A world covered by an endless city. Broken, old, the smell of rust and poison fills my lungs with every breath. The lights flicker and spark with an incessant rhythm, the gears inside the walls sputter and screech, the vents rattle as stale air that’s been recycled a billion times is weakly forced through the pipes.
Hemlock is a dead world. Its been dead a long time. I’m a peldak and we count our lifespans by the centuries, but this world perished eons before even the oldest and most venerated of us took our first steps.
As I look through a grime-stained window on one of the spire’s higher levels, and gaze out over the vast expanse of thick, green, poisoned clouds which blanket the surface, it terrifies me to know that people have lived on Hemlock for as long as it’s been dead.
All over the planet are spires which breach the death cloud. Strings of buildings connected by ancient bridges, or mountains of rooms and hallways that are stacked atop each other high enough to poke beyond even the atmosphere. Hemlocks, the locals for whom this world is named, cluster inside the upper levels of one of these mountains, an ‘abis’ as they call it, and fight off whatever mutated and diseased creatures climb up from the depths. Generations of this have given them a warrior’s mentality and a martial spirit, which I find welcome.
The Peldak Protectorate came to this world in the pursuit of adventure and conquest, but once we realized the tragic situation of the locals, it became our moral duty to free them from this world. On this abis, made of a strange metal we can’t replicate, two legions have gathered. We’ll fight the mutated enemies of the hemlocks, evacuate any unable to fight to safer worlds, and send teams into the guts of the abis to reunite any pocket of hemlock civilization that may have carved out a life down there.
In persuit of that noble goal, two hemlocks are escorting me through the busted hallways of their territory. They’re tall and thin, with surprisingly dense muscle underneath. Most of their bodies are covered in rags, bandages, or crude hide armor. I don’t know what they look like underneath, but their exposed hands reveal bone spurs protruding from their skin. Like a natural set of brass knuckles, and their fingernails look more like sturdy claws. In their left hand they carry a pistol, the latest model the Protectorate can provide, and in their right hand is a long halberd, a design the hemlocks have perfected to keep poisoned monster’s blood from spilling on them. The handle of the halberd has a curved shield to protect their hands, similar to the handguard of my sword.
The two don’t speak as we walk through the hallways, and I don’t initiate conversation. There’s no telling what could be hiding in the walls, waiting for us to make a noise.
We pass by rooms and balconies and massive atriums, but God only knows what any room was designed for when the city was in peak condition. The millennia of abandonment, and the hemlock’s scavenging, ruined the possibility of deciphering the original purpose of anything. Occasionally I see hastily crafted fortifications, or sheet metal awkwardly hammered over spots where something burst through the walls.
“We are here.” One of the hemlocks says, his voice low and deep. He walks to a door and crouches down, gripping a handlebar on the bottom, then flexing his legs to deadlift the heavy metal door over his head.
A heavy gust of wind blows in from the next room, and the second hemlock crouches to enter the door way. The wind is thin and smells of poison, but my own world of Peldor is no stranger to these types of toxins and diseases. I’m slightly shorter than the hemlocks, so I don’t need to crouch in order to pass under the door. When I’m through, the first hemlock enters our side and gently sets the door down.
We enter a long, curved room that circles around a section of the abis. On the left are a dozen arches which lead out into the open air. Between each arch are glass windows. Or at least I think they’re glass, I haven’t seen any that are broken during my stay here. Most arches have been closed off by the hemlocks, with large piles of useless rubble left on the balconies beyond, and thin strips of sheet metal hammered over the doorway.
But six arches down, there is no such obstruction. Instead, there’s a giant machine, with two hemlocks and another peldak hanging around it.
The peldak’s pointed ears twitch, and he turns to us with a wave of his hand. I wave back, but the hemlocks continue their solemn march.
The peldak seems to be in rough shape. I see a few cuts on his face, along with some scuff marks and blood splatters on his armor. Similar blood stains line the walls and floor, but I see no corpses. The hemlocks, on the other hand, seem to be no worse for wear. Though that might be because their rags wouldn’t easily show battle damage.
The two hemlocks around the machine come to meet us in the middle of the hallway.
They all speak in a similar voice, it’s hard to tell them apart.
“Any sightings?” One of my hemlocks says.
“Not in the air. We were attacked by a roamer. The alien killed it.” The other hemlock says.
I glance to the other peldak, he has bags under his eyes and he’s sniffling. His cheeks and ears are looking red too, I think he’s sick.
The two hemlocks of my group get down on one knee, and lower their heads, only one speaks. “We request the right to operate this machine in defense of the tribe.”
The other two hemlocks crouch down and put a hand on the other’s shoulder. “Your request is granted. You have the right of operation. Do not leave your post until another comes to relieve you, or you die in the line of duty.”
My hemlocks rise to their feet, the four shake hands, and then they part without another word. My hemlocks go to the machine, and I glance to the other peldak.
“These people are crazy,” he says, “watch yourself out here.” With a smile and a pat on the back, he hurries past me to join his hemlocks on the journey back to the upper levels.
My hemlocks walk to the large machine and begin inspecting it. They turn dials, flip switches, pull levers, I don’t know what any of it means. Their inspection, and the constant gusts of wind, make a lot of noise, so I feel it’s safe to talk.
“What is that thing?” It’s two stories tall, a hulking beast of metal, I’ve never seen anything like it.
“A gun,” one replies matter-of-factly.
“A gun? I’ve never seen one this big.”
“It is used to shoot flying monsters out of the air to prevent them from reaching the upper levels.”
I cross my arms, “did you hemlocks build it?”
I glance to the other arches, the piles of rubble which sit on balconies outside. They looks similar. I can see the circular base, some gears, and a long, albeit bent and broken, barrel on each. “Did you guys repair it, or did it just so happen to remain operational?”
“I don’t know.”
I don’t think they’re being rude. Nothing I’ve seen of these hemlocks lead me to believe they’re the talkative type. But I still want to try.
I sit on a large metal box and lean on the opposite wall, “do you two have names? I’m Aleks.”
“I am Dunwin, this is Dobas.”
“Nice to meet you. I see you’re wearing the same outfits, are those uniforms?”
“They are not the same,” Dunwin says, his eyes not drawing from his inspection. “My gear was crafted from the hide of a sonsonaquin I personally killed during my rite of passage, while his was made from the hide of a duradetantle.”
“Ah, right. How foolish of me. So what am I doing here? What’s my job?”
Dunwin answers again, “we will watch the skies, you keep watch over our backs. If a mutant approaches then kill it.”
I glance to the left of the empty hallway, then I glance to the right. “No mutants that I can see.”
“They usually hide in the walls, or will crawl up from the outside,” Dunwin says.
I turn to Dobas, “you don’t talk much, do you?”
Dunwin answers, “his throat was injured many years ago and he’s lost the ability to speak. Do not interpret his silence as an insult.”
“Ah, sorry to hear that.”
“It is common when fighting ralapikters without the proper neck brace.”
The two silently continue their inspection of the gun until it’s finally finished. Then, Dunwin sits on a chair connected to the right side of the barrel. He’s got a telescope that I assume will show him where the bullet will go, a lever which will raise the angle of the gun, and a valve which lowers it.
Dobas, with his feet planted firmly on the metal floor, grips the back of the massive gun and slowly pushes it side to side. The metal gears creak as it turns, I can’t imagine it was originally intended to be spun manually like this.
Then Dobas jumps out from behind the gun, and Dunwin yanks a cord from his station. The tip of the gun explodes in a titanic fireball, while the back of the gun extends and launches the spent shell casing out. The blast rockets through the hallway and smashes against my long, sensitive ears, causing me to recoil and bring my hands up to cover myself.
My eyes clamp shut, and my teeth clench as my ears take a moment to stop ringing.
Thankfully, they don’t fire that thing again.
“Agh, I wish… you’d have warned me of that.”
Dobas looks to me, but I have no idea what he’s thinking beyond those rags.
“I apologize. It was a necessary to see if the sights are aligned. I will warn you if we see a beast.”
But with their inspection done, there isn’t much else to do. We sit here and wait for any threats to show themselves. The constant, violent breeze blowing in from the arches actually gets refreshing after a while. It still smells like rust and poison, but I get use to it.
I get restless before long, peldaks aren’t suited for guard duty. It’s only a few minutes before I hop off the crate and begin pacing back and forth in the hallway. Then I draw my sword and give a few swings through the air. I practice quick-drawing my pistol, I sweep some loose bits of rubble that line the floor, this is agonizing.
Meanwhile, the two hemlocks stay put. Dunwin is out on the balcony with binoculars to his eyes, scanning the horizon. Dobas is sitting on the side of the large gun, motionless. Actually, since I can’t see his eyes, he might be sleeping.
Seeing nothing else to do in this boring, supposedly dangerous guard assignment, I walk closer. Each step chosen carefully, an even distribution of weight, nothing on the floor gets disturbed. My boots gently tap against the metal floor, but there’s no stopping that. I make it over to him without a sound.
Then I slowly raise my hand in front of his face-
His head snaps towards me, “ah!” and I jump back in surprise, almost tripping over a few discarded pieces of metal. “Were you… awake this whole time?”
He nods, slowly.
“So you’ve just been sitting there, not moving?”
He nods again, more forcefully this time.
“Isn’t that boring?”
He shakes his head.
“Huh.” I look down both ends of the hallway, then scratch the back of my neck. “Well, I have a sword, you have a spear, and we’re both warriors. Wanna spar?”
He shakes his head.
My ears droop, “ah.” I raise my fist, “how about rock paper scissors?”
He shakes his head.
I pat my bicep, which is noticably thicker than his, “arm wrestling?”
He shakes his head.
“Do you… want to do anything?”
He brings his hand up and taps his knuckles against the gun.
“You want to just sit there… and wait for something to shoot.”
He nods vigorously.
What a boring species.
They don’t even have cards. What kind of patrol through enemy territory is it if you don’t bring cards?
I wish they sent another peldak along with me, this is hell. But no, I get it. The hemlocks don’t fully trust us yet, so they don’t want us outnumbering them when we go out on patrols. I get the logic, even if it doesn’t make sense since I could easily kill them both anyway.
Glancing past the gun, Dunwin is out there on the balcony, looking out. At least he can actually talk.
I head outside, the fur and cloth bits of my armor flap violently in the wind. I lose my balance slightly as I don’t expect such strong gusts, especially since Dunwin stands there so solidly, but I get used to it before long.
I stand at his side and grab the old, cracked, decorative stone railing. I feel small flakes crumble off beneath my grip, this railing is older than anyone in the Protectorate. Incredible.
But beyond the railing, the view is far greater than what I could have expected. We’re so high up the abis, and the slope is so steep, varying from 70-90 degrees in places. The balcony we’re on was built in the center of a cove, a large cove that extends far above us, and all the way down. The left and right walls of this metallic cove offer me the best view of the abis’s outside appearance. I see all kinds of hallways, balconies, domes, spires, everything’s rusted over and dirty, what a sight this place would have been when properly maintained. The dazzling architecture goes on until the impenetrable cloud of poisoned air, several miles beneath us. The clouds swirl and twist, occasionally brushing up the side of the metal mountain like waves against a cliff.
There’s the occasional crack of blue lightning which shoots across the cloudy sea. Usually it stretches from the abis to one of the many clusters of spires which also jut out from under the toxic cloud, but just as often, the bolt seems contained to a certain area. There must be millions of buildings down there, within the clouds, so it isn’t a mystery what those bolts are hitting. From what I’ve been told, there’s hundreds of floors worth of undercity beneath the surface, so there could be entire civilizations down there, too far beneath the poison cloud’s reach.
When I look back towards the peak of the abis, it goes up so far, all the way to space. Our starships, which utilize some cosmic space magic I’m not qualified to speak on, can’t easily descend towards planets, but that’s not an issue since we can dock on the taller spires. They even have ‘elevators’ to bring our cargo down, which is a technology we’ve quickly adopted elsewhere.
I turn back to the horizon, “see anything?”
“What’re you looking for?”
“Well I know that, obviously. I’m asking you to describe what they look like.”
“They have wings.”
This is agony.
I grip the bridge of my nose and sigh, “do they have fur? Feathers? Talons? Teeth? What are we looking for?”
Dunwin turns his head to me, then points down at the poison cloud. “Mutants live down there. Mutants get mutated. There is no standard for what comes up. Some have furry bodies, some have feathers, legends tell of one mutant which is made of fire and cannot be killed. The only similar trait between them is that they can fly. If we see anything that can fly, we shoot it down.”
“I guess that makes sense. Shoot down anything that can fly.”
Seemingly satisfied with my understanding, he turns and brings his binoculars up once more.
“You people don’t talk much.”
“There is no need to. We are defending the tribe.”
I rest my arm on the railing and lean on it, “but even back up top, it’s so often quiet. You guys don’t speak even when in a safe area.”
“It only became a truly ‘safe’ area after two legions worth of soldiers came to our home.” He glances to me and grabs the fur on my collar. “This feeling of ‘peace’ your kind brought with you is unnatural.”
As I’m looking down at his hand, wondering why hes gripping my collar, I sneeze. A hard sneeze, the force of which sends my elbow straight through the old, decrepit railing. It crumbles to thousands of pieces, some large chunks and some tiny shards, while dust gets picked up by the wind and thrown back in my face. I have more than enough time to balance myself so I don’t go off the edge, but Dunwin throws his arm back and yanks me from the ledge anyway.
“Even if your kind are here,” he says, “there is still danger all around us. It would not do to be so talkative.”
I glance between him and the broken bit of railing. “That wasn’t from me talking.”
He turns to watch the horizon once more, but doesn’t speak.
“It wasn’t! And I wouldn’t have fallen either, I could have caught myself!”
He doesn’t respond.
Now that I’ve thoroughly embarrassed myself, I walk back into the hallway and sit on the large box. Dobas glances towards me, and I offer him a wave. He raises his hand in return, but goes back to sitting still right after.
Back to the agonizing wait.
I was told this was a dangerous world, and I’m starting to get irritated. I was promised adventure and challenge, a true test of my skills, but ever since landing, I’ve been met with nothing but lectures, conferences, and now boredom. I was told I’d need to build my immunity to this world before I head below the death cloud, so maybe that’ll be more exciting.
I bounce my leg against the ground, tap my hand on the metal box, and even try whistling. My throat’s feeling a bit dry, so I take the canteen from my waist and unscrew the top.
Bringing it up, almost to my lips, Dobas walks over and yanks the canteen out of my hand.
“Oh?” I say with a smile, “if you wanted some, you could have-“
He turns it over and spills all the water to the floor next to me. Once he flicks the last few drops from the canteen, he screws the lid back on and shoves it against my chest.
“…” I glance to him, then look at the puddle, then back to him.
He tries to turn around and go back to his spot, but I’m not letting that slide.
I jump up and close the distance between us. With a firm hand on his shoulder, I spin him around, then grip the rags by his collar bone to pull him close. He’s taller than me by a few inches, but my muscles are far bulkier, and I force him to bend slightly.
“You can’t speak, fine. You know more than me when it comes to this world, I respect that. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume there was some reason you wasted my water. So, before I punch your teeth out, let’s go ask Dunwin to interpret for you. Alright?”
Dobas responds by bringing his hands up to grab my wrists. He’s surprisingly strong for someone so thin, and his fingernail-claws are sturdy and sharp. I have armor on my forearms and wrists, but he uses his claws to pinch into the back of my hands, hard enough to make me lose my grip. “Hngh,” I recoil at the sudden bit of pain, then he takes me off guard by yanking my hands away from his collar.
I’m ready for a fight and look up, but he’s already walking towards Dunwin.
Fine. I was the one who said we’d get the other hemlock to translate.
This will work out for me, no matter what happens. Either Dunwin takes my side, and we beat Dobas together for being rude, or Dunwin takes Dobas’s side, and I beat them both for being rude. Either way, I get a fight out of this and can pass the time through the art of combat!
As I march to Dunwin on the balcony, my blood is pumping. Dobas is thin, yet strong, and those claws are a clear danger. I wonder what kind of surprises he’s keeping under those rags. Knives? Spikes? Armor? There are so many things I need to be wary of when we duel! I won’t use my pistol, that’d be too quick and too boring, but I’d also need to keep him from using his own gun. That halberd he’s carrying has a long reach, but his claws would be deadly in close range, I’d have to maintain the perfect distance if I’d have any hope of succeeding.
I’ve never seen a hemlock fight before, but he’s never seen me. I’m confident I can pull through as the undisputed victor.
I’ll make that rude, mute prick regret… whatever he did that made me mad.
He pats Dunwin on the back, prompting the senior to look his way. Then, Dobas starts flailing his arms in a form of sign language, with Dunwin nodding his head.
Dobas is probably badmouthing me. Or prepping Dunwin to take his side. Looks like I really will have to fight them both! That’s a tall order, but I’m fine with it. The railing around the balcony is damaged, I have to remember that. I don’t want to accidentally kick anyone over the edge, that would be murder.
I’ll grab Dunwin and throw him back onto the balcony in revenge for how he did it to me, then I’ll swing my leg around and kick Dobas in the stomach, knocking him back towards the gun as well. From there, it’ll be a hard fought 2v1, but-
“Dobas told me what happened. Your water smelled bad, he says. Did you get it from a faucet in the safe zone up top, he asks.”
“He wants to know if you boiled it.”
The two nod, and Dunwin continues, “our water purifier has been broken for a while. An expedition is being planned to find the parts necessary to repair it. If you drank that water, you would have ingested a parasite that would have eaten through your stomach, and you’d be puking up blood by the end of the day.”
Dobas uses hand signals again.
“He apologizes for not having me explain it immediately. It didn’t occur to him that the Protectorate wouldn’t have told you not to drink unboiled water, so he figured that pouring it out would have been a reminder.”
Did the Protectorate tell me to do that? I had to sit through a lot of lectures before I came here, that might have been something they brought up.
“Eeh, no worries. Thanks for… keeping me from ingesting a stomach-eating parasite.”
He nods respectfully, then returns to his seat.
Without another word, Dunwin gazes out at the horizon once more.
So I’m left standing here, still with nothing to do, and with a debt owed to Dobas for saving my life. I return to my box and bite the inside of my cheek. When thinking on it now, why did I even want to fight them? That’s sure embarrassing, glad these hemlocks can’t read minds.
I wait longer on the box, trying to quell the restlessness that’s spread to every corner of my body and soul, and eventually I start to get hungry. I have food I got from the safe zone, but can I eat it? Is it safe? I don’t want Dobas saving me again, and I also don’t want to die. We’ll only stand guard at this gun for so many hours, I should just wait, I think. I can last until we get back to the safe zone.
My stomach rumbles and Dobas turns his head to me. Even if I can’t see them, I know his eyes are on me. He doesn’t turn away either, he’s staring straight through me. My ears flap in embarrassment and I turn my head.
But he’s still looking at me.
I glance to him for just a moment before turning away again, and he responds by cocking his head to the side.
If he won’t stop, fine. I turn to meet his gaze, straightening my back and keeping my chin up. “Anything you want to say?” I keep a forceful tone, “Dunwin’s right out there, we can go translate if you want.”
Dobas watches me a moment longer, then faces forward once more. My stomach grumbles again, but his head snaps my way for only a second before returning.
What is that supposed to mean? Does a rumbling stomach have some sort of meaning to them? Maybe that I’ve been possessed by a demon, or I’m slowly turning into a mutant? It might be possible that hemlock stomachs don’t grumble when they’re hungry, so the sound coming from my gut is just confusing and strange to him. Or maybe he finds it odd that he can hear my stomach over the wind. Well, if he doesn’t talk then I don’t know what he wants.
I go back to waiting, occasionally gripping my stomach to quell the noise.
A few minutes pass and my stomach doesn’t stop. Dobas keeps looking my way, and I keep turning my head to the side, my lips pursed. I want to eat the food I brought, but is it poisoned? Is there a parasite? Maybe it’s best to ask Dobas if it’s safe.
I sigh, hardening my resolve, but I turn to find he’s right there, towering over me. He raises a hand, his thick claws wrapped around the taut cloth handle of a small metal container. I pull back a little, but he gestures for me to take it.
Raising an eyebrow, I put my hand out and he rests the cold box on my palm. When I unlatch the sides and pop the top open, I notice it’s food. Four sticks placed side by side, all wrapped in some thin, transparent film that crinkles when I touch it. The stick inside is a milky white color, and looks flakey.
I look up at him, and Dobas nods. I feel like he’s smiling beneath those rags.
“Uh, I…” I shake my head, then pull my own lunchbox from around my belt. “I have my own food, I just… don’t know if it’s safe to eat, like the water earlier.” My ears wiggle, and I blush. “Err, could you check for parasites, or poisons?”
I hand the lunchbox off, and he eagerly takes it with both hands. Dobas walks back to his spot, then opens the box to reveal a mixture of foreign dishes. Our legions have regular supply shipments bringing all sorts of foods that can’t be found on Hemlock. I got the lunchbox from our legion’s cafeteria, and it should be sealed, but… doubt has infested my mind.
Then he starts eating it, using his claws to piece up each individual item.
I figured he’d just check for poison, but apparently not. I guess we’ve exchanged meals? I hope that doesn’t mean something in their culture, like now we’re blood brothers, or I have to go on patrols with him forever. He’s undone a bit of rag near his chin, but I can’t get a good look at his face.
Oh well. If these hemlocks wanted us to see what they look like, they’d show us.
I rip the film off one of the sticks, then bite down harder than I need to. It’s crunchy, but gives way easily beneath my jaw. The more I chew, the more watery it becomes until it’s just slosh in my mouth. It has no flavor, I don’t like it. It’s better than eating poison though, so I keep eating the watery stick, forcing it down my throat. But every time I swallow, a disgusted tremble pulses through my body.
I think it’s nutritious. If this was what Dobas brought for his meal, it must have enough calories and vitamins to let you grow muscle. I guess I shouldn’t complain, even if Dobas got the better end of this trade…
Nevertheless, I force two down before Dunwin runs into the hallway.
“Mutants,” he says firmly as he jumps to his seat on the side of the gun.
Figures they’d show up the one time I’m busy…