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Week #21: Creative Writing Challenge – Post-Apocalyptic Romance

May 31, 2021

Write about a post-apocalyptic romance.

It was a new traveler this week. We called them “travelers” because they traveled between the homesteads, but they did lots of other things like carry messages, transport medicine or goods, and help coordinate crew movements. Besides being on an active crew, traveling was the most dangerous thing anyone could do. As such, it was usually tasked to young single men who were physically fit and had the exceptional endurance to travel between homesteads over rugged terrain. They were the only areas where the robots had a hard time finding us, so that’s where we ended up.

The traveler standing before me was not a young man, and my brain had definitely short-circuited.

“Where can I find the technician? I have messages.” I’m sure this was the second or third time she had asked me, because she had a frustrated look on her face.

Finally, my neurons started firing, but slowly. “I… I mean… me… I’m the technician.” I shook my head trying to clear the gibberish away. I was never like this with women. I wasn’t a come on strong guy, but I certainly hadn’t ever been a blubbering idiot before.

She looked at me quizzically, as if she was assessing my mental stability. I didn’t fault her for it. Facing slaughter by metal overlords day in and day out didn’t bode well for those with mental health issues.

I shook my head again. “Sorry. I’m Flint, lead technician here. What can I do for you?” I finally managed some semblance of civility.

“Gem,” she said as she held her hand out to me. It was a warm and confident shake, with the perfect amount of pressure. She pulled a mass of folded paper out of a pocket of her fitted green vest and handed it to me. “I have coordinates and secure passwords for 10 new homesteads out past Flathead Lake. The info is all there, plus info about what crew personnel they have and what weapons. Contact Woods Bay first. They seemed the most competent.”

I was staring at her again. I’d heard of her. Gem, the legendary traveler. The traveler who coordinated the Spokane offensive and helped take over the computer depot that gave us access to one of the previous NOAA satellites. Because of her, we knew the locations of all the robot hotspots in the Western US and could speak to homesteads in the area without fear of robot incursion. I’d thought Gem was a dude, and silently berated myself for my unconscious bias.

Gem was speaking again. “I’ll need to contact Canta over in Columbia Falls, but that can wait until after I get cleaned up. Could you point the way towards a bath and some grub?”

All I could do was nod my head in agreement, especially when she grinned and shook her head a bit. My mouth must have been hanging open. I pointed down the hall, leading further into the cave system.

Gem looked me straight in the eye and said, “That was kinda cute.” I was mortified, but she continued. “Hope you’re better at your job than you are at talking to beautiful women. See ya ’round Flint.”

Before I could respond, Gem was already walking down the hall like she owned the place. As she walked away, my brain started processing what my limbic system had instantly realized. Gem was in fact not a man. She looked about my age, somewhere in her mid-twenties, and was strikingly beautiful, even with days of traveling grime on her. She was deeply tan, reminding me of warm chocolate. Her dark brown hair was tied up in a messy bun, pieces escaping and framing her face. One section, originating from her right temple, looked like it had been bleached and was the color of caramel. It made her look all the more confident.

I finally realized I had work to do and looked at the papers Gem had handed me. I started making calls immediately. Not only was my job to fix our technology and keep the robots from accessing it, I was also responsible for communicating with other homesteads. I spent the rest of the afternoon meeting new people over my ham radio. We had antennas hidden on the surrounding peaks to transmit the signals and I had written a program so that once I contacted someone, we continually switched frequencies so that the robots couldn’t pick up on our conversations. It had taken a couple years to get the code right, but since then it had opened up communication in the area.

Later that evening, I was taking my second shift at the radio when I noticed Gem down the hall talking quietly with Nils, our homestead Captain. I guessed he was about fifty years old and had military experience. He’d been a captain in the army when the robots first started killing people. I had no idea how Nils had ended up in Montana, but he was organized and had managed to keep everyone safe for the last 5 years. That was practically a lifetime.

I went back to my work until I heard someone clear their throat. Gem was standing in front of me, having arrived silently. I guess that’s how she kept from getting caught as she traipsed through the wilderness, by being utterly silent.

I looked up and took a deep breath, my brain working a bit better than it had been. “Sorry about earlier. I wasn’t expecting to get to meet a legend today.” I said in a teasing voice, channeling some of my confidence.

Gem smiled a wide smile. Her eyes crinkled and there was a dimple in her left cheek. It was breathtaking. “I think legend is inflating things a bit. People usually go over the top, so I appreciated your stunned silence approach.” She was still smiling.

“Now you’re just making fun of me.” I complained, but smiled back at her.

“I have to get my fun in when I can. There’s not a whole lot just floating around out there.” Gem responded with a straight face.

She continued. “Unfortunately, I’m not here for fun. Truth is, I knew who you were earlier, Flint. Canta sent me to see you in particular. The ten new homesteads were just an excuse. When is your shift over?”

“In an hour,” I responded, confused.

“Cool, I’ll be back then.” Gem said and strode away, leaving me wondering what the hell was going on.

Gem was back in exactly an hour to collect me, despite not wearing a watch of any kind. “Can we go outside at this hour?” Gem asked. “The next drone patrol is in forty-five minutes so we have about twenty-five before they’re in range.” I responded.

We walked towards the cave system entrance and out into the forest. The cave system was well hidden in a valley surrounded by peaks. It was heavily forested so the drones couldn’t see the paths our hunters used or our rainwater caches. I led Gem to my favorite spot near a small stream and waited for her to talk.

“Flint, we need your technical expertise for an operation. After taking over the Spokane depot we’ve been trying to expand west towards Seattle. We know there are homesteads between here and there, but we haven’t been able to communicate reliably with them and have lost travelers in the low lands between the reservations. We need to be able to send a stronger signal so that we can coordinate travel, learn the robot patrols, and find out it it’s even worth it to try and get to Seattle. Rumors say that homesteads near there have access to some electromagnetic pulse equipment that could potentially set up a barrier to keep the robots out. Canta sent me all over the area looking for technicians that might be up to the job, but what I found wasn’t very promising. We think we have the equipment, but we don’t have the technical know-how to put it all together. What do you think? Could you do it?” Gem explained.

I considered.

For a long time.

Finally I said, “Yeah I could do it.” Gem didn’t say anything, so I asked the one question that I didn’t really want the answer to. “What are the odds of even making it to Spokane in the first place? I’m not a traveler.”

Gem looked at me as I looked towards the stream. She touched my arm so gently it felt like a feather. “I’ll get you there Flint.”

Gem spent the next day talking to Canta over the radio and to Nils to plan my training. The thing about being in danger all the time means that everyone plans all the time. There are plans through the alphabet for everything. Plan A is always that everything goes according to plan. No one ever succeeds at Plan A.

Gem would take the next month to train me as a traveler. At the same time, I would work with the technician at Columbia Falls to make sure they had all the supplies I’d need waiting for me.

The second week of training was designated “fight club”. It was training in hand-to-hand combat, weapons use, and evasive maneuvers. Robots were generally a “shoot first, investigate later” lot, but they did have ground robots doing what they labeled as “scientific studies” who were not armed. Unfortunately, ground robots were still programmed to kill humans, they just had to do it with their limbs instead of an arsenal of weapons. Hand-to-hand combat could save a person’s life when faced with a ground robot.

Part of my “fight club” training was with Dar’j who was trained in all sorts of martial arts and was in charge of our crews. We all had basic training, but this was something else. It was brutal, and by the middle of the week I think I’d been kicked, hit, or fallen on every part of my body. I was in the hot springs nursing my wounds when Gem found me.

“You’ve been holding out on me Flint. You should have mentioned these the first day we met. Mind if I join you? Dar’j is a beast.” Gem said casually, but I didn’t think there was anything casual about Gem joining me in the hot springs. My body went on full alert as I nodded. I would play it cool. Please play it cool I pleaded to myself.

Gem, in full unabashedly confident Gem fashion, unceremoniously stripped off her tights and loose long-sleeved shirt and walked into the hot springs in her underwear. My mouth went dry as I watched her. I could see the strength in her muscles as she moved gracefully and with purpose. Not a motion was wasted. Gem settled in across from me and groaned as she melted into the heat.

I wasn’t sure I could do this. Across from me sat my perfect woman. She was strong and independent, confident and smart, passionate and sure of herself. She respected knowledge. She didn’t need anyone to fight her battles, but she accepted and sought out help. It blew my mind that this person existed, let alone was sitting in front of me in a hot springs scantily clad.

“Why do you do it?” I asked suddenly, speaking before really thinking about it.

“Do what?” Gem asked with her eyes closed.

“Travel.” I replied.

Gem opened her eyes and looked at me. Really looked at me, as if deciding whether I was worth a real answer. I must have passed some kind of test as I held her gaze because she said, “Hope. I have hope that we can bring people together and be happy again someday. That humanity, in all its diverse chaos and passion, can survive. I keep doing it because others can’t, and I can.”

And as I stared at her across the pool with her eyes closed again, I knew that was the moment I fell head over heels in love with Gem.

Two days later Gem had taken over my “fight club” training to work on actual terrain. We were near the stream which had a variety of different substrates to work with: sand, boulders, small pebbles, pine needles, and just plain dirt. Gem was telling me how to use the terrain to my advantage.

“Okay, time to practice.” Gem said and motioned me towards her. I did as I was instructed.

She took a few swings at me and I grabbed an arm and tried to spin her around to get her in a lock. Before I could think, Gem had pushed me back just enough so that I tripped on the small rock right behind my left shoe, and I was lying on my back with her staring down at me. It was embarrassing, but I got up and Gem reminded me to memorize the terrain before engaging. She never made fun of me or made me feel inadequate. She was the teacher, teaching a student to do something better.

I improved throughout the day as we grappled. I finally pinned her with her face against the side of a tree. She kicked out at my knee and threw all her weight into my chest and I was falling, but not before I took her with me. I ended up on my back and she ended up on top of me, all her weight on my shoulders.

“Use some of that muscle I saw in the hot springs. Throw me off.” Gem challenged. So I did, and ended up straddling her, with her wrists clutched in my hands above her head. I was panting, her mouth close to my ear, as she tried to free herself from my grasp.

Suddenly she went limp. “Yep, those muscles aren’t just for looking gorgeous Flint. Nice work.” Gem whispered. I turned my head slightly to see if she was joking with me, but our heads were so close that as I turned, Gem easily brushed her lips against mine. I froze. My heart was beating wildly, not just from the sparring, but I was in love with this wonderful woman and she had just called me gorgeous and… and… her lips were so soft and I was kissing her back.

I drew back, suddenly aware that I was still on top of her and hadn’t let her arms go. I didn’t want her to feel trapped. I scrambled away, ending up on a boulder about five feet from her.

“It wasn’t that bad was it?” Gem asked, giggling a bit.

“No… I… It… good… perfect… I was just… on top… didn’t think… didn’t want to… boundaries.” Oh hell, what was I saying? I was gesticulating wildly trying to communicate because my words were utterly failing me. This woman would be the death of me.

“Flint, calm down. I appreciate you getting up. I was starting to loose feeling in my legs.” Gem said, smiling deeply. She got up and held a hand out for me. “Come on, patrols will be by soon and I don’t think you want to test your new skills so soon.”

I took her hand, both of us holding on a little longer than was really necessary. We didn’t talk about the kiss.

The next day as I walked into the mess hall, Nils and Gem immediately waved me over to where they were sitting finishing breakfast. “Morning.” I greeted them a little sleepily. I’d been up late thinking of all the looks Gem had given me, the places our bodies had touched, the compliments she had given me. It was impossible to sleep with Gem on my mind, but I had eventually, my physical body cutting my brain out of the loop.

I looked towards Gem, but she was silent and solemn. Nils said, “The antenna on peak 42 went out last night. I’m sending you and Gem to fix it. It’ll be a good chance for you to work on your traveler skills. Be ready to go by the noon window.”

I had only been up to the antennas a couple of times, and that was with a whole crew armed to the teeth. It wasn’t only that I was scared of death by robot, but it was a four day round trip and I’d be alone with Gem.

Gem and I walked out of the mess hall as she listed out a variety of things to make sure I packed. I was trying to listen, but I wasn’t really succeeding. She stopped suddenly and grabbed my arm, forcing me to face her.

“Flint, look at me… Really look at me. Do you trust me?” She asked solemnly. I looked at her. I really looked at her. She looked like a badass. A beautiful, competent badass. I nodded.

“I won’t let anything happen to you, Flint.” Gem said a bit more quietly with a squeeze of my arm.

Trying to diffuse the seriousness of the words I said, “I bet you say that to all the guys.”

Gem looked a me with a hint of surprise on her face that morphed into a different look altogether. “Flint, I never let anyone travel with me. I’ve never trusted someone enough to be responsible for their life, and I’ve never said that to anyone else. Only you.” The look was one of openness and honesty and it made my heart skip a beat.

“I’ll meet you at the comm at noon.” Gem said quickly and walked away.

We made it to a station that night. Stations were places like caves or overhangs or canyons where drones couldn’t spot travelers. Small fires were okay at Stations, as long as they were only used in between drone runs and didn’t create too much smoke. We situated our packs against the sides of the small cave and ate the rations we brought with us.

“How did you get to be a traveler?” I asked Gem once I confirmed with her that quiet conversation wouldn’t give us away.

“Well, the homestead I was born in was attacked by a robot coalition when I was 8. I happened to be out collecting berries and firewood when it happened. I was old enough to know what was happening and stayed away. My father was a traveler and taught me a lot of what he knew about being stealthy.” She grinned at the word “stealthy”.

“What did you do after the homestead was attacked?” I asked.

“Well, what any good 8 year old does. I took out the central comm robot and hi-tailed it to Columbia Falls. I didn’t know exactly where it was, but we were all familiar with the homestead plans. I think running away was something like Plan K and taking out a central comm robot hadn’t made any plan.” She was smiling. “By the time I got to Columbia Falls, word was buzzing about the central comm robot. They deciphered the robot signals after seeing the smoke and figured out what had happened. They didn’t expect me.” Gem explained. She continued after a bit. “Canta took me in and had me legitimately traveling by the time I was 14.”

“Do you miss your family?” I ask quietly, hoping I wasn’t getting too personal.

Gem was quiet for a long time. “Sometimes. It’s lonely being a traveler. I get to meet a lot of people, but I don’t really know many, if that makes sense.” I nodded. She went on, “This world we live in is so disjointed, so separate, that sometimes I don’t really know how to live in it. I don’t know how to make it whole again. That’s when I get lonely.”

We were both silent after that. The next day was uneventful thank goodness, and we found another station to spend the night in. The plan was to get up early to fix the antenna and then come back to this same station to spend the night. It seemed reasonable considering we didn’t know what was wrong with the antenna or how long it would take to fix.

While we were eating our rations Gem asked, “Do you think it’s possible for humanity to have a future? I mean a future that doesn’t include getting killed by robots and hiding out in the mountains?”

I thought about how to word my answer carefully. “We’re in this mess because our grandparents fucked up. They thought they were smart, and they were so smart that they created things that were smarter than they were, and didn’t think about the consequences. It was an ego mistake and we’re all paying for it. I have to hope that there are still a lot of smart people out in the world working on ways to take out the robots, but if we were given a do-over, I’m not sure we wouldn’t make similar mistakes again down the line.”

I was a realist. There were a lot of smart people out there, but we were out-manned, out-gunned, and out-technologied. Maybe we could survive long-term, but it was going to take a lot of people working really well together. From what I knew of the history that got passed down, humanity wasn’t so good at that.

We were quiet for a long time before Gem asked, “Do you think humanity is worth trying to save then?”

My heart leapt out to her. This hope for the goodness of humanity was what kept her going in the world. But was hope enough? I was skeptical.

“Gem, I think humanity is a beautiful cacophony of passions and creativity. It’s held together by the connections between diverse peoples with different dreams and desires. The first thing we did after the primary robot incursion was try to get communications restored throughout the world, or so I’ve heard. We’re stronger together and we can do beautiful and complex things with each other’s help. It makes me really sad to think that we might not get to re-build a world that has the potential to be so wonderful. That doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile to try.” I said to her.

Gem was lost in thought the rest of the night and in the morning she was all business.

“We’ll be more exposed at the top of the peak. Work as quickly as you can, but focus on what you’re doing. I’ll be watching all directions and the air. If something happens I need you to trust me and follow my instructions to the letter. No arguing, even if it sounds insane. Agreed?” Gem said formally to me before we broke camp.

“You got it boss.” I said with a grin, trying to hide my anxiety.

We approached the antenna an hour later to find it surrounded by four ground robots standing watch. This was meant to be an ambush. It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened when robots found our antennas. Unfortunately, the peak 42 antenna was one of our communication nodes. Without it, our homestead couldn’t communicate with anyone. We would be running dark, which meant we wouldn’t be able to get news about robot patrols or hail other homesteads if we needed supplies. We needed this antenna for the homestead to survive. My heart ratcheted up about a billion notches.

I looked at Gem. She looked contemplative, working toward the same conclusion I had just arrived at. I had told her about the configuration of our antenna systems, so she knew how important this one was. I knew she understood when I heard her swear softly under her breath. She gestured for me to follow her silently back down the trail. Luckily the first week of my training had been “stealth week”, so I could manage a silent retreat if I concentrated. And boy did I concentrate.

When we got out of range, Gem pulled a hand-drawn map from one of the pockets on her traveling vest. That thing had pockets for everything. It was like a treasure trove.

As she studied the map, I mentally ran through what I had glimpsed of the antenna. It didn’t appear smashed or broken. That wasn’t really robot style. Robots had a hard time mining for raw materials, so they recycled as much tech as they could get their hands on. They wouldn’t destroy something unless they had to. If I had to guess, I’d say they pulled some of the wires out, just enough so the antenna didn’t work and we would come check it out. I told Gem as much when she asked.

“Okay. Plan A. I go up, kick the crap out of some robots before they can phone it in, you fix the antenna, transfer the node codes to another peak antenna so we don’t lose signal again when they come back and destroy this one, and we get on back to the homestead.” Gem said and then paused.

“Plan B. I go up, kick the crap out of some robots. Four bots might be too much for me on this terrain. If that’s the case, I lead them over to this cliff and somehow give them the boot.” She pointed to her hand-drawn map to show me the cliff. “I may not be able to draw them all off, so you might need to take one, but you’ll be fine. Then you can deal with the antenna. We rendezvous back at the first station. It’s a long slog, but worth it to be away from this area. Do you think you can find the way?” She looked to me.

“Yeah, pretty sure.” I answered honestly. I’d been keeping track of our route. “What’s the contingency plan? You know, in case nothing goes to plan?” I asked. There was always a contingency plan, what someone is supposed to do when everything goes to shit and everything is confusing.

Gem considered. “Follow the stream in the valley back to the homestead. Don’t follow any of the trails. Be as quiet as you can, move only during the non-patrol hours you’re familiar with. We’re close enough to your homestead that the timing should be similar. Walk through the stream if you have to. Don’t stop moving. Keep your knife, water, and a day’s rations. Leave the rest of your pack. If you can get back to the homestead undetected, you’ll be fine.”

“What about you?” I asked, concern lacing my words.

She smiled at me. “I think we might make a pretty good pair. I’m not about to go get myself killed and never find out if I’m right.” She reached her hand up to the back of my neck and pulled me towards her. She kissed me gently on the lips, a kiss full of feeling. She pulled away slightly and whispered into my ear, “It might take me a while to get back to you, but don’t worry, I’ll get there, I promise.”

I watched Gem as she took stock of her equipment. She was confident in her abilities, but there was fear on her face. She was used to remaining hidden, not having to fight her way through a situation. I stole Gem’s hand as she checked the knife in her pocket for the third time. She locked eyes with me and I said, “I trust you. We can do this.” There was relief on her face and she gave me a genuine grin, dimple and all.

“Let’s do this.” She said confidently and headed towards the antenna. I followed at a distance, watching her every move.

Everything that followed was a blur. By the time I got to the antenna there were two robots twitching on the ground, one robot was in a crouched position watching me, and Gem was nowhere to be seen. Before I could process, the remaining robot hurled itself at me, limbs flailing. I managed to lure it into a boulder-filled corner and then shove it hard enough that its head got wedged in a crack. I smashed the limbs and then pulled its central processor.

I did the same for the two crumpled robots in front of the antenna and then got to work assessing the damage on our instruments. It was like I thought, they’d just disconnected some wires. I reconnected them with the tools I’d brought and then went to work transferring node codes. There’s no way the robots wouldn’t come back and destroy the whole thing once they lost the ground robot signals. I just hoped it was enough time for Gem and I to get out of the area and some place safe.

When I finished there was still no sign of Gem, so I was securely on a Plan B trajectory. Before I had gone more than 100 feet from the antenna I heard robot drones in the distance. So much for time. So much for Plan B. I had to get off the peak before they spotted me, so I ran.

A huge explosion had me stumbling, trying to maintain my balance as I raced downhill. The explosion was followed by a barrage of gunfire. Robots could hit targets really easily if they were predictable, so I tried to be unpredictable. I was watching my feet and not the sky so I had no idea if they’d spotted me, but the gunfire was getting closer so I kept running. When I hadn’t heard anything in a minute or so, I found an overhang to duck under. I re-arranged my pack, keeping only the things Gem had told me to. It was time for the contingency plan. Get to the stream, stay invisible, make it back to the homestead.

As I was packing I heard gunfire again, this time coming from the other side of the peak. The cliff Gem had pointed out to me on her map was on that side of the peak and Gem was certainly the only target. I dropped all my stuff and started running towards the gunfire, but as soon as I was out from under the overhang I heard drone engines again. Gem was the best at her job. I had to trust that she’d be okay and I had to trust the instructions she’d given me. I tried to put my consuming worry for her aside and focus on the lessons she’d taught me. I made for the stream as quickly and silently as I could.

A full day later I stumbled into the homestead. Nils was there to grab me as I sank only the cool cave floor.

“We heard Peak 42 come back online and the codes transferred fine to Peak 15. But then Peak 42 went dark. What happened? Wait, where’s Gem?” Nils asked.

“Ambush,” was all I could think to say.

“Gem?” Nils asked again.

“She took out two, led another to the cliff on the north side of the peak. I got everything worked out with the antenna and then heard the drones. They blew up the antenna and then came after me. I heard gunfire from the other side of the peak. They might have found her, but I doubt it.” I hoped I was right. I continued, “Contingency plan was to follow the stream back as quickly as possible. Gem said it might take her a bit longer to get back. She’ll be here.”

The next day, having recovered a bit, I was on the comms talking to all the nearest homesteads to see if anyone had heard or seen Gem. There wasn’t any news and I kept remembering the sound of gunfire.

Dreams of gunfire woke me that night and I couldn’t fall back asleep, so I wandered outside towards the stream. I had a bit of time before the next patrol.

When I heard soft splashing I looked up to see a slow-moving Gem walking towards me in the middle of the stream. My heard skipped a beat. It was like a weight had lifted and I could move freely again. I ran towards her, noticing a slight limp and blood. There was lots of blood and that weight came slamming back down on my shoulders.

She looked up as I approached her and put a finger to her lips to shush me before collapsing in my arms. Tears streamed down her face and her whole body shuddered. As gently as I could, I picked her up and hurried into the cave system and straight to the med bay.

Gem had taken a bullet in her left arm and another had grazed her hip. She had various scrapes and scratches and had lost a lot of blood. The doctor dug the bullet out and stitched up her various wounds. We didn’t have a huge amount of blood on hand because we didn’t have enough energy to spare from the solar panels for things that required refrigeration. Gem would just be a bit weak while her body built back up its own supply. She’d also managed to clean and dress most of her wounds pretty well, so the chance of infection was low. Thank goodness.

When everything had settled down in the med bay and Gem was resting, I settled into a chair next to her bed, thankful that she was alive.

“Told you I’d make it back,” Gem said in a softly slurred voice. “Were you worried about me?” She half-grinned and ended up wincing in pain instead.

I leaned closer to her and said, “I was terrified.”

“Me too.” She closed her eyes and I thought she had fallen asleep when she said, “Flint, I think you might be my person. Do you mind sticking with me for a bit and finding out?”

I took her hand in mine and whispered, “I’d love to Gem.”

One Comment leave one →
  1. Yael Kisel permalink
    August 14, 2021 5:44 am

    I love this so much! Yay for progressive romance stories where the female lead is a badass and the male lead doesn’t need to be in charge! ❤️

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