"This is no man's land," blurts your pink, mushy brain.
All around you lie the wastes of civilization. The once mighty skyscrapers have since been humbled, reduced to big clumps of foamy ash, rusted metal frames and sharp microchips. Quietly smoldering orange fires are your only source of light in a world where there is no sun.
You never focus on the ground, uneven and littered with heaps of debris from whatever caused all this. It seems to tug away at every thump and stomp. You don’t know if you’re wearing shoes to protect your soles; you don’t care if you are.
A thought runs into your head- do you really want to see the perpetrator? Do you truly want to be tasked with stopping it, bringing it to justice and to heel? There’s no going back if you see it. Can you say you’re a hero?
Who, no, what are you, anyway?
You’re a squishy animal with no claws, fangs or backup being sent in to stop a city demolisher. Just turn around and know that no matter how painful it might be, how you'll wonder about what could have happened in this cradle of death will be better than having people wonder what did happen to you.
Sometimes, being a hero is a matter of doing something in a few seconds.
In the particular few seconds before you enter the ruins of a palace your heart-rate jumps, your breathing grows more labored. You faintly realize this, but can you say anything? Perhaps you should take heed of this testament to man's defeat.
Ahead there lies a dank pipe, its contents drooling out without end above a dumpster, left sitting there and overflowing helplessly. Its position hasn't changed an inch no matter how much goes into it; you should be able to get up into the pipe, its flow is not too strong. Climbing up a few worn out boxes you quickly slap the lid down onto the dumpster, sit down on it and then grasp a hold of the pipe's slippery walls, sluggishly sliding on in. The flames' light cannot reach you in there. You are all alone as you trek through this unlit, cramped and oh-so wet tube.
You stop for a moment as you try to think of why you should continue. All you'd be doing is either ending up trapped somehow or going nowhere. Why should you press on? Yet like a moth drawn to a flame you continue unabated to whatever is at the end. Each splish or clunk makes you nervous, your lizard brain shouting get out. Maybe there's something listening to you. Did you really make the right choice by venturing into all of this?
But after what seems to be hours you finally stumble out of a broken section, drenched but perfectly intact. Eying your way around, you hear something you hadn't before- a grinding and scraping noise. It makes itself known, then leaves for a bit, then returns again. Each time it grows farther or closer entirely at random; what this could be remains unknown but your mind works to bring every scenario to life- a man with a sword, a guillotine at work, something being ground to dust. And in each, is it your fragile body that takes the deathblow?
The room you enter while cautiously pursuing this sound is like a sarcophagus. You crouch to avoid hitting what hard rock lies above you. Water continues to rest on the ground; perhaps you're trudging through a sewer. The room glows a faint blue from aging paint, fires' light peeking in through cracks to the surface. Dust haunts the air; it would choke a lesser person. But you've come too far to be stopped now.
Lifting up yourself through a manhole, you spot something you'd never dream of: a gigantic box-like object. Protruding from it, however, are numerous appendages; you count six, maybe more but it's difficult to see them in the darkness. The... thing resembles an insect and you're not exactly eager to find out why. But you wonder, is this the destroyer? The beast you have sought? Or something else...?
Suddenly, the thing begins to stir. You crouch down behind broken houses' walls, trying to keep an eye on it while staying out of sight. Spotlights shine out from its cavities and pores, the blinding light passing over all. You can see it has some sort of hard skin on it that's parted at various sections, perhaps to move easier. Whatever the case, it seems to be looking around.
Everything about it seems to indicate that it is a machine of some sort. It thankfully does not spot you. You continue to wait behind, wondering what its next move will be. The lights pass over, observing the remains. Perhaps it is checking for survivors or got trapped?
Clunking, clanging, smashing in the distance. You spiral around, and you can hardly believe your eyes: people! They emerge from the ruins, from the trashed streets, pushing aside all that stands in their way. You thought you were the only one in this city, but now you are greeted with a mystery, and a dangerous one at that: why are they here? A closer look reveals that all of their flesh is visible- it is a blotchy gray. A good number have various spots on their bodies, likely signs of disease. You are tempted to go to some of them and ask what happened or for help but you are held back, telling yourself that would be begging for trouble.
The groups of people arrive first by ones and twos, then threes, and after awhile by dozens or more. They do not run, crawl or stagger like a zombie. No, they slowly march forward uncaring of the debris they walk onto. You see a few get shards of glass and metal rods stuck in their feet; if they are aware of the pain, they are exceptionally good at hiding it. They inch closer and closer to the machine, never saying a word. However, from their motions you can tell that they are interested in this thing- they occasionally point towards it and each other.
But most just stare. That's what gets you.
Within in an instant the machine moves forward, towards to the bizarre crowd. You duck down and squint, heart pounding as it writhes, then unleashes its spotlights onto them. The lights thankfully do not pass onto your position; you are on the side and obscured by rubble anyway. They are not intimidated by this, and now all of them now look up at it. In the light you can discern that their eyes are like pitch black spheres... they also never blink. Maybe it's time you should get out of this place.
But before you can begin to flee the scene, the machine stands on its hind legs, then its belly of sorts opens, the door sliding upwards. Inside are numerous dull gray boxes that extend outwards towards the crowd. Then they light up, showing static on each. Televisions, of all things! Slowly they all create a gigantic image together. The image shown is of the crowd from the machine's perspective. It beckons them with an arrow on the screens pointing towards it. They eventually muster the courage to line up and walk towards the machine. Then, they wait. You can't help but watch the procession.
The first one goes forward after a moment of hesitation. She stands facing the screens, hands at the sides. The televisions change channels rapidly, showing various programs you do not remember ever seeing- among the flood of images are lizards climbing on tree branches, two unidentified women arguing in front of a burnt down house, a press conference about the impending danger from various tunnels discovered leading under the crust, and temperature forecasts for Paraguay.
Soon after the barrage of programs, the screens turn completely white while the spotlights throw themselves onto the rubble. This new light is a welcome relief from the faint fires and shadows. However, you quickly realize that the light is becoming too bright, perhaps almost as bright as the sun; the sun hasn’t been out in force for so long that you wonder how strong this light really is. Nonetheless, you cover your eyes as the light engulfs the area; the people stare slack jawed at it, a faint, wispy smoke somehow floating off from them. The TVs begin cycling through not programming but instead various black and white greebled designs and geometric shapes. The woman’s face is in the same astonished expression.
Finally, the lights dim and the machine’s tempo slows. She gradually bends over and suddenly collapses to the ground, wheezing uncontrollably. The experience has apparently worn her out, and sweat drips down your neck. It is a hideous sound from an already foul being- the closest it comes to in your mind is that of a cat hissing.
The machine’s humming picks up again, and it lowers itself to the ground, the supposed “head” first. The female turns back to the crowd, perhaps silently asking for their opinions. Of course, they never say anything, merely continuing to stare back at her. You think of what they could be suggesting, if anything; the thought that comes to mind is that they want her to go for them, do what the machine wants and maybe give them a chance to survive or learn.
Reluctantly she begins to step onto the front of the machine, which resembles a sort of flattened cone with two exhaust pipes on the underside. She then clasps the various dents, handles and other small parts of this colossus in order to climb up. It takes her a few minutes, but eventually she reaches the top. She turns around, standing triumphant over the steel behemoth. Suddenly, she begins crying; there is no noise, no sobs or running noses. Instead, only thick black ooze runs out of her eyes, drenching her cheeks. The crowd grows somewhat closer, eying one another in front of this spectacle.
This day takes another turn for the unexpected- with that, she sinks slowly into the machine, continuing to cry while the platform she stands on drops ever deeper. After what seems like eternity she has completely vanished inside. The crowd begins to inch forward, intrigued by the function of this thing. Without warning, the scraping noise from earlier returns, echoing through your ears. You look around for it, only to turn and realize it is originating from inside the machine. A sense of dread fills your skull: has she been hurt or killed? Is this thing hostile?
The crowd begins marching towards it once more, in an almost hypnotic state. Their legs move in lockstep towards it, finally arriving and immediately forming a neatly organized semicircle. The machine begins its routine again, and you continue to watch. As the second person finishes the climb to the top, they prepare to go down.
But the crying doesn't occur. Instead, they sniff the air, slowly swivel their head left, then right, then in your direction. Like staring into the barrel of a gun you both unintentionally lock glares. A wave of panic washes over you, your knees trembling and whole body getting ready to flee. But the person ejects a metallic shriek into the sky, alerting all the others to your presence. They turn towards you and begin to split up into two groups, forming a pincer of sorts in order to prevent you from escaping. You begin to stumble backwards and then start running through an alley, littered with debris. Although you know they won’t mind stepping on it, you hope it will still slow them down enough so that you can escape; you’re so caught up in fear that you don’t remember that the machine is there.
It lets the person go down and then springs into action, turning away from the crowd and stepping over the remaining buildings and ruins. Several seconds each it emits an eerie groan in addition to the tromp, tromp of its feet and the mind-numbing droning. Its legs smash into the occasional building, no worse for the wear; the buildings on the other hand are turned to dust. You look back and can make out the shapes of the crowd, relentless in their pursuit. You continue ducking, running, hiding, trying to find a route the machine and the mob of beings won’t expect you to take.
You crouch down under the remains of an old one-story house, its dust-coated walls long since stopped keeping in heat. The wind blows in smug victory over the human fortress, halted no longer. At this point your heart is racing and you just wish you could leave this place, forget about everything here. You curse yourself, knowing that you were wrong to venture in. Someone had to do it, you think, but not like this. It is truly a miracle that you have survived for so long.
One of the spotlights comes down on your building. You crouch below, trying to pretend that no one is inside, but the machine is not fooled. All of its light now blankets the ruins. Returning to upright position, you peer out a window and squint, seeing only an ever-shrinking distance between you and the wave of spotted, pale humanoids.
You go back out as quickly as your body will take you, the wind picking up and chilling your bones. You head to the west (or at least what you think is west) and rush to dive into a pile of microchips. But before you can do that, the leg of the behemoth slams down only a few feet away from you. You are greeted with the sight of cold, gray metal.
The machine closes in on your position, preventing you from escaping. You try and crawl away, even reason with the beast to no avail. Inevitably you are taken to the center of a square, forced to stand up and in front of the crowd that had been pursuing you moments ago. One of the younger ones scavenges through the debris for something, and gets what he needed- a mirror. He lets you see yourself, and you stare back in horror: you are just like them. Why, then, you wonder, did you not behave like they did?
It beckons the crowd forward and you are pushed to become the new sacrifice. This time the crowd surrounds the path to the steel behemoth while you trudge forward towards your enemy. You go up much like a man would go to the wall for his firing squad. You stand and await for the televisions to do their thing, praying that they malfunction and just kill you on the spot so you won't have to go into the beast. They slid forward and unleash their images onto you.
On them, you are greeted not by geometric shapes or anything like that but instead the subterranean tunnels that you saw earlier. The robots are shown crawling out of them, smashing through the nations of the world and eventually conquering Earth and mutating the majority of humanity into what you see here. There is no text or speech; nonetheless, you can grasp the meaning of the program quite well. That is replaced with a video showing these new humans being unable to survive in the world for very long without the protection of the machines - their nervous systems and the Earth's environment have been altered to force humanity into dependence on them and the majority of humanity is becoming sensitive to signals given off by the machines for direction.
You are of the first generation, those who haven't been completely changed. And the machine also shows you something that you never see coming- live feed of your family, friends that you once knew. They look like normal people and live in by all means a utopia on a distant planet. They beg you to join them there, saying that the Earth has served its purpose and the robots are there to help take all people to the world beyond, where life can start over under their rule. Your mind, along with the others', will be preserved for the voyage and the effects on your body will be reversed.
You look around, nervously eying the crowd, who show no signs of turning back on this. Stepping up to the machine, you make the climb to the top and reach the platform as the others did. As the floor sinks you imagine that they are smiling just a little bit for you, perhaps glad that their efforts have paid off. But just as the first person did, you begin to cry. Eventually you no longer see anything as you enter the insides, wires and clamps strapping around your body for the preservation.
As your vision becomes blurred from the transition, you are left with only a tingling sensation in your body, hopes for a better tomorrow and the light from the top of the entrance. In a moment none of these will remain.