Detroit leaned forward and turned off the recorder, ending another message that would never be sent home. The scavenger's autopilot beeped steadily, following the radio beacon from Cleveland. The 360° showed a total whiteout but it'd been that way since he passed through Akron.
Faint heat signatures were noticeable on the infrared ahead, where a bay door opened to meet him. The throttle eased, letting the treads fall one by one until the nose of the cab kissed the inside wall and the clearance light signaled green. The autopilot disengaged and the scavenger fell idle.
As expected, the first people he saw were dockworkers. They smiled and waved as they approached, and Detroit unlocked the latches securing the cargo before disembarking.
Detroit's skin prickled skin when he stepped away from his home and into the warehouse. The air was cold but fresher than anything he'd tasted in weeks. Aside from the smell of cured meat and body odor, the scavenger's air recycler was efficient; it kept him warm and he was more grateful for that every day he pushed further north.
"Welcome to Cleveland, sir," one of the dockworkers said. "Follow the arrows to the office."
The heels of his boots thudded as he walked deeper into the warehouse, passing empty bays or jerrybuilt vehicles that he wouldn't have trusted with his life on a sunny day before the freeze. There was no sign of their pilots, or anyone else, when the arrow dead ended at a large waiting area.
Detroit spun around, surprised by the sound of the familiar voice. There'd been a half dozen of them, young men from across the country and it'd been just as easy to remember where they were from as it was their given names.
The likeness of the man standing of the doorway took him back nearly a decade. The shape of his face was the same but its surface bore the same scars Detroit’s did when he looked in the mirror — the wrinkles that sprawled endlessly, bags that hung around like bad memories no matter how much you tried to forget. Time and harsh cycle of life had not been kind to either of them.
"Cleve? Is that really you?"
The man stepped forward. They shook hands, hesitating briefly on protocol, and embraced each other as only old friends could.
"Aren't you a sight. When I heard my dispatcher trying to describe that vehicle, I knew it had to be you. How'd you convince them to let you keep it?"
"It wasn't too hard. I was running relief supplies out of Atlanta after the first freeze. Word came in about casualties and we had some real unrest. Morale broke. Men up and left their posts."
"Did your family make it out..." Cleveland said.
"No," he interrupted. "They were still in Detroit."
"I'm sorry, man."
Detroit shrugged, pretending apathy. "It's about survival now, right?"
"Looks like you're doing pretty alright for yourself. That haul you brought in is more than we've seen in a month."
"Scrap, mostly, pickings from the dead," he said. "There's just not enough stuff to go around."
"About that," Cleveland said. "How about you come have supper with me and the family and let me make you a crazy proposal. Besides, you smell like you could use a shower."
Detroit throttled up the engines of the scavenger, putting distance between himself and Cleveland. The rumble of the treads over the ten-foot thick sheet of ice blanketing Lake Erie didn't do much to distract him from where he was heading. Cleveland’s suggestion to go north to salvage the equipment his factories needed to build better transportation was logical. Detroit's hometown was an untapped resource of materials that no one, living or dead, would complain about missing, and his scavenger was built to work in the kind of conditions found there. It would be years before any kind of organized recovery effort reached this far north, if one ever did.
All Detroit had to do was enter the city of the dead, confront the ghosts of his past and salvage the skeleton of the city he loved.
The lake was a desolate wasteland filled with the same stark white landscape and the hundred-mile stretch of winding river leading north wasn't much better. The Ambassador Bridge, linking Detroit to Windsor, materialized in the distance around mid-afternoon. Everything about the city looked like a mirage, with its ice-covered buildings and the strange purple haze in the sky above it, until he reached its waterfront. He made landfall downtown, where a makeshift ramp had been built and fresh tracks cut through the fresh snow.
The thermal scanner couldn't find any heat signatures, but they were only so effective under the extreme conditions. He pushed the scavenger ahead, through the heart of Detroit's downtown, loud and slow. If he couldn't find whoever had made those tracks, he'd make sure they found him.
It didn't take long. A few minutes later, a pair of snowmobiles with metal canopies protecting the drivers crossed his path ahead and came to a stop. He tried to slow but the scavenger lurched to a stop. Lights flashed in the cabin, warning of debris in the treads.
This close to the aurora, the radio played nothing but a pitchy wail. The snowmobiles idled, as if waiting for him to do something. Detroit punched up the scanners, to see if there was anything he was missing. Faint heat signatures, mostly from the exhaust pipes, and there, a distinct blinking pattern in a rear taillight. Brilliant. They were using it as a heliograph to communicate.
The communication system was smart enough to translate, once he told it what to look for. After a few minutes the computer's synthetic voice filled the cabin.
"Who are you and what the hell are you doing?"
"Leroy Kilpatrick," Detroit said, "former Army Specialist, Resurrection Company, 43rd Armored Division, Salvage and Transport."
Detroit leaned back in his chair, mulling over the ramifications of the question. Everything he thought he knew, everything they told him, was wrong. "Of course US Army. Who else?"
"Raiders from across the river. Needed to be sure. What took you so long?"
Detroit's heart sank. No one else knew that there were survivors. They had all been left to fend for themselves since the freeze and their hopes were pinned on a rescue party of one.
"I don't know," he said, "we didn't know anyone north of the, well, the kill line survived."
"Aren't many of us, but those that did survive are inland. There are co-ops spread throughout the suburbs but the big enclave is in Dearborn, due west about ten miles. They'll be eager for news from the south."
"As soon as I find my family. You have my word."
"Erm, about your treads. When we thought you were from cross-river, we clogged them with a plastic glue polymer. You'll need to cut your way free."
It'd been too long since Detroit had an excuse to stretch his legs and he always liked to put on a show. He climbed through the hatch at the rear of the cab and strapped himself in. The engines powered up when he gripped the controls.
"That won't be a problem," he relayed through the comm link with the scavenger before undocking from berth. Arms unlocked and extended, the body rose, and the head popped up, a bit like a jack in a box.
The first few seconds of flight were unsteady, while thrusters warmed up and melted away accumulated ice but the sight of the scavenger's built-in power suit taking flight always got their attention.
The city of Detroit spread out for miles in every direction, a frozen wonderland of urban sprawl. From his birds-eye view, Detroit could imagine the city as it used to be, veins leading from the heart of downtown to carry life to far suburban corners. From this height, nothing else moved. The arteries were clogged and the body died with it, but pockets of life survived within the decay.
He flew north, low over the skyline, towards the quiet subdivision they moved to a month before his last redeployment orders came in. A small neighborhood, close to his parents, so Lashawna could save money on daycare. Now the houses were frozen, in time and memory. He had to know for sure.
The car, a burgundy minivan bought with his dad's employee discount, still parked in the driveway. The windows were too dark to see through so he punched through them and flipped on the floodlights. The vehicle was empty.
The mech's biofeedback monitor beeped in his helmet, warning him that his vitals were spiking but he didn't care. The mech was built for cutting things apart and that's what he meant to do. He ignited all six carving lasers and, wielding them like a samurai warrior, began cutting into their dream home.
Detroit cut his way from top to bottom, shredding drywall and wood like tissue paper. He found pictures and mementos, baby toys, and his wife's wedding dress hanging in their closet, all ruined by the freeze. The only sign of Lashawna or his baby girl were the dirty dishes frozen in a block of dishwater.
His parents’ house told the same story from the outside, with one car parked in the driveway but the front door stood open. He made short work of removing the front wall, revealing a scene of horror. The card table setup in the living room, cards dealt among cups of coffee and plates of donuts. The ladies of his mother's afternoon bridge club, gathered for the last time.
Detroit switched off the speaker blaring in his ears as he looked upon the face of the woman who raised him. She survived growing up in the inner city, a car accident that cost her foot, and two bouts of cancer. He thought she was invincible. At least, judging by the expression on their faces, they went happy. That's how she would have wanted it.
Amber light flashed inside his helmet. He flipped the audio back on and the biofeedback warnings were replaced by a new threat. The mech was running on reserves. He had to say goodbye and get back to the scavenger before his suit ran out of power and he became a part of this place's history, too.
Dusk had fallen by the time he returned downtown. He snaked an auxiliary cable from the mech's storage bay and plugged in with minutes to spare.
Under the haze of the aurora, he burned the welcoming party's polymer away from the treads and settled in for the night.
Most of the cars on the westbound interstate leaving the city had been cleared, giving Detroit a clear path to drive. He was five miles outside the city, making good time, when a single retrofitted snowmobile pulled out on the road from an offramp. The driver, obviously surprised by the sight of the scavenger in his rearview mirror, darted like a startled jackrabbit up the next ramp.
Detroit hammered his foot on the brake and veered right, barely making the exit in time. He opened the throttle as he rounded the curve, catching sight of his prey as it made another turn. Its exhaust pipe burned white on the infrared, making it easy to spot. All he had to do was keep up.
The chase led him through several cities he vaguely remembered, past shopping malls, empty storefronts and husks of buildings. Not much about the place had changed, all things considered. It wasn't until they neared an industrial district that the landscape changed. The normally blue infrared field glowed with specks of reds and oranges coming from buildings.
The jackrabbit skidded around a corner and out of sight but the familiar silhouette of twin brick smokestacks billowing smoke caught Detroit’s attention and he skidded to a stop across from the building. Individual flares of yellow and white on his monitor were unmistakeable but blurred together, making it impossible to tell how many people were inside. Someone was running his father’s factory. He climbed into the mech and prepared knock on the front door..
Halfway across the field leading to the building, the thrusters sputtered. Detroit triggered the controls to run a diagnostic. For a brief moment the heads up display flickered, every indicator dangerously close to redlining, before going dark.
The mech lost power and entered free fall.
Thousands of pounds of machine and man connected with the ground with a crunch.
Detroit dreamt that he was at the beach, swimming in the warm, salty water. Waves washed over his body and the wind's fingers ran through his hair. He tried to open his eyes and the bright light burned his eyes even in the idyllic vision.
"Wake up, sunshine."
Detroit sat up so fast that the room seemed to spin around him. He lay in a bath of warm blue gel and every muscle in his body hurt. He took in details by turn, the starkness of the room, the faint smell of grease and the man standing behind him.
The smile was almost as wide as his face. "It's good to see you, son. We'd lost hope that you'd find us."
"I didn't know. We lost most everything north of the 42nd. Russia, northern Europe, Britain, Canada. They said there was no hope."
The old man was silent while he helped Detroit to his feet and handed him dry cloths—a dark blue mechanic's jumpsuit. Tears welled in his eyes.
"Lashawna? The baby?" Detroit said.
"Lashawna and Aisha are fine. Your mom..." His voice trailed off.
"I know," Detroit interrupted, wrapping his arms around his father. "I should have been here. I'm so sorry."
"Nonsense," the man said. "You had a job to do and no one blames you for not being here."
"I do," Detroit said. "Everything was falling apart and I didn't know if I could face what I expected to find. I only came because I ran out of excuses. It was time to help someone other than myself."
"Let it go, son. You're here now. That's what matters."
Lashawna opened the door, Aisha in tow.
"There'll be plenty of time for that later, son. First, I think someone is here to see you."
He recognized the tightness in his wife's face, the need to see for , that eased when their eyes met, Whatever happened next, Detroit knew that everything was going to be alright.
Detroit and family followed his father through the factory. Men and women at their stations, sweat dripping from the heat of the forge and muscles bulging under the strain of work.
"Infrastructure is critical. Refiring that," his father said, pointing to the forge in the center of the room, "was our top priority. We had metal workers, electrical workers, auto workers...it all sort of came together. We piped the excess heat underground through old sewer lines and into nearby buildings. We have living space and factories all over town."
"What are you building?"
"We've learned a thing or two about adapting to the cold. You've seen our snowmobiles. Those are assembled across town. We make the weather-resistant plating here. That lets us transport goods between the other co-ops."
The scavenger was parked on a loading dock, its door slightly ajar. The remains of the mech, badly dented, lay in its bed.
"One of the men has some, ah, skill in picking locks and thought it safer to bring it inside."
"So this is where you lived?" Lashawna said, squeezing his hand.
"It wasn't so bad, once I got used to it. I recorded most of my messages home from up front."
"Oh," he said. "When I didn't think I'd see you again, I recorded videos to you and Aisha."
Detroit climbed up and reached behind the driver's seat. He didn't have many personal effects. He'd kept one special package tucked away in case of a miracle.
His daughter was still in diapers the last time he saw her. Now she walked and talked. She stood behind Lashawna, head resting to her mother's hip, waiting shyly as if unsure of what to make of this strange man she only knew from pictures and stories. If they had told her about him at all, he realized.
Detroit knelt down in front of his daughter, trying to ignore the stiffness in his joints. She reacted by clenching her mother's leg protectively. "Hi, sweetheart. I brought this a long way, just for you," he said, offering her the package, wrapped in colorful old paper.
The girl looked to her mother and grandfather for approval. Receiving nods from both, she reached out and snatched the gift from Detroit's hands. They watched as she ripped at the paper, torn bits drifting to the floor.
The teddy bear was custom-made before the freeze, complete with fatigues and his name stitched across the vest. It was meant as a birthday present, more than three years ago. She laughed with delight and hugged her new best friend, the gleam in her eyes all the thanks he could have asked for.
Detroit stood and dabbed at his eyes with his sleeve. This family reunion amid the sparks of machinery, metal and the heat of the forge was the most cherished event in his life.
His father's hand fell on his shoulder. "She'll come around, son," he said quietly. "She was just a baby. It'll just take some time for her to adjust."
A dozen men and women sat in chairs or slouched in corners of darkened reception area, with the occasional snore slipping loose.
It didn't take long for a familiar face to find his way to greet them, hair jumbled from sleep. "Detroit? What the hell? You were supposed to be back with that equipment six months ago. I thought you were dead. Again."
Detroit embraced the befuddled man. "It's good to see you too, Cleveland."
The other drivers were filing in. There weren't enough docks to hold all of the newly built vehicles Detroit brought with him.
"Who are all these people?"
"Friends and family," he said, grinning. "There are survivors in the north. Tens of thousands, alive and thriving. We brought a fleet of transports with us, ready to do business."
Cleveland's mouth dropped open.
"Materials and the equipment you'll need for construction," Detroit said, "plus a few dozen weathered snowmobiles for moving around at a distance safely."
He could see the Cleveland thinking. This was much bigger than the salvage operation they had discussed. "What's the catch?"
"Consider it a down payment."
"On what, exactly?"
Detroit grinned. "Logistics. I have contacts from New Pittsburg to Atlanta. Do you still have yours in Indianapolis, Memphis, and Dallas?"
Cleveland nodded. "Sure do."
"Good. Let's stop living piecemeal. What say we build ourselves a trade network?"
This story was originally published in the print anthology Finding Home: Community in Apocalyptic Worlds, released in December 2011.