“Not again!” Avrey screamed out in anguish as he tore at the flesh on his chest. Drew backed up against the overhang of the cliff wall at the sudden outburst of his friend that seemed to come out of nowhere.
They had just been walking along the trail up the mountain. Chatting as if everything were hunky-dory up until five minutes ago. Then Avery had fallen silent.
That had been the first strange thing that had happened because Avery was almost never silent. He had talked incessantly for the past three days. Drew had actually been relieved that his new friend had shut up long enough for him to enjoy the natural beauty that surrounded them.
Drew listened to the birds singing in the trees. He took a deep breath and let the smell of the forest fill his lungs. He had paused to let the breeze wash over him and cool away the sweat that had built up over the past hour since they had left the bubbling stream below.
But then the forest had gone completely silent. That was the second strange thing that had happened. He looked around to see what had happened to the birds. That was when he had noticed the fog moving down the mountain toward them through the trees.
Drew felt a twinge of nervousness. This wasn’t normal for this time of year. He had been up here several times over the past few years and had never seen anything like this.
“Hey, Avery! Do you see that? I think we’d better get out of here.” Drew mumbled quietly under his breath.
Avery didn’t answer him, but Drew didn’t take his eyes off the fog to look for the friend he had met at the base of the mountain when starting his trek.
At the time, having someone to keep him company had seemed like a great idea. Drew enjoyed having someone to chat with as they hiked over the trails. But now, he was glad that he wasn’t alone up here.
“C’mon, let’s get a move on it! We’ll get higher up the mountain and above this fog before dark.” Drew said as he picked up his pace.
Avery didn’t reply, even though Drew could hear him shuffling along the trail behind him. Drew threw a quick look over his shoulder to glance at his hiking partner.
His head was down as if Avery were staring intently at the ground. He was about twenty feet behind Drew although walking at the same pace.
Drew looked forward to watch the winding trail in front of him but then turned back again immediately for another glance at Avery. It seemed as if something about his face were glowing.
Looking back again, Drew couldn’t see the glow directly. Although he caught it again in his peripheral vision as he turned back to watch the trail in front of him.
“You okay, buddy?” Drew hollered out.
Avery still didn’t reply.
“Yo, Avery! Is everything alright?” Drew hollered back over his shoulder.
This time he paused his brisk walk to turn and face Avery. The fog was almost upon them. Running wouldn’t get them high enough up the trail before it covered them. And Drew was breathing raggedly. He wanted to stop to catch his breath.
Avery though didn’t stop walking, he just continued right on past Drew up the mountain through the forest.
Drew drew a deep breath and then started walking after his new friend. The trail twisted and turned up ahead, and ad they came around the bend, Drew realized they were headed directly into the fog.
“Hey, it’s getting dark. Maybe we should find a place to make camp. We need time to make a fire and set up while we can still see.”
The tall, lanky figure of his hiking buddy kept right on moving into the fog. Drew paused and watched him disappear into the mist. A strange sense of foreboding hit him.
Scenes from a hundred different horror movies flashed through his mind. Then he shook it off. That was silly. This wasn’t a movie. He pressed forward into the deep, grey mist that had suddenly flooded the forest.
All he had to do was find a nice place to set up camp and wait it out. Tomorrow the sun was come out blazing and burn the mist away so they could continue their climb up the Arntonas Peak.
“Yo, Avery! We need to set up camp, champ!” he shouted into the fog.
His silent friend was nowhere in sight. The fog had gotten thicker and he couldn’t see very far in front of him up the trail.
He kept glancing off the sides of the beaten path to see if Avery had possibly moved off to set up a camp. Drew began to worry that might happen, and he would walk right past his friend and not even notice where he had gone.
Then he would be alone on the mountain. Not that he hadn’t camped up here alone before. But Avery had been carrying a good portion of their supplies. He had noticed Drew getting tired and offered to carry some of his stuff.
Drew had been grateful even though he didn’t like admitting that he needed the help. However, he had recently been sick and was still recuperating. So, he had accepted the offer. It had been a relief to take some of the weight he had been carrying off his shoulders.
But now he began to regret it. What if he and Avery got separated here in the fog. He would be alone on the mountain, and the pack Avery was carrying had his tent and other necessary supplies in it.
He took a deep breath and picked up his pace in an attempt to catch up with Avery before darkness fell in the thickening fog.
Drew came around another bend and saw a shadowy figure standing in a clearing just off the trail underneath an overhang. He breathed a sigh of relief at the familiar frame before him.
“Wow! Glad I found you. I didn’t think you were going to stop for the night. I guess you were just looking for the right spot. This looks like a good one.”
He stood there panting and attempting to catch his breath. Avery still had his back to him, but shoved everything off his back and onto the ground.
“Give me a minute to breathe again, and I’ll start gathering wood for a fire.” Drew rasped.
Avery still didn’t reply. Drew didn’t take his eyes off the man. Something was off, but he didn’t yet know what.
“You feeling okay there, dude?” Drew asked.
A light yellow glow burst out around Avery and reflected off the fog around him almost as if he had tried using his lighter. But it didn’t dim out or fade away. In fact, it got a little stronger.
“Avery,” Drew said hoarsely. “What’s going on? Is everything alright?”
His instincts screamed for him to run as fast as he could back down the mountain, but he didn’t want to leave new friend up there alone in the fog without knowing what was going on.
He stepped forward and put a hand on Avery’s shoulder. The tall, burly man shrugged it off and took a step forward. Avery was panting heavily as if he had been running for miles. And the glow still reflected off the fog around him.
Drew stepped around him and gasped at the sight of Avery’s body. His eyes were closed, but still glowed yellow through his eyelids. And there was soft glow emanating from the center of his chest as well.
He didn’t know what to say and stood there for a moment, nervously trying to make up his mind about what to do. Drew had always been rather indecisive and making split second decisions wasn’t easy for him.
Leaving was probably his safest option, but he worried about what he would tell people when they asked why he didn’t stay to help a dead man up on the mountain. Not there was much he could probably do anyway. But still…
“What’s going on, Avery? Are you feeling okay?”
Drew started to reach out his hand towards Avery’s shoulder to get his attention, but paused nervously without actually touching him. After a brief hesitation, he went ahead and placed his hand on Avery’s shoulder.
Avery’s eyes flew open and squinted slightly as if irritated.
“Leave me alone,” he growled. “I’m not feeling well. Something isn’t right.”
“I can see that,” Drew said with a nervous laugh. “It looks like there’s a bomb in your chest that exploding in slow motion.”
Avery looked blankly down at his chest as if he wasn’t aware that it was glowing yet. He unbuttoned his shirt and tossed it off to the side. He placed his hands on his chest and pressed against it as if trying to contain whatever was inside.
“Argh! Not again!” Avrey screamed out in anguish.
Drew backed up against the overhang of the cliff wall at the sudden outburst of his friend that seemed to come out of nowhere.
Avery pressed his fingers into his chest and tore at the flesh. The skin covering his ribs peeled away as if it were melting silicone.
“What do you mean, ‘Not again’? Drew shouted. “Does this happen often.”
Avery continued pulling at the skin that peeled away from his body all the way up to his face exposing the inside of his body. Drew could see the yellow glow inside Avery’s chest cavity, his throat, open mouth, and eye sockets.
He stood there against the cliff wall. Flabbergasted at the sight taking place before him. To shocked to move.
“What are you doing?” Avery roared at him. “Haven’t you realized I’m dangerous yet. Or do you want to die? Get off the mountain before it’s too late!”
Drew stumbled forward, past the burning man in front of him. He started to run, but tripped over the backpack that Avery had dropped earlier. He scrambled forward and picked himself up.
“Tell my wife, I’m sorry. I really thought I could control it.” Avery shouted after him. “And tell my kids I love them.”
Drew turned around to glance over his shoulder as he ran down the path. He could still see Avery’s glowing figure between the shadowy trunks of the trees around them.
He kept running until it got to dark to see. He had to slow down in the dark as he continued moving by the light of his cell phone. Drew kept going until his cell phone battery died.
Fortunately, he was out of the fog by then and a full moon was out that night. So, he was able to keep moving through the night until he came to a cabin. He managed to get the door open.
Once inside, he pushed furniture up against the door and windows. He managed to sleep for a few hours. As soon as the sun was up, Drew was moving down the trail again. Going down was faster and easier than the climb. He made it back by the end of the day.
He told the forest ranger what had happened. The police were called in. Nobody believed is story of course. They wanted him to take them back up to where he had last seen Avery, but Drew refused to go.
They never did find anything up the there and Drew never went back to look for his friend. Nobody knew anything about Avery or who is his wife and kids might be. Not that Drew tried very hard to find him.
Drew never could get the image of Avery pulling the skin from his chest right off up over his face. What was he?
At times he dreamed of Avery. Sometimes he was an alien from outer space. Other times he was a cyborg whose internal battery had malfunctioned. Other times he was possessed by fiery demons in the fog.
Drew saw a psychiatrist a few times, but it didn’t do much good. He could tell that the man didn’t believe him. The shrink often asked him what kind of drugs he was using before climbing the mountain or what type of mushrooms he had eaten.
For a while, he actually thought he was going crazy. But every once in while he would hear stories of hikers who claimed to see a burning man walking up and down the trails. Others disappeared completely and were never heard from again.
And Drew would wonder, if maybe, just maybe what he had seen on the mountain that day hadn’t been a figment of his imagination and had actually happened.
Maybe someday, he would get the courage to climb back up there and find a glowing Avery living in a cave or swimming in a mountain pool trying to find a way back down to his wife and kids.
“Pssst! Hey Anwar, come over here.” Anwar whispered loudly across the abandoned, old junkyard.
Muhamed looked up from the pile of junk that he had been quietly digging through and set down a handful of trash that he had been sorting. He brushed off his hands and opened his backpack. Then placed a few items that he had set to the side that he deemed worth keeping into the old, greenish-brown backpack he had picked up a few weeks ago on the other side of the junkyard.
It was old but practical. Everyone had wanted the backpack. Some had asked him for it. Others tried to trade something else for the large bag. Imram had even offered him fifty Syndicate Pieces that were commonly referred to as the Haoding. But Muhamad had turned them down.
Having the larger, sturdier bag meant he could carry more than twice the amount of stuff back to the underground village easier. It had already paid for itself in the short time he had it.
Muhamed packed his items carefully inside the bag and closed it. Then he slid it over his shoulders before heading over to Anwar.
“What is it?” he whispered quietly while trying to figure out what it was exactly that Anwar had found.
“It’s an AIX-49, silly!” Anwar retorted in an aggravated but hushed tone.
Muhamed squinted and stooped closer for a better look. He could see an arm and part of its side where Anwar had pulled away the surrounding trash.
“I don’t know what an AIX-49 is, but I’m sure you can scavenge some of its parts for a fair amount of Haoding from the hackers over in Pagarh.”
He started to walk away, but Anwar grabbed onto his leg and pulled him back.
“Where are you going? Help me get it out. I want to take it down there whole. Not just a few pieces. I’m sure it will be worth much more this way.”
Muhamad scowled at the thought of all the work it would take to dig the robot out and drag it back to camp. “You should just cover it up and go see if you can find anyone interested in it before going to all that trouble. Besides, we only have a few hours left before dark, and I still have to meet my quota. I haven’t found much of anything that will interest the quartermaster.”
Now it was Anwar’s turn to scowl. “But someone else may find it and dig it out before we return. C’mon, help me out. I’ve already had more than my quota for the day. I’ll share it with you. Hurry up and help me claim it before Annisa gets here.”
The younger boy glanced over his shoulder and saw the lithe young, dark-haired girl coming around a pile of twisted metal over to his left. He sighed and threw himself down onto the dirty heap of rubbish that Anwar had been sifting through.
“Fine, I’ll help you. But I don’t like it. I’ve never heard of an AIX-49, but if they are anything like the Mechans, then it’s dangerous to even be messing around with.” he whispered hoarsely as he grudgingly began clearing trash and debris away from the machine.
“What did you boys find?” Annisa whispered when she came up behind them.
“An AIX-49,” Anwar said proudly with a big grin. “It’s what the previous generation of Mechanized Human Control Technology was composed of. They were…”
“I know what an AIX-49 is, silly. Just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I’m stupid.” Annisa said with a scoffing laugh.
“Muhamad didn’t know what one was,” Anwar said with a quiet laugh as he jabbed his friend in the ribs. “And she does.”
Muhamad blushed but kept right on digging as if he hadn’t heard. Annisa crouched down and began helping Muhamad pull away the twisted metal and debris that surrounded the AIX-49. Anwar pushed her shoulder and took her place helping Muhamad move a chunk of metal.
“Go on, Annisa. Find your own scraps to meet your quota. This won’t count as much for quota, and we don’t have enough for you.” Anwar growled in a low voice.
“Quota! You have an AIX-49 that looks like it’s in decent condition, and you’re worried about meeting your quota. What’s wrong with you? Do you know how much this is worth?” she shrieked louder than she had intended.
Anwar slapped his hand over her mouth, “Shhh! Keep it down. You’ll attract the mechans. And yes, we’re going to sell the AIX-49 at the market tomorrow.”
Annisa scoffed again, “At the market, silly boy? You won’t get a tenth of what it’s worth at the market. They’ll only give you what it’s worth in scraps.”
“And you know where to sell it for more?” Anwar asked while trying to keep the hopeful plea out of his voice.
“I do. I have a friend who has an acquaintance. They are willing to pay ten thousand haoding for an AIX-49 or something equivalent.”
Anwar’s jaw dropped and his eyes glazed over as he visualized how he would spend all that money. Muhamad didn’t believe her and asked, “Why are they willing to pay that much for an old Mechan like this?”
She shrugged. “They didn’t say what they wanted it for, but from what I gathered they found a way to hack these things and convert them into fighting for us.”
“And you’ll help us negotiate a good deal with your friends?” Anwar asked.
“Fine,” Anwar agreed while nodding at Muhamad. “We’ll give you ten percent of the price you help us get for it.”
“What?! No way, I want at least fifty. You won’t get anything without my help.” she said with a smirk.
“What?!” Anwar screeched. “But I found it.”
“No,” Muhamad retorted. “We’ll split it evenly three ways.”
“What?!” Anwar screeched again as he turned to face Muham
d. “But I found it. I should get fifty percent and then thirty for each of you.”
Annisa looked at Muhamad and laughed, “Boys, boys, boys. Math never was your strong suit in school. Was it? I’m leaving. Have fun digging your stupid AIX-49 out from under there. It’s probably no good anyway.”
Anwar leaped forward and grabbed her by the arm to stop her. “Fine, we split it equally three ways. But your friends better be legit.”
Annisa smiled and pulled her hair back. Muhamad slung his backpack off to the side under some shade. They began to work quickly to dig out the AIX-49 before it got dark. None of them wanted to be out after the sun went down.
The three worked tirelessly for a while to free the Mechan from the rubble and debris. Muhamad cleared the dirt and debris from around its face. Carefully brushing and blowing at dirt and bugs that filled the lines and crevices of its face and head.
Its face was completely black with a red rim around the top and backside of his head. Robotic sensors and antennas drew back from its head like braids of hair. It didn’t look anything like the modern-day Mechans that he was familiar with.
“What’s that?” Anwar asked from where he was working around the AIX-49’s feet. Muhamad looked over to Annisa who was reading off of a black rectangular object she had picked up.
“I thought it was trash and almost tossed it to the side. But it looks like it’s some kind of power supply,” she said with a shrug. “It might belong to this little baby here.”
Anwar grabbed it from her to read what it said. Annisa tried to grab it back from him and they wrestled for a brief second, but Anwar was bigger and stronger. He yanked it away and held it over his head. The girl pushed him and kicked at his ankles. He just laughed and moved away.
“It looks like it might fit right here,” Muhamad said, pointing to a hole in its head.
Annis and Anwar stepped in for a closer look. Muhamad reached out his hand and Anwar grudgingly handed it over to him. It took a few tries of pushing and twisting until he got it in the right spot and the piece clicked into place.
A greenish-white light lit up the circle around the AIX-49’s face and moved around in a clockwise rotation. Greenish-white lights also lit up along its shoulders.
“Stop! Turn it off.” Annisa hissed as she tried to push her way forward to pull the battery back out. Muhamad had already tried, but there was no way to get a grip on it to pull it out.
There was a loud hissing and vapor started coming up from underneath the AIX-49’s body.
“It’s gonna blow!” Annisa screamed as she and Anwar fled.
Muhamad raced over to grab his backpack but tripped in the process and fell down in a tangled mess. When he pushed himself up, the AIX-49 was already looming over him.
It reached down with its right hand which Muhamad realized was a sharply pointed claw. It hooked into his shirt and pulled him up onto his feet. The AIX-49 drew him close. Muhamad could hear soft whirring noises as if it were analyzing his face.
Muhamad looked around for his friends, but they were nowhere in sight. “Help! C’mon guys. Do something.” he yelled as he tried to pull himself free.
Just then he heard a loud shrill whistle waft across the junkyard. The warning whistle. Mechans were on their way. Most likely attracted by the commotion of Annisa’s screams and the Muhamad’s ruckus with this stupid AIX thing.
He could hear the faint whirring of the drones as came searching through the smog. Muhamad kicked at the AIX-49 and pulled desperately to get free from its claw. But its grip was too strong.
The AIX-49 looked up in the direction of the drones as they came into view. It cocked its head to the side and analyzed them as it had been doing to the boy. The normally aggressive drones paused as if confused by the sight of the AIX-49 and weren’t quite sure what to make of it.
After a few moments, the two drones moved on and continued to search the area. The AIX-49 continued to stand there holding Muhamad while watching the drones float around the area.
One of the drones paused its long, slow circle over the area. Then zipped down toward a pile of junk. Muhamad heard Annisa scream and the loud clatter of junk clattering as she jumped out of her hiding place. She came racing around the trash heap toward Muhamad and the AIX-49.
The drone didn’t have to circle around. It came straight up over the top and cut her off just in front of Muhamad. The faint whirring sound grew louder as it came lower in their direction. Annisa was stuck between two large heaps of junk and had nowhere else to run except back the way she had come.
The small girl turned to flee back in the direction she had just come from only to realize that the second drone had cut off her escape route. She glanced forward and then backward between the two before glancing over at Muhamad who could see the defeat in her eyes as she fought back the tears.
Muhamad tried to pull himself free again. He wanted to do something to help Annisa, but the AIX-49 held him back. He turned back and swung the fleshy, underpart of his fist at its head. But it didn’t do any good. His hand bounced off without even phasing the Mechan. Muhamad took another swing at the Mechan.
After his third swing, Muhamad felt out of breath. He took a fourth swing, but his arm felt heavy and his head felt dizzy. The AIX-49’s tight grip twisting his shirt and jacket up around his neck. Muhamad felt his legs get heavy and go weak as well.
The AIX-49 turned its attention back to the lad and said in a low voice, “When I let go of you, grab the girl and run for cover as fast as you can.”
Muhamad tried to focus and even answer, but his vision started to darken around the edges as he began to blackout. All he could do though was gasp for breath. The AIX-49 suddenly let go of him and leaped into the air.
It seemed to float up toward the closest drone now hovering over Annisa. The drone quickly shifted its attention from the girl and spun to meet the oncoming Mechan. It attempted to float up higher as it moved away from the oncoming AIX-49.
The Mechan had either calculated the drone’s movement or could fly because it continued moving over Annisa’s head along with the floating bot.
The boy wasn’t sure if what he was seeing was really true or just a dream he was having after passing out. He took a step forward in Annisa’s direction. But his legs buckled under him and he fell to his knees.
He took a ragged, gasping breath before glancing up as he pulled himself back up onto his feet. The Mechan had pulled a large sword with a glowing, white blade that seemed to crackle with electricity that it pulled from the air around it.
The AIX-49 brought it down over the drone. The sword seemed to cut through the large drone as if it were warm butter. The drone fell to the ground in two pieces just past Annisa. It turned its attention toward the second drone. And leaped towards it. But it had already turned and was floating over a large heap of trash.
The girl came to her senses and raced toward Muhamad. “C’mon, Muhamad. Let’s get out of here,” she panted in a hushed voice.
But Muhamad didn’t listen. He moved over to where the two halves of the drone lay still quietly clicking and hissing as it tried to move around. He slung the backpack down and managed to slide it into the bag. But it wasn’t big enough to hold them both. So, he picked it up in his arms and tried to carry it.
“What are you doing, Muhamad?” the girl hissed. “We have to get out of here. That thing will be coming back at any minute.”
“Do you know what this thing is worth?” he exclaimed excitedly.
“You’re not going to be able to run and carry that thing. And I’m not gonna dawdle around here while you try to drag that thing back to camp.”
Just then Anwar came out of the heap of trash he had managed to hide under. “It doesn’t seem too heavy. Just put it over your shoulder and run with it. When you get tired, I’ll switch and help you carry it. We’ll trade it off and on until we get back home.”
Annisa let out a gasp of exasperation, “We need to run home before that thing comes back and chops us up with its sword. I can’t help you carry that thing if I’m dead.”
She took off on a dead run through the heaps of grimy trash that lay smothered in the dark smog.
“Annisa’s right. It’ll slow us down. We can come back for it later.
Muhamad shrugged the second half of the drone at the base of a trash heap and threw some smaller junk around it to camouflage it. Anwar started to protest, but then helped throw trash around it too.
Then they both broke into a quick trot toward the camp. Muhamad was moving along at a pretty good pace, even though he was hugging and puffing a lot harder than Anwar. They were about halfway home when Anwar tugged on the backpack to take it from him.
Muhamad paused briefly to shrug it off his back when they heard the crunch of footsteps in the gravel. Both boys spun toward it. The AIX-49 swung its blazing sword at their outstretched arms holding onto the backpack.
They both let go and fell backward as they scrambled to get away from the Mechan. It stood there looking at them. Muhamad stood to his feet first when he realized that the sword had sliced the straps clean off the backpack.
“What did you do?” he squealed out chastising the Mechan as he waved the straps in front of its face.
“You shouldn’t take that back with you. They’ll be able to track it right to you.”
The Mechan reached down and pulled the drawstring that held the bag shut. He shook the drone’s half out onto the ground. He stuck his sword inside of it and sliced off a piece. Then picked it up with the hook of his other hand.
“This is the tracking device. I’ll take it with me to lead any others away from you. You can do what you want with the rest.”
Anwar finally stood to his feet. “You…you aren’t going to kill us. Or take us prisoners?” he stammered.
The AIX-49 chortled. It was a strange robotic sound, but the boys still recognized it as a laugh. They looked at him blankly.
“What?! C’mon. Don’t you boys recognize me?” it asked waving its sword around wildly in the air above its head before striking a pose with its hook hand on its hip and the sword pointed off over its left shoulder.
The two boys looked at each other and shook their heads before looking back at the AIX-49. Its light seemed to dim a bit and its shoulders sagged as it lowered the sword.
“Weird! We are on Autox. Right?” it asked.
The boys nodded.
“And this is Ayukana. Right?” it asked again.
The boys looked at each other quizzically and nodded again.
“So, it’s me. Gage, the AIXtron. Surely, you’ve heard of me. Right?”
This time the boys shook their heads. The so-called, self-named AIXtron looked around at the heaps of rubbish around it. Then up at the sky. It looked down at the drown at its feet. It sighed with a loud hissing sound as smoke rolled out of its back.
“What year are we in? How long have I been down here?” it asked.
“5781,” the boys both replied simultaneously.
“I have heard legends of a Mechan that defended us and led our troops into battle back during the uprising. But that was a long time ago.” Muhamad added.
The Mechan sat down and looked off into the distance. “That was long before either of you was born. I didn’t realize that I had been out so long since that last battle against…”
Gage stood to its feet. “No matter. Return to your camps quickly before more drones come. The next ones won’t be snooper drones, but full-on attack drones. Tell your people about me. If any of them remember me, tell them to light the fires of Pagarh. I’ll be around. Tell them I’m ready to take up the fight again. And only this time I won’t lose.”
Muhamad and Anwar raced back to camp excitedly. They told everyone that they knew about the AIX-49. Most of them just laughed and called the boys crazy. But a few of the elders cried when they heard the boys’ story.
“Yes,” they said. “We remember this Mechan. He was a mighty warrior. We almost defeated the Mechans. But they managed to defeat him. We thought he had been destroyed.”
Their hope was rekindled. And they rekindled the fires of Pagarh. Waiting for the return of their once valiant hero whom they hoped would once again return to save them.