A faint rumbling penetrated this ancient darkness, the first vibrations its halls experienced in millennia. The rhythmic whir and tumble of sound grew from wide and distant to a narrow, piercing point, ever sharper and closer. Earth broke free and fell a silent expanse, into an ominous red glow, crumbling upon the smooth stone floor of this covert temple, as a diamond drill bit stopped rotating, sensing air, and a small light source far below.
That glimmering point retreated up into the depths, its mechanical zoom muffling until inaudible. Stillness returned to this long-hidden cavern, a momentary respite from the impending, spurred by such violation. A new, tinnier buzzing grew from above, raising to a high-pitched whir as a small drone invaded—two hand-length straight vents connected by a circular middle containing every kind of sensory point, panel, needle, antennae, and dish crammed together on a tiny plate, dancing around each other as the vents whined and slid air up and out.
Far above, through mountainous unmoved earth, beyond sounds ability to reach the relics buried below, where dirt yielded to open air once again, Kincaid and Boothe sat atop a vast green hill. Light blue penetrated the tumultuous clouds above, some with scattered pockets like an animal's natural spots, others through widening gashes, as if prey's hide, inevitably torn. A relatively calm ocean spread out the horizon all around them, save several giant shoots of rocky pillars eastward, towering above. The moss covered cliff faces glowed stern and solid across from the sun, observing the only other inhabitants of this island as they too gazed, enticed by the allure underfoot.
Kincaid kept her long, dark hair tied back. Everything about her screamed "functional"—appearance, expression, demeanor. Her pale green jumpsuit clung to her toned shape in awkward ripples, baggy and tight, depending on proximity to one of the many black satchels, packs and compartments strapped across her thigh, along her belt, or adorning the sash across her torso. Her dark olive skin and smoothly pointed features denoted a kinship with the majority, typical of those impoverished, whose elders fell victim to the Peace Through Unity breeding programs.
Boothe glowed white in contrast, his pasty flesh and jutting edges revealing a privileged heritage of status but not genetics. His thin, gangly body looked misplaced outdoors, encumbered by harness and gear, his myopia and sensitivity to light resulting from a sequestered and studious existence, as well as physiology. He adjusted the small, plastic clip on the bridge of his nose, its holographic lenses flickering and reappearing as he itched the flesh beneath.
The pair watched as a projection appeared in the space between them, growing down with the drone's descent, a solid blue ring stretching into cylindrical as data returned from the depths. The map grew in both size and detail, as four square indentations appeared at opposite ends of the circle with another four further down—an identical pair of diametrically opposed boxes, rotated into the next quadrant so as not to align directly with those equally far above and below. Every fourth ring of cubes lined up, with the solid blue walls of the cylinder bulging and dimpling as the map reflected more accurately the ancient stone submerged beneath the fresh grass.
Unheard, the drone reached the bottom, and soon after the holographic map stopped growing, capping off equally beneath the thirteenth ring of cubes, its floor a solid circle, save one thin pole in the very center, bulging into a wide dish holding a long, thin triangle.
"It looks like a spear," said Boothe as he squinted through the spectacles projected before his eyes.
"How big is it?"
Kincaid already began sighing before Boothe tilted the clip on his nose side to side, wiggling his "glasses" in innuendo.
"Yeah, yeah. Girls always ask that." Kincaid rolled her eyes as Boothe reveled in the victory, his clean-shaven face and militaristic short hair exaggerating his juvenile appearance.
His face straightened with contemplation and explained, "Well, these square bits appear to be about a foot high, separated by about three feet each ring, which appears to be the same distance to the base, so, yeah. It's about the size of a spear."
"Would it have that wide a top?" she asked.
Boothe crouched to get eye level with the anomaly. "No," he said, "unless it's kind of a shield portion. Weird design, though. Looks more like an ornamental birdbath."
Kincaid nodded to the point, "With an arrowhead on it. Kinda like a museum display."
"More like an altar."
Boothe stood, pleased and towering over the miniature rendition of their find. Kincaid smiled enthusiastic, nodding, "Like an altar."
The two slapped each other on the back in congratulations, their elation and appearance enormous as they stared fascinated at the digital model. The massive columns of rock and moss dwarfing those two bore no change in expression as it looked upon from high above, nor did the range of dark gray to white clouds, seeing only a lumpy green dot of little consequence to the vast ocean surrounding.
"Let's get digging," Boothe suggested as he swiped his hand through the map which flickered and disappeared.
Kincaid turned to the low western beach and yelled, "Pet Boy!"
From down the long, wide slope of the hill came running a large mandroid. Its simple geometry disguised complex mechanics, as a plain, smooth white cylinder akin to an indoor garbage can housed the delicate innards, connected to its appendages by black ball joints wrapped in pliable synthetics. White tubes served as arms and legs around black knees, elbows, ankles, and wrists, giving the robot as generic a visage as possible—humanoid not humanesque—save in its hands and feet which uncannily mimicked its creator's articulation.
Kincaid had strapped an old porcelain rendition of an over-sized man's head atop a large spring to serve as his neck, so Pet Boy's blonde greaser hairdo and cartoon smile bobbed haphazardly about with his body's every measured, precise movement. The chipped and weathered paint of his unblinking stare clashed wholly with his sanitized, versatile body, dichotomous as his makers.
"What were those square bits made of?" Kincaid asked as Pet Boy bounded up then stopped suddenly between them, still and bulking as its ancestral refrigerator.
"Looks like glass," Boothe replied. "Alright, Pet Boy, you ready to do some digging?"
The robot stood motionless, save its giant head, still slowly bouncing a drunken nod.
Boothe smacked the bot's back, a deep ting echoing inside, and exclaimed, "That's the spirit."
"Excavate," Kincaid ordered, "Straight down until unhindered."
With that, Pet Boy crouched and began scooping up mounds of dirt with its hands, tossing armfuls of earth effortlessly as its wrists rolled and contorted in unnatural forms, bereft of biology. His heavy toes dug in as his arms locked outward, torso spinning about, thrashing world away. It attacked its duty with vicious speed, shoulder deep in its hole within a minute, head flailing chaotic above a steady repetition of rhythmic humming and whirring flails and flying dirt.
Kincaid stabbed a silver stake in the ground—its waist-high top containing five loops which extended up on segmented tubes, growing from within the center pole like a pack of metal snakes, lured out by the charmer. Kincaid turned her back and lifter her ponytail as the loops opened like claws, hooking around her neck, shoulders, and thighs, as portions at their base clicked and clacked in hardening disposition. The wires lifted Kincaid off the ground. She lightly bounced in the air, her five links as flexible as they were supportive.
"Let the robot go first," Boothe suggested.
She scoffed, "The drone already went first. And it's fine."
Boothe looked into the palm of his finger-less glove and pressed into its dark texture. The drone's controls and stats projected flat just above his hand. He swiped his finger along the smooth of the glove, scrolling through the data.
"Looks clean down there," he admitted. "I mean, if there is some virus or bacteria, it's probably so old it's not even categorized."
"Some ancient plague, lain dormant through the centuries," Kincaid mused, "patiently awaiting the fools of opportunity."
She smiled and laughed, floating about carefree as Boothe squirmed, visibly disconcerted by her comfort.
"I really hope that's not the case," he said.
"Hopefully I'll get to name it before it kills me."
Boothe puts his head in his hand and breathed deeply.
"Pardon me," she pled, "before it kills us."
"Much better," Boothe conceded.
Pet Boy climbed out from the hole, his immaculate form spattered with clumps of mud and dirt. He stood aside, at the ready, his bobbling head slowing its incessant wobble—as the subtle vibrations of the electricity coursing within kept his cranial bits permanently twitchy.
Kincaid huffed, "Here we go." Her five supports sprung her over to Boothe who she kissed quick and deep before clasping her feet and hands together as she dove feet first into the depths and disappeared, the growth of those five silver lines pouring in after her.
Boothe looked into his glove's display and poked it. "Go live," he ordered. It rendered the view from Kincaid's palm as her hands separated and arms splayed out to either side, her metal vipers loyally latched to her, slowing her descent.
The image looked much like the holographic map, its true hues tainted by the blue light emanating from Kincaid's gloves, illuminating the smoothed gray stone walls. She came to the first ring of four squares and focused her palm at one. It appeared smooth as the most pristine glass, with an internal darkness implying immeasurable distance.
"What do you think these are for?" her voice echoed, filling the chamber around her, and chirped from Boothe's glove on the surface.
"I don't," he told his palm.
"Come on," she goaded as she sank past the next ring, "You gotta have some theories rattling around inside that lightning storm of yours."
Boothe shrugged. "That's actually kind of accurate. For brain function in general, not just mine, of course. It really is this somewhat random misfire of electrical impulse within an ever-evolving structure, though limited, of course, by a template. Malleable, yet defined, and compartmentalized. Like a cloud."
Kincaid shook her head and looked to the next ring of four glass squares, encircling her. They seemed unnaturally smooth and immaculate compared to the weathered rock encasing them. Unblemished by dust or the slightest smudge, they appeared polished, but did not reflect. As she lowered to the level of these windows to nowhere, the moment her perspective reached its exact height and she looked dead center into one of those squares, it didn't move or shift in any way; it didn't vibrate or change color or shade, but she sensed it. She felt it. She could just tell.
It looked at her.
Suddenly a light flashed above, as blinding as it was instant. She saw her shadow gigantic, filling the chamber beneath for one moment, then all was darkness. She felt herself falling, the tethers dangling loose from her body, whisking, wiry tails now, severed from their source. Suddenly, she saw that crimson glow, a terrible ominous haze with fiery, piercing center rushing up to meet her.
Kazar Quist awoke to the popping sounds of sizzling, an alluring scent in the air. He groggily rolled about and scratched at the bright blonde stubble on his face, past due for his weekly shave. He swung his legs over and sat up on the bed, his spiky mat of hair jutting as many directions as it could find.
"What you cooking?" he called toward that pungency wafting in from down the hall. It wasn't quite bacon. Some new, exotic meat Daurine had yet to subject him to, perhaps. She sure knew how to motivate him in the morning.
Kaz slipped on his leisure wear - navy blue slacks and a solid gray tee. He was used to wearing a uniform, and he preferred his whole world uniform as well. He stumbled down the neutral gray of the hall, the different oblong rectangles of light from the windows providing the nearest equivalent to decoration. He continued wiping the sleep from his eyes and yawned as the sizzling grew louder with proximity, as did the smell.
He rounded the corner, finding Daurine as expected, back to him, facing the stove. An "L" shaped island separated her from the open dining area, bright with the morning sun, reflected off their neighboring glass tower.
"That smells different," Kaz said, crossing onto the cold tile, "What black market animal we experimenting with today?"
Daurine gave no response. She shifted slightly, side to side, hands steadily in front of her, busy with the sizzling.
"Dorry?" Kaz ran his fingers through her long, auburn hair. "What's wrong?"
He wrapped an arm around her hip, sidling up to peek at her concoction. He found Daurine's hands, pressed tight against the burner, flesh bubbling and blackened, nearly cooked through. He ripped her back and spun her around. Her head flopped, mouth agape, eyes open but unfocused, staring into nothing.
He rushed her to the sink, pouring cold water over mangled flesh. She didn't wince or resist, just lightly moaned and swayed, divinely disinterested in her mortal coil. Kaz walked her like an invalid, her feet falling forward to catch her as the pressure of his hand on her back became her sole driving force - the only impulse known to follow.
He soaked her charred hands in a vat of clear gel followed by a white liquid, which quickly dried and plastered, generally conforming to her shape. He set her on the couch where she sat, head cocked slightly askew, unblinking, drooling, her white stone hands resting upon her lap, looking like a possessed mannequin caught somewhere in transition from human form.
Kaz sat in the window, watching people in the streets, tiny so far beneath him. He could tell something untoward paralyzed those below. There were groups of people, massing together from inside the rows of shining towers. They poured into the street like a swarm of ants, frantic, swirling, and peppered throughout the criss-crossing through-ways and alleyways were lone, lost souls, standing and staring. Some shuffled ever so clumsily, as if newly born upright, learning the use of their limbs for the first time.
There were no sirens, no guiding lights lining the streets, directing people to clear the area for emergency vehicles' landing. Throughout the entire expanse of city Kaz could spy from his high perch, he saw only those conscious of terrible tragedy, seeking and consoling each other for the fate of the damned. No one could be expected to come help, because everyone was afflicted.
The whole world locked itself inside and stayed glued to the holo-screen, watching as paralyzed and motionless as the infected. Birds eye views, fully rendered, projected before Kaz, spinning about to share the carnage at every angle. Reports flooded in from everywhere. People peered down from their apartments around holes ripped into city towers, still aflame as those most-esteemed of citizens, licensed to fly within the dome, crashed, suddenly catatonic mid-flight, numb hands locked on the controls.
One hundred pod pile-ups scrolled endlessly, the hologram flying through miles of the Subterran superhighways' incessant torrents of traffic suddenly stopped, maligned and burning. Barrages of horror stories from all over the globe streamed constantly; not a solitary zone remained unaffected. This hadn't spread like a plague or virus, leeching out through some epicenter, growing exponentially. No cause could be found. No source. No start.
In an instant, the entire planet's dominant life-form changed for no apparent reason. Roughly four percent of the human population suddenly suffered irreparable cognitive malfunction, rendering nearly one billion people living, breathing ornaments, bereft of ideas and desire. They retained their nutrient rich physicality, yet with no spark to drive it, no purpose to derive from its potential.
These doomed souls became known as Stumps.
Initially, a peaceful lull overcame those unaffected. The commonality of this tragedy united all those remaining in their moment of caustic serendipity. Regardless of the divisions by one's status or location, whether a Subterran or a Dome Dweller, all felt united by universal survival. But the peace lasted only a moment, and passed as quickly as the silence.
A storm of chaotic wailing and panic replaced that breath, and the gravity of the situation flattened the world. The Asiatic Zones instituted a massive quarantine, fearing additional victims, despite no signs of infection. The anomalous nature of the plague bewildered all scientific and medical minds, and insane contemplation became as commonplace as talk of sports, celebrity gossip, or the weather.
The Stumps required nothing to sustain themselves. At first, those Domes who allowed citizens to keep their debilitated loved ones at home worried of emaciation. Forcing Stumps to chew and swallow proved impossible, with Medics visiting nearly every home, hooking up saline drips and feeding tubes to the most passive and manageable of patients. This resulted in little more than a mild swelling of those treated, and massive debts accrued by those attempting to help.
Kaz left Daurine to her own devices. Mostly, she remained wherever placed, occasionally manifesting some spark of inspiration, her head turning toward the window, a low moaning exhale and wobble evolving into the slowest rise to one's feet ever witnessed. Some mornings he woke to find her pressed fully into the window, still lumbering impossibly forward, like a bug, incapable of comprehending that invisible barrier, drawn instinctively to the unreachable sun outside.
The Stumps needed no sustenance. Kaz noticed early on that Dorry stopped producing waste, so he never bothered to feed her. When he changed her clothes he noticed no body odor. Even left all day in the warmth of the window, she never sweat. Aside from that first bit of saliva that leaked from her mouth, she remained dry and increasingly rubbery, her innately human moisture all but lost.
Kaz maintained constant contact with any of his sources within the Guard. Kaz himself hadn't achieved much in the way of rank, never pushing for assignments outside the Dome. He casually graduated to the private sector, body-guarding low-level celebs, bouncing for roving rave clubs, and filling in for local investigators when they deemed a case "beneath" them, and, lately, staring at projections of empty rows of storage containers all night. While Kaz rarely impressed, he made friends wherever he went. He was amicable and non-threatening, as he only seemed to make lateral moves, so people tended to keep in touch, even once elevated to positions of importance.
Obviously, no one spoke plainly on the subject. Any outside review of their conversations would be deemed harmless, but Kaz knew his people well. He knew how to interpret body language, how to avoid using code, how to ask around the question. Clearly, Guard officials never admitted to "harvesting" a few stray Stumps here and there. Family members robbed of their invalid kin raised hell in public, but all charges met with denial. Their loss garnered little concern from a wider audience, fixated on the collateral damage and casualties.
The Guards experimented on Stumps. Everyone either knew or assumed it, but Kaz knew what they were finding out. These creatures were no longer human. They perpetuated via some unknown source, fully active at a cellular level, yet with no energy required and nothing produced. They merely sustained.
"Merely immortal," one of his more candid friends let slip when they met in person. "You cut these things up, and every inch of them still wriggles. Don't see a use for it, but it's raising doubt that it's even possible to kill these dregs."
Kaz looked to Daurine, that misbegotten stare absorbing the sun without a tear to shed or a need to blink.
"You need to let that thing go, Kaz. Dorry's gone, and that thing might turn out more than just window dressing."
Kaz cracked a facetious smile, "I suppose the suits might find a different use for her."
His friend's head shook, humorless. "No one wants anything to do with this. They just want it over, and no one even knows what the hell that means."
Soon, however, it would be understood. As life returned to some semblance of normal, the Stumps gained articulation in their movement, reinvigorating the oddity. Their limbs jerked and contorted in new ways, and they took full, determined steps - sometimes off a bridge, into the sea, into traffic, out a window, over a wind turbine, or in front of the bullet train.
Stump mangling and mishaps dominated the news cycle. An additional type of weather forecast emerged, marking the size and movements of Stump migration, and the resulting impediment to one's day. Thoughtless, clumsy people wandering into grizzly deaths became the norm, an expected spectacle in both private and public settings.
A league of anti-Stump terrorists formed, calling themselves Stalkers, and vowed to eliminate any and all Stumps unattended in a public place. "If you want to keep them, contain them" became a readily view-able slogan, projected high on the side of buildings, below a menacing masked face pointing an accusing, bloody blade at the reader. Eventually, Stalkers attacked Stumps regardless of escort, the outside world decidedly off-limits to them. They claimed the mantel of humanity's protectors, promising to avert any future calamity, though there had been no new cases since that first, universal dispersion now referred to as Second Zero.
This did little to solve the problem, as Stump remains, still squirming, amassed in landfills before crawling away. Huge underground stores of stubborn bodies churned and burned, liquefied by acid, slithering free like so many salted slugs. Eliminating the cursed flesh proved impossible, and restraining it, tiresome.
Even the domes utilizing the Stumps for power inevitably relented. They released hordes from underground treadmills, their persistent steps turning cranks, scraping wires, fueling friction to convert into electricity no more. Portions of the dome were removed temporarily wherever swaths of Stumps had congealed, mobs of impotent monsters trapped by the clear solid of the city's barrier.
All domes released the majority of their doomed into the uninhabitable zone - the united wastes of unprotected surface, where the relics of the old world persisted, increasingly worn away by arid climate, floods, radiation, and super-storms. How many Stumps remained within the confines of domes was kept secret, fated to the fastidious study and careful watch of the Guard.
They kept an eye on those outside as well. While Guards exclusively traversed the wastes, solely trusted with patrol of the untamed world, leaked holographs appeared in the stream on occasion, if only to entertain with the absurdity of witnessing these creatures marching into a boiling sea or casually sauntering in mass across a desert, only to be whipped up and tossed aside by a micro tornado. Regardless of obstacle, Stumps would bear the detour without protest and slowly resume their journey.
Their behavior got painstakingly analyzed day in day out, from experts to citizen consultants sparking passionate debate as to the destination of this horrific phenomenon. For one thing became certain observing the hordes; they were all headed in the same direction.
Eventually, the Guard discovered the epicenter. A few dozen Stumps were spotted south of the Northwest Dome, immobile as they had been on day one. They encircled a rusty old automobile, nearly indiscernible from rock and earth so degraded and half buried. The Guard set up defense towers in perimeter, lone pillars one thousand feet high, equally spaced around the first arrivals. They stayed posted there day and night, watching as more Stumps shuffled in from every direction. Once reaching the crowd, they remained immobile, lightly rocking, content with their proximity to the group's collective fixation.
None struggled to gain position. Those first discoverers remained immediately next to the car, while those on the outskirts stood content, not one jockeying to get closer. The mass loitered equally deep in every direction and ever expanding as more Stumps reached the end of their trek, and took whatever place available around that remnant vehicle.
They were streaming live when it happened. The crowd surrounding that old car had grown to nearly seven hundred lumbering, witless spectators when they all suddenly started chewing on themselves. The Guard stared in disbelief from their tall towers, and the world watched in holographic detail as the Stumps ate themselves, consuming their own bodies, masticating their solid form into a lumpy soup which congealed and coagulated into one giant puddle of muscle and sinew connecting hundreds of mouths that never stopped chomping.
Immediately, giant craft flew in from all directions, tethered pairs transporting wide, clear plates between them. In practiced choreography these ships arrived from all directions, slowed, and lowered the barriers to lock in place between the guard towers. Within five minutes flat, the carriers had disappeared, returning to their respective destinations, and the world sat silent and enraptured once again.
The whole of humanity pondered this atrocity, encompassed by their best attempt at containment. All looked upon the spectacle in a terrible wonder at this maddening world, its future so uncertain - their hope drained away into that sea of gnashing teeth.