Duality

A planet devastated by war, no nuclear bombs needed. Cast, the name of the planet and the sole continent it, was torn apart when the people that hated magic and loved machines went to war with the magic empires. The war only escalated in its intensity as it went on, creating massive battlefields and slaughters that were sometimes so large they were visible from space. The war only ended when the magic empires accidentally created magic based zombies out of every corpse produced by the war to this point.

Now eighty years later Idra is growing up in a settlement called The Arch-Makers. She prefers machines to social interaction, everyone around shares a dislike for magic, and her father is pressuring her to put down her tools and join the rest of the family in the fighting against the zombies and retaking the city they are settled outside of.

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1. 1: Tick Tock

Machines are better than people. They never questioned you, they never expected anything from you, they never did anything except what they were meant to do. They had a purpose, every single bolt, screw, pulley, belt, and wire on them was there for a reason. The goal was to make a wheel turn. That wasn’t the hard part. A three-year-old could boil some water in an enclosed space so that it turned a wheel. Simple. The issue was making it stop.

So to turn two wheels we use a little bit of gas ignited with a spark to cause a controlled explosion that would blow the piston back and turn the crank shaft that would move a thousand other mechanisms before that energy finally end up in the wheels. And all one had to do was press a pedal a little harder or a little softer and then they could move at speeds this world’s fastest animals would be jealous of.

But it didn’t stop there. Someone saw the pulleys of coming from the engine and decide to add one for an alternator so that could recharge the battery. Then they added the water pump. Then five other gizmos later and the engine block had a mess of turning pulleys that maintained other gadgets that maintained other gadgets. It was an endless cycle of one machine working another machine that made the engine block of the Hauler I was working on the massive puzzle I loved trying to fix.

The Hauler was my pet project. It was used as an Armoured Personnel Carrier before the war. Three years ago when I found it buried underneath a tarp that had been covered in various uncompleted projects other engineers had started and never finished I knew one day I would make it work. It wasn’t here yet, but three years of maintenance had done it good.

I fixed a mounted gun into its rooftop and managed to convince one of the scavenging teams to find me the correct bullet proof glass to replace the old windows. I even gave it a new paint job several months ago. Not like paint ever got much use around here anyway.

‘Here’ was a relative term. Right now, I was in one of the designated repair shops for mechanics, one I have pretty much claimed for my own. It had been the garage and home of a high ranking military officer that prefer the simple suburban life. I knew that because I found his skeleton wearing his uniform in a decrepit armchair in his old living room.

On the plus side, he left a Hauler in relatively good shape inside of his garage for some teenage girl to repair some eighty years later. Fun.

Oil filters were much harder to get my hands one just because how many other vehicles we needed them for, but I finally got the I needed. The nice thing about the old Republic machines was that almost all part fit other vehicles. Through almost the entire war only one company was producing the machines that defended the old borders, Storm Engineering. Practically the only blessing people got these days because it made it so two machines, no matter how different from each other, could have almost half of their parts interchangeable between them. At the same time, it made getting this oil filter take nearly two months to get my hands on.

Once I replaced the transmission, repaired the front tire axle, cleaned out the gas lines, and half a dozen small repairs, our scavenger teams will be able to go out in twice the number and bringing back twice the haul. Maybe even The Reclaimers would get some use out of it.

Maybe they’ll appreciate my work after that.

I was stirred from my thoughts when I heard someone tapping something metal against the surface of the Hauler. After double checking to make sure that the oil filter was on tight, I grabbed the metal frame of the Hauler and slid myself across the smooth concrete floor so I could crawl out.

My brother Jason greeted me with a grin the moment I had pulled myself far enough out of the engine of the car to see him.

Jason was attractive, so I’m told. The kind of guy that drew looks wherever he went. My dad says he gets it from our mother, but I always thought he got more from our father. Standing almost six feet tall and putting on muscle like it was it was second nature to him my brother could tower over almost anyone. Even his facial structure came from our fathers strong and masculine features. As far as I could tell, the only thing he got from our mother was his curly chocolate hair, brown eyes, and hazelnut skin.

I, on the other hand, was the spitting image of my mother. I was hovering around five foot tall and was as scrawny as they come. I had a mousy look instead of the stronger, tougher features of my brother. I also had the curly brown hair from out mother, though I kept mine cut about at length with my jaw. My skin tone was a few shades lighter than his, and if it weren’t for our hair and similar skin tone no one would have guessed we were twins.

“See you’re working on this thing again, Idra.” Jason rapped in the hood of the Hauler.

“You know I am,” I answered.

“When are you going to give up on this hunk of metal?”

“Jason, I have it nearly finished! Besides, I’ve spent too much time on it to give up now.”

Jason rolled his eyes at me and moved away from the vehicle. “You certainly have done that,” he added dryly as he waited for me to get up.

Pulling myself off the ground, I went for the dirty rag I used to wipe grease off my hands. Both it and my hands were almost completely black, with only a little of the original colour showing through. I honestly couldn’t remember a time when my hands were covered in grease after spending so long working on these machines.

“Dad wants you to be there for the war meeting,” Jason stated as I wiped my hands off. He didn’t say it with any inflection at all as he stood against the wall to watch me, studying my reaction. He did that a lot, saying things knowing people would feel something about it so he could study their reaction. I think it was his way of trying to understand people.

And it worked well because my mood immediately dropped and I started staring at the ground. I felt a twisting feeling in my stomach as I imagined how this would go, the same way it went every time he forced me to do something like this.

“Not much a war when our enemies are mindless Shamblers,” I mumbled.

“You know he doesn’t see it that,” Jason answered immediately. “Besides, we also prepare to fight any mages that show their face around here.”

“Really?” I asked dryly. “So what exactly is it Dad plans to do if they run into a Unified battalion out there in the city?”

“Shoot them dead,” Jason answered easily. “Just like we did during the war.”

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes at him. The War, the only war that mattered, ended near eight years ago when the Empires made the Spotters and Shamblers. A unified nation stretching half of this continent was able to fight the mages, we were a settlement working with scavenged guns and machines. Something neither Jason, our father, or anyone else in the colony seemed to understand.

I let out a sigh and looked around the garage. My tools were scattered all over the place, covered in grease and needing a good cleaning along with some organization. I felt a pang of guilt for letting my tools fall into disarray like this after the years I had spent collecting the various wrenches and ratchets as I found them. It would have been nice to spend a quiet night just collecting and cleaning them. Instead, I was supposed to go to the completely unnecessary war meeting.

“You know,” Jason began as if reading my thoughts. “Dad would lay off you a bit if you just joined us on a trip into the city.”

I frowned seriously. “You know I can't do that.”

“No, I know you don’t want to do that.”

“You know what I mean.”

Jason rolled his eyes and grabbed a brake pad off my work bench. He began turning it over in his hand, more to idly play with it than actually study it.

“Either way, the meeting starts in ten minutes. You ready?”

I released another sigh. “As ready as I’ll ever be,” I answered.

Jason nodded and tossed the brake pad back on the table and moved toward the garage door. Followed him right to the very edge of the door and stopped. He made it to the end of the driveway before he stopped and looked behind him to realize I wasn’t following. But he wasn’t surprised.

I swallowed as I looked out on the street. There was so much open space in all directions. The thought of going out there caused my heart to pound in my chest and my stomach twist itself into knots. My mouth went dry at the thought of going out there, in the open.

Jason rolled his eyes. “Come on Idra, we don’t have time for this.” I nodded nervously to him and took a step outside the garage.

I immediately felt like someone watching me, eyes burrowing into the back of my head. I hugged my arms closer to my body as I went out into the open. I began to shiver despite the warm climate of this part of the world. It was too open. I was too vulnerable like this.

Making my way forward carefully, I let my eyes dart back and forth to the corners of the surrounding house. Double and triple check that nothing was lurking behind the cover of them. No matter how many times I checked, I didn’t feel any better.

Arcadium Plains had been a gated community during the war. It had been located twenty minutes from New Port in a particularly isolated part of the country. The flat, green plains of the area combined with the fact that nothing was nearby allowed for almost completely unrestrained development of the area. Almost thirty thousand houses in the entire area, it made it the perfect place for us, The Arch-Makers.

Learning about why we were called that was easy. Just the smallest mention of the source of our name would spur the eldest members of The Arch-Makers to go into tales of The Architect, a famous man who's mark could be found all over New Port. Apparently, he was some sort of hero, a beacon of light against The Empire hoards. He became a sort of symbol for the first Arch-Makers. The idea that we, the descendants of the original machine people, that we could retake New Port from the Shamblers and Spotters. I found it ironic, given that I was one of the few people that even remembered what the original machine people were called. The Nought Republic.

Jason got tired of waiting for me and pushed on ahead, leading the way to the largest house in the neighborhood. The War House, they called it. We weren’t the best at naming things.

When I saw The War House I began to walk towards it faster, hoping to get inside and into an enclosed space quicker. The War House was two stories tall, eighty years of weather and plant growth fading they original blue paint into a thin grey covered in ivy vines and shrubs that had long since grown out of control. Most of the glass in the windows were intact, and where they weren't they were covered with sheet metal to keep the vines out. But past that, The War House and almost every other house in the neighborhood had stood the test of time incredibly well. The old republic did a lot of things, but poor construction wasn’t one of them.

Jason got to the house first and opened the door for me. I stepped inside as quickly as possible and immediately felt relief as four walls surrounded me. The house was a little too spacey for my tastes, but I was just glad to be inside. Regardless whether or not The Council was staring at me and Jason as we entered.

Another relic of the old republic, councils. Every two years the three groups, farmers, warriors, and mechanics, would vote for the person they wanted to represent them. Then every four years a leader for The Arch-Makers as a whole was elected. Together, they made the council that made all of the decisions for us. Stevens for the farmers, Salve for the mechanics, and my father, Beckit for the warriors.

They were gathered around the table where they had the map of New Port laid out in front of them. Our current leader, Maverson, currently serving his eleventh year in the position, was already talking about the expansion process into the city with my father. Going over the details of recent growth on our front lines.

It was hard to tell what the biggest difference between my father and myself was. It was a toss up between his pale white skin or his massive frame. Standing well over six feet tall with broad shoulders and thick, muscle bound arms he towered over almost everyone in the room. Unlike Jason and I, he had long black hair that wasn’t curly, just a little wavy. Standing behind him, clad in their fighting leathers, were my six sisters born to my father’s first wife. They looked more like him.

Each one was somewhere between five foot and six foot tall and all of them inherited Father’s black wavy hair and his ability to pack on muscle. I was the only child of his that didn’t seem to get that trait. And each one was scowling at me.

I looked down, letting my hair fall forward to hide their gaze and tried to focus on what was being said.

“...and a hoard of Spotters have been seen and heard around the eastern edge and our reconstruction crews are demanding reinforcements.” My father told the other men at the table.

“We don’t have the manpower to take hunt down a hoard of Spotters.” Maverson stated with a frown. He was an older man, his hair grey and thinning. And from what I know he has always been something of a stoic. He had a thick grey beard that made him look older than he was.

“We could reroute some people from the western edge to them,” Salve said. Salve was a patient but hard man, as I learned after all my time working with the other mechanics. He always spent time meeting everyone in the settlement that calls themselves a mechanic and makes sure they live up to a certain standard. I remember his meeting with me, he had me build a shotgun out pistols and wasn’t satisfied until it shot straight. I still had that gun, hidden under my bed.

“No,” my father answered him. “The western edge has spent months clearing out the food strip of the city. They are ready to expand have been getting restless of the delays. They want to move in by the end of the month.”

“Hmm,” Maverson thought as he stroked his beard. “Can we pull people from the farms? Lend them as support to the western edge?”

Stevenson shook his head before saying, “Not now, harvest season is close and if we don’t have all hands on deck we might not get all our crops in before winter hits.”

“What about the Harvesters?” The other men paused and looked at my father as he made the suggestion.

“The Harvesters have the most farmland of any group on Cast,” Stevens stated. “Our crop isn’t worth enough to them to be able to buy slaves.”

“But the Harvesters don’t have machinery,” Salve pointed out. “We could give them a few Runners maybe a Shield and get probably twenty slaves to work the farm land, that's twenty people to re-enforce that eastern edge.”

“Do we have Runners to spare?” Maverson asked. Salve smiled smugly and said,

“Let me ask our hermit. Idra!” I was shocked to hear my name being called and scrambled to step forward and approach the table. My heart began beating in my chest nervously as I stood there next to Salve. My father fixed me with a frown, his thick bushy eyebrows furrowing together. Behind him, my half-sisters sniggered at me.

“Y-yes?” I stuttered, provoking another bout of giggles from my sisters.

“Tell me,” Salve began. “How many Runners can we get ready for use within the next week or two.”

“Ten, if you get your other mechanics to do it.”

Salve smiled at my answer. He had a wide toothy grin. “And how many if I have you work on the project?”

“I- um, I’m not all that sure.” I just wish I could shrink back and hide underneath an engine block. All the eyes that were on me combined with my sisters’ glares was unnerving.

“Yes you are,” Salve said. “Now, how many?”

“Fifteen,” I answered in a small voice. Salve grinned at my father, and then at Maverson.

“See to it then,” Maverson stated with a wave of his hand. “Now, onto the subject of the defending our northern border against Pillagers….” I tuned out as the topic moved on to something else and I was allowed to shrink back to the side lines of the meeting, but my father’s eye followed me. I couldn’t tell what his expression was, but he wasn’t happy. I was already regretting what I had said. Yet, at the same time, I was looking forward to getting to work on the little four wheeled vehicles. Near the end of the war when all the industry was going towards the war machines most people couldn’t afford large vehicles anymore. So they started making cheap little Runners that were mostly plastic for the public to use. Salve told me that, something his father had told him when he retired from the head mechanic.

The rest of the ‘war’ meeting drag on and I wasn’t called on again, thankfully. I was already regretting the trek back to our house. It was several blocks away and there wasn’t much cover between the two places. Getting home was always the worst part of my day. Maybe I should just head back to the garage, start working on those Runners for Salve. That would let me clear my mind of what my father thought and what my sisters were going to do. Yes, it was probably better if I did that.

When I had come to my decision I realized Jason was watching me with that emotionless look on his face. In a moment, I realized he knew exactly what I was planning. I couldn’t tell if it was because I had become so attuned to the small motions he made or if it was just a twin thing.

When the moment passed he turned his head back to the meeting. I edged closer to the door as they rambled on. It took almost thirty minutes for them to reach a close, and the moment they did I was out the door.

Anxiety hit me the moment I stepped outside, but it wasn’t anything new. I swallowed and tried to focus on the steps in front of me, keeping one foot in front of the other. So long as I didn’t think about the space around me, I wouldn’t have to worry about it.

The thought was nice, but it only lasted about five minutes. After that, I was back to a shivering wreck as I walked across the open space. When I made it to my workshop I had broken out in a cold sweat. I hated wide open spaces.

I was able to relax at the sight of my projects. The Hauler sat still, ready to be finished. My micro-engines used to power small appliances were lined up on a bench ready for tune up. I had a Runner that I have been slowly improving for the last six months, replacing the plastic with metal and constructing a whole new engine to power it. On one bench I was working on a machine gun for Jason. Something that would take Drivers, the most common type of bullet in Cast. And one the last bit of free space in the shop amid the clutter of tools and spare parts was three clocks. One was an old cuckoo clock that fascinated me, another was a large wall clock with gothic numbers on the face, and the last was a compact grandfather clock. Something that still had the swinging pendulum but was small enough to pick up with your hands and hung on a wall.

I had taken each one apart a dozen times and put them back together, each time I learned a little something more about the maze of ticking gears inside. That was mostly how I learned, not like there were textbooks about this stuff anymore. I just took things apart and looked at what they did. It was easier with engines as everything tended to be so big and it was so easy to follow the logic of it. The clocks were different though, so many gears all fitting into one small space, many of the gears causing multiple other gears to turn. The clocks took such a small amount of energy to work, and they stretch so far it amazes me. For something like a pocket watch just needing to be wound up once and work for hours, for a grandfather clock’s weight to be set once a week for it to work, all without a single engine. It was spectacular in its own right.

I decided I would finish servicing the Hauler before taking the clocks apart again. Then if there was time, I would do a quick tune up on my micro-engines. Then straight home, I promised myself.

Practically leaping onto the creeper, the padded rolling thing that let me slide underneath the engine block, I got right back to work like I had never even left. That was the nice thing about machines, they didn’t change unless you change them.

I spent twenty minutes finishing my work because I noticed another part that was barely hanging on and needed replacing. After pulling it out and setting it aside for future reference, I move to the bench where I decided I would take apart the miniature grandfather clock. The pendulum aspect, in particular, excited me.

When I had picked apart, studied it for the dozenth time, and put it back together again, it was beginning to grow dark. I stood up to grab one of my micro-engines to power the lamps in the room only to realize my father was standing at the bench while examining the tiny engines.

“You do good work,” he stated without looking away from the engine.

“T-thanks, Dad,” I stammered at seeing him in my work space. Not that I didn’t want him here, just that I knew he didn’t approve of it.

My father sighed and placed the little engine back on the table.

“It is time we talked,” he said. My mouth went a little dry. Luckily, I didn’t have to say anything as my father did it for me. “Tomorrow I’m sending you out with your brother, to the city.” I opened my mouth to protest, but he held up a hand to stop me.

“I have indulged your ‘hobby’ for long enough, Idra. It is time you joined the rest of the family in the fight, or at the very least do some scavenging. Go out, shoot some Shamblers, make some friends.”

“B-but what about my, um, fear of…” I trailed off as nervousness caused my chest to seize up and a knot formed in my throat. Father shook his head and frowned deeply.

“There are far scarier things in the city than open spaces. You’ll learn not to fear them soon enough, open spaces shouldn’t be a problem after painting a wall with the insides of a Shambler.

“But just to be sure,” My father continued, raising his voice just a little. “I’ve talked with Salve and came to an agreement. Your little projects here? You can’t requisition others for parts anymore. Anything you need, you have to go out and scavenge it yourself.”

“What?” I squeaked. I couldn’t do anything without parts, and Father knew that. He was using it against me, which made it sting even more.

“Idra,” my father said in a softer tone than before. “You’re my daughter and I want what is best for you. But staying stuck in here,” he gestured to the room around us, “Hiding from everyone and only coming out to get meals. It isn’t normal, it isn’t healthy. Going out will be a nice change of scenery for you. Maybe you’ll make a few friends or find a particular hiding spot to hang out. Anything but getting stuck in here.”

I fell silent and looked down at my feet. There was no getting out of it, and now it was my only source for parts. I wasn’t just going outside, I was going into the city. I wasn't even there yet and I was already terrified.

My father took a step forward and knelt down on the ground, necessary because of our height difference, and wrapped me in his burly arms.

“It will only be a day, maybe a full night at the most. Then you can come back here and do your work for Salve, I promise. Do you understand?” I nodded silently into his shoulder as he hugged me, not trusting myself to speak.

My dad pulled away and smiled. “Then let's head home for the night.” He stood back up, reminding me just how short I really was and started out of the garage. I took a longing look back at my projects before following him out. The approaching darkness was not helping with my phobia, but I did my best not to show any sign because of how close my father was. I don’t think he really thinks the fear is real, that it is just something to keep myself from fighting. I tried to convince him once, long ago, but he just didn’t understand. No one really did.

When we made it home my eldest half-sister Britna was the first to greet me, with a shove right over my next eldest sister’s outstretched leg, Maddie.

Pulling myself up off the ground I saw my three oldest sisters crowding around me from the living room entrance. Britna, Maddie, and Arc. I turned around and saw my father had already left, I was on my own.

“Saw you at the meeting today,” Britna said. “But you thought you were hot stuff up there.”

“I bet she thought she was the best mechanic,” Arc added. Given that all of my half sisters got most of their traits from my father, it was actually hard to tell them apart. Arc was shorter than Britna, but about the same size as Maddie. Britna was more thuggish than Arc’s impish demeanor, while Maddie liked to hang back and act as support.

“N-no,” I murmured, knowing it wouldn’t do any good.

“No?” Britna asked. “Well, then I guess you shouldn’t be in the mechanic's shop now should you?”

“Oh yeah,” Arc added. “She should be out in the field with us.”

“Wait,” Maddie suddenly cut in. “Isn’t she doing that tomorrow?” When she said it the three of them turned their grins to me and I went cold. It was bad enough that I was going out into the city, but did I have to go with them?

“Hey, lay off.” Jason’s voice cut in, throwing them off guard. “Don’t you ladies have period synchronizing to do or something?”

“Fuck off Jason,” Britna growled at him. But she turned and started to walk away, the other two in tow. We had been through this before, and no matter how hard they tried, it was impossible to get Jason to care enough about much of anything to actually insult him. This was more of a routine than it ought to be.

Once they were going I turned to Jason with a relieved sigh and said, “Thanks for that.”

He shrugged. “No problem, was just on my way out. Some friends of mine were about to take a pickup truck into the city to see what happens with eighty-year-old drugs. You wanna come?”

“...”

“Didn’t think so. I guess I’ll catch you in the morning then.” Jason gave a little mock salute before walking around me and stepping out the door. If I knew Jason there was a fifty-fifty chance what he was saying was actually true. He was just as likely to find a shady spot on the wall around our community and get completely drunk all by himself. He’ll be perfectly fine in the morning though, once he woke up. Not sure how he does that.

I pushed my way through the house, getting outside before any of the other sisters could find me and tease me anymore. Our backyard wasn’t much better in the way of open spaces, but it had a fence that partially made up for it. But that wasn’t why I was here. In the far corner of the yard was a tiny little shack that was my room.

I built it myself. It was a long narrow shack that was solid metal on all sides, welded together to protect against rain. There was a single window about the size of a mail slot, but I had to cover it with a thin metal mesh when the sisters started throwing eggs through it whenever I left it open. But the best part of the shack, there wasn’t a door.

Instead, I pulled open a trapdoor I had put in the ground about fifteen feet away from it and swung into the small crawl space. It was perfect for my size, giving me just enough wiggle room to move through it comfortably while being far too small for anyone else to fit inside. Not even my youngest sister.

I crawled about ten feet and stopped to just take in the comfort and safety of having the tight walls pressed against me on all sides, the heat from the surrounding ground making the tunnel a relaxing amount of warm. Building this had been a massive pain, but at moments like this it I could appreciate that hard work. I was safe, comfortable, and alone. I could fall asleep right here if I wanted. I did once, turns out things get cold at night.

Pushing forward, I made my way to the entrance into my shack, another trap door in the middle of the floor. The trap doors were in place in such a way that you had to arch your back to get your head and arms out first before pulling yourself the rest of the way. Going in was similar, having to get on your hands and knees and slide your body in slowly. It was comfortable to me, but it made my youngest sister, Susan, squeamish.

Getting into my shack, I realized it was pitch black. I reach out blindly to wear I kept the micro-engine that powered the single fluorescent light bulb in my room and turned the ignition. The little engine let out a low pitched whirring sound and the light bulb kicked on, illuminating the rest of my room.

There was bedding just large enough for someone to sleep on laying on the floor and taking up half of the room. The other half was for the trap door and the tiny desk I had specially made for my room. The under part of the desk doubled as a cabinet that held some snacks I had squirreled away. Along both walls of my room were dozens of shelves holding my smaller projects and unfinished works. Things I wouldn’t leave sitting out for anyone else to see or use.

I smiled as I grabbed the diesel powered water pump I was half finished with and a screw driver. This would keep me busy until I was ready to go to sleep.

And then I just had to kill the undead in the morning.


 

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