The Dead City…who could say they remembered its real name, before it was claimed by howls and snarls and vicious dissonance?

Nothing ever came out, save a rank odor when the winds were just right and the occasional howl of something inarticulate and unknowable (or perhaps just metal on metal). Things occasionally went in–explorers, scavengers, missionaries even–but it was as sure a death sentence as dangling from a makeshift gallows or facing down a firing squad as far as most could figure. People gave the Dead City a wide berth coming and going, with signs warning the unwary away the only part of the old road that saw any maintenance in those latter days.

Yet lights still shone in the night, even though the power had been cut, dried out, or redirected practically forever ago. People with binoculars could see movement from a safe distance, but an inversion layer kept it shimmering and indistinct. Smoke rose from chimneys and stacks as if the city were alive.

And, if anything, it was that illusion of life that filled people with bone-deep dread.


When Billy emerged from the well, his silver dollar in hand, he meant to turn around and throw in the quarter he’d meant to fling in the first place. But a horrifying sight confronted him. The sky was angry red, the buildings were annihilated, and even their ruins covered far less land area than they should have.

“Bu…wha…?” Billy stammered.

“Billy.” It was the voice of the well itself, a sepucheral dirge from beneath the earth itself. “Gaze upon your crime. By undoing a wish you have undone all wishes.”

“What? That’s crazy!”

“In 1975, the mayor wished for the town to be revitalized. Not no more it ain’t. In 1982, a little girl wished for there to be no nuclear war. Now we got the blowup we should have.”

Billy grabbed for his silver dollar. “I’ll wish it all back! I’m sorry!”

“It’s too late for that, Billy,” the well said. “Your mom was here in 2006 and wished she could catch her sweetheart’s eye.”

With a final wail of helplessness, Billy and his silver dollar vanished from existence.

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Marauder Machine Rifle

These machine rifles are produced in large quantities on primitive lathes and machine tools, often using pipes and other plumbing equipment left over from the World Before. Analysis has shown these to be based on the design of a “Sten gun” that dates to an epoch long predating that of more sophisticated arms. If the legends are to be believed, the original machine rifles were designed on a far-off island to be used in defending their home from invaders, and were so successful that those selfsame enemies eventually copied them.

The shoddy construction of these machine rifles means that they are usually used with black powder loads. They typically use a 9mm cartridge that has been reloaded or scavenged, 9mm being perhaps the most common cartridge available. This weapon is not to be underestimated; though it is easily deflected by reasonable armor, the volume of fire it commands is equal to that of the much more complex-to-manufacture Kalash.

Roll ‘Em Rifle

A single-shot rifle, the Roll ‘Em is incredibly strong and simple and thus an ideal candidate for long-range sniping. Marauders typically carry one in each squad, equipped with a telescopic sight if one is available, given to the most keen-eyed of the group if not. It can handle both black powder and smokeless rounds without modification, making it prized among distance shooters. the ease of manufacture is such that they are available in many calibers, typically .45-70, .308, or 7.62mm. The only drawback is that the rifles must be loaded and fired one round at a time, making them useless in close combat; pistol versions do exist and are typically used as holdout guns by Marauder officers.

It is said to be the most ancient arm available, as old to the World Before as the World Before is to us. As it was native to this land, examples are occasionally found in their original calibers and have successfully been restored to working order.

Kicker Mortar

The Kicker is a simple short-range mortar issued to Marauder squads. It takes the place of a heavy machine gun in many other groups, serving as suppressive fire while Marauders armed with machine rifles flank the position. Incredibly portable and very simple, it is little more than a tube with a series of adjustment screws, a curved buttplate to dig into the earth, and a bubble level taken from a construction tool for aiming. By far the most complex part of the Kicker is its ammunition, which is usually made from metal pipes with primitive plunger fuses and high explosives.

It is said that the Kicker was used by another island resisting invasion, and gained respect in the World Before even from its adversaries for its portability and simplicity. Despite its name, the Kicker should not be fired from the knee, leg, or shin.

Screamer Rockets

Mounted on trucks or horse-drawn carriages, the Screamer uses an extremely simple rail system to launch multiple unguided rockets at a target. Its aim is not precise, nor are the rockets sophisticated; it is the saturation effect, and the terrifying whistles attached to many of the rounds, that result in its effectiveness. It is the most common Marauder artillery piece, and devastating against unarmored or lightly armored targets.

A very resourceful people in the World Before are said to have invented the Screamer Rockets. Valuing simplicity, ruggedness, and ruthlessness over all else, it is said they used Screamers to defeat an equally ruthless people whose technology was more florid and ornate at the expense of being delicate and complex.

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In the ashes of the world that was, at the edge of a swamp slowly encroaching upon and devouring all that had been built before it, a solitary figure wandered the edge of the Mirk’s Crossing Montessori School. It was a state-of-the-art TruancyBot 2500 from Robotnix, and its fusion power core would last until the end of the world plus a thousand years.

This particular model, KL-54796, had been modified from its original purpose. Heavily armored and ponderous, the TruancyBot line had been designed to coax reticent and possibly well-armed students to attend classes as per the law. The Mirk’s Crossing Montessori School was not a public school and was, in fact, as expensive as some junior colleges, so there was no need for a truancy officer (though KL-54796 had, on occasion, been employed against parents whose checks bounced).

Rather, KL-54796 had been programmed to mediate disputes in a calm and impartial manner, especially among volatile teenagers in the Sprouted Daisies college prep cirriculum. A robot didn’t have any of the emotional baggage that the human teachers had brought to conflict resolution (when they were alive), after all. It also had the benefit of being a literal ton of Kevlar and aluminum with enough torque to crush a human skull like a grape in a flabby Frenchman’s hand.

“Now, now,” chided KL-54796. “We must learn to share our things.”

A bicycle, wrecked by the cataclysmic end of the world that was, lay near the edge of KL-54796’s patrol zone. A snake had coiled itself around it, and was in the process of swallowing a fish that had washed up from the swamp’s edge a few inches away where the land had been subsiding.

“The bicycle is just a thing,” KL-54796 continued, with its preprogrammed and committee-approved mantra. “We must remember that owning things should never result in the thing owning us. As the Dalai Lama said, <>.”

In response, the snake swallowed the fish, this rendering the conflict resolved to the mutual satisfaction of all parties. KL-54796 moved on.

“That teddy bear is not food,” it said to an alligator that had mistaken a cast-off polyester ursine for a small woodland snack. “While some cultures believe that eating a thing is to gain its power, and that belief must be respected, you must realize that the teddy bear was never alive and therefore has no power to gain.” There had been considerable debate, in committee, about whether the dinosaurs that had formed the hydrocarbons in plastics counted for the purposes of this dialogue. KL-54796 had not, however, been programmed to make the distinction.

Finishing its rounds, the robot stepped over a rope barrier that it had lovingly maintained over the years and opened a fridge. Cartons of long-spoilt and long-evaporated milk moldered within, and KL-54796 booted up its parental dietary preference program.

“Milk. Milk. Almond milk. Soy milk. No milk. Milk.” KL-54796 marched in a line past where the children would have assembled after recess, dropping empty cartons into long-vanished hands. Then, its litter protocols activated, it gathered up the cartons and returned them to the fridge.

Its job done, KL-54796 went into sleep mode until classes were released at 1530 hours. For the 10,377th recess in a row, it had done its job and done it well.

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Scurrying back to her refuge, 41\11\113 laid out the prizes of the day’s scavenging.

A servo from a 114 series, which would fit her with a little modification and could serve as a backup to the failing servo in her left arm. Three torsion bars from a 101-series, which could also be jury-rigged to work or melted down to cast new parts in 41\11\113’s homemade smelter. A pile of scrap, also for the smelter, along with some fuel. Some preserved crackers to feed to the rats and roaches.

But the greatest treasure was one that 41\11\113 kept closest to her body, wrapped in layers of plastic bags and burlap. It was the destroyed head of a 113-series, like her. Half of it had been torn away by an explosion, but the lifelike latex was still partially intact around its left eye and jawline. Better, though, was the sheer number of intact or lightly damaged parts to add to her stockpile.

Carefully, gently, 41\11\113 disassembled the relic according to her self-repair schematics. Each part was carefully sorted, and the ones that were bent were tapped back into shape. Then, reverently, she sorted the parts into the old toolbox that she had repurposed, alongside all of the others she had been able to accumulate.

And beside them, in a locked safe…

41\11\113 opened it and removed her original head. She was wearing a much more plain unit, a pair of optic sensors and a speaker, from a 109 series. They swapped out easily, since all the major components were in her torso. She let her anthropoid fingers play lightly over the sillicone, lingering where there was still paint or eyeshadow.

She’d been built, and programmed, to imitate a human female in situations where one might put people at ease. And as she locked that original head in place, and peered out from replica eyes into a mirror, she couldn’t help but wonder at how beautiful she still could be, though none were left to see it amid the ruins.

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“What is this thing the elders speak of?” asked Donald’s grandson, Malcolm. “The inter-net?”

Storyteller Donald, taken aback, paused for a moment to consider his reply. Trixie and Kayla each stifled a laugh, though quietly both were glad that they hadn’t been asked. Cooperston lay in the ashes of the old world, after all, but the old world it was not, and how does one explain something like that?

“You know of books, do you not, child?” Donald said at length.

“Oh yes! Mom reads to me often. I love the stories about the world before the sundering.”

“Well, the internet was like a book in which the whole world could write, and of which the whole world could read,” the Storyteller continued. “If you were to write something on a page of that book, anyone with a copy of that same book could read what you had written when they turned to that page.”

Malcolm took this in silently, then nodded. “So the elder elders would write stories in their books of the inter-net for others to read?”

“Some did, yes,” Storyteller Donald laughed. “Bloggers, we called them. But not just stories. People wrote down things they knew to be true, had arguments in writing, and sent messages to each other. It was a long book, you see, and unless you knew which page to turn to it could be very difficult to find what you were looking for by chance.”

“How did people find things?”

“Do you know the encyclopedia your mother has? Have you seen the book at the end that has a list of everything?”

“The in-ducks,” Malcolm said gravely.

“Yes, the index. There was an index to the internet, the Book of Googol, that the elder elders would consult to see which page they should turn to.” Trixie and Kayla snickered anew at this, but Storyteller Donald ignored them.

“That sounds wonderful, grandfather,” Malcolm continued. “May I read the book?”

“I’m afraid not,” said Donald. “For you see, ah, each internet book relied upon the others. What you wrote could be seen in other books but it was only really in yours, so if your book was lost your words would be lost too. When enough people lost their internet books in the sundering, that was that. The books are still around, such as they are, but blank.”

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“Let me in! I need to use your power source!” The stranger thumped on the door of Hill 71, one of the few remaining bastions of humanity amid swarms of the Infected.

Tall, grim, and heavily built, with the long beards common among seasoned Infected fighters of the Wastelands, the stranger’s request–command, really–was honored. That the gatekeepers had seen him slaughter his way to their gates through a horde of Infected certainly didn’t hurt.

“I need access to your power source at once,” the stranger repeated once the gates had been opened.

“What for?” asked the gatekeepers, wary of outside interference with the solar storage batteries that kept their electrified anti-Infected barriers up.

“It’s important,” said the stranger, glaring at the Hill 71 denizens from above his wanderer’s beard and behind cracked polarized spectacles.

They let him into the House of the Sun to wander amid the storage batteries. He deigned to let them seize his weapons, but the Hill 71ers knew that such a seasoned killer of the Infected was dangerous even barehanded. The stranger moved with purpose through the batteries, some of the last electric power on earth, and knelt by an old-fashioned power outlet. He removed a dingy package from a knapsack, and plugged a frayed cord into the socket.

His Kindle powered up, displaying pg. 237 of The Da Vinci Code, and the stranger sat down to read.

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“I came from Wonderworld,” the traveler said, leaning back against the crumbling cinderblock wall while helping himself to Elmer’s bean stew.

“Wonderworld? The amusement park?” Elmer remembered the TV ads and that tagline (“The most fun on planet Earth”) from those long-ago halcyon days before the Crash.

“That’s right,” the traveler said. “It’s one of the biggest and most prosperous settlements on the coast these days.”

“You’re joking,” Elmer scoffed. “What, are the guys in costumes enough to scare away the superstitious post-Crashers, mutants, and skinmelters?”

“Laugh if you want, but it makes sense if you use your brain. Think about it: it was already walled before the Crash. Lots of weapons and trained guys for security. Lots of food, lots of water, its own power grid and staff. Big parking lots all around and nice tall roller coasters to spot and snipe anyone who looks up to no good. We beat back about an attack a week, easily.”

“So what you’re saying is it’s still the most fun on planet Earth?” Elmer said, half-serious.

“Never heard that one before,” the traveler groused, mouth full of beans. “But yeah.”

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Claymen weren’t really clay and they weren’t really men.

They “clay” in question was any old material that could be worked and shaped–clay in the poetic, the Biblical sense. In practice, just about anything could be modified to serve as a Clayman: battered old refrigerators, rocks, thatch. Attending Claymen would usually modify the raw materials, adding arms or legs or eyeholes for the animated chi within. But sometimes they would animate a single rock or a handful of pebbles or even a tree; those “ambusher Claymen” tended to be created rather sparingly, as it required much more chi to fashion them.

No one could say for sure how the Claymen had come to be, as they did not deign to speak to mankind or its allies–their communication seemed to be on a much more primal, perhaps telepathic, level. But they were certainly driven, as any other being would be, to reproduce themselves. People had observed Claymen, singly or in small groups, loving crafting “children” from the same materials as themselves and passing a portion of their own chi onto them; there were others that slapped together “offspring” out of whatever parts that could be found and gave no gift of their own chi.

In that respect, one must admit, they were not so different from humans.

One major difference, though, was chi. Humans are born with some innate chi and the ability to generate more from their environment, but Claymen completely lacked that. Chi was imbued in them at “birth” and lost at “death” but did not otherwise change. They were immune to the energy-sapping of negative chi that could come about through poor decisions or inauspicious events, but a rather large pool of chi had to be gathered before one could be imbued with the spark that turned it from a pile of refuse into a genuine Clayman.

Some Claymen carefully gathered chi from the natural world, cultivating zen gardens and practicing careful feng shui to direct positive chi into a soul jar. Since they had no need to eat or drink, chi farming was the key use of Clayman lands.

Others, though, were impatient and wary of what could happen were a chi farm disrupted. It was these Claymen reavers that were terrors unto mankind and its allies, leading groups of raiders to slay all they encountered and steal their chi. In areas where Claymen had been sighted, travelers tended to be vastly paranoid, for the very rocks and trees about them might be ambusher Claymen with a mind to steal their life energy from the source.

Seven levels of housing, two levels of recreation, two levels of indoor farming, and nowhere to play hide-and-go-seek.

With 71 people in the shelter personal space was at enough of a premium that no one wanted Sally or Jacques running through their living rooms. Especially those families, like Jacques’, that only had half a level to themselves. They’d saved a few million dollars up front when buying space in the abandoned missile silo turned shelter, but that surely must have seemed scant compensation once it was sealed and the only currencies were barter and chore tokens.

But with the rec facilities hogged by the older children and the adults, hide-and-go-seek was absolutely necessary. The elected Chair was the only one with the key to the storage levels, which would have been perfect, and after the unfortunate drowning of little Maria Gonzalez (#72) the cisterns were locked tight too.

That left only the old missile operators’ living quarters.

The door and passage that connected them to the main Atlas shaft and the shelter were ostensibly locked, but 15 years of rust and neglect had taken their toll and the lock turned easily when Jacques tried it. Better still, the lighting was still connected to the silo’s geothermal grid–it had been meant to survive a direct 50-megaton hit, after all.

It was perfect.

The game went on for nearly an hour, before Jacques found Sally in an alcove behind an old vacuum tube control unit. “How’d you find me?” she fumed; it had been, in her view, a perfect spot and not the kind of place someone would stumble on after one a minute or two.

“You were making a lot of noise!” Jacques replied, miffed. “I could hear you.”

“Was not!” Sally had been quiet as a mouse; she’d even held her breath.

Jacques cocked an ear. “Maybe you’re right. I still hear it!”

Sally, no longer concerned with quietude, listened carefully. “You’re right,” she said. “I think it’s coming from behind the wall…”

Both children pressed their ears to the wall behind the console. The noise, faint but audible in the echo chamber of the old quarters, resolved itself into a recognizable form.

The tapping of pickaxes against stone and soil.