THE CITY (part 1: Gizmo)
THE sound of the river was louder than usual. Leah awoke to a loud “crack!” as a floating plank splintered against a rock. She sprang awake, alert! Glancing around her, the nearby river was already obscured by the morning fog-dust as the sun began to rise. Sunrise and sunset were usually the only times the sun could be seen throughout the day. Leah remembered stories of the fogs that would rise many generations ago. They were said to be colorless and easier to see through. They wouldn’t rise so high to blot out the sky, and they weren’t swirling flakes in shades of orange and deep purple.
Very near her, she could just make out the bushes carved in a five feet radius from where she lay. She let her head clear, took a deep breath, and honed her senses like she’d been trained to do. Letting her breath out slowly, Leah opened her eyes. Despite this “fog” actually being more like a dusting of flakes, she still experienced a significant increase in vision. Even if the fog were the kind one could see through, she’d still have a notable advantage over non-augmented people.
Her perception increased to more than 120ft around her. She perceived the colors more vividly; was more aware of depth and distance. The subtleties of the dust’s swirling patterns revealed themselves to her more readily. Reading them, she could easily perceive the locations of objects in her vicinity; especially moving ones.
Leah squinted her eyes and stilled her heartbeat. The river seemed even louder now, and she could hear the collisions of myriad twigs and branches. Somewhere upstream, a tree had been cut to pieces and fallen into the river. A harvester was nearby; meaning there was also a crew of ill-tempered foresters operating it. She couldn’t hear any sign of them now, and so she decided they were probably far enough away for her to make an unmolested escape.
She’d slept under a short blanket that resembled the forest floor. She stood and gave it a few good shakes before folding it and checking her inventory. There were no signs of creeping opportunists or curious night forest creatures; it seemed she’d made it through the night undisturbed. Tucking the blanket under one arm, Leah took a quick inventory of the pouches and pockets on her person.
She resisted the urge to peer into the small sack attached to her utility belt. Doing so would unleash a light so radiant, it would demolish any chance she’d have of getting back into the city undetected. Leah would have to be satisfied fingering the sack for the jagged contours of the brown stone inside.
A person from her social order would have been fitted with various augments from youth. She had some that enhanced her physical abilities in concentrated bursts, but Leah’s augments were focused on her senses and perception, making her a specialist of recon and surveillance. That was very unusual for a person of her “social standing”.
She focused her optical receptors to detect infrared waves and began scanning the looming fog around her. The river was on her left, and the rising sun at her back. To her right, about 20 meters away, she saw the glow of two purple, cat-like eyes staring in her direction. “Gizmo”, she whispered, and the eyes began to move directly toward her.
They seemed to be squinted, those eyes, like a predator, silently stalking prey. As they approached, Leah enjoyed the momentary infrared streak that they left in their wake. They bobbed and swayed as if attached to a saber-toothed tiger, creeping closer in preparation to pounce. Leah took two steps towards them before they did.
The eyes seemed to be drawn up suddenly by some unseen tractor beam before falling again only a few meters away and staring at her. The swirling dust suggested that the thing had just evaded some ravine or chasm. Leah leaped into the air. Aided by her augments, she easily cleared a full meter and a half vertical. The thing spun, its eyes now closer to her, but facing away. She landed on Gizmo’s back and righted herself comfortably before whispering, “Koster”.
Gizmo lunged once before bounding over the unseen chasm and taking off with silent speed. They cleared a few brushy patches before the thing began an ascent of a bushy hill. The few trees here were incredibly massive with long thick branches. Gizmo leaped further and further upward, bounding between high branches until Leah was able to see briefly over the fog. The top layer of the dusty stuff was orange and warm.
Peering over the top, Leah was met with the intense rays of Sun’s light. She’d been concerned that she’d overslept but was now reassured. The fog thickly blanketed the Earth, and she expected to reach the city while it was still high morning. Leah had rarely approached the city from due west, but she could make out the tall spires in the distance and estimated that Gizmo’s speed would get her there inside of an hour.
They began their descent, coming down the other side of the hill, and Leah ducked close to Gizmo to avoid low-hanging branches. They cleared the forest wall onto a wide clearing at the bottom of the hill, where the fog was higher now and Gizmo’s body was visible beneath it. The thing’s chrome skeleton reflected the orange and purple hues refracted by the dust as Gizmo’s body contracted in a quadrupedal fashion. A long, nearly prehensile tail oscillated vertically behind it and its massive head housed the HUD Leah had grown accustomed to.
Gizmo was a quattour: a vehicle designed to operate like a four-legged animal. This particular model was equipped for exploration and excavation. It had 2 small-yield rocket launchers in its forelegs and two plasma cutters in its hind legs. The tip of the tail housed a revlight: an energy cannon that could be “tuned” to emit a laser beam at varying intensities.
“Plasma cutter” was a misnomer for an energy field used to slice through solid objects. Gizmo’s had an impressive 3-meter reach and 160-degree spread. They could cut through just about anything, except Gizmo’s tail which was encased in latium (a metal developed specifically for working with plasma cutters.
Leah knew none of this when she selected Gizmo’s model. She chose it because she thought it was cute and because it was one of the last models available to her. It was sitting in a corner, curled up and covered with lavender, brown, and gray fur designed to resemble the coat of a calico cat. Because Leah spent most of her time in the streets and slums, she’d stripped the fur and most of the luxurious parts away until the quattour was little more than a skeletal shell of a vehicle.
The quattour wasn’t much to look at, but Leah knew Gizmo’s secret lay in its mind-core; or “cortex” as the crafters called it. The mechanical portion was merely a shell, but the cortex gave it functionality and …personality? Leah had been given the mind-core as a gift upon graduation from scout training. She didn’t even have a shell for it at the time but was assured it was one of the very best mind-cores she could have received.
Not being one for imaginative names, Leah named the quattour Gizmo, much to the ridicule of her contemptuous peers. Together, Gizmo’s mind-core and shell made one of Leah’s most useful tools. Because of it, she was able to make frequent trips out of town, including the occasional reconnaissance mission. What she was coming back from now, however, was nothing like that and she deliberated over whether or not she would tell anyone what she had been up to.
The lower gates of the city were coming into view as Gizmo approached with incredible speed. The gates were 2 huge slabs of dingy gray stone affixed to hinges and pulleys. As Leah drew nearer, the stone slabs began to swing open. She was a frequent enough traveler that the gate guards knew her well. Two of them were standing just inside the entrance with the rifles, and when she was near enough, they stepped to either side of the entrance to make way for her. Gizmo slowed to a trot as she entered, and as the gate behind her began to close, she made a slow circle, waving at a cordial greeting to all those manning the city portico.
This is my first web-published story. Please let me know what you think in the comments below. To get the bi-weekly chapters I send out, just click here.
Special Author’s Note
This is where I started to get excited about this story. Lukas and David’s chapter was a prelude to the real misdirection in this story. This is the chapter where I introduce the real hero of the story but the whole chapter is from Leah’s perspective. I knew Leah would likely be the story’s main antagonist, and that her POV would be looking at other menacing characters as the “greater” antagonists.
The revelation of Leah as the bad guy would happen gradually while David’s story would set him up as Gizmo’s secondary protagonist. That didn’t pan out exactly as I’d predicted. While people came to accept Gizmo as a protagonist, I think most people still regarded Leah as the main protagonist at the end of the story. I think that’s mainly because the story is told mostly from her perspective. Most of David’s story is told from “the-watcher-in-the-sky’s” perspective and even Gizmo’s story develops through Leah’s eyes.
I attempted the tricky feat of having a primary hero described only through other character’s interactions while inhabiting a role that seems like a natural secondary/helper character at best. Having read through the whole story several times, I don’t think even Leah ever realizes that much of what’s happened has really been according to Gizmo’s wishes.