Chapter 16: Torchlight Trigger

16

Drifter

Torchlight Trigger


“We’re old. You’re our future. We’re giving this world to you.” Luke “Drifter” Caldwell


They told Drifter to stay home, but he was never good at doing what he was told.

When his oldest boy hatched this plan, he wasn’t included. Bless his heart but ain’t no way he was gonna stay at the Homestead and let the young folk do the heavy lifting. Nope. Wasn’t gonna happen. After a load of convincing and threatening to go anyway, he managed to convince dear, worrying son let him at least help steal the Terracore. Taking stuff that wasn’t his was what he and his boys were good at. He agreed on one condition: for them to take the Hounds, Dane, and Bulldog with them. Drifter didn’t mind. It gave him the rare opportunity to show the young people that he wasn’t washed up. On the other hand, he heard something else a voice he hadn’t recognized in years haunted him. You can’t do this. You’re too old for this. Pack up and leave you old man. Stop tryin’ to be relevant. In a way, the young people coming with them gave him a little comfort to not mess this all up. Pride had always been what drew him to make bad decisions.

The Hounds, Big Thunder, Pastor, and himself had made it to the CEO building without much problem. The distraction gave them enough time to double back around to the back area and find a window on the other side to break into. A very helpful hill cut through the back of the spiraling building, half burying the first few floors under an ocean of sand and plants. Pit and Shepherd led the charge, breaking into one of the windows with the butt of their rifles. From there, they leaped into what appeared to be the second or third floor. Felt like a heist already.

Dane, Bulldog, and their father Shepherd and their grandfather Pit took lead, sweeping in the room with scary efficiency. They pawed from place to place, relying on their animal-like sense to navigate the dark room. The only source of light was Pit’s flashlight on the tip of his rifle. They sniffed the air, cleared the corners while making almost no sound despite being decked out with the most weapons outta all of them. They were hunters in every sense of the word. It was amazing how safe he felt. Safe. The word stung a little. He hadn’t even thought about his safety like that before. Drifter took a deep breath, deflating his puffed-up chest and finding solace in his revolver and his extra pistol. See. Washed up. Done let that droid take a little of your nerve. Drifter groaned at the truth of his own thoughts. There wasn’t fear without courage.

Drifter followed beside Pastor, Big Thunder at their rear. Drifter watched for anything outta place in this dark area. Every flash from the rifle’s light gave Drifter a small tale of the world they were trying to build here. There were old cubicles tucked into every space, now covered in plumes of ivy and flowers. Old, massive computers stood around them like markers of graves long forgotten to the sands of times. The more they walked, the less clean it got. Papers lied untouched on the ground, yellowed and crumbled into almost dust. From what he could read in the small chances he got talked about projects and stuff he didn’t quite understand. Appetite would’ve been much more interested in these things. Maybe they’ll come back for it.

“We’re not alone,” Pit whispered. “Tracks.”

Drifter saw the boot trends in the dust now, heading towards the stairs to the far in of the office space. There weren’t many of them from what he could tell. The Hounds whispered among themselves, discussing. After a while, the four convened they decided on a number. “There’s a few, much less than I thought,” Dane said, her smooth voice echoing softly in the ruins, “one’s a bit heavier than the rest. It’s probably the ‘borg.” She stooped down for a second, checking the tracks again. “From their formation, they know what they are doing.”

“Good to know. Good job.” Shepherd gave his daughter a small pat on the back. It was an odd show of affection for the Hounds. At least one good thing happened from all this. “Stay here. I’m gonna check out the stairs. Turn off the lights.”

“Don’t tell me what to do–”

“Listen to ’em, Buck.” Drifter cut in before his brother got all huffy. “We ain’t here to boss ’em around. Let ’em do it.”

Pit blinked his confusion. The dark gave his eyes a yellowish-green canine glow. He went to open his mouth to mutter somethin’ or another but stopped himself. There was the same struggle on his face that Drifter found himself dealing with lately. Time was moving forward around them. They wouldn’t have gotten this far without the younger people’s quick wit. Perhaps holding onto the metaphorical torch too long welded it to the old men’s fists. They need to let them take charge and sit back let them drive. Defeated, Pit deflated and took his position to cover his folks from afar. Shepherd and the two pups padded to the stairwell. The old men watched with bated breaths. Anything could be livin’ in there. Drifter squashed that thought before he took charge again. Old habits from old men died the hardest.

They made it there and back without a problem. Their expressions, through the dark shadow of the half-buried building, had changed. Dane’s already pale face lost any color that it might’ve had. Bulldog, poor kid, wretched on the ground. Their father dragged in what appeared to be a corpse or what was left of one. The massive winged creature was torn to piece as though shredded and crushed from the waist down. Entrails leaked from the side of the open wound in its stomach and a foul smell took to the air. “The whole stairwell is full of ’em,” Shepherd explained after a few coughs. “Tried to get the jump on the Major. Didn’t pan out.” He tossed the corpse down into the dusty floor, green blood leaking dangerous close their boots. Suppose we’re gonna have to get dirty one way or another if we’re gonna head up there. “They made a mess up there so ya gotta watch your step.”

Everyone gave a clean nod and followed them back to the stairwell, stepping over the grotesque creature.

They didn’t even make it to the door before the smell decked them. Drifter coughed, dug his nose into the folds of his shirt’s collar. The smell reminded him simultaneously of rotten garbage and cooking chitterlings. Shepherd cranked up the door to the stairwell with his shoulder and it only got worse. Pastor wheezed, choking down the contents of his stomach at the sight of what surrounded them. Bodies everywhere. Drifter had a hard time processing the devastation. He took some tentative steps forward, an uncomfortable amount of squish underfoot. From wall to wall, the leathery-winged creatures painted the walls and floor with their blood and gore. One man did this? He pushed the thought away. Evidence proved otherwise. Only one person had the sheer force needed without a single weapon mark on the walls. The ‘borg Major did this to ’em, probably without a second thought. Just doin’ his job. Killing in masses was different than sweeping a floor or cleaning or doing paperwork to men like him.

In a sick and twisted way, Drifter respect that. Didn’t seem much fun or that interesting but to each their own.

Big Thunder pushed through the corridor last, leaving the door open to at least let out some of the smell. Weapons drawn all around, they ascended through the mush and the smell. Big Thunder and himself took turns killing any mutant that managed to survive the initial onslaught. Simple slices to the neck or stabs to the temple put them down without so much as a hush. Thunder did his so clean that he never had to clean his knife. The new mechanical arm–a hobbled together from rusted metals and colored wires found in the typical Loner raider style–worked well for him. There were things that couldn’t be replaced. He lost a bit of his confident and self-sure demeanor. In its place was a hardness that Drifter only saw in Pit’s face from time to time, the shards of a self-pride forcedly hammered into determination. Drifter felt like the teenage kid in trying to find a smile in his newly found brothers and half-brothers. He’ll be the Bobby I know again one day. He needed some time.

Maybe by then, he would feel more like himself.

They climbed and climbed up the building.

Once they got through the trudge of the first few floors, the corpses begun to become rarer and rarer. By midway through the fifteenth floor and an enormous corpse of a mutant, they were in the clear. It came to them as a relief when the air returned to its standard quality of dust, mold, and staleness. Anything was better than trudging through the dead. It felt mighty disrespectful, all and all if he was gonna be honest with himself. Drifter put his knife away now, focusing only on his slick movements of their ascent. Up and up. The musk of an old building died away, leaving a freshness on his tongue Drifter hadn’t tasted before. Around about the nineteenth floor, the walls looked scrubbed clean white and floor wiped clean of any dust. Small green lines buzzed around them, flashing and circling like hundreds of fireflies during a cold night. Drones. Miniaturized drones. Luckily, their only functions seemed to be cleaning and building. Any matter of defense that small could’ve killed them before they had the chance to react. Or somebody cut the defenses off. Not a good feeling thinkin’ ’bout that.

They reached the top floor and stopped at the door exiting the stairwell. Shepherd leaned against the door, pressing his cheek against the thick, green metal. He shook his head. Nothing. One hand on his rifle and the other hand free, he opened the door to the main floor with a sharp creak. Drifter winced. He expected gunshots, the toil of battle sweeping through them. He expected an explosion or a trap, ready to take them out the moment they stepped foot in the door. Nothing. Still nothing. The Caldwells took a few cautious steps into a world long extinct.

They were met with a white glow of the building’s light mixed in with the harsh sunlight pouring in from the largest window Drifter had ever seen. There was carpet on the floor, apple red and just as fresh as though cleaned daily for years. There were glossy wooden bookshelves on every side, each lined with thick spined colored leather volumes from shelf to shelf. The walls, scrubbed as much as the upper stairwell floors, had paintings hung on them of landscapes of a now dead world millions of light years away. Seventy-two years wasn’t enough time to fathom the imagination of seeing the first world. He took another few steps forward into the massive office, guns raised.

A form sat behind the massive wooden desk, oddly empty in all this. He sat facing the window in the swivel chair, twisting back and forth. “Expansion’s always bloody. Humanity can never stand on a piece of land, sail an ocean, take to the stars without drawing lines around them and claiming it’s theirs,” the man said, his voice low and pensive. “It’s amazing how those lines become more important than the people in them.” The Bluecoat Major turned, leaning over the table. He scanned their group, frowned, and sighed. “You didn’t bring her. That’s a shame. It really is.”

Pit fired a spray of bullets. In a flash, faster than anything physically possible, Debenham brought up a grey light shield. The bullets tore apart the desk and everything around it, slamming and shattering the window to his back. One bullet stray bullet slipped by all the same and for a brief second, they thought that Pit got ’em. They could’ve have been more wrong. Debenham poked at a bullet in his palm, unamused by the very prospect of being shot. He had snatched it from the air. The ‘borg even laughed.

“You’re the bastard…you’re the bastard that killed my boy.”

“I am,” Major Debenham said, standing up with arms stretched out like he was gonna give them a hug. The bullet bounced off the ground. “I killed your boy. He attacked me–or at least tried to and I defended myself. You would’ve done the same without a second thought. Already have, actually.” The smaller man pressed his fingers against the bridge of his nose. “I may not look it, but I’m doing the best I can. There’re people that need this planet and they aren’t gonna feel safe with y’all around. It’s the truth. Tell me otherwise.”

They couldn’t. Or didn’t care to.

On some level, he was right, they were the bane of normalcy on this world. Plenty of men and women tried to set foot on C’dar; pirates, bandits, other smugglers, and vagrants of the galaxy. The Caldwell choose who they wanted on the planet and who they didn’t. After a time, they either left or in some case came to an agreement with them. They were the wolf pack in the forest, the rabid bears in the den by the road. If they were there, no colony here would be safe. Territorial at their best, monsters at their worst. It’s our planet though. Drifter puffed up his chest out, stepping forward again ready for a fight. “This is our land. You ain’t gonna have it. You ain’t gonna have nothin’. You’re gonna leave here on your own or in pieces, ya bastard.”

Major Debenham’s laugh died. “Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been in pieces.”

What came next sounded like a boom of thunder. One minute, he was sitting in his chair, the next he was a step away fist raised. Drifter tried to react but found himself, the Hounds, and Big Thunder yanked weightlessly into the air. Drifter felt the odd pressure for a second brief second before being pushed again, landing and crashing near the bookshelves. Drifter blinked away tears of pain of pain. His head spun and swam in his skull. What happened….oh. Pastor had moved them out of the way.

Pastor pushed forward with both hands, arms bulging from the force and thick purple tumors bubbling on his skin. He forced the Major back, step by step, the air and space around them buckling. More and more, he pushed, forcing him back and to the ground. The Major’s boots dug deep into the thick red carpet, tearing through it with his weight. His metal legs hissed steam and groaned from the pressure. Still, he moved. Still, he kept forward like a train unable to stop. Blood oozed from his brother’s nose as he tried to keep him back. He couldn’t keep this up. The strain would be too much at his age. He couldn’t do this alone. None of them could alone. “Let ’em go, Monty! Let ’em go now.”

And like that he did.

Big Thunder tackled his Pastor out of the way and out of the way of the charging ‘borg. Debenham slammed into the wall behind them, bursting through it without losing any speed. They heard his body slamming through wall after wall like a pissed bull trying to gore a rival. If they were lucky, he would’ve killed himself with that dumb move. It bought them some time at least. They huffed and puffed for a while, recovering from the sheer adrenaline that surged through their body. Drifter took this time to get his bearings, helping his brothers to their feet. “That’s one crazy ‘borg,” Drifter said, huffing. “Notice he doesn’t have a gun or a grenade or nothin’.”

“The thought had struck me,” Big Thunder said, huffing. “Whatcha think we should do?”

Drifter looked around. There was a corridor to the far end of the room. The Terracore must’ve been over there as well as the rest of the Major’s unit. “Bobby, Buck, Monty, Spencer go get that core. Me and the Hounds can handle the ‘borg.”

“You sure ’bout this, Luke.” Pastor wiped the blood from his now disfigured face. “I ain’t seen nothing like him before.”

“The best chance we got is to hold that Core over his head. Whatever’s holding ’em up might not be for long. Besides Dane and Bulldog got my back and Shepherd got yours. Trust the young people. It’s their future, let them hold it for once.”

The young ones sprang into action without another question. The old boys took a bit to process it. Their best chance for this to work was to split up, take the Core if they could, and run off. No one liked the idea of holding off that smiling ‘borg but somebody had to do it. Shepherd dragged his father and his uncles out of the CEO room and to the back corridor, guns raised, leaving Drifter alone with the two young Caldwells that might’ve started this whole thing. Drifter couldn’t blame ’em in hindsight. He only wished that it didn’t cost them a brother to learn that lesson. Those were the toughest, but they had learned. Those scars left a hardness in Bulldog and Dane. They needed to stand off with this man or they will never live it down. In the end, it was their fight as much as his. Drifter unslung his revolver from his hip and tossed it to Dane. “Keep it safe, shoot when you can. Try not to shoot your ol’ unc in the back, ‘lright.”

Drifter took a step forward, hearing Major Debenham’s approached through the broken wall. He let in a deep breath. This one’s gonna hurt. Resting his tense muscles as best he could, he allowed coarse through him. Clothes and bandages ripped apart from his body. His bones cracked and sputtered underneath his skin, ripping open wounds and burns. He howled, roared, thrashed as he expanded. He felt himself fill the room, his body smashing through the bookcases and tearing paintings from the wall. He won’t have another. He can’t have another. Willing himself, he stepped forward, his massive lizard body only half covered by the black exoskeleton. Splatters of blood splashed onto the ground, but he managed to stay upright and conscious. He huffed, long lizard tongue sweeping on the ground. The taste of fabric came as a relief after all that.

“There’s my monster,” Debenham shouted from the wreckage. He ducked through the hole he made, white dust all over that fancy blue coat and fancy gold leaf insignia. His sleeves and legs were ripped to the elbows and knees, revealing his massive, sleek metal limbs. “I was wondering when you would show me. My, you’re a big one. Looks like Dr. Eorthorn’s Daedel DNA research hasn’t gone completely extinct. The scientist will have a field day with cutting you up.”

“I ain’t letting you go and I ain’t going anywhere.” Drifter slammed his massive claws into the ground.

“Let.” The Major gave his signature laugh, warm and fuzzy like the sound of a favorite uncle laughing at a little kid’s joke. “Let, it makes it sound like you have a choice in the matter.”

Drifter heard ’em coming this time and reacted. He flung up his tail. The ‘borg’s speeding fist slammed against him, coming to a cold stop. Drifter swiped at him with a claw, missing his now small form by an inch. He was fast. Faster than anything he had seen before. His size should’ve been a strength in a small area. Turns out, it was another thing that the Major could use against him. His sped around, blow after blow with his fist. The Major didn’t have a weapon ’cause he was a weapon. He felt the punches growing in strength with every strike. All he could do was watch and learn and understand. Everything had its limit. Predators filled their bellies or went home hungry if they hadn’t learned. Watch ’em. Give them an opening. Surprise ’em.

Major Debenham ducked to his right, jumping off the wreckage of the bookshelf with a small burst from an odd device on his calf. He came in hard blasting him with a powerful punch to the stomach. Drifter felt the pain rippling through his body, steeling himself to stay upward. The Major didn’t let up. He hopped up and down, his arms bursting with small whistles as he came blows with a beast much taller than him–but cramped into a small space. Up. Punch. Down. Jump. Over and over. Drifter watched, eyes watering from the pain. Now. He slashed with his claws in a wide arc, swatting the man out of the air and then catching him with his tongue. He pulled them towards him.

He never had the taste for eating people. Didn’t have the stomach for it. Didn’t mean that he wouldn’t if he had to.

The Major, for the first time, lost his smile. He squirmed and writhed in the grip of Drifter’s slimy tongue. The acid from his saliva ate away at the Major’s exposed legs, melting the metal with every second. Fear rose in those deceptively kind eyes. Soon it was replaced by a cold, rationality. Seconds before he reached Drifter’s teeth, he rose up one of his arms. It opened. Dang. It was too late for Drifter to react. All he saw was a bright light and a pain like nothing he ever felt before shooting through his left eye. Drifter howled, topping over and losing all grip on the Major’s leg. He heard the man crash to the ground. Didn’t care really. The pain was far too great to find a single care in the whole dang galaxy.

“And the recruits thought my arm cannon was dumb. Told them all those video games were good for ya.”

Drifter growled at the man’s jovial words. He focused on the man’s weary footsteps instead. The acid on his leg did its work. The clunk on his walk heavily favored one side, meaning he couldn’t jump or run as he had before. Effectively he was crippled. Whether for a short time or a long time, it didn’t matter. Well. It mattered a little bit. He didn’t need his legs to incinerate him with a laser from afar. “Time’s up, old boy,” he heard the Major say. He choked down the pain from his bleeding, dead eye and focused on the sounds and smells. His heavy footsteps, favoring one leg. His cheerful voice. His thick breathing. A light hum. This was gonna be the end if he didn’t do something. His good eye, blurry for the pain radiating in his skull, caught the sight of the blue light again. Angry electricity snapped and crackled. This was gonna be it. This was gonna be the end if he didn’t act now. Y’think you got me, boy. Think again.

He whipped his long tongue, spraying an entire arc of bright green acid. The Major yelped, having no choice but to block as best he could. He danced back, the acid eating away at his arm and shoulder, melting through his uniform and burning what skin he hadn’t replaced with metal.  All offense was lost in that second. That was all they needed. The opening that they were looking for. “Open up on ’em!”

Drifter flattened himself, moving a bit. The opening from him to the other half of the CEO building wasn’t much, but the Hounds knew how to use cover when it was given. The shot through the small gap, bullets grazing so close he could feel their heat. No shield this time; too late for that. Drifter watched as dozens of bullets from the rifles and pistols torn into him. Shot after shot, bullet after bullet until their clips were gone. Half melted, half riddled with holes, he remained standing. One of his eyes glowed an intense blue as he cocked his head, as though confused for a second. That confusion soon dissolved into the purest and rawest level of primal hate.

The bastard was still alive.

The robotic zombie craned his head and laughed. The sound was chilling, robotic and human blended together. At times, it sounded fake and clipped; other times, it sounded real and rich. Electricity buzzed and snapped around him. Blood oozed from the burns on his skin. Drifter didn’t know how, didn’t want to know how, but the bastard was alive even with a bullet hole right in between his brows. “You thought that was gonna kill me. Any of that.” He laughed harder and heard until he lost all human in his voice. “Die now.”

And with that he was on them and in that moment, he thought they were all dead. He remembered only the shattering of glass and a bright red light rocketing in front of them. Ooh…you. A smile crept on his face. Standing in front of her family wrapped in red flames stood Kindle, a spear in one hand and Coal in the other. She pressed the Major back with a wide swing from her purple tipped lance. She hadn’t looked the same. It only had been a few weeks, not even a month maybe and somehow time changed her. She stood a bit prouder, she looked a bit weathered and hard. She had seen things, knew things now. But she came. She came to save them and look the dang part.

“You ain’t takin’ no one else, Major.”

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