“What’s the fucking time-stamp on that picture? Does anyone know?”
The image staggered and jumped – overlaid with a static-fuzz, the jump-suited soldiers were barely visible, flicking in and out of phase with the shadows of the jungle. Had they realised that the mech was dead? He certainly hoped not.
“Janice! Janice! Get down in the turret now! And somebody go and bloody warn the others!” Was it too late? Shit, he hoped not.
The image looped, in his peripheral vision, over and over and over again. There were kids inside the factory – sure, they’d done their best to make it seem decrepit, had pumped a slurry of sewerage and grey water and algae into the roof to dampen their heat signatures, to hide from the drifting satellites, hangovers from before the war was won. From before the world was lost. There were kids inside the factory. That was why it was soldiers, this time, not drones or tanks. Infantry. Quislings, they’d already adjusted to the new regime, they’d already betrayed their own species.
“Yeah, we get it Phil, they’re bastards.” He heard Janice, cutting through the static in their old-fashioned walkies. He hadn’t realised he’d been talking aloud. “Have you got a visual on ’em yet?” She pedalled the belly-mounted turret around, the little plas-steel bubble rotating on the jerry-rigged bicycle chain – electricity was at a premium, and the settlement’s air-purifiers, waste-recyclers and water-pumps were more important than the old war machine that quietly rusted outside it. Most of the time. That was why the mech’s cameras weren’t set to be always recording, why they were motion-activated, why they didn’t have a goddamn time-stamp. Wearily he fingered the connection code, powering up the mech’s weapons systems, imagining the sudden, hushed silence inside the factory building as the lights faded and parents snatched up frightened children, or grabbed some antique piece of weaponry. Bolt-action .22 rifles, bows and arrows – they might as well be carrying clubs.
But even a B.B. gun was better than nothing. There were gaps, weak spots in those armoured jump-suits, around the eyes and the joints. Thank Christ for the secret, underground organisations, of doomsday prophets and nutty Christian survivalists. Without them there’d be no tinned foods, no bottled water, no ammunition. No survival.
The bugs had never bothered too much with the rogue settlements – the jungles were outside their habitable zone, they preferred the cold, high deserts, like the Atacama, the Gobi and the Antarctic plains. Which was how they managed to get settled in, no-one went and checked out the flaming crash landings. Meteorites fizzed into the atmosphere all the time, and if they landed somewhere inaccessible, somewhere far from cities or farms…well, who cared? Humanity had just breathed a collective sigh of relief, and wondered how they’d slipped through the ring of satellites all looking outward, counting pebbles in the vacuum. Why hit the rogue settlements now? And why with men, carrying stun-guns and handcuffs? It was simple, really. They needed to enlarge the breeding pool, they were just trying to encourage a little bit of genetic diversity.
He heard the drone of the gunner’s nest powering up, the whisper of the rail-guns, the bark of lumps of uranium-enriched tungsten breaking the sound barrier. He heard Janice cursing, spitting profanities that he didn’t know she knew as the guns kicked into life and dealt out death. She was only fourteen – his little girl. But he couldn’t stop her from calling him Phil, couldn’t stop her from trying to catch the tails of the window lizards, couldn’t stop her from sneaking out into the forest without her respirator or his rifle.
The spider’s eyes lenses of the cameras drew the black-armoured soldiers into sharp relief against the green-grey-red foliage of the jungle, painting them with the computer’s targeting lasers.
It was all the invisible, untouchable satellites needed, as their own computers locked onto the signal, and the drones ghosted their paths high above the battlefield.
There was a flash of light, which blinded the cameras and the crippled legs of the mech collapsed in a shower of rust flakes and torn, screaming steel.
They took the settlement, without much more resistance.