by Jacob Lawrence (Writing as Henry Jakubs)
They fell in droves, joining the rain that was now eating away at the stone forest that they had been reigning over. Hundreds fell, and even as the last one began to fire indiscriminately, hoping for a lucky shot, to wound this invisible adversary, they too joined the trash that littered the city.
As the final corpse fell, the man appeared, standing once again in that ring of rubble, his fingers clutching that dead, rotting, arm, the evidence that he had so desperately sought. Like the rest of humanity, she had fallen prey to something that no one had anticipated, a force that had laid waste to their cities, and heralded them into the age of extinction. As he looked down upon it, rain masking the tears streaming down his face, he didn’t notice the blur moving towards him, not until an earth-shattering blow slammed into the side of his head.
Engines roared as the android moved at an alarming, unimaginable, speed, closing the distance between them instantly. As the man flew through the air, the machine vanished from sight, just before something slammed into his gut, rocketing him down into the earth.
The small crater resulting from the blow cradled his body, and as he lay there, stunned, his nerves screamed with an unfamiliar sensation, pain. With that jarring introduction, the Hunter revealed itself.
There had been rumors, back when resistance still meant something, of androids that took on the appearance of humans, programmed to infiltrate and take out specific targets. Some had called them Dolls, because of the porcelain-like skin that was draped across their face.
“Subject 36009,” the Hunter said, its disembodied voice cutting through the mental fog that had fallen over its target. The man couldn’t tear his eyes away from its lips, watching them form each word with morbid fascination. “You have been designated a priority threat. Do not resist, do not postpone the inevitable, it is futile.”
As that odd, metallic taste filled his mouth, the man stared at this thing, this abomination. His mind tried to make sense of it. Never had he seen anything like this before, never had he faced anything this powerful, and as this reality sunk in, something began to awaken inside of him. Maybe, if he was normal, he’d be afraid, or anxious, but instead he felt something else, excitement. Even as the blood seeped down his throat, he couldn’t help but laugh, his head thrown back as thunder raged down around them.
The android, a machine that had taken the lives of so many others before this fateful encounter, was not amused by the disrespect this mere human was showing it, and as it sped forward, flashing out of sight, its blow met only air. The Hunter, a killer without peer, stood there, trying to comprehend what this meant, as the man’s fingertips effortlessly pierced through its exoskeleton, penetrating armor that no man-made weapon had ever been able to breach, and severed its arm, just as the automaton had begun its retreat.
Darting back, the Hunter moved with a fluid grace, one that a machine, a culmination of hydraulics and pistons, should never have been able to achieve. For all intents and purposes, the Hunter was the machines’ answer to humanity; a better, more evolved and designed, version of the people that they had sought to destroy. The Dolls’ strength, reflexes, everything about them had been created for this, to topple a people that did not deserve to rule. As the Hunter stood its ground against this man, the machine’s doll-like face twisted with pure hatred, before springing forward, body rotating, as it lashed out with a perfect, textbook, spinning back elbow.
Had it been anyone else, it surely would have connected, but the target, 36009, effortlessly slipped beneath it, his arm sweeping downwards in a beautiful arc, as his hand, fingers pressed tightly together, forming a knife, severed the Hunter’s weight-bearing leg, cleaving through it as though he was parting water. As the two warriors passed one another, it was the Hunter who fell.
There was no hesitation in its actions, and as the android crashed into the ground, concrete cracking under its immense weight, its remaining leg was already opening, revealing the repulsor that was housed there. As the engine flared, preparing for the machine’s swift retreat, the man was there, glee plastered on his face as his foot came down on the Hunter’s remaining leg. The machine roared in simulated rage as it tried to drag itself away from the beast that was now tormenting it, metallic fingers digging into the asphalt, as it plowed through the street.
The hysterical laughter that rang out behind it caused the Hunter to pause, to look back, staring in disbelief at the severed leg it had left behind, and the monster it had been sent to kill. The man was on it instantly, wrapping his hand, the delicate hand of a human, around the Hunter’s throat, lifting it from the ground as though it was nothing.
The Hunter pulled back its arm, prepared to fight until the end, and as the fist hammered into the man’s jaw with the strength that could topple buildings, the power that had destroyed so many others, the android’s arm collapsed in on itself, the metal coiling, like a spring about to burst; as it screeched, the appendage snapped, flying off into the distance.
Blood dribbled from the man’s mouth, coating his chest as it streamed down his body, and he smiled at the unmistakable look of fear that now seized the Doll’s face. There were so many monsters in this world, some that had been born, and others that had been created, but no matter how great one became, there was always something stronger, and like every encounter before, 36009 had shown the disparaging difference between him and the machines. He had not wanted this fight, he had never wanted any of this, but still he couldn’t help but relish in the feel of overwhelming power. The ability to survive was his, and while he was not the greatest enemy the machines had faced, he had grown into something they couldn’t help but fear.
“What are you?” The Doll asked, its eyes pleading, oddly human, but all the man did was smile, that sad, demented, smile, as his hand thrust into its chest, the armored plating parting before his very touch, and his fingers encircled the Hunter’s heart, a micro-fusion reactor that was hidden within. The abomination began to thrash about, trying to escape, struggling to survive.
Pale blue light began to emanate from the reactor, eradicating the dust that covered them both, shredding through the dirt and grime that had shrouded the man’s face. He was weary, the dark circles that hung beneath his eyes revealed far more than their fight ever had.
Just as the light had appeared, it began to fade, vanishing entirely before erupting within the man’s flesh. Unbridled radiance streaked through his veins, speeding towards his heart, as he drew power into himself, stealing the android’s very essence as it watched, as those that controlled it watched. There was nowhere for it to go, nowhere for it to hide, its eyes began to glass over as its systems failed, and it fell before the very being it was designed to destroy.
Lifelessly, it slipped from his arm with a flick of his wrist, as the tired warrior extricated himself from another kill. Standing there, his face turned towards the sky, he allowed nature to wash over him, to pacify the tragic memories that were storming their way through his mind, taking him away from this place, even if only for a moment. He could feel it setting in, the nausea that flared up inside him, the darkness that threatened to take control of his body, compressing his organs, as his vision blurred. Weakness, it always followed such a display of strength. The need to manifest his abilities began to overwhelm him as the hunger, the need for that power, set in.
It was always like this whenever he used his gifts, there was a risk that it would consume him completely. It didn’t matter how powerful he became, there was always a debt that needed to be paid, and he gladly sacrificed the pound of flesh that seemed to satisfy the power that allowed him to survive.
Dropping to his knees, his arms wrapped around him, the man could feel everything rushing back, everything he had pushed away during that brief moment of sublime violence. Shivering, the tattered rags clung to him, weighing him down as he knelt, feeling the stolen energy mix with his own, tainting him. Reaching out, he grabbed that rotten arm, clutching it to his chest before struggling back to his feet, not even sparing a moment to steady himself as he stumbled into a nearby alley, back into the land of smoke that concealed him from his enemies.
He had survived, again, even if he didn’t want to, and as he walked those sullen streets, he prayed he would find someone, anyone, before he paid the ultimate price, and lost himself. It had been 4 months, 23 days, 16 hours, and 19 minutes since he had last seen another living person. The machines had attacked him hundreds of times, trying to kill him, but today, today was the first day he had bled.