The weightless feeling lasted less than a moment before the chute deployed and I was jerked back into reality. The ground came up fast and I rolled to a stop, a tangled mess of cord and chaos. Before I could reach for my blade, Val had cut me free.

“Good start,” Val whispered, “You survived the jump.”

Very cheeky Val. Oddly enough, I felt calm and focused. My adrenaline must have kicked in because the nausea was gone and I felt alive! Alert and ready!

Val called for a weapons check and I nodded after each. Plasma Rifle. Check. Scattergun. Check. Anti G belt. Check. Atomizer, Vortex Cannon, Mini Nuke. Check, check, check. Phase Pistols, Laser Staff, Walking Bomb, etc. etc. etc. - all check.

“Where are the other teams?” I asked.

“We’re it,” Val said. “Teams of two are best - any more draws attention. Also, they don’t see us as a threat this way. Less likely to call for the rest of the pack.”

“Remember, Stealth in. Plasma only. Take out anything that moves, quietly. You should have a visual with your headset display. Red dots are heat sigs. No friendlies here but me, so consider everything else a hostile.”

“What do they look like?” I asked, just realising I have never seen one before.

“Didn’t they tell you anything?” Val cursed. “Nothing like the first wave. Those were humanoid. These are sleek, scaled and cat-like, except bigger. Six legs. The front ones are curled back on themselves, sharp and serrated. The back four are muscled and springlike, which makes them fast. The head is more like a bug’s. Take the top half of a praying mantis and mount it on a panther and you’re pretty close.”

Horrifying.

“Target should be in your map display. Move out. Take the lead, I have your six.”

“Wait! Shouldn’t you go first?” The thought of me leading the charge was ridiculous. I mean, I was the new guy. Val had all the experience.

“Me, out in front? No way noob, you’d probably shoot me in the ass,” Val smiled. He gestured with his hand, “After you Bob, I’ve got your back.”

I mumbled that my name wasn’t Bob as I stepped toward downtown. The next couple of hours are a little fuzzy. It was quiet at first. A stalking. My first confirmed. Excitement. A distant strike. Four more notches. Target located. Explosions. Red dots everywhere. Running. Ammo, I need ammo! Fall back. Energy Pulse. Get on your feet. That’s it for cannons. Head down. Suppressing fire. Switching to close range. Get it off me! Can’t reach my knife. Pin’s out! Bright light. I got you. Getting dark.

- - -

I heard this scraping sound. Something was tugging at my vest. The city was getting further away, one lurch at a time. I was being dragged. One of those things must have me…

“You did good Bob,” Val said. He let go of my collar and propped me up against a tree. “This should be far enough.”

I was relieved to see Val's scrubby mug. If I had to pick anyone to drag me out of a war zone, it would be Val. He seemed to carry me with ease, even for Val, and then I saw why.

“My leg. Where’s my leg?” I couldn’t feel any pain. I must be in shock. My left leg was severed just above the knee, exposing the splintered metal bone and covered in thick green coagulating blood… What? This isn’t right. Something’s not right. Everything went black.

- - -

“He’s waking up!”

A man with thick glasses hovered over me, his eyeballs threatening to take over his face through his lenses. He wore a buttoned blue shirt complete with a pocket protector, which I could only assume came with the glasses. I was reclined in some sort of modified dental chair and covered with little wires and suction cups. I looked down in relief to find two legs intact and propped up on the footrest.

“I’m the Tech Guy,” the man in the blue shirt said, “just lay back and I will get these leads off.”

I turned my head to see Val vacating the chair beside me. He didn’t look big enough to be Val but the way he carelessly threw his wires to the floor and sauntered to the exit, I knew it was. The room we were in was relatively small. It contained our two reclining chairs, a wheeled chair for Tech Guy, a large desk topped with various monitors and displays, and little else. A slight whistle drew my attention back to Val, who had paused in the doorway.

“For tomorrow’s session, get me someone just like… Mark.” Val gave me a wink before making his way into the hallway. The door swung shut and I was left alone with Tech Guy.

“He must like you - he usually calls everyone Bob,” Tech guy said. “I can see why - you were awesome, man. I gave you that little boost when you got off the train and bam, you were hoppin’! Literally. A Killing machine, blowin’ shit up…”

“Was it all just a simulation? It felt real.”

“Oh, it was real… real enough anyway,” Tech Guy said as he removed another suction cup. “Some of you guys don’t make it back, mentally I mean. Too bad you became ‘aware’, cause you kicked…”

“If you’re finished, I’ll take it from here,” the Lady in the Lab Coat interrupted. She had suddenly appeared in the doorway, tapping a pen impatiently on her clipboard.

“Yes, of course,” Tech Guy said, all excitement replaced with a business-like demeanour. “Vitals are normal, mental read within parameters, everything else checks out OK.”

“Perfect.” Lab Coat Lady stopped eyeballing Tech Guy and focused her attention on me. “If you could, please follow me Mark, and I will answer all of your questions.”

Lab Coat Lady led me down a long hallway filled with doors on either side. I hurried to keep pace, pausing briefly to peer through the glass panels. Each room was the same - two people, two chairs, wires, monitors and a technician. I jogged a couple of paces to keep from falling too far behind and was about to fire my first question when the Lab Coat Lady broke the silence.

“As you can probably ascertain Mark, this part of the facility is designated a Virtual Realised Hub. Participants remotely operate a physical unit in the field in order to safely complete objectives. With Drones and Remotely Operated Droids, little combat today is performed with real bodies on the front lines. You were chosen for this program due to your aptitude scores relating to video games. Everyone selected for VR is paired with an experienced soldier. We find that young people like yourself, having played video games their entire life, far outperform any current military personnel trained in this technology.”

“Why can’t I remember anything?” I asked. We rounded the corner into another long hallway. My head was spinning as I struggled to keep up.

“We do that on purpose. It’s for your own protection.” Understanding I was going to need a little more than that, Lab Coat Lady elaborated, “In cerebral terms, we fog the synapses, walking a line between peak functionality and social acuity. Mentally you are kept in the ‘shade’ prior to and in between assignments. When we do call upon you, the brain must be racing and overloaded so it cannot defragment the chaos. We hope to trade highly stressful short term blurs for any preserved experiences that could cause long lasting trauma. You will probably remember very little of your time here.”

“For my protection? Right!” I said, feeling used.

“You are right, Marc, there is more to it than that. In order to maximize outcomes, we must trick the brain into thinking everything is real. The reason we woke you on the train mere minutes before your mission was to minimize the time allowed to process events. We can’t have your brain knowing it’s safe on a VR couch somewhere, engaged in a fantasy game with infinite lives. We initially tried a full disclosure course and the IRL results were dismal in comparison. As soon as the brain becomes aware, performance drops significantly. Sadly, that is why we no longer require your service.”

“What? Why? I still want to help.” We reached the end of the hallway. There was a glassed partition with a doorway to the right and a small reception area beyond.

“You are ‘aware’ Mark. Which is unfortunate because you scored rather well.” She consulted the page on the clipboard before continuing, “Rather than seeing an injured flesh and bone leg, your brain was somehow able to process the reality of a metal skeletal frame and hydraulic fluid. Your stressor must have been too great. The jig, as they say, is up. You are no longer a candidate for the program. Unless you have 3.2 million credits for a new B.O.B. unit, our interests are best met with a new mind, and there is no shortage of young people playing video games.”

“B.O.B. Unit?” I asked. I noticed the man in front of the glass window get up from his chair and start to approach us. The patch on his shirt read Security.

“BOB is for Biolink Optimized Bootable Unit. I know, I know… I hate the name too. Thankfully, we will be able to salvage most of your B.O.B. Unit. They are programmed to find their way back to the facility.

“Is that why Val kept calling me Bob?”

“No, commander Rick is not supposed to do that but he evidently finds it amusing to potentially compromise the scenario,” Lab Coat Lady sighed as she handed the clipboard to the security guard. “Val is short for VirtuAL and he calls recruits Bob for Born On Board, since we activate you on the train. So, if you have no further questions”

Not waiting for a response, Lab Coat Lady turned and made her way back down the hallway. I took a step forward to holler the first of a thousand other questions I had when I felt a hand on my shoulder holding me back. Security Guy.

“If you could follow me sir, we will get you processed and on your way.”

He led me through the door and into the reception area where he motioned me to take a seat. The room was small and vacant. Four grey walls, four folding chairs and two doors, the one I just came through and another marked exit. There was no coffee table, no magazines and no pictures on the wall. Before I could decide which folding chair looked the most comfortable, Security Guy had emerged from behind the glass window, clipboard in hand.

“Well, I wish they were all as easy as you, Mark… no possessions to return… enlisted at the north branch so we had your car returned to your parent’s house…”

“I have more questions for the Lady,” I tried to interject, my mouth hanging ajar as Security Guy continued verbalizing his checklist showing little regard for my concerns. With the clipboard in one hand and the chubby digits of his other back on my shoulder, he guided me toward the exit.

“... credits transferred to your account. This concludes our contract and on behalf of E.D., we wish you the best in the future.” With that, he handed me an envelope, popped open the exit door and gently but firmly nudged me outside. “It’s Baby, by the way.”

“What?”

“Commander Rick. He calls you guys Bob for Baby On Board.”

I didn’t think my jaw would ever close as I tried to process everything.

“He can be a dick sometimes but he’s not a bad guy,” Security Guy offered. “I think you gamers are gonna win this thing. Anyway, straight across the parking lot and down the stairs will get you home. Thanks again for your service.”

The door slammed shut in my face. I took a few steps back to take in the scope of the building, a factory-like facility with no windows and no other doors. I noticed the door I just exited didn’t have a handle in order to get back in and blended in so well with the wall it nearly became invisible.

If anything, this place kept your mind busy… too busy to catch its breath.

Home! He said home was straight across the parking lot and down the steps. I had no idea how long I had been away. It would be good to be home.

I was almost to the stairwell when I realized I was still holding the envelope the Security Guy had given me. The sign at the top of the stairwell came into view as I fumbled with the flap.

‘Platform B’

I wasn't surprised when I retrieved the single item inside the envelope.

One train ticket.

Fantasy

About the author

Dan Ormerod

I love to tell tall tales. I've determined that I am left with two career choices - a writer or a fisherman. If you like a little humour tucked in with your tale, give my stories a try. If things don't work out, I'm buying a boat.

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Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

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    Well-structured & engaging content

  3. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

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  • Marie Ormerod4 months ago

    Love this story!!

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