FE Fiction: What’s Inside?

Here’s a short piece of fiction I wrote during development of Fallen Earth about an early “rerun” emerging from a LIFENET pod:

This time, Mitchell France would make it. He was sure of it.

He’d been stopped a dozen times before. The guards hanging around outside the smooth stone bunker on the fringe of Depot 66 never let him get much closer than the steps leading down under the rusty metal LIFENET sign toward the tantalizing closed doors. Black Hood Gang thugs, the guards answered to Bad Jack Badham, and apparently the word from Bad Jack was no one entered the bunker, no way, no how.

But it was dark now. The genny was out. Lyle Dundy was hoofing it to Oilville to top off a can of gasoline to get it up and running again. Mitchell peered into the inky shadows of the west, toward the cluster of bright lights on the horizon that signified the impressive hulk of the Tech town. Like as not, Dundy’d be gone for hours. The armbenders were in a lull between shifts, with just a few on watch, spread over an acre of dusty scrabble and scrub surrounding the bunker.

He crouched low, moving through the stalks of desert grass as quietly as he could in badly patched leather boots. The soles flopped and made soft thwipping noises every once in a while. He spied an armbender turning to glance his way and dropped to his belly. His stomach growled, with nary a wind gust or a creaking gallows to mute it. Mitchell hadn’t had a decent full meal in more than a week. Instead, he had gotten by on purloined Enforcer rations that had been intended for Zanesville. They didn’t taste so bad if you washed them down with warm chicken beer, but Mitchell never ate much and never felt full. And his stomach growled again.

The armbender took a couple of steps toward Mitchell’s location, but stopped as he caught sight of a figure bearing a torch walking out of the wastes to the north. A bulky, bronze-skinned man with a thick head of blond hair emerged from the shadows to greet the guards: Brock Dundy, the famous older brother of gas-fetcher Lyle. Brock had slung the chitinous exoskeleton of a dead giant scorpion over his left shoulder and carried in his right hand a red-striped hockey stick that had been accessorized with old rusty sawblades. The scorpion hunter always got a warm greeting when he returned from a successful kill.

“Brock!” called the armbender who no longer seemed interested in the mutterings of Mitchell’s digestive tract. The other two thugs heard their comrade shout the name and closed on the celebrity and his latest catch.

“Rico,” Mitchell whispered with a grin. Normally luckless, almost always a failure at any endeavor, he felt a surge of confidence at this turn of events. Mitchell didn’t waste any time. He got to his feet and trotted the last fifteen feet to the concrete steps.

Before he could make the descent into the waiting embrace of the subterranean shadows and whatever glorious treasure awaited within the bunker, however, fortune seemed to remember who it was favoring and decided not to make a habit of it. The bright white lights blazed to life, exposing Mitchell to view for anyone to see. He hadn’t made it down two steps when the muzzle of the armbender’s baby boomer pressed into his back, through the fabric of his ratty camo jacket.

“Mitchie, baboso, you want me to burn powder?” the Black Hood thug asked.

The last thing Mitchell wanted was a two-tapping to make for the worst hair day ever. He put his empty hands in the air. “I ain’t that lop-eared,” he said.

“Good,” the thug said. “Hate to send you to the big sleep just because you’re too metiche for your own good. But Bad Jack, he says even the biggest **** can be a chulo, you turn ’em out right.”

“Bad Jack knows who I am?” Mitchell looked pole-axed by the prospect as he turned to face the guard and saw it was a man he knew as Reggie. “Hijole!”

“He knows, si,” the armbender confirmed. “That can be good. That can be very bad. Ven aca, shit. Don’t make Bad Jack know who you are for the wrong reasons. You want him thinkin’ you’re worth as much as hip pockets on a hog, not useful as a chocolate kettle. Rico?”

“Rico,” Mitchell agreed. “Chido. I’ll just head back to my shack and be as happy as a sandworm in soft dirt.”

About this time, the other two guards wandered over with Brock to join their companion. Reggie shucked his baby boomer and gave Mitchell a pat on the shoulder. “Mitchie’s on his way home. Got a little catty whompus, but he’s still above snakes, right?”

Another nod, and then Mitchell turned to walk toward town. He wasn’t five feet from the steps before he heard – before they all heard and felt – the deep thrumming of machinery coming from inside the bunker.

“Demonios!” shouted one of the other two armbenders.

Reggie knitted his brow, unshucked the pistol again, and told his companions and Brock Dundy to wait while he descended the steps, through the doors, and into the unknown.

“The genny’s out of gas,” Mitchell muttered. What was running the lights? What was making the noise?

A few minutes later, the sound grew fainter. The doors opened and Reggie emerged, shucking the pistol in a leather holster after three tries. His eyes were wide and startled-looking, like a calf staring at a new gate.

“Que pasa?” Brock asked the armbender.

Reggie pointed at Mitchell. “Baboso! Go fetch Doc Haskins. Arre!”

“You sick, Reggie?” Mitchell asked.

“Tengo monos en la cara?!” Reggie snapped. “Go. Fetch. Haskins!”

His boot soles flopped, kicking up dust in the chill darkness as Mitchell France jogged from the strange bunker and down the main shanty row leading into the town of Depot 66. Curious eyes followed Mitchell on his course up the street and around the corner to the ramshackle old building used for Pat Haskins’ medical practice. Mitchell preferred to deal as little as possible with gutfussers of all kinds, but he suffered his most keening discomfort when dealing with a condescending maleton like Haskins.

He pounded on the door three times. “Doc!” Mitchell shouted. “Ven aca! Reggie needs you over at that Lifenet bunker! Arre!”

The door opened and Mitchell found himself looking at the balding, gray-haired man who kept people alive in Depot 66, mostly so he could lord it over their heads every chance he got. Clad in a tattered black bathrobe over a blue T-shirt and khaki trousers, and mismatched blue and red slippers, he blinked sleepily at his visitor. “Mitchell France. You’re overdue for a checkup. I’ve got a speculum handy. Fairly certain it was clean at some point.”

“Not here for me, Doc,” Mitchell insisted. “Here for Reggie. Somethin’ big goin’ on at that weird bunker. Shit!”

“I believe you,” Haskins said. He seemed increasingly engaged as it sunk in that the matter had something to do with the Lifenet bunker. For decades, that strange place had just been nothing, done nothing. All anyone ever knew was: No one went in without strict authorization. Mitchell France had been obsessed with getting in because people always tried to stop him. Pat Haskins, on the other hand, well – he was the kind of fellow who maybe didn’t mind digging up more snakes than he could kill. “Come on, then.”

It wasn’t long before they stood with Reggie, Brock, and the other two armbenders. More townsfolk, having seen that none other than Doc Haskins had taken an interest in the situation, had started to clump around the perimeter like so many fresh-dumped prairie cookies.

“Ven aca, Doc,” Reggie said. He led Haskins down into the bunker. They both vanished through the doors.

“You got any idea what’s down there, huevon?” Brock asked Mitchell. He dropped the dead scorpion shell in a clattering heap at Mitchell’s feet.

Mitchell shrugged. “Nope.”

The doors opened again, shoved outward by Reggie as he led Doc Haskins – and someone else – out of the bunker. A young woman, it seemed, with long dark hair and pale skin. Haskins had wrapped his old robe around her. As she passed under the exuberant glow of the bunker’s external lights, Mitchell caught a glimpse of something circling her neck: A metal collar affixed with small blinking telltales.

“Que cajada,” Mitchell muttered.

“Make way!” Haskins shouted, pushing his way past Dundy, the other armbenders, and the growing contingent of curious townsfolk.

Reggie stopped next to Mitchell, scratching the back of his head as he watched the sawbones spirit the mysterious woman away from the bunker. “Right now, I feel about as confused as a CHOTA with a calculator.”

“What’s goin’ on?” Mitchell asked. “Who’s the girl?”

“The girl?” Reggie sighed, shaking his head. “I reckon she’s just the beginnin’.”

“Of what?”

The thrumming kicked in again, briefly dimming the lights before they flared anew. “Shit,” Reggie grunted. “I wish I knew.