Marian remembered some things clearly from the time before the Ruin. That the fringe of this battlefield had once housed a research station, built between the wars. White-coats had slept in the state-of-the-art bunkhouse that was nothing but a pile of rubble now.
Back in the day, there’d been hangars for the fleet of shiny all-terrain vehicles. So many kinds: land, sea, and sky. The surrounding landscape had been a different colour then. Sometimes when she shut her eyes, Marianthe could still see it all the way it used to be. Ghostly structures overlaid. Before the seas swelled up and the farmland fried. Before the governments scrabbled to sell off what little they still possessed. Before the overland barges overloaded with toxic garbage, human refuse clinging to the sides. Before the endless stream of poison barrels sunk deep into outback fissures. Half-life, they used to speak of the radiation. Half-life and all death.
Marianthe stumbled, tripping over her skirts. The picture was spoiled. A memory glitch. Now all she could see was sand and sun and glare off the tanks and crawlers: equipment broken down and virus-frozen in attack formation, half buried beyond the fused mess of exoskeletons, stretching to the horizon or perhaps infinity. She’d never walked far enough to learn the truth of it.
That sound again.
She had taught herself to tell each tanker by its individual sonic signature. All noise to others, but to her, they were songs, each one different and beautiful, if not painful. Deadly if the damn things took a dislike to you.
She stood very still and shut her eyes. A far-off keening that might have been the wind—but wasn’t. More tankers talking to each other. The mecha-creatures spoke but they never listened. No one listened anymore, which was why she’d become so insistent on routine, on patterns and behaviours she could learn by rote and repetition. Body memory was how she taught the refugees new skills. Do something enough times and the way sinks in, no matter if you’re too traumatised to speak. She preferred silence to speaking, busyness to idle hands, past to present, memory to truth.
Memory intruded as she stood there in the sun, eyes closed, soft winds teasing the hem of her skirts, sand skinks dodging around her shadow. Visions of great reliquaries of old tapping the deep, hot rocks beneath the ground. Blasting fissures in the brittle crust, sucking up their heat and oil and ore.
Clandestine bases swarming with quicksilver drones, zipping overhead to missions in far-off territories. Emblazoned with the insignia of nameless foreign corporations. Swarms of human misery moving from county to county, stripping and consuming greenery like locusts.
Big reds bred mean to patrol the razor wire perimeters. Replaced in time with barriers of lantana raze, a particularly virulent form of weaponised weed, coded feral when the government defaulted on suppliers. Genes programmed with a killer switch, once initiated, fated to grow forever, consuming everything in its path.
The land became exhausted, eventually stopped giving and started taking back. So the white-coats panicked, manufacturing strange new plants and animals tailored specifically to suit the harsh terrain. New soldiers too. Stronger, tougher. Better. TEMPLARS, they called them—she couldn’t remember why, even though she knows she is one of them herself.