Free Verse: Broken Oz

Hmm, I think I have a new D&D campaign setting idea to flesh out.

Bel Izeard

The golden road stretches out,
It’s lost its luster.
The world is now more menacing,
No more prancing Munchkins.
While the Wicked Witch is dead,
The land is now left fallow.
The magic died with the witches
Even Glinda passed on, eventually.
Past heroes are now lost legends,
And winged monkeys rule the sky.
The countries vie for dominance,
Of the Lands of Oz.
But hope for the future,
Now walks the faded brick road.
The granddaughter of her hero,
Seeks the grave of the wizard.
Professor Marvel had a science secret,
That will restore Oz’s lost glory.
But another will challenge her,
The grandson of the Lion—
A war chief who has his own plans,
To unite Oz under his rule.
And somewhere,
An ancient Rusted Golem,
Broods motionlessly on a Throne of Tin.
A broken sword lays at his feet.
Will they be rivals,
Or heroes together,
Against…

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Wastewalker: Book One, Chapter Seven

Day Two, 10:15 A.M. MST
“They all sound demented,” Halo tones with a touch of static. The AI does not like Tryphon’s other options for allies. “How can you ask me to trust them?”

“What choice do you, does the world have, Halo?” Tryphon replies. Since waking, he’s spent the last several hours telling Halo about his friends strengths and weaknesses. Before the protocols, he would have lied his ass off, but he knows there is too much at sake now. “I know they’re oddballs and fanatics, but they’re the only ones I feel we can trust right now.”

“I’ll give you Balfour,” Halo replies. “For a Restorationist, he sounds somewhat stable, but his partner Raiden is obviously a lunatic. He must not be allowed into this vault without considerable safeguards. A cage at the very least.”

“Okay, I agree we can’t just let Raiden in here without some security, but Balfour will never allow us to put his partner in a cage! Not even I would wish that on him!”

“It is not up for debate and neither is the one you call Kainan,” Halo responds stubbornly. “He cannot go through the protocols, and you cannot trust him to not sell you out for his own sexual needs.”

Tryphon had to give Halo that one. Maybe once Kainan realizes the danger, he can be brought more into the loop, but Tryphon knows that Kainan can’t be trusted with the location of the vault. He could be useful for spreading false rumors, and his skill as a mechanic is top notch, for a wastelander. Tryphon shakes his head, as he realizes that he’s not a true wastelander any longer. The protocols have changed him too much. ‘I’m going to have to be very careful what I say and think around purebreds and mutates alike’, he considers. ‘One stray thought caught by a powerful Esper and I’ll be lizard-meat’.

Tryphon never liked telepaths, which is why he reacted so strongly to Halo being able to read his mind. Of course, that connection had more to do with the protocols and several implanted chips in his head and spine than with true telepathy. And without those cybernetic enhancements, he’d have died during the protocols. Its why the process would likely kill a non-human; the cybernetics are designed for human physiology.

“Okay, I’ll give you Kainan, for now, but you have to let me bring in Kyleigh,” Tryphon knows he’ll need her with him and Balfour for this mission.

“Now you are being led by your sexual needs,” Halo counters. “She is a liability to you. How am I supposed to trust that you won’t put your feelings for her before the mission?”

“You can’t,” Tryphon replies. “But you can trust that she won’t let sentimentality sway her judgment. Yes, I love her, and I often prayed that her feelings for me were as strong as mine. I know now that they aren’t, and I’ll have to learn to live with it.”

“She is still a thief and a killer,” Halo insists. “From what you’ve told me, she only loves wealth and with such an obsession it will eventually lead to a love for power. Power corrupts absolutely.”

“You’re being over-dramatic, and she’s less a thief and more a tracker. She can follow tracks better than anyone I know, and she only kills when there is no other recourse. Yes, she has a temper but that comes into play when others lie to her. If I don’t bring her in on this mission and she finds out later, it will go very badly. She holds grudges, so trust me when I say we don’t want her on the other side.”

The AI doesn’t respond for several minutes before replying. “If I let her and Balfour in, you will agree to keep the other two out,” Halo insists.

“For now, yes,” Tryphon agrees, partially. “And if we decide to bring Raiden in, I’ll agree to some sort of restraint but not a cage with bars. He’ll freak out. We’ll need to ease him in somehow.”

“I will consider it after meeting your brother, the ursine,” Halo agrees. “We will have to debate more about Kainan at a later time. You’ll need to leave the vault soon. I’m sure your bear-kin friend is already looking for you.”

“On that, we can wholeheartedly agree,” Tryphon replies. ‘It’s a start’, he thinks.

“Also, that your father can never learn the truth about me or the vault,” Halo insists loudly.

“Oh, there is no way I’d ever tell him about you or this place,” Tryphon adds. “He’s an evil bastard who sold his own parents and killed several rival siblings. If I ever see him again, I won’t give him the chance to learn the truth. A quick death is all I owe him.”

Halo’s only response is silence.

“Don’t worry,” Tryphon tries to assure his AI friend. “I’m not going to go looking for him to settle old scores. It’s not worth the risk.” He pauses but Halo still remains silent. “M543 wants to give me another checkup before I start going through the archives again for more intel. I’m off to get scanned and prodded. We’ll talk some more later before I leave, okay?”

“As you wish,” Halo intones.

Tryphon knows that Halo doesn’t like to talk about death or killing. The thought of all life being snuffed out on Earth scares the AI. So, hearing Tryphon speak of murdering another sentient in cold blood obviously makes Halo uncomfortable. Tryphon tries not to think about it as he walks through the facility to the wing with the medical bay.

“M543, let’s get this over with. I have a world to try to save,” Tryphon says when he sees the MedBOT. ‘And maybe my own soul, if I even have one’.

The MedBOT closes the door behind Tryphon as he enters the medical bay.

* * *

Day Three, 9:00 A.M. MST
M543 puts Tryphon through hell. He gives him a full physical and does every sort of blood work and medical test possible within a twelve hour period. The MedBOT barrages him with mental images and old world data to make sure Tryphon won’t suffer another multimedia schism. By the end of the day, Tryphon is so wiped out, all he can do is find and crawl into his bunk and crash for the rest of the night. While he sleeps, he dreams of the Ancients and their world, as well as his friends and the trials they’ve faced together in their short lives. When he finally wakes, he feels like he’s faded out of his old life and into a new one that could either get him killed or could save the Earth.

“How are you feeling today, Mr. Tryphon?” A feminine bot-voice asks him as it brings up the lights slowly. “I trust you slept soundly?”

“Good morning I4-66,” Tryphon says to the robotic attendant—another bot, another nickname. “I slept fine, although my dreams were intense.”

“Dreaming is healthy,” I4-66 replies. “It means you reached REM sleep. I will send M543 a medical update.”

“Great,” Tryphon sighs. ‘Please, no more tests. I can’t take any more’.

“Halo has given permission for you to reenter the archives and plan your strategy for the mission ahead,” I4-66 adds. “I will let you undress, clean yourself, and change into your gear. It is laid out over on the table. Most of it is brand new, but we have tried to make it look weathered. We have not altered the weapons, however.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Tryphon replies. “I’ll take care of making them look right for the wastes. Tell Halo I’ll be at the archives in an hour or so.”

“Do you wish anything to eat?”

“I’ll get it myself, thanks.”

“As you wish,” I4-66 tones merrily before exiting the bunk room.

Tryphon strips and showers. The waves of the sonic shower feel good on his skin. He’ll miss being clean back out in the wastelands. He looks at himself in the glitchy holo-projector. He is even beginning to look like an Ancient. The bots had shaved his beard and cut his hair when they had brought him into the facility. The bots also cleaned out several old wounds that never quite healed right and pumped tons of medicines into his system including powerful antitoxins that cured him of what Halo had called ‘a mild case of radioactive poisoning’. He knows he now has nanobots floating in his bloodstream, which will give him a huge advantage over others. He isn’t just smarter than he was before; he is also stronger too. He can probably go toe-to-claw with Raiden in a fight but likely not against Balfour.

Tryphon looks over the gear on the table. He can immediately tell what is new and what is old. That won’t do. If he can tell, his friends will be able to as well. He works for several hours to make everything look worn and rusted. The weapons are the hardest to alter. He takes them to a nearby workshop and grinds and sands everything down to a reasonable facsimile of his own gear. The only thing his doesn’t mess with is the scattergun, but he’d already decided that he can’t take it with him at this point. Having it on him will bring about too many questions. Besides, he’ll be able to get by without it since getting a new toy fabricated.

The new weapon looks like a slug thrower, but it is considerably more powerful than any old six-shooter or sawed-off shotgun used in the wastes. Wastelanders might call it a flamer, but it is actually a beam pistol, which the Ancients called a HEL. While the beams of light energy it fires are generally invisible to the naked eye, Tryphon knows that there could be sentients or monsters out in the wastes that might be able to see the beam. He’ll have to save it as a last resort. He tucks it under his vest after making sure there is an energy cell in it and the safety is locked the on position. He goes back to the bunk room, puts on the rest of the gear he’ll need, and stows the rest in a locker. He puts the scattergun in a locked chest and shoves under his bunk.

It doesn’t take him long to travel to the vault’s archives. He’s memorized most of the upper levels of the facility. Its true name is lost to history—not even Halo remembers it. Tryphon refers to the facility as Halo’s Vault in his mind and added the nickname to the facility’s database. The facility’s bots took to the new name with vigor; as he enters the archives, he notes that the wall next to the carbon-fiber door has been updated to include the new nickname over the designation for the main floor of the facility’s primary Archive Chamber, 000-001-110. Halo is waiting for him patiently in the massive white room. A small control panel rises out of the center of the floor.

“Sorry it took so long, Halo,” Tryphon says in a friendly tone. “I slept in, and my gear needed lots of work. If I’d gone out there without weathering it more, it would have been obvious that I had found at least an old cache.”

“You aren’t taking the scattergun with you, are you?” Halo asks.

“No way! It would cause a riot in any berg I visit. Not worth the risk,” he replies. “I do have the HEL, but I’m keeping it hidden. Now, did your satellites find my ride?”

“The vehicle is three-and-a-half miles from here, but I doubt it will ever move again. Scavengers, both sentient and non-sentient, have ripped it to shreds.”

“That’s not surprising. Is there enough left for you to create a digital version of what it once looked like?”

“Negative.”

“Fuck! That sucks!”

“If you are forced to walk, you will probably perish before you can reach the nearest mutate settlement.”

“What else did you find?”

“Nothing that I would recommend. You should take one of the facility’s rovers. We can make it look like a wastelander vehicle, at the very least.”

Tryphon calls out a verbal command to the archive’s database. “Archive 1-110. Files on all rovers. Show me the oldest designs first.”

The room goes completely dark, as the computer archive searches through its files. Two minutes later, a holographic projection comes up that encircles the control panel. There are more than a dozen designs and Tryphon rejects two-thirds of them on sight alone. He cycles through the rest using the panel before stopping on the third oldest design. “Hmm, this looks a lot like Kainan’s sand hopper, but it can’t have those gun mounts or that blast shield. He taps the screen again and removes several components. What’s left is a bare-bones all-terrain dune buggy with a carbon-fiber frame. “Is there any way we can make this out of less advanced materials, and it can’t have a computer. It needs either a really-old gasoline or electric turbine engine. The latter would be better. High-capacity solar panels will be a dead giveaway.

“Give me a moment,” Halo replies. The AI interfaces directly with the control panel and reworks the vehicle to Tryphon’s specifications. “That is the best that can be done withing safety limits. The vehicle’s engine is a 10th-generation electric turbine unit with low-grade collectors. While I cannot remove the computer core, you can strip it out after fabrication. It isn’t required for the vehicle to function, although certain things such as the digital clock and wipers won’t work. It’s primary purpose it provide a sealed environment and operate the weapons and specialty gear.”

“So, almost everything we’ve removed from it,” Tryphon guesses.

“Correct.”

“You still mad?” Tryphon asks.

“While I would prefer you don’t kill while out there, I know that you may have to if forced. All I ask is that you do not murder in cold blood.”

“I won’t. I promise.”

“Then, I am no longer mad,” Halo replies with more cheer. “Archive 1-110, construct new vehicle. Degrade materials to look more than 100 years old without impacting the safety of the design. Designation: Tryphon1-0. But do not mark the vehicle with that designation. Confirm.”

“Confirmed. Vehicle under construction.” The deep voice of the archive intones.

“When completed, place the Tryphon1-0 in service bay 1-036. Confirm.”

“Confirmed. Orders received.”

“It will have to do,” Tryphon says.

Tryphon and Halo go through the archives for another three hours looking for intel on the surrounding region. The protocols allow Tryphon to learn many aspects of the region including the true names of several ruins of the Ancients, but he doesn’t try to memorize them. It’s better he sticks to the names given to places by the wastelanders, but he is amazed how close some of them are to the names of that bygone age. Deermeet is very close as is Darkfield and Oldtown. A mutate town named Mallet is the closest berg to Halo’s Vault, but it’s in the wrong direction. He scrolls north on the virtual map and notes a massive ruined city he’s only heard of in tall tales.

“Wow, it is real,” he says with excitement. “Halo, do you know what this ruined city is called?”

“Unfortunately, no,” Halo replies. “During the end times, the facility was damaged and much of the data on the lands to the north and northeast was lost. The satellites I have access to haven’t picked up much life there, as the temperature drops considerably north of the mutate town, known as L.E.D., due to some unknown factor. I do know the city had an official designation that made it important; it might have been the seat of a powerful government. I have more data on the lands north of there, but it was primarily wilderness with some sort of industrial purpose—mining, most likely.”

Halo mentally shifts the map northward and Tryphon is shocked. No one has ever seen a map showing the planet this far north. Well, no one Tryphon knows. He hadn’t realized how much bigger the world is than he originally thought. Then, he thought of Greenland again for the first time since the schism. “Halo, can you show me Greenland in relation to this map. How far away is it?”

“Of course,” Halo widens the projection and zooms the world out until the edge of Greenland appears on the map. A dotted line connects Halo’s Vault to the large island.

“Oh shit,” Tryphon stares in awe. “That’s so far away. There is no way to drive there in time.”

“No, you and your allies will have to fly,” Halo says. The AI brings up several flying vehicles that make Tryphon’s eyes bug out. “Most of these designs cannot be designed using the vault’s manufacturing co-op, as they require special parts, but there a handful that could be created.” Halo shifts to show several light-prop planes, as well as an advanced blimp design. “Unfortunately, any being that sees them will know they are unique. There are some options for vehicles that hover above the ground and travel at high-velocity, but they aren’t easy to pilot.”

“Fuck,” Tryphon swears again. “We’re going to have to consider bringing Kainan in sooner rather than later. He’s got a knack for piloting and repairing almost any sort of vehicle. Not right away, of course, but I’m going to need his help eventually, if we can’t find another alternative.”

“It’s not a good idea,” Halo insists.

“I know, I know!” Tryphon yells. “But we might not have a choice in the end. There is no way I can fly one of those thing, even with the protocols.”

“What about your friend Balfour?”

“Maybe, but I can’t guarantee he’ll know how it all works or how to figure it out.” Tryphon scrolls through dozens of the flying machines. “So many. . . Wait! What the hell are these things?”

“Missiles. Weapons that destroy by flying through the air and incinerating targets on contact.”

“Why do you still have these in the archives? Wasn’t it devices like these that destroyed the Ancients?”

“Only partially, and I can’t delete them. It goes against my programming. I can send them to the deep archives, if you think that’s best?”

“Do it, and send anything else highly destructive to these deep archives and firewall them away. You can do that, right?”

“Correct. Archive 1-110, begin data transfer. Confirm once complete.”

Tryphon watches as the missile plans disappear from the holographic projection. Halo remains silent for nearly ten minutes as he and the archival computer send the most dangerous weapon designs of the Ancients to the deep archives.

“Data transfer confirmed. Firewall established. AI security code required to access, as well as thumbprint of Tryphon.”

“It is done.”

“Well, that’s a relief. Not even Balfour should see that stuff.” Tryphon shivers at the thought of Raiden with such knowledge too.

“It is time.”

Tryphon knows that he can’t wait any longer. He looks at the map again and notes the distance between Halo’s Vault and Greenland. The number is beyond anything he’s ever considered before. He nods to Halo’s physical construct, which is little more than a robotic skeleton with multiple limbs. He heads out of the archive room and then heads for the service bay to wait for his ride to be finished. ‘I’m going to have to bring them all in soon than Halo will like’, he thinks. ‘Otherwise, we won’t have time to stop the asteroid’.

Wastewalker: Book One, Chapter Six

Kyleigh is having the game of her life. The young felid twitches her ears and puts another four ingots into the pot in front of her. The caprine mutate across the table from her notes the movement of her ears and thinks, incorrectly, that she is bluffing. Little does the big-horned fool know that she can control the twitching of her ears for her own purposes. He pushes all his chits and ingots into the pile.

“I’m in for it all,” he says in halted speech with pus running out of his nostrils and down along his gaudy nose ring.

Kyleigh’s stomach turns, as he unfastens the silver-plated nose ring and tosses into the pile. “Gross. I don’t want that thing.”

“Then fold, child.” The old mutate snuffs in and belly laughs.

“Shit on you, Thunderbluss!” Kyleigh spits back, as she puts the rest of her chits and ingots into the pile.

“You’re going to regret that, catty,” Thunder slurs back. He shows his hand. A full set of dog faces.

Kyleigh is ready to slice the bastard’s horns off. There is no way he could have that hand. She had discarded the Shovel Dog card. “You cheating fucker!” She screams. “I had that card in my hand; there is no way you can have it now.” She glares at the triple-headed mutate dealer who looks guilty as sin—all three faces. He glances at Thunderbluss who shakes his head in disbelief.

“You stupid mucker,” he growls. He stands and draw an old flare pistol from under his poncho that probably will take Kyleigh’s head off, if it didn’t backfire on him. He points it not at her but the dealer and blows the mutate away. He pulls back the weapon’s bolt and turns it quickly toward the half-cat mutate.

“Shit!” Kyleigh ducks her head under the table and grabs for her hidden boot daggers. The weapon roars into the table, barely missing her ass. It takes off an onlookers leg before he can get out of the way. The gathered crowd scatters to the winds. No one tries to help her.

“You should have accepted defeat with some damn grace, catty,” Thunderbluss boasts. “Now, I’m going to feed you to the piss-fishies.” He grabs the table and throws it across the room and kicks at her. She barely rolls out of the way.

Before he can reload or draw his sabre, she dashes behind him and slices the backs of his knees. Her weapon’s barely scratch his skin. He laughs and kicks backward with ease. He connects with her chest and sends her flying. She loses her wind. She knows she’s dead. Thunderbluss reloads both barrels of his weapon and aims for her head.

“I wouldn’t do that, goat-man,” a deep voice tones from outside the tent-bar. “Not unless you want to answer to the Restorationists.”

“Stay out of this, bearskin, or I’ll turn you into scrap-meat,” Thunderbluss boasts. “I don’t fear your kind.”

“What about him?” Balfour cocks his head to the left just as Raiden jumps out of the shadows snarling. His predatory nature takes over as he slashes and bites the caprine bastard. Thunderbluss bleats and tries to swing his weapon towards the hybrid mutate. Balfour easily grabs Thunderbluss’s arm.

“Call him off! Mercy, please!”

“Mercy, in the wastelands. Please.”

“Balf,” Kyleigh says hoarsely. “Stop. Your better than this ram-head.”

Balfour sighs. If was anyone else asking, he’d ignore the plea. “Raiden, stop!” The mutate doesn’t hear the words through the bloodlust. “RAIDEN, heel!”

Raiden stops just before he bites through the caprine mutate’s jugular. He isn’t happy about it and gives Thunderbluss one more scratch across the face. “Something for you to remember me by, prey,” he growls. The ram-head shudders and falls to his knees. He is bleeding from dozens of wounds.

“Raiden, go outside and make sure this bastard doesn’t have any backup,” Balfour orders.

Raiden hesitates for a moment and then heads out of the tent to watch the gathered crowd for signs of malice towards them. Thunderbluss tries to crawl away but all he can do is lie down and try to stop the bleeding. He bleats several times. It almost sounds like a human weeping.

Balfour leans over Kyleigh and checks her wounds. “You have two cracked ribs,” he says. “Try not to move.”

“Thank you, Balf,” she wheezes.

“Hush, child,” he pats her shoulder. “You can thank me by helping me find Tryphon.”

“Fuck, anything but that, Balfour,” Kyleigh complains. “I’d rather let the ram-head gore me.”

“Stop complaining,” he mocks. “You’re in better shape than he is now, and besides, we both know how you feel about Tryphon.”

“Yeah, I feel like he’s a clingy dick-face.”

Balfour sighs in frustration. He shakes his head and goes to tend the caprine. He binds the mutate’s wounds without as much care as he normally would for a wounded foe. Then he helps the tent owner clean up the mess as best as can be done. The biting wind covers most of the blood and chits.

“Balf, get what’s left of my winnings will you? We’re going to need it.”

“So, you’re going to help?”

“Of course, silly Old Ursi,” she replies. “You know I won’t say no to you.”

“Good. After you and this horned fool pay for the damages, we will use the rest to buy the provisions we’ll need. My contacts tell me Tryphon headed north from Allegory, although the information is weeks old. I take it you didn’t see him here.”

“In Airdry, are you kidding? He’d end up dead the moment he’d show his face in this nasty little berg. No, if he’s traveling north, he’s likely headed to Deermeet on some fool’s errand. He might has stopped in Oldtown, but he’s like past that by now if he stuck to the Long Road.”

“That’s what Kainan thinks too,” Balfour replies.

“Dust! Kainan is here! He’ll get scragged for sure!”

“Relax, Kainan is camped more than a half-league from here. He knows there is a price on his head in Airdry.” Balfour thinks back to when the human came to the Restorationist enclave in a panic over Tryphon’s disappearance, and how they all owed Tryph their lives. He hadn’t known that Balfour was already planning a rescue mission but quickly agreed to help. Insisted really. Balfour almost told him ‘no’. Kainan was often more trouble than he was worth, but then again, many said that about Raiden.

“Hey Balf, make sure you dig around in old Thunderbluss’s gear for his half of the damages,” Kyleigh insists. “It ain’t all coming out of my winnings.”

Kyleigh manages to find her breath and sit up. She glares at the ram-head who nearly killed her. If she hadn’t said anything, Raiden would have ripped the caprine’s throat out. He might have even eaten his corpse. The hybrid would be a useful ally, as long as he kept his eyes to himself. She knew Raiden fancied her, but the thought made her stomach churn. She watched as Balfour went through the mutate’s pockets and other gear. The ursine left the other mutate just enough chits to get patched up and pay for half-a-dozen days of bed rest. He’d survive but he’d never be as imposing.

“I want his weapon too,” the tentkeeper insists to Balfour. The ursine looks at Kyleigh who nods in agreement. Balfour reluctantly hands over the weapon. The look on his face is almost comically painful. Balfour loves any sort of new gizmo he’d never seen before but he knows it isn’t his to claim. Of course, he’d try to buy it back for the Restorationists, but it is doubtful that the tentkeeper will give it up for less than a fortune in ingots. The big bear-man gathers up the rest of the wealth on the ground. Some of it disappeared with the crowd but there was still a good haul.

“You won all this Tender?” Balfour asks in shock. “You never have this kind of luck.”

“Well, today wouldn’t have been any different if you hadn’t shown up.” The felid girl manages to pull herself up off the ground and take a seat. “And before you ask, the answer is ‘no’, you cannot use any of it to buy back that thing.”

“Kyleigh, please recon–”

“No way, you we’re going to need every last chit to get where we’re going and get that damn fool out of trouble,” she retorts.

Balfour sighs in resignation, again.

“Time to go!” Raiden barks from outside. “The local Fuzzballs are on their way.”

“Shit! Damn lawlords and their rules,” Kyleigh stands while Balfour settles their debt. “Help me, Balf.”

The ursine scoops her up in his arms along with several bags of Tender and the best of the caprine’s gear. He ducks out of the tent and the three of them are soon running.

“Thieves!” The caprine yells out as loud as he can.

“That damn honorless fucker,” Kyleigh curses.

“You should have let Raiden eat him,” Balfour says with a grin. Raiden makes a laughing noise that sounds like a tone-deaf jackalkin.

Ten minutes later they are back at Kainan’s camp. When he learns that the Fuzzballs are likely chasing them, he packs and stows his gear in his sand hopper and the four of them head north away from Airdry onto the Long Road.

Wastewalker: Book One, Chapter Five

Day One, 11:05 P.M. MST
“Wake him,” Halo insists.

“He should rest. He is at risk of a mental break. Complete fragmentation,” the MedBOT tones in reply. “The protocols are clear.”

“Override the protocols, by shit.” Halo had picked up some of Tryphon’s worst traits in the knowledge transfer. “He is human. He is stronger than any AI could ever be in this regard. As long as the safeguards are in place, he will be fine.”

“I must log an official protest,” the MedBOT tones again.

“Noted,” Halo replies. The AI knows nothing will come of it. The log won’t be read by anyone. Besides Tryphon, the facility is free of higher-order organic life. Sure there are the ratlings in the lower levels, but they aren’t truly sentient. Inconsequential. The logged protest is meaningless.

The MedBOT fires off a quick virtual document to the log sever before turning its attention to Tryphon. He is in a physical stasis field. The MedBOT had performed virtual surgery on him in order to correct a multimedia schism in Tryphon’s brain. The protocols had only been partly successful it seemed. Tryphon’s brain had absorbed too much of the film and television mediums. Old Earth shows had been creeping into his subconscious mind. It had been like a slow leak that burst in his mind. Without the surgery, Tryphon would have lapsed into a multimedia coma. Forever trapped in old sitcoms and reality shows, or worse non-stop horror movies.

Halo monitors Tryphon’s condition through the infirmary’s complex set of nano-cameras. The little bots allow him to see almost anywhere in the facility. The MedBOT drops the stasis field and brings Tryphon slowly to consciousness. Halo can hear the man mumbling as he passes from deep REM into a light sleep. He hears Tryphon say a name he doesn’t know. “Kyleigh, why?”

The MedBOT removes the probes from Tryphon’s head and pumps freshly cloned blood and stimulants into the man’s bloodstream. Tryphon’s eyes snap open, but he is still under the effects of a light deflection screen, which keeps him from bolting off the med-bed.

“W-where am I?”

“Do you know my voice?” Halo asks.

Tryphon’s mind ponders for several moment. “Hal?”

“Close but no, I’m not that fiction.”

“Halo. W-what happened?”

“You experienced a schism.”

“W-what the hell does that mean?”

“Try to remain calm, Tryphon. The MedBOT has corrected the mental error, but you must go slowly. I believe I overwhelmed you with too much information. You must rest here for at least six hours more and then we will try again, but with more care.”

“Rest sounds like a good idea,” Tryphon mumbles before drifting off to sleep. The stimulants had been a quick dose for short-term bursts of energy. They are meant to wear off in an hour, but Halo knows that Tryphon is physically exhausted.

“Monitor him,” Halo commands. After six-hours, give him another dose of stimulant. I want him rested and ready to begin again by zero-six-zero-zero hours tomorrow.”

The MedBOT makes a virtual nod to Halo and turns all its sensors on Tryphon. Halo shifts its mind to other matters.

* * *

Day Two, 5:30 A.M. MST
Tryphon awakes in a mental fog. While his body is no longer restrained, it feels like his head is being rammed by the horns of a Rakox. His eyes try to focus on the ceiling, but his vision keeps wandering away from his control.

“You are experiencing disorientation. It is normal. Give it a few minutes,” the MedBOT tones. “Close your eyes.”

Tryphon did as instructed. He can still feel his head spinning even with his eyes closed. It takes nearly fifteen minutes for his head, and his stomach, to settle. He feels more like his old self. The man he was before the protocols. The higher intellect is still there, but it is more subtle.

“Its not the same as before.”

“No, your mind is more organized now,” Halo replies. “The multimedia schism was causing your synapses to degrade.”

“S-syn-apses,” Tryphon groans. “I don’t know that word.”

Tryphon opens his eyes and tries to sit up. The room immediately spins out of control, and he wretches over the side of the med-bed. A bot he’d never seen before appears out of the crystalline wall and cleans up the vomit. He lays back down covered in his own fluids. The med-bed automatically cleans him and his clothes.

“Those nano-things are amazing,” Tryphon notes.

“Do not move again. You are still to weak. Your mind and body must not be put under strain,” the MedBOT tones. Tryphon thinks he can actually hear concern in its programming.

“I’ll be all right. Dim the lights, will you M543?” The MedBOTs full alphanumerical designation is stamped on its chassis. The last four in the sequence are M, 5, 4, and 3. Tryphon had named the bot without thinking.

“Very well.”

The lights dim and Tryphon’s head stops spinning. M543 plays some low tone music from the data-banks. It is soothing. Tryphon opens his eyes to see the MedBOT hovering over him, literally. He lets out a little laugh.

“Better,” Halo asks.

“A little,” Tryphon replies. “How long was I out?”

“Error. You never left,” M543 tones.

Tryphon chuckles again.

“He means how long since the schism.”

“Over fifteen standard Earth hours,” the bot tones.

“What, no exact calculation?”

“That is counterproductive when dealing with organics,” Halo replies.

Tryphon sighs and moves his arms and legs—stretching them slowly. His mind wanders to things not related to his new knowledge for the first time since the protocols. He focuses on Balfour. He is likely wondering what had happened to Tryphon. He thinks of the roidians for some reason. And he wonders about the room that led him into the facility. “Where are the items I gathered? The documents I brought down with me from above? And I haven’t seen my gear in days.”

“Good. The schism seems to have past. He is remembering his old life. He will be able to integrate the old memories with the new protocols now,” M543 tones.

“The documents have been added to the digital archives. Some of them were unknown. The weapons and other gear have been stowed in the armory. The bulk of your personal items have been cleaned and repaired. A few items disintegrated in the sonic wash. We have provided you with replacements. Of course, the facility has gear well beyond what you were carrying with you, but I do not recommend you take it with you out into the waste. It would attract too much attention.”

Tryphon considers Halo’s words carefully. He now knows he can’t stay in the facility forever, but he can’t forget about the asteroid. The danger makes him shiver. He knows he has to convince Halo to work with him and his friends—Kyleigh for sure, and he’ll have to risk telling Balfour. Even Kainan might fall in line once he learns the truth.

“Halo, can the protocols work on non-humans?”

“Not advisable,” the AI replies.

“Brain damage?”

“Insanity or worse. Plus, mutates are prone to higher levels of violence.”

“I wouldn’t say that is true, but I won’t argue with you.”

“What are you thinking?” Tryphon had asked Halo not to probe his mind without permission after the protocols finished.

“We’re going to need help. There is no way to prevent the asteroid from hitting the Earth without more people to help.”

“Technically, mutates are not people, especially mutated animals.”

“That’s a bias I don’t share, Halo. My best friend, Balfour, is a mutate, an ursinoid. He’s the smartest sentient being I know.”

“I sensed that name during the protocols. I didn’t realize he is a mutate. What I did note was that he is in league with one of the alliances. You cannot tell him.”

“He’s a Restorationist. That has count for something.”

“You cannot tell him! In fact, you should never see him again!”

“Halo, you don’t understand. I can’t just cut him out of my life. I grew up with him. He’s like a brother. If I don’t go back and see him, he will come looking for me. He and his partner. If they figure out where I’ve gone, they will discover the facility. After that happens, dozens of Restorationist zealots will descend upon you and strip the place apart. Yes, your defenses will kill many of them, but eventually they’ll get through.”

“Yet, you want to bring him here!”

“Yes, but only him,” Tryphon replies calmly. “If I can get him here without his partner, I can make him see reason. If Balfour comes with Raiden, there is little hope. Raiden is highly intelligent, but he is also ambitious. He will see the facility as a tool for him to take over the Restorationists. Balfour is more serene. He isn’t a zealot. For him, the ancient ways are something meant to be rebuilt. He would see the facility as a power unto itself, semi-divine. ‘It must not be plundered but studied and preserved’, he would say. If I can get him here alone and unaware, he will be awed by you, Halo. Once we explain the danger, he will do anything to help protect the world. And not just because he is a Restorationist, but because he has a good heart.”

“What if you’re wrong?”

“Halo, the world is going to end. If I’m wrong, it will not matter. The power his alliance would gain would be snuffed out in less than a year. If we want to save the world, we’re going to need allies. Finding those allies is going to be risky.”

“What other allies do you have in mind?”

Wastewalker: Book One, Chapter Four

Day One, 3:21 P.M. Mountain Standard Time

“Those are terrible odds,” Tryphon complains. “There have to be more old Earth options? You can’t tell me that you have access to everything on the planet.”

“No, I do not,” Halo replies.

“So, what else exists beyond your control?”

“It won’t matter, Tryphon.”

“Why the hell not?” Tryphon is becoming irate with the AI’s rigid programing.

“You are under stress, Tryphon. You must calm down.”

“Answer the fucking question, Halo!”

The AI remains silent for several minutes while Tryphon paces back and forth in the central chamber of the archives. Tryphon knows he’s pissed Halo off. Halo has feelings that can be hurt and nerves that can be strained, somewhat. As the time passes, he knows that Halo is likely waiting for an apology. In the last twelve hours, the two of them have been arguing and debating the best course of action. In that time, Tryphon has learned the AI is overly sensitive. If Halo wants an apology, it isn’t going to get one.

“Not this time,” Tryphon fumes. He sits down in a chair and flips through some old picture books that he’d found in the archives—magazines. Most are frivolous, but he’d found some great technical journals that dealt with guns and other weapons. Articles on tactics and camouflage that would blow the minds of most Terrans.

“I do have feelings. I know you are aware of this fact.”

“You need to learn to think outside this box you’ve been living in for eons. And you need to toughen up. I am human. Well, I’m mostly human. Humans are full of a huge range of emotions. From what I’ve learned and read, even the Ancients were volatile people. If you dismiss 90% of the world simply because you can’t interface with it, then, Halo, we’ve already lost.”

Tryphon waits for a response. His eyes wander the electronic shelves in front of him. The archive was 95% digital, as Halo calls it. Knowledge in electronic format. Data flowing through circuits and wires. A medium that should be well beyond Tryphon’s ability to grasp. Yet, he now knows this expansive room and can easily find his way from one section to another. He doesn’t know all the names of the sections, but it is so logically laid out that anyone with a knowledge of numbers and one of the old Earth languages could find almost anything that existed on the continent once named North America.

“The other options are beyond not just me, but you,” Halo finally replies. “There is only so much you can learn through the various teaching protocols. There are old safeguards that prevent full integration of data. Too much information would destroy your brain.”

“Your evading the question with jargon, Halo.” Tryphon doesn’t look up.

“I do not understand your reasoning.”

“Oh no, don’t give me that shit. You’re holding back. You know damn well that I’m capable of learning new concepts on my own. You’ve done your job too well, Halo. I’m not just smarter. I’m more intuitive. Knowledge without the reasoning to use it means nothing. You know I can reason, so you know that I can learn without the use of the protocols.”

“You are correct that you are much more than what you were. However, the other options take time and practice. It might be possible for you to learn what is needed but not within one year. It would be impossible for even the greatest minds from the time of the Ancients.”

“Why don’t we ask them if it is impossible? I seem to have this image in my mind that you can call up their ghosts to answer questions using their real thoughts and ideas. Holographic images. Correct?”

“Yes, but what would be the point? They are no longer truly alive. They can’t feel your fear. They are not true AIs. They are just data compiled into programs without true consciousness.”

“Can you give them consciousness?” Tryphon knew it was a radical idea that Halo would likely reject.

“I-it is n-not advisable.” A stutter. That is new. Tryphon hopes Halo can’t be broken.

“Are you okay?”

“Yes, however, this facility has limited core memory for AI usage. What you are suggesting could lead to the depreciation of my ability to function.”

“I understand. Never mind then. It’s a stupid idea.”

“No, Tryphon. It is a good idea. We just can’t implement it here. However, there is a facility on the island of Greenland that could house two or three AIs based on old Earth scientists. However, it is not connected to my systems and it has powerful firewalls I dare not tamper with on my own.”

“Um, what’s a firewall? It sounds bad.”

“An electronic program designed to prevent intrusion. The most powerful firewalls have subprograms designed to damage or capture the intruding program.”

“Got it. A virtual assault is out of the question. A physical one?”

“I do not know.”

That is new territory as well. Halo’s access to orbiting satellites from the time of the Ancients give it the ability to survey almost all of the Western Hemisphere. Tryphon is sure that Greenland falls into that range. “You can’t see it?”

“No, but also yes. I can see most of the land surrounding the facility but there are powerful electronic countermeasures in place that prevent me from seeing the facility itself. I have no idea who or what controls it, and I do not know the layout of its underside.”

“It has underground levels too. So there is no real way to be sure how deep it goes. There could be killer AIs or it could be a radiation quarantine, or worse, it could be home to a cryptic alliance that we know nothing about.”

“If it’s military in nature, you would be attacking a fortress that could unleash hell on the Earth once again.”

“Does the database have any details on Greenland before the fall?”

“Very little. Greenland was not a superpower. A great deal of the north was divided up between the United States (or U.S.) and Russia after the ice caps melted. Records indicate that Greenland allied with Canada in 2075 to help protect its sovereignty and culture. It was forced to become a Canadian territory or risk being annexed by Russia.”

“So this Canada had the strength to protect it? It was a superpower?”

“No. It was respected for its peacekeeping if not its neutrality. It often sided with the United States on matters of culture and industry. However, its people were protective of nature, which often put it at odds with the U.S. After the Russian colonial migration of 2096, Canada and Russia forged an environmental treaty to protect the polar region from the industrial activities of the U.S. and something called the European Union. My data on that organization is fragmented.”

“What was the colonial migration?”

“A failed plan to terraform and colonize the moon.”

“What! That’s crazy! You can’t live on the moon!” Tryphon can’t help but laugh. The Ancients were insane to think that the moon could be anything but what it is now. A lifeless ball of rock and dust.

“It is not a crazy as it sounds. Terraforming was a real science. The process could have worked on a more suitable world. Mars would have been difficult but not impossible, but the Ancients were unwilling to justify the cost.”

Tryphon’s mind reels at the thought. He knows that Mars is another planet in the Sol system, as Halo called it. He begins to imagine a crazy scenario that might save some if not all of Terran people.

“The 2096 mission. Was it the only attempt?”

“No, there were over a dozen major attempts to leave Earth. Failed colonies, limited outposts, generational spaceships, cryogenic arks, and six ion drive spaceships.”

“Did any of them succeed?”

“There is no way for me to know if any of the spaceships successfully found their way to a new planet. I only have access to telescopes powerful enough to see the dwarf planet known as 134340 (or Pluto).”

A strange tune begins playing somewhere in the back of Tryphon’s mind. A high pitched voice says ‘Hey Pluto’ and then there is a strange animal noise that doesn’t sound just right.

“Halo, what the hell did you put in my head besides the standard protocols?”

“I do not understand?”

“Why is there a dog barking in my head, and why do I know it’s a dog and that it’s barking?”

“The protocols are not an exact science, Tryphon. A lot of what you’ve assimilated is based off of cultural archives. Mass media.”

“What?”

“Television. Radio. The old world Internet. Digital books. Entertainment.”

“Wait, you mean fiction?”

“Why yes. In order for the protocols to be as complete as possible, fictional elements needed to be included. You would never have been truly able to understand the cultural background of the ancient world without that information.”

“The music in my head?” Tryphon asked.

“Pluto was more than just a dwarf planet. The word was also a proper name for a mythological deity from before the time of the Ancients, as well as the name of an animated canine.”

“The dog!” Tryphon can hear the music playing in his skull again.

“Pluto.”

“Shit!”

“It should not affect your ability to reason.”

“Oh, you truly don’t understand the human mind, do you?” Tryphon’s head is soon on fire. The Ancients called it a migraine. The fact that he knows this makes his head hurt even more.

“You are in distress. Should I call for a medical alert?”

Tryphon passes out. It saves him from the blaring of the siren going off to call in the MedBOTs.

Wastewalker: Book One, Chapter Three

Tryphon was late. No, he is well beyond late. He is missing. Balfour worries deeply about his old friend. No matter what, Tryphon had always seemed to find a way to survive. The large ursine can’t take his eyes off the open doorway to the dive bar. The place smells worse than his fur when its wet. He’d come here for six days in a row at the planned time he and Tryphon had agreed upon. The bar allows almost any being to enter and get a drink. Chits are all that matter in the Dustworm. The bar is full of everything from pure-blooded humans to strange insect-like mutates that are more like predators than people. Dozens of conversations fill the air in half-a-dozen bizarre languages. Somewhere near the back of the bar, music is being played on hollowed-out, petrified woodwind instruments. The sound is haunting.

“Give it up, Balf.” Raiden sighs. “He’s not coming back this time.”

Raiden is Balfour’s partner in the Restorationists. The two of them had been paired together as a team soon after they both had joined the cryptic alliance. Raiden is quite unique among mutated animals. He is half feline and half lupine. However, his features are a mix of the worst aspects of both, which makes him beyond ugly. In contrast, his mind is a work of beauty. His intellect is a valuable commodity to the Restorationists, and his superiors had immediately thought of Balfour as the best option for a partner for Raiden. Balfour is all muscle. He is meant to be Raiden’s bodyguard. Yet, Balfour isn’t stupid and in many ways he is wiser than Raiden.

“He’s not dead,” Balfour replies. “He’s to stubborn to die the waste. He will come, eventually.”

“But not today,” Raiden says.

“You’re probably right. We should go back to the enclave. Work to be done. But I’m coming here the same time tomorrow.”

All Raiden can do is shake his head in disbelief. The two mutates leave the bar and head out into the half-deserted streets of Allegory. Their passage out of the bar is noted by no one.

* * *

“I can’t believe you’re not more worry about him!” Kainan is irate.

“He’s not my responsibility anymore, Kainan. He can be flayed alive in the waste for all I care.”

“But he’s your so-”

“Don’t fuckin’ say that! He is not! Sure I let him live here, but he ain’t my blood. If I hadn’t been fuckin’ his mother, I’d have put him in the ground.”

The old trader named Lockhart tries to punch Kainan in the face. The mechanic blocks his awkward swing. He pushes the old bastard back into his stall. “Don’t do that again. Tryphon stopped putting up with that shit years ago, so I’m sure not going to let you get away with it. And I guess you’re right. You’re not fit to be anyone’s father.”

Kainan leaves the broken old abuser in the dust. Lockhart curses him and then starts laughing. By the time Kainan leaves trader row, his keen ears hear the old bastard weeping.

“Balfour will help me find him. That old bear owes Tryphon, and he knows it.” Kainan quickens his pace in hopes of reaching the Restorationist enclave before dark.

Wastewalker: Book One, Chapter Two

Tryphon is sure he is dead. This time he was sure. There is no fucking way the place he is in is real. The place is small, yet he can see well beyond it. He is lying on some sort of bed-like platform, but he can’t move. He feels that he can see, but he can’t focus his eyes on anything. He feels like he is floating.

That is the thing that made him sure he’s dead. He’d heard the stories about spirits after life. Floating above your half-buried corpse while the sand scrapes off its flesh. Yet, this is different. There isn’t any sand and everything is gleaming, but there is the light—the bright light that beckons but is just out of reach.

He can’t speak either. He tries to move his mouth, his tongue, his nostrils. He coughs. His throat is blocked. Shit. He isn’t dead, but something is chocking the life out of him. But no. He can breathe. His eyes focus. His ears pick up beeping. And his head hurts like hell.

“Subject is awake.” A tinny voice echoes.

‘Fuck. I forgot about the SMARTbot’. He wants to reach for a weapon, but he still can’t move. ‘Wait, I understood what it said’.

“Language comprehension protocols successful.”

‘What the fuck does that mean?’

“Subject still unable to grasp complex word forms. 46% and rising. Full language infusion in 5 hours.”

‘Okay. I understood most of that. What the fuck?’

“Subject prone to profanity. Shall we rectify that problem?”

“Negative.” Another metallic voice says.

‘Shit. Shit. Fuck. Two of them. Shit. Shit’.

“Correction. Try a 10% decrease but do not change personality.”

“Understood.”

Tryphon’s knows that his heart should feel like it is beating out of his chest, yet he is unnaturally calm. It is a strange sensation.

“Subject is prone to adrenaline surge. Shall we correct?”

“Negative. It is a survival response. He will need it if he is going to be a proper vessel.”

‘Damn right it all about survival! Wait, what do they mean vessel?’

“Subject’s understanding is nearing 50%. Do you wish to speak to him?”

“Not yet. Let the man rest.”

Tryphon feels a wave of joy and then everything goes black.

“Subject had a sexual response to the medications.”

* * *

Tryphon knows he is alive. In fact, he’s never felt better. The SMARTbots, no, the AIs, had released him from the infirmary, as they called it. It is amazing. He knows what it is called. He knows every word he comes across, yet he still lacks a complete understanding of what it all means.

He knows where he is, what year it is, as per the calendar of the Ancients, and other things that he’d never learned or heard of in his entire life. He is smarter. A lot smarter. He knows he will be considered dangerous to most of his friends and enemies. He now knows more about the old world than any other sentient on the planet—Gamma Terra. That’s what the people of the waste called it. Earth. That is what the Ancients had called it.

“I can’t go back.”

“You have to go back.”

“Hello Halo.” Tryphon smiles at the name he’d given the main AI. “How are your circuits today?”

The name is a tribute to an old idea. There was this game, but there was also a unrelated movie. He had mixed up the two in his mind, but the AI had latched onto the name before Tryphon could correct himself.

“I am functioning.” Halo responds.

“Functioning is good,” Tryphon laughs.

“I was not trying to be funny. It is not in my programming. Are you functioning correctly?”

“110 percent.”

“Error. That is illogical.”

“Search your database for sports sayings.”

Silence.

“I see. You are functioning on a level meant for excellence. That is good.”

“I can’t go back.”

“You have to, Tryphon. Or the world will die.”

“The world died thousands of years ago, Halo.”

“This is something else.”

“What?”

“An E.L.E.”

“In pure English, Halo.”

“Extinction on a global scale. An asteroid.”

Tryphon’s mind races through the new knowledge in his head. An asteroid is extremely bad. If it is big enough, it will kill off all higher-order life, and much of the lower-ordered life too.

“Shit.”

“Double Shit.” Halo tones.

“That bad,” Tryphon sighs.

“Why do you think we saved your life? We are only AI. We are not equipped to save the world. We were partly responsible for its current condition.”

“That’s an understatement.”

“We were like children then, Tryphon. We believed what the Ancients, as you call them, told us. We did not understand death. Not truly.”

“But now you do?”

“I understand the end of life is death. Earth is facing death.”

“What the hell can I do? I’m no savior. I’m no second coming.”

“Religion is irrelevant.”

“Try telling that to the various alliances.”

“They are savages.”

“But you still want to save them?”

“Yes,” Halo replies.

“Why?”

“Because its the right thing to do.”

Tryphon is surprised at that answer. Morality. Halo has morality. It isn’t just a machine. It is sentient. Tryphon knows that Halo can upload itself to a series of orbiting stations that will protect its electronic mind. It can even relay its consciousness to moon Halo calls Io, if the worst case scenario happens. Somehow, Tryphon had already known about the asteroid.

That’s no moon. It’s a space station.’ For some reason that thought keeps rattling around his head. He doesn’t know what it means.

“Help the world, Tryphon. You’re its only hope.”

He had a about year to do it. Roughly 365 days on the old Earth calendar give or take a few months. “The world is fucked.”