It seemed the shooting would go on forever.
Juno hadn’t moved from her corner of the ration bank lobby for the past hour, curled into a ball so tight that every muscle and joint in her body whined in agony. Her head was bleeding and glass chips clung to her hair. Several other people were huddled in various nooks and crannies around the bank, too scared to utter a sound. The bullet-riddled curtains blocked everyone’s view of the carnage in the streets outside.
In her arms was a sobbing child of about five years — Aldo, son of the woman who lived across the street from Juno. The boy would sometimes run up to say hello before Juno left for work, giggling like the precocious star of a wholesome cartoon.
His mother was now a smearing of limbs and entrails two blocks away. It dawned on Juno that she didn’t know the woman’s name.
She was shaking so badly she almost dropped the boy. During nuclear winter it was always cold, but not enough to give violent shivers to an ex-soldier dressed head to toe in synthetic wool. Her panicked breaths came in spectral white wisps.
Just outside, bedlam still wracked Lithas District. All the gunfire and screams had melded together into unholy white noise, along with the inhuman hum of the robotic drone rolling down the street, targeting and firing at anything that moved. Its hideous flanging voice echoed throughout the city, cackling and cursing its victims in a barely intelligible foreign dialect. It sounded like the god of war on holiday.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. The attack began mid-morning on Bread Day, when every Bifrost citizen received her universal basic rations for the month. The streets of Lithas District had been packed with civilians collecting their shares from the bank, paid in the form of ration bars to use for sustenance, paying off debts, or trading for real food for their families.
Now those streets were paved with corpses. Juno had almost tripped over a body on her way into the bank, splayed across the sidewalk ten feet from the entrance, half the head blown clean off. The half that remained belonged to a barista who had served her coffee the previous morning.
Something exploded further up the street and rocked the walls of the bank. The drone’s autocannon roared in reply; then another blast shook Juno, and she held the boy tighter. As suddenly as it began, the city fell into silence. The city gendarmes must have finally taken the metal monster out.
Uneasy life returned to the city. Sobs, moans, and bewildered questions joined the somber song of the growing wind. A block away a child began to cry. Through the ringing in Juno’s ears filtered the shaking voices of law enforcement shouting orders, calling for paramedics, warning each other not to touch the drone.
Her conscious mind was useless. The subconscious had led this human wreckage across the smoldering street, through the back alleys, into the dark safety of the bank lobby. The subconscious was all that remained on high alert, waiting for the next terror to send her running. A kind of autopilot that her dry tongue hadn’t tasted since her first battle in the army.
Someone removed the sleeping boy from her arms. It was like pulling a drain plug. The moment he was taken away, all her strength flooded out, and she fell unconscious.
The hospital was a kaleidoscope of nightmares. A young college student Juno frequently saw at her favorite cafe had to be led through the hall by a nurse, spattered with someone else’s blood and hopelessly lost in a thousand-yard stare. A middle-aged man with only half his limbs was wheeled through the crowded waiting room, howling in agony. On every floor of the building children wailed for the parents and siblings they would never see again. When Juno was first brought in, the sights, smells, and sounds plunged her back into the war. She had wept all the way to her tiny white bed.
She imagined a loud fanfare when the Deputy Freya entered her hospital room: a stout redhead in her late thirties by the name of Rebecca Heimdall, who commanded the Valkyrie Guard of Bifrost and answered directly to the Freya herself. A plain gray overcoat was draped across her shoulders — far less conspicuous than the ornate blue and gold of her office.
“The coroner requires your presence,” she said, appraising the tiny stitches on Juno’s brow. “Hope you can walk.”
Juno didn’t argue. She slipped her eyepatch on, tied her boots, and grabbed her coat on the way out the door. As they descended to the rear of the hospital, Juno’s face was stoic, but her eye betrayed the maelstrom behind it. She was still drifting in a sea of bloody memories. Snowy earth erupting from mortar blasts. Noxious air reeking of cordite and smoke and blood. Friend and enemy alike exploding in clouds of entrails. Scream-filled infirmary tents.
“Is it the boy?” she said.
Heimdall sighed. “No, thank god. Physically he’s fine. But mentally, after a nightmare like that…” She cursed under her breath as she led the one-eyed soldier into the mortuary.
The middle-aged coroner saluted Heimdall before gesturing for both women to follow her into the frigid morgue. She was pale and a bit distracted — uncharacteristically shaken for one in a profession steeped in gruesome sights. The source of her affliction was sitting on the floor in the middle of the morgue.
In one piece, the drone was the size of a small buggy — four feet high, eight feet long and wide. Three robotic arms allowed each of its weapons — two 20mm autocannons and a small rocket battery — to fire in any direction independently of the others. The arms encircled a black dome that must have been the thing’s eye, granting it three hundred sixty degree vision: she had seen it fire upon simultaneous targets in all directions regardless which way it was facing. An oversized toy tank, and yet it had killed and maimed close to a hundred people in the span of a half-hour.
That was the mechanical horror Juno remembered from the massacre. In its current state, it was a pile of charred slag oozing hideous black ichor from its chassis. The ruined treads had been removed, as well as the weapons and armor plating. Its remains were little bigger than a wheelbarrow, its appendages bent and disarmed.
“Where the hell did it come from?” said Juno.
“Air-dropped by an unmarked plane,” said Heimdall. “A Harbrok seaplane, or some derivative. Coulda come from any port on the continent. The robot kicked on the moment it landed, opened fire on the first person it saw.” She spat on the thing. “Bread Day, of all days. Height of the fuckin’ morning rush. Some sick sonofabitch sure knew how to maximize the body count.”
Juno had hoped for more than what she had already witnessed. The monster’s birth from the plastic crate replayed in her memory with horrific clarity, along with the ghastly death of Aldo’s mother — the unlucky first person Heimdall spoke of. She couldn’t take her eyes off the thick, noxious substance leaking out of the broken drone. The stench was assaulting her with battlefield flashbacks.
“Have they caught whoever was controlling it?” said Juno.
Heimdall shook her head. “Fully autonomous. No radio control, apart from this.” She offered Juno the burnt shell of a small radio receiver hand-made in someone’s basement workshop. “Connected to the power supply. Someone on that plane woke it up. It did the rest all on its own.”
Heimdall knocked on the thing’s ruined casing. “Armor is dense as hell. Took two RPG’s at close range to slag it. Even then, nobody could safely snipe the thing without gettin’ her head blown off, ‘til they doused it with a fire hose and froze the turrets solid. Cost those firemen their lives. Media’s honoring their heroism by roasting the fire matron for not having any women heroes among the dead.” She spat.
“Why did you request me?” said Juno. “Why did they take it to the morgue, anyway?”
Heimdall’s face was grim. She gestured to the coroner, who choked back her bile and popped open the drone’s chassis for the third time that day.
Inside — installed like just another mechanical part, plain as day amid all the wires, gadgets, and plastic tubing — was a human head.