• Torstein Beck

The Cage

The Cage


The thing is half buried now, grass and creepers snaking over the body like tendrils. Bi-Walkers, they used to call them.


It’s long dead — like all machines.


I look up at the edge, cut out against the pine trees, scarred by bullets, warped by the fires of an explosion. This one was patrolling when it got attacked.


I climb up to the top and steady myself on a gnarled strut that would have held a big gun. It’s gone now, stolen and stashed away somewhere in case history repeats itself.


My lips vibrate as I make plane noises. They swoop in low from the South, coming up behind it, drop a couple of missiles that spark and wind like fireflies in the night air. They hit, explode. One of the legs gives out — there, the one with the bottom half missing. It fires off some shots as it topples. The planes circle back around. I make more bomb sounds and watch my fingers dance in time with the flames.


I’ve never seen a plane, except for pictures and what’s left of that one that’s all smashed up on the mountain to the East.


I prick my ears, wondering if there’ll be a distant rumble of engines on the morning breeze. There isn’t. There never is. Nothing flies any more, or rumbles, or shoots, or bombs. Not since Zero Day.


The metal hull rings like a gong as I slam my boot heel into it, saliva spatters the rust, and my feet hit the overgrown roadway. Nothing to find here. Gotta keep moving.


The sun climbs higher as I walk. The birds chirp and the pine needles grate on each other. It’s peaceful. No wrecked buildings, burnt out cars, or — wait... shit.


A car. A burnt out one. Old. Big. Silver — or used to be. Wedged in the ditch, smattered with bullet holes. I point my hand into a gun. Chakka chakka chakka. I follow the dotted line back between my feet on the grassy road, figuring which way the Walker would have been patrolling. Yeah, likely culprit.


I head over. If this road isn’t walked much, there might just be something worth snagging. Inside’s fried. Looks like it was torched after it was shot up. I pause and grimace. Skeletons. I hate skeletons. A lonely skull looks at me with deep black eyes from across the bonnet. I meet his gaze for a second, then look away. He’s out of the car, or at least was, when he was got. His bones are strewn about, half chewed on, scattered, some stolen. The skull’s sitting on a patch of scorched sandy ground, crystalised in the heat, like black glass.


He watches as I circle the bumper. Passenger door’s missing. Another skeleton there, half in the car still, broken up again, but not so bad. Animals don’t like the smell of burnt steel and plastic. It’s pretty blackened, some of the bones fused by the looks of it. I kneel to take a closer look. Fingers melted onto the rib cage next to a silver chain. No head though. Maybe rolled off somewhere. Maybe been taken by something. Doesn’t matter. I suck my teeth and glance over at the skull on the glass. The husband.


‘Pulling her free, huh, bud?’ I crane my neck to see where they came from. ‘Rounded the corner, came face to face with that big thing, I bet. Walker let loose, right?’ I sigh. ‘Eeeeeh—’ I mimic tyre squeal, my hands feigning a swerve on the wheel. ‘You took a couple bullets to side, tried to swing around. Reckon she caught one or two through the window and in the panic, you hit the ditch. She’s screaming, you’re screaming. Gotta get out.’ I narrow my eyes and listen to the birds. ‘Thud. Thud. Walker’s closing in. Thud. Thud. Few more bullets.’ Hand guns again. ‘Chakka. Chakka. You got free, try to pull her out. Get so far and whoosh.’ My hands flourish. ‘Fire. Don’t worry.’ I smile at the skull. ‘You weren’t the first. No shame in it. That’s what they were built for. You tried.’ I reach over and pat him on the head. His teeth grind on the glass. ‘That’s what matters.’


I ignore the charred rib cage melted onto what’s left of the front passenger seat and climb inside to check under the dash. Wiring’s torched to hell. Nothing to find here. Gotta keep moving.


I stand and take up the road again. They must have come from somewhere.

The sun’s high when I make it to a gate, black iron grown over with weeds and brambles. I put my knife to them, scramble through a gap left by a rotten hinge, and step into the jungle on the other side.


The grass is up to my chin, but I can see a house ahead — and it doesn’t look too destroyed, either, ignoring the collapsed right side. Porch with pillars. Ivy blotted stonework. Nice place. This far out, maybe there’s something left to scav, too. Doesn’t look like anyone’s been here in a while. My heart beats harder as I close in.


Door still looks intact. Be a shame to try to break it — especially when half the house is caved in. Bombs. What can you do? I go round.


I clamber over scorched rubble and into what's left of a dining room. Silverware litters the floor, tarnished and spotty. I tiptoe between the pieces. I don’t like to disturb things if I can help it.


I pass through an opening and into a hallway, pausing for a second. The wood on the frame has split and rotted away, taking some plaster with it.


Light streams through the glass over the front door like splinters.


Copper? I lean closer in the gloom. Weird. It’s latticed, right into the wall. I check the other side. The frame comes away easily. It’s there too. Like a grid, built inside the wall.


The ceiling overhead creaks and I jolt. Dust rains down around me and I stumble backwards. Someone’s here.


My heel catches a chunk of debris and I trip, crashing into the rotten boards. The wood gives out and jagged splinters scrape my back. I’m scrabbling. I can’t get purchase. I’m in the floor. Fuck.


More dust. Footsteps above. I can smell blood in the air. My back stings. My heart races. My knees are against my chest. I’m in a fucking hole. Shit. I go for the knife on my belt and tease it out between the wood and my hip.


The footsteps circle the gallery towards the top of the double-wide staircase. The dusty chandelier twitches under the weight.


I drive the knife into a board three over and tug on it to get free. The board shatters. Shit. Again, another board. The rusty nails squeak as they hold onto the strut underneath. I lift a little. Yes. Come on. I grunt, my heels scraping. I’m choking on dust. My hip twists free. My pulse fills my ears, breath tight. Yes. Once more.


‘Hello.’


I freeze, my heart stuttering in my chest. I’m on my knees now and roll to a stance, putting my back against the front door.


The stairs stretch up in front of me, a figure standing at the top. Tall, thin, covered in a ragged red blanket. My chest heaves.


‘I — I’m sorry,’ I stammer, swallowing hard. ‘I didn’t know anyone was here.’


‘Oh, not to worry,’ the figure says politely, voice high and eloquent. I’ve never heard anyone talk like that. ‘I’m glad for the company, if anything.’


I suck in a hard breath, the knife quivering in my grip. The shards of light coming through the glass around the door glint off the blade. ‘I should go,’ I say quickly.


‘Wait—’ The figure begins to descend the stairs, raising a hand. It flashes in the sunlight, like the knife. It’s metal.


‘You’re a robot?’ I blurt out.

He pauses, looking at his hand. ‘Oh. Yes, I suppose am. I've not thought about that.' He inspected the intricacies of the braided cables in his fingers. 'Not in a long time.’


‘How are you…?’ I trail off. They’re all supposed to be dead. Zero Day — the blast. They were all killed. Everywhere.


He stops, halfway down. His eyes glow faintly under the cowl. ‘How am I what?


‘Alive.’


He moves again. ‘Am I alive?’


I swallow. ‘I just meant that—’


‘Have you seen the Masters?’ he asks, cutting me off. ‘They were coming right back, and I’ve let the house get so dirty.’


I look around. The wallpaper’s peeled off, the floor is rotten, and the moth-eaten curtains hang limply.


‘No, I was just—’


‘The Masters don’t like guests. Not since… I don’t know.’


I swallow hard. ‘I’m really sorry.’ I squeeze the words through a pinhole, my heart beating against my ribcage. I’m stuck, my muscles seized up. I can’t tell if he’s going to rip my throat our or not.


He hits the bottom step and peels back his hood. His face is nondescript, like a cheap Halloween mask, the body thin and humanoid, awash with flesh-like pads covering sinew and armoured cable. ‘They’ll be back soon. They said so.’


‘I’ll leave.’ I can barely hear my voice over the roar in my ears. He moves closer.

‘They were right there,’ he says, pointing through the window next to the door. ‘In a silver car. They told me to stay here, and wait for them.’


‘A silver car?’ My mind strays back to the road. My stomach twists. The knife clicks against a button on my jeans, shaking in my grip.


He looks at me and nods. ‘Did you see them?’ He presses his flat face to the dirty glass. ‘I can’t see them.’


I don’t know whether to lie or not. They wanted to wipe us out. Every last one of us. His kind — our kind. By the end, it was all we could do to stop them. The blast. But, that was a hundred years ago.


‘How long have you been here?’ My grip tightens on the knife. He’s within arms reach. There’s an exposed spot between his faceplate and shoulder. Wires. Fluid tubes. I could do it.


He turns to me. ‘I… I don’t know. It’s difficult to… My memory is…’ His face twitches, the ancient motors groaning quietly. His little, orb-like eyes flit across my face, and then down. ‘You’re bleeding,’ he says looking at the floor, pointing. Droplets of blood from my back speckle the boards between my boots. ‘Let me—’


He moves and I twist. It’s reflex. It’s instinct. The stories — they always said—


The knife plunges into his neck and sparks fill the dusty air. Black fluid spills over the blade and down my wrist. It’s warm. His neck cricks, one eye falling dark. My eyes go wide. He steps sideways, and staggers to a knee. His voice box whines as he tries to finish the sentence.

‘... Help…’ He reaches for the door and his fingers leave lines in the dust. ‘Masters will be… Angry… You mustn’t… Please…’ He pulls away and I release the knife. It stays in his neck as he crawls in a circle, leaving a trail of black blood. He makes for the stairs before falling still.


The house is silent again.


My heart hums in my throat. I’m sick to my stomach. It was reflex. I didn’t mean to. I stare at my stained hands and watch them curl. I didn’t mean to.


Upstairs, I find the skeleton of a child on a bed, and next to it a chair with a well-worn groove in the seat. There’s a picture book next to it and a clean patch on the duvet where a red blanket had been lying.


I stand for a moment, close my eyes, and then turn away. Nothing to find here. Gotta keep moving.