A short story in the universum of Neuroshima. Written by Michał Herda, edited by Nathan O'Donovan.

Moloch is gargantuan.

Imagine a pre-war corporation, except it's all machines, oil, human corpses, and smoke, instead of finely dressed people and their pretty PCs with wide screens. And except the headquarters for that corporation span a whole fucking pre-war state, all of its offices already cover another three states, it's massive and industrialized, and hires people by kidnapping whoever happens to be nearby before performing all sorts of debauchery with their bodies and minds. It's a fully roboticized tech corp that took the term "human resources" all too literally.

Which is also why Moloch gives birth to all sorts of weirdness. No one in a corporation knows everything. Or understands everything. Or is aware of everything. This caused many wondrous and terrible things to appear and fly under Moloch's radar for months or years before they were noticed and - most of the time - swept under its proverbial rug, where they fermented and evolved further as long as they didn't bring much more attention.

Or, if you ever played role-playing games, those old fun paper ones, there's been that one that allowed you to stuff, like, eighteen points into intelligence, and just three points into wisdom. You'd end up with a character that was smart as fuck, that would see connections in everything it saw, that would have all the knowledge in the world and use it to go and do all the stuff imaginable, and not for a single moment would it stop and think whether any of that was a good idea.

See? That's all Moloch. A massive, living organism of electricity, oil, steel, and those hundreds of human brains that are still unlucky enough to be alive inside it; a megacorporation of corporations which simply spread forwards and stop at nothing; a too-big-to-fail company whose board of directors was assimilated into its cyborgized intelligence; an artificial kid with all the imaginable toys in its playground, a few anthills full of us proud citizens of the Shitty States, and none of the questions about the consequences of making anything or breaking anything or pouring hot lead straight into one of those anthills just to see what would happen.

I can tell you about one such Moloch experiment from back when I was still warring on the north, raiding Moloch along with my Outpost pals. I gave it the finger after I was the last one remaining of the eight of us who started at the time, and it only took like eight months for me to end up alone out there.

Got any booze? I'll need that to start rolling.

It was supposed to be a simple scouting assignment, you know. There was a part of the desert that wasn't easily accessible; there were high hills that were halfway eroded, halfway mined, halfway littered with scrap that belonged to some oil company from thirty or so years ago. Nothing particularly valuable to us, but nothing that we shouldn't keep an eye on in case Moloch decided to go and say that it wanted that zone for itself. Me and my pals Boon and Twig were sent out to figure out if there was anything worth our interest in there.

Other than for scrap and abandoned ruins, we couldn't find anything. We drove around for a longer while. Twig had her hands on her SMG in case of any gangers stupid enough to intervene between us and Moloch, and Boon held his shotgun, loaded with armor-piercing shells for things worse than gangers.

There was only one thing that caught our attention - a lone building on some flat terrain, not seeming to be ruined whatsoever. It was not surrounded by scrap or junk, as if someone had purposefully built a bunker in that flat, clear zone. For whatever reason, this stuff wasn't on the old maps or notes, and none of us remembered it either.

Twig and Boon held their guns high as I drove closer to that weird building. It was sized like a real big barn, but had no door, no entrance; it was a barn that had eight sides for whatever reason, each one being made of thick steel that was firmly welded shut.

All in all, boring stuff, we thought. Nothing seemed alive, our sensors didn't show any radio or electrical activity. It was silent, dusty, had no cables or pipes coming out of it, and seemed completely abandoned. Someone must have missed it, or didn't find it special whatsoever.

We drove back away from that "shed" and towards the scrapyard. Boon said that he wanted to take a piss before we went back home, so we halted the car and went to find some shadow, and to explore a bit, too, along the way. You know how much interesting junk you can find by just stopping your car a hundred yards further than the last time you've visited that place and going to take a break by looting whatever shit is still available to be looted? I found a still working Super Mario cartridge that way back in Kansas. Took me five more years to find a working machine to run it on, and the day after I sold it for some medicine.

But anyway, back to Boon. After a brief break, he walked far enough to not let us see the details of his pissing, like a man of culture that he was. Still, he was close enough to allow Twig to cover him, just in case.

It was taking him long, maybe ten seconds or something; it was hot and we had to drink plenty. I turned my head away for a moment to play with some window that was still intact and somehow still had working window blinds. Just then, Twig yelled out of nowhere, "Watch out!"

I jumped out and saw a Moloch machine - a hunter robot, something shaped like a crossbreed between a human and a dog. Its hind legs were spring-loaded and well-prepared for pouncing, and its front ones sported blades, big and sharp, spread wide to wrap around its prey in a final hug.

She called for Boon to watch out, yeah, but there wasn't enough time, even more so because the thing literally caught him with his pants down. It pounced him before he even had a chance to raise that shotgun, and the blades cut through its barrel as easily as it cut through his flesh. His head fell to the ground in two halves, and so did his neck. The hunter chopped him up like cabbage and it didn’t stop even as blood gushed from his gory remains on the ground.

Me and Twig simply stood right against that wall, fully exposed before the beast that had just disposed of Boon in front of us. The car was too far away to run, I was unarmed, and Twig only had an SMG with standard anti-people ammo - a mistake on her side. We had nothing that could save us from certain death at the hunter's blades.

And yet, right after the initial shock wore off, Twig just rushed forwards with a furious scream. She was blinded with rage. Her gun was as loud as her, slamming its bullets at the monstrous thing's armor; she was running straight at it, ten, eight, five yards away from it.

The hunter stopped its chopping and turned its head to her, all whilst the storm of lead dented its armor and even punched a few holes in its body. Before she even reached it, it went down on all fours and started to run away from Twig like a scared dog, doing its best to dodge her wild spray of bullets. It used scrap and walls for cover from the gunfire, even though it barely did anything to its metal form. It jumped through a broken wall and leapt back towards that weird-ass octagonal bunker that must have somehow been its lair.

Twig ran after it, followed it until she was out of breath and out of bullets. I came after her, and had to grab her by the shoulder, wrestle with the raging, crying woman. It took me a while to literally tug her back towards the car, away from what was the pissing Boon moments ago, and into the back seat, hold her there with one arm as I drove her back to our base with the other. I never saw her as broken as I did on that trip back home; she was mad, writhing, shell-shocked, and almost managed to crash the God damn car with her arms, and thank goodness that she only had enough strength to cry like that for a few minutes before she fell on that back seat, exhausted, staring out of the permanently opened window.

Seeing your pal getting sliced into bloody chunks right in front of your eyes. This is one of the things I hope Moloch erases from my memory when it finally takes me, like it had taken so many others. I hope it has at least this scrap of human mercy left.

We found Twig hangin' out in the trees a few days later. It's an unwritten rule among the Outpost folk, that if you ever decide to leave like that, you don't waste any ammo.

There must've been something between them, you know.

It was a month or so later that someone told us that the place had changed even more. According to one guy who scouted the area after us, there were now more buildings there: pipes, engines, and some sort of oil tanks slithering between the eroded hills. All of that about a mile or two away from the weird octagonal structure that had sent out a robot to slaughter Boon. We went off to investigate and this time there were again three of us: Greg behind the wheel of an old but battle-tested humvee, Mike behind the heavy gun mounted on it, and me on the back with the maps, a compass, some handheld weapons, and all the other stuff we might need on the way there.

This time, we had only anti-armor ammo. All three of us knew what happened there, and each of us had its own theory about why and how this stuff happened. I said that this was a Moloch outpost that it was slowly building its way towards, Greg didn't believe that the hunter came out of that building and was sure that it was hidden in the scrap, as usual, and Mike... Mike actually stayed quiet most of that time, didn't speak his mind much. Said he wanted to check something out himself during this trip before sharing anything.

Ultimately, when dealing with Moloch, all you have is theories. Sometimes, like Greg, you also have some past experience, but believe me, most of the time, you need to stuff it deeply in the fire pit. Moloch is unpredictable and rarely makes the same mistakes - or successes - twice.

Greg drove the car, since it was his personal baby boy. The road was uneventful, which is always a blessing, and we made it on top of one of the hills. We saw exactly what the scout was talking about: not too far away from that weird building, Moloch had begun to expand. Thick pipes being rebuilt; steel wagons and buildings in various states of construction; smoke coming out of the chimneys; construction machines driving here and there; a huge, round oil tank size of half a hill, hulking in its immensity above them all. Seemed like Moloch, all in all, had decided to rebuild that oil facility to provide even more fuel for its infinite hunger.

I let out a deep sigh and we all exchanged glances. "We're too close to drive now," Mike said. "Turn it off. We need to get closer on foot." But Greg just grinned at that, and we had a chance to see his genius in action. Indeed, he turned off the engine, and the car went quiet. Still, not a moment later, the humvee jerked again and continued rolling forwards.

Turns out, all the heavy junk he was carrying on the fourth seat? It was a battery pack for the electric engine that he hooked up to the wheels. Clever bastard. We were able to approach the building complex silently from another side, drive up an eroded hill, and look at it from above, maybe twenty or thirty yards of elevation in total. We weren’t detected, and I was able to take a few photos of the location whilst Greg and Mike looked around.

"Ey, I have a plan," Mike suddenly whispered, "hand me the rifle." And I did. Fuck me if I knew that this plan was about to drive us straight to hell. He loaded it and aimed, ignoring my angry whispers asking him what the actual plan was; all he told me was, "Look at the tank."

So I looked. I watched through my binocs as he fired two, three, four rounds at that massive oil tank. Its walls were thick, but I saw viscous blacklines start to drip down its sides as he gradually emptied the whole clip into it. Hell if I know, was that rifle silenced or what, but it hardly made any sound! The machines seemed completely unaware of the little noise that he and his gun made, or of the leakage that started to appear there. That guy was the best sharpshooter that I ever knew; it was as if he was never there until after the bullets were already in the air and it was too late for the target to dodge, or notice.

"Mike, the fuck you doing?," I asked again, perhaps a bit too quietly; he reloaded, and aimed downwards this time.

"See that drone on the bottom?" He chuckled, and I shifted the binocs, too. I did see it. Mike fired, and not a moment later I could see petrol pouring out of its fuel tank onto the dirt beneath in a fairly steady stream.

I immediately wished that I'd never joined the Outpost those seven years ago and I’d stayed in Mississippi fixing boilers for a living. This time, not a second after that shot hit its target, I saw the cannon of that drone slowly start turning around and aim upwards at us while Mike fired twice more at it.

The damned thing wanted blood, and it got what it wanted almost immediately. There was the crack of a single gunshot in the distance, and before anyone could react Mike jerked and slumped over his gun. A bullet had gone through his eye, right into the brain. Swift, instant death. The machine-mercy of one of Moloch’s drones; a single shot from well over a mile away courtesy of the vast processing power that Moloch’s networked intelligence could provide.

And not a second later, another gun fired in the distance - this time, something automatic. Several bullets hit the dirt in front of us, two crashed into the windshield and covered it with a cobweb of cracks, another two clicked against the steel of our humvee's mounted gun, and one or two wedged themselves into Mike's already immobile corpse, just spraying more of his blood around.

"Fuck! Back, go back," I yelled. Greg yelled too, but in pain and not panic. A bullet had struck his left arm and blood was gushing from the hole blasted in his flesh. Still, he hit the pedals, turned the car around almost in place with his right arm, and started driving away from the machines. Thank fuck that the back of that car had the heaviest armor plates; we all knew where to weld all the junk we didn't need and we had a damn good reason to do it.

I struggled to push Mike’s corpse to the side so he wouldn't obstruct our view forwards; half of his body hung from the car like a ragdoll or a puppet with its strings cut. It took me, like, half a minute before I finally managed to pull his legs out from the seat and cast him into the desert for Moloch and the vultures to feast on. All the while, Greg just drove forwards, using his memory as much as he could use the little bit of vision that he still had: the windshield was badly cracked, and wing mirrors haven't been there for maybe a year.

Finally, I put a hand mirror out just enough to be able to look around. There was lots of noise, and the bullets were drumming against the heavy plates on the car's rear relentlessly, like rain. I saw a grenade or two miss their mark and explode somewhere behind us. The Moloch complex was fully aware of us by now. All of these robots were chasing us. They were faster than us, they were closing the distance.

"Front! Look," Greg suddenly screamed. I turned my head to see what had made him cry out. That weird octagonal structure was in front of us. Mike's plan, let the bastard rot in hell, became so much less clear now; we were trapped between Moloch behind us and - what we could not see before - Moloch in front of us!

The building was open, and one of the steel walls - or what we thought to be walls - had parted. We could see something making its way out, kicking up desert dust in its wake. It was a war machine of some sorts, some sort of tank. It was bigger and packed much more than our wheelie, it seemed armed to the teeth, and it was charging straight at the Moloch junk behind us. The only real problem with that was that we were right in its way.

"Turn left", I yelled, and I knew he could barely hear me over the roar of the engine. "Greg, fuck, turn left!" I wasn't going easy on him despite his bleeding arm. Even though the windshield was almost completely cracked, and we could barely see anything, I could almost read the numbers on the front of the tank as it came closer.

Greg heard my scream, and tugged the wheel sideways with his only working arm. The trusty humvee, despite screaming in protest, listened to our prayers and lurched to the side. Thank fuck it didn't roll over on us, but we did just barely dodge out of the way of the war machine as it barrelled headlong towards the Moloch drones. It literally covered our tire tracks with its own; I've never seen any vehicle with tank tracks ram forwards as fast as that thing.

It opened fire at Moloch and Moloch responded; we ducked down as we heard bullets hit the armor plates of our car again, punching more holes and craters into the tortured metal. One of these bullets went through the metal and grazed a line of fire across my shoulder. Crimson soaked the cloth; I still have that shirt somewhere, though the hole’s been patched up.

Greg maneuvered between the other things that literally poured out of that building we rode past earlier; refuelers, mobile armors, countless bots similar to Moloch hunters. It was a whole God damn Moloch army, except it was marching at another Moloch army, and not a single one of them leapt at us as we drove forwards and away from the real, aggressive junk behind us. They simply marched forwards and paid no attention to us!

By then, I mostly figured out the plan that Mike had, remembered what he mentioned once or twice, despite the shock that I was in; you gotta think quickly when surrounded by Moloch. If I was right, then, if even one bullet managed to penetrate through our armor and hit the fuel tank, we'd be toast. Either there would be an explosion and we'd turn into fried meat or there would be diesel pouring across this land. Pouring, yes; across the land proclaimed holy by its robotic guardians that we would be defiling it with our filth. And then they'd come at us. And we'd be dead in no time. Was that the case? Was Moloch crazy enough to create anything like that?

But the bullet did not come; we rode out from between the machines, past the bunker, behind it, and kept on driving forth.

And then, there came the fireball. The place where the oil drum was burst and exploded so loud that I could barely hear anything for two or three days afterwards; the moment got so bright that I had to squint my eyelids to see anything at all, and then, there was a dark cloud that I could see in the hand mirror, the sound of scrap falling, and deafening silence.

We could only guess that the war machine finally destroyed that Moloch oil tank. The garrison stationed in the building was armed like a brick shithouse, so it was likely that it made its way through the oil-leaking machines to the oil-leaking oil drum. And it did what it had to save its holy land from pollution - he blew it all up, likely along with itself and its mechanical minions.

We were too shocked to turn around and see. We drove, and drove, and didn't stop driving until we hit the Outpost base. We drank water, we got Greg patched up, we collapsed, burst into tears, and passed out soon afterwards.

We returned to that spot a few days later to observe it from afar; the ground was littered with scrap, junk and craters, the place where the oil tank had been located was completely scorched. Moloch was defeated, and that weird building had been almost totally destroyed from the shock wave. Still, whatever machines remained clung neatly to the octagonal foundation of the bunker; they were there, recharging in the sun, waiting.

We observed them for an hour or two. It started to rain at some point, and all the machines suddenly went haywire. They flailed about and hacked at the air, they drove around the building and the whole area in search of intruders. They even shot at the air quite a few times. All of that stopped as soon as the rain was over and the ground dried; the machines stopped and hid back in that building.

Greg said that he wanted to drive there and grab some of the wrecked machines; he said he knew how to game these guardians, that all he needed to do is just to make sure not to pour anything on the ground.

He drove there just a day later when the sky was bright and dry. Fuck he did return, the humvee full of scrap and robotic parts. The Outpost got helluva richer that day thanks to him; it's a pity that he crashed and burned in that humvee a few months later, escaping Moloch fifty miles westwards from that place. That's when I first thought to fuck it all and move back to Texas; it took me a few more weeks to do all that though.

Later it turned out that the structure we found wasn't unique; we weren't the first to find one, they just weren't the focus most of the time since everyone just learned to either not break any of their "rules" or to avoid them altogether. I learned about them from some people who happened to visit. They called them Arbiters, since the "rules" they make up are pretty God damn arbitrary; don't light any fires, don't yell in the desert, don't let any electric cables touch the ground. Seriously. Don't pour any fucking liquid on the ground. Be it Boon's piss, be it rainwater, be it Moloch's fucking petrol and oil - these machines had sensors dug in the ground, tuning in, alerting everything sitting inside that God damn building whenever the "rule" of fucking dryness was being violated. No, really, no human could have come up with ideas as fucked up as these.

As we could see back then, they're independent, completely cut off from the rest of Moloch - they go after everyone who breaks these "rules", be it a man, a machine, or your favorite dog friend who goes to chase a random mouse only to get a sudden lethal dose of lead from nowhere. They're not all that common, it's just that most of the time they aren't a nuisance.

For whatever reason, Moloch does sometimes pick a fight with them, so it must not be fully aware of their existence, so our Outpost boys have a chance to be two or three steps ahead of it. Except they're always absolutely careful to write down all the things they are doing, just in case they are about to learn one of these "rules" enforced by Arbiters the hard way. And, you know, it isn't even just a thing about these Arbiters; even if you're sure you know the rules of the desert, there are only two ways to be absolutely sure. Either it's your pal who learns about them the hard way, or it's you who does, and everyone wishes that it's going to be their pal this time. Ahkay, the bottle's empty. Ya got any more?

...Fuck. Fine, that's the end of the story. Remember to bring me more the next time. hic

(Back to the toplevel.)