The MLA Story
Author's note: I wrote this originally to be a page or two long story, but got so into it that I ended up... Show full author's note »
Day OneThe heat saps all energy from you as you struggle to continue putting one foot before the other. Laughter echoes from above and you stop mid-step, craning your head back to peer at the blue sky above. The desert sun shines into your eyes, blinding you. You sigh and duck your head again, clearing spots from your vision with repeated blinking. Wind whips past, carrying sand with it and that same echo of childish joy. A shadow swoops across the dunes and you flinch and duck reflexively as a large, blood-red shape zooms down onto the highway. It lands in a skid that keeps going until the figure wheels around and skates towards you, giant wings disengaging from her back and flapping along above her.
The girl wears roller skates and deftly navigates the cracked, dusty pavement, whipping to a stop just outside striking distance. One hand holds a gun while the other pushes a hat with earflaps back from her face and brushes hair from shockingly bright blue eyes.
She holds the gun level with your head, eyeing you warily. After a moment of tense silence you raise your hands in surrender. “Who are you?” she snaps the words, taking a step forward that seems menacing despite her small stature.
You stammer out something unintelligible, taking an answering step back.
“Who do you work for? The helibots? Are you some new drone?” You just stare at her in confusion and she starts to relax a little. “You're not with the government? BioCity?”
You shake your head quickly. “I have no idea what you're talking about!”
You let out a relieved breath when she lowers the gun, holstering it on her hip. “Gogu. Search.” Her wings scuttle up from around her and you blink repeatedly as it becomes apparent that they are a separate entity and quite alive. Spindly metal legs stick out from the centerpiece, like a giant insect. A face on the plate between the wings squints at you, whirring and clicking. After a long minute its wings fold and it scuttles back towards her. “Untapped. Good. Fetch.”
You take several semi-involuntary steps backwards as the winged creature approaches again. It moves behind you faster than you can avoid it and its metal legs curve around you, cold even beneath the burning heat of the sun. You yelp as the wings start to flap, pulling you airborne. “Wait! What are you doing?!”
“We can't talk here.” The girl is completely calm, already scanning the surrounding area. Your transportation's wings scoop air and suddenly you're rocketing forwards. Your scream is lost to the wind. The sand flying into your mouth quickly convinces you to close it, cutting yourself off.
The girl laughs a little at your antics and kicks into gear, quickly falling into a comfortable stride below you, the purple wheels in her skates flashing as she jumps cracks in the highway like a pro. The wind whipping in your face makes speech impossible, so after several minutes you give up and try to relax and enjoy the ride. You watch the desert sands flash by, heaped into dunes and valleys.
After a while she slows to a stop and the red wings flapping around you slow also as Gogu stops. In a move too fast to be entirely comfortable the metal legs around you shift, half holding you while the other half curl around the girl. The great wings labor to lift you both again, sweeping across the sands as he flies off road.
“Where are we going?” You have to nearly shout to be heard above the roar of the wind but the girl doesn't even look at you, eyes on the horizon.
“Somewhere safe.” She doesn't speak again and you stay silent, trying to see whatever it is she's looking for. After several minutes Gogu lowers you both to the sands. The strange girl sets off, her rollerblades turning her walk into more of a trudge, and you trot to follow, unwilling to hang back and get close to Gogu again. You don't take note of where you are until something blocks the light of the sun, the temperature instantly dropping. You look up and observe suddenly that you've stepped into a tunnel of sand, so well camouflaged into the dunes around that you didn't see it even from ten feet away. The tunnel winds through the sands, stopping at an old metal door. The girl blocks your view of it as she inserts a key and types a code a keypad by the door.
She shoves it open with her shoulder and it protests softly before swinging open onto black. Gogu sidles past you and ducks into the shadow. Moments later lights flicker on and you follow the girl into what looks like an old diner and garage, the wall between the two torn down to make one large space. The windows and front door are buried in sand and the only lights come from overhead bulbs that flicker a little. Somewhere on the edges of the room you can hear a generator purring quietly.
The right side of the room where the old garage was is piled with machinery, a large table down the center buried under sketches, tools and scraps of metal. A pile of boxes fill an entire corner and overall you can't help feeling it's the lab of an evil genius. There's something large under a tarp at the far end that draws your curiosity briefly. It almost looks like it might be a car, but before you can remark on it your attention shifts as the girl walks to the other side of the room.
The left side of the space is a nearly unremarkable 60's style diner, except that one of the booths has had the table removed, a bed placed there instead. Clothes spill from the booth next to it, which apparently functions as a wardrobe.
Above the long counter hangs a fading sign that reads "Welcome to Paradise Falls" in cracked paint. Fresh, blood red paint overlays the last word, changing it to "Fell" in silent protest. The girl must notice your curiosity because she speaks from behind you. “Once BioCity went up...everything else fell. My parents used to own this place.”
You turn towards her, more curious now. “Who are you? And what's 'BioCity'?”
She's already sat down and is working to unlace her skates and pull them off. She's wearing mismatched socks beneath the leg warmers; one purple polkadots, the other green stripes. It's an oddly endearing sight, made more so when she pulls off her hat and her blue hair sticks out in all directions. “My name's Riba. I'm one of the only normal guys left around here.” She doesn't look at you as she speaks, pulling off one glove, then the other. She slips her feet into well-worn sneakers and stands, moving behind the counter of the diner. “BioCity's where the Walkers live. You really don't know any of this?”
You shake your head as she checks a clock on a wall and flicks on a radio, carefully turning the dial through station after station of static. A frown builds on her face then clears as the static changes to silence. She checks the clock again -three minutes to the hour- and then looks back at you. “You're in Paradise Falls. Former home of most of the population. They've all moved to BioCity and become Walkers.” At your blank look she adds “You know, pill-takers? The MLA workers give them pills that make them go all brain-dead. MLA is Modern Living Arrangements, by the way.”
She cuts herself off as the clock ticks to the hour and the radio crackles to life, a rich, deep voice purring from the speakers. You move closer to listen, drawn in by the commanding tones.
Look alive, lovelies!
Word is the baron's flying bloody
And the drones went home.
I'm your surgeon, your sergeant,
Your larger than life friend to the end,
I'm here keeping the beat for our meet'n'greet,
Pumping out music to keep you all alive.
To my servants, my soldiers,
My sight-seers and thrill-seekers,
Saddle up and grab your sharpshooters
Cause we got ourselves a war!
You know the time, the place,
The ugly face to kill.
Keep your trail clean
And your hands dirty.
We've got the power in our final hour
To bury the baddies once and for all.
Oh and before I forget…
A special message for my eyes in the sky,
My red robber, my helicopter.
There's a warrant for your arrest so rest in peace.
So long to the luckless and lifeless,
We're bringing in the new year
With a bang to remember!
“Rest in peace...” Riba repeats the words in a murmur as the transmission ends.
You glance up at her, confused. “What was all that about?”
“A message.” She disappears into the kitchen through a pair of swinging doors and reemerges moments later carrying a small metal box. “Dr. Sunshine's the rebel leader. He's just started a war.” She sounds unphazed, placing the box on the counter before you. “Sit. I've got a lot to tell you.”
You take a seat on one of the plastic stools, propping your feet up on the ledge under the bar. Once you're situated she opens the box and pulls out two tiny packets of white powder, handing one to you. “Put it on your tongue, let it dissolve.” She waits until you hesitantly comply to continue. The powder tastes faintly of oranges but isn't unpleasant. You roll it around in your mouth, a little put off by how similar the texture is to the sand you have inadvertently been tasting for a while. “That's an ESAP. Energy Single Application Packet. About the closest thing to food a girl can get her hands on these days.” She pops one into her mouth and there's silence for a few minutes as the powder dissolves. She grabs two bottles of water from a fridge and hands one to you. The cool liquid is a relief as you wash away the last remnants of the powder.
Something brushes against your leg and you jump and look down just in time to see Gogu scuttle past. He gives you what almost passes for a dirty look, then curls up on an old dog bed. He circles a time or two before flopping down, metal creaking. You watch in semi-horrified fascination, then blink as one wing flicks out, settling across the front of the bed and blocking you from his view.
“What is that thing??” You nearly shriek, greatly unsettled.
Riba looks nonplussed. “That's Gogu. Logan made him for me.” At your puzzled look she elaborates. “He's a bug-dog cyborg. I'm pretty good with machines, but Logan is a wizard. He grafted the metal onto my old dog's body when he died, then used one of the giant beetles that hang out in the desert for the living parts.” You make a disgusted face and she frowns. “Don't. Gogu's really smart. He's saved my life a couple times. And once we perfected the wing to metal ratio he made a great getaway vehicle.”
Still unconvinced, you look at the wall of thick red cloth. “He's...smart?”
“Well, as smart as Gogu the dog was. You know how some dogs are just really smart? That's Gogu. I trained him to do a bunch of stuff, not just the usual things like sit and roll over.” She seems proud and smiles brightly, combing her wild blue hair back from her face. You muster a weak smile in return.
“So...where's your brother? Logan, was it?”
The smile drops off her face faster than you can catch and she quickly busies herself putting the box away. When she returns from the kitchens she seems a little more composed. “MLA got him. I haven't seen him in...well...over a year. He was the brains behind the revolution, the first time we fought back. He made our guns and shields and transportation. He's super smart. His birthday's tomorrow...” She trails off, looking towards the workshop side of the diner. “He'd be turning-” she stops, shakes her head and continues more forcibly “is turning 18. I know he's still alive. He has to be. He's probably just another Walker.”
Not wanting to upset her but needing to know you ask softly, “What...else would they do with him?”
“Everybody knew how smart he was. Without him, well...we fell apart for a long while. MLA would want him...out of the way.” Her chin wobbles a little and you fall silent, feeling a little guilty.
Her chin tilts up again, stubborn. “It doesn't matter. We're going to fight, and we're going to win. Sunshine's already authorized the move.”
“Sunshine? The guy on the radio?”
“Yeah. He's the rebel leader. Most of us have never seen him, but he's been fighting back ever since MLA took over.”
You nod like you've actually followed all of this. “So...what now?”
“Now we've got work to do. But not until tomorrow morning. You can take the booth at the end. Try and get some sleep...things are going to be crazy tomorrow.” She stands and makes her way around the room, checking on various things before sitting down on her bed and kicking off her shoes and socks. Uncertain, you go to the booth she indicated to you and find it also converted into a bed. There are large boots just under the edge and masculine clothing spills from the booth one over. With a jolt you realize this must be Riba's brother's bed. You sit gingerly, kicking off your shoes. Sand scatters across the floor and you sigh in resignation, pulling off your socks as well and shaking them out.
After several minutes you think you hear Riba say something, but before you can ask the overhead lights flick off and the diner is dark but for ambient light from somewhere on the garage side. Reluctantly, you climb further onto the bed and lie down, closing your eyes. There's an eerie feeling that you're not the only one in the bed, like her brother's ghost is still there, but you do your best to ignore it.