The ruined towers loomed above the silver sand, casting shadows that stretched as far as the eye could see. The colossal structure was even grander when looked at from the base, a massive wall of rust marking the sole bit of color in an endless monochrome sea.
Nyk’s heart pounded in his chest and he clutched his rifle tighter, trying to stop his hands from shaking. This was the moment he had spent years waiting for.
Mysha and her party were already on the move. No one looked back to see if he was following them, their eyes were scanning the sand around the tower. Their guns were drawn.
Scavengers had found or made dozens of entrances in the surface of the tower over the years, trying to find the perfect places to sneak in without drawing attention. They entered a particularly large gash torn into the tower’s chest.
Nyk felt a change the second he crossed the threshold. The empty, arid desert breeze was gone, and in its place the air hummed with electricity. The outside of the tower had rusted and gone to ruin from an eternity of exposure to the elements, but its insides told a different story. Stainless metal, like the walls of Central City. And in spite of the lack of windows, or any light source to be seen, Nyk could see everything clearly.
He grimly noted that it was nicer than most places he’d slept. Sure, the ground was littered with debris and the white walls were punched with holes from where zealous Scavengers had torn through in their greed, but it still felt…
Nyk didn’t know the words to describe what he felt. But the hair on the back of his neck was standing up, and the faintest hint of movement continued to catch his eye. He raised his head up and looked forward.
The others were moving in perfect synergy. Dolly was at the head of the pack, fingers at her waist to draw in a flash. Mysha and Calum stepped carefully behind her with their rifles raised, Calum scanning the surroundings with his augmented eye. And in the back was Axel, towering over them like a gargoyle, double-wield guns that made Nyk’s look like a toy.
No one said a word. They didn’t send any signals to each other. They just advanced at a careful pace from one room to the next, eyes constantly on the move.
Something caught Nyk’s foot and he nearly fell over. He glanced down. It was half of a terminal screen. He was tempted for a moment to pick it up, but he ignored it like the others had. He couldn’t imagine junk like that fetching even a single silv.
As they continued through the tower, the rubble seemed to get thinner and thinner. Less Scavengers had made it this far in. How long had they been walking for? An hour? Two? It felt like an eternity to Nyk since they entered the tower, and with each room they explored his gun grew heavier in his hands.
There were more relics now. Treasures to be taken back to the Collection Office for appraisal. Computer terminals that looked mostly intact, other mechanical parts that could serve… some purpose, he was sure. But the others walked right by them.
So are these things just worthless? But they’re in such good shape, Nyk wondered. He glanced the wall, and the shiny shelf attached to it. It had been picked clean by Scavengers long ago, but what about the shelf itself? It didn’t look valuable, but what if an appraiser thought differently? He turned to ask Mysha what she thought, only to see that he was alone in the room.
Nyk felt his heart stop, and then it began to race. He ran out the exit and was about to cry out for when he caught himself.
“Scared little baby was all alone, and began bawling for help! You really call yourself a Scavenger?!”
The mocking words of Axel that he imagined would follow gave him pause. He was a Scavenger now, he couldn’t fly into a panic just because Mysha and the others had left him behind. It was his own fault for dawdling.
He could handle himself on his own, right?
Nyk broke into a run, looking for any sign of the rest of the party. The further he got into the tower, though, the slower he was moving. The floor was unsteady here, there were holes punched into it. One wrong move and even someone as light as him might fall through.
That’s when he heard the gunfire.
His head whipped around and he ran down the side path, his gun burning hot in his hands. The gunshots were getting louder, and so were the shouts. That was Mysha’s voice.
He broke into the room and then he saw them. The Sentinels.
They looked like nothing that Nyk had ever seen before. In the slums he had seen the occasional starving dog wander by, but these canine-like creatures were nothing like them. Their bodies were made of metal, but moved more fluidly than any cyborg. They growled and snarled and drooled and hissed and all manner of other things that no robot would have any business doing, and when they were shot, black liquid oozed out of them like blood.
But they were still machines. Some had blades that emerged out of their bodies like spines, and others had cannons mounted on their backs. Wires wrapped across their limbs and sparks crackled under their paws as they charged, a grotesque blend of organic and inorganic. The creatures shambled forward like the cobbled imaginations of an artist struck by madness.
Nyk raised his gun, but he couldn’t line up the shot. Why was it shaking so much!? The others were in front of him, meeting the Sentinel horde with all the firepower they could muster. He could hear their cries of desperation in the scarce lulls of gunfire. He had to pull the trigger, he had to help. That’s why he came out here in the first place, to prove to Mysha and the rest that he could be a Scavenger too! So why wasn’t his body listening to him?!
Then, two of the Sentinels broke away from the pack. They ambled around the other four, but not because they were attempting to flank the party, no.
They’d sniffed out new prey. And Nyk was it.
They tore across the metal floor, faster than Nyk could believe.
20 meters away, his hands weren’t listening to him. He couldn’t run, and he couldn’t shoot.
15 meters away. Move! Move damn you! Take the shot!
10 meters away, the growls of the Sentinels had filled the hall, drowning out the gunfire.
7 meters away, he could see their eyes, burning red in the grim light.
3 meters away, he could feel the heat of their breath on his face, the stink of burnt electronics filled his nose and made his eyes water.
1 meter away…
The force of the rifle slammed into Nyk’s shoulder and sent him rolling backwards. He didn’t even have time to cry out when he hit the ground; in those brief seconds he could see that his bullet had torn a hole in one of the Sentinels. Black blood oozed down the creature’s face.
The other landed on top of him, reeking of sulfur and plague. The daggers in its mouth sunk into Nyk’s chest and felt his throat fill with blood.
Pain was a familiar feeling for children in the slums. But this wasn’t pain. The only way that Nyk had to describe the sensation flowing through him right now was death in physical form.
Nyk was acutely aware of everything at the end. He had no idea dying took this long. And what he noted was that even with his chest being torn open, he could still feel the rest of his body. His arm was still sore from the recoil. His back was still pressing down against the floor. His gun was burning in his hands. His last thoughts as the darkness crept into his vision was that he’d managed to kill one of them. Its body would have earned enough to feed him for a week, if he’d been able to bring it back.
Then he heard a crack, and the whole world fell out from underneath him. For a moment he was weightless, wondering if he had finally died, and this empty void was what came after. Then he slammed into the ground and spat out a cry in pain.
Nyk’s eyes snapped open and he saw red. The red of the Sentinel’s eyes and the red of his blood in its mouth. It lunged at him, jaws thrashing and snapping, but it wasn’t getting any closer.
He had no words to describe what had happened but “miracle”. When the floor had given out beneath him, it had shaken the Sentinel free, and they’d both plummeted to the previous level. Sharp protrusions jutted out beneath them like a briar patch of metal, and that was what impaled the Sentinel right now.
Somehow, Nyk had landed in the thick of them, and he was still alive.
“Ha… ha! Ha ha ha! Fucking die! Fucking die!” Nyk spat at the helpless Sentinel, blood rolling down his lips. He tried to lift his gun and finish the thing off, only to realize his arm wasn’t listening to him. When he tried to move it, he only felt sharp pain.
That’s when he realized that even if he was still alive, he hadn’t come out of this unscathed. He could feel it now, all of it. Shards of metal tore through his arms and legs, pierced his sides and his chest, everywhere. Pain, everywhere.
“AAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGHH!” He screamed as it hit him like a truck, causing him to seize. Every breath he took felt like his body was tearing itself apart on the spikes, and he began to choke on blood.
Then, over the sound of his own screams, he heard it. The scrape of metal claws on metal floor, the crackle of electricity and the low hiss of hunger. He clamped his mouth shut and tried to keep from passing out.
Red. Red, all around him. Ten pairs of glowing eyes breaking through the darkness, no, a hundred? A thousand? His eyes were stinging and all he could see was the red.
There had been no miracle to save him. Just a momentary respite before the Sentinels finished what they started.
Accepting he was about to die, Nyk thought about Mysha. Had she made it out alive? What about the others? Would they come look for him? Or would they just write him off, another Shiny lost to the Towers?
He closed his eyes and saw Mysha’s smile. Mysha… Mysha would cry for him, at least. She’d blame herself for letting him come, putting himself into danger he never would have been able to handle, but she’d move on. In the slums, dying just came naturally.
But she’d miss him. And for someone like him, that was enough.
…It was strange. The Sentinels should have killed him by now. That screaming in his ears… no, no, that wasn’t his voice. So what was it? He slowly opened his eyes, and was nearly blinded by the light that had filled the chamber. In the haze, he could see a tall figure tearing apart Sentinel after Sentinel barehanded. And standing over him…
Nyk looked into the eyes of an angel. A woman more beautiful than Mysha, more beautiful than any woman he’d ever seen. Her eyes were the brightest shade of blue, and her smile blotted out the pain.
So this… is dying… He thought as the darkness of unconsciousness swallowed him whole.