Ms. Stewart's home was actually a farm and near the edge of our small country not far from the river. I was in one hell of a workout, hiking over the hill of town, carrying all the heavy bags as we left the rows of rundown, abandoned wooden homes and apartments. Downtown was the heart of Auburn Hills. Literally. The main district was comprised of cafes, shops, factories, schools. It was also where Mayor Hornwell operated, so everything started there and branched its way out. We didn't have much of an enforcement line. There were a few teams of officers, former soldiers working around the mayor, no more than fifty total.
Haven't had any real soldiers occupying our lands since the war.
After an hour or three of walking, Ms. Stewart, Miranda and I at last reached the back-roads, the outskirts of town. The fact that it was hotter than the Devil's butt-crack outside didn't make things better. How far was this lady's house?!
The sun blistered in a cloudless sky above us. My button up was beginning to look as if I took a shower with it on. Arms trembling and burning. The dusty road twisted and zigzagged a few feet ahead of us. Are we there yet?
"Goodness, its ugly out here..." Ms. Stewart affirmed the obvious for the second time, tugging on the collar of her gray jumpsuit with a sigh before unzipping the top.
Miranda eased my pain. She rambled from one random subject to another, partially keeping my mind off of the task at hand. When I wasn't answering one of her million kiddie-questions, my eyes were glued to the remains of the plain-lands around us.
The countryside used to be beautiful. Acres of open, grassy lands with flowery mounds at least twelve feet high; wheat and corn plants used to fill the area. The town name came from the Brown-Flowers that once grew on these hills. I never visited the outskirts much, but when I did, enjoyed climbing them, running through the towering shrubs with Tamika. Now I was staring at nothing but dry, hard dirt, as far as I could see.
Everything was dead and barren. Encircling us flocks of crows and vultures scurried around, pecking at huge chunks of metal, partly buried in the Earth, swallowing tiny nuts and bolts whole. They were what were left of the demolished androids. The war had done this. A strong burning smell hung in the air. Did that come from the battle too? Or was someone making camp out here? I frowned, feeling my chest sink.
"Here, birdie! Have a cookie!" I heard Miranda say to a crow some odd feet behind me.
"Please keep up, dear. Wouldn't want you getting lost," Ms. Stewart called out. "And stop feeding those vermin!"
"I like the black birdies!" She replied.
I had almost forgotten. My grandmother told me that some of the Great Gear War took place here as well, before I was born. Auburn Hills was actually just a small community; a suburb of Ehzra—one of the main four Kingdoms in human territory. North of us lay the Raider Mountains were the Werefoxes live.
Our capital was the city of Amara, named after the princess, a descendant of the man who discovered Noland. That was his name. Each of his kin rules one of the four kingdoms. Granny said that we'd be a much stronger race if his bloodline came together, but they're kind of a dysfunctional family. Bunch of selfish rich folk. Why can't they get along? They have everything in the world. They're not suffering like our town is... What the hell is their problem?
"Shame isn't it?" Ms. Stewart asked while we passed a fork in the dirt roads, separated by another giant hill.
One way led out of town to Bidst Woods. The other guided travelers to the farms of the land before running into the river.
She must have seen the disappointment on my face from looking at the dead-lands surrounding us. I glanced at her, noting the mournful look on her sweaty pale face as she gazes down at her shoes. The trail became narrow; scattered rusty screws littered the gravel, which crunched loudly under our feet.
"It's the oil... And the blood."
"Huh?" I blink, puzzled.
"These hills are poisoned from the blood of the slain and the toxic grease of the robots. The war has killed everything beautiful in this world. Can't grow crops out here anymore. Farmers are suffering. Their livestock are no good either; they're all starving to death. No grass to graze on."
A lump forms in my throat and my grip tightens against the paper bags in my arms. "I... I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault, Deon." She sniffs. "Your store is one of the few that are keeping our poor old town alive."
Ms. Stewart looks over her shoulder, facing the path behind her.
"Miranda..." She begins, only to trail off. I raise an eyebrow and turn around.
The girl was gone.
"Must have taken the other path," I say breathlessly, shaking my head.
Now we had a problem. The woods weren't safe for a four year old toddler. Old war mines and grenades hidden in the soil could blow her to shreds. The extreme heat could dehydrate her and then she'd end up as food for the ravenous animals...
Ms. Stewart cursed to herself. "I was so focused on getting back..." She swore.
With those words, she jogged away, heading back down the road. I started to follow her, until a piercing scream echoed across the sky, swiftly followed by several thundering gunshots that almost sounded like explosions.
My mind instantly began to play awful, gruesome scenarios, causing my stomach to plunge. I dropped the bags and instead of chasing the old woman I dashed straight for the dirt hill beside me. At that moment I decided it would quicker than circling around the stupid thing. It was steep, probably standing a good twenty-five feet high... Or higher. But as my hands dug into the warm soil, I committed myself to climbing. Please don't be dead Miranda, please don't be dead...
Another booming sound rang through the air; sharp and clear, resembling a foghorn. The disaster horn was going off in town. We hardly ever get hurricanes or tornadoes in these parts, let alone rain. That left only one other omen.
An army of androids were coming.