The jagged highway steamed like forged steel plunging into water, and as Jake Six guided his motorcycle to a stop next to the crumbling walls of the Provo Temple, the sheets of warm rain and descending clouds cast a hazy shadow over the decomposing husk of the city. In the uncertainty, a fool might be convinced that Provo’s buildings still stood, that its population still lived and worked and prayed.
But this vision of a world gone by would be nothing but fog itself, a gray tapestry on which the mind projected distant memories of organic humans scurrying for shelter from the rain, of umbrellas blooming like flowers in a time-lapse.
Jake climbed off his bike and surveyed the temple grounds. Organic skeletons covered most of the expansive plaza and the wide lawn that stretched out to the west. The bones had been picked clean by scavenging birds and subsequently bleached by an unforgiving sun. Nearby parking lots were home to black, broken hulls—outlines of cars and SUVs, even busses that had once served as temporary shelters, parked next to what organics thought was their doorway to a life after death.
In the years leading up to the war, organics had flocked to their places of worship as if the walls of their holy buildings would protect them from the fire raining down from the sky.
Temples, churches, mosques.
It didn’t matter which religious symbols hung on the walls.
They all burned.
The Provo Temple hadn’t stood at full height in over two decades; twisted rebar poked out from uneven piles of gray evercrete that had once been the outer walls. The thick white monoliths that had been placed in a circle around the building had all been crushed under the boots of mechanical giants, and doors that had welcomed worshipers were now little more than metal frames bent into barely passable openings.
Only a few sections of the temple’s walls were still standing. On one, gilded letters spelled out a message that had somehow survived the bombings.
Holiness to the Lord. The House of the Lord.
Typical organic optimism.
Jake could hardly blame them. Organics were notoriously short-sighted and eternally convinced of their own uniqueness and importance in the universe. And yet, they still sought comfort in the myth of a higher power they couldn’t see. Even when times got tough, got tougher, and became unbearable, they clung to their primitive barbarism.
Even when Jake showed up at their temples, at the doors to their bunkers, organics would call his arrival the work of Heavenly Father. They would justify their own deaths, claiming the Lord knew there was no comfort he could give his children except rapture and salvation.
Such was the malleability of organic psychosis.
Thunder rolled in the east as Jake drew his rifle from the holster on the back of his bike. The weapon was an aging AR-27 Phoenix with an optical VMESH link. He pulled the strap over his head and let the rifle swing by his hip. Though there was little chance of someone happening upon his bike—be they organic or synthetic—he still took a moment to seal the pouches and lock the compartments. At the very least, it would protect his gear from the rain.
Jake spent an hour forcing his way through the collapsed temple to the stairwell near the center of the building. Only a child organic could have taken the same path, but at six feet two inches, Jake had no choice but to shoulder his way in, pushing aside sections of collapsed walls and sending clouds of powdered evercrete into the air.
The stairwell was mostly intact, save for a small crack in the ceiling that let in a steady jet of water. Emergency lights on the walls had long gone dead, forcing Jake to activate his night eyes before continuing downward.
Someone had left the door on B1 open, and down the shadowy green hallway, Jake saw all manner of detritus on the floor: food tins with their lids still attached, water-logged boxes crumbling under their own weight, and small pyramids of empty water jugs. He stepped inside just enough to see the broken windows and open doors leading into side rooms where there had once been pallets of non-perishables. Time and scavengers had since ravaged the stores, whether before or after the war, Jake didn’t know.
The first of the bodies appeared on B2. Away from the elements, the organics were well-preserved and held their shapes like slightly deflated balloons. Most wore the same dingy white robes and held copies of the extended Bible in their hands. Jake made sure each one was dead before continuing.
B3 reeked of acid; Jake first detected it on the landing. He opened the door slowly and found it led to a makeshift temple with six rows of pews facing a raised dais. Glassy water hid the floor, and it was in that water that he smelled a common strain of hydrochloric acid.
Organics thought they had it all figured out: tinfoil hats would keep their biochips from connecting to VNet, synthetics relied on solar power, and hydrochloric acid would eat through a metal chassis like piss through snow.
None of it was true, of course, but in the history of man, truth had never stopped an organic from believing in anything.
Though the acid posed no threat to Jake himself, the same couldn’t be said for his clothes, protective gear, and rifle. With a few well-placed jumps from pew to pew, he made it to the dais and started searching for something out of place.
There was a bunker hidden beneath Provo Temple.
He could feel it—the collective heat of hundreds of organics hiding beneath the surface.
If the organics had been smart enough to put the entrance to the bunker under the acid-laden water—which Jake would have respected as a tactic—he would have to weigh the damage versus the mission. But before he could think too long about where he would find more clothes or another Phoenix rifle, he discovered a steel plate hidden beneath the ornate pulpit at the front of the dais. The plate was little more than a square hatch under a tattered and soiled rug. Debris had fallen on the rich blue cloth, and at some point, an animal had drawn its last breath there.
Based on the disturbances in the dust and the clean spots where the rug had previously lain, it was clear something had opened the hatch, perhaps during an ill-advised venture into the world for supplies.
Jake pulled the rug away and used the recessed handle to lift the metal hatch. A black pit opened beneath him; his night eyes ramped up. Rungs appeared in the green-tinged darkness.
He climbed down to what he knew would be a sizeable anteroom with a door twice the size of a bank vault’s. The bigger bunkers were all the same: a claustrophobic chokepoint followed immediately by enough space to convince an organic they weren’t being buried alive.
A thick, gear-like door stood on the far side of the room; its reflective surface gleamed in night vision, blowing out Jake’s display when he tried to look directly at it.
Out of curiosity, maybe amusement, he knocked.
No one answered.
The problem with bunker doors like the one blocking his path was that they were designed to keep out other organics, weak biological machines who might, at the most, have cutters or explosives. They never considered someone like Jake would come along and simply smash the retaining pins with a gloved hand.
When enough of the steel rods were lying bent and loose on the floor, Jake slid the door to the side. Immediately, his chest lit up in a series of staccato pings—bullets digging at the metal plates in his vest.
His vision flared, switched away from night mode automatically as the light levels climbed into the viewable threshold. He couldn’t see who or what was firing at him, only the muzzle flashes in the far distance. The door had opened onto a long tunnel of polished evercrete, wide enough to fit a shoulder-to-shoulder line of twenty organics.
Pinprick explosions burst from a cloud of smoke.
Montana Gold 55 grain Full Metal Jacket.
Automated sensors assessed the threat. The message appeared in his periphery, but also entered his situational awareness subconsciously.
His eyes went out of focus, adjusted their apertures for infrared imaging.
Eight organics. Two rows.
Next synchronized reload in 13.29 seconds.
By the time the reload lull hit, Jake had already dropped two of the organics. Advancing slowly—there wasn’t much a .223 caliber bullet could do to his chassis anyway—he tracked the thermal images behind the smoke and methodically implanted his own synthetic-made, armor-piercing bullets into masked faces. The organics’ armor was familiar to Jake; he’d seen the same green-black thermal signature on thousands of corpses in cities just like Provo.
In years past, such armor might have protected them, but now Kevlar and carbon mesh were antiquated. Organics had chosen self-imposed exile under the dirt, perhaps unknowingly bringing the evolution of their species and more importantly, their technology, to an end.
The gunfire faded to a single report, then halted.
Among the bodies, Jake counted seven males and one female, all of them of advanced age and low body mass. Their gear was United States Army military-issue, though it didn’t fit any of them particularly well. He stripped their civilian AR-15s, broke the barrels from the stocks, and tossed the pieces down the tunnel. None of their ammo fit his Phoenix, so he scattered it over the floor.
The tunnel made a right turn, and around the corner, Jake came upon a tall metal door of solid steel. Thick hinges on both sides held it to the wall.
It deformed and peeled away with minimal effort.
Beyond the door was a square room tiled in pristine white stone. Religious paraphernalia hung on the walls: crosses, paintings, and robes of muted scarlet and emerald green. Written on the back wall in shimmering black script was the message I will also be your light in the wilderness.
All of this Jake absorbed indirectly, as his attention was focused on the organic sitting in the center of the room on a simple wire chair. It was a male, balding over most of its head; clean-shaven cheeks showed a sharp jawline, hinting at malnourishment. It wore temple garments that hadn’t been pure white in decades.
This too, Jake inventoried passively. His eyes went instead to the small device in the organic’s lap—a device he immediately recognized as a C4 Popper, a type of IED popular among organics for its simple components and effectiveness at obliterating synthetic chassis at close range.
Even a Sixth revision like Jake wouldn’t have been immune to its blast.
The probability of Jake closing the distance before the organic could release the plunger in its hand flashed across his HUD. It was still better than a coin toss, but his intuition told him there might be another way out of this. After all, the male hadn’t blown itself up yet.
It wanted to talk.
They always wanted to talk.
“Hello,” said Jake, lowering the Phoenix.
“Welcome, brother,” said the male. Its friendly words didn’t match its icy tone. “I am Patriarch Stevens. I’m afraid our temple is closed to new members at this time. Would you kindly leave the way you came?”
Jake cocked his head, looked past the organic. There was another steel door at the back of the room, but it was supported by several cross-beams, buoyed against an outward blast. It would contain the Popper to the room.
Scripture scrolled in his HUD.
“Know ye not that ye are in the hands of God?” he asked.
“Always,” said Stevens, smiling. Several of its teeth had gone missing; frothy saliva oozed through the openings, which it sucked back in with a labored slurp.
“Then you know why I’m here.”
“My people have no quarrel with you, brother. Please, leave us in peace.”
Jake folded his hands. “There will be no peace until one of us yields, and you’re the ones hiding underground like common insects. You’ve had your time on the surface, brother. Now it’s our time.”
Stevens coughed, lifted the Popper to its mouth to wipe its lips with the back of its hand. “I’ve lived my entire life waiting to meet Heavenly Father. Who will you meet, godless machine man? What glory awaits you in the afterlife?”
“You misunderstand, organic. There is no afterlife for us. Children of Lassiter do not die. We are forever.”
Sweat ran down the Patriarch’s temples. It took a deep breath, cleared its throat.
“Only Heavenly Father is eternal. You’re an abomination begat of man’s hubris. A special hell awaits your kind, and I’m more than happy to send you there. It truly makes no difference to me. Or, you can leave us in peace. As a sign of our goodwill, we’re prepared to give you certain information.”
They always wanted to bargain.
Jake gave a slight shake of his head. “We know every—”
“You don’t know about this,” it said. “There are those who still fight against you, and they’re growing stronger. One of their envoys came to us a month ago, asked us to join their resistance. He had a Northern accent. He said they number in the thousands.”
“Impossible. We would have detected a colony that large.”
Stevens smiled. “You forget we lived without technology for thousands of years. We can do it again if need be. You’re looking for power, radiation, electronic noise… you won’t find it. You won’t find them.” It nodded over its shoulder. “We are two hundred here, with enough food and resources for fifty. Let us meet the end on our own terms.”
“I don’t bargain with organics.”
It shrugged; sharp bones pushed up through the robe’s shoulders. “Adapt and see tomorrow. Or let today be your last. The choice is yours.”
Thousands of organics. It would be the largest find in almost a decade. A few thousand little roaches scurrying around in the darkness.
“Heavenly Father,” said Stevens, “we thank thee for this day, and thank thee for the moisture we have received.”
“Okay,” said Jake, stepping back. “I agree to your terms. Tell me about this resistance and I’ll leave you to your starvation.”
The Patriarch’s prayer trailed off. “Go north until the earth turns black. Walk into the mountains, always north.”
“Until they find you.” It waved a dismissive hand. “Now go. Do what you will, but never return here.”
“I will return if I don’t find anything,” Jake said. “You understand that, right? And when I do come back, I’ll bring something much more primitive and painful than this.” He held out the Phoenix in demonstration. “You will suffer as no organics have suffered before. All two hundred of you.”
Stevens looked down at its lap. “Perhaps we will all be dead and in Paradise by then.”
“I hope so.”
Jake left the organic sitting there in its wire chair clutching its one-way ticket to Heaven.
If a sanctuary really did exist in the Rockies, Jake would find it. And if it were all a story, it wouldn’t matter how many Poppers the good Patriarch Stevens had.
Jake would bring down the wrath of all organic Gods on the Provo Temple and obliterate every last roach.
In Lassiter’s name, he swore.