No one will be left to prove that humans existed
Maybe soon the children will be born open fisted
We all live on one planet it will all go up in smoke
Too bad they couldn’t see this lethal energy
And now the final scene, a global darkening
Dig deep the piles of rubble and ruins
Towering overhead both far and wide
Einstein said “We’ll use rocks on the other side”
[Told in the words of Karl, Spitalian epigeneticist]
There is much in the ruins of this world that must be cleansed. We the elect have inherited this awesome responsibility, and my brethren discharge it with vigour and pride. But to me falls a subtler task. There is much in the ruins of this world that must be burnt. But those in our charge scrabble through those ruins desperately seeking food, scrap, and pride. We must be careful lest our holy fire also destroy that which might save those we are charged with protecting. I, Karl, epigeneticist, have the task of sorting through the wreckage of this world. I will find that which must be burnt, and that which must be studied.
There is much in the ruins of this world that must be studied. Spores arise from the dust like fatal ghosts, as numerous on the trash of the last world as burn dreams in an apocalyptic den (they also must be burned, in time). So I find myself in this wasteland at the edge of the Black Lung, splayer in hand, documenting the chaos of its degenesis and burning that which must be burnt. For there is much in the ruins of this world that must be burnt.
But I cannot do this task alone, or without distractions, and for this I have my little gang: Ronan the Hellvetic, who kills with grim delight; Sylvan the Apocalyptic, enforcer and bruiser for his flock, appoints himself the leader of this his new flock (he will burn in time); and filthy Tesla and her cat Coils, who knows nothing but scrap and ruins, with all the passion for scrabbling in the corrupted earth that only misguided youth can muster. There was another, Judie, one more scrapper burrowing through the corpse of the last world like a greasy maggot, but she is away on some secret scrapper task. Sylvan, who shares some bond with her (no doubt forged in filth and vice), suggests that she is chasing rumours of plunder dug up when we killed the cave bear in our last job. Having appointed himself our protector, Sylvan suggested that we should continue to break bread, spill blood, and spread fire together, and we all found ourselves nodding along. He has a dangerous way with words, that one – though I fear his blade is far quicker and sharper than his wit. No matter, while we have shared business out here on the edge of corruption, and while ever we can work together in the pursuit of knowledge and wealth, then let us share a campfire and the occasional kill.
There is much in the ruins of this world that must be killed. These past days, it is Cockroaches that we hunted. The Cockroach Clan has been raiding the edges of the black lung, and this season they have begun to encroach on the Protectorate. Judges ride to destroy them, but it is known that where the Cockroaches go corruption follows. We did not seek the Cockroaches – simple bug hunts are beneath us all – but we stumbled upon one of their nests while we sought a deeper treasure. This, then, is the brief tale of their deaths, and the fiery deaths of their infected slaves.
We spent a week in the little town of Tumbler, recuperating from our injuries and attending to our private matters. Tesla spent the week grubbing through all we had rescued from the cave bear’s lair, sorting the dross and forging the better quality material into bolts for her weapon, which she calls a “marvel.” In truth it is a haphazard accretion of trash that fires bullets when it has a mind, marvellous only in that it works. By the end of the week she claimed to have “upgraded” this pile of junk so that it was larger and more cumbersome, and fired smoking, stench-ridden crossbow bolts with an almighty racket. It is also, somehow, pneumatic. One of my brothers, a Famulancer called Herod, believes that the Scrapper cult has no true mysteries, and maintains its priveleged position amongst the other cults simply by clothing trash in a veil of enigma. Herod also maintains a variety of heresies, including the heresy that Cockroach Clanners have souls, so I usually pay little mind to his idiosyncratic notions, but when I see Tesla toiling over that stinking greasy pile of trash to produce a second-rate crossbow, I am inclined to concede his point.
I will never concede that Cockroach Clanners have souls, though.
While Tesla smeared herself in centuries-old oil and dust in service to her misguided creativity, Sylvan showered himself in booze and baser fluids, chasing vice through the town and getting to know everyone he could, in ways that gentler men would consider beneath them. By the end of the week he had learned all there was to know about the area, or at least all that can be learnt from the simple ruddy-faced folk who call it home. He gathered rumours from passing Clanners, who were fleeing the edges of the Protectorate and the Cockroach incursion, and also gathered judgments on the lay of the land and any local stories that might lead us to places we could loot, or burn. After a week of debauchery he concluded that there was nothing of note within several days’ ride of this pathetic hamlet, and we should all move on.
Which is why we were all surprised when that duplicitous Chronicler, Token, told us that he had found a Recombination Group bunker just a few days’ walk away.
He came to us accompanied by another Chronicler, wreathed in voluminous folds of tattered black and hissing with feedback and menace. Amidst many sideways glances at his escort, and hints of threat and fear, he told us that there was a Recombination Group bunker some few days walk away that had recently showed signs of life. The locals had long thought it looted by Scrappers, but in the past few days it had awoken and begun sending out radio signals on some tight beam that the Chroniclers had detected. “Radio”, Tesla told us, is a kind of magic that helps Chroniclers to speak to each other from over the horizon. Truly, their ways are sinister beyond reckoning.
Some bickering followed, as Sylvan and the Hellvetic obsessed about matters of payment and other irrelevancies. Finally they settled on some paltry fee of 150 drafts to visit the place and kill whatever had opened it up, as well as the right to keep what we found there. We have already been deceived by this lying electrician once, so no doubt he will trick us again, but it appears his violent friends are too busy in the cave bear’s lair to bother us, so whatever deception he plays will have to be a little gentler this time. No doubt it will involve haggling over junk.
There is much in this world that must be studied. I am an Epigeneticist, so the contents of Recombination Group bunkers are my responsibility to find, secure, study, burn. Sylvan and Tesla are looters, and any door that opens is an invitation to suicidal recklessness for their kind. Ronan is a psychopath who drifts on the tides of this world’s ocean of violence, only flicking into motion when he smells blood.
Genetics, secrets, and blood in equal measure. We needed no further convincing. We set off at dawn.
There was little profit to be had in the dry and empty landscape east of Tumbler. Streams of ragged Clanners passed us heading west, lugging their paltry possessions on their backs, on rough sleds, or on ragged donkeys if they were lucky. They looked fearfully behind them, and forward along the road to Justitian with grim determination. One group stopped to talk with us, and exchanged a stone and some water with Sylvan but had no useful guidance for us, except that death roamed to the east. We parted ways with the road and headed over the rugged ground on the edge of the Black Lung, following the rough directions Token had given us and trusting to the Hellvetic’s sense of direction. On that first day in the wild we stumbled on a large group of Justices, patrolling the edge of the Protectorate. Beyond them the land did not change at all, proceeding toward the horizon in the same unbroken march of stunted trees, dusty earth and suspicious fronds; but over it hung a sense of menace, and a faint haze as if the entire world out there were burning. The black lung.
The Justices spoke with us, and in their midst I found a Spitalian, beneath me in rank and eager to impress what little knowledge he had on one of his order. The Justices had been patrolling the border, hoping to catch any Cockroach incursions before they broke into civilized farmlands, but for now the Lung’s infestation stayed hidden in its pockmarked plains, and instead they found themselves shepherding fleeing Clanners west. They would not head into the Lung, for that way lies death, but they would not stop us passing. Some clans had stayed behind in the newly-conquered Cockroach territory to fight – and die – in defense of their pathetic holdings, and perhaps if we headed in their direction we might meet a friendly guide or at least find some shelter as we headed to the bunker.
We thanked the Judges and broke through the border, striding purposefully through ankle-high grass into a realm of war and bitterness.
Travel in the Black Lung was dusty and tedious. The following morning we encountered a small group of Clanners, fleeing west, who set us on the right direction to the bunker and told us of their old holdings, which they had abandoned, a short walk to the east. The clan had fled their ancestral homes before they caught sight of the Cockroaches, hoping to escape to the shelter of the Protectorate without threat of roadside raids and night time chaos. We were welcome to stop in their village and use the well if we wanted; perhaps we might find shelter and supplies. They also set us on the correct path to the bunker, which they knew about, because Ronan our Hellvetic had been wrong for a day now and we were slowly drifting south of our target. We thanked them, and headed to their village.
The village lay in a dusty hollow, surrounded by scrub and approached by a single beaten path that in these parts might pass as a civilized road. The sun was sinking and shadows lengthening over the hollow, but we hardly needed our sight to know the Cockroaches had reached it first. The clan holdings were just a couple of long-houses and a barn, which now smouldered in ruins, torched sometime early in the day. Two filthy, degraded beast men stood in front of the door of one long-house, which was barred from without; in the other long-house we discerned signs of evening revelrie, of whatever kind matters to these debased creatures. From our position in the scrub on the far side of the road, in the shadows of the dying day, we apprised the enemy; our first sighting of those ferocious marauders, the Cockroaches.
In truth they were a wretched sight. Filthy, bedraggled rags hung about lean, muscled frames of young men who had not washed in weeks. They were covered in scars and tattoos, smeared in mud and reeking gore, hair wild and matted. Both held wicked short knives, and though on guard neither showed much attention to the task; one was picking parasites carefully from his hair, and the other staring at the setting sun as if it were a talisman he could pluck from the sky. Probably both were stupid enough to believe the truth of this, but their distraction was sufficient to enable us to scuttle behind the razed barn, weapons ready, while Sylvan drifted behind the longhouse and into the deep shadows on the side closest to them. Then we sprung, firing crossbows at the two men. We hit both, and Sylvan emerged from the shadows for an efficient kill, but we were not fast enough – one screamed as he died. Ronan drew his kukhri and he and I raced to flank the doors of the other long-house, while Sylvan grabbed a Cockroach shield and moved to the open ground in front of the long-house door, hoping to lure the Cockroaches out with a pretense at being a wounded fellow.
The door opened, and from it emerged a monster straight from the blackest lungs of hell, a fell giant of a man who stooped under the door frame and hurled himself forward like a steam-hammer in one of Balkhan’s great forges. He ignored Sylvan’s pathetic ruse, because no Cockroach cares about his comrades when there is fresh blood to spill. He carried a hammer in one hand and a vicious spiked club in the other, and struck simultaneously at me and Ronan. He hit both of us, and then Tesla ran over to supine Sylvan and shot the beast with one of those smoking, roaring bolts. She hit it in the shoulder, and with a roar it charged through us to attack Tesla. The giant man stank of the uncured furs that wrapped his body, of half-cooked meat and rancid butter and the moral ruin of a thousand nights spent disgracing the human race, and he moved with the lithe fury of the animal he had become. No soul could reside in that bestial frame, except that it were held captive by some evil magic; let death be its lot, whether it held a soul or only blood-furious urges. It hit Tesla with its club, pushing her back, but now Sylvan was up to fight; he shot it with a crossbow, then leapt forward to cut it twice with those nasty little blades he carries in the folds of his clothes, cutting it in a thousand places. Howling with rage, it turned on him but could not reach him.
In the giant’s stinking wake came two of its vile paramours, keening women clothed in nothing more than wreaths of smoke and a crust of dried blood. Ronan and I were badly hurt by the beast-leader’s strikes, but we were still fast enough to strike the women as they emerged. I am sure neither of us felt any compunction against madly hacking and stabbing these two women, for though one could not mistake their sex upon sight of those ripe melons and sweating pudenda, they evoked no sense of mercy or tenderness such as one might feel towards civilized women; rather, rage at the debasement of all that is gentle in womankind, and all that is moral in humanity. We struck madly at them, ignoring our wounds and desperate in our pain and anger.
Somewhere behind us the vile leader fell with an anguished crash, another of Tesla’s bolts stuck in his left eye. The women were wounded now, bleeding from deep cuts in belly and leg, when Sylvan came bursting through and past them, leaving a trail of blood behind. They fell to the ground with brief grunts of surprise and lay twitching as the Apocalyptic flicked blood off his knives onto their sagging breasts.
“Beasts all,” he grunted, uncharacteristically taciturn. Has an Apocalyptic ever spoken truer? With those simple words the battle ended.
We searched the long-house but found nothing. We then moved to the other long-house, removed the bar and dragged open the door. I pumped light into my splayer and we stepped inside to find two men chained and writhing on the floor. Tesla was about to rush forward to help them, but my firm patrician hand stopped her, as I declared, “Ware! Infestation!” All three turned to look slowly at the Mollusk on my upraised splayer, though they hardly needed to – in the harsh glow of the coldlight, the Mollusk’s frantic palpitations cast a fluttering pattern of shadows over all the walls of the long-house, a beat of cool light and threatening shadow that rippled over the faces of both doomed men.
My three colleagues stepped away from the prisoners. I took a half-step closer, enough to see that one was already half consumed with spores. Ronan stepped forward, kukhri raised, to deal a psychopath’s mercy. I stopped him with a wave of my arm. He would carry that infection through a thousand battles and back to the fortress of Justitian itself if he dealt his cool gift here. No, this was my gift to give. I turned and ushered them out. In the long-house I found a store of oil, which I scattered around the men and on the steep. In between waves of madness they looked out at me from bloodshot eyes, knowing too well that their inevitable fate had come. I barred the door.
There is much in the ruins of this world that must be burnt. The sun sank completely below the distant hills as we walked away from the village, plunging the whole world into cold darkness and silence – broken only by the fierce red light of the burning long-house, and the fiercer cries of the men who burnt within.
In time the cries sputtered out. We marched, and slept later, a sleep chased by nightmares of fire and disease. In the morning, bleary-eyed and sore, we broke camp early and marched north. No one spoke of the battle; the usual excitement of a fight won was submerged in the gruesome reality of the Cockroach clan’s dominance, and the distant threat of spores. Even here, so close to the protectorate? Someone would have to be told. Spitalians would come. Much would burn.
Towards evening we found the bunker. It was recessed in the slope of a small hill, shrouded in ferns and slightly back from the old path we followed, so that we almost missed it. In amongst the dripping ferns was a dark scar in the earth, and fresh piles of earth as if something had recently been pushed aside. Looking closer we saw the gaping hole in the earth, and the wide maw of an open gate, square, dark, inviting. The bunker was open. We had found it.
Genetics, secrets, blood. We did not hesitate, but plunged into the darkness.