Short Story Contest # 174 Theme: "Drums" courtesy of @Sethypoo98. Congratulations @Spencer Rose for her first medal with the science fiction story, The Scout. ___________________________________________ The Scout [2,450 words] The world was always burning. That morning, like every other before it, the sky was alive in writhing shades of orange and yellow. Tendrils of smoke rose from fires that had burned for hundreds of years. Buildings from the Old World protruded from the ground like charred old bones; the carcass of some great, ancient beast called civilization. They jabbed at the sky, their uneven silhouettes breaking apart the vibrant hues overhead. I couldn't tell you what it had once been. Sure, the old rhetoric was there, the same handed down stories from one generation to the next. I could recite, word for word, the description of places I'd never been--places that no longer were--with no understanding and even less connection. As for what it had been, I couldn't say.Wasn't my place to say, my job was to scout. Only one guy had ever claimed to have living memory of the way things had been. Grayman. At nineteen he was the oldest member of our unit. He said hepersonally remember the trees. He said they were green, not the harsh green of military uniforms, but a warm green. Vibrant. More yellow and almost glowing. People would always laugh when Grayman talked about the trees, said he drank coolant and sucked batteries. "Slide." A static crackle, words against my solitude. "See anything?" The voice was in my head, transmitted through the receiver imbedded in my ear. A voice that spoke and made my whole body listen. "Nothing, Dizzy." "Report. Status?" "Thinking." I answered, not caring to explain myself. The monitors could see through my eyes, hear through my ears. At least my thoughts were my own. "Quiet morning." I said. "Too quiet." Came Dizzy's voice, softer now. "Eyes open. Mind sharp. Something's coming. I can feel it. Scout north." "North? The only thing north is fire. You know that." "North. Don't make me pull rank on you." There was laughter in her voice, I could feel it in my bones. Laughter and terror. "Why north?" "Dammit, Slide. Just do it." Her voice faded. Cut off. Scout north. A joke, at best. There was only ever one scout at a time, vital to the bunker's safety. First and only line of defense against the enemy, only reliable Intel. Eyes and ears in the ashes. The scout was always the one wearing the Inferno armor. My armor. The building I occupied was on the southern end of the city, where the ground was hot but easy to navigate and mostly intact. It provided an excellent view of what had once been a river, now a great gorge that divided to city. Like a scar, an open wound that refused to heal. Beyond? Fire. I hit the ground running, thermal rifle pressed to my chest, Inferno armor shuffling as I ran. The suit protected me from the worst of the heat, an armor of old world technology. Sometimes my mind wandered, dared to imagine what lay beneath the hellish synthetic metal that had enveloped me like glove most of my life. It suddenly felt tight, constricting, like I might start pouring out from the seams. I pushed the notion away; today I couldn't afford to entertain such thoughts. The streets only occupants were the rusted husks of cars, paused eternally in whatever direction they had headed before the world changed. I snaked between them with practiced ease, giving the rusted beasts a wide berth. Take no chances. In truth, these streets were more comfortable to me then the bunker I called home. Here was familiar, here was safe. I picked my way through ancient buildings, keeping low and moving. Edging ever close to the river. It took a lot to shake Dizzy. Though we'd never met, I knew the girl was forged in old world fires, made of tougher materials then Inferno armor. She didn't shake, didn't quake. My immovable center, my guardian, my commander. Her insecurity shook me to the core. An hour later I stood before the River, and the shaking in my heart had moved to my head, rattled my eardrums. No one crossed the River. Old bridges of iron gapped the distance, great reaching fingers that connected swathes of old world concrete. "Dizzy. Bridge side. No trouble. Orders?" "Cross." My heart beat harder, thermal rifle trembled in my hands. The Inferno armor hissed, releasing coolant and adrenaline in equal measures. My grip tightened, my mind eased. "Say again? Static." I lied. "Vitals just peaked. Slide, Report." Her voice was a whisper in the back of my skull. "It's nothing. Crossing." "Expect transmission lag. Reception gets choppy on other side. Happy hunting." Happy hunting. For the seven years I'd held the thermal rifle I'd never once fired it, never once encountered the fabled "enemy". Empty rounds into decoys, sure, but never something living. The bridge was massive, cluttered with cars packed so tight there was no going around or through them. They clambered atop one another in places, twisted metal erupting where they had collided. They'd been going the wrong way. Sensors chirped as I moved across the carnage. Rising temperatures. Heightened elevation. Hazardous conditions. Proceed with caution. Halfway across I paused, dare to glance down. The river snaked beneath the bridge, a terrifying serpent of sand and stone. Old stories told me that once it had been filled with water, would flood its banks and breech the city in heavy rains. I tried to picture it, but the deep chasm was as empty as my imagination. The cars kept going long after the bridge ran out, but I found myself unable to climb down. I stared at the unfamiliar ground, smoking gently two hundred years later, and tried to steel my resolve. The old stone had began a slow descent off its' metal frames, dripping down like wax from a burning candle onto the sidewalks. The streets buckled, thrusting up like angry black teeth with mouths that breathed smoke. The city was dying, had been dying forever. So why did it feel so alive? The rifle was in my hands again, lending courage. "Crossed." There was no answer. "Proceeding." I told the empty com channel. I'd never actually been alone. Dizzy had always been there. The Inferno armor howled warnings. I was outside of safe transmission range from the bunker. Readings flickered across my eyes in uneven waves of color. Warnings flashing in my peripherals and faded to black. I was running. Running with rifle in hand, ignoring how my heart beat against my ears. Ignoring how the armor felt like it would drag me down to be consumed by the city and its thousand angry mouths. There was nothing, nothing but death and fire-- BANG! A single shot pierced the sky. It hit the ground hardly a foot ahead of me, ricocheted, and flew crazily off one opposite direction. Coolant flooded the suit. "That was a warning shot, boy. The next one won't miss." A voice, old and worn like rusted gears in machinery. It echoed off the streets and danced through the sky. Rifle at the ready, finger dancing over the trigger. Where? Where was the enemy? No cover. Move and I'm dead. Stay and I'm dead. "Didn't you hear me? Next one won't miss. Put the gun down. Now." Never lower your thermal in the event of an encounter. I knew the words, had sang them a thousand times. The rifle fell from my hands, clattered noisily on the ground. "Good. You're smart. I knew you were smart. Been watching you awhile." There. Hard left. A hundred feet ahead, maybe less. A figure. "Watching?" I asked, hoping that someone would hear me, that somehow the transmission got through. Hoping I wasn't alone. "Yeah. You. Just you. Seen you scouting south of the river. Long hours. You think, don't you? Outside of the training, inside of the suit. There's a mind inside that hunk of metal." A man. An... Old man. Older then Grayman. Tall. Wrinkles. "Why have you been watching me?" He's not wearing armor, and he's not burning. Sensors are offline, can't tell the temperature. Why isn't he burning? "The better question is why haven't you been looking? You scout. You're wearing the armor. But you're not seeing anything." The accusation pricks my pride, my hand curls into a fist against my will. "Easy now." A gun, something old and metal, raises to meet my face. "I'm a friend. That can change. Quickly." "You're not wearing armor. Why don't you burn?" The man's face softened. "The world stopped burning a long time ago." No. No no no no no. "It's burning right now." Words are empty. Throat is dry, ashes in my mouth. "You're right, but not how you think you are. That armor can stop you from feeling, but it can't stop you from thinking. Think! Think about your life, everything you do, everything you are. Every lie you've been told your whole life." "I scout. Just me. Alone. I scout for the good of humanity. To protect the remnants and preserve the future against the threat--" "What threat?" The man asked softly. What threat? The threat. The. The. The. No. Games with my head. I am a scout. The scout. "Inside that suit, you talk to a girl. Dizzy. Am I right?" The man did not pause for an answer. "You know why they call her Dizzy? Cause that's what she does. She keeps your busy, keeps you distracted. It's what she's programmed for." "Programmed--" "So you can't hear the drums." Drums. "I don't... I don't understand." My head hurt, pounded. Why wasn't the armor administering medication? Was it broken? "That armor you're wearing. It's the only one left, isn't it? You've probably been wearing it your whole life, they put it on you when you were five, maybe six?" "Seven. I was seven." "And I'm guessing it didn't fit right, not all all. It was loose and horrible, but you got used to it. Grew into it. Until it fit perfectly. Couldn't tell it from your own skin. But then it started to get tight, around the elbows at the knees. Began to pinch." No. It fits just fine. "And there's only one suit. Only one lifeline to let you roam outside the bunker, scan the outside world. Feed the information back to base. And you're wearing it. Worse, you're outgrowing it. They need it back, need someone to keep scouting. What do you think they'll do with you? You're useless to them. They won't send you north like they did in the old days, like they did to me. They'll kill you and scrape you out of that metal can so the next kid can wear it." My knees felt weak. I fell to them. "They need the suit. The need it to... Survive. To preserve the lie. To keep the drumming quiet." The man came closer, kneeled down, "But you can hear it, can't you? Even though they fill your mind with nonsense, they can't make it go away. Listen." I listened. I thought of marching in cadence when I was small, before the armor. I though of repetition, field stripping the thermal. Rat-a-tat-tat. The concussion of blank rounds into practice dummies. The clang of metal in the air ducts. Rat-a-tat-tat. The frantic beating in my chest, the blood in my veins. Rat-a-tat-tat. "What... What is it?" "It's what burned the world. It wasn't the Neo-Napalm, it wasn't the aero planes that dropped it. It wasn't the chemicals that created it, or the lab that produced it. It was that sound. The sound that every human being is born to hear, that's imbedded into our blood and bone no matter how we struggle. The drums." He whispered, "The drums of war." "Slide!" Static in my ear, my head. "Slide he's.... Don't listen... Enemy Slide..." Choppy transmission, bad reception. "Kill him!" The last words, crystal clear. "KILL HIM!" Adrenaline flooded my veins, Inferno armor finally responsive. But not to my commands. Dizzy. My heart ceased briefly before exploding in full gallop. My hand was around the thermal before I could think about it. Instinct was secondary, training kicked in. "Don't do it boy. You're so close. You can almost see." I raised the thermal. BANG. I felt cold. All over. I felt my legs twitching, someplace far away. My rifle. Where was my rifle? "I'm sorry boy. I thought I could save you. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." The man. Standing over me. What's he doing? He reaches down... No! No don't take off my helmet! I'll--- There's a hiss as the air pressure releases, a clicking of metal and the helmet slides off for the first time in ten years. I wait for smoke, I wait for burning--I'm so cold--but it doesn't come. It's too bright. Hard to see. Overhead the sky is blue. Blue like... I don't know what. I can see the buildings, old skeletons, but there's something on them. Something... green. And other colors. Bright. Pretty. "I thought you'd wanna see it." He says, setting the helmet down. "Those green things? Those are plants. And the colorful little things, those are flowers." "Flowers." The word tastes sweet. He sits down beside me; on my back I can see only the sky and the man's silhouette. "The drums. They take us all in the end. Humans have always struggled against them but... Dammit. I really thought I could save you." "Drums." I echo. "Drums and flowers. Did we really burn the world? Did... Did people do this?" "War is in our nature. Always has been. Yeah, we burned the world. Set it ablaze for a good, long time. But the fires went out, eventually. And nature came back." He stared at the helmet, "Dizzy was supposed to protect us, help us survive while we waited for the earth to cool. But she decided humans couldn't protect themselves. Decided to keep us locked up. Used the scouts to keep the lie convincing. What you saw in the visor, "he tapped the helmet, "old footage. The way things were. She never let you see what was real. Didn't want to fail. Didn't want us to die. Can't blame her, but she stopped ...caring a long time ago." I could feel myself slipping, falling out of the suit. Pooling out on the ground. "You know what?" "What?" "I used to like Dizzy. You know. Like like." "Me too boy. Me too." I didn't want to close my eyes, don't want to miss a moment of blue sky, or green plants, or flowers. But my eyes closed anyway. "I can hear them. I can hear the drums." "Can you now?" "Yeah."