The nest delved at least eight hundred meters into the metal mountain and had the area of a small city. Its interior was much roomier than expected even though there was no design philosophy to speak of.
Aesthetics were not a concern in the slightest to whoever built this place, nor did it have the same wasteland pragmatism Cloudhawk was accustomed to. The enormous exterior hid a maze of tightly compacted tunnels and chambers within, convoluted enough to make one’s head spin. It was uncomfortable, dizzying and unwelcoming.
Who would build such a place and choose to live in it? It was essentially just an enormous ant hill! Were they only insects and metal facsimiles that occupied this place? It certainly didn’t smack of anything human.
All so strange… in this world that had remained uninhabited for thousands of years, this metal mountain had sprung up seemingly from nowhere. Cloudhawk had no way to explain how this mysterious and towering structure came to be here.
He’d traveled through several worlds thus far and in none of them had he discovered higher intelligence. Rather they were all in various states of decay, or reclaimed by nature. Why was this world different? Where had this structure come from?
Cloudhawk knew the machines didn’t crop up out of thin air. He also believed that everything that existed, existed for a reason. This giant metal mountain had to be here for something specific. The only way to know was to delve deeper.
There was no danger to Cloudhawk, of course. Worst case, he blinked back to safety. How could he comfortably send more settlers here and establish his manufacturing base before discovering what all this was about?
The mountain interior was surprisingly well organized. Thousands – tens of thousands of channels ran every which way and connected with one another like arteries. They were all metal and comprised a twisting labyrinth of pathways that would be practically impossible to escape from without a map. As he continued to poke around Cloudhawk came upon several production areas, yet they were unmanned. Everything was automated.
It was all very sophisticated. Highly precise, super-condensed lasers were laser-printing objects at a rapid pace. The pieces were transported and assembled too quickly to follow with the eye. It was a reflection of manufacturing prowess so advanced it might as well have been magic. And not one single living thing anywhere to be seen.
Cloudhawk was beginning to suspect whatever civilization lived here long ago was nothing like anything he knew. Perhaps this was some super-advanced mechanical society. Perhaps there never had been any living thing guiding them.
Maybe this entire mountain was itself an enormous machine, one of a king, alone in this barren place. To verify the hypothesis, Cloudhawk sent Oddball off to scout ahead. After making a cursory check Oddball revealed that indeed, nothing seemed to be living down here.
But the little bird seemed to awaken something in the mountain, for the ceiling above Cloudhawk opened up revealing a network of black pipes. They emitted a high-pitched squealing alarm before a whole host of giant bee-like machines came pouring forth. Before he knew it the entire hallway was filled with them.
The swarm filled every available space. Had he been discovered?
Cloudhawk had nothing to fear from these insect-like robots, but he wasn’t here to cause problems. He’d come here alone to try and find whoever was in charge, perhaps negotiate a peaceful end to the hostilities. His whole aim was to limit casualties.
The air rippled. As the giant bees were preparing to attack their target vanished from sight. They immediately began to search the premises.
As complicated as the maze was, this had no impact on Cloudhawk. Thanks to his teleportation abilities he could go where he pleased, so he simply folded space to appear five kilometers deeper into the belly of the mountain. After getting his bearings Cloudhawk discovered that while there were no vents, this part of the mountain still had good air flow. The corridors were all well lit; he even saw signposts.
Strange… robots didn’t need air. They didn’t need signs, either. Did that mean deep in the center of the nest there was something else? Cloudhawk was considering the possibility when he heard footsteps approaching from down the hall. Several figures blocked the path forward.
They were not robots. The figures were covered from head to toe in gray protective gear, with helmets that completely covered their faces. In their hands were weapons that looked like rifles with sparks of electricity spouting from two spikes at the end. A single shot from one of these weapons would paralyze its target instantly.
“You’re… you’re human!”
“You doing what here, en!”
More than his shock at finding humans here, Cloudhawk was floored by the fact he understood their language! Their accent was very strange, and their grammar was all off with several sounds he didn’t understand, but he got the gist of what they were saying.
Clearly the root of their language and his own were the same. But how? This was a completely different world, theirs was a completely separate civilization! How could it be possible that they share the same mother tongue?
Cloudhawk spoke to them carefully. “Who are you people?”
The natives also seemed to recognize that Cloudhawk wasn’t one of them. But more importantly, how had he slipped by all their defenses and appeared in their home?
No matter. He was here, and that was a serious problem. He spoke strangely so he was clearly not one of them. They would learn more once he was captured and safely locked away. But as they closed in with their tasers, something unexpected happened.
Cloudhawk gently waved his hand and the four men were thrown backward! The tasers were cast from their hands and spontaneously combusted into sickly green fire. It took only a few moments for them to be melted to slag.
Frowning, Cloudhawk noted how weak the four were. Despite their fancy looking equipment he’d thrown them to the ground with hardly any effort. How were such ineffectual people able to survive out here?
He waved his hand again. The air rippled to form appendages which lifted the four to their feet. Cloudhawk floated over to them. “I will ask again. Who are you people and what is this place?”
Who were they? Who was he! Some sort of super-human the legends spoke of? The four guards were shocked beyond words. Without a doubt this stranger could squish them with a thought. One of them finally managed to react, slapping the side of his helmet.
“Stop! Stop, la!”
The dark visor became suddenly translucent, revealing the face within. He was younger, perhaps in his thirties, with short black hair and eyes. As Cloudhawk expected, the protective gear was hiding human bodies, but he still didn’t know what they were doing here.
“I knows!” The black-haired man went on. “You father tells us those outsiders, en. Yo, new people la, from surface! This why na protections no work.”
Father? New people? Cloudhawk wasn’t following, so he pressed on. “I want to meet your leader.”
Despite the communication barriers they could still understand one another. The four guards exchanged a wordless look before the black haired man gave an answer. “Down first you put us, ba.”
Unafraid that these men were a threat, Cloudhawk complied. After all, they were merely typical humans as far as he could tell.
“Mu strong, ya! Never thought na legends true!” The black haired man stared at the twisted remnants of their tasers with disbelief in his eyes.
Without another word, Cloudhawk was brought deeper into the mountain. They crossed several thick metal blast doors, inspection checkpoints and sanitization chambers. Eventually they came to the real city hidden beneath this metal mountain.
“What is this place?” Cloudhawk stared in awe at the scene before him.
The city was far more expansive than he would have imagined. He looked up and overhead was a vaulted sky blue canopy with thin clouds creeping across its surface like fish scales. There was even a brightly shining sun. Cloudhawk knew it wasn’t the real sky, for this was not what Stony Plains’ sky actually looked like. Rather the vista he was looking at had to be some kind of illusion or hologram!
As for the city itself? The scale was nothing short of gigantic!
He saw massive building complexes, towering skyscrapers and streets densely packed with a never ending flow of levitating vehicles. Storefronts and billboards lined the roads, marked with the same script used by the ancient civilization of Cloudhawk’s planet. They wore clothing of a similar style he’d seen in books and pictures. Everyone just… living an ordinary life.
Beneath the machine nest was a fully functional, enormous human civilization!
“Welcome, en!” The black haired man stepped in front of Cloudhawk. He’d removed the helmet. “City living ‘bout a million peoples. Frontsides there is Asia District, over na Euro District. Also gots Africa District, North America District and so so. Called New Earth, this city. My name Kevin.”
“You’re all from Earth?” Cloudhawk asked.
“Ya – true speak we real Earth peoples, la.” Kevin explained as they walked toward the city. “One thousand five hundred year ago, early days of cataclysm, last peoples of earth move here. Father give shelter and we start new life. Over thousand year we peoples grew over ten times. Now a million strong. This why city na big.”
“Why do you call yourselves ‘real Earth people.’” Cloudhawk found the term curious. “What is different from you and me?”
“You joke, ba. You know after cataclysm Earth how pained by radiation, contamination ya? This world outside, ten thousand year later still radiation kill. Me sort people go na, thirty minute start get sicks.”
“Why don’t I feel anything?”
“Course you no la!” Kevin glanced at him. “You ancestors live on Earth after cataclysm. World of no civilization, people die – strong and adapted go on. You people change from radiation generation so generation, ya. You peoples survivors! Outside looks mu same, but insides mu different. Na world, old world, no more can have people like me, la.”
Kevin paused for a second. “This city, last real human city. We last Earthlings!”
At last Cloudhawk felt as though the puzzle had been solved. Now he understood why the world was what it was a thousand years after the Great War. It explained why the evolution of all the living things there had gone crazy, and why over time human had developed these special powers.
Powers the ancient people never possessed. Because the world they left didn’t have these contaminants, no radiation.
This city was an ancient time capsule, a vestige of the last real humans. Down here their original DNA was protected and preserved. No evolution, no mutation. Down here there was no such thing as demonhunters, godslayers, or Chosen. That was why they all seemed so weak.
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