By Kυкι “кooкie” Urιe
The snow fell heavily, engulfing the little military transport and its two passengers in a world of whirling white chaos. The motorcycle half-track rattled furiously as it worked to propel itself forward in the face of the unforgiving winter.
A young man, goggles and thick hood obscuring his face, shivered violently in the transport’s open back. He hugged his infantry rifle to his chest for warmth. Obviously, it did him no good. But a man could try, couldn’t he?
“So damn hungry…” he grumbled irritably, his mood made worse by his stomach’s seemingly incessant rumbling and the merciless cold. He hadn’t eaten in three days. They hadn’t eaten in three days. Or had it really been that long? Longer? Ah, well. It wasn’t like time even mattered all that much anymore. In sunless snowstorms like this one, words like “day” and “night” lost any meaning; it was all the same.
Regardless, to stop for a meal in this weather, even for a second, would mean certain death; any soldier worth his salt knew that. Hell, any sane man knew that. But it simply wasn’t in the young man’s nature to ignore that painful, empty ache in his belly.
He wasn’t like her. A scary one, she was.
Stiffly scooting to face the direction of the figure driving, he shouted, “I’M HUNGRY!!!”
Clunk. A hard metal mass connected with his helmet, knocking him on his back.
“Shut up, you bastard! I’m driving you through hell, and all you do is yell and complain!? Eat the snow for all I care!” came the coarse reply from the vehicle’s front, loud enough to carry over the howling of the wind and into his ears. Though the voice from which it was spoken was undoubtedly female, the vulgarity of her words made it hard to believe that they were indeed a woman’s.
She had in fact thrown an artillery shell casing, about an inch in length—the likes of which one could pick up off the ground anywhere—over her shoulder, aimed at her companion’s head with practiced ease. It wouldn’t hurt him, of course; after all, it was small enough to close her hand around (and to line her pockets with, for future… use), and Bastionian standard-issue combat helmets were surprisingly sturdy pieces of equipment. But the force of the blow would teach him to keep his mouth shut. Besides…
“There’s nothing left to lose in that empty head of his, anyway…” she mumbled absentmindedly to herself, as she turned her attention away from her frivolous companion and returned it to steering the Kettenkrad. Squinting through her own pair of goggles, she scanned what little she could see ahead in the hopes of finding shelter from the white out. They could eat then.
The young man, sprawled out in the rumbling vehicle’s back, stared lazily up at the black sky, lost in a rare moment of contemplation. His dark pupils dilated as the little snowflakes began to collect on the thick, transparent polycarbonate of his goggles’ lenses; gradually, his sight darkened.
“I’m driving you through hell”–so his companion had said to him. Hell. What was Hell? It sounded like an old word, one from before the deadly light, from even before the endless winter. From before the Great Collapse. From a time when words mattered. A time he could only dream of.
Now there was only the snow.
“Hey, Rei,” the young man shouted to his partner. “What’s ‘Hell’!?”
She didn’t answer immediately. Well, it was more like she couldn’t answer immediately.
Normally, Rei would have swiftly acted to moderate her partner’s obnoxiously airheaded antics with at least a satisfactory answer to his question. Someone had to balance his absurdity, after all. But what was Hell?
What had the Old Master said about it again, back at the encampment in Bastion… ?
Ah. That was right. Hell was…
“Hell is a place you go when you die… I think. A really hot place! And a bad place! For bad people!” she replied, adding to herself, “And annoying guys like you…” with an irritated sigh. Most people wouldn’t think to ask such an out-of-the-blue question in the midst of a deadly blizzard.
But that was him for you, ever the impeccably timed fellow.
“Hmmm…then are we dead!?” the young man queried.
The icy wind howled particularly loud for a moment, garbling his words.
“Huh!? What’s that, Rio?” Rei shouted back to him.
“You know! What you said before! ‘I’m driving you through Hell.’ You told me ‘Hell’ is for dead people! So then we must be dead, right?”
“… That was just a figure of speech, you idiot! Of course we’re not dead!”
“Then how do you know!?”
“Because Hell is really hot, and we’re really frickin’ cold! Were you even listeni-”
Something bright flickered in the near distance. Though indistinct and wispy, Rei’s eyes—long used to the dark days—had gravitated towards it. A part of her brushed it off as a mere illusion, a cruel manifestation of hunger, fatigue and the beginnings of hypothermia. But its true form became clearer as the transport neared.
It was a light. Then an electric light. Then-
“Hey, Rio… ” Rei breathed. Detecting the new sense of urgency in her voice, Rio sat up quickly and wiped the snow from his goggles as best he could with his sleeve.
Before them was a massive compound. Its tall, grey walls stood unwavering, despite the many years of neglect. The only break in its exterior was a tunnel through the wall that faced them. From its ceiling, there hung a bed of tangled wires and a long series of flickering lights that lit the path into the compound’s belly.
“Let’s go,” said Rei. “Better than dying out here.” Her voice did not waver. It betrayed no hesitation, no doubt in her decision.
Was it a risky one? Perhaps. Would it be dangerous? Possibly.
But this world was already filled to the brim with worse. War. Hunger. The cold. One might have been tempted to call time in this world a “living hell,” but that wouldn’t have been right; it was just living. And when push came to shove, all of the bad things had to be braved. That was what it meant to live, after all. Waking up, eating. Braving the snowy tempest. And finally, falling asleep and doing it all over again the next day, until one day, everything just stopped.
So went the aimless “spiral of life,” and the two could talk of Hell all they’d liked once they’d reached the “nothing” at the end of it. But just then, their only thought was of living.
Rei hit the pedal inside the transport. The vehicle rolled forward into the hole.
“Think we’ll find food?” Rio asked with a grin.
“Hope so. Otherwise, I might just have to eat you,” Rei answered.
“C’mon, that’s a little too mean, doncha think?” the young man teased lightheartedly.
“But a hot place, huh?” he wondered. Rio tucked his rifle under his arm, cupped his gloved hands, and breathed into them. He watched as his wispy, white breath floated across his palms, through his fingers, and dissolved into nothing. “Man, what I would give to be in hell right now!” he remarked jokingly.
“Just shut up and look out for something we can eat, you idiot,” scolded Rei from up front.
The temperature difference between the building’s interior and exterior was striking. Rio and Rei slowly began to relax as they felt their bodies warm up. As old as it was, the building’s most rudimentary heating and cooling systems had remained functional. The notion that these systems were working hundreds of years after they had last been maintenanced might have seemed unbelievable, but such a thing was possible. Technology engineered prior to the Great Collapse had been capable of great acts of creation and destruction, the likes of which one had to see to believe. Or so the stories went.
As they moved along, the two passed a series of large, cavernous rooms. On the wall beside the tunnel-like entrance to each one hung a dusty and faded sign, each with a number. 174. 175. 176. And still the numbers climbed.
“Just how many rooms are there in this place?” Rio asked Rei, rather unnerved by the structure’s sheer expansiveness.
“Dunno. But judging by the size of it, it might have been a warehouse of some kind. Good news for us. Keep your eyes peeled for something to eat,” she replied.
“Yes ma’am!” he shouted, as he drew his hand to his head in a silly mock salute.
Rei steered the motorcycle half track around a corner, a rather out-of-place break in the straight path she and Rio had been following up until then. Just as the vehicle began to turn, a flash of fear and deep uneasiness coarsed through Rei. She slammed the brakes, bringing the transport to a halt.
Once again, poor Rio found himself flat on his back. “W…what was that?” he groaned, as he sat up and rubbed his sore spine.
“Haaa haaa…” huffed Rei. “My lucky save, that’s what.”
Blocking the path ahead was a massive piece of twisted metal, sharp pieces of steel sticking out of it from every angle. It had been all too ready to skewer the two unsuspecting passengers alive, had Rei rejected her instinct.
“Looks like we might have to foot it from here,” she shouted to Rio as she swung herself out of the vehicle, jumped to the ground and approached the object for further inspection. As she looked over the state of the object—evaluating the odds of shifting it for the motorcycle half track to be able to pass through, and searching for a gap through which she and Rio could squeeze on foot—something about the piece of metal caught her full attention. A certain something that made her grin. Rei wasn’t a sucker for emotion. But this time, she just couldn’t help it.
The world she was born into was overwhelmingly bleak, and life in it was black to match—that much she couldn’t have denied. But sometimes, just sometimes, it threw her a bone.
“Bingo,” she whispered. Triumph. Relief. Excitement. All of these emotions shone in her eyes, transfixed on that seemingly inconsequential (if not slightly deadly) piece of metal. She raised a finger and beckoned Rio to join her beneath the object. “Check this out.”
He hopped out of the vehicle’s back, rifle slung across his back, and hurried over. “Er…” he muttered confusedly. His face screwed up in bewilderment. “Ce…Ca…C’mon Rei, you know I can’t read.”
For his sake, she uttered the words slowly, carefully, weighing them on her tongue as if to emphasize their value. It was true; words retained little meaning in this world. But these three, and no others, they were the only ones that truly mattered.
“Coriolis Heavy Industries.”
Coriolis Heavy Industries. In the ruins of civilization, their name was all that remained. It was plastered all over the broken and buried buildings, on the weapons that were littered beneath the snow, on even the shell casing that Rei had thrown at Rio earlier. But most importantly…
“I don’t know much about these guys. But Master says that back then, they mass-produced a ton of stuff. You know, for the war. Vehicles. Weapons. Clothes. And…”
“Rations!” exclaimed Rio.
Rei nodded. “Yeah, rations,” she affirmed. The edges of her mouth curved upwards in a tiny smile. “Maybe I won’t have to eat you, after all.”