>Gibbons, Tony J.
Tony jerked out of his fitful sleep and sat up, his chest heaving. As he caught his breath, the screams and the darkness faded quickly from memory. He groaned. A cold sweat had soaked through his sheets. The nightmares were getting worse, and more frequent. Two more weeks. He would be off of this damned rock in just two more weeks.
A sudden white brilliance illuminated his sterile quarters as lightning flashed outside. Thunder boomed off in the distance near the city, far away from his current task office. The blinking of his communicator caught his eye, and he reached with one hand to pick it up, wiping the clammy sweat off his brow with the other.
>Gibbons, Tony J.
He sighed, and flicked his finger across the communicator's screen.
"What is it, Peck?"
The screen flashed again.
> Good morning Gibbons, Tony J. It is almost time to report to the field. Would you like me to prep your coffee?
"Good morning?" Tony grumbled. "Peck, get your scanners checked. Have you seen the weather outside? There's no way we're going out in this."
>Meteorology reports for the sector suggest a 100% likelihood of the storm passing within the next ten minutes. Additionally, the rain from the storm will help reduce the airborne toxin levels for the next 10 hours, making this morning an ideal excursion time. I will prep your coffee. French roast?
Tony set the communicator down on his nightstand and swung his feet off his bed. Rain began to hit the thick plate glass windows of the task office. If you say so, Peck. Anything that would get the job done sooner.
Tony strode into the small kitchen in full gear, his heavy boots clanking against the solid plastic floor. He squinted as he entered the room, and slid the brightness controls down for the overhead florescents. Peck floated by, whirring softly as he worked with the food processor. Tony pulled out a chair and slumped down. His wrist communicator lit up.
>You look tired Gibbons, Tony J. Did you have difficulty in falling asleep? If so, I could prescribe a mild sedative to help.
Drugs. Just what he needed.
"No thanks, Peck. I'm fine. The coffee will help."
The droid floated over to the table carrying a small tray of coffee, eggs, meat, and dried fruit. It set it down carefully and then hovered, expectantly.
Tony lifted a fork off of his plate and managed to take a bite of the runny eggs. The food processor wasn't designed for Scourers with refined palates, he decided. It also didn't help that a robot with no taste buds was the one doing all the cooking.
He swallowed and managed a weak smile. "It's great Peck. Thank you."
>You are very welcome Gibbons, Tony J. I apologize for the consistency of the eggs. They have a statistically similar composition to last week's, which you remarked had poor taste. I will continue to refine the food processor's algorithms.
"Yeah. Maybe a little more refining." He took a sip of his coffee. "This isn't too bad though."
The droid beeped and whirred, then floated off into the next room to retrieve Tony's helmet from its charging station. Hopefully, the helmet had been loaded with today's mission files. The past few weeks, Tony and Peck had been scouring blind throughout the city.
The droid returned and sat the helmet down on the table. Tony reached over and flicked an inner switch, lighting the helmet's display up. No updates. He cursed softly under his breath. Another directionless scour.
"All right Peck, go and prep the car. I'll be down in decomp in two minutes." Tony lifted the helmet over his head and snapped it into place. Peck's message lit up instantly over the HUD.
> Are you sure you would not like to finish breakfast first, Gibbons, Tony J.? You have not consumed more than 20% of the meal.
"Sorry buddy. Just not that hungry this morning. I'll drink a lot of the suit juice, how's that?"
> Affirmative, Gibbons, Tony J. I refilled the suit's reservoirs for such a contingency. I will prep the car now. I will be pleased to see you in only a few moments!
Tony laughed and shook his head. Peck was a helpful companion, but his language programmer had left him a few eggs short of a full omelet.
He descended the lift down to the decomp station. The vacuum sealed doors hissed open and Tony stepped inside what the guys at basic training had lovingly dubbed "the piss cage". He yawned, and immediately wrinkled his nose. It had a nickname for a reason. Even though all his air passed through the suit's powerful filters, Tony could detect a hint of ammonia and burnt carbon to the room. The doors hissed closed behind him, and for a few seconds, all he could hear was his own breathing, a deafening echo in his helmet. Then the piss cage began to spray.
The exit spray wasn't so bad. It was a clear mist that gently covered his suit, a first line of defense against corrosive toxins. Tony doubted that the chemicals in the air were still bad enough to eat through the plastic, but it was better safe than sorry. The return spray would be worse: a three phase disinfectant regime that was highly pressurized. Tony smiled as he remembered how everyone got knocked down in training during their first bout in the piss cage. It took a little bit of practice to stand without holding on to the overhead handlebars.
The spray stopped and the all-clear sounded as Tony stepped out of the cage and into the garage. Technically, the garage was a hot-zone (Peck tirelessly reminded him of this fact), but he doubted exposure would cause him permanent harm. It was when they got closer into the city that his suit meters would start to skyrocket.
>Thank you for being so prompt Gibbons, Tony J.! We will be on schedule for our 83rd sweep of the site. The car has been fueled and is ready to depart at your command.
Peck buzzed happily and docked into the car's utility hitch that ran behind the drivers seat. The car's lights turned on and the interior displays lit up in a dazzling array of blue and green. The vehicle had lost some of its shimmer from the daily commute, but Tony knew that the scrapes and bumps on the outside belied a hardy interior. The car was a rover like no other. Nearly unlimited range and tires that could take hundreds of punctures meant that he didn't have to worry about getting stranded anywhere. Even if he did have mechanical problems, he assumed Peck had at least some sort of robotic degree in vehicle repair.
Tony hopped the side door and jostled himself into the seat. He began to double check the vehicle's guidance, just to make sure it hadn't received updates that his helmet had not.
>No updates have been received from command. I believe we will have to scour freehand again today, Gibbons, Tony J.!
"Well, at least someone's enthusiastic to get started. I swear, Peck, they're neglecting us here. It's a huge area and our mission parameters are pretty vague."
> Mission parameters are to search ATL-P1 for two critical objectives. The primary objective is to identify and locate Minister Carruthers' remains to retrieve critical documents from his vehicle. The secondary objective is identify and report back any sign of life that hasn't
"I know the objectives, Peck. I'm just saying...it's a big area, and we don't even know where Carruthers was during the event. Hell, he might have gotten out of the city for all we know." Tony sighed and flicked the control for the garage door, which rose with a hydraulic hiss. The landscape beyond was a hazy muted gray. A field of ash.
>Command's latest intelligence indicated a significant possibility that he remained in the city during its last hours. I am encouragingly sure that we will surely find him!
"He's been dead for decades! There's no way our trackers will even be able to identify his remains." Tony paused. "No offense Peck. It's just that we don't have a lot to go on."
>I cannot take offense, Gibbons, Tony J.! Your skepticism indicates a healthy mindset of rationality. However, your knowledge of my sensors is limited in scope and therefore has not been factored into your logical analysis! I am confident I will be able to identify Carruthers! We will of course succeed on our mission!
Tony punched down on the gas pedal, and the car sped out of the garage, on the well-worn road to ATL-P1. Despite the endless charred gray around him, he had to laugh. Whoever came up with the idea of an optimist Scour droid was either a genius or a complete idiot.
> The rain has indeed washed some of the airborne toxins away! Today we will be in possession of a successful venture!
Probably a little bit of both.
The car raced down the bumpy road, sloshing through some muddy bottoms created by the storm and cresting over rolling hills. Out in the distance, the ruins loomed, a spectre on the horizon. The city of ATL-P1. Atlanta: Priority One.
Peck had been right, the earlier rainstorm had washed away most of the ash clouds. Tony had never seen the city so clearly. On days when the air was still and dry, they had to worry about the fog. Its thickness would encompass him and Peck within its poisonous tendrils, obscuring the world in a shroud of dead gray. It made driving difficult, and scouring impossible. Now, the clear day laid bare the charred ruins of Earth's civilization; the broken windows of apartment buildings gazed back at him like empty eye sockets. He wasn't sure which he preferred.
He followed his nav map to a portion of the city that they hadn't yet covered. Sector 5H-B. Tony idled up to a broken slab of concrete that blocked the road and set the car to park. He flicked the switch for the skylight beacon, just in case the fog decided to come back. Peck was good at finding their way through the misty ash, but it was a good habit to take precautions. Tony's suit reminded him that staying over 12 hours in the area would be dangerous. He smiled grimly. No need to remind me to leave this hell as soon as I can.
He grunted as he vaulted over the broken slab of concrete, taking care to avoid brushing his legs past some sharp fragments of rebar. Peck floated by, his humming reverberating in the silence.
Tony set his feet down on the other side and began to walk. He had avoided 5H-B, almost as long as he had avoided 2A-A, or downtown Atlanta. It was stupid, he knew. If he wanted to finish the assignment and leave Earth as soon as possible, he would have done these sectors first. It was procrastination. There were just too many bodies.
Bodies wasn't even the right term. Peck used the term 'organic remains', something his shut-in linguistics programmer probably thought was a delicate term. They were skeletons mostly, dessicated and worn from the years of sun and the dry ash. He had been exposed to plenty of 'organic remains' during training, but somehow these were different. More terrifying. Revolting. It wasn't the sheer number of them (there were dozens on every street) or their unnatural postures (many seemed to be twisted and holding their stomachs) that horrified Tony. It was the sizes. For every three large skeletons, there would be a smaller one nearby, curled up into a ball. That was why he had avoided 5H-B for so long. Buckhead had been home to a lot of young families.
Peck remained quiet as he took in the scene. The droid was godawful at understanding jokes or sarcasm, but it seemed to grasp grief and sadness.
"Start scanning the bodies, Peck. I doubt we'll find any matches to Carruthers or the Science Canton. I just want to be able to check this place off."
>Affirmative, Gibbons, Tony J. I will begin scanning at once.
The little droid moved swiftly in and out of the wreckage, hovering briefly over each body and making a quick pass. It beeped and whirred, and made short work of the street and surrounding block.
> Please let me know if you identify any leads, Gibbons, Tony J.
"I will, buddy. There's a lot to take in here, but I will."
Tony trudged through the street, examining the ruins of cars. It wasn't all hopeless. Members of the Science Canton had different license plates than civilians. Tony had found a good number throughout his other scours. Occasionally, Peck was able to identify an important member of the Atlanta branch. But no Carruthers. No files.
Overhead, the sun began to peek through the clouds, casting down a hazy ray of light onto the street. Tony felt the sun warm his suit, and took a long sip of his hydrating suit juice. Pineapple. Not the best choice, Peck.
After a half hour of searching through rusted car bodies, Tony leaned against a slab of solid concrete to rest. 5H-B was big. Too big for one day. They'd have to come back tomorrow, and likely the next day after that. Damn.
His HUD lit up with Peck's status.
> Block 3 has been cleared, Gibbons, Tony J. Have you found any potential leads during your search?
"Nope. There was a police car a few blocks back. I thought it might have had more detailed evac plans...hopefully with some for the Science Canton. No such luck, though. Same things we've already seen."
> We should not be discouraged. To the positive, we are clearing a very dense sector. It will be rewarding when we have completed.
The only reward Tony wanted was a ticket home. Still, he couldn't disagree. Having 5H-B crossed off would be a weight off his chest. Though they still had to clear the area around Garden Hills Elementary...
He winced at the thought, and began to walk to find Peck.
The cars in the street began to pack together. Tony weaved past open doors and dodged crumpled wrecks as best as he could, but it was arduous work in the heavy suit. He slid over the hood of a small coupe, and balanced himself to regain his footing, breathing hard. He took another sip of his juice and resisted the urge to gag as the potent tropical taste mixed with the rubbery smell of his helmet. He exhaled slowly, and took another step forward.
As Tony moved forward, his boot stuck to the ground. He fell, crying out and bracing his hands for impact against the hard ground. His hands met a soft squish. Mud. His boots were stuck in a mess of mud and ash. But how did this much dirt accumulate on an open street?
> Gibbons, Tony J., are you all right?!
"I'm fine, Peck, I think. Just took an ugly spill." Tony grunted as he wrenched his boot free of the sticky mud.
He stood up, focusing carefully on maintaining his balance in the awkward weight of the suit. The street that Tony had been on had disappeared, cut in half by a shallow river of mud and muck. A stop sign, bent from stress and age, stuck out wearily from the mess of dark brown.
"Looks like a water main might have broken..." Tony thought out loud. "No, scratch that. This is too much sediment."
> I am heading to your position now, Gibbons, Tony J.
Tony hobbled out of the street and braced himself on the nearby brick shell of what used to be a store. He wiped his hand against the wall.
"Peck, do you think it's possible for last night's storm to have caused a flash flood?" he asked, rubbing his fingers together. "It looks like this mud was waist high at one point."
Peck hovered around the corner and floated toward Tony, his blue lights reflecting sparkling pools of water left in the muddy street.
>A natural event of that sort in this region is unlikely, Gibbons, Tony J. However, it appears many of the nearby streets are blocked off with an excess of vehicular remains. It is conceivable that these blockages could funnel a large volume of water!
Blockages. One or two car accidents would make sense; Tony had read that it hadn't taken very long for the event to cover Atlanta. The reports said it was all over in a matter of minutes. People were coughing and choking, which meant that driving became impossible. But in every other sector, the car accidents were everywhere. They made a mess of every street. A random mess. These blockages of wrecked cars looked...
His train of thought stopped suddenly as something caught his eye. A flitter back in forth in the afternoon breeze. Impossible.
>Yes, Gibbons, Tony J.?
"Are you seeing this?"
Tony sank his feet into the mud and walked into the middle of the street. The bright lamps of his helmet cut softly through the dust, which was slowly gathering again in the air. He stopped, and stood over the object. Peck floated over. If droids could be shocked..., he thought.
He stood over it, not knowing if it was real. The green leaves flitted again in the breeze, the fragile stem shaking slightly, and then righting itself. A plant. To be more specific, a weed. It was the first one that Tony had seen during his time on Earth. It was a miracle.
>Scanning object now, Gibbons, Tony J.
A soft cerulean sphere surrounded the plant as Peck began to go to work analyzing the sample. The droid beeped and whirred, circling slowly around the tiny stalk to get a better read. Tony simply stood, dumbstruck.
> Lifeform verified. Genus unknown. It appears to be a hybridization of several types of indigenous weeds. This is quite exciting news!
"It looks like a clover. A big clover."
>You may be right in that assessment! I have recorded much data on this specimen. We will need to retrieve the sampling kit from the car so we may continue our analysis back at the task office.
Peck whirred, and floated back in the direction of the rover.
"Wait! Peck! Hold on a second." Tony exclaimed.
The droid beeped, and turned back toward him.
> Yes, Gibbons, Tony J.?
"Peck, you know me pretty well, right?"
>An odd question for this momentous occasion, Gibbons, Tony J. But yes, I know much about you.
"I know you do, pal. You know plenty of details about me. Like my boot size."
>I am not sure I follow your thinking pattern, Gibbons, Tony J. Might I suggest most delicately that this discovery has perhaps put you in a state of
"Peck. My boot size. Twelve, right? Because those tracks over there look more like a size eight."
The two scourers looked down the street where a trail of tracks led through the dusty muck. Something was living out here. And it was much bigger than a weed.