It seemed the shooting would go on forever.
Juno hadn’t moved from her corner of the cafe 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. Three other people were huddled in various nooks and crannies around the cafe, too scared to utter a sound.
In her arms was a sobbing child of about five years, his mother shot to ribbons two blocks away.
She was shaking so badly she almost dropped the boy. During nuclear winter it was always cold, but not enough for a soldier dressed head to toe in wool to quake like she was standing naked in a knee-deep creek. Her panicked breaths came in spectral white wisps.
Just outside, bedlam was still sweeping down the street. All the gunfire and screams had melded together into unholy white noise, along with the inhuman hum of the robotic drone rolling across the city, targeting and firing at anything that moved.
The streets were paved with civilian corpses. She had almost tripped over a body on her way into the cafe, splayed across the sidewalk ten feet from the entrance, half the head blown clean off. The half that remained belonged to Alandra, the teenage daughter of her neighbor across the street. Alandra was a little girl when Juno had first moved in: she would sometimes run across the street to say hello before Juno left for work. Even as a teen she had giggled like the precocious star of a wholesome cartoon. It dawned on Juno that she never learned the mother’s name.
A seismic roar shook the building as something detonated up the street. The drone’s autocannon roared in reply; then another blast shook Juno, and she held the boy tighter. As suddenly as it began, the chaos fell into silence. The city gendarmes must have finally taken the metal monster out.
Uneasy life returned to the city as people came to move the bodies and try to make sense of the wanton attack. Sobs, moans, and bewildered questions joined the somber song of the growing wind. A man wailed and fell upon the spattered remains of his wife, recognizable only by her tattered pink scarf. A block away a child began to cry. Through the ringing in her ears, Juno heard the shaking voices of law enforcement shouting orders, calling for paramedics, warning each other not to touch the drone.
She was on autopilot, pure fight-or-flight reflex. Something her dry tongue hadn’t tasted since her first battle in the army. Her conscious mind was useless: the subconscious had led this human wreckage down the path of survival across the smoldering street, through the back alleys, into the dark safety of the cafe. The subconscious was all that remained on high alert, waiting for the next terror to send her running.
Someone removed the sleeping boy from her arms. It was like pulling a drainplug: 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: she was 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 — no amount of morphine could silence his screaming. 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. She traveled everywhere without an escort, too proud and war-seasoned to heed her weary security force.
“The coroner requires your presence,” said Heimdall, appraising the tiny stitches on Juno’s brow. “Hope you can walk.”
Juno didn’t argue. She tied her boots and grabbed her coat on the way out the door and down to the rear of the hospital. Juno’s face was stoic, but her eye betrayed the maelstrom behind it. She was drowning in a shell-shock 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 and thought of her bleeding city as she led the one-eyed soldier into the mortuary.
The middle-aged coroner was still vomiting into the trash bin. She noticed Heimdall and Juno in her peripheral; spat twice and said nothing, merely gesturing for both women to follow her into the frigid morgue. The source of her affliction was sitting on the floor in the middle of the room.
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 to fire in any direction independently of the others: two 20mm autocannons and a small rocket battery. 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. “The bastard kicked on the moment it landed, opened fire on the first person it saw. Armor is dense as hell. Took two RPG’s to slag it.”
Juno couldn’t take her eyes off the thick, noxious substance leaking out of the broken drone. The stench was assaulting her with battlefield flashbacks.
“Why did you request me?” she said. “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.