Charlie Saunders – Robot King – Part 1 – July 31st, 2256 – College City, Oklahoma – Dome Runner

I flounce through the front gate of my compound, across the Robot King parking lot and through the glass double doors leading into the electronics store. My ears ring. My head aches. Sharp pain flows through my left leg with each step, where a Scrapper got me good with a baseball bat.  

Eight combat bots, the only ones left after the fight, follow me into the building and line up against the front wall and await their next command. Each is constructed with soldered steel plates that form a rough shape of a person with large chest like a bodybuilder. They roll on wheels and have a digital face displayed on a tablet for a head. 

I walk over to Combat Bot 227 and open the metal hatch on his chest. I pull out a double chocolate crunch bar, rip off the wrapper, and bite it in half. 

I drift over and collapse onto my leather couch and grab the tv remote between the middle cushions. I press the power button and the flat screen in front of me lights up and displays a top down satellite image of a secondary Robot King location on the other side of the highway, right in the middle of Oklahoma Tech University, the home of an unknown number of Scrappers who want me dead. To be fair, I tried reasoning with them but they’re like animals. 

Wheels roll up behind me and stop at my left side. I look over and see Lilian, a social bot, cycle through three different still images with an exaggerated look of concern. 

“Were you successful, your highness?” says Lilian.

“I don’t understand. There were too many of them. Nearly three times as many Scrappers as I originally estimated. It was a slaughter,” I say.

“What are the numbers?”

“Forty-six bots destroyed. Eight survived, hardly enough to defend the castle.”

“We have four additional combat bots in reserve. What about the Scrappers?”

“We couldn’t even make it inside, Lilian.”

“What will you do? Build more?”

“Look around, Lilian. There are no more components. This place is tapped.”

Dozens of empty white isles with metal shelves line the electronics store. The home theater display, the Emerald Room, held twelve of the greatest television sets ever created. I used the components from those in the last two combat bots.

Thank you for keeping the castle safe. We’ll figure out something, I promise. I love you,” I say.

Another series of still images slide across the tablet screen, as she expresses love through her large green eyes.“And I love you,” she says.

I turn back to the television and press a button on the remote. The screen splits into six different sections, live security footage of every angle of the compound. The north, west, and east parking lots are clear between the wall defenses and the building. The south alley and loading lot is clear. The north gate isn’t damaged.  

The screen switches to the outer gate camera.

My heart sinks. 

Three scrappers stand outside the main gate. The only thing keeping them out, and the other murderers and monsters in the wilds, is the 10 foot wall that stretches around the perimeter of Robot King electronics and two six foot deep spike pits that surround the perimeter on either side. 

The Scrappers are wearing armored suits made of metal plates secured to their bodies with thick black leather straps. One of them has a stop sign as a chest plate, bent to better conform to his lanky body. It nearly wraps all the way around him. 

The other two wear green chest plates. One reads “Topeka, Kansas 666 miles” in bold white letters. Both of them wield two handed crossbows, but white cylindrical canisters the size of a soda can are attached at the head. They hold nets, or net shot, and are extremely effective for getting tangled in my bot’s wheels, something new.

The one with the stop sign also wields a crossbow, but the canister at the end of his bolt is different. It’s green. He aims the crossbow high in the air, towards the Robot King entrance, and fires. The projectile makes a wide arc and lands on the asphalt. It slides until it comes inches from the glass double doors. 

“Take cover!” I say.

The tablets on the soldier bots display hardened and angry faces of soldiers with grizzled beards, scrapes, burns, and the look of an intense burn in their eyes.

I fall to the floor and position myself on the other side of the couch for cover. I unholster the pistol on my hip and grip it with a sweaty hand. 

There’s a series of clicks as four gun barrels poke two inches out of the chest of the combat bots, each designed to fire a barrage of .22 caliber bullets. You don’t have to be accurate with an increased volume of firepower.

The bots form pairs and roll throughout the building. Two stay and position themselves on either side of the entrance. I expect the Scrappers to burst through at any moment. 

Nothing happens. 

I look back at the security footage. They’re walking away, back towards the highway. 

I sit up, grab the remote, and cycle through every angle. Nobody. I don’t get it. 

What is with these guys?

Pistol still in hand, I walk through the double doors. 

I study the bolt lying on the ground. I holster my pistol. I reach down and grab the cannister, open it, and look inside. There’s a piece of paper. I pull it out and unfold it. A letter. I struggle to read the barely legible handwriting, but by the time I reach the end of the note, my eyes are wide open. 

“A ceasefire? I can’t believe it,” I say.

Lilian rolls out of Robot King and stands besides me. 

“Is it safe?” she says.

I rest my hand on the top of her shoulders, where I imagine them to be at the top of her thin rectangular body, and sigh.

“For now, but they’ll be back. They promise a ceasefire for one month, until they’ve had time to care for their wounded,” I say. They must think we have a lot more firepower hidden away for another attack. Good. 

“Can we trust their word?”

“No. But we don’t have a choice. I need to think of the next move.”

“Maybe it’s time, your highness.”

“Time for what?”

“Driftwood.”

I crunch up the letter and toss it into the air. It catches some wind, blows back behind me, and hits the tan brick wall of Robot King electronics. As I bring my hand back, I notice four holes, half inch in diameter, piercing the white plate armor surrounding my arm. Fresh blood trickles out one of the holes and makes a red streak down towards my hand. 

With all the commotion of the attack, I hadn’t noticed I was injured. My heart is beating so fast. I unbuckle and slide off my arm piece and it falls to the asphalt. 

Lilian, fully aware of my injury by now, rolls back inside the building and comes back out holding a clean white rag in her metal pincers. 

“Thank you, Lilian.”

“You fought hard. Let me make you something. Tell me about it.”

“There isn’t time. I don’t have a way to build more bots, and I need help if we ever want to take the other Robot King from the Scrappers. We need those components, Lilian.”

“Charlie, Driftwood is the nearest human settlement. You know what you need to do. We’ve talked about this.”

“Why are you so persistent on me traveling to Driftwood?”

“What other choice is there? You need help from other humans. You’ve come this far without their help, but now, things are different. We are nearly defenseless. We might not survive another attack. We barely have enough bots to defend the castle.”

“I know.”

“I know you’ve never liked other humans, but I don’t see another choice, Charlie.”

“Humans are vile. Why would they help me?”

“They have to help you. You have to make them help you. Sir, you are the Robot King. You’re our king. You have to do something.”

The last time I saw a friendly face was the day my father and mother left for food eleven years ago, when I was seven. They’ve been dead to me a long time, and so has everyone else. 

“You’re right Lilian. I have to do something. I have to find help. I’ll bring the gold I’ve collected, and a few battery powered gadgets, and find some help. Mercenaries, maybe.”

“We all know you can do it. We’re counting on you, your highness. All hail the Robot King.”

Rachel Wells – Super Monster Cards – Part 1 – June 23rd, 2256 – Carter, Arkansas – Dome Runner

Billy Radcheck draws “Death Vortex,” and destroys the Wood Elf Warriors on my side of the table, clearing the way for his zombies to attack me directly, knocking my health points down to zero and eliminating me from my tenth Super Battle Monsters tournament. 

“Maybe next time, Rachel,” says Billy.

My eye twitches and I slam my fist onto the metal table. 

“Next time, I’ve got you,” I say.

He stands up and strolls away, towards the tournament brackets displayed on a large dry erase board on the other side of the room. A few steps in, I hear him mutter “Whatever, loser,” under his breath.

I stand up from my chair, grab the apple core from my lunch tray, and hurl it at his back. It smashes against his blue cloth jacket and falls to the floor. Bits of apple stick to his shirt. 

He twists his head and looks at me with a smirk.

“You’ll never win,” he says. He continues walking, through the crowd of kids that came to watch the action. They all follow Billy to the next table in the tournament. 

I’m out of here.

I reform my deck of sixty cards, each in dark green protective sleeves. I shuffle the deck a couple of times and place them into my limited edition Forest Creatures card tin, clamp the lid shut, and shove it into my black burlap sack. 

Cheers erupt as Chelsea Pratcher is knocked out of the tournament. I look over and see Chelsea stand up, a foot taller than the fifty kids surrounding her table. She walks through the crowd with a business as usual look. A small kid with a little blue backpack and a red hat runs up to her, stretches a hand out, and waves a Super Monster Card in her face. It has a bright orange sleeve. With a blank expression, she pops the card from his hand, takes a marker from her pocket and signs her signature. The kid holds the card to the light with a dazed and excited look before darting through the sea of kids. She’s effortlessly cool. 

I swing my bag over my shoulder and walk out of the commons room where there are still forty active tournament games. I thought I would have made it much further. Last year, I finished ninth place with my mega turtles deck. I don’t know what happened this time. I have to do something drastic if I plan on winning next month’s tournament.

To most kids, being good at Super Monster Cards is the same as being good at life. If you can win a tournament, you gain massive amounts of respect from the other kids. You might as well not exist if you always lose. I’m one of those kids, but not for long.  

I exit the commons and walk down the corridor and into the kitchens. The aroma of roasted corn fills the air. I sit at one of the forty round metal tables spread across the room, one closest to the exit. Kids and adults wait in line holding gray metal trays, extending them out when its their turn to receive a scoop of meat surprise and two scoops of corn. The dome didn’t believe in wasting anything, including the conglomeration of meat scraps left over at the end of the week, so they shredded and combined it all together and called it meat surprise. Served every Wednesday. It was still edible, but just barely. I eat light on Wednesdays. 

I take off my bag and dump its contents onto the table in front of me. Four tins filled with Super Monster Cards slide out of the bag and clank on the table. I take out my cards and make neat rectangular piles sorted by category: monsters, traps, spells, magic items, and energy cards. 

I rack my brain, trying to come up with some combination of cards that might stand a chance next month. I’ve tried dinosaurs, death cultists, and a deck that combined wizards and fairies. I can’t think of anything new.

That leaves one option. I need new cards.

But I was broke. 

I spent the last of my allowance buying the cards I needed to complete my Wood Elf Warriors deck. I don’t get a refill for three and a half weeks. 

I’ll have to trade. 

I scan the room for a dealer, kids that carry thick black binders filled with Super Monster Cards ready to sell or trade. I spot Randy Danowits and his thick gold rimmed shades and bushy black hair, sitting at a table on the opposite side of the kitchens, flipping through the plastic sleeve pages of one of the thickest binders I’ve ever seen. He must have over a thousand cards. He’s inserting new cards into white sleeve protectors, then slides them into clear plastic pages. 

Dealers like Randy acquire their cards either by trading other kids in the dome, or buying them from dome runners. Dome runners are allowed in the wilds, delivering supplies between domes, but most search for items to bring back to the dome to sell. 

Lately, there’s been a steady stream of dome runners introducing new cards into the mix, ones people have never seen before. This influx has created new strategies, new deck combinations. This month, elves, vampires, zombies, have dominated. Next month, who knows?

Unable to think of a new theme, I scoop my cards back together, put them in my pack, and slink over to Randy. Hopefully he’ll have something new that I could build off of, a secret weapon in the next tournament. 

I approach Randy’s table and slide into one of the stainless steel chairs opposite from him. He doesn’t acknowledge me. I wait patiently, knowing better than to interrupt a dealer before a trade. I sit there for two minutes in silence as he finishes cataloging and packing a dozen cards into his binder. When he’s done, he looks up at me with a smile. The LED lights on the kitchen ceiling reflect off the black lenses of his gold rimmed shades. 

“Rachel Wells? You’re not playing in the tournament?” he says.

“I did. Billy Radcheck knocked me out. Zombies,” I say. “He opened with Death Vortex, wiped the field, and attacked me with everything he had. I didn’t stand a chance.”

“He paid well for that card.”

“You sold him Death Vortex?”

“I did. He came to me before the tournament and traded away most of his super rares for it. Must have been desperate.”

“I knew it. He wasn’t packing that much heat in the practice games.”

“What do you need, Rachel? I’m leaving soon to meet with a runner. Supposed to have something special for me.”

“Like what?”

“New cards. Never before seen.”

My heart skips a beat. This could be exactly what I need to gain the edge on the competition. I need to secure these cards before anyone else can.

“Are they for trade?”

“Could be. What are you offering?”

“I have some super rares. Wood Elf Warriors. I have a bunch of rare traps. Some rare spells.”

“Not interested.”

I start tapping my index finger on the metal table. 

“Then what do you want?”

He slides his open binder around to face me. He flips through the pages until he stops on one that only holds a single card in the center of the nine pockets. The card’s title reads “Construct of Time” and depicts an image of a warped wall clock floating in space. I read the card’s description and it has an ability to take multiple free turns, but requires other cards in the set to activate the ability. It’s an extremely powerful effect. 

“I need you,” he says.

“What?”

My cheeks glow bright red and I look down at the floor. 

“You just turned 16, right?”

“Yea, so what?”

“So you can leave the dome.”

“I don’t see what this has to do with anything.”

“My normal supplier, a dome runner named Carly Santos, has one more run before she’s worked off her assault charge. After that, she’s out of the game. She’d rather stay with her family, which I understand, but it puts me in a rough spot.”

“How so?”

“I can’t find another runner willing to source cards from the same set as the Construct of Time card. Nobody wants to risk their lives looking for cards. I need someone new.”

“You want me to help somehow?”

“I want you to go with her, out in the wild. Look for boxes with the Construct of Time theme, and bring them to me.”

“You’re seriously crazy. You know what’s out there. Are you trying to get me killed?”

“Don’t believe the propaganda. It’s not as bad out there as you think, just ask Carly. I’ve seen you take a punch. You can handle yourself. Just come with me to meet Carly and go over the plan. If you don’t like it, I can’t force you, but going out there is the only way you’re getting your hands on some new cards any time soon. The other deals will be forced to recycle the same cards over and over. No new inventory.”

“Where do you expect to find these card shops?”

“I have maps. I know where all the major card shops are across the country. I know where to look. I know exactly where to go and how to get there. That’s why I have the edge over the competition.”

He not only has a way outside of the dome, but knows where the card shops are too? Every kid dreams of visiting a card shop and looting them for treasures. Imagine all the undiscovered cards and deck combinations. 

“I’ll have to see Carly before I make any decision.”

Randy peels off his shades and looks at me with his big green eyes. He grows a smile from ear to ear.

“Rachel, you’re not going to regret this. I’ll take you to her,” he says.

Finally, my chance to claim the rarest Super Monster Cards that have ever existed, that ever will exist, and use them to dominate tournaments. I’m not naive, I know what’s out there. This opportunity may never come again. 

“Right behind you,” I say.

Randy carefully packs his binder in a gilded red cloth backpack. An embroidered badge of a meteorite with jagged crystal shards stamps the front pocket. The crystals glow bright purple, symbolizing the alien power source that created all Super Monsters when it collided with earth. That’s the lore, at least. The boy has style. I want a backpack just like that. 

I follow Randy out the other side of the kitchens and into the hallway that leads to the elevators a couple hundred feet away. Dozens of kids stand scattered in small groups down the length of the hallway. We pass a group and I see a young girl with blonde braided hair trading 12 chips for 2 cards, half the chips I get in my allowance for an entire month. I wonder which cards she bought?

“We’re here,” says Randy. We stop in front of the two brass elevator doors. He reaches over and presses a button to call the elevator. It glows yellow. A display at the top lights up with the number forty-six. The numbers start counting up until it reaches the number ninety-seven a minute later. There’s a ding and the brass doors slide open.

We step inside and the doors close behind us.

Randy presses the button with the letter S, for surface, and we rise to the top, my excitement with it.

Fanny Belle – Chef’s Dream – Part 1 – January 3rd, 2256 – Cyprus, Kansas- Dome Runner

Glass crunches under my black and white sneakers. I look down and see the worn label of “Sippy’s Cola” bandaging the glass shards of a crushed soda bottle. I turn to face him. The light of the midday sun highlights his curly red hair, which is extra bushy in the dry January air. He’s pointing to something ahead of us.

I follow his hand, now pointing towards one of the dozen buildings that line the main road into Cyprus, Kansas, a town with a single gas station, home to nothing but ghosts and the occasional mutant, like most towns these days. Behind one of these buildings is the key to my my freedom, to Syd’s freedom, a working food truck where we can cook quality meals, unlike the gruel served in the Silo kitchens, or the poison from Paddy’s. Poison that killed three of my friends.

“Is that the place?” he says.

“You tell me. You have the map,” I say.

“You said a bowling alley, right? That has to be the place. About time too, my feet are killing me.”

“Just look at the map.”

“Fine.”

Syd sets down the bright red 5 gallon gas container and reaches for the back of his jeans. A small rectangular indentation, white and worn, protrudes from the blue denim pocket where he keeps his Zippo lighter. He produces a worn and folded map and unfolds it. His finger traces the roads we walked from the Silo, to our current location, and then to the bowling alley, our destination. A ten mile journey, all on foot by highway across the vast Kansas plains. 

“Lucky Strike Bowling Alley. Fourth building on the left between 3rd street and Jackson,” he says. 

He looks up at the cluster of retail stores a quarter mile up the street. One of the small brick buildings is a bakery. My heart lights up and I can almost smell puff pastries filled with fruit and hear the crunch of freshly baked bread. I’ll make both one day. 

I narrow my vision and study the bowling alley for any signs of movement. We can’t get too close. Mutants prefer to congregate in population centers, because buildings make great nesting locations. I hope we don’t run into trouble, because things will get ugly, fast. We left in a hurry and only brought what we could fit in our backpacks. That, and enough fuel to get us somewhere safe.

I make out the shape of six bowling pins mashed together to form a sign that stands forty feet tall on the far side of the building, peeking between the canopies of two dead oak trees. The letters faded long ago, but I know we’ve arrived. The food truck is here somewhere. The first step in our plan. 

“That’s the place. The truck is parked in an alley on the back side of the building,” I say. “There’s a grocery store right behind it. Looted, likely.”

“You ever wonder if Paddy knows we took his map?” he says. 

“He’ll find out soon enough. Speaking of, we need to look for weapons. We’re not getting ripped apart on our first day out here.”

“What about our chef knives?”

“It’s bad luck to taint a blade with mutant blood. Besides, we need those for cooking. Especially if we have to run back to the safety of the Silo.”

“But we’re going to make it on our own, right?”

“We’ll try. We might go back for trading or selling meals, but that’s it. Now look around for something to swing, there has to be something.”

“A shotgun would be nice.”

“We’ll get you one. First we have to get this truck. Everything else comes after.”

“You’re a good friend, Fanny.”

Syd’s face grows into a wide grin. He tucks away the map, reaches up, and brushes my head, over the 4 inch scar he gave me one year ago when a knife slipped out of his hands on the line. We’ve been friends ever since.

I slap his hand away and grab his shoulder.

“Okay, mushy. Time to get serious,” I say.

His smile fades.

I grab onto his left arm and drag him along, keeping him close as we venture onwards.

We pass dozens of resting cars. Most have busted windows and popped trunks. All of them have flat tires. 

We approach the front of the Lucky Strike Bowling Alley, but stop before entering the front parking lot. There’s a dozen cars scattered about, some tipped over. The front of a lifted red Ford truck is t-boned into an older model yellow Cadillac sedan parked closest to the road. A mass of green leaves and vines creep through the cracked asphalt parking lot and up the sides of both vehicles.

The bowling alley is a single story brick building with a dull yellow overhang.  The interior is pitch black through the entrance, a pair of glass double doors in the front. There’s a black sign with bold red letters stuck to the other side of the front doors that reads “Open.”

“Clear so far. Let’s check the alley.”

We round the corner, between the bowling alley and a hardware store to our left. We reach the alley, but it’s barricaded with a thick metal chain link fence secured with sheet metal on the other side, obscuring our vision. Thick barbed wire protects the top.

Syd walks up and kicks the fence. It rattles. 

“What now?” he says.

“Hop up on my shoulders. See what’s on the other side,” I say.

“You’re not that strong,” he says.

“Stronger than you, twerp. Now hop on.”

I position myself in front of the fence, squat down, and secure my feet. Syd hops on my shoulders. He’s not much thicker than a skeleton, but I’m caught off by the momentum of the added weight from his pack. I struggle to keep from toppling forward as he secures his legs on my shoulders. I clench the tops of his knees and slowly rise. I wobble for a moment before finding my balance. 

“Hey, careful down there,” he says.

“I got it. What do you see?” I say.

He turns to face the alley. 

“Shit, there it is. Paddy had it right.”

My heart jumps. “What’s it look like? Do you see a way inside?” I say.

“There it is. It’s actually there, I can’t believe it. Looks like the tires are flat. The other side is blocked like this one, but the back door to the bowling alley is open.”

This truck is the first step in opening our mobile restaurant. We need this truck if we want to have any chance of competing with that slime ball, Paddy, and his goon squad of masked cooks. He’s secured a monopoly on the mobile food business over the last five years, but it’s time for a change. He has no respect for food. We’ll run him out of business. Soon he’ll have served his last mutant meat burger. But first we’re going to secure this truck. Then we’ll fill it with equipment, and eventually fresh ingredients. Paddy, that clown, doesn’t stand a chance against what we’re going to serve. Food made with love and fresh ingredients.

“Hey wait. I see something,” says Syd. “Something’s moving around in there. Wait, there it goes!”

There’s a crash followed by a scurrying of feet and some sliding. 

“Little sucker went into the bowling alley.”

“What was it?”

“It was black and white but I didn’t get a good look with you wobbling around.”

I bend down and Syd hops off. 

“Well, hopefully it’s nothing,” I say. “We can’t risk getting cut up so we’re going inside. Let’s see if we can find that back door.”

“I don’t like it.”

I wander over to the front of the hardware store on the other side of us, a dozen feet away, and search the ground. Among the broken glass from the windows, and dead weeds, I find a hammer. It’s completely rusted with a black rubber grip. I yank it out, walk over, and hand it to Syd. 

He snatches it from my hand.

“It’s no shotgun, but I’ll make it work,” he says. “What about you?”

“I’ll find something.”

We walk around and stand in front of the two glass doors leading into the bowling alley. Light trickles inside, and I can make out a red and white checkered floor, covered in dead leaves. I can’t see anything beyond that. I try to listen for movement, but there’s nothing. I hear something rustling, but look behind me and see it’s a pile of leaves shifting in the wind.

I grasp the metal handle and push. It slides a couple of inches and grinds to a halt. I force it the rest of the way open. 

I step inside.

Syd follows.

As we pin the doors open with some stones, feet scurry through leaves just ahead of us. I look over and see Syd clinching his hammer.

I might have to sully my knife after all.