It had taken them decades for anyone from The Ark to return to the planet's surface after the event, and they'd barely made it this time. It was grave circumstances that forced Commander Shepherd to allow her crew to raid Southern California for supplies; their target: The Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
"Major, come take a look at this," shouted Gunther from his seat near the window, spotting the downed NASA shuttle carrier aircraft. "It looks like the poor bastards at JPL were so desperate to get out of dodge when the looters came they took to the air with anything that could fly."
"Doesn't look like they got far in that relic," she replied, the boredom evident in her voice. She tried to be patient, after all the kid grew up on the Ark and his excitement at seeing the planet was to be expected, but it was tedious.
Abruptly she stopped, looking closer out of the window before calling out to the cockpit, "Captain Winn, take us in for a closer look, I think there might be people down there."
"Yeah, I don't think that's a good idea, ma'am. We're here for supplies; even if there are survivors - which isn't likely - they ain't gonna have shit we need. We've barely got power enough to support the Ark for another week, we can't take on any more charity cases."
"We've got time, Cap'n. They might have information that will keep us from walking into a trap - who knows if one of those rover bands took control of JPL once we left." the major paused, lost in thought for a moment before adding, "We need the intel."
"And if they're hostile?"
"We kill them."
That was over a week ago, Marlentes chided herself. She had no idea what had happened to Gunther or Winn, or if they were even still alive. If the glow on the horizon and the blood curling screams were any indication, the bastards probably got Botvinnik and Zhu last night; the sickly sweet smell that clung to the dust this morning left little doubt as to their fate.
"Focus" she said angrily standing up suddenly, toppling her depleted life support helmet to the ground as she hoisted her Gauss rifle and headed out from her makeshift lean-to with a vigor and purpose that lasted all of fifteen feet. She stopped, taking stock of the ruined suburbs of Southern California with an increasing sense of dread before heading west towards Pasadena.
Rovers. Mátoha. Zǔzhòu. It all meant the same thing to her: Cannibals. All that was left of humanity were roving packs of marauders that would do and kill anything, or anyone, to stay alive. Aside from the occasional functioning ATV or motorcycle, humanity had all but devolved back into its most primitive form of hunter/gatherer culture ruled by nothing more than blood thirsty tribalism. When the first unmanned missions came to the planet in 2089, Ark researchers were appalled by what they found.
Marlentes drug her mostly depleted Gauss rifle behind her leaving a conspicuous trail in the thin layer of sand that covered the ruined remains of interstate 210. She knew this would make her easy to track, but the weight of the rifle was too much to bear after more than a week of hiking and evading capture. She'd already shed everything that wasn't absolutely necessary, but the twenty pound rifle had already saved her ass twice now; there was no way she could leave it behind. So she compromised: Drag it and hope she doesn't exert herself too far or too fast.
Up ahead she spotted the ruins of the local high school and knew the NASA's JPL wasn't far off. She weaved through the abandoned cars stopping at a late model BMW. Most of the valuables had been ripped out of it, the glass was smashed in, the fuel siphoned, the seats and dash had caked and cracked under the unrelenting sun, and rust was starting to take its toll on the luxury sedan. The only thing that looked untouched was the faded blue child seat in the back; it had been dark blue once, but two decades in the California desert had all but removed its playful hue.
The warning signs were there for decades, but paralyzed by fear humanity did nothing as their planet turned to ash around them. Water, food, electricity; all taken for granted until one day they were simply unavailable. The governments hid the worst from their people, lulling them into a false sense of security as they built their Arks to take the elite when the time came, and one day - almost over night - chaos erupted. The Arks barely made it out of the atmosphere as whole governments were toppled within hours of the discovery of the Arks.
That night had been horrible, and her and her wife barely made it to the loading zone carrying an M16, the clothes on their back, and the body of their son. They forced their way past the rioters that overwhelmed their fuel-depleted car three miles from JPL. After seeing her wife on board the Ark, Marlentes led a group of Marines to push the rioters back until the refugees could safely board.
The look of desperation was what she remembered most. Not the betrayal or even the anger, but the desperation. The pleading in their eyes as they killed, burned, and rushed their way to the Ark. To the life raft they knew they would never board.
Pausing, Marlentes took out the locket and kissed the pictures of wife and son before tucking it away again. Saying a silent prayer, she jogged across the parking lot before stopping near the door, gathering her strength, and kicking the damn thing in. Storming in with her gun held at the ready, she swept the lobby alert for any signs of trouble, but none was to be had. The lobby was completely barren, save for the tattered remains of a few rioters and the ghosts of home.
"You can't go!" Autumn said indignantly.
She couldn't tell if Autumn was more hurt or furious when she suggested to her wife that she be the one to lead the expedition to JPL to retrieve the spares needed to repair the Ark's generator. Why Autumn couldn't see that the decision killed her to leave her as much as it hurt Autumn baffled her.
"The whole ship is fucked if someone doesn't step up!" Kimberly replied hotly.
"So? Let someone else step up, why does it have to be you?" Autumn pleaded, her anger slowly fading to resignation.
She knew that look and pressed her advantage. "And who else would do it? You would let the world die for what? A few nights of playing house while we pretend we don't both know we've condemned everyone to die?" she asked.
"If this place isn't creepy, I don't know what is," Marlentes commented to herself after stumbling into the disheveled infirmary. You gotta laugh at times like these, she figured and as long as she didn't start answering herself, what was the harm in talking out loud if it kept her sane? The last week had felt like an eternity, but what the hell else was she going to do, hum the jingle for some 1990s Band-Aid commercial while she patched herself up?
They seemed scared; desperate even. That should have been her first clue, but there was only four of them and hell - one of them couldn't have been much older than four. They must have taken up shop in the downed aircraft to keep out of the sunlight. There wasn't much food or water around here, but with the baked atmosphere the real killer was the sun; shelter was everything.
She placed her rifle at her feet and approached slowly with a ration cube held out in front of her. Slowly and peacefully she said, "We just want to know if you've seen any others around here. Towards the city, maybe?"
She paused as the child looked past her in horror just as a blood curling shriek and panicked gunfire went off. Whirling around, she caught a glimpse of Zhu looking over the body of a ragged man while clutching his collar bone. The rest of her squad were closing in around him, looking outward to the surrounding hills and rock faces, grim determination in their eyes.
They were surrounded.
Marlentes woke with a start, nearly tearing her freshly bandaged wound open. She looked around the infirmary as she tried to hold her rifle steady. She wasn't hearing things, there was no way she imagined that; someone was out there. She waited, crouched in the corner, her clothes and hair disheveled and her Gauss rifle shaking nervously.
Seconds stretched on for what felt like millennium before she heard it again, the soft rustle of someone searching for something, or someone. After a moment, she heard the faint sounds of another set of footsteps and hushed whispers. This new intruder wasn't alone, and they were headed this way. Panicked, she checked the ammunition counter on her rifle: 004. Four rounds would be enough to dispatch two intruders, but the noise might bring more of the bastards down on her.
She scanned the room and decided to opt for discretion over valor and squeezed her way into a cabinet as quickly as she could, barely closing the cabinet door as the first heavy boot thudded into the room she had been occupying seconds before. She held her breath as the intruder overturned tables, opened drawers and stuffed their contents into a large sack, intent on finding something valuable. The noise grew louder as the individual worked his way towards her before stopping right in front of her hiding place. The man hesitated for a moment before letting out a burp and resuming his search with the drawer directly above her cabinet.
"Hermano, mira eso que hemos tocado el premio gordo," came the call from another room as the intruder reached for the handle that separated Marlentes from discovery. Quickly the man left the room and, exhausted from the ordeal, Marlentes drifted to sleep listening to the intruders squabble over their discovery in the next room.
In the debriefing room aboard the Ark, Corporal Hernandez unceremoniously dumped his discovery on the table. Bandages, antibiotics, batteries, needles, coloring books, cigarettes, knives, surgical instruments, smoldering kits, ohm readers, and a whole cornucopia of necessities and luxuries spilled out onto the conference table. His partner, Second Sergeant Ramos was far more deliberate in showing his discovery: Replacement pieces for a centrifuge, and a heavy lead box containing a damaged, but functional, nuclear fuel rod that was lost during the frantic loading of the Ark decades ago.
"Any signs of Major Marlentes' crew?" Commander Shepherd asked from the head of the table.